This is what the Lord says: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it” (Jeremiah 6:16).
October 31, 1517. Can you believe that next year (2017) will be the five hundredth anniversary of this event? I can almost imagine how it took place that Sunday morning in Wittenberg, Germany.
The sound of the iron hammer must have rung out in the early morning air, as the monk nailed his 95 theses onto a well-made German door. I can see the curious crowd gathering round and reading the words, then breaking up into groups, discussing the proposals in delicious anticipation of what the church Bishop would say.
Whenever Luther’s 95 “suggestions” are mentioned, I wonder if modern people don’t equate it with a sort of Medieval version of phoning a radio talk show. In fact when the obscure German monk published his document, he was taking a fearsome risk. The church of his day was not terribly open to suggestions, and Luther spent the next several years a prisoner in the Wartberg castle, lucky to be alive.
It was Luther’s courage that made the Protestant Reformation possible, for it inspired other men such as Ulrich Zwingli and the Anabaptists to act. The very terminology “Reformation” and “Restoration” implies that the Christianity of their day had gone radically wrong, and needed “reforming.”
So how bad were things? Martin Luther’s main gripe with the Pope revolved around the sale of indulgences. This practice originated in the days of the Crusades when the Moslems captured Jerusalem. The nations of Europe under the Roman church began a series of Crusades in an effort to put the land of the Bible back into “Christian” hands. At first it was easy to recruit soldiers. Many of Europe’s nobles and princes signed up, including Richard the Lion Heart of Robin Hood fame.
But the Crusades went generally badly, and many began to withdraw from the fray. Desperate to keep men on the fighting line, the church offered “Indulgences” to any rich man who was willing to supply a mercenary with armor and money. The Pope would provide in turn an “indulgence” to practice some favorite vice.
By Luther’s day the Crusades were well over, but the system of Indulgences had persisted to the point where anyone who wished to indulge in some sin could do so by paying the church sufficient “Indulgence money.” For a local church intent on a building project, it was an effective fund raising scheme. This was the precise method Pope Leo X used to raise money for St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Luther protested the Pope’s right to break biblical directives and sanction sin. Luther’s two slogans were sola scriptura (for “scripture alone”), and sola fide (for “faith alone”). The scriptures carried more authority than the Pope, he insisted.
Make no mistake, the battle for authority in religion has always been the crucial battle, and is still being fought today. How do we determine God’s will? Do we turn to church tradition (the way we’ve always done it), or to subjectivity (I don’t know what the Bible says, but I feel so good when I do this), or the right of some individual or body to determine our beliefs (such as an archbishop or conference)?
But here’s the point: Whatever we determine to be our final authority in religion will define every other conclusion which we draw.