October 31st, 1517 is normally thought of as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, and it is the date on which reformed Christians remember that great movement which transformed the ecclesiastical and spiritual landscape of Europe. The story we are familiar with is that, since everyone would be coming to church on All Saints Day, November 1st, Luther used the church door at Wittenberg as a public notice board to publish his theses which challenged the practices and beliefs of the religious establishment.
My friend and former colleague at Westminster Theological Seminary, Carl Trueman, is an expert on Luther and the Reformation. In the attached article, he offers a slightly different view of the traditional story of October 31st, 1517 and points us to the heart of Luther’s theology. Luther’s teaching remains as explosive today as it was in the 16th century, and it challenges so many of the accepted practices of modern Protestant church life, as well as Roman Catholicism.
No one could have expected that the Reformation would be launched by Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses against Indulgences in October 1517. The document itself simply proposed the framework for a university debate. Luther was arguing only for a revision of the practice of indulgences, not its abolition. He was certainly not offering an agenda for widespread theological and ecclesiastical reform.
Indeed, he had already said much more controversial things in his Disputation against Scholastic Theology of September 4, 1517, in which he critiqued the whole way in which medieval theology had been done for centuries. That disputation, however, passed without a murmur. Indeed, humanly speaking, it was only the unique combination of external factors—social, economic, and political—that made the later disputation the spark that lit the Reformation fuse. Read more…