This Tuesday marks a very important event in the history of the world. No, I’m not talking about Halloween. On October 31, 1517, Rev. Martin Luther nailed 95 protests of practices of the Catholic Church to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.
This Tuesday marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
As we commemorate this event, it is important to acknowledge that this movement has given shape to the world we live in. “What do you mean by that?” you might ask. Here are some ways in which the Protestant Reformation changed Christianity and the world we live in.
While most of us are only vaguely familiar with the arguments Luther put forth in his theses, I think the concept of indulgences would be what we know best. To refresh, indulgences were payments made by a contrite Christian to a priest in order to be forgiven of particular sins. In other words, indulgences were believed to be a way of buying oneself into heaven.
But beyond that practice, Luther was really raising questions about what it meant to be a Christian, what a Christian was supposed to do, how they were to live and function in the world. Why Christians believed what they believe. Questions that are still relevant today.
One way he answered the question became an important Protestant concept: The “Priesthood of all believers.” One’s relationship with God did not require a mediator. One’s relationship with God was personal.
Secondly and thirdly, Luther made the claims that a person obtained salvation through faith alone, and that scripture was the means by which an individual could know faith. These claims could only be made because of a new technology that had developed.
Movable type. The printing press.
In fact, one of the first publications the Gutenberg Press put out was the Bible. This meant that for the first time, people could actually read the Word for themselves, which also meant people needed to become literate! Education became valuable.
Martin Luther translated the Bible into German, his common language. Others did the same for their people. All of this led to a new way of community interaction. The Lutheran understanding of Christian living, that each individual has responsibility for their own salvation, each having accountability, led to the concept of democracy.
I think most of us would agree that democracy is a good thing. That being so, it follows that we ought to recognize there are dynamics created in democratic settings, and how they affect our relationships with one another, how they create conflict as well as cooperation.
Think about it. The Protestant Reformation did not produce a single theological or credal entity called Protestant Christianity. Today, it is estimated there are over 45,000 different Protestant denominations. 45,000! You see, once you realize you can think for yourself, the process of interpretation takes a primary role. And don’t think that there aren’t differing interpretations within those 45,000 denominations.
This leads me to observe that there are two primary characteristics of Protestants. The first is our passion for God. The emphasis on a personal relationship with God. Most of us do that through our relationship with Jesus who taught and lived the example of a personal relationship with God. Jesus. Emmanuel. God with us.
Personal. Intimate. Relational.
The second characteristic of Protestants is we argue about everything. And I mean everything. The Protestant Reformation was a bloody affair for decades. Different interpretations based on the desire to get it straight. And we still disagree even now.
But, though we may not think alike, can we not love alike? After all, isn’t that how Jesus summed up the Law and the Prophets? Love God, love your neighbor, love yourself.
Happy anniversary Protestants!
The Rev. Ron Griffen is lead pastor of First United Methodist Church in El Centro.