When most people think of October 31, their vision turns orange and black and thoughts of pumpkins and candy corn dance through their minds. However, what lots of folks don’t know is that it also happens to be the anniversary of one of the most revolutionary events ever to occur in Church history. Four hundred and ninety-six years ago today, one man nailed a list of ninety-five theological statements on a door, and the world has never been the same.
Martin Luther, the fellow who kicked open this particular theological hornets’ nest, was born in 1483 in Eisleben, a mid-sized town in what today is central Germany. Hans, his father, originally intended for him to become a lawyer — but after a near-death experience in 1505, Martin drastically changed trajectory and took monastic vows. (Not surprisingly, his father was furious.) Over the course of the next decade and a half, Luther threw himself headfirst into trying to be the best monk he could be — but he could never quite shake the feeling that what he was doing wasn’t enough to purge the sin that constantly plagued him. The more stringent he made his personal discipline, the more feelings of despair at his own wretchedness threatened to undo him.
During this time he was ordained as a priest and began teaching theology at the University of Wittenberg and preaching at the City Church. As he studied and lectured on Psalms, Hebrews, Romans, and Galatians, Luther came to a startling conclusion: righteousness doesn’t come from what we humans do. He read Romans 1:17, “The righteous shall live by faith,” in a new light — rather than trying to earn our way to God by jumping through the right hoops, we are given the wonderful gift of God’s righteousness when we put our trust in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. For Martin Luther, this realization was nothing short of revolutionary: in the blink of an eye, God went from exacting tyrant to loving father.
Luther yearned to share the wonderful discovery he had made, but there was only one problem: it flew in the face of the commonly accepted doctrine of the time. Instead of Luther’s “righteousness through faith,” the Catholic Church held to the notion of purgatory, a “proving ground” where individuals went after they died in order to work through/off the sins they had committed during their lifetime. What was particularly dismaying to Luther, however, was the fact that certain authority figures within the Catholic hierarchy were abusing that doctrine in order to swindle the poor. Priests like Johann Tetzel traveled across the European countryside, guilting the already penniless peasants into spending outrageous sums of money on indulgences (in short, papal “Get out of Purgatory Free” cards) for themselves and their dead family members. So, for Luther, not only were these church leaders spouting incorrect doctrine, but they were doing so at the expense of the “least of these.”
Luther had enough — and so on October 31, 1517 he nailed 95 Theses (statements of belief) to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, proclaiming that he’d be willing to discuss these ideas with anybody who’d be interested in doing so. And were the people interested! Luther gained such a following that he quickly found himself between the cross-hairs of the Catholic Church. Even though he was repeatedly threatened and persecuted, Luther stood by his views — and was eventually excommunicated (kicked out of the church, and basically theologically condemned) by Pope Leo X in 1521. But that wasn’t his only problem; after his trial at the Diet of Worms, Luther had a price put on his head. He was forced to hide out at Wartburg Castle for almost a year before it was safe for him to show his face in public again. (His time wasn’t wasted, though; during that time he translated the New Testament into German — the language of the common people around him — for the first time.)
After Luther came out of hiding, he returned to his teaching post at the University of Wittenberg, where he was a beloved professor. In addition to his pastoral and professorial duties, he and his wife Katharina von Bora (an ex-nun) ran a boarding house and brewery out of their home, which ironically was a converted monastery. He wrote prolifically, and inspired countless students and fellow faculty members to grow in their faith and love of the God who gave them the free gift of righteousness.
So, if you’re not one who particularly cares to celebrate that other holiday, I highly recommend this as an alternate. (To be honest, I like this one even better.) Happy Reformation Day!
(All the pictures in this post are mine; I took them during my trip to Wittenberg in the summer of 2011.)