October 31, 2020 · C.E. Carter
It’s 7pm on Saturday, October 31. I’m not much for parties, nor for Halloween. Parties just are difficult places to talk, and Halloween is a particularly ugly holiday. It began historically as a day to remember the faithfully departed and has morphed into, at best, a day spent dressed in a silly costume, and at worst, a day devoted to reveling in evil and grotesqueness. I don’t enjoy either of those activities very much. In their stead I’ll probably just be spending some time with Chesterton or Pascal a little later tonight.
That said, this day happens to coincide with something which is actually worth celebrating: October 31, 1517 was the day of the nailing of the 95 Theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany, the day which historians regard as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. This event is often depicted and spoken of with great mythological lore: an incensed and determined Luther authoritatively nailing the Theses to the door of the Church as an act of defiance against Rome and her teachings. In reality, this is a bit of dramatization. The Theses were a mere disputation of Rome’s institution of plenary indulgences, which were a way to “buy time” out of purgatory. Nailing them to the door wasn’t vandalism, it was common practice for professors who wanted to raise a disputation to do this. Luther was really just doing his job as a professor, saying, “hey, let’s talk about these indulgences, this doesn’t seem like good doctrine”. A disputation wasn’t really an outright declaration of a position the disputer was willing to die for; the nailing of the Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church wasn’t the same as Luther marching into the public square with hammer in hand so he could scream “Faith alone! Booyah!” in the faces of the dignitaries of the Roman church (“faith alone” isn’t even mentioned in the Theses implicitly). He most assuredly wasn’t attempting to create a great upheaval or social reformation, much less another denomination of Christianity. It’s likely that Luther hadn’t even been converted at this point, and wouldn’t have even believed in sola fide (“faith alone”) as a point of doctrine. Though it’s debated among historians, Ligonier places Luther’s conversion experience in the early months of 1519, a little under two years later. Luther reflects on this time studying later in his life, where the meaning of Romans 1:17 becomes plain to him:
Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted. At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me.
Thereupon I ran through the Scripture from memory. I also found in other terms an analogy, as, the work of God, that is what God does in us, the power of God, with which he makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God. And I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the hatred with which I had before hated the word “righteousness of God.” Thus that place in Paul was for me truly the gate to paradise.
(That second paragraph, man, wow.)
So, why celebrate this day, if Luther was not saved for many more months? Well, frankly, we celebrate the nailing of the Theses to the door because it was a lynchpin event in history. It was a moment of incredible significance; not great theological or salvific or political significance, but significance due to consequence. It was a great beginning, in that it was the commencement of many other beginnings. It was the beginning of Luther, for he posted the Theses under the name “Eleutherius”, Greek for “free”, instead of his given name Luder. It was the beginning, in a sense, of his burning of the Papal Bull, and of his subsequent excommunication from the Roman Church, and of Luther’s life and work and ministry. Looking forward it was also, in part, the beginning of Calvin, and of Knox, and of Tyndale, and of Zwingli, and by extension the beginning of the whole Reformed tradition; the beginning of Edwards, of Pink, of Spurgeon, of R.C. Sproul, of MacArthur, of Piper…and even of little ole’ me. It was the beginning of great advances in human capital formation, and additionally in what became known as the “protestant work ethic”, in economics and industrialization, in governance and legal tradition, and in many other facets of life which we consider axiomatic elements of the Western world we live in today. The falls of Luther’s hammer shook the world in a way he could never have dreamed they would.
That seems to be the great beauty of it: the unassuming nature of a very Catholic man nailing a very Catholic document to the door of a very Catholic church because he wanted to have a very Catholic discussion about a very Catholic thing. And yet, despite this, the discussion of indulgences on the basis of Scripture, and not on Papal authority, turned out to be enough to set everything in motion. The first domino had fallen, and by God’s grace, the others fell too. The commencement of many beginnings, but also the culmination of unassuming past beginnings, or rather past ends. Most notably, (and a particular favorite of mine) is the execution of Jan Hus, who was burned at the stake for his proto-Protestantism. An end, but a beginning, for Hus would come again to haunt the Roman Church about a century later, in the man of Martin Luther. God’s sovereignly decreed plan unfolded so unmistakably in the transformation of Luther in the span of a few years, and his conviction and clarity with respect to the message of Scripture had so been emboldened so that he, in the spring of 1521 announced before Charles V and the rest of the Imperial Diet his heresy when he said,
Ja, Ich bin ein Hussite.
“Yes, I am a Hussite.” Everyone knew this to mean, “I believe in faith alone in Christ alone for salvation”.
You could say, with all of this in view, that the Protestant Reformation began in a distinctly Protestant way, not as a result a large synod or a grand ecumenical council, or even as a movement catalyzed by the strong personality of a charismatic leader. No, it began with small beginnings and ordinary men, sovereignly ordained and placed by God for specific times, specific places, and specific people, so that there would be no room for the astute historian to see any other cause for these events beyond the grace of God in decreeing and actualizing His sovereign plan of salvation for all nations. That plan is far bigger than Luther, and that story has a beginning which comes far earlier, in eternity past.
Post tenebras lux.