500 years ago, on October 31, 1517, on All Saints Eve, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. I rather doubt he or anyone else would have imagined that the nearly imperceptible quill scratches and nail strikes that fateful day would continue to reverberate so loudly five centuries later.
His initial short term hopes that the Roman Catholic Church would reject the horrendous practice of selling indulgences were soon dashed by a Papal Bull, trial in Germany, and excommunication from Roman Catholicism. Yet even excommunication couldn’t silence the resounding echo that Luther and the other reformers sounded. As these early, tenuous years gave way to greater theological courage and precision, five solas — Scripture alone, faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone, to the glory of God alone —would shake generations of Christians loose from the chains of Roman Catholic dogma.
Ironically, what Luther first intended to be corrective and cleansing to Roman Catholicism in part helped spur the greatest segregating of denominationalism history has ever seen. Out from under the hovering religious and political control of the RCC, varieties of theological affiliations and Christian practices grew and spread. As a professor of theology at a Baptist College, I have studied, observed, and benefited from many tremendous and even some forlorn ramifications of Luther’s noble efforts in 1517 and beyond.
Too often, the days since the 95 Theses have been marked by division in Christ’s church. Too often, Lutherans and Presbyterians find themselves against Baptists on infant baptism or the table. Too often, Pentecostals reject the passionlessness of their parent denomination of Methodism. Even non-denominationalism casts itself off from much of the clannish nature of mainline Protestants, conservative Southern Baptists, or Spirit-pursuing Pentecostals. To be sure, doctrinal differences like those above are significant. And they should cause each of us from our respective convictions to firmly hold to them without compromise. But what these differences shouldn’t do is weaken our mutual and unifying grip on essential doctrines that we all agree upon.
While often inacurately credited to Augustine, a German Lutheran theologian of the early seventeenth century, Rupertus Meldenius, actually coined the phrase, “In essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty; in all things charity” (see Ross’ article here). How fitting that a Lutheran — able to claim that denomination on account of Luther’s relentless pursuit of the essentials — provides us even today with a simple motto that captures the heart of Jesus himself. His crisp words seem to flow from Jesus’ own prayer for us toward this very end:
Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.
In the spirit of that unity for which Jesus prayed, when I first discovered the work of those who penned the Reforming Catholic Confession, I immediately warmed. Certainly, a document and signatures, no matter how well-written, do not actually fix any of our disunity. But they do give us a chance, as Christians at the 500th anniversary of the most visible schism in church history, to reach our hands out to other denominations that perhaps wouldn’t even exist without the likes of Luther.
I am grateful to stand on the shoulders of those who sacrificed much to crystallize the five solas. I am eager to lock arms with those who affirm our theological similarities. I am hopeful that shows of unity like this confession will foster healthier denominational relations. I am expectant that, one day, Jesus’ prayer will be answered as all His children will, in their uniqueness, diversity, and individuality, be made one as the Father, Son and Spirit are one.
If you would like to learn more about the Reforming Catholic Confession or if you would consider adding your name to the list of signatories, you can check it out here. Soli Deo Gloria!