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Claims about the Reformation

LutherPosting95Theses

It is held by some that “The doctrine of Sola Scriptura originated with Martin Luther, the 16th-century German monk who broke away from the Roman Catholic Church and started the Protestant ‘Reformation.’[1]  Part of this is true.  Dr. Luther was a 16th-century German monk (of the Augustinian order).  However, the Roman Catholic Church excommunicated Luther for his teachings.

Claims about the Reformation

Peters claims that “The Protestant Reformation was not a reform in the true sense of the word, but rather that it was a revolution—an upheaval of the legitimate, established religious and civil order of the day.”[2]  The Protestant reformation did much to change the religious and civil orders of the day.  And its impact can still be readily recognized today, not only concerning Christendom in general, but also concerning the educational system, too (and various other areas of life).

In a sense, the Reformation could be said to be a revolution, yet such claims can only be rightly understood by those who were instrumental in its fruition.  Martin Luther is immediately attributed as the one who “started” the Protestant (Lutheran) Reformation, yet he was not the first clergyman of the Roman Catholic Church who sought change.  There were others before him, but like John Huss, who questioned the authority of the pope and the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, they were silenced in one way or another.[3]

Martin Luther, however, sought reform, not revolution.  His concern, as a Doctor of Theology (received from the church), was that of teaching the Bible aright.  He writes, for example, “First, I am prepared in all humility to honor the Roman Church and to prefer nothing to her, either in heaven or on earth, except God alone and His Word.  For this reason I shall gladly recant any article in which I am proved to be in error.”[4]

The challenge for Luther, however, was that the Catholic Church was not willing to hear him.  They did not want to prove him wrong according to Scripture.  They only wanted him to recant his teaching, and because he did not (and would not) recant, they excommunicated him.  The Catholic Church considered him as a wayward son, and disciplined him accordingly.

For further reflection, consider these words from Luther about his teachings and corresponding practices…

“This message (gospel) is not a novel invention of ours but the vey ancient, approved teaching of the apostles brought to light again.  Neither have we invented a new Baptism, Sacrament of the Altar, Lord’s Prayer, and Creed; nor do we desire to know or to have anything new in Christendom.  We only contend for, and hold to, the ancient: that which Christ and the apostles have left behind them and have given to us.  But this we did do.  Since we found all of this obscured by the pope with human doctrine, aye, decked out in dust and spider webs, and all sorts of vermin, and flung and trodden into mud besides, we have by God’s grace brought it out again, have cleansed it of this mess, wiped off the dust, brushed it, and brought it to the light of day.  Accordingly, it shines again in purity, and everybody may see what Gospel, Baptism, Sacrament of the Altar, keys, prayer, and everything that Christ has given us really is and how it should be used for our salvation.”[5]

Such words from Luther himself do not at all indicate the desire for a revolution.  Perhaps the desire to apply this term of revolution to Luther only demonstrates the waywardness from Scripture that the Catholic Church has maintained.  The fact that others misused and added to Luther’s teaching to bring about revolution and to revolt against Church and State (i.e. the Peasants War, Fanatics, Anabaptists, etc.) should not detract from the message of the reformer himself.  Rather, it should be cause for maintaining careful distinctions, and not to lump all together in one proverbial basket.

The fact of the matter is that Luther did not want to form a new church his own way.  He wanted the church to return to its roots, and to its center, which is Christ, and founded on God’s Word alone (i.e. Ephesians 2:20).


[1] Peters, 2.

[2] Peters, 65.

[3] John Huss, for example, was burned at the stake in 1415 by order of the church.

[4] Ewald M. Plass, What Luther Says: A Practical In-Home Anthology for the Active

Christian, (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1959), 839.

[5] Ibid., 1180-1181.

 

 

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2 Responses

  1. Also, it was Luther’s students, not Luther, who translated the 95 Theses from Latin and published them. Luther only mailed them to the Archbishop of Mainz for a theological discussion. I don’t think it was his intent to leave the Catholic Church but once the ball got rolling it was hard to stop.

    • Indeed! It was Luther who printed the theses into Latin for theological debate. It wasn’t Luther’s intent to leave the Roman Catholic church, but to reform it and her false teachings (and practices). This is essentially the reason why many a Lutheran Church has been said to “be like the Catholic church” in her use of liturgy, vestments, etc. However, especially the sermon and differences in the services should be noticed (Gospel, and thus, Christ-centered). You won’t hear of “the sacrifice of the mass,” purgatory, or prayers made to either Mary or the saints in Lutheran Services, for example.

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