Today is Reformation Day and you know what that means? On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther dressed up as a Catholic Monk and went trick or treating, right? Not exactly! In all likelihood, he actually spent his evening at Vespers celebrating the victorious saints.
On this day 500 years ago – it is claimed that – Luther, a Catholic monk,
nailed his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg. Some historians suggest that Luther may have chosen All Hallows’ Eve in order to draw greater attention. It is questionable, however, as to whether Luther actually nailed the Ninety-five Theses to the door of the Church on that day (or at all), but it sure makes for a great story. That said, there is much data to suggest that October 31st is when he sent his work to the Archbishop of Mainz, which is why this day is regarded as the start of the Reformation. So back to my original question, what does it actually mean?
1. Teachings: Luther had serious issue with some Roman Catholic teachings. Unfortunately, during the medieval period, there was a great deal of ecclesial corruption across the Roman Empire. It appears that the main issue Luther took exception to was the Catholic doctrine of indulgences. What in the world is an indulgence? It was a way that believers could reduce the amount of punishment they would undergo for their sins after death in purgatory (another doctrine Luther took exception with). So what’s the big deal? Isn’t reducing punishment a good thing? Well, yes of course, but Christians have always believed that forgiveness can only come through the person of Jesus Christ. The Catholic Church at the time though was teaching that you could have some of your sins forgiven by paying a certain amount of money, performing an action for the church, or taking a pilgrimage to a specific place! When Luther tried challenging this doctrine with his superiors, they did not take well to it. After all they were making a lot of money through indulgences and this little measly monk wasn’t about to stand in their way.
2. New Church: Luther ultimately had to go into hiding. As a result of his relentless protests, people literally wanted him dead. At the same time, there were some princes across the Roman Empire that saw Luther’s religious dissent as a means to finally break away from Rome. They realized that they could mobilize the masses around this zealous religious figure. Although Luther certainly never intended to “start a new church”, his actions – as well as counter reaction from Rome – paved the way for the splintering that was to follow across Western Christianity.
3. Modern Protestantism: One of the things you cannot miss if you have actually read Luther – and some of his contemporaries (which by the way, I have realized so few protestants have even read anything at all by any of the Reformers) – is how far much of the modern Protestant movement has veered off from the teachings of early reformers. This Catholic monk, turned reformer, spent much of his life fighting against ecclesial corruption in the Church and the doctrines that were developed to help proliferate that system. It is striking that Luther (amongst other reformers) maintained several practices and beliefs that have been lost by the vast majority of their successors including, the practice of confession, the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of St. Mary, the belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, a sacred liturgical style worship, and a high regard for the early Church fathers.
As so many people throughout the world celebrate Reformation Day, I pray and ask “what might have been?” What if Luther had been heard by the Archbishop? What if Luther had been more patient? What if Luther somehow found has way to the Orthodox Church? What if Luther had…
There is always another what if, isn’t there? Rather than looking back and asking what if, perhaps today:
Protestants may ask what if we are missing the mark on our reading of scripture? What if the ancient Christian faith exists today and we just need to step beyond our biases to experience and embrace Christ there?
Orthodox Christians should ask what if we actually shared with others the beauty of the Holy Trinity, as understood and experienced in the early Church? What if we had the zeal to fight for and preserve the faith that many of the early Church fathers had by paying the ultimate price and following Christ to the cross?
Early Church Fathers: PRESERVING THE FAITH