I grew up celebrating Reformation Day on October 31, rather than Halloween. As I’ve grown older, it’s been interesting to learn more about the history behind this day, when in 1517 Martin Luther nailed his “95 Theses” on the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.
|Luther nailing the 95 Theses on the Wittenberg Door, By Ferdinand Pauwels - flickr, Public Domain
While many of us are familiar with the basic impetus and key historical figures of the Protestant Reformation, when I studied for a semester in Oxford, England (see last month's post here), I got to learn about the Reformation with several other students under the tutelage of an Anglican priest. There I learned about several fascinating aspects of the Reformation that I hadn’t known much about before. So I thought with it being October, I’d share a few with you today!
Why did the Reformation happen when it did?
We often think of abuses within the Medieval Catholic church—corruption, licentiousness among the clergy, and unbiblical elements of theology—as causing the Reformation. And it was the extortion of the common people through selling indulgences, where they could supposedly buy remission of punishment for sin for themselves or loved ones, that initially upset Luther to the point of pounding his theses onto that door.
But other fascinating historical and cultural sparks also helped kindle the Reformation: The printing press, which suddenly made mass communication of ideas possible, as well as a wider distribution of the Bible; European geographical voyaging, which brought contact with people of different religions; the Renaissance and its exploration of new artistic and intellectual ideas; and the 1516 publication of Thomas More’s Utopia and Erasmus’s new translation of the New Testament, which both shone a light on the church not practicing what it preached.
As one Oxford lecturer I heard pointed out, it was no coincidence that Luther marched up to the Wittenberg door the very next year.
Luther’s Evolving Views
Luther didn’t intend to start a movement that would change the world, though. He initially just wanted to spark a debate at the University of Wittenberg, but when a friend spread copies of his “Theses” all over town (again, thanks to the printing press), the issue suddenly exploded on a much bigger scale. Even in the “95 Theses,” Luther is far more conciliatory than he would later become, expressing respect for the Pope and a belief that if he only knew the abuses that were going on, he would surely put a stop to them.
However, by the time Luther wrote his main treatises a few years later, he had become much more brash, even describing the Pope as resembling the anti-Christ. His view of justification by faith also developed greatly, with the “Theses” only vaguely hinting at the idea.
Fellow Reformers—friends or enemies?
|Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, Public Domain
Protestants often think of the Reformation as a positive time, and good things did come from it. But it was also an era torn by strife and violence—between Catholics and Protestants, and between Protestants and Protestants. Even when reformers tried to work together, they weren’t always successful.
At one point, Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli—the leader of the Reformation in Switzerland—met together to see about joining their movements, but they found they couldn’t agree adequately on a certain aspect of the Lord’s Supper. They did, however, find enough points of commonality to produce the fifteen Marburg Articles, of which they agreed on precisely fourteen-and-a-half. But this half-a-point disagreement caused enough division that the movements remained separate.
The Catholic Response
In the past, I hadn't realized that the Council of Trent, seen as inaugurating the Catholic Counter-Reformation, was first convened in part by those within the Catholic Church who wanted reconciliation with the Reformers. Sadly, however, other influential Catholics refused to listen to the points of view of those Protestants who attended, and the Council ended up finalizing the division rather than healing it.
However, the Catholic church did subsequently enact its own “Counter-Reformation” and clear up many of the moral abuses within its structure, while reaffirming its theological stance. Movements such as the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits, were born from this reform, and they had a significant missionary impact on the world ranging from North American to China and India.
So, have you ever celebrated Reformation Day? Do you think the Reformation's overall impact was more positive or negative? Are any aspects particularly fascinating to you? Please comment and share!
Kiersti Giron holds a life-long passion for history and historical fiction. She loves to write stories that show the intersection of past and present, explore relationships that bridge cultural divides, and probe the healing Jesus can bring out of brokenness. Kiersti has been published in several magazines and won the 2013 ACFW Genesis Award - Historical for her manuscript Beneath a Turquoise Sky. A high school teacher and member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Kiersti loves learning and growing with other writers penning God's story into theirs, as well as blogging at www.kierstigiron.com. She lives in California with her wonderful husband, Anthony.