I recently received the results from a DNA test that I submitted to Ancestry.com. It says that I’m almost 90% British, which explains why I’ve always been an Anglophile! I’m working on my British accent, but it’s horrible. And while I’m practicing my accent, I began exploring my genealogy (again). It’s made me think about all of my ancestors and what flows in my blood. Besides discovering that I’m related to David Crockett (which is pretty cool), I’ve discovered other things that my ancestors did. One, while a Private in the Confederate army, was captured during the Civil War and was released (or escaped!) and then had tons of kids. I can’t imagine what I don’t know about my ancestors. I can’t imagine how many of my mannerisms and features have been passed down to me without my knowledge.
The Church is like that, too. So many people have no idea that we believe things and do things within churches that have been passed down to us from our spiritual ancestors. For example, on Tuesday, October 31, the Protestant Church all over the world will celebrate “Reformation Sunday.” This happens every year. Yet, this year, it’s the 500th anniversary.
The Protestant Reformation is what we call the schism that occurred in the sixteenth century, in England, between Roman Catholics and a large group of Christian thinkers (called “Protestants” because the protested various aspects of Roman Catholicism). It was initiated by Martin Luther and was continued by John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli, and others for the next century. The day that “lit the fuse” on the Reformation bomb was when Martin Luther, a Catholic priest, wanted to have a discussion/debate with other Catholics on certain aspects of the Church in England. He nailed his proposed discussion to the door of a Wittenberg church in 1517. We call this document the “Ninety-five Theses” (or Disputation on the Power of Indulgences). With celerity, it was copied and disseminated extensively. He was trying to reform the church. He actually began the greatest schism the Church had experienced since the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches split in 1054.
Martin Luther had been translating the Bible from the original languages (the exact room is in the picture to the left). He discovered that the Catholic Church taught and practiced multiple things that Scripture did not support, like selling “indulgences” (= giving money to the Church to decrease your time in eternal punishment) and the sovereign authority of the Pope and the Church’s tradition. Instead, Luther emphasized two facts: (1) Scripture was the chief authority for faith and practice (sola scriptura) and thus, (2) faith in Jesus, and not any “works” of ours, is the way to receive God’s forgiveness/salvation (sola fide).
Luther was unrelenting in his elevation of Scripture as the chief authority—it could never be any tradition, or experience, or denomination, or individual person or authority. He once said, “This word of God is the beginning, the foundation, the rock, upon which afterward all works, words and thoughts of man must build.” At another time, Luther said, “Note well, that the power of Scripture is this: it will not be altered by the one who studies it; instead it transforms the one who loves it.”
Luther got in trouble. The Catholic Church convened a council (called a “Diet”) to deal with Luther’s ideas. Luther was summoned to renounce or reaffirm his views at the Imperial Diet of Worms on 23 January 1521. Luther said many things. But, what he didn’t do was recant. He finished his speech with this quote:
“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.” (Some versions include the statement, "Here I stand; I can do no other." It's debated if he really said that or not, so I've included, perhaps, the more ancient version.)
Thus, the global Church is divided into three major branches: the Roman Catholic, the Orthodox, and the Protestant. A plethora of Protestant churches exist: e.g., Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal, and Disciples of Christ. To this day, two fundamental facts still shape every single Protestant Church around the world: Scripture is the chief authority for faith and practice and faith in Jesus alone is the means of salvation.
While you might not always know why or how things “got this way” in the Church, you can know that we are heirs to centuries of spiritual ancestors who have shaped our very beliefs and practices. Now, I’ve got to get back to working on my British accent. “Good-day, mate!” Oh wait, that’s Australian.