Tomorrow is Reformation Day, the anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses against the sale of indulgences. I keep reading online about how tragic the Reformation was, how unneeded it is now, and how it’s wrong to celebrate the breaking up of the church.
But does anyone think that the medieval church did not need to be reformed? Can anyone say that the sale of indulgences was a good thing? Can anyone defend the corruption of the Renaissance popes–their selling of church offices, their bribes, their mistresses, their illegitimate children whom they made cardinals, their inquisitions, their wars? The great medieval authors–Dante, Chaucer, Langland, and many others–all criticized these abuses in the church.
Even the Roman Catholic Church came to admit these evils. Luther’s Reformation provoked the Counter-Reformation, which finally the moral and financial corruption. It also set in stone some theological issues that were not all that clear when Luther first proposed his reforms.
At the time, instead of accepting Luther’s critique of the abuses surrounding indulgences, the Vatican could defend them only by asserting the Pope’s authority to sell them. Luther responded by asserting the authority of Scripture over that of the Pope. Luther’s rejection of indulgences led to his rejection of the whole penitential system, which, in practice, if not in theory, forced people to save themselves by their merits, downplaying salvation by the merits of Christ. Then, as the controversies raged, Luther began questioning the monastic system and on and on.Emerging out of all of this were Luther’s great theological contributions: the centrality of the Gospel, that salvation is by grace through faith in the work of Christ; the authority of God’s Word, that the Bible is God’s efficacious revelation to human beings in His law and gospel; the centrality of vocation; the spirituality of ordinary human vocations–in the church, the family, and society–which is where the Christian faith is to be lived out in love and service to our neighbors.
Luther wanted to “reform” the church, not tear it down and start from scratch, unlike some later Protestants. Luther insisted that the Gospel is manifested in Baptism and Holy Communion, where Christ gives us His actual body and blood. He embraced the ecumenical creeds, the historic liturgy, and the Christian tradition.
Tragically, the Pope in 1517 resisted even the most painfully obvious needs for reform and excommunicated Luther instead of taking his concerns seriously.
The Counter-Reformation would enshrine papal supremacy and authoritatively defined Roman Catholic theology and piety, in ways that went in much different directions than the Reformation’s evangelical convictions.
But Luther should not be blamed for “breaking” the church. He was trying to fix it.