Protestants are taking special note of October 31, 2017, for that date marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of his famous “95 Theses.” Although written in Latin and intended for scholarly debate within the university environment, the statements’ powerful challenges caught someone’s attention immediately, were translated into German, and were typeset quickly for publication. Copies began circulating. When Luther delivered a series of sermons denouncing the effects of the sale of indulgences and when they too were printed and distributed, all of Europe became inflamed with debate. Just three years later, he was excommunicated and declared an outlaw, wanted dead or alive. His writings were banned and to be burned wherever found.
People declared heretics by the powerful Renaissance church usually did not live very long. The followers of early church critic John Wycliffe were persecuted. Czech protester Jan Hus had his safe-conduct pass revoked and was burned at the stake in Constance in 1415. William Tyndale, an important translator of the Bible into English, was strangled and then tied to a stake and burned in Brussels in 1536. Martin Luther might have been an obscure Saxon monk caught up in one of the many Inquisitions over the centuries. Just in Spain alone 150,000 people were brought before church courts and 3,000-5,000 executed. But by the grace of God, Martin Luther was able to bring about a revitalization of the church. Here are three major reasons why you’ve heard of the Reformation and been blessed by it.
#1 Elector Frederick the Wise
Although much of central Europe was included in the Holy Roman Empire and under its sovereign, Charles V, real power lay in the hands of the empire’s seven electors. Charles had his hands full defending his Austrian lands from the invading armies of Muslim Turks. The German electors controlled local politics and law enforcement, and when Frederick, elector of Saxony, decided not to hand his rebellious monk over to church inquisitors, his word prevailed. As long as Luther stayed in Frederick’s territory, he would receive the elector’s protection. That is the main reason why Luther attained the ripe age of 61, old for a “heretic.”
#2 Johannes Gutenberg
Gutenberg, tradesman of the Rhine city of Mainz, did not invent printing, but he brought together all the significant pieces that exploded the entire communication industry. He brought the technology of the agricultural screw press into the print shop; he developed an oil-based ink that dried hard; and he developed a cheap and durable alloy for casting movable type. One of his earliest works is his famous Bible, printed in 1455. His impact on the writings of Luther was immense—just as Luther was generating a lot of written material, there was a well-developed network of presses around Germany that could print and distribute cheaply the torrent of booklets, pamphlets, and broadsheets (from both Protestant and Catholic sides!). Ironically his shop had been used to print some of the indulgence letters that Luther so criticized.
#3 Lucas Cranach
Court painter to the electors of Saxony, Lucas Cranach had a huge and growing art workshop in Wittenberg. Slightly older than Luther, he was an early adopter of the Reformation and used his skills and shop to promote it. His portraits of Luther and his family are priceless. He also illustrated the print copies of Luther’s Bible translations, and these gave great impetus to the already brisk sales. He illustrated cartoons and caricatures in the pamphlet wars between Protestants and Catholics, and his emblem, a winged snake with a ruby ring in its mouth, was to be found on an astonishingly large output of work. The northern German populace was mad for his depictions of Luther.
Catholics don’t have to hate October 31. In some important ways they have benefited from the Reformation as well, although not visibly right away. Some of the major reforms advocated in the mid-16th century finally changed in the church of Rome: worship in the language of the people, instead of mandatory Latin; a Bible made available to all in the language of the people; laypeople able to partake of the chalice in Communion; and the singing of hymns in worship by the congregation.
The greatest of all Reformation gifts, however, is the twin gift of certainty about the source of our religious information and the authority behind it. We know what to believe and why. Sola Scriptura means that Scripture alone tells us the truth about God. Scripture alone clearly reveals Jesus Christ as Savior. Scripture alone, working through Word and sacrament, builds and nurtures the faith that connects us to Christ and brings us to his heavenly kingdom.
Happy Reformation Day!
Pastor Mark Jeske has been bringing the Word of God to viewers of Time of Grace since the program began airing in late 2001. A Milwaukee native, Pastor Jeske has served as the senior pastor at St. Marcus, a multicultural congregation on Milwaukee’s near north side since 1980. In addition, he is the author of several books and dozens of devotional booklets on various topics.
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Join us on Your Time of Grace this week where Pastor Jared Oldenburg is looking at how the reformation affects your life today.