Martin Luther did not set out to start the Protestant Reformation, or even to start a new church. He loved the church. He had every desire to remain faithful to her. Nevertheless, he encountered some very troubling issues within the church. Again, it was not his desire to leave the church over these issues. Rather, it was his desire to try to address these issues so that the church might make some corrections; that it might be . . . "reformed."
One of the practices that greatly troubled Luther was the selling of indulgences. And so, on All Hallows' Eve (i.e., the eve of All Saints' Day; what we call "Halloween"), in 1517, Martin Luther nailed his "95 Thesis" on the door of the Wittenberg church. It was an act seeking an academic debate over these issues, not a declaration of a split with Rome. Nevertheless, this act became the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.
Pope Leo X called for the discipline of Luther via his Augustinian order. The pope labeled him a heretic. After several attempts to come to terms, it was demanded that Luther recant. He refused in the words of that famous declaration, "Here I stand. I can do no other, so help me God," and the Protestant Reformation was born.
This Protestantism was built on certain principles: 1.) Justification by faith; 2.) Salvation by grace, not works; 3.) the Authority of Scripture; and 4.) the Priesthood of all believers.
Wesleyan Christians are greatly indebted to Martin Luther. The Church of England adopted Luther's understanding of justification by grace through faith.. John Wesley, a priest in the Church of England, incorporated this teaching in his own. And, indeed, Wesleyan Christians own it, as their own. - Further, it was while hearing someone reading Luther's Preface to the Epistle to the Romans, during a Society meeting in Aldersgate Street, London in 1738, that John Wesley felt his "heart strangely warmed." - Really, the list of Luther's influence upon all Protestant denominations, upon Methodism and upon the Church of the Nazarene, in particular, could go on and on.
We owe Luther so much, and it is right to celebrate the life of one used so powerfully by God.
However, I must confess, I am still a bit conflicted, here. - Perhaps, this would be more appropriately talked about on Reformation Sunday, rather than the Feast of Martin Luther. Still, I think it is worth talking about.
You see, the Protestant Reformation laid the groundwork for the plethora of church splits and various denominations that we have, today. It brought about, not just a correction of certain doctrines and practices, but it also resulted in split after split after split. - One of my favorite quotes, which I often attach to my email signature comes from the late Rev'd. Dr. William Greathouse, general superintendent emeritus in the Church of the Nazarene. He says:
"It is time the Church of Jesus Christ overcame the disjunctions created by the 16th-century Reformation. What is called for is the 'evangelical catholicism' of John Wesley's 'middle way' in which the two historic Christian traditions were synthesized. In this synthesis the English Reformer not only recovered for the Church a viable doctrine of holiness but also pointed the way to a scriptural view and practice of the sacraments that is both apostolic and catholic."
The Reformation did create many disjunctions. Some of them are painfully present, to this day. Even within the children of Wesley, when one seeks to recover his commitment to liturgical and sacramental worship, one is often said to be "too Catholic" (and that is supposed to be a bad thing!). There is still much prejudice between Protestant Christians and Roman Catholic Christians.
Perhaps it is time for those of us who are Wesleyans to re-read Wesley's Letter to a Roman Catholic. Perhaps it is also time for us to recognize that, while there are certainly still disagreements between Protestants and Roman Catholics, nevertheless, the Protestant Reformation also created the Roman Catholic Counter Reformation. - Even Roman Catholics will admit that Luther had some good points (though some may only admit it behind closed doors!).
Beyond that, it is worth celebrating that the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church developed The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, signed by representatives of both traditions on October 31, 1999 (the anniversary of Luther's 95 Theses!). The World Methodist Council was represented at that historic event and brought a letter of congratulations. On July 23, 2006, another document was signed by the Lutherans, Roman Catholics and Methodists, adding the Official Common Affirmation of the Methodist Statement of Association with the JDDJ to the original document. That statement was approved unanimously by the World Methodist Council members, including those representing all seven U.S. based denominations.
I suppose, then, it is true: despite all of the denominational divisions, agreements on the doctrine of Justification, like this one, would not have happened if not for Martin Luther. - Protestant Reformer? Yes, but also Church reformer, as well. - May God grant that all Christians might grow together in the unity of the Spirit of God.