Reformation Day (1517), Part 1: What in the World Happened?

Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a two-part series on Reformation Day, which is celebrated on Oct. 31.

Professors love academic debates. Not as much as we love cardigan sweaters and second-hand book sales, but academic debates are a close third. The problem is that we cannot find many “normal” people (non- cardigan wearers) that share our passion for these intramural skirmishes. As we schedule these discussions, questions swirl through our minds. Will anyone else be interested? Will this debate further my point of view? Should I require my students to come? Should I serve coffee to keep people awake? I wonder if Martin Luther had some of these questions that day in Wittenberg.

In the autumn of 1517, Martin Luther, professor at the newly formed University of Wittenberg, made history. As he nailed his debating points to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church, he intended that the students in the small town university would be informed of his intent to debate on the posted subject. However, Luther’s 95 Theses did more than spark an academic debate. They set Germany ablaze. When word of Luther’s theses spread through the town, they were quickly sent to the printing press to be distributed in places much removed from the remote, German town. Years later, pastors and professors would look back at Oct. 31, 1517, as the day the Reformation began.

Luther’s 95 Theses did more than spark an academic debate. They set Germany ablaze.

The 95 Theses were concerned with the sale of indulgences, a common practice of the late medieval Roman Catholic Church. Luther’s objections to the practice focused mostly on the abuses to the system perpetrated by the indulgence sellers such as the notorious Johann Tetzel. Unlike in some of his later works, Luther did not center his critique on the pope, but instead he actually appealed to the pope to stop the abuses. An example of Luther’s modest appeal at this point is in Thesis 41 where Luther says, “Papal indulgences must be preached with caution, lest people erroneously think that they are preferable to other good works of love.” Though Luther calls for small reforms in this work and his subsequent, Explanations of the Ninety-Five Theses (1518), just a couple of years later he throws “caution” to the wind in his Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520). In the introduction to that work, he demonstrates how far his critiques of indulgences have progressed when he writes to those who have read his works on indulgences wishing that they would “burn the whole of my booklets on indulgences, and instead of all that I have written on this subject adopt this proposition: Indulgences are wicked devices of the flatterers of Rome.”

While the outlines of reform are evident in Luther’s earlier works, the Three Treatises of 1520 marked the full onslaught of Luther on the Roman Catholic hierarchy. In his Address to the German Nobility, he broke down the walls separating the clergy and the laity. In the Babylonian Captivity, he struck at the sacramental system of the Church as unbiblical and tyrannical. In his On Christian Liberty, Luther sounded the trumpet blast against any notion of works-based righteousness. Drawing heavily on Pauline writings, Luther proclaimed the “powers” of faith and why it is that faith is the only thing that matters to the spiritual, inner man. He writes, “The Word of God cannot be received and cherished by any works whatever but only by faith. Therefore it is clear that, as the soul needs only the Word of God for its life and righteousness, so it is justified by faith alone and not any works.” These three works and Luther’s burning of the papal decree (bull) against him late in 1520 made Luther’s break from the Church a permanent one.

The spark of October 1517 led to the fire that burned the papal bull against Luther in December 1520.

So, the spark of October 1517 led to the fire that burned the papal bull against Luther in December 1520. By the mid-sixteenth century, all of Europe felt the heat from the blaze Luther started. For better and worse, the Christian church would never be the same again.