Carl Schwerdgeburth, 1845, Germany

The Theses Started a Blaze Five Hundred Years Ago

The phenomenon now called the Reformation was begun by the publication of Martin Luther’s theses opposing the sale of indulgences on 31 October 1517. The roots of the Reformation go back further in history than Luther’s theses. In the beginning of the sixteenth century Europe – especially near the region of Germany – people lived under tense conditions. Tension was caused, for example, by economic development, the impoverished state of farmers, questions of political power, and by internal efforts of reform within the church. The publication of the theses, dealing with topics of money and power, was much like lighting a match under volatile conditions.

The Reformation Shaped the Church and Society

In the sixteenth century, the Church had a lot of power. Ecclesiastical changes were inevitably society-wide changes as well. The Reformation shaped the social structures, the educational system, poor relief work organisation, and the division of power between secular rulers and the Church.
The Reformation shaped the map of Europe in a rapid fashion. The Reformation affected development as well; Europe became a continent of powerful nation states. Religious borders were defined by the borders of states.

The premises of the Reformation were theological, but in many regions the phenomenon became a question of political power. Such was the case in sixteenth century Sweden and contemporary Finland. Finland was a part of the Swedish kingdom at the time. Gustav Vasa initiated the Reformation in 1527. As a result, the power held by the Church and its possessions were passed onto the Crown.

Reformation Consists of Tradition and Reshaping

Luther represented tradition and reform. He developed his new ideas on the basis of an inheritance from earlier generations, mixing together with contemporary currents of thought.
Reformation and reformers have always been part of the living Church. Some reformatory movements have stayed within the Church, some have resulted in division. Many themes important to Luther had arisen earlier, especially in the works of John Wycliffe and Jan Hus.
In the fashion of his predecessors, Luther emphasised a return to the roots. Luther was a professor of exegetics. For him, teaching theology centred on explaining the Bible.

Four Highlights from Luther

The central aspects of Luther’s thought can be summarised in four sections:
Luther emphasised that the salvation of man was by faith and grace alone, and only through Christ. Luther joined the fifth century Church Father St Augustine’s teaching in stressing the primary importance of grace. Luther endeavored to resist the kind of thinking which emphasised that salvation was in some way dependent on a person’s works or qualities.

In his ethics Luther accentuated the love for one’s neighbours and Jesus’ golden rule: whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them. One should align oneself with their neighbour’s situation and think how they would like to be treated in a similar situation. Man has been invited to show mercy to others and also to live for others.

According to Luther, the central message of Christianity has to be delivered to everyone. The Bible was to be translated into the vernacular language. Additionally, the people were to be taught how to read, so that all could get to know the Bible themselves. In the Masses, sermons, and in the catechisms which summarise central Christian teachings, the language used had to be the language of the people.

Luther supported people’s participation in Church services. The service was not meant to be a mere spectacle in a foreign language, which the parishioners simply watched. The use of the vernacular made it more comprehendible. In the singing of hymns and in delivering the Eucharist in the form of bread and wine, Luther promoted the involvement of the parishioners in the service.