July 2017

July 2017

Origins of the Reformation

As our celebration of the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation draws nigh, it is worth our while to reflect on where the Reformation came from. On October 31, 2017, we will remember that precisely five hundred years before, Dr. Martin Luther, Doctor of Sacred Scripture at the University of Wittenberg, nailed (“pinned,” “tacked,” or “posted” might be a better word) the Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church. In this and coming months, we will consider who this “Dr. Luther” was and where he came from; what led him to write and pose his theses; why he chose that particular date and that particular place for their posting; and how this event catapulted him to the forefront of the Reformation.

Martin Luther was born November 10, 1483 (nine years before Columbus discovered the New World!), the son of a miner, Hans Luther, in Eisleben, Saxony, a northern territory in Germany. He grew up in the nearby town of Mansfeld and received the standard education for his day, becoming fluent in Latin and well trained in music, both performance and composition. His father paid for him to attend law school, in the hopes that he could serve the family business in legal disputes. On a trip from school, though, Luther was caught in a terrible lightning storm. Fearing for his life, and uncertain of his eternal destiny should he perish, Luther vowed to become a monk should he survive. Survive he did and, much to the chagrin of his father, he left law school and entered the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt.

To be a monk meant to take the threefold vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience: poverty, meaning that Luther sold all he had and led a communal life with his fellow monks; chastity, meaning that Luther promised never to marry and therefore never to engage in marital relations with anyone; and obedience, meaning that Luther submitted himself to the authority of his superior, in this case Fr. Johann von Staupitz—a godly man who led Luther along the way to his discovery of the Gospel. Luther was faced with a crisis, however. He had understood monks to be the holiest of the holy, men who actually lived the way Jesus commanded. Their merits were supposed to be sufficient to save both themselves and the common people who relied upon them. But what Luther found was that when he became a monk, he did not become holy. His manifold disciplines did nothing to ease his conscience. He could not hope to save himself, much less the people around him. Luther therefore conceived a dread of damnation and a hatred of God, who had created him to be a sinner and threatened divine punishments that Luther could not escape.

Thankfully, Luther’s superior came to the rescue. He urged Luther to despair of himself and trust in Christ alone. Furthermore, he found tasks to keep Luther busy, and hopefully distracted from his spiritual struggles. He sent Luther to Rome on official business, and he arranged for Luther to be educated in the Scriptures, culminating in Luther’s reception of the degree of Doctor of Sacred Scripture. Luther lectured on the Scriptures at the University of Wittenberg, an up-and-coming institution that embraced a new way of learning, focusing on original languages and primary texts. It was largely through this study that Luther gained the knowledge that compelled and empowered him to launch the Reformation.

Luther’s concerns were not merely academic, however. It was chiefly through his role as a pastor that he was confronted with the issues that led to the posting of the ninety-five theses. It is to this that we will turn next month.


Pastor Neuendorf