Thursday, October 22, 2009


My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines on Reformation Day

Q:  What is Reformation Day?  How is it remembered?

Reformation Day is a Christian holy day commemorating the events of the Reformation.  Traditionally, Reformation Day was celebrated by most Lutherans, as well as some Calvinist (Reformed or Presbyterian) churches, with an evening service, a meal, and other festivities on the evening of October 31.  On the campuses of many Lutheran and Reformed colleges and seminaries, and in some congregations, this is still the case.  Recently, however, it has become more common for most congregations to simplify their calendars by celebrating Reformation Day on the Last Sunday of October instead. 

This date of October 31 was chosen because it is the day in 1517 when the Martin Luther, who was a Roman Catholic monk and theology professor, nailed the 95 Theses to the door of his church in Wittenberg Germany so that they would be seen the next morning by the people arriving at Mass for All Saints Day. 

At that time, the Roman Catholic Church was the only religion in most of Europe, and also held a large degree of political power.  The 95 Theses were statements of belief which opposed many practices which were common in the church at that time—most importantly, the selling of Indulgences. 

Indulgences were certificates that could be purchased for varying amounts of money to get forgiveness for sins or reduce a person’s supposed debt in purgatory, either for the purchaser or for his friend or relative.  In spite of many common misconceptions, the Reformation was primarily a theological event.  Although it had far-reaching results in culture and politics, the central focus of the Reformation was Christian Doctrine—specifically, whether sins are forgiven by God’s grace (the position of Martin Luther and the Lutherans) or by human actions, such as charity, financial contributions, or moral behavior (the position of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church). 

Similarly, the Reformation was not really about the Pope or the artistic and ceremonial practices of the Roman Catholic Church, as another misconception portrays.  Lutheran leaders were prepared to acknowledge that the Pope could be considered the rightful leader of the earthly church by human authority (although not by divine authority). 

Lutheran leaders also did not object to stained glass, statues, burning of incense, bowing, kneeling, making the sign of the cross, wearing of robes by priests, or even use of the title “Father” for clergy, although there were some fringe groups who held differing opinions.  Regarding worship, Martin Luther intended to keep as many of the Roman Catholic worship practices as he could, except for those which clearly contradicted Biblical doctrine.  This is why a person, even today, would see so many similarities between Lutheran and Roman Catholic services in most congregations. 

The result of the Reformation was that there were now several different types of Christian churches, each with its own theological ideas, in Europe rather than only one, and the connection between church authority and government was broken.  Many things we know today, such as individual rights, freedom of religion, and the ability to read the Bible in our own language are direct results of the events of the Reformation, but the central theme of the Reformation and of Reformation Day is that people are rescued from God’s punishment for their sins “by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone,” and not by their own ability or worthiness and that "Scripture alone" was the only source of religious truth.

Q:  Wasn’t Martin Luther a leader in the civil rights movement?

People often confuse Martin Luther and Martin Luther King Jr.  Martin Luther was a German monk and theology professor who lived from 1483-1546 in Germany.  He is known as the “Father of the Reformation” because he was the leader of a movement to correct the theology of the Church of his time (as further explained above).

Martin Luther King Jr., who lived from 1929-1968 in the American South, was also a preacher, but was not a Lutheran.  He was a leader in the civil rights movement during the mid-twentieth century, seeking racial equality in America

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