An Obscure Monk and a Mundane Event: The Launch of the Protestant Reformation

As you may already know, October 31, 2018 will be the 501st anniversary of what is commonly referred to as Reformation Day. This day is celebrated and remembered because on October 31, 1517 Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. We don’t celebrate this day merely because a professor posted some points for debate to a bulletin board but because of the monumental effects that this one event had upon the Church in the years and centuries to come. Before we consider these monumental effects and the impact they have upon us today, let me first tell you what should have happened when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses. In order to do so, we need to go back to November 10, 1483, when Martin Luder (he’d later change his last name to Luther) entered the world as a baby, born to Hans and Margaret Luder.

Martin was not born into a prominent family, as Hans Luder was an entrepreneur who struggled in the copper industry, but neither was he born into a peasant family, as Hans was able to scrape enough money together to send Martin to school. Martin’s schooling would eventually take him to the University of Erfurt in 1501, and by 1505 he received a master’s degree and began studying law. He would have most likely continued on this course of study if not for the events that took place on his journey home during the summer of 1505. Martin retells the story of being “beleaguered by the terror and agony of sudden death” as he was caught in a thunderstorm, and according to Martin he made his vows to become a monk out of necessity.[1] As was common in his day, he prayed to St. Anne, pleading that if he be rescued from this storm he would become a monk, and remaining true to his word Martin became an Augustinian monk just two weeks later.

As an Augustinian monk, Martin lived a hard life that was devoted to constant study and prayer. He slept in a small, unheated 10’x7’ cell, equipped with only a straw bed since further decoration was forbidden.   During his days as an Augustinian monk, he was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest, continued his studies in theology, and by 1511 was transferred to Wittenberg, Germany.

During that time, Wittenberg was a small city that was described as “a miserable, poor, dirty village [that] was not worthy to be called a town of Germany.”[2] Far from being a prominent city in the early years of 16th century Europe, Wittenberg was a small, poor village that just so happened to host a university, which was founded in 1502. There, at the University of Wittenberg, Martin would earn his doctorate and later become the professor of biblical theology. As professor of theology, Dr. Luther lectured through the Psalms and through Romans. In 1514 he became the city preacher in Wittenberg, and in September 1517 he posted a disputation against scholastic theology to the church door in Wittenberg.

Posting to the Castle Church door was a popular practice, as the door served as the university’s bulletin board. (If a professor was looking for a public debate on a particular issue, this is where he would post his theses or points of debate.) While Luther was seeking a public debate on scholastic theology, no one responded to his debate topics. You see, the obscure monk tried to gain a public hearing, but he was not a man of any sort of prominence, so this disputation went unnoticed. That didn’t stop Luther, however, because two months later he would post again, this time calling for a public debate over the practice and theology of indulgences.

While we imagine this event in such glorious, colossal terms, in actuality it probably went something like this:

On October 31, 1517 around noon, either Luther or one of his aids posted his Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, which is commonly referred to as the 95 Theses. And after posting this document to what was probably a crowded church door bulletin board, nothing magical happened. The world did not stop. Men and women continued about their business, children continued to play games, and Luther went about life as usual.

So what should have happened when Luther posted his 95 Theses? The unknown professor at Wittenberg should have either received the same response as before, which was no response at all, or at best he would have been involved in a small, relatively obscure scholarly debate with his colleagues, and unless we were historians studying 16th century Wittenberg, the name Martin Luther should have faded into oblivion.

While that is what should have happened, that’s not at all what actually happened. You see, Martin Luther was an instrument in the hands of God who was bringing about much needed reform to His Church. As such, Luther’s proposed academic debate topic circulated throughout the academic world of Europe and eventually made its way to the pope in Rome. By January 1518 Rome was aware of Luther’s criticism of the current practices within the church and sought to silence Luther. In 1521 the Roman Catholic Church excommunicated Luther, declaring him a heretic; however, he had done something that had not been done in a long time: He had challenged the authority of the Roman Catholic Church and lived to tell the tale. Others, before Luther, had challenged the Church and the pope, only to be burned at the stake. But God preserved Luther.

As a result, Martin Luther sounded the horn for much needed Reform within the Church. He exposed holes in the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy and challenged the Church’s authority. You see, at that time the Roman Catholic Church elevated the authority of the pope to be equal to the authority of the Scriptures, but Luther challenged this notion by showing that popes and councils can and do err. In 1521 Luther said: “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by evident reason, for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves, I consider myself conquered by the Scriptures adduced by me and my conscience is captive to the Word of God.”[3] Luther was convinced of the authority of Scripture alone.

As God used Luther to recover the authority of the Scriptures, He also used him to challenge the Church’s role in salvation. For years, the Roman Catholic Church acted as if salvation belonged to the Church, meaning the Church determined who was in and who was out of the kingdom of God. As a result, the Church placed all sorts of burdens and restraints on the people, but Luther wrestled with the Scriptures and found a gracious God who saves sinners through faith alone, in Christ alone, all to the glory of God alone.

It was the recovery of five major themes (commonly referred to as the Five Solas: Scripture alone, salvation by grace alone, by faith alone, in Christ alone, all to the glory of God alone) that would sound forth throughout Europe in the 16thcentury. And, in God’s sovereignty, this Gospel recovery would not be silenced, as these very same doctrines are affirmed by many churches today. While the actual posting of the 95 Theses was probably a lot less glorious than we often imagine, it was the events that were set in motion after this one moment in time for which we praise God and thank Him for using an obscure monk and a mundane event to strengthen and renew His Church.

[1]WA8: 573

[2]Pettegree, Andrew. Brand Luther. New York: Penguin Books, 2016. p. 7

[3]LW 32: 112

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