(Editor's note: The following is an editorial published in the Chattanooga Time Free Press. Printed here with our admiration on the 500th anniversary of the publication of Martin Luther's 95 Theses.)
It's been called one of the most profound religious, political, cultural and intellectual movements of the second millennium. One recent pundit even suggested it spawned the presidency of Donald Trump. However seriously or trivially you look at it, the Reformation--which began when a professorial monk posted his radical religious thoughts on the door of a Wittenberg, Germany, church 500 years ago today (a story some claim is apocryphal)--continues to have a significant impact on our lives today.
In essence, what Martin Luther began with the 95 points of his "Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences" split the Europe-dominated Catholic Church--though that was not his intent--and led to the defining of structures and beliefs that would form the backbone of modern Protestant religion. Today, around the world, by one source, there are more than 30,000 Protestant denominations and 560 million Protestants.
In 1517, though, indulgences were being sold throughout Europe under the auspices of Pope Leo X to help get a loved one out of purgatory. "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings," the saying at the time went, "the soul from purgatory springs."
Luther, through his reading and understanding of the Bible as a professor of biblical theology at the University of Wittenberg, believed one's salvation could not be purchased or earned but was a free gift from God. He further felt Christians needed no middle man--not the pope, a priest nor the church--to reach God, that believers could communicate with their Creator directly through prayer. The concept is often called "the priesthood of all believers." It was, and is, more freedom.
Nevertheless, his church door rant may have been lost in history had Luther not been able to spread it via print, an innovation less than 70 years old at the time. And he had it (and later the Bible) printed in German, not the Latin of the Catholic Church, increasing its distribution among the more common people.
In today's parlance, he went viral.
Indeed, Luther's zeal for communicating his thoughts to a wider audience is said to be a forerunner of television or radio evangelism today, and the tunes he wrote ("A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" is the best known) have earned him the descriptor as the father of protest songs.
From the Reformation, five statements, or five solas (Latin for alone) emerged that are often cited as the backbone of many existing Protestant denominations.
• Sola scriptura (scripture alone): The Bible is the faith's highest authority.
• Sola fide (faith alone): Christians are saved through faith alone in Jesus Christ.
• Sola gratia (grace alone): Christians are saved by the grace of God alone.
• Solus Christus (Christ alone): Jesus Christ alone is Lord, savior and king.
• Soli Deo gloria (to the glory of God alone): Christians live for the glory of God alone.
Yet, many of today's believers may have a difficult time enunciating where such thoughts emerged. According to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey, 18 percent of U.S. adults believe "the term commonly used to refer to the historical period in which Protestants broke away from the Catholic Church" was the Great Crusade.
Another 6 percent say it was the Great Schism, and 5 percent even say it was the French Revolution.
In the same survey, 16 percent believe Methodist founder John Wesley was behind the Reformation, and 10 percent say it was Thomas Aquinas.
However, a majority of survey respondents (61 percent) say Catholics and Protestants are more similar today than they are different.
Even the Catholic Church's Pope Francis has called Luther a "reformer" who rightly protested the "corruption of the Church," though "some methods were not correct."
"In that communion of harmony which permits the Holy Spirit to act," he said more recently, "we will be able to find further convergence on points of doctrine and the moral teaching of the Church, and will be able to draw ever closer to full and visible unity."
Susan Karant-Nunn, director of the Division for Late Medieval and Reformation Studies at the University of Arizona, said in the recent German Day lecture at the University of Calgary International that Luther simply didn't feel he fit into a 16th-century culture that "invited everyone to be the same."
"Martin Luther unsettled what was considered settled," she said. "He was from a different age and culture; the values that prevailed in society at the time were very different from our own. But Luther was an idealist, and he wanted to see his ideals manifested in society."
Five hundred years later, though the reformer's ideas have taken hold, we still feel we must struggle against convention and push for more freedom, whether it's in our faith or in our government.
Editorial on 10/31/2017