ACU CHURCH HISTORIAN SHEDS LIGHT ON LUTHER AND THE REFORMATION
Full text downloadable issues of Christ History Magazine on Luther are available at: Issue 34 Martin Luther: The Early Years
Issue 39 Martin Luther: The Later Years and Legacy
Issue 115 Luther Leads the Way
Many of Luther’s writings are available in full text at
Martin Luther Changed Everything
By Douglas A. Foster
Professor of Church History
Director, Center for Restoration Studies
Abilene Christian University
“The Bible is alive, it speaks to me; it has feet, it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold of me.” (Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 9, p. 24)
On October 31, 1517, a thirty-three year old Catholic priest named Martin Luther posted a notice on the church door at Wittenberg, Germany. The heavy wooden door was used for posting announcements for Wittenberg’s church and university communities, which Luther served as both minister and professor of theology. That notice has become one of the most important and widely known documents in history—the Ninety-Five Theses.
The “Theses” were propositions for debate with other scholars about the legitimacy of “indulgences.” He saw that this teaching on penance (or repentance) and forgiveness, rather than a way to help people “show fruit worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3:8; Luke 3:8), had become a money-raising scheme to build a magnificent cathedral in Rome for the apostle Peter.
Luther’s training, sermon preparation, and teaching of theology classes gave him the opportunity to spend countless hours in studying scripture. This constant immersion in the Bible led him to see abuses he believed tended to obscure the gospel.
In the years that followed, Luther wrote hundreds of sermons, biblical commentaries, books and tracts, launching the Age of Reformation. He regarded his most significant work to be translating the Bible into ordinary German. He was convinced that the scriptures should be in the hands of all the people in a form they could understand instead of the Latin used by scholars. His own experience had shown him the vital importance of the scriptures for revealing the heart of God and the grace of Christ.
Sometimes we in the Stone-Campbell Restoration movement have been reluctant to acknowledge the great debt we—and all Christians—owe Martin Luther. Not so the founding leaders. In Alexander Campbell’s Christian System, he points out the tremendous debt we owe to the “intelligence, faith, and courage of Martin Luther and his heroic associates in that glorious reformation. He restored the Bible to the world and boldly defended its claims against” all perversions of the gospel. (The Christian System, 1871, p. 3.)
In his 1843 debate with Presbyterian minister and theologian Nathan Rice, Campbell described Luther and the other reformers as “God’s chosen vessels to accomplish at the proper time a mighty moral revolution,” the impact of which had “not yet been fully appreciated.” Alexander Campbell, 1844, A Debate Between Rev. A. Campbell and Rev. N. L. Rice, p. 587.
In many ways, Campbell saw his “current reformation”—the term often used for the
movement—as a continuation of Luther’s work. He believed those who followed Luther had succumbed to the temptation to obscure the gospel of grace—the very thing Luther fought against. Yet ironically, Campbell came to witness the same powerful tendency in his own reform.
We owe much to the courageous and flawed Martin Luther. I for one, also flawed and saved by God’s grace, look forward to seeing him in heaven.