Reformation 500

October 31, 1517 has been called the birthday of the Protestant Reformation, though the Augustinian monk and theology professor Martin Luther never imagined it as such at the time. It was on this day that he posted ninety-five theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany, a normal procedure in academic circles for obtaining discussion. The theses mainly protested against indulgences, which had originated in the eleventh and twelfth centuries as a supposed way to draw on the treasury of the saints to forgive the temporal penalties for sin for souls in purgatory. Luther said that indulgences did not remove guilt, he denied that the saints had accumulated surplus credits, and argued that the Germans didn’t need to pay for the construction of St. Peter’s in Rome, since few Germans could worship there. To Luther’s surprise, the theses created an immense sensation, being translated from his original Latin into vernacular German and read across the country. In the course of the debate with Rome he was led on step by step until he had declared that both Popes and general councils of the Church could err, that only the Scriptures are authoritative, and that he would concede that he was in error only if convinced that what he held was contrary to the Bible and to sound reason. In 1520 he wrote in his tract The Freedom of the Christian Man: “One thing and one thing alone is necessary for life, justification, and Christian liberty; and that is the most holy word of God, the Gospel of Christ….To preach Christ is to feed the soul, to justify it, to set it free, and to save it, if it believes the preaching. For faith alone, and the efficacious use of the word of God bring salvation.” These views led to what are often called the 5 solas (or solae) of the Reformation: We are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone according to Scriptures alone for the glory of God alone.


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