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Why should we care about Martin Luther?

500 years ago this month, the theology professor set out to reform the church, eventually using the Bible as his guide.

1. When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, says “Repent” he means that the entire life of believers should be a repentance. 

2. This word cannot be understood as sacramental penance, that is, as the confession and satisfaction that are performed under the ministry of priests.”

Frank Bellizzi | Views

Those are the first two of the 95 Theses penned by Martin Luther 500 years ago this month.

Historians question the lore about Luther, a priest and professor, nailing a document to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, on October 31, 1517. He never recorded such a story.

But whatever the truth about the tale, there is no doubt that, with his 95 statements — composed in Latin and intended as propositions for debate among scholars — Martin Luther accidentally sparked a public controversy that eventually engulfed all of Europe and forever changed the world.

Thanks to the printing press and the advent of movable type, by December 1517, translations of the 95 Theses had been read by thousands.

What did Luther want to debate? His primary target was the crass peddling of indulgences as a fundraising scheme. As historian James M. Kittelson explains, indulgences were “documents prepared by the church and bought by individuals either for themselves or on behalf of the dead.” In exchange for money, “the living purchaser or the deceased would be released from purgatory for a certain number of years.”

Pope Leo X dreamed of rebuilding St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome but needed money for the project. So, he commissioned preachers to travel through various parts of Europe selling indulgences. When the Dominican friar Johann Tetzel began hawking these passes out of purgatory just across the border from Luther’s home in Saxony, Luther felt compelled to speak and write against the practice.

Anyone who reads the “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” the actual title of the 95 Theses, soon realizes that Luther did not completely reject indulgences. For example, in Thesis 73 he stated that the Pope had every right to denounce “those who by any means whatsoever contrive harm to the sale of indulgences.”

It is tempting for believers who pursue a purely biblical Christianity to imagine that they owe no debt to Martin Luther … If someone today insists on the centrality of Scripture, it is in part because he lives with the heritage of Luther and others like him.

However, in the years that followed, Luther did come to reject the right by which anyone, including the Pope, might overturn the clear teaching of Scripture. By then, Luther was done with simply questioning excessive practices. He was going to the heart of the matter by raising the issue of authority.

Luther’s commitment to the Bible alone as the authority for Christian faith and practice led him to reject the Catholic church’s teaching about salvation. It also led to his being excommunicated. The events that ensued make up some of the earliest chapters in the history of the Protestant Reformation.

It is tempting for believers who pursue a purely biblical Christianity to imagine that they owe no debt to Martin Luther and have no connection to the Reformation. But denying a dependence upon the past is a bit like a modern astronomer claiming that because he studies the stars and the planets he has no connection to Nicolaus Copernicus and his revolution.

If someone today insists on the centrality of Scripture, it is in part because he lives with the heritage of Luther and others like him.

Martin Luther (1483-1546) called for church reformation. Alexander Campbell (1788-1866) called churches to restoration.

For his part, Alexander Campbell, that great religious reformer of the 19th century, celebrated Luther’s goals and achievements. “The Protestant Reformation,” wrote Campbell, “is proved to have been one of the most splendid eras in the history of the world and must long be regarded …  as one of the most gracious interpositions in behalf of the whole human race.”

Above all, Campbell pointed to the Protestant assertion that “the authority of the Holy Scripture is the highest,” and that the Bible “is the only infallible and all-sufficient rule.”

Campbell lamented that the heirs of the 16th century Reformation stopped short of identifying and practicing what he called “the ancient order of things,” the particulars of primitive Christianity. He also regretted that the various branches of Protestantism became exclusive little “popedoms.”

Still, Campbell always appreciated Luther’s eventual insistence on the authority of the Scriptures.

In his typical, over-the-top style, Luther once wrote:

I’d like all of my books to be destroyed so that only the sacred writings in the Bible would be diligently read.

Frank Bellizzi, a longtime minister, is a Ph.D. candidate in American History at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. He and his wife, Michele, worship with the Church of Christ at The Colonies in Amarillo, Texas.

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