Christians around the world are preparing to mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
“It is particularly significant that we are within a few days of the anniversary of the beginning of what’s known as the Protestant Reformation,” said William B. Lawrence, Professor of American Church History at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. “The Protestant Reformation is understood to have begun on Oct. 31, 1517, when Martin Luther, who was a Roman Catholic priest, Bible scholar and theologian, initiated through a series of steps, a call for churchwide debate on fundamental issues on what he considered to be theologically corrupt church practices.”
Due to a split in Christendom in 1054, the Roman Catholic Church was the dominant, Christian presence throughout Europe and much of the Mediterranean world, with the Greek Orthodox Church holding sway in Asia Minor, the Middle East, and Northern Africa.
“Luther called for this debate, at the highest levels of the Church, by presenting what is commonly called his 95 theses, addressing a range of Church practices and theological doctrines that included sacraments, beliefs in what is involved in forgiveness of sin, and other matters of faith,” Lawrence said. “This unleashed a series of events that not only became theological debates within the church, but also enormously complex political developments in Europe, spilling over onto other continents where there were additional movements by church leaders and political forces.”
Lawrence listed one of the major outcomes of the Reformation as being the way that scripture should be viewed.
“Luther believed that scripture did not need the Church’s control over how it should be studied,” Lawrence said. “He believed scripture interpreted itself. So, if you study the Bible fully, you will understand what it teaches.”
Adding challenge to Catholic doctrine and practice, Lawrence identified another agent of change close to Luther’s time.
“An additional hero or leading figure in the Protestant Reformation was John Calvin. His influence occurred a decade or two after Luther’s initiating steps,” Lawrence said. “Calvin taught that believers read scripture and understand it through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”
Lawrence cited “justification by faith alone” as another major challenge that Luther initiated, with historians agreeing that it is a mainstay of the Protestant movement.
“Luther argued that too many practices within the church were based on the notion that you had to go to a certain system of sacramental obedience in order to have a saving relationship with God” Lawrence said. “Luther said, ‘no.’ The only way we can have a relationship with God is through God’s grace, and we receive God’s grace freely by faith.”
Lawrence spoke of various outcomes that have emerged over 500 years of reform, with denominations being one that is clearly present.
“The forms of global Christianity that we take for granted, which include various denominations such as Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, and several others, all developed from the initial Protestant Reformation,” Lawrence said.
He spoke also of divisions as being another result of Luther’s initial call for debate.
“Like most divisions, there is a certain institutional harm that arises when people feel that they cannot come to some theological agreement about matters, so they just divide,” Lawrence said. “Certainly through the 500 years since October 31, 1517, we’ve had many, many divisions within the life of the Christian Church.”
Lawrence states that dialogue between Catholics and Protestants has occurred, especially in more recent years, offering hope for understanding and some agreement.
“The institutions are still separated, but there has been a lot more convergence among many, many Christian groups,” Lawrence said.
He also spoke of the lasting nature of the Reformation and its reach into matters of church and society. He asserts that it has led to major changes in Christian faith and much more.
“The Protestant Reformation is a continuing movement that still thrives 500 years later. It has led to interactions in new ways between political and religious forces, and has impacted social and cultural institutions beyond just the religious ones. It has touched virtually every aspect of human life.”
Grace Bible Church in Sherman is well aware of the impact of the Protestant Reformation, and its members celebrate it at this time every year. The church will gather from 4-7 p.m. Saturday to acknowledge the changes ushered in by Martin Luther, as they focus especially on a key portion of Luther’s work.
“With the Latin word ‘sola’ meaning alone, five essential tenents of Luther’s teachings have emerged, and have come to be known as the ‘five solas,” said the Rev. George Cline, Pastor of Grace Bible Church in Sherman.
Stressing the importance of the “five solas” as fundamental components of the Protestant Reformation, Cline elaborated on each.
“Scripture alone (sola scriptura): The Bible is our ultimate authority.
“Faith alone (sola fide): We are saved by faith alone in Jesus Christ, not by our own good works.
“Grace alone (gratia sola): We are saved by the grace of God alone and not by personal merit.
“Christ alone (solus Christus): Jesus alone is our Lord, Savior, and King, and we are saved by His finished work on the cross as the final payment for our sin.
“For the glory of God alone (soli Deo gloria): The salvation of sinners is for the glory of God alone.”
Cline said he will give instruction on the “five solas” and show some video clips during the first hour of his church’s gathering.
“From 5-6 p.m. we will have crafts for the kids which will consist of five stations, with each pertaining to the five solas. They will make something at each station, such as a little plaque for “faith alone,” and so forth.”
Cline said the children will also learn about important developments pertaining to the Protestant Reformation, such as the Gutenberg press, of the mid-1400s. It helped advance the soon to occur Reformation by making the Bible much more available than ever before, and by informing people of Luther’s work and its impact.
“From 6-7 p.m. we will have a dinner of soups and bread to celebrate Reformation Day,” Cline said. “We do this every year instead of a Halloween celebration, and it has strengthened our church family. We are constantly reminded of going back to the Bible, and we take it as the basis and foundation of what we believe.”
Cline is especially eager for this year’s celebration in light of the 500-year milestone it marks.
“What is most important is not what I, as a preacher, say about scripture. The most important thing is what scripture says for itself,” Cline said. “Each person has the right, and the responsibility, to read it and understand it for themselves.”
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther called for Christian debate in the highest councils of the Church. From that bold step, the Protestant Reformation was born, with its landmark changes firmly in place now 500 years later.