Lorna Dueck is host of Context TV
Religious people can be pretty scary, and on this All Hallow's Eve we are remembering 500 years of the worst and best of that. The Reformation of 1517 triggered executions, torture, burnings at the stake and drownings, all done under the watchful eye of clergy. Jews were set upon as an enemy in a sweeping faith protest that became a murderous rampage over divided opinions about God.
The Reformation of 1517 also birthed the Protestant Church. The ideas these protestors unleashed would go on to shape the education and democracy systems we cherish, and leave a deeply positive development on the world's largest faith, Christianity. But it all began in outrage over the immorality and finance scandals in the office of the Pope.
One of the flashpoints for the Reformation was the sale of indulgences by the Catholic Church. An indulgence was a paper document that could be bought in exchange for forgiveness of sins. It was a fundraising gimmick sold to build St. Peter's Basilica in Rome and to help pay for religious wars against the Turks. An example is on display in Flickering of the Flame, a Reformation exhibition that recently opened at the University of Toronto's Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library.
Preacher Johann Tetzel was a master at getting vulnerable peasants to buy indulgences, and an angry monk named Martin Luther decided it had to stop. Luther believed there were at least 95 arguments worth debating against the Pope and clergy like Tetzel. In the most visible of places, on one of the busiest church nights of the year, All Hallows' Eve, Luther posted his written complaints of protest on a door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther leveraged the technology of the Gutenburg printing press to spread his ideas, much like Facebook does in our time.
Luther was the first to communicate to the masses that powerful people might speak for the state, but they were just as equal before God as a peasant was. He declared that only God could forgive the human condition of sin, and that it was possible only because of the free gift of Jesus Christ. This was a challenge to the power of both kings and clerics and established Jesus Christ as both a supreme and personal ruler. Luther translated the Latin Bible into German vernacular of the day and the people began to think through the implications of applying Scripture to life.
Five big ideas, or solas, began to emerge among reformers like Luther: Sola scriptura, the Bible alone is our highest authority; Sola fide, we are saved by faith alone in Jesus Christ; Sola gratia, we are saved by the grace of God alone; Solus Christus, Jesus Christ alone is our Lord, Saviour and King; Soli Deo gloria, we live for the glory of God alone.
Google finds us a modern translation of Luther's 95 Theses, and I'm stuck on a few, including No. 1: "When Jesus said, 'repent,' he meant that believers should live a whole life repenting." An apropos statement from Luther, who while heroic in his younger years, will be forever haunted by his latter years of anti-Semitic ideologies. But even in that darkness, the flicker of the Reformation's flame reminds us that all our sin is forgiven through personal confession to Jesus Christ. Grace cannot be bought; it's only received with an open heart, a concept that goes beyond all religious schism.
I was so fascinated with the prickly character of Martin Luther that I trekked off to Wittenberg this fall, and was caught up in the legend and lore of this 500th anniversary. I stayed in Schloss Mansfeld, a castle turned youth hostel overlooking the village where Luther grew up, and felt I got a little closer to the roots of this historic event.
The Reformation was scary – not just for those in the the power structures who lost control, but for everyone who had to consider that personal accountability to God required a reverence and relationship that had not been communicated as accessible before. It's a scary idea even today, that one could commune with God in a personal way, that one's eternity hinges on a personal faith. Perhaps it's just the scare we need.