October 31, 2017, marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of his “95 Theses” on the door of the Wittenberg cathedral, an event often called the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.
The “Theses” represent an early stage in Luther’s theological development and may sound surprisingly un-Protestant to modern readers. He had not yet formed his mature understanding of justification yet and doesn’t actually reject the practice of indulgence-granting in this document. They were written in Latin, with no intent for the dispute to be read by lay people.
So why do we commemorate the Reformation on this day, and why did the “Theses” cause such a stir?
A question of authority
Luther’s criticisms of indulgence-sellers weren’t entirely new in his day; what was new was his claim that the Pope lacked the power to grant or withhold salvation. So Luther wrote in thesis six: “The pope cannot remit any guilt, except by declaring and showing that it has been remitted by God.”
Medieval Catholic theology, reading Christ’s promise to Peter in Matthew 16 that “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven,” held that the Pope had ultimate authority over matters of salvation. This authority was given by Christ to Peter, from Peter to his successor, from Peter’s successor to his successor, and so on throughout history. When Luther challenged the ability of the Pope to administer salvation, he was posing a fundamental question about the nature of authority in the Christian church.
Much progress has been made in the 500 years since the Protestant Reformation, particularly in light of the ecumenical movements of the last century.
The Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) brought clarity to the Roman Catholic Church’s understanding of papal authority and, for the first time in the church’s history, declared that Protestants were also Christians (if you’re looking for some light reading, you can find that document here).
Almost as remarkable is the ongoing dialog between the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation, which has included Roman Catholic praise of the work and contributions of Martin Luther and an especially remarkable document about common understandings of justification.
Though many contemporary Christians, particularly of my age group, wonder if the Reformation was worth the fracture in church unity, I would argue that both Protestant and Catholic churches have developed a more faithful understanding of Christ’s person and work and the role of the Church as a result.
In light of these ecumenical discussions, much of what initially made Protestantism unique in the 16th century is now shared by Catholics as well. Though with differing understandings, contemporary Catholics can affirm ideas like justification by faith and through grace alone. The differences between the two groups are smaller now than they have ever been. Given this, what does it mean to be a Protestant in 2017, 500 years after Luther nailed his “95 Theses” to the door of the Wittenberg cathedral?
The answer to this question lies in the relationship between Christ and authority. In Roman Catholicism of the 16th century and today, the pope functions as the “Vicar of Christ,” or Christ’s stand-in on Earth. The Protestant idea of Sola Scriptura is a counterpart to this idea: to borrow from John Calvin, Scripture is the scepter Christ rules the Church with.
When Protestants confess that authority in the Church comes through Scripture alone, we confess that Christ remains active in the world and continues to guide his Church directly today. Christ has not left us to our own devices but continues to speak to us.
‘A confession about Christ’
To appreciate the rich heritage and striking claims of the Protestant movement is not to be nonecumenical or anti-Catholic.
I can appreciate the teaching and work of Pope Francis without thinking of him as Christ’s vicar, just as a Roman Catholic can have a deep love and appreciation of Scripture as authoritative without making the same claims about it that I do. To think differently than another is not to hate them, and to think this is a hindrance to real, meaningful unity. Christ is honored in both traditions, and we don’t need to feel guilty for holding to our understanding of the Christian faith.
What we should remember, 500 years after the Reformation, is what made us distinctive in the first place. Sola Scriptura, even more than a statement about how we formulate doctrine, is a confession about Christ. It is the heart of Protestantism and the singular claim that both unites the diverse movement and makes it unique within the larger Christian Church.
If we lose this, we lose both the most basic component of the Protestant identity and the basis for our confession about Christ. 500 years after the Reformation, Sola Scriptura is as important a cry as ever.
Jake Raabe is a student at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is also a co-founder of Patristica Press, a Waco-based publishing house.