By KurtJ. Kolka
GAYLORD – Five hundred years ago, on Oct. 31, 1517, a Catholic monk named Martin Luther nailed a list of 95 theses, or discussion points, to the door of the Wittenburg Church in Germany. The church door served as a bulletin board in those days. What he wanted was a discussion about some of the practices of the Roman Catholic Church of his day. Luther, instead, inadvertently ignited the Protestant Reformation, which would change the Church of his day and affect it for centuries to come.
“Martin Luther was more than anything else a pious man,” says Dr. Theodore Hopkins, Assistant Professor of Theology at Concordia University – Ann Arbor, an institute of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS). “His interest, more than anything else was coming to know God. “He was part of the Observant Augustinian Monastery. He had been exalted to one of the higher levels in his monastery. You don't get there by being a troublemaker.”
One of the primary disagreements Luther had with the Church at the time was with the practice of selling indulgences. Indulgences were payments to the Catholic Church which supposedly purchased an exemption from punishment for certain types of sins. A parishioner could buy an indulgence for themselves, their family or even a person already deceased. Money given went to paying for finishing the construction of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Luther saw this as buying one's way into heaven, an idea contrary to the teachings of Scripture. He was concerned that the teaching was causing believers to trust in a piece of paper signed by the pope instead of faith in Jesus Christ.
“That was the big thing,” says Hopkins. “He was worried about the salvation of people's souls. It was a pastoral concern.” Luther, through reading Scripture, had come to believe a person's soul was saved by faith in Christ alone, not through any deed the person had done.
“His deep desire at the time was that those in religious and political authority would see the things of his day that were harming the Church and clouding the clear proclamation of faith in Jesus Christ. And that they would agree with him so that they, too, would work alongside him to correct them,” says the Rev. Joesph Polzin, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Gaylord.
Initially, Luther believed Pope Leo X would be on his side once he explained to him what was happening regarding the indulgences. What he found was the opposite. After correspondences and a trip to Rome, Luther discovered the poor were being ignored while money was being funneled into finishing the basilica. The rich were also buying their way into the church's hierarchy. There appeared to be a total lack of concern for people's souls in general.
Angered by what he was seeing and hearing, Luther felt that even the church leadership was corrupt and could no longer be trusted to bring the message of salvation to the people. He began a campaign to preach against those Catholic doctrines which he believed went against biblical teachings. Over time, he developed a following of people. Eventually, they would begin to call themselves Lutherans.
Branded a heretic and outlaw, Luther went into hiding for a time where he translated the Bible into the Germany language, and, through the use of the early printing press, managed to get copies into the hands of the people. In that way, they could read for themselves what the Scriptures said rather than rely on a church leader's interpretation.
In the years which followed, other reformers followed Luther, although some of their interpretations of Scripture differed from his. One was John Calvin, whose teachings led to the establishment of the Reformed and Presbyterian churches.
“John Calvin came on a little after Luther – like 30 years later,” says the Rev. Steve Datema, pastor of Friendship Church, a Christian Reformed ministry. “He simply built upon Luther's teachings.”
Datema's congregation has been celebrating the Reformation's 500th anniversary since the beginning of October.
Another local pastor, the Rev. Thomas Mammoser, pastor at Peace Lutheran Church in Gaylord, says his congregation has been celebrating the Reformation's annniversary for an entire year. His denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), feels quite differently about the Roman Catholic Church today.
“In 1997, the year I became pastor at Peace, the Roman Catholic Church and the [ECLA] Lutherans signed an agreement that stated that 'the remaining differences on justification are not church dividing.' In other words, what the Lutherans always regarded as the central issue of the Reformation was no longer a barrier to unity, and the only things keeping us apart were issues that had arisen during our nearly five hundred year separation,” says Mammoser.
Since round the mid 20th century, many Protestant denominations are on better terms with the Roman Catholic Church.
Datema has had his children attending school at Gaylord St. Mary. While there remain some differences in doctrine, he sees it as a good educational system which still points students to Jesus Christ.
Reforms have come to the Roman Catholic Church over the centuries also,especially in the area of indulgences. While some believers see Luther as dividing the Church, his campaign did indeed bring some of those changes he had hoped for. For many non-Catholic denominations, the reforms brought on by Luther remain a reason to celebrate.