Dear Class Member,
We are in the run-up to the 500th anniversary of the day, October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther, professor at the University of Wittenberg in what is now Germany, released his 95 Theses (talking points) regarding the matter of repentance and the forgiveness of sins. That act launched what came to be called the Protestant Reformation, though that term covers not only the Lutheran Reformation, but the reforms of several other groups, including the Zwinglian, Calvinist, Anabaptist and English.
The Reformation has had profound influence on the course of history since. One way the Reformation touches us who are part of the church today is in certain distinctive teachings that arose as the movement spread. So for our next class, we are going to look at three of those distinctive doctrines and consider how they affect us today.
If you wish to start thinking about our topic in advance, below is some introductory material.
The Wired Word invites us to contribute news story suggestions for upcoming lessons. If you have a story you’d like to suggest, post it to The Wired Word forum at http://thewiredword.squarespace.com/.
We have two interesting lessons for discussion–but also a guest speaker who will hold a discussion with us after his message. We will attend that instead of gathering upstairs for Wired Word. I have copied both lessons and will send you the one about Martin Luther since it is an anniversary of when he turned against the Catholic Church as the only option for faith. ***I will save the other one, which is on “Sologamy” a new concept where people marry themselves. I had read instances of Sologramy but had dismissed it as a silly prank. According to the lesson, it is being taken seriously by the several individuals doing that in various countries.
I hope this week is going very well for you, and maybe we’ll see each other Sunday in the pew. 😉
500th Anniversary of Reformation Is Opportunity to Review the Three Solas
The Wired Word for the Week of October 22, 2017
In the News
This month, many Christians are participating in observances of the 500th anniversary of October 31, 1517, when a sturdy and devout Roman Catholic monk by the name of Martin Luther, a professor at the University of Wittenberg in what is now Germany, released a paper containing 95 statements — points for discussion — regarding repentance and forgiveness.
Luther sent these statements, called “theses,” enclosed with a letter to the Archbishop of Mainz, on October 31, 1517, a date now considered the start of the Reformation and commemorated annually as Reformation Day. Luther may have also posted the theses on the door of the Castle Church and other churches in Wittenberg in accordance with university custom on that day or shortly thereafter.
Luther had no idea that this action was to touch off a movement that would radically alter both the shape of history and the future of the church. In fact, it was a common practice to use the chapel door as a kind of bulletin board where issues for debate could be posted. What happened, however, was that Luther’s “95 Theses” struck a raw nerve, for they undermined a scheme for raising money for St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and for paying off a local archbishop’s debts.
The immediate issue that seems to have prompted Luther’s action was the sale of “indulgences.” An indulgence was a decree cancelling supposed punishment after death for sins that were not properly atoned for in life. This punishment was still due after a sin was forgiven, and the church was the dispenser of these indulgences. However, sometimes instead of just granting the indulgences, a priest would make people pay for them. In fact, people could even buy indulgences for a sin they had not yet committed, or to get a dead person out of purgatory and into heaven.
A Dominican monk by the name of Tetzel was even more enterprising. Raising funds for St. Peter’s Basilica and the Archbishop of Mainz, he traveled around Germany hawking indulgences using a slogan worthy of Madison Avenue: “As soon as coin in coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.”
But in addition to indulgences, there were theological issues that troubled Luther. He was, in short, a model monk. He did everything and more that the medieval church said was necessary for absolution from his sins. Yet, he was still overwhelmed by a feeling of his own unworthiness. He felt that he was under God’s wrath and all of his devout efforts only intensified his distress.
A turning point came for Luther when the church appointed him to teach theology at the University of Wittenberg. Generally the church did not encourage Bible reading, but Luther had to read it in connection with teaching. He discovered that the scriptures were more interesting than he had supposed. One day, while reading Romans, he came across these words: “we are justified by faith …”
These things were part of the backdrop that led Luther to post his disagreements with the church. To Luther’s surprise, the 95 Theses created an immense sensation (although they were written in Latin for scholarly debate, someone translated them into German, and printed and distributed them widely), and in time, the furor over his statements led to a direct confrontation between Luther and the pope. In 1521, Luther was excommunicated and his teachings were labeled heretical. At one point he had to go into hiding because some sought his life.
Luther, and the many that followed him protested against much that the medieval church stood for, and as a result, they came to be called “Protesters” or “Protestants.”
The Roman Catholic Church has long since corrected the abuses against which Luther spoke. Today many Catholic scholars recognize many of Luther’s contributions with respect. Protestants today have much in common with Catholics. The Catholic Church leads millions into real fellowship with Christ, and many non-Catholic Christians recognize Catholics as brothers and sisters in the faith.
While the Reformation introduced many changes, including social, political and economic ones, three major points of doctrine emerged, which have shaped and marked Protestant Christianity ever since. They include what are sometimes called the three solas (Latin for “only” ): only scripture, only grace, only faith. Or, as sometimes worded, scripture alone, grace alone and faith alone. (To these, some add Christ alone and to the glory of God alone.) Another way of stating them is scripture over tradition, faith over works, and grace over merit, each intended to represent an important distinction from Catholic doctrine.
Scripture alone refers to the authority of the Bible.
In Luther’s day, the Bible was available only in Latin and as such, could be read only by scholars, priests and other persons of learning. Even if the common people had been able to read Latin, the church discouraged them from reading the Bible. Instead, they were taught to rely upon the church to tell them what was important for them to know from the scriptures. Thus, the church and its leaders became the supreme authorities for Christian life.
Luther, however, had found the answer to his search for peace with God through reading the Bible. So for Luther, the Bible became a higher authority than the church. In time, he insisted that every Christian was competent to interpret the scriptures himself or herself without the aid of clergy, but helped by the Holy Spirit. He eventually translated the Bible into the language of the common people.
Grace alone means that believers are saved from sin as a gift from God based on what Christ did for them through his life, death and resurrection.
Related to this point is what is sometimes termed “the priesthood of all believers.” Rather than viewing priests as necessary intercessors between humans and God, Luther taught that every Christian was his or her own priest and could have fellowship with God without benefit of clergy. He said that through faith, each person could confess his or her sins to God and receive forgiveness from God without the intercession of the church.
Faith alone means justification by faith, as opposed to by good works.
The medieval church taught that if one did certain prescribed “works,” salvation could be earned, but reading the Bible, especially the book of Romans, convinced Luther otherwise.
When Luther spoke of justification, he meant that God gave righteousness to humans who trust God in faith, that righteousness was a gift of God, totally undeserved by humankind and beyond their reach; therefore it could only come from God, from outside of humanity’s own resources. Thus when Luther spoke of justification by faith alone, he meant that there were no good works, acts of penitence, or any other deeds whereby we could earn or deserve righteousness. It had instead to be a free gift from a sovereign God, who himself chose to give it.
By “faith,”, Luther meant an act of acceptance of this gift, an act that he called the “great exchange.” That is, I give Christ my sin and he gives me his righteousness.
More on this story can be found at these links:
The 95 Theses. Luther.de
Here He Stood: Lutheran Pilgrims Travel to Germany on Reformation Anniversary. Religion News Service
Oklahoma Churches Will Mark 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. NewsOK
The Continuing Influence of the Reformation: Our Lives, our Thoughts, our Theology. J.W. Wartick
The Big Questions
Here are some of the questions we will discuss in class:
1. How has scripture helped you in your life of faith?
2. Where do you need to remind yourself of the idea of “grace alone”? What difference is it making right now?
3. When were you aware that faith was operative in your salvation?
4. If, as Luther claimed, good works are not the way to salvation, what role do they play in being a disciple of Jesus Christ’s?
5. Does “the priesthood of all believers” mean church attendance is optional? Why or why not.
Confronting the News With Scripture and Hope
We will look at selected verses from these Scripture texts. You may wish to read these in advance for background:
In class, we will talk about these passages and look for some insight into the big questions, as well as talk about other questions you may have about this topic. Please join us.
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