An act that gave birth to Protestant Christianity

Martin Luther (1483-1546)

Martin Luthur

ON OCT 31, 1517, an Augustinian monk nailed his protests against a practice of the Roman Catholic Church on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany. This act sparked one of the most significant and enduring movements in Western Christianity. The monk in question was Martin Luther.

The document came to be known as The Ninety-Five Theses. It challenged the sale of indulgences, which, according to the teaching of the church, could serve as either full or partial remission of temporal punishments for sins committed. And the great theological and religious movement that erupted is the Reformation that gave birth to Protestant Christianity. From Luther’s Germany, the movement spread to Switzerland, Scandinavia, England and eventually to the four corners of the globe. Due to doctrinal differences, however, the churches of the Reformation split into different and often rival denominations – the Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptists, and others.

One of the most significant of Luther’s contributions to Christian theology is his rediscovery of Paul’s concept of justification by faith. As a young monk, he devoted himself to the rigours of monastic life. He made every effort to perform good works in order to please God, and tried his best to serve his fellowmen. Luther would dedicate himself to fasts, flagellations, long hours of prayer, self-examination and confession. But despite his best efforts, the peace of God that he desperately longed for remained elusive. Instead he became more aware of his own sinfulness and his inability to get the approval of God through his religiosity.

It was through his study of Scriptures, particularly the epistles of Paul, that Luther slowly came to realise that justification has to do with God’s act of declaring a sinner righteous on the basis of the accomplished work of Christ on the cross. The sinner is justified by faith alone (sola fide) by grace alone (sola gratia).

Luther writes:

“I began to understand that ‘the justice of God’ meant that justice by which the just man lives through God’s gift, namely by faith. This is what it means: the justice of God is revealed by the gospel, a passive justice with which the merciful God justifies us by faith as it is written: ‘He who through faith is just shall live.’ Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”

The doctrine of justification became, for Luther, the fundamental basis for understanding the meaning of salvation. “This one and firm rock, which we call the doctrine of justification,” Luther writes, “is the chief article of the whole Christian doctrine, which comprehends the understanding of all godliness.”

Luther also sought to establish the proper relationship between Scripture, which he regarded as the Word of God, and the tradition of the Church. The sale of indulgences clearly showed that the practices of the Church could easily become erroneous if they were not guided by the teachings of Scriptures. Luther therefore insisted that the Bible must have primary authority for the Church and the Christian, and that the ecclesiastical traditions, however ancient, must be subservient to God’s word. This, in essence, is the meaning of the famous sola scriptura (Scripture alone) dictum of the great Reformer. In his commentary on Galatians 1:8-9, Luther writes:

“Here Paul subordinates himself, an angel from heaven, teachers on earth, and any other masters at all to Sacred Scripture. This queen must rule, and everyone must obey, and be subjected to her. The pope, Luther, Augustine, Paul, an angel from heaven – these should not be masters, judges and arbiters but only witnesses, disciples, and confessors of Scripture.”

This, however, does not mean that Luther jettisoned the tradition of the Church and saw it as unimportant. We must not read Luther’s statements through the lens of modern Christian fundamentalism with their naïve slogan, “No creed but the Bible.” For the same Luther who championed the authority of Scriptures could write thus about the Apostles’ Creed in the Large Catechism: “Here you find the whole essence of God, his will and his work beautifully portrayed in few but comprehensive words. In them all our wisdom consists – a wisdom which transcends all human wisdom.”

IN THE PREFACE of a work entitled, The Three Symbols or Creeds of the Christian Faith (1538), Luther refers to the ancient statements (the Apostles’ Creed, the Athanasius Creed, and the Te Deum) as the “ground upon which the Christian Faith is laid”.

He believed that the Bible (which for him was the Latin Vulgate) must be translated into the vernacular so that the common man who is unacquainted with Latin could read it. He proceeded to translate the Bible into German, completing the New Testament in 1522 and the Old in 1534. In the language and style he used in his German translation of the Bible, later known as the Wittenberg Bible, he aimed to make the Bible as accessible as possible to the masses.

In his celebrated work Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, the distinguished Luther scholar Heiko Oberman writes perceptively about Luther’s Wittenberg Bible: “The translation played a major role in shaping the modern German language, yet it became a genuine folk Bible, carrying the cause of the Reformation into every house, because Luther made use of living, colloquial German in his translation.”

Theologically, we may say that Luther’s strategy of translating the Bible in this way took its inspiration from the Incarnation itself in which the Son of God became flesh. As Oberman again perceptively puts it, “the language of the common man was not too lowly to be the language of God”.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.