Protestant Perspective: When the Reformation Started (Sort of…)

by Mark Hertenstein


With the feast of the Reformation quickly approaching for those like me, I think it would be good to revisit what exactly happened on October 31, 1517, in a small city in Saxony with regards to a monk who was a little known professor at a new, obscure university.

Martin Luther had a tumultuous decade beginning in 1505, when he entered the Augustinian order at Erfurt after he promised to St. Anne that he would devote his life to the Church if she would preserve him in a dangerous thunderstorm. He had frequently spent hours in confession, sometimes multiple times per day, without relief. For Luther, sin was real and should weigh heavily on the believer, but it literally weighed him down to the point of despairing even of God’s mercy at times. He later wrote that he didn’t love God, but hated Him. He later recorded that he physically strained himself as a result, sleeping with no blankets in the winter, going without food on numerous occasions, and at one point almost dying from the strain he induced on himself. At the behest of his superior and father-confessor, Johann von Staupitz, Luther was trained at the University of Wittenberg and became a professor of Scripture there. It was also Staupitz who first counseled Luther to comfort himself by looking to Christ crucified rather than Christ the judge.


Luther struggled through his own material trying to solve his own problem until he had a breakthrough in the period beginning in roughly 1515 and ending in 1518. His “tower experience” occurred as he read Romans 1:17, “the righteous shall live by faith.” He would later say that with those words he felt that the gates of Paradise had opened and he had entered into it. This verse indicated to Luther that it was precisely not by the works of man, to which he had grown accustomed in the monastery, that save, but God’s work in Christ on the cross that was present in faith. Man could not add anything, for it had already been done. That was Luther’s comfort and his theological insight. This would dominate Luther’s theology for the rest of his life. But it must be emphasized that this was an entirely private and academic affair for Luther, never public.


Until October 31, 1517. What brought it to public recognition were the events surrounding the eve of All Saints Day in 1517. A famous indulgence seller, Johann Tetzel, O.P., was in Saxony. He was known for his over-the-top manner of selling indulgences. It was also known that this indulgence was given specifically to pay for a purchased archbishopric and the expenses of Rome, expenses thoroughly detested in Germany by rich and poor alike and a frequent subject of grievances by the German princes. At the same time, an indulgence had been granted for viewing the renowned collection of relics of the prince of Saxony, Frederick III (who would later defend Luther), in Wittenberg.


What Luther saw was an opportunity to call out the corruption of the indulgence. He also believed that he should relieve the burdened consciences of the people, who perhaps experienced the burden of religion he himself had felt at one time, as well as to provide them with true liberating faith and hope.


He promptly wrote the 95 Theses for a disputation, sent copies to his superiors, and nailed a copy to the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg. That was not at all an unusual move, as the doors of the church served as a sort of notice board. The notion of a dramatic arrival at the Castle Church to nail the Theses to the door as people looked on awestruck is a later fabricated notion.


It could have and should have played out simply as a fizzled-out academic debate, which it initially was. The debate Luther wanted to hold never happened. Had anyone paid attention to his points, it could well have resulted in a clearer idea of indulgences that got rid of the corruption. Of course, had the practice never have arisen, no corruption or suspect theology would have been around for Luther to rail against on the Eve of All Saints in 1517. Yet even with such a practice, there was no real reason for the eruption that soon took place as a result of Luther’s rather innocuous (even by modern Catholic standards) complaints. But through a series of unusual historical events, exactly the opposite happened in the wake of that October day.


It is lost on us today that there was no drama, no sense of importance, really no sense of rebellion on October 31, 1517. This obscure Augustinian monk was only concerned that the Gospel of freedom through faith in Christ’s work would be taught to the masses. He was only concerned about faith in Christ crucified and risen. Period. Nothing more, nothing less. He was concerned very little with the ecclesiastical controversy and aloof of it in some ways. It is said that, based on his own letters from 1517-1521, he was more concerned with filling a chair in Hebrew at the university than the machinations in Rome investigating his writings. He truly had a one-track mind, and it unfortunately resulted in his being unaware of the situation and others’ misinterpreting him.


All of that being said, I don’t celebrate much on the feast day of the Reformation. As an aside, the day itself is not the most accurate – Luther’s rediscovery that launched his theological project can’t be dated. But it is a day to reflect on and mourn the unfortunate historical events that have caused schism, to pray for wisdom and guidance through difficult ecclesial challenges, but also to celebrate the personal discovery of the righteousness of faith by Luther that became a world-changing idea – that man has been totally freed from sin by the God who was crucified.


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