Happy 500th anniversary of the 95 Theses!
It’s been a bumpy 500 years, hasn’t it? I mean, all Brother Martin, Augustinian canon and university theology professor, wanted to do was exercise his academic freedom and hold a debate about the sale of indulgences.
And now, with the western church fragmented beyond all human hope of repair, all sorts of people claim him and his own reform movement of the 1500s as their own, including around 9000 different Protestant denominations. (If you enjoy revelling in the 33,000 number, read this article by a Roman Catholic that refutes it.) To some extent, there is a truth in this. Luther’s actions, and the hierarchy’s response to them, led to much bolder actions on his part and the part of others, snowballing over the years of his own lifetime into different calls for different levels and kinds of reform, from canon law to theology to moral action to church order to liturgy to all sorts of things. In a way, regardless of how much we Protestants (and, yes, Anglicans are a variety of Protestant; please don’t argue with me about that in the comments because it makes me tired) agree or disagree with the vast corpus of Luther’s writings, we are all — somehow — descended from his original movement of protest and call for reform.
I would like to state that I agree with the 95 Theses. Even if one were to subscribe to the doctrine of Purgatory (which I don’t; see Article of Religion 22), Luther gives some pretty cogent reasons for why they are conceptually flawed and theologically false to Scripture and tradition.
I also think, from what I’ve read, that I agree with him about justification. But, of course, what Luther taught may not be what your local Pentecostal pastor teaches. So watch out for that. Not to say that the Pentecostal is wrong, but rather that saying, ‘I believe in justification by faith,’ doesn’t suddenly mean you actually agree with everyone else who says the same.
For example, sometimes I think I agree with the Council of Trent (of all things):
The Synod furthermore declares, that in adults, the beginning of the said Justification is to be derived from the prevenient grace of God, through Jesus Christ, that is to say, from His vocation, whereby, without any merits existing on their parts, they are called; that so they, who by sins were alienated from God, may be disposed through His quickening and assisting grace, to convert themselves to their own justification, by freely assenting to and co-operating with that said grace: in such sort that, while God touches the heart of man by the illumination of the Holy Ghost, neither is man himself utterly without doing anything while he receives that inspiration, forasmuch as he is also able to reject it; yet is he not able, by his own free will, without the grace of God, to move himself unto justice in His sight. Whence, when it is said in the sacred writings: Turn ye to me, and I will turn to you, we are admonished of our liberty; and when we answer; Convert us, O Lord, to thee, and we shall be converted, we confess that we are prevented by the grace of God. (Session 6, Chapter 5; pp. 32-33 of trans. J. Waterworth)
That is to say: God justifies us by grace acting in us. Our will cooperates with God’s grace freely, yet it is acknowledged that we are unable to cooperate freely without the grace of God acting in us. The awkward reality of faith as lived out in real life rather than in pious slogans.
Nonetheless, there are various other things that go on in Trent with which I disagree, so I’ll not convert to Rome just yet, thankyouverymuch.
Anyway, from what I recall from my studies back in 2011, around the time of Luther the teaching of the Latin church on this question was not, at large, clear. So when Luther found himself pushing back and resisted in the matter of indulgences, he found himself investigating the whole theological, sacramental, and canonical system of the Latin church concerning how we are saved and how this relates to the Bible.
And so we come to another happy Reformation slogan: Sola scriptura. I, again, take an Anglican line on this, that the Scriptures contain everything that is necessary for salvation. This does not mean that they are not to be understood in light of tradition or that tradition has no place in a healthy Christian life. More on that another time.
It has been said (possibly by Scott Cairns?) that Luther, a true Augustinian not simply by his vows but in his theology, who was steeped not only in Augustine but the other fathers and the greatest of the scholastics (whether he came out liking them or not is a different story) was in a very different position to say sola scriptura than the uneducated man on the street who reads the Bible for himself with no context.
That is, Luther claims in Table Talk to simply expound the plain sense of Scripture. But many of his meanings and understandings are those of Augustine. One’s past is almost inescapable. Either that, or the Holy Spirit inspired Luther and Augustine to say the same things.
So we see these things — justification by faith, a high view of Scripture, combating abuse and corruption in the church — and we say, ‘Huzzah! We are Protestants like Brother Martin!’
If you are Presbyterian or Baptist or Pentecostal or a certain variety of Anglican or Salvation Army, go and read Brother Martin’s treatise On the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. I like it. It has challenged my commitment to some of the Articles of Religion, I admit, but I still like it.
The upshot of this rambling post: Martin Luther did some Big Things, and his 95 Theses were the start of those Things. But as a figure, he is a man. Simul justus et peccator — at once justified and a sinner. You will like some of the things he says (even a modern Roman Catholic would!). You will probably dislike others (I know I do). But he is an unavoidable, unstoppable force who, I believe, did much good by the grace of God and despite his failings.