Perhaps you’re new to the Reformed tradition. Maybe you slacked off in Sunday school, or just don’t remember the details. Possibly you haven’t heard this story yet. Regardless, here’s what you should know about the Reformation.
How did the Reformation start? In 1517, a monk named Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. (Theses are statements—in this case, a long list.) Tradition has it that Martin Luther put his theses on the door of the church on October 31, and that’s when Reformation Day is celebrated.
What were the 95 Theses about? They spelled out various church practices that Martin Luther saw as contradicting the Bible. The biggie was selling indulgences. Indulgences were a way to cut down the amount of time a person’s soul would be stuck in purgatory. Luther didn’t like this because it tied getting into heaven with the amount of money a person could give.
Luther also doubted he or anyone else could actually be a good enough person to get into heaven based on good works. Plus, he saw support in the Bible for God saving people because of their faith alone, not their good works. Luther firmly believed that the Bible, more than the church, should be the go-to source for spiritual guidance. At the time, most people relied on the church for spiritual advice.
What did Luther want to accomplish with the 95 Theses? He hoped to reform the Roman Catholic Church. Splitting from the church was not his goal. Also, it’s worth noting that posting theses was a pretty typical academic practice at the time. It was an invitation to debate, not a dramatic breakup announcement.
Did Luther’s plan work? Not exactly the way he intended. The Roman Catholic church blew him off at first, but his ideas started catching on across Europe. This got the church’s attention, except church leaders still weren’t interested in debating with Luther. Instead, they wanted him to take back what he’d written about the church. When he didn’t, he got excommunicated (kicked out of the church).
Losing hope that they could change the church from within, Luther and his followers split from the Roman Catholic church to start their own churches.
When does the RCA enter the picture? Officially, about 100 years after Luther wrote his theses. But our roots are in the Reformation, especially in the ideas of another reformer from Luther’s time. You may have heard of him: John Calvin. Read the RCA’s origin story here.