What’s Wrong With Reformation Day? (UPDATED)

Each year on this date confessing Protestants remember Martin Luther’s protest against the abuse of indulgences. He followed the academic custom of the day by compiling a list of theses, short statements or claims. Sometimes one would follow from the other but not always. The proposing of theses was part of the academic process. Students and faculty would hold disputations, which were related to the modern academic process. Students still write masters and doctoral theses (usually called dissertations in North America) wherein students propose one, usually multifaceted, thesis and then defend it. After submitting the thesis the student is required to stand up and give an oral defense before faculty and peers.

It is usually said that Martin nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg. For about 50 years or so there has been some doubt whether he actually did that. It seems certain that he mailed them to the Archbishop, however. Somehow it doesn’t seem quite as revolutionary to mail theses as it does to nail them. Perhaps that’s a reason Americans in particular are so attracted to this event? Nailing theses to the door seems like an American thing to do, like dumping tea in Boston Harbor.

Most confessing Protestants Probably haven’t read the 95 Theses. That’s just as well. They are mostly disappointing from a Protestant perspective. You won’t find much there about justification by grace alone (sola gratia), or by faith alone (sola fide), or Scripture alone (sola Scriptura) as the sole magisterial authority for the Christian faith and the Christian life. What you will find are a lot of complaints about the way the late medieval church had abused Christians, their consciences, their pocketbooks, and God’s grace as part of a corrupt money-raising scheme to fund, among other things St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Next time you marvel at the beauty of those 16th-century buildings in Rome, remember indulgences.

The Luther film from 1993 does a nice job of portraying the way Tetzel hawked indulgences. If his pitch seems familiar, it should. The actor patterned it after the way the televangelists’ schtick from the 1970s and 80s. We can practically hear the televangelist saying “Send now before midnight.” In the film Tetzel actually uses the phrase “standing by” as in “operators are standing by.” Before the Word-Faith hucksters Johann Tetzel (1465–1519) sold indulgences. What are they? Roman Canon Law says:

An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints.

In the papal decree (bulla) Unigenitus Dei (Only Begotten of God; 1343) promulgated by Clement VI (an Avignon pope!), the Bishop of Rome offered both “partial” and “general” remission of temporal punishments, according to the discretion of the church. Sixtus IV (1471-84) extended plenary indulgences to the dead.

Calvin rightly called the selling of indulgences (which continues. For more, see below) and the “treasury of the church” a Satanic mockery.

In the 95 Theses Luther said that when Scripture says “do penance” (the Vulgate translated “repent” as “do penance”—translators beware! It can take centuries to correct a mistake made by a single committee) it intends to say “repent.” He attacks the system and the claim of the papacy to be able to administer it but the sorts of things Luther said were not all that revolutionary. Others had said them and he himself had said them before. What was revolutionary was that the theses were translated into German and printed on a new high-tech piece of equipment called the printing press. The theses struck a nerve and were widely disseminated and read. For his part, Luther’s mature judgment was that when he wrote the 95 Theses he was still a “right-roaring papist.” He was right.

So, it is unfortunate that October 31 has become the day for Protestants to remember why we seceded from the Roman communion (or why she lapsed from the holy catholic church). We would do better to remember to Diet of Worms—which would open up a whole new realm of possibilities for Reformation Day celebrations—where Luther stood up for the basic Reformation principles even if he probably didn’t actually say, “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.” Sorry to be such a killjoy but that’s what historians do.

What animated the Reformation then and what animates it now is the reassertion of the magisterial (ruling) authority of God’s Holy Word over all other authorities. The Bible is sufficiently clear that we can read it (in the original languages and in translation) and infer from it what we must believe and do, what God requires of us, and what the limits of the authority of the church are (sola Scriptura). From God’s Word we can infer that it does not teach (to name only a few things):

  • The Roman doctrine of justification through progressive sanctification
  • Initial justification through baptism and final justification through sanctification (nor does it teach a two-stage doctrine of justification of any sort)
  • A place or time of purgation between death and heaven
  • A pope
  • Seven sacraments (there were only 2 sacraments known to the church until the 13th century)
  • Indulgences
  • Transubstantiation (this doctrine did not appear until the 9th century)
  • The blessed virgin Mary as a co-mediatrix (the status of the BVM was disputed through the middle ages and the decree ex cathedra in the 1950s has no biblical warrant whatever)
  • Grace as a medicinal substance dispensed by the church
  • Faith formed by love
  • Intercession by saints

What Scripture plainly says is that “Abraham believed God it was imputed to him for righteousness” (Gen 15:6). Paul interpreted this to mean that all that Christ did, all his righteousness, is imputed to all those who trust Christ for free acceptance with God (justification). Scripture says that is by God’s free favor we have been saved, through faith, not by cooperation with God, for salvation and faith are God’s free gift (Ephesians 2:8–9). When the medievals read these verses they knew a priori what they had to mean. They knew that God can only justify (recognize) those who are inherently righteous by grace (medicine) through faith (trusting and working) so that even though these verses seemed to contradict what they knew must be the case the could not. Finally, by the 16th century, exhausted by moral scandals and the weight of the law of cooperation with grace the Western world was ready to hear a different reading and, the providence of God, there were scholars who were able see that Bible, read on its own terms, in context, in its original languages did not teach what the high and late medieval church(es) had come to think.

We’re probably stuck with this Reformation Day. A few years ago I wrote that it was a 19th-century invention. As we experience it, that’s probably right but a couple of years ago I read in Turretin a passing reference to Reformation Day so it seems that this date as Reformation Day has an older history than I knew.

UPDATE 10/31/2014

Thanks to Nick Davis for alerting me to a note from Mark Noll and Thomas Howard in the November (print) edition of First Things in which they write:

Interestingly, it was Calvinists, not Lutherans, who in 1617 first proposed a centennial marking Luther’s attack on indulgences. Alarmed by an increasingly assertive Tridentine Catholic Church and lacking legal status in the Holy Roman Empire. early in that year church and royal officials in the Reformed German Palatinate proclaimed in October they would hold a centenary “jubilee,” to remember how “the eternal, all-powerful God has looked upon us graciously and delivered us from the horrible darkness of the papacy.” The ruler of the Palatinate, Friederich V, urged all Protestants (by which he meant Lutherans and the Reformed) to put divisions aside and offer thanks giving between October 31 and November 2 for recovering the bright light of the gospel.”

Enjoy Reformation Day.

Resources On Indulgences:

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. High money, high mass; low money low mass; no money, no mass.

    I have read the 95 Theses. You are right about how they do not reflect the great Reformation Solas–but I am of the mind that Luther’s shock and horror at the abuses of Christian people that followed from the sacerdotal/medicinal view of Rome were a necessary step towards the Reformation’s recovery of the Gospel of grace. Similar disenchantments with the sacerdotal system of Rome also animated Wycliffe and Hus in earlier ages.

    Long ago, a French Roman Catholic writer named Louis Bouyer observed that there had been a rediscovery of Rome among Protestants. Given the hucksterism of the televangelists that seems far closer to Johann Tetzel than to Martin Luther, my guess is that Bouyer was right. Further, the modern sub-Evangelical demand for this or that emotional binge or some extra-biblical prohibition also undoes the Reformation. In this day and age when even the more “high brow” wing of Protestantism is so tempted by the semi-sacerdotalism of the FV crowd, it’s high time we re-affirmed the Reformation somehow.

    • Growing up in Singapore and having gone through Novenas, Stations of the Cross, and the High Mass for $15 and Low Mass for $5, I can attest to the money making utility of Purgatory!
      I especially agree with everything else you have said. I could not have said it better!

  2. “Most confessing Protestants Probably haven’t read the 95 Theses. That’s just as well. They are mostly disappointing from a Protestant perspective. You won’t find much there about justification by grace alone (sola gratia), or by faith alone (sola fide), or Scripture alone (sola Scriptura) as the sole magisterial authority for the Christian faith and the Christian life. ”

    Thank God someone with academic respect/ credentials said it. I followed the hype/ propaganda too until I read the 95 thesis. I even went as far as to middle-name one of my sons “Luther,” because he was born on this day, 10-31. I told my former pastor in the URC that I don’t see what the big deal is about them, intimating that I don’t understand what was so glorious about the thesis’ content (for the record I am still URC). He acknowledged the humble beginnings of Protestantism on that point. For the record, the same pastor introduced me to protestant scholasticism, from which I will never recover (nor intend too), buying me a set of Turretin before I barely knew him.

    • Now you have to get a copy of Richard A. Muller’s 4 Volume “Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics. I’m not offering to buy you a set though. I just blew $175 on a high end Bible.

  3. You’re missing the point, Dr. Clark; Reformation Day exists solely to give us a confessional Protestant alternative to Halloween! 😉

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