In 1517, an obscure academic either tacked or glued (sources differ) a single sheet of paper to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, in northeast Germany.
This small act upended Christianity forever.
Martin Luther’s 95 theses, written on that paper in Latin, were intended to open a theological debate.
Instead, they launched a religious revolution across Europe — the Reformation — from which sprang nearly all Protestant churches.
The word “Protestant” refers to the movement’s founders having been protestors against the Roman Catholic Church.
Luther was the founders’ founder, the protestors’ protestor. After his theses, and the tumult they inspired, he found himself the leader of a movement that 500 years later encompasses hundreds of millions of Christians worldwide.
He was a curious character, a bundle of contradictions. An Augustinian monk who had become a professor at a backwater college, he was by turns charitable, priggish, humble and dismissive.
He prayed and wrote and relentlessly studied the Bible, and he preached and translated Scripture from Latin into German. He also loved music, swore like a goat-herder (profanities involving human excrement seem to have been his favorites) and freely imbibed wine and beer. As he aged, he exhibited a shameful anti-Semitism.
Luther was no alabaster saint, that’s for certain.
Today, he’s perhaps best known for his opposition to the medieval church’s practice of selling indulgences, which was the subject of the 95 theses. The church promised the rich that they could buy their way out of unpleasantness in the hereafter by donating money in the here and now.
This infuriated Luther, and he said so. Pointedly. Exhaustively.
But there was so much more to his teachings.
If you’re a Protestant today — a Lutheran, obviously, or a Baptist or Methodist or Presbyterian or almost any other variety of non-Catholic Christian except Orthodox — you can trace many of your beliefs and your worship practices to that crusty old ex-monk.
Here are a handful of Luther’s foundational contributions:
▪ Justification by faith. This bedrock Protestant doctrine says Christians are saved by faith alone, not by good deeds. We’re to believe in Christ’s atoning work on our behalf and in God’s free grace, not our virtuous efforts.
▪ Faith as a gift. Luther said we can’t manufacture faith on our own; God in his mercy grants it to us, then rewards us for having it. We’re dependent on him.
▪ Congregational singing. Before, church music was provided by special choirs. In Luther’s breakaway congregation, everyone sang. Luther expected parishioners to attend music practice during the week, so they would sound better come Sunday.
▪ The priesthood of the believer. There’s no specially consecrated priesthood, no human at all whose intervention we need in order to reach the Lord. Every Christian is a priest. Every Christian can study the Bible and talk directly to God. Every Christian must follow the Holy Spirit and her own conscience.
▪ Sola scriptura. Luther taught that the Bible is divinely inspired and the highest authority given to us for understanding God’s ways and discerning morality.
▪ Married ministers. Luther wed an ex-nun, Katherina von Bora. According to Christian History magazine, “He married not out of love or sexual desire, he said, but to please his father, who liked the idea of grandchildren; to spite the pope, who forbade clerical marriage; and to witness to his convictions before he was martyred!” (For the record, Luther avoided martyrdom and died of natural causes.)
This column is in no way a polemic. As I’ve said many times, I have great respect for my brothers and sisters in the Roman Catholic Church. Besides, the Catholic Church of the 21st century definitely isn’t the Catholic Church of the 16th century.
But my upbringing, training and inclinations are Protestant. That being so, I feel gratitude, even awe, toward Luther, whatever his shortcomings.
I’m also struck sometimes by an irony of his secession from Catholicism.
Whether Luther foresaw this I can’t say, but we know now, from half a millennium’s experience, that once you start protesting, once you get mad enough to split off from your mother church, there will be subsequent divisions.
That’s the history of Protestantism. It has been one schism after another. Hundreds of contrary, competing denominations, not to mention countless independent congregations. And each is confident that it possesses the purest form of the gospel.
When everyone is a priest, when everyone can consult with God for himself and receive his own answer, then everyone feels an equal claim to righteous indignation. Everyone is free to go down the road a mile and start his own reformation.
So far, there’s never been an end to that, and no end is in sight.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.