Throughout the world, there are preparations for the celebration of the moment in history when a young monk posted his theses on the door of Wittenberg University. He was incensed by the sale of indulgences, which were purchased to buy salvation and redemption for oneself or various relatives. The money earned from these indulgences were split between the pope, the local bishop, and the region’s prince.
Martin Luther was a lecturer at Wittenberg, so he wrote The Ninety-Five Theses intending to start an academic discussion. They were written in Latin, the language of the scholars of that day. However, some of his students translated them into German and by the time the debate began, thousands of students and regular folk had read and heard the Ninety-Five Theses.
The initial desire of Martin Luther was not to create another church or to split with the Roman Catholic Church. It was to reform the church – to bring it back to what he considered to be the original teaching of the church, to bring it back to the Scriptures. After a few years of debates, Martin Luther was excommunicated and thus the split took place. The accusation that Luther tore the seamless robe of Christ was not true because the church was already split between the East and the West and the West initiated the excommunication. Thus, today throughout the world there are three sections of Christianity – Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Roman Catholic Christianity, and Protestant Christianity.
As we look back 500 years later, there are some people who say that we should celebrate all the great things that the Reformation has done for Christianity. There are others who tell us that celebrating is too much because many negatives things happened because of Reformation. They argue that instead of celebrating 500 years of Reformation, we should strictly commemorate—remember the great event while also remembering the aspects that did not go as well as intended. Others talk about the Protestant Reformation and the Tridentine Council, which was the Catholic response to the Protestants.
One way to look at this issue is to ask what major things Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant believers have in common. What are the ideas and realities that make us Christians in the first place? Summarily I can say that what holds us together are the fact that all three believe in the Holy Scriptures as the revelation of God, they all believe in the Holy Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, they believe that Jesus Christ has provided redemption from our sins, that Jesus Christ is working in His Church, and that there is going to be eternal life in the presence of God for those who love and follow Him.
But differences have grown over time, with additions to the doctrine (stated neutrally) or accretions (stated negatively). If one believes that the Bible is whole and complete, Protestants argue that the Roman Catholic Church was wrong to add and give equal weight to the apocryphal books and things such as the ecumenical councils, the positions of various church fathers (the doctors of the church), and the ex catedra pronouncements. A minor concept not found in the Bible as received by the Protestants (the 66 books of the Old and New Testament), is the concept of purgatory. This is found in the book of the Maccabees and it creates all sorts of disagreements between the two groups. While the Catholic Church accepts that Jesus Christ is the only Savior, the one who died for humanity, they take on the authority to distribute this salvation that Jesus earned. They claim that Christ gives his salvation to the church and thus the church can grant salvation to those who have done good works and redeem people from hell with indulgences or from purgatory with prayers and masses.
The Catholics would argue that the full revelation of God is only available to the Roman Catholic Church. Luther originally thought that the Pontiff was siding with him but, when he was excommunicated by a papal letter, he saw that there was a consistent position between the pope and the church. It was that moment that made him accept a statement written by Catholic saint Catherine of Seine that the sickness was in head and in body, namely the pope was the head and ideas emanated from the head to the entire body.
When I think of the papacy, I always think of the American people’s infatuation with British royalty. Historically, we overthrew the royals and gained independence; but when the royals come to visit the United States, we behave differently. The American people love the pope too. Whenever the pope comes here, he receives the adulation of the people and many politicians and religious leaders clamor to meet with him and receive his blessings.
This year there will be many conferences. One of the main questions they will try to answer is whether the Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants can become one entity again. When all the academic niceties have been settled, the question will still be what to do with the Pontiff. The question is valid because both splits took place on the authority of the Pontiff—the split between the East and the West and the split between the Roman Catholic Church and Protestantism.
The first split happened when the Roman bishop was no longer satisfied with the equality of all the bishops. He wanted to be primus inter pares or the first among the equals. The bishop of Constantinople did not accept it, so the Roman bishop excommunicated him. The second split happened because the Pope wanted to build St. Peter in Rome and increase the sale of indulgences, a method of salvation that is found nowhere in the Bible. Instead of listening to Luther and other monks, he excommunicated those who disagreed with him and convened the Council of Trent, which agreed with his papal decisions.
Since the papacy is at the center of the splits, it can also be the reconciler if it accepts the biblical limits of its power, stays within the biblical guidelines for its theology, and gives up its position as primus inter pares.