On 31 October 1517, Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 theses on the door at the Castle Church, Wittenberg, Germany. Thus began the Reformation.
As we will be celebrating the 500th anniversary of his act this year, it is a good opportunity to reflect on why the Reformation was needed and what message it says to today’s church.
Although Luther is credited as being God’s man to start the Reformation in Europe, he was part of a process that had been going on centuries before him. Sadly, the church in the Middle Ages had lost its earlier purity. Ignorance of the Bible and rebellion against God prevailed to such an extent that rival popes had their own armies to fight each other. At least four main sins enslaved the church:
Humanism: instead of God’s Word being the authority for belief and practice, church councils in Rome dictated what was acceptable. Reformers at that time said that there were two popes who needed to be dethroned: the pope in the Vatican and the pope of philosophy, Aristotle.
Materialism: instead of the leaders in the church following the example of Christ’s humility and care for the poor and needy, they competed with each other for power over people, through wealth and connections with royalty and nobility.
Paganism: in the place of biblical authority came a host of pagan practices: praying to Mary and the saints; praying for the souls of the dead; indulgences; adoration of images; the mass; purgatory and penance. Astrology was also regarded as science.
Hedonism: the depravity of the clergy was a disgrace. Sexual immorality and vice of every kind abounded, as did drunkenness, theft and corruption.
Early tremors of reformation
God has always preserved his remnant and voices were raised by godly clergy and monks, who called for a reformation in the church and a return to biblical purity of teaching and practice. However, their pleas were largely drowned by the hierarchy, and the church sank lower into a morass of sin.
Peter Waldo (c.1140–1218), a wealthy merchant from Lyon, France, deplored the decadence of the church, and led a radical movement that gave sacrificially to the poor and needy and preached the gospel. Besides this, Waldo translated the New Testament into their language and, with others, condemned the unbiblical practices in the church, such as the mass and purgatory; and even spoke against the pope and church leaders, who were pompous, greedy and lived in luxury.
This was bound to cause a reaction and in 1215 he was condemned as a heretic. Eighty of his followers were executed and most of the others fled to the mountains of Italy.
The next tremor came from England. John Wycliffe (c. 1328–1384), a professor at Oxford University, was consumed by a passion for Christ and the gospel. He openly preached and condemned the pagan practices in the church and called for the clergy to give up their rich properties and live simply.
Training up evangelists, he sent them all over the nation to preach the gospel, where they became known as Lollards. Some were burned at the stake, including several in Edinburgh. Realising that people needed to read the Bible in their own language, he translated it into English.
Thousands were converted and transformed, but Wycliffe antagonised the authorities by his radical message. Wycliffe died in 1384 after having a stroke, but, in 1415, at the Council of Constance, he was declared to be a heretic and his bones were dug up, burnt to ash and scattered in the River Swift, in Lutterworth, Leicestershire.
Jan Hus (c. 1369–1415) from Bohemia, the modern day Czech Republic, was ordained as a priest in 1400 and, a few years later, was deeply influenced by the writings of Wycliffe. After becoming the rector at the University of Prague, he began to preach the gospel and called the people to a reformation.
The authorities banned Wycliffe’s books as heretical in 1403, but Hus secretly translated some of them into Czech. Five years later, there was a serious division in the Roman Catholic Church, resulting in two popes: Gregory XII in Rome and Benedict XIII in Avignon.
A year later at the Council of Pisa, Alexander V was elected as the new pope, but Popes Gregory and Benedict did not accept this and papal wars erupted. When some of Hus’ followers protested about clergy going around raising money for the papal war effort through the sale of indulgences, they were burnt at the stake. Hus himself was burnt later in 1415.
Johannes Guttenberg (1398 –1468) published the first printed Bible in Latin in the 1450s, which meant that Bibles and books could be distributed far and wide quickly. This was a key factor that broke the church hierarchy’s hold on the people, as many could now read the Scriptures for themselves.
Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466–1536), a famous scholar from Holland, stirred the theological world by publishing the first Greek New Testament (this had been only available in Latin before then), allowing other scholars to study the original text.
He remained within the Roman Catholic Church, hoping for reformation as people became educated about the Bible, but many others were becoming more vocal, calling for repentance in the church. The Reformation was about to erupt.
Martin Luther (1483–1546), a German Augustinian monk and professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg, was converted when he realised that we are saved by grace, through faith in Christ alone, and not by our self-righteous works.
On 31 October 1517, he nailed his 95 theses on the church door, condemning indulgences as a scam. Copies of his theses were printed and distributed and crowds from all over Europe flocked to hear him preach in Wittenberg.
The pope sent him a papal bull commanding him to recant, but he burnt it in the fire, thus infuriating the church authorities. In 1521 he was declared to be a heretic and was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church. But he also had to appear before King Charles V, at the Diet of Worms, where he declared: ‘Here I stand; I can do no other. So help me God. Amen’.
As with other Reformers, he translated the Bible into the language of his people (1522–1534) and the Reformation went viral in Germany, leading to the Lutheran Church.
King Henry VIII (1491–1547) was regarded by the pope as being a good Catholic, until he decided he wanted to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope refused this request, so King Henry broke from Rome, becoming the head of the Church of England (1534).
Many Christians did not agree with what he had done, but they saw that this was an opportunity to also break free from Rome and bring reformation to England. William Tyndale (c. 1494–1536), the famous Bible translator, was one of the leaders who spoke up for reformation and against Henry VIII’s behaviour, but he was burnt at the stake in Belgium.
Reformation in England was a huge and costly process, particularly when Mary Tudor came to power and put to death about 300 Protestants, including Bishops Ridley and Latimer and Archbishop Cranmer. But eventually the Protestant church became established.
In Scotland, attempts had been made to see reformation, but the church hierarchy had crushed every effort. Many godly monks were executed and Patrick Hamilton and George Wishart were burnt at the stake.
John Knox (c. 1514–1572) was a Roman Catholic priest who was converted to Christ through the preaching of Wishart, and, when in exile in Geneva, he spent time with John Calvin (1509–1564), who was leading the Reformation in Switzerland.
This became Knox’s model. He returned to Scotland when it was safe for him to do so, and the Presbyterian church was established in 1560.
Reformation today: ‘Here I stand!’
Even though 500 years have passed since Luther’s bold act in Germany, the church is still in need of reformation. Let’s look at the four points I raised at the beginning and apply them to the 21st century:
Humanism: many of our modern church councils have cast aside the authority of Scripture, in favour of man-centred ideas, to fit in with political correctness. Instead of Aristotle, Darwin reigns supreme, meaning that almost everything now is being shaped according to an evolutionary philosophy.
Materialism: today the ‘prosperity gospel’ is a worldwide phenomenon. For many of these clergy, Christianity is a means of power and wealth. Godliness means a private jet and a fleet of expensive cars and houses.
Paganism: parts of the church are filled with New Age ideas and occult counselling, as well as multi-faith beliefs and practice.
Hedonism: from same-sex marriage and homosexual/lesbian practice, to adultery, fornication and online pornography — even the evangelical churches are becoming plagued with all of this.
We may point the finger at liberal churches today, but reformation always begins in our own hearts as individuals. No matter how evangelical we might think we are, there are probably some areas mentioned above in which we need to repent.
And just as the Reformers of old needed to be brave and face rejection, ridicule and persecution, so may we. Are we ready for it? Reformation comes at a price. Can we say with Luther: ‘Here I stand; I can do no other. So help me God. Amen’?
Paul James-Griffiths teaches the evangelism course at The Faith Mission Bible College in Edinburgh, as well as at other Bible colleges. He has had over 30 years’ experience in cross-cultural mission and in 2014 pioneered Christian Heritage Edinburgh (www.christianheritageedinburgh.org.uk), which uses our history as a bridge for the gospel. He runs tours with his wife, Isolde, and last year self-published his first novel called The Seers. This article first appeared in First, magazine of The Faith Mission, and is used here by kind permission.