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500 years later, why do I care about the Reformation?

If your church pastor told you that you could buy your way out of being punished for sin with a mere $50, would you do it?

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I’d probably be tempted – wouldn’t you? – but I’d want to have a quick look at the Bible to see what it says, just to be sure I wasn’t being taken for a ride. But what if I didn’t have a Bible? And what if the only Bible I knew of lived permanently in my church, and was written in a language I couldn’t read or understand? If I were determined, I’d try to find someone who read that language, who could confirm for me that this practice was legit. But there’s always the risk that they would lie to me and think of it as an opportunity to fleece me of my $50.

That this is probably not a problem you’ve had to face recently, if ever, is the legacy of a 15th-century Catholic monk named Martin Luther.

What if the only Bible I knew of lived permanently in my church, and was written in a language I couldn’t read?

For a brief period in history, some church leaders in Europe offered a reduction in the temporal penalties for sin in return for a small fee. These were known as indulgences. The period during which indulgences were sold lasted a few hundred years at most, and was a grotesque distortion of Catholic doctrine, which emphasised the importance of a contrite heart in the face of one’s sin.

(Indulgences do not equal the purchase of forgiveness. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that while the death of Jesus is sufficient to forgive the guilt of sin, individual believers still bear the temporal penalties of sin. These penalties could be reduced or removed through penance: confession, prayer and works of charity.)

When Luther noticed that some churches in his region were selling indulgences, he wrote a list of 95 reasons why indulgences were wrong (he hadn’t been the first to attack the doctrine), and nailed it to the door of his church so everyone could see it.

For the most part, Luther’s list makes a distinction between penance and repentance. Penance, performing the duties of prayer and charity (or paying a fee) to receive an indulgence, was only effective at removing the impositions of the church, according to Luther. Repentance, on the other hand, was a lifelong attitude expected of all Christians, and was effective at removing the guilt of and penalty for sin, both now and into eternity.

Luther’s attack on indulgences came around the same time as he was having an existential crisis. He was a scholar as well as a pastor, and was one of a very few people afforded the privilege of learning Latin, the language of the Bible. Raised in a culture that believed that God would automatically forgive sin if the sinner displayed humility (cf. James 4:6), Luther came to deny that this humility (lamenting and confessing sin) was enough to secure a right relationship with God.

The Catholic Church taught that the individual played a role in maintaining their salvation.

According to Luther, faith in Christ was the only way to be saved, and there was no righteousness to be had apart from Christ (cf. Rom 3:23-24). Of course, Luther’s teaching – that one is justified before God by faith in Christ alone – risks a charge of cheap grace if the sinner does not take seriously the grief their sin causes God.

Luther’s problem was that he wasn’t technically allowed to say that. The official church line at the time was that God gave individuals the ability to believe (the gift of faith), but that a believer could lose this faith if they did not use it to grow closer to Jesus. In this way, the Catholic Church taught that the individual played a role in maintaining their salvation. In contradicting this, Luther crossed the Pope, which was a pretty reckless thing for a Catholic monk to do because the Pope was the ultimate authority in matters of church teaching.

But Luther wasn’t willing to set aside his new convictions and bow to the authority of the Pope. The indulgences controversy followed by his revelation of justification by faith had made him question the authority of the church. He began to speak openly about the authority of the Pope over the church, particularly focusing on when the Pope’s authority clashed with Scripture, saying that Scripture should probably win out.

Luther believed that he could fix it. He tried to make the case that the Catholic Church needed to reform its teachings to bring them in line with the Bible. But the church, fearful of losing power and control, instead decided to charge Luther with teaching untruths, and kick him out of the church.

With his life under threat – it was no secret that heretics were burnt at the stake for their crimes – Luther went into hiding. While there, he began to translate the New Testament into German from the Greek original. Translation was not technically forbidden, but it was certainly not encouraged by the Catholic Church in Rome, who held that the Latin translation of the Bible (known as the Vulgate) was the authoritative text. (This translation had been largely completed by a guy called Jerome in the 4th century, after several church council meetings had finalised which books would be included in the official Bible). The emphasis on the single Latin translation was part of an attempt to keep the church unified. In the years since, the Catholic Church has embraced Bible translation.

“They have no desire to give up their native Hebrew in order to imitate our barbaric German.” – Martin Luther

But hidden away from the world, Luther had nothing to lose. Copies of the New Testament in German were distributed a year later to widespread acclaim. It’s estimated it sold five thousand copies in the first two months alone. The Old Testament was completed 12 years later.

The process wasn’t without its challenges. Luther, a perfectionist, wanted to use the best of all the dialects in Germany to create a Bible in spoken, rather than written, German. He wanted it to sound right. In one of his journals he wrote, “We are now sweating over a German translation of the Prophets. O God, what a hard and difficult task it is to force these writers, quite against their wills, to speak German. They have no desire to give up their native Hebrew in order to imitate our barbaric German. It is as though one were to force a nightingale to imitate a cuckoo, to give up his own glorious melody for a monotonous song he must certainly hate.”

Translations were also well under way across other parts of Europe. After completing an English New Testament, a man named William Tyndale risked his life to smuggle copies of it into England and Scotland. Not long afterwards, the leaders of the English Catholic Church condemned the English New Testament and copies of it were burnt in public. Tyndale grew in unpopularity after he publicly condemned the King of England for wanting to divorce his wife.

Thanks to the printing press, not even the authorities could stop its distribution, even though they tried.

(King Henry VIII was a womaniser and not a very nice person. While married to a Spanish princess, Catherine, he seduced her maid, Mary, who bore him two children, although Henry never acknowledged them as his own. Catherine had a daughter, but Henry wanted a son and an heir to his throne. After Catherine repeatedly failed to have a son, he wanted to divorce her and marry someone else, a woman named Anne. When the Catholic Church would not permit this, Henry instituted proceedings to break away from the Catholic Church. This act established the Church of England – what we know today as the Anglican Church. Henry’s wives – he had six in all – either ended up executed or sent away if they displeased him. Ironically, he only had one son in all his marriages.)

Crossing the King signed Tyndale’s death warrant, and he was strangled to death and his body burnt at the stake when the authorities finally found him.

But Tyndale’s translation work carried on beyond his death. A team of translators finished the project, and a whole English Bible was published the year after his death. Thanks to the printing press, not even the authorities could stop its distribution, even though they tried.

You wouldn’t have your Bible without the Reformation. You would still need to go to your pastor to get them to interpret Scripture for you.

Tyndale’s translation formed the basis of the King James Bible, which in turn forms the basis of most modern translations of the Bible. That is, you wouldn’t have your Bible without the Reformation. You would still need to go to your pastor to get them to interpret Scripture for you. You couldn’t sit down with a cuppa and read the stories of Jesus, the letters of Paul or the Psalms. The Bible on your shelf, the one in your bag, the one on your nightstand – the text that brings you the good news of salvation, comfort, truth, peace and grace, whenever you need it – you only have it because, throughout history, some ordinary people took big risks to make sure you had it in a language you understand.

Thanks to them, and others before them, you don’t need to just trust someone who says you can buy your way out of the punishment of sin with $50. You can go home, open your Bible, and see for yourself that God’s grace is a gift freely given to those who simply ask for it.

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