This month’s Blog is written by the Rev Catherine Wilson, Curate of Biddenden & Smarden, formerly a member of St Mary’s in Great Chart & Singleton
November is a time of year for remembering, and while some dates are marked every year, others only pop up on significant anniversaries. One of those special dates occurs this year, as its 500 years since Martin Luther nailed a document to the door of the castle church in the town of Wittenberg in eastern Germany, on 31 October 1517. ‘So what?’ – you might say – ‘why should we commemorate that?’
Martin Luther was a law student who became a monk after surviving a storm. He was later ordained and studied theology – you can see a simple animated account of his life and experiences at www.gochattervideos.com/martin-luther/ . He challenged the authority of the church, and led the way in making the Bible available to ordinary people.
In the early sixteenth century, the Catholic Church was very powerful – even kings and rulers acknowledged (if grudgingly) the authority of the Pope over them, and forgiveness from God was only granted by priests in return for payment or performing penances – these could vary from reciting prayers to going on a pilgrimage or doing acts of charity. But as Luther studied the Bible, he came to understand that God’s forgiveness can’t be bought or earned – it’s a gift, and is freely available to everyone.
Luther drew up a list of 95 points of disagreement with the Church, known as his ‘95 Theses’; this is what was displayed on the church door in Wittenberg, and which provoked much debate, eventually proving to be one of the sparks from which the movement known as the Reformation came alight. The people who followed his teachings became known as ‘Protestants’, because they were protesting against the teachings of the Catholic Church, and soon there were Protestant churches across Europe and beyond.
Within a few years, Luther had established a new form of worship and set about translating the Bible from Latin into German, the language of the ordinary people around him. He preached from the Bible and believed in its authority, and wanted to encourage everyone who could to read it for themselves – the spread of printing and literacy helped this to happen. Luther also encouraged congregations to sing and wrote many hymns himself – one of the most famous is sung today as ‘A mighty fortress is our God’.
So much for the history lesson – how is this relevant to us today?
- The first Bible in English was printed by Tyndale in 1526, and in 1611 the King James (Authorised) Bible was published. These (and many further translations, especially in recent years) gave English-speakers direct access to the spiritual wisdom and truth the Scriptures contain and many phrases found their way into our spoken language to enrich our understanding and our vocabulary.
- Luther’s insight that we are saved by personal faith in God showed that all individuals have equality and freedom before God – both the right to have a direct relationship with him, and the responsibility for their own salvation.
- From the understanding of spiritual equality grew the shoots of democracy – political equality – the right of all individuals to have a say in how they are governed.
The Reformation was a great time of enlightenment, when spiritual truths were uncovered and became available to all people. It was not without its problems though, and led to division and wars, persecution and great religious intolerance. Those labelled ‘heretics’ by both sides were often treated very cruelly, tortured and killed.
However the fundamental understanding that we are saved not by what we do but by what Jesus has done for us, has not changed across the centuries and remains the greatest legacy of Luther’s actions 500 years ago.