Five hundred years ago today, on the eve of All Saints Day (All Hallows Eve = Halloween), an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg.
What became the Reformation started as a critique of the doctrine of Purgatory, and of the pope’s raising money to re-build St. Peter’s Basilica through the sale of indulgences that supposedly could free souls from Purgatory. If the pope has power to free these souls, Luther argued, why doesn’t he let everyone out, rather than free only those whose living relatives can afford to buy indulges:
No. 82: `Why does not the pope empty purgatory for the sake of holy love and the dire need of the souls that are there if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a church?'' The former reason would be most just; the latter is most trivial.
But the real problem with Purgatory was that it does not exist. It is not in the Bible, and there is no reason for Christians to believe in the concept.
Very soon, Martin Luther broadened his project; it became a movement to take Christianity back to its primeval purity, and to base its doctrine and practice on the Bible. At Worms in 1520, when asked if he would retract his writings of the previous three years, Luther answered with the everlasting cry of the Reformation—“Show me from the Scriptures”:
Therefore, most serene emperor, and you illustrious princes, and all, whether high or low, who hear me, I implore you by the mercies of God to prove to me by the writings of the prophets and apostles that I am in error. . . . I cannot submit my faith either to the pope or to the council, because it is as clear as noonday that they have fallen into error and even into glaring inconsistency with themselves. If, then, I am not convinced by proof from Holy Scripture, or by cogent reasons, if I am not satisfied by the very text I have cited, and if my judgment is not in this way brought into subjection to God’s word, I neither can nor will retract anything; for it is unsafe for a Christian to speak against his conscience. Here I stand, I can do no other; may God help me. Amen."
The Reformation is not something that began and ended in the Sixteenth Century. Seventh-day Adventists believe the Reformation is a living thing that must continue to grow and prevail. Geoffrey J. Paxton, an Anglican priest whose doctoral dissertation became the book “The Shaking of Adventism,” writes:
The Adventist views himself as standing in the line of the Protestant Reformation. He regards himself as Protestant in the truest sense of the word. Where other Christians would not claim to stand in the line of the sixteenth-century Reformers, the Adventist is in no doubt about it. He is a son of Luther and Calvin.
As Paxton notes, we believe the Reformation is a process that began before Luther and will continue until the end of time. As Ellen White wrote:
Thus the Waldenses witnessed for God centuries before the birth of Luther. Scattered over many lands, they planted the seeds of the Reformation that began in the time of Wycliffe, grew broad and deep in the days of Luther, and is to be carried forward to the close of time by those who also are willing to suffer all things for “the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ.” Rev. 1:9. GC 78.
The Reformation did not, as many suppose, end with Luther. It is to be continued to the close of this world’s history. GC 148.
We believe not only that the Reformation is ongoing, but that God has called Seventh-day Adventists to carry forward the message of the Reformation in a way that, because of a general apostasy in other Protestant churches, no other Christian body is able to do. W.W. Prescott wrote in The Protestant Magazine, an early Adventist publication, that:
The departure of Protestantism from its original principles, and the acceptance of human philosophy in place of revealed truth, are giving to Romanism the opportunity to put forward with greater show of plausibility the claim that the great Reformation was a delusion and that the only stability of truth is found in the Roman communion.
As we approached the 500th anniversary, it was interesting to read opinion pieces from supposed Protestants arguing that the Reformation was a mistake or that it failed. It has become fashionable to argue that Luther intended only to reform the Catholic Church, not to begin a separate Protestant movement with the many denominations we see today. But by 1520, only three years after he nailed his theses to the door in Wittenberg, Luther had clearly accepted that the truth would separate, not unite. He told the Diet in Worms:
I rejoice exceedingly to see the Gospel this day, as of old, a cause of disturbance and disagreement. It is the character and destiny of God’s word. “I came not to send peace unto the earth, but a sword,” said Jesus Christ. God is wonderful and awful in His counsels. Let us have a care, lest in our endeavors to arrest discords, we be bound to fight against the holy word of God and bring down upon our heads a frightful deluge of inextricable dangers, present disaster, and everlasting desolations….
A united Christianity was not Luther’s foremost concern; he understood that it was not predicted in Scripture. The present-day proponents of bringing Christianity together in one super-denomination have little concern for Bible truth but great enthusiasm for maximizing Christianity’s political clout.
There is likewise no validity to the claim that the Reformation failed. The Reformation radically transformed the world for good. It freed the Bible from ecclesiastical chains, bringing it to the world in the peoples’ languages. The principles of Scripture led to a political revolution in which republics have replaced monarchies, and representative democracies have replaced dictatorships. “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” The scientific revolution is also largely a result of the Reformation.
There is more validity to the charge that the Reformation is failing because Protestants have lost their reverence for Scripture and love of its precepts. As noted above, Adventists consider ourselves the inheritors and current torch-bearers of the Reformation. But are we still willing to base doctrine and practice on the word of God when Bible teaching conflicts with the zeitgeist? We disagree with other Christians regarding the day of rest and worship, and have long expected persecution on that issue. But just now the issue is whether we will follow the Bible regarding created sex differences and sex role distinctions. Can we be faithful to Scripture when it conflicts with the most urgent cultural imperative? Are we truly sons and daughters of the Reformation?