Reformation 2017

The Reformation in a nutshell

October 31, 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of what is widely considered to be the catalyst for the Protestant Reformation.

On this day in 1517, Martin Luther nailed a list of grievances against the Catholic Church onto the door of a chapel in Wittenberg, Germany. His “Ninety-five Theses” – as they are known - protested against what he considered to be clerical abuses, such as the Pope’s sale of reprieves from penance, or indulgences.

With the act of nailing his grievances to the chapel door, German monk Luther triggered a massive political, social and religious upheaval that would last for more than two centuries.

The Reformation was a very important movement for religious freedom throughout the world. At the end of the Reformation in the 1700s many thousands had died in wars fought in support of religious freedom and the Catholic Church was no longer the single source of spiritual authority that it had once been, and the Protestant movement had been born.

John Calvin, known as the father of the Reformed faith wrote The Institutes of the Christian Religion - a seminal work on Protestant theology - in which he outlined his views on the church, the sacraments, political government and more. (The Institutes would be revised several times, amounting to 80 chapters by the time of Calvin’s death in 1564.)

Presbyterianism can trace its heritage back to the 16th century and John Calvin. Calvin's writings formed much of what is still the basis of both Presbyterian and Reformed religious thought. Calvin did most of his writing from Geneva, Switzerland, and from there the Reformed movement spread throughout Europe.

What do the 95 Theses say?

In his 95 Theses, Luther makes several key points. In his own words these points are:

1. Selling indulgences to finance the building of St. Peter's is wrong.

"The revenues of all Christendom are being sucked into this insatiable basilica. The Germans laugh at calling this the common treasure of Christendom. Before long, all the churches, palaces, walls and bridges of Rome will be built out of our money. First of all, we should rear living temples, not local churches, and only last of all St. Peter's, which is not necessary for us. We Germans cannot attend St. Peter's. Better that it should never be built than that our parochial churches should be despoiled. ...

Why doesn't the pope build the basilica of St. Peter's out of his own money? He is richer than Croesus. He would do better to sell St. Peter's and give the money to the poor folk who are being fleeced by the hawkers of indulgences."

2. The pope has no jurisdiction over purgatory.

"Papal indulgences do not remove guilt. Beware of those who say that indulgences effect reconciliation with God. ... He who is contrite has plenary remission of guilt and penalty without indulgences. The pope can only remove those penalties which he himself has imposed on earth, for Christ did not say, 'Whatsoever I have bound in heaven you may loose on earth.'

Therefore I claim that the pope has no jurisdiction over Purgatory. ... If the pope does have power to release anyone from Purgatory, why in the name of love does he not abolish Purgatory by letting everyone out? If for the sake of miserable money he released uncounted souls, why should he not for the sake of most holy love empty the place? To say that souls are liberated from Purgatory is audacious. To say they are released as soon as the coffer rings is to incite avarice. The pope would do better to give everything away without charge."

3. Buying indulgences gives people a false sense of security over their salvation.

"Indulgences are positively harmful to the recipient because they impede salvation by diverting charity and inducing a false sense of security. Christians should be taught that he who gives to the poor is better than he who receives a pardon. He who spends money on indulgences instead of relieving want receives not the indulgence of the pope but the indignation of God. ...

Indulgences are most pernicious because they induce complacency and thereby imperil salvation. Those persons are damned who think that letters of indulgence make them certain of salvation. God works by contraries so that a man feels himself to be lost in the very moment when he is on the point of being saved. ...Man must first cry out that there is no health in him. He must be consumed with horror. This is the pain of Purgatory. ...

In this disturbance salvation begins. When man believes himself to be utterly lost, light breaks. Peace comes in the word of Christ through faith. He who does not have this is lost even though he be absolved a million times by the pope, and he who does have it may not wish to be released from Purgatory, for true contrition seeks penalty. Christians should be encouraged to bear the cross."

Here is the full text of the 95 Theses.