It is Wednesday, October 31, 1517. Just eleven years earlier the world saw Leonardo da Vinci paint the Mona Lisa. In the little town of Wittenberg, Germany Martin Luther is about to make history. Luther is an Augustinian Monk who teaches at the local university. As he looks over the city’s preparations for All Saints Day, Luther knows something no one else does: Justification (i.e. becoming right with God) comes by grace, through faith in Christ, not by works. The next day hundreds of people will line up to pay money to see a collection of religious relics. The Roman Catholic Church had taught the people that viewing the relics earned them an official indulgence that would pardon their sins. During the Medieval Period, the Roman Catholic church no longer based their teachings upon the Bible alone.
Not knowing the revolution he is about to start, Luther nails a rolled-up piece of paper on the door of All Saint’s Church. Intending to start a debate among scholars about the practice of selling indulgences, Luther has no idea that one day his actions will cause many to change the name of “All Hallows Eve” to Reformation Day. On this piece of paper, Luther has written ninety-five theses that critique the practices of the Roman Catholic Church. If you are Protestant, this is your story.
Luther is not alone in starting the Protestant Reformation. Others came before him speaking with boldness against the heretical practices of the Catholic Church. In the late 14th Century, there was Oxford scholar John Wycliffe who courageously spoke out against the destruction of the gospel by the Catholic Church. In 1415 John Hus was burned at the stake for insisting that people be allowed to read the Bible in their native language. Before being burned at the stake Hus said, “My Lord Jesus Christ was bound with a harder chain than this one for my sake, so why should I be ashamed of this rusty chain?” Nevertheless, October 31, 1517, is still the day we celebrate as the day the gospel was rescued and the truth of Christ’s free grace was liberated.
The Protestant Tradition
To be Protestant is to inherit Reformational truth. In the year 2020, over 500 years after Luther started the Protestant Reformation, the American church sees denominations piled on top of denominations, not to mention church associations, church networks, and para-church groups. The reason there are so many bizarre forms of Christianity is because of discontinuity of what it means to be Christian historically.
To speak of recovering the past in our present-day is a dangerous business. Be prepared to receive aspersions: Antiquated, irrelevant, unpractical, backward-thinking. Such aspersions in the church are often the conflation of tradition and traditionalism. Jaroslav Pelikan nuanced the difference, “Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition is the living faith of the dead . . . And it is traditionalism that has given tradition such a bad name.”
The Ultimate Cause of the Reformation
“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 will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.” Luther’s words before the Diet of Worms in 1521 clarify the formal cause of the Reformation, namely, to restore biblical authority (sola Scriptura). The Bible has sole authority in the life, faith, and practice of Christians. Not the Pope, but God, through his Word. Not Scripture plus tradition, but God, through his divinely inspired Word alone. So, what is the Reformation? In part, it is an attempt to restore the authority of God’s Word. Salvation comes by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, as revealed in Scripture alone, unto the glory of God alone. This is the tradition we have inherited. This is the tradition the church needs to recover.
The Vindication of Tradition: The 1983 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities by Jaroslav Pelikan
Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther by Roland H. Bainton
Jason Cherry is a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville, Alabama. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.