August 13, 2014

Anniversary Week: 1517

Stephen Nichols
Anniversary Week: 1517


As we come to the Reformation on our survey of the top-five moments in church history, our third entry might be somewhat obvious. It's 1517. You knew this date was coming, didn't you? It's 1517. All of us who call ourselves Protestant can trace our roots back to this date.

It was October 31, 1517, to be exact. In order to consider this date, we need to travel to Germany, and we need to consider an Augustinian monk.

This monk has already had extensive training. He was originally going to be a lawyer, and he made his way through academic circles. He received law degrees. Then he abandoned law as a career, and he entered the monastery. He made his way through the universities again, adding degrees in theology and biblical studies. And, in the midst of all of this studying, God was continually bringing to our monk's mind some ideas—ideas that had been obscured by the church; ideas that were not preached from the pulpits; ideas that, sadly, had fallen by the wayside. These ideas were very simply what we now consider the solas of the Reformation.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves a bit. Our monk, Martin Luther, wasn't quite there in 1517. He recognized that something was wrong—drastically wrong—with the church. And so he began to write out theses for a disputation. A thesis—the plural form being theses—is simply a statement put forward for discussion. He was looking for a debate. He wanted a good, solid debate with the best minds of the church, so that as the church thought about its task and mission, it could be biblically faithful.

So, Luther formulated ninety-five theses for debate, and on October 31, 1517, he nailed them to the church door in Wittenberg. He had no idea what was going to come of this.

A copy of these ninety-five theses made their way to Pope Leo X. When Leo received them, he said, "All the ramblings of a drunkard German. He will think differently when he sobers up." Needless to say, the pope highly underestimated this monk. He also highly underestimated the power of the ideas in these ninety-five theses.

What came of the theses was not simply a debate; nor did Pope Leo's statement prove true—that this German monk simply needed to "sober up." What came of the theses was the Reformation.

There are many events that we could consider for this top five series of moments in church history. To be sure, we could probably pull all of our top-five favorite moments of church history from the sixteenth century. But this moment on October 31, 1517 is what got the ball rolling. This was the moment it all started.

What we need to remember about Luther is that his story didn't end with the posting of the ninety-five theses. A few years later, in 1521, he was still locked in debate with the Roman Catholic Church. He was continuing to present what would eventually be the ideas that form the precious foundation of the Reformation. These are the solas we hold dear today: sola Scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus, and soli Deo gloria.

But Luther not only lives through the 1520s. He lives even into the 1530s. And then not only does he live into the 1530s, but right on into the 1540s. Luther got old. And a lot of his early years caught up with him. In his old age, he suffered greatly. We see that this theologian was not just a bold and brave monk. He wasn't just the initial spark for this Protestant church—the church of which we're a part. Rather, we also see him as an aged man. And when we see him as an aged man, we see him resting in the gospel. His great dying words were simply, "We are beggars, this is true." But we are beggars who have found food, and by God's grace, Luther helped show us the way.