Did the Reformation Destroy the ‘Church?’

Catholics, academics, and some protestants view the Reformation launched by Martin Luther on October 31, 1517 as being a less than helpful historical development. Prior to the posting of the 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Chapel, seemingly one unified Christian church existed. Our Christian friends in the East who assemble under the banner of the Greek Orthodox Church take issue with this Western view of church history. Almost five hundred years before the Reformation, they broke with the Bishop of Rome on July 16, 1054. But the great schism did not destroy the unity of the Western Churches. Luther and the second generation of Reformers deserve the credit or the blame for that development. Baptists have a president, Methodists have bishops, and Presbyterians have presbyters in part because Luther walked off the field and refused to play with the historic and unifying expression of Christendom, the Roman Catholic Church.

Did Luther and Sola Scriptures Destroy the Church?

But is this truly what happened? Did Luther’s quest for a purer church destroy “The Church,” dividing that which God has always intended to be unified?

Those who view the Reformation to be primarily schismatic in nature, point to the most famous line of the Reformation. At the Diet of Worms in 1521, the representative of Pope Leo X demanded that Luther recant of his errors and his teaching. His errors included such things as Thesis 36 which stated, “Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters.” Luther asked for an adjournment of the meeting to form his response. When he returned to the hall the following day, he replied:

I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.”

Here I Stand

Protestants champion Luther’s statement because it encapsulates the idea of Sola Scriptura, Scripture alone. Instead of looking to Rome for truth, protestants can scan the Bible and discern God’s truth through plain reason. Luther had shifted the authority of the church from the Pope’s throne to the pew. Protestants rejoiced.

Christendom quaked. The democratization of the church’s authority threatened to destroy all authoritative claims. Any man or woman with access to the Bible could reason himself or herself to a variety of doctrines that may have no relation to the doctrines proposed by other Christians. Essentially Luther and the Reformers who followed the pugnacious monk had turned theology into a subjective experience that seemingly undermined the idea of truth, leaving no place for cultural much less spiritual unity. Interpretive anarchy reigned.

What Did Luther Really Do?

Though Luther and those in the Reformed camp turned the world upside down, they were not seeking to create a new church, modeling a theological paradigm of unending evolution and progress. The Reformers were inherently theological conservationists who wished to lead the Church back to the historic, apostolic faith. Luther had said his 95 Theses aligned, “with what is in the Holy Scriptures…and then what is in…the writings of the church fathers.”

Luther had not advocated for theological anarchy. He and those who followed him believed that the Holy Spirit that had inspired the New Testament text, converted the lost and sustained the church as the caretaker and protector of the evangelical witness. Christians were free to interpret the text according to their own conscience as long as that conscience aligned with the Scriptures and the testimony of the historic church that affirmed the apostolic witness. Theologian Kevin Vanhoozer correctly noted that for the Reformers, “Tradition was not the Word of God; it is the testimony to that Word.” Luther took issue with the Pope not because the Vatican championed tradition. He took issue with Rome because it advocated for theological positions that ran counter to the Scriptures and the testimony of the historic apostolic faith. Vanhoozer helpfully describes what Luther did, writing,

Protestantism is not the virus that divides and attacks the body; it is the antibodies that set to work attacking the body’s infection (e.g. late medieval Roman Catholicism).

Luther had not protested the authoritative nature of apostolic tradition as taught in the Scriptures. He protested against the commands of the Pope because the Pontiff, “distorts the Holy Scriptures.” He was not an theological anarchist. He was theological purest, Sola Scriptura.

Why Is the Church Fractured?

The church lacks unity not because the reformers protested the authority of Rome but because men and women of every age refuse to acknowledge the Scriptures and the apostolic tradition of the Church as Rome has done. The ancient church father Irenaeus whom Luther knew well described schismatics as follows:

When we refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles, which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they [the schismatics] object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth.

The unity of the church fractures when men and women walk away from the apostolic witness of the Scriptures preferring new sources of authority ranging from prophetic dreams, to religious traditions, to personal feelings. Regardless of their claims, the new traditions always produce schism.

Luther did not infect the church with schism. He reintroduced the church to the cure for division, the gospel once delivered for all and attested to be all true believers. May we be wise stewards of the cure.

John Huss: A Name Martin Luther Thought All Christians Should Know

John-Huss-BlogOn Oct 31, 1517, the monk, Martin Luther turned the world upside down with a few shift taps on the door of the Wittenberg Chapel. Luther hoped his 95 Theses, 95 concerns, about the state of the Catholic Church would lead the church to reexamine her doctrine of indulgences, pieces of paper that promised forgiveness from sin in exchange for a fee. Luther wrote,

Thus those indulgence preachers are in error who say that a man is absolved from every penalty and saved by papal indulgences.

He continued noting, “Any true Christian, whether living or dead, participates in all the blessings of Christ and the church; and this is granted him by God, even without indulgence letters.”

Luther hoped his document would spur the erring church to return to the teachings of the primitive, apostolic church. But instead of taking on a few misguided theologians, Luther found himself challenging the essence of Catholicism. In 1520, Pope Leo X condemned the German preacher of salvation alone through faith alone, by grace alone in accordance with the Scriptures alone as being, “the slave of a depraved mind…a stone of stumbling…a heretic.” The Reformation swung into full gear. The church would never be the same.

Martin Luther’s Connection To Huss

A year earlier in 1519, Luther still believed the Catholic Church could be rescued. He traveled to the city of Leipzig to debate the well-known and revered catholic theologian Johann Eck. As they debated the “primacy of the Pope.” Eck shifted the discussion to the Council of Constance and accused Luther of “espousing the pestilent errors of John Huss which troubled the Catholic Church during the 1400’s.”

As a young scholar, Luther had read some of Huss’s sermon. Though he knew Huss was a heretic, the young Luther confessed he, “was filled with astonishment difficult to describe, as I sought out for what reason so great a man – a doctor, so worthy of veneration, and so powerful in expounding the Scripture – had been burned to death.” But Luther refused to utter his thoughts about the Bohemian heretic for fear, “that the heavens would fall me.”

The German told Eck, “I repulse the charge of Bohemianism.” And then as all good discussions do, the debate broke for lunch.

During the lunch break, Luther went to the library at Leipzig and read the charges against Huss. When Luther returned to the debate Hall, he returned a Hussite, a friend of the heretic.  Luther would later declare,

I have hitherto taught and held all the opinions of Jan Hus unawares…In short, we are all Hussites without knowing it.

What did Luther find in the Library of Leipzig?

Let’s take a look.

Who is John Huss?

John Huss entered the world in 1373 in Bohemia, modern day Czechoslovakia. Though born to a family of modest means, Huss reached the University of Prague in 1390 and paid for his education by singing. While earning his bachelor’s and master’s degree, Huss came into contact with the writings of the Oxford Professor and heretic, John Wycliffe, who had died when Huss was twelve years old. While Huss downplayed his connection to the English reformer, who advocated for purity in the church and for salvation apart from works, Huss was undoubtedly changed by his studies of Wycliffe and most importantly his studies of the Scriptures.

Commenting on his life prior to salvation, Huss wrote, “before receiving the priesthood, I lost much time in playing at chess, and through this game often suffered myself to be provoked, as well as provoked others to anger.” He also lamented his earlier fascination with fancy clothes, stating, “Alas I, too, had gowns and robes with wings, and hood with white fur; for they had so hemmed in the master’s degree with their regulations that no one could obtain the degree unless he possessed such apparel.” By the time he became a priest in 1401 and the preacher of Bethlehem chapel in 1402, Huss has embrace Jesus as his savior. For the remainder of his life, Huss gave up chess and embraced the faithful proclamation of the gospel, seeking the salvation of his hearers.

As he preached the gospel, Huss morphed into the great heretic whose name Luther feared to verbalize.

What was his crime?

John’s Huss’s Crime: The Gospel of Purity

He taught that Christians should follow Christ. He believed only those who looked to Christ for salvation through the cross as revealed in the Scriptures and who worked out their faith with fear and trembling in accordance with the Scriptures should be considered followers of Jesus. Huss wrote, “No place, or human election, make a person a member of the holy universal church.” He denied the church’s ability to sell and grant salvation to people apart from Jesus. Moreover, he believed church attendance did not save unrepentant sinners. He wrote, ”

Similarly as it does not follow that, because of ordure or sore is in the body of a man, therefore it is part of the body, so it does not follow that because a reprobate is in Christ’s mystical body of the church, therefore he is part of it.

Hus, JohannesMen and women could only secure the blessing of salvation when they “adhere firmly and without wavering to the truth spoken of by God.” Huss would write, “Again the minister of the church, the vicar of Christ is not able to absolve or to bind, to forgive sins or to retain them, unless God has done this previously.” Those who professed Christ would of necessity live holy lives as their savior was holy. Huss wrote, “If anyone is predestinated to eternal life, it necessarily follows that he is predestinated unto righteousness, and if he follows life eternal, he has also followed righteousness.” Huss’s common understanding of salvation, sanctification, and personal holiness appeared to be uncontentious.

After his famous lunch, Luther told Eck, “Among the articles of John Hus, I find many which are plainly Christian and evangelical, which the universal church cannot condemn.” Given the biblical and sensible nature of Huss’s teachings, Luther asked Eck if the court records had been corrupted because Luther could not imagine the church fathers would condemn such gospel truth. Eck affirmed the truthfulness of the condemnation. So why did the preaching of Huss strike such a nerve?

Why Was Huss Killed?

Huss incurred the hatred of the Catholic Church because the Catholic Church of the 1400’s was filled with corruption. In his sermon on John 15:27, Huss noted that,

As layman walk with their canes to the churches, so these clerics go to the beer-hall with canes, and when they return they can hardly walk, much less talk, and least of all, do they know what is demanded of the priestly office…When the blood becomes heated, they talk of women and acts of lust in most wanton language…They ought to be like dogs to be turned out of the house of God, where they give such reproach and scandal to the hearts of simple layman.

During Huss’s trial at Constance, 1072 church officials showed up surround by troops and musicians and, women. Seven hundred women officially registered as prostitutes for the event. Huss condemned the decadence he observe and wrote,

He is Peter who is not known to go about in processions, ornaments with gems or silks, not clad in gold or carried about with soldiers surrounded by bustling servant. Without such things, Peter believed he was able to fulfill sufficiently the salutary commandment: If thou lovest me , feed my sheep.

In March of 1414, the council that condemned Huss condemned Pope John XXIII who had called the council. The church prelates removed the errant Pope from office because he sold church offices, slept with his brother’s wife, issued spurious and false commands, committed adultery with nuns, and engaged in sodomy. Huss rightfully noted that the “official church does not make the priest…the place does not sanctify the man, but the man the place. Not every priest is holy; but every holy person is a priest.”

To keep the lay people from complaining about their sinful lifestyles, the priests and church officials seldom preached the gospel. On his sermon on Matthew 21:43, Huss declared,

They shut up the kingdom of heaven to men. This they do by keeping back the Scriptures from the people so that they may not read or understand them, and know how men ought to live; that they may not know how to punish the priests for their sins, or through knowledge of the Scriptures may not insist that the priests become instructed in them. And again the priests keep the knowledge of the Scriptures from the people because the priests fear they will not receive the same amount of honor if the people are taught to read the Bible.

Because Huss opened up the Scriptures and exposed the warts of the Catholic Church, the leaders of the Bohemian church despised Huss. They regularly complained to the Popes and Cardinals about Huss’s preaching. As Luther, Huss never intended to defame the church and had no plans to split the church. Huss told his opponents that “The purpose of our side is that the clergy live honestly according to the doctrine of Jesus Christ, laying aside pomp, avarice and luxury.” Sadly, Huss pleas for reform, holiness, and biblical preaching fell on deaf ears.

In 1410, the Archbishop Zbyneck convinced the newly elected Pope Alexander V, one of three popes at the time,  to order the church and universities of Prague to burn John Wycliffe’s books, believing the British heretic to be the source of Huss’s faith. Huss refused to obey the papal bull and was promptly excommunicated. Huss appealed to the church court in Rome, hoping to convince the greater church community his gospel reform. The church officials imprisoned Huss’s messenger and excommunicated Huss for the second time in 1411.

Despite being commanded to repent, Huss kept preaching. He said “if a pope’s command is at variance with Christ’s commands or counsel or tends to any hurt of the church, then he ought boldly to resist it lest he become a partaker in crime by consent.”  Huss appealed the church’s decisions to God and kept ministering in good conscience, telling all that he had “committed [himself] to Christ alone (250).”  In 1412, Huss opposed Pope John XXIII’s sale of indulgences and was excommunicated for a third time.

Huss’s Trial and Death

In 1414, Huss secured the trial he had longed for since 1410. He hoped the gospel would win the day. But he was also prepared to suffer for the gospel and understood he could be rejected by the Council of Constance. As the Bohemian priest traveled to his end, he wrote, “it would be a strange thing at present to remain unpunished when attacking the perversity of the priests, who will not endure any blame.”

CouncilofConstanceDebatesthePope-5b44edb6c9e77c0037e7ed04And suffer, Huss did. Instead of receiving a hearing for his beliefs, Huss was imprisoned a few days after he arrived in Constance. When Huss was brought before the Council, the Council shouted down Huss’s voice down with a veracity that reminded Huss of how the Pharisees treated Christ as his trial. The leaders of the church allowed Huss to answer one question, will “you throw yourself entirely and totally on the grace and into the hands of the Council, that whatever the Council shall dictate to you.” Huss refused to recant the gospel to please the corrupt leaders of the Catholic Church. he told his friends,

I cannot do it without denying in many things the truth…I should afford a great scandal to the people of God who have listened to my sermons; and it would be better that a millstone were tied round my neck, and that I was plunged to the bottom of the sea…Our Savoir Jesus Christ will reward me fully, and bestow on me in my trials the assistance of patience.

On July 1414, Huss would lean brilliantly upon the Lord. The day opened with a reading of the chargers against Huss. Once again, the court prevented Huss from being able to answer the charges against him. Huss refused again refused to recant and prayed for Jesus to give him mercy. The Archbishop of Milan and the Bishop Constance then defrocked Huss removing his priestly clothes. The two church officials demanded that Huss repent. The Bohemian refused saying, “I do not fear this thing least I be found a liar in the eyes of the Lord and also lest I sin against my conscience and God’s truth.” After Huss’ hair was cut and a dunce cap was placed over his head, Huss walked to the stake. As the executioners pilled wood around, Huss sang the psalms. When the flames reached Huss’s body, he said, “Christ the Son of the living God have mercy upon me. As the flames reached his head Huss and claimed his life, Huss declared, “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”

Though long dead, Huss continues to live on. Luther noted that the man the Catholic church had hoped to “obliterate forever” has continued to shine forth “which such glory that his cause and his teaching have to be praised before the whole world.” This generation should continue to glory in the testimony of Huss for the faith Huss preached, defended, and ultimately died for is the apostolic faith delivered once for all. Because men and women like Huss and Luther risked their lives for the gospel, we have access to the apostolic faith today. We are some of the “many children of the Lord” whom Huss hoped to reach through his death. Indeed, we are all Hussites.

To God be The Glory!

A Brief History of Martin Luther: The Monk Who Changed the World

Martin-Luther-ReformatinoOn October 31, 1517, Martin Luther set off an earth quake that would reorder Christendom with a few taps of a hammer and with a postage stamp. Luther did not believe that his 95 thesis which first appeared on the door of the Wittenberg Chapel and that were mailed to Cardinal Albrecht of Mainz were controversial. Rather he saw his document as reforming abuses of Catholic doctrine. A few months earlier while delivering his Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, Luther had said,

We do not become righteous by doing righteous deeds but, having been made righteous, we do righteous deeds. This in opposition to the philosophers.

Luther had knowingly criticized core church doctrines as evidence by his phrase “in opposition to the philosophers”, but he still believed he was in full “agreement with the Catholic church and the teachers of the church.” He saw himself as recovering the historic Catholic Faith. No one in the Catholic church which held to salvation by grace and works blinked. Quite naturally, Luther believed he had to freedom keep criticizing the abuses within the Catholic Church.

In 1517, Luther indirectly encountered a larger-than-life abuser of Catholic doctrine in the person of Johann Tetzel who was a Dominican Friar entrusted with the sale of indulgences. The indulgence was a little piece of paper that absolved Christians from their venial sins.

The Christian would confess their sins to the priest. While God’s grace covered the sin’s guilt, the sin’s punishment became the domain of the priest upon confession. The priest was then responsible for forgiving the punishment of the Christian’s sin. To show that he or she was worthy of the priest’s forgiveness, the believer would do good works, such as saying prayers, taking pilgrimages, and kissing of artifacts. And if a man or woman could not pay for all their sins in this life, they would be sent to purgatory, an eternal place above hell and below heaven where  sinners still stained by sin paid off their remaining sin debt in preparation of heaven. But if the Christian bought the indulgence the penalty of their sin was covered by the Popes excess grace. God had given the Pope more grace than the Pope needed. Thus, the Pope happily shared it with poor, common sinners for a price. As Tetzel said, “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.”  Half the proceeds went to Rome to build St. Peter’s Cathedral and half went to the Bishop of Mainz.

Though Luther never directly encountered Tetzel because the indulgences peddler was prohibited from entering Duke Ferdinand’s territory, Luther’s congregation were able to visit Tetzel’s salvation market and return with troubling stories. He reported the following to Cardinal Albrecht,

Evidently the poor souls believe that when they have bought indulgence letters they are then assured of their salvation. They are likewise convinced that souls escape purgatory as soon as they have placed a contribution into the chest.

Luther could not help but respond. And so, he wrote the 95 Theses. The five theses below capture thrust of his concerns and beliefs:

  1. Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters.

  2. Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew of the exact actions of the indulgence preachers, he would rather that the basilica of St. Peter were burned to ashes than built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep.

  3. The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.

  4. Christians should be exhorted to be diligent in following Christ, their head, through penalties, death, and hell.

  5. And thus be confident of entering into heaven through many tribulations rather than through the false security of peace [Acts 14:22].

Though Luther began the debate of indulgences within the walls of the university and the church, the subject of salvation had profoundly affected Martin Luther.

martin-luther-232081_1920On July 17, 1505, Luther entered the Augustinian Monastery in Erfurt much to his father’s dismay. Luther had been destined for a career in Law. But on July 2, 1505, he had been caught in a severe thunderstorm. As thundered boomed over his head and as lightening flashed about him, Luther promised St. Anne that he would take monastic vows and devote his life to the church if he survived. Luther made it out alive. And so, he began serving the Catholic Church, happily embracing her doctrine of salvation by grace adn works. Luther noted in 1545 that

I was once a monk and a most enthusiastic papist when I began that cause.

Luther sought salvation according to the church. The Catholic church taught that men and women had to be saved by grace. But God only awarded grace to those who demonstrated a propensity for holy living, in the same way some would demonstrate a propensity for baseball, or metal working, or organization.

Luther sought to earn God’s grace which would then justify him and cover his sin debt. But as Luther become a priest and then a doctor of theology, he found himself constantly failing God. Yes, he worked hard. He would confess sins for hours, study for days, and fast for weeks. Yet, he was never able to be holy enough for God. Luther commented,

Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteousness of God who punishes sinners…I was angry with God.

Luther knew he was not holy. He knew God was infinitely holy. And he knew that this holy God called Luther to be Holy. Luther felt like the 4’ kid on the basketball court who is commanded to dunk on the 10’ rim. God was asking him to do the impossible.

Then by God’s grace, Luther read Romans 1:17:

For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.

By God’s grace Luther realized salvation was not earned it was given.  Luther recounted the moment as a follows:

There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which the merciful God justifies us by faith.

As Luther later summarized in his Heidelberg Disputation ,

The Law says, “do this,” and it is never done. Grace says, “believe in this’” and everything is done already.

Thus, Luther wrote the 95 Theses convinced that salvation comes through grace alone by faith alone apart from the works of the Law and the deeds of the church. Luther wrote his Theses thinking his position was the position of the silent majority position over the church. He was about to be rudely awakened.

When Cardinal Albrecht read the 95 Theses and Luther’s Sermon on indulgences, the Cardinal quickly forwarded Luther’s writings onto the Pope Leo X. The upstart monk was criticizing an important source of income, was denying Papal authority, and was challenging the doctrine of salvation. Albrecht believed Luther needed to be stopped before he harmed the church.

Because the Pope wished to have Charles V elected as the next Holy Roman Emperor, he needed Duke Ferdinand’s support. Thus, Luther was examined by the papal legate Catejan at the Diet of Ausburg instead of being called to Rome. Luther was told to recant twice and refused both times, irritating Catejen.

In 1519, Luther ordered to attend the Leipzig Disputation. He  entered  into two week debate with Johann Eck and others. Towards the end of the debate, Eck labels Luther a Hussite. The Hussites were named for their founder Jon Huss who had been burned at the stake in 1415 for teaching the Popes could err.

Huss had boldly said,

Thus the Pope is not the head nor are the cardinals the entire body of the holy, Catholic, and universal Church. For Christ alone is the head of the Church and all predestined together form the body, and each alone is a member of that body, because the bride of Christ is united with him.

Unfamiliar with Huss, Luther asked and received a recess to study the works of Huss. When Luther returned to the debate, Luther boldly declared that he stood with Huss and his teachings! Luther boldly said,

The truth of the Scriptures comes first. After that is accepted one may determine whether the words of men can be accepted.

Eck had forced Luther to admit his disdain for papal authority. With a clear understanding of Luther’s theology, Pope Leo X issued a papal bull officially commanding Luther to recant on June 15, 1520. Luther responded by burning the Pope’s order.

The church was ready to arrest the troublesome monk, but Luther tossed the church a curveball asking for a secular trial. Seeking to promote political unity, the Emperor Charles V created the Diet of Worms in April 1521. When Luther appeared before the council, the council ordered Luther to recant once again. Luther asked for a day to think over his answer. When Luther returned the following day, he delivered his now famously response.

 Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen

All hopes of quieting the disgruntled German pig were dashed. Luther was condemned by the Catholic Church. And Luther condemned the Catholic Church for teaching a false gospel. The earthquake started on October 31, 1517 had now become fisher of continental proportions.

On May 26, 1521 the Charles V issued the Edict of Worms. Both the church and the state had now condemned Luther to be a a heretic . Charles V commanded his subjects to: “seize him and overpower him, you should capture him and send him to us under the tightest security.”

Understanding the gravity of Luther’s situation, the friendly Duke Ferdinand arranged for Luther to be kidnapped and taken safely to Wartburg Castle. While living in the castle, Luther would translated the Bible into German. Once the political climate died down, Luther came out of hiding and began to advocate for reformation theology, writing numerous books and catechism, and addressing societal concerns. In 1527, he married the former nun Katharina Von Bora. Together they had six children. Two of the children died in childhood. Luther spent the reminder of his life, preaching, teaching, and discipling men and women in faith. He died on Feb 18, 1546 at the age of 63. Though Luther has long been removed from the theological scene, his influence lives on today because he recovered the gospel once deliver for all! As Luther said of himself:

“I simply taught, preached, wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And then while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer… the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a prince or emperor did so much damage to it. I did nothing. The Word did it all.”