Luther, the Reformation and Rome: Doctrine, Differences and Divides

Greg Strand – October 31, 2014 Leave a comment

Today we celebrate Luther’s historic nailing of the 95 Theses on the main door of the Schlosskirche (Castle Church) in Wittenberg, Germany, October 31, 1517.

Luther was primarily concerned with indulgences and their abuses in the church. However, all of his responses were grounded in his sense of God and framed by the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In thesis one Luther begins, “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent’, He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”

In thesis sixty-two Luther writes, “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and the grace of God.”

Timothy George recounts some of the history in his post, Reformation Day. Though there might be some question about the specifics of the actual time of day the Theses were posted on the 31st, there is no question regarding the tsunami-like waves of reformation created in its wake. George notes,

Copies of Luther’s theses were soon distributed by humanist scholars all over Europe. Within just a few weeks, an obscure Augustinian monk in a backwater university town had become a household name and was the subject of chatter from Lisbon to Lithuania.

From the beginning, Luther did not desire to divide. He wrote as a member of the church, desiring to remain a member in that church. But he also desired reform, and he thought his concerns would gain a hearing with the appropriate people in authority. As we know from history, it did not. In fact, it turned those in authority against him. George writes,

It was not Luther’s intention to divide the Church, much less to start a brand new church. To the end of his life, he considered himself to be a faithful and obedient servant of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Though Luther renounced his monastic vows and married a former nun, Katarina von Bora, he never forgot that he had received a doctorate in Holy Scripture. His vocation was to teach the written Word of God and to point men and women to the Lord of Scripture, Jesus Christ.

In good George fashion, he reminds us that although Luther was a reluctant leader of a movement that eventually bore his name, he also belongs to Protestants more broadly. This, states George, is also true for Thomas Aquinas, who is a theologian and churchman for all faithful believers, not just Dominicans and Roman Catholics.

As rightly noted by even a Roman Catholic Bishop, the gravitas of Luther was rooted in “just how radically Luther puts God at the center.” With God at the center, it also meant Jesus Christ was preeminent and the gospel was paramount. Luther was convinced by Scripture that every person at every moment lived life coram deo, before the face of God. This affected everything about everyone.

But even though Luther and his teaching is for the larger body of Christ, one does not do justice to the Scriptures, to Luther, to the various denominations or to broader Christian religions (RCC, Protestantism, Orthodoxy) by overlooking the differences. George writes,

On these [justification] and many other issues related to authority and ecclesiology, the way forward is not to smudge over deep differences that remain between the two traditions but rather to acknowledge them openly and to continue to struggle over them together in prayer and in fresh engagement with the Scriptures. The way forward is an ecumenism of conviction, not an ecumenism of accommodation.

Finally, George concludes with a word about Luther’s theology and Luther the man.

The triumph of grace in the theology of Luther was, and still is, in the service of the whole Body of Christ. Luther was certainly not without his warts, and we do no justice either to history or to his legacy by glossing over his faults and failures. (Remember: simul iustus et peccator!)

To the notion of differences that remain and must not be overlooked, Kevin DeYoung asks the question, “Is the Reformation Over?.” (This is the title of a book written by Mark Noll a few years ago. I confess, Noll is much more optimistic than I am about the degree to which rapprochement has taken place.) Though one can acknowledge that ground has been gained since the divide in the 16th century, and that in our present-day moral demise we share many moral virtues as co-belligerents in the culture clash – e.g. sanctity of life, of marriage, of truth – differences that divide still remain.

DeYoung includes a number of differences. I simply include the list of major doctrinal divides, not including the explanations. These would be some of the major issues to study if you desire to understand these important differences that still divide..

The Church
Scripture
Lord’s Supper
Baptism
Mary
Purgatory
Merit
Justification

For any are  interested in studying this further, here is a list compiled by CT of the “Top 10 Books on the Protestant Reformation,” though one will have to spend more time reading than this day alone to get through a few on this list. Here are the titles, excluding the explanation and the person making the recommendation.

The Reformation, Diarmaid MacCulloch (Penguin)

Reformers in the Wings, David Steinmetz (Oxford)

The Unquenchable Flame, Michael Reeves (B&H)

Getting the Reformation Wrong, James R. Payton, Jr. (InterVarsity Press)

Here I Stand, Roland Bainton (Abingdon)

John Calvin: A Biography, T. H. L. Parker (Westminster John Knox)

The Division of Christendom: Christianity in the Sixteenth Century, Hans J. Hillerbrand (Westminster John Knox)

Also recommended: 

Theology of the Reformers, Timothy George (B&H)

The European Reformations, Carter Lindberg (Wiley-Blackwell)

Reformation Christianity, Peter Matheson (Fortress Press)

I am grateful to God to be a person in the stream of the theology of the Reformation and in a denomination that traces its roots in the gospel through the Reformation.

Greg Strand

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Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

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