Voices of the Reformation
Leslie: They say it’s darkest just before the dawn. 500 years ago, in 1517, medieval Europe was shrouded in darkness in every way – financially, technologically, medically, politically, socially and especially spiritually. Instead of integrity and love, corruption and greed ruled.
Jeff: For example, Pope Leo the Tenth’s advisors had an idea to help raise money to finish the partially built St. Peter’s Basilica. An indulgence would be issued to anyone who contributed money to building the Basilica.
Richard: An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church…”
Shirl, Jeanie, John: Huh?
Jeff: In plain language, an indulgence is a note from the Church promising reduced time in purgatory.
Leslie: It’s not such a terrible idea, but by 1517, the idea of indulgences had been corrupted. Basically by then indulgences were a marketing scheme whose main purpose was to fleece the poor and raise money for the rich.
John: One of the most aggressive salesmen in the indulgence market was Johann Tetzel. He even made an advertising jingle to sell indulgences,
“As soon as the gold in the coffer rings
The rescued soul to heaven springs.”
Jeannie: Many were outraged by the sale of indulgences. On October 31, 1517 – 500 years ago – a priest named Dr. Martin Luther posted his objections to this practice on the church door. These 95 objections to the sale of indulgences would become known as the 95 theses.
Shirl: Never intending that his theses be made public, Luther was shocked to discover that the words had been translated from his Latin original, and were printed and distributed in German, the language of the people. Luther realized that the people were tired of all kinds of corruption by church officials, not just indulgences. He began writing and speaking against these corruptions.
Jeannie: When asked to defend his words – at a trial that he was certain would end in his death – Luther declared that he would not take them back. He said firmly, “Unless I am convicted of my error by Scripture and by plain reason, I cannot recant. My conscience is subject to the word of God, and to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other! God help me! Amen!”
John: Since Martin Luther posted his 95 theses 500 years ago on October 31, we celebrate this week as the anniversary of the reformation. But really we could say that the reformation began a couple of hundred of years earlier, with an English philosopher named John Wycliffe who was the first person to advocate that the Bible be printed in a language that anyone could understand.
Leslie: He believed that anyone could read the Bible, and that everyone should. He said, “The New Testament is full of authority and open to the understanding of simple men as to the points of salvation…I believe that in the end, truth will conquer.”
Jeff: Or we could say it started with the Czech priest Jan Hus, who lived a century before Luther. Hus died at the stake defending his faith against corruption and greed, crying “It is better to die well then to live badly.”
Richard: We can’t say for certain when it started, but we do know that once Luther nailed those theses to the door exactly 500 years ago, the ball that had already been rolling was really set in motion. John Calvin was one of the reformers who picked up the ball. He was passionate in his love of God. “There is not one blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice,” he said.
Jeff: He taught the doctrine of predestination. In other words, he believed that God “delivers and preserves” from perdition “all whom he, in his eternal and unchangeable council, of mere goodness hath elected in Christ Jesus our Lord, without respect to their works”
Shirl, Jeanie, John: Huh?
Leslie: That means that those whom God has chosen are already saved. It doesn’t matter what they do to deserve it.
John: What about the people God hasn’t chosen?
Jeanie: Calvin was pretty hard on those who he thought God hadn’t chosen. His zeal sometimes led to the oppression and even killing of others. It’s helpful to remember that the reformation gave birth to some of the most distressing parts of our faith, as well as some of the most healing and transformative.
Shirl: All the reformers, not just Calvin, were very zealous in their beliefs. They were faithful to God, and they also had to be very self-assured. As Huldrich Zwingli said, “Our confidence in Christ does not make us lazy, negligent, or careless, but on the contrary it awakens us, urges us on, and makes us active in living righteous lives and doing good. There is no self-confidence to compare with this.”
Jeanie: Weren’t there any women reformers?
John: Sure there were. Women didn’t usually get an education in the fourteen and fifteen hundreds, so they didn’t leave behind as much writing as men. But we know that women were just as outspoken as men in working against corruption in the church, and just as energetic in carrying the gospel to all they could.
Leslie: Katherine Zell, one of these tireless women, wrote to a man who accused her of disturbing the peace, “A disturber of the peace, am I? Yes, indeed, of my own peace. Do you call it disturbing the peace that instead of spending my time in frivolous amusements I have visited the plague infested and carried out the dead? I have visited those in prison and under sentence of death…I have never mounted a pulpit, but I have done more than any minister in visiting those in misery. Is this disturbing the peace of the church?”
Shirl: The reformers never intended to start a new religion. Where they saw corruption and abuse of power, they tried their hardest to overcome it. They didn’t always behave perfectly, but their faith, their energy and their commitment to Christ and the church lit a fire that still burns today. And so we carry with us, 500 years later, the words they lived by, the five solas of the reformation.
Jeanie: Sola Gratia. By grace alone.
John: Sola Fida. Through faith alone.
Leslie: Sola Christo. In Christ alone.
Jeff: Sola Scriptura. On the scriptures alone.
Richard: Soli Deo Gloria. To God alone be the glory.
Adapted by Jennifer Brownell from a script by Mary Jo LeBlanc