Five hundred one years ago today, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the castle church doors in Wittenberg. We remember this day—the day the Reformation was sparked—with an excerpt from the book aptly titled The Reformation.
Matthew 11:12–19 or John 8:31–36
What began as a quiet protest against indulgences—made by an unknown Augustinian friar at a new university in an inconspicuous town of northern Germany—quickly, almost miraculously, transformed from gentle ripples of spiritual concern to a political and theological tsunami, affecting all of the European world and, rightly understood, all of Christendom. Until those initial events in Wittenberg, the Holy Catholic Church was fairly united under the papacy. Political and theological decisions emanated from the papal throne and the Curia. Even when political powers seemed to have the upper hand, the papal presence was felt by all. Martin Luther’s voice of protest, beginning with his expressed disapproval of papal powers in Italy, echoed through the hallways of the great political leaders of the Holy Roman Empire.
With the vestiges of the Holy Roman Empire disappearing, there was little unity among the various developing nation-states of the sixteenth century. A strong and centralized governing authority was lacking in the person of Emperor Charles V. Germany—if such a national label can be ascribed to the political situation there—consisted of several dozen independent duchies, provinces, walled-cities, free imperial cities, wealthy bishoprics, and a variety of local dioceses and archdioceses, each vying for political power and often personal gain.
Economic and social forces were changing rapidly, though somewhat invisibly to the peasants and commoners who worked the soil or toiled in the guildhalls. Yet the Germanic regions were the economic hub of Europe. Natural resources, such as copper and lumber, produced a growing number of up-and-coming peasants, as exemplified by Martin Luther’s father, Hans. Craftsmen, artisans, and local merchants organized themselves into guilds and exerted political and economic muscle under their receptive dukes and nobles. Located in the heart of the Holy Roman Empire, the German territory became a significant source of wealth, both revenue and resources, for the papacy.
Not just in Germany, where Elector Frederick the Wise provided Luther with exceptional political and personal protection, but throughout Europe as well, the Reformation was having an impact on more than religious values. Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin used military and economic pressures upon Zurich and Geneva for their more theonomous approach to reform. King Henry VIII of England is noteworthy for his usurpation of ecclesiastical power for his own regime. Even Italy, which boasted the Papal States, was an amalgam of small, “independent” kingdoms and duchies trying to defend themselves against the French, but by midcentury it, too, was dominated by Spain. The Roman Church in Scandinavia saw its power and influence dissipate in the midst of political discord.
Finally, papal abuses had come to a head during these years. Cries for reform of both monasteries and the papacy reverberated not merely in Germany but also in Spain, Switzerland, France, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, and the British Isles—England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland.
The political and theological world was rife for reform. And reform it got in the persons of Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, John Knox, and even Henry VIII of England.
Devotional reading is adapted from The Reformation, page iv © 2017 Cameron A. MacKenzie. Published by Concordia Publishing House.
Video is of “Though All Our Life Is like a Scroll” © 2017 Concordia Publishing House.