Martin Luther was a man passionate for God and the Word of God. As an Augustinian monk, a Catholic priest, and a theology professor, he scrutinized and taught the Bible, and was enamored with Scripture.
His intellectual endeavor met with existential questions he was harboring. A central quest for him was that of salvation: What do I need to be saved? This question pursued him as a man aware of his sinfulness; what is the meaning of one’s struggle with evil? How can repentance be achieved?
A spiritual turning point for Luther was the realization that God’s gift of salvation is fundamentally gratuitous, that it is first and foremost an incommensurable gift, in faith. It is neither earned by believers, nor due to them, but bestowed freely by God.
The intimate comprehension of that gift changed his life and ordered anew his theology. Since Paul’s letters were instrumental in this intimate discovery, the centrality of the Word of God became paramount for him; he was given a new life thanks to Scripture. Hence, it is not a surprise that the theological notion of justification and the centrality of the Bible have become hallmarks of the Lutheran faith.
Even before Luther, various reform movements traversed the Western Church of the 16th century. Biblical texts were diffused more widely and even translated in the vernacular. Church authorities encouraged the study of ancient languages, and the University of Alcala, started by Cardinal Cisneros, even produced in due time a polyglot Bible. The excesses of the papacy and the Roman curia were questioned, and many spiritual movements flourished, influenced also by humanistic tendencies. New questions and opportunities arose with the European discovery of America. Change was needed in the Church, and changes were happening. A council had just occurred between 1512 and 1517. Luther, however, would bring a spark.
What started for Luther as an invitation to discussion within the Church in 1517 evolved in a few years into an insurmountable divide. Forces beyond theological reflection were summoned, from Luther’s single-mindedness and passion, to political and nationalistic aspirations from Germanic lands, to burgeoning reformist desires in the Church. Opportunities for discussion among believers were hampered, and divisions grew, leading to the creation of various distinct Christian denominations, each with its own theology and ecclesial structures, apart from the Catholic Church.
The contribution of Luther was not received universally. The reformist movement within the Catholic Church had its day in a subsequent council, at Trent (1545-1563), which clarified the doctrine of justification, introduced various reforms for the formation of the clergy and the exercise of ministry, but it was too late to win over the dissenting groups that had evolved into separate entities.
This state of separation and even conflict — at times bloody — was to last for centuries. On the central theological issue of justification, only in 1999 did the Catholic Church and the World Lutheran Federation issue a “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.” Yet, despite the great progress in ecumenical relationships in the last decades, Catholics and Protestants cannot yet share the same Eucharistic meal. The break in communion endures to our day, a high price to pay for the gifts of the Reformers.
Does the Church need reform today? The Church is always in need of reform, because the women and men who constitute her are always in need of conversion. Yet, even a 2,000-year mammoth institution, stretching across continents and time, can surprise us. After all, Christians believe in a Holy Spirit that gives life, not only in the past, but also in the present. Hence, despite its (heavy) structures, the Catholic Church bewildered the world in the 1960s with the Second Vatican Council, which was not called because of a crisis but in a spirit of modernization of the Church, and led to tremendous changes.
More recently, the unexpected election of Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis in 2013 stunned even Catholics, and the world keeps watching a pope who challenges many, inside and outside the Church, by being simply a credible herald of the good news of Christ. Reform is happening, at its own pace.
What started for Luther as an invitation to discussion within the Church in 1517 evolved in a few years into an insurmountable divide.