What Will You Celebrate Oct. 31? How about Reformation Day?

October 20, 2016

While Oct. 31 has become associated with the ghosts and goblins of Halloween, it is an important day in the history of the church.

It was on Oct. 31, 1517 that a priest named Martin Luther nailed to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, a list of questions and propositions for theological debate known as the 95 theses. This act, which would challenge the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, would lead to the greatest transformation of Western society since the apostles. His action provoked a debate that culminated in what we call the Protestant Reformation.

As the church looks ahead to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017, Columbia International University Professor of Systematic Theology, Dr. Igou Hodges answers a few questions about this event that, because of its impact, is important not just in church history, but world history.   

What was the Reformation about?

Although the Reformation, beginning in the 1500s, came during a period of political, economic, and social unrest and not long after the cultural achievements of the Renaissance, it was primarily a religious revival which sought Christian renewal. In an era of decline in the church with criticisms emerging of the secularize papacy, widespread clerical ignorance and abuse, and the cry of Christian humanists for renewal in the Church, Martin Luther was the primary catalyst whom God used to ignite the Reformation.

In his own search for peace with God, Luther found it not in good works, not in the sale of indulgence, nor even in the sacraments of the church.  Though his posting of his Ninety-Five Theses was intended for debate among theologians, it caused a great stir which showed the fundamental differences between the biblical faith and the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church of the day. 

In the place of works-based salvation, Luther saw in the book of Romans that salvation was by faith in Christ alone; in the place of papal authority, Luther saw the authority of Scripture which was open for study by all believers.  Where the church and the priests were functioning as mediators between God and the people, Luther insisted on Jesus Christ as the Great High Priest for all who will come to Him in faith.

Who were some of the key Reformers and what did they achieve?

Martin Luther (1483-1546) was the first key figure of the Reformation.  In addition to standing up boldly against the Roman Catholic hierarchy of his day and being the patriarch of Protestantism, he translated the entire Bible into the German language, reformed the music of the new churches, and wrote around 100 volumes, including his commentary on Galatians (1535) which is a classic in Western literature.   More books have been written about him than any other figure in history except Jesus.

The second key figure was Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), the Swiss preacher who led political, theological, and ecclesiological reforms from Zurich, including the rejection of many Roman Catholic practices.  Sadly his career was ended suddenly when he was killed in a war in 1531.

The third key figure was John Calvin (1509-1564) the French genius who led the Reformed movement from Geneva after his ouster from his native country.  He is famous for his “Institutes of the Christian Religion” (revised from 1536 through 1559) and his commentaries on most of the books of the Bible, all of which are still widely studied today.  He was very influential in political, ecclesiological, theological, and educational reforms, as well as his regular sermons, voluminous letters, and pamphlets.  Under his leadership, ministers were trained for most other European countries (including England, Scotland, France, and Holland), and even missionary endeavors were attempted.

How does the Reformation live on today in the evangelical church?

The spirit and theology of the Reformation lives on today in the belief and practice of the five “solas” which issued from the Reformation: (1) sola scriptura — the formal or formative principle of all theology; Scripture alone is the sole, ultimate, and final authority for the church and for believers, (2) solus Christus — the finished work of Christ in His active and passive obedience is the complete and only source of salvation, apart from any human works, (3) sola gratia — salvation only by the free and unmerited grace of God, (4) sola fide — the material principle of all theology, salvation comes only through the instrumentality (appropriating organ) of faith in Christ, and (5) soli Deo Gloria — the glory of God alone is the over-arching purpose and ruling principle of all existence, life, and worship.