In the world of Protestant Christianity, today is known as Reformation Day. On this day exactly 500 years ago, a monk named Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church.
This was the usual means to communicate that you had some things you wished to discuss or debate. Luther wrote them in Latin, which indicated that he intended to open an academic debate. He was not trying to cause division, and he certainly was not trying to split off from the Church of Rome.
He disagreed with the Roman Catholic practice of selling indulgences and wanted to make that known in order for it to be discussed.
Who cares, right? That was 500 years ago, so what does it matter? It matters because of the impact it has on us to this very day.
Another of Luther’s objections was that the Bible wasn’t translated into the common language for the common man to read. This was not a new complaint against the Church, who opposed John Wycliffe nearly two centuries earlier for the same reason (as well as criticisms Wycliffe, like Luther, brought against the Church).
Why is it that Luther’s objections took hold and spread while Wycliffe’s did not? One answer is the printing press, which was invented after Wycliffe had died. Luther’s 95 Theses were printed and distributed, causing more and more people to be exposed to his ideas.
Luther also translated the Bible into German, so every literate person could read it for themselves.
It’s true that the “Luther Bible” wasn’t the first translation of the Bible into the common language, nor was it even the first Bible to be printed on the printing press.
I believe it was the combination of Luther’s ideas, spread by the printing press, followed by the Bible being put into the hands of average people which caused this to be the period of change and not times prior. Ideas have consequences, and the Bible has some ideas which are downright dangerous to tyrants.
Following the Reformation a number of important events took place. In 1563, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs was published, the purpose of which was to expose abuses of the Roman Catholic church (which you can interpret to mean the government) against Protestants.
Around the same time, the Geneva Bible was also published, containing annotations sometimes critical of government. The Geneva Bible was popular among the Puritans and was brought over by them on the Mayflower.
The Bible was indispensable to the work the Puritans were doing in the New World, but most still could not read the Bible due to rampant worldwide illiteracy. Therefore, one of the first public education bills passed in the Massachusetts colony was the Old Deluder Act of 1647 (the old Deluder being Satan and the purpose of the bill was to ensure children were educated so they could read the Bible).
There are many other profoundly important constitutionally-protected rights we enjoy today which I could list, such as the right of conscience and freedom of religion, both being outcroppings of the Reformation. But I think it be would simpler to note that a strong case could be made that America itself is a fruit of the Reformation.
When I think about these people and events and places, I can do nothing but marvel at “the invisible hand,” as George Washington put it.
I think about the evolution of history and how Wycliffe made an attempt, which might have had better success had the printing press existed. Even the Puritans—and later, some of the colonies—didn’t get religious liberty entirely correct, since there was institutionalized religious discrimination that took place.
And yet, as time went on, more and more things were put right. The abominable practice of slavery, for example.
As I’ve reflected on all of this, I’m reminded of a couple of things. The first is that God takes the long view when it comes to history. We do not. When you look at what God has done throughout time, it seems as if He’s content to work incrementally. Or, perhaps, it’s because he’s chosen to work through humans, who cause Him no end of problems, so maybe that’s the cause of the plodding pace.
That leads me to my second thought: how amazing it is that He uses such sinners. Most of the Bible was written by murderers (Moses, David, and Paul). And it’s well known by now that Martin Luther said some inexcusable things about Jews later in life. While we can rightly condemn those words, we can simultaneously thank God for using even such a sinner as he.
As we’re in the process here in America of scrubbing our history clean of anyone who does not meet 21st century standards, we might do well to take the smallest step back from our sanctimonious high horse and remember that our posterity will find things about us to be appalled by as well.
John Newton, writer of “Amazing Grace” and captain of a slave ship before Jesus got ahold of him, said it well: “I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior.”
Soli Deo Gloria.