Last night I watched a Dividing Line episode in which James White once again refuted claims by Roman Catholic apologist Tim Staples for the purpose of demonstrating that (contrary to what Pope Francis alleges) the Reformation is assuredly not over. Staples made an assertion that Luther, Calvin and the other 16th Century Reformers simply up and started their own churches. Just for the fun of it, I guess. Staples really didn’t explain why they “started their own churches.”
Honestly, you’d think someone who engages in Catholic apologetics as his profession would be just a little bit more responsible, wouldn’t you?
In reality, Martin Luther first nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Whittenburg Castle Church merely to initiate a conversation within Whittenburg University. The sale of Indulgences (which I briefly explained in this post) deeply troubled him because it exploited the fears and superstitions of people who had no direct access to Scripture.
Expanding on my feeble explanation of the sale of Indulgences, permit me to quote an article on the topic from Christian History For Everyman:
There are two ideas involved in Roman Catholic teaching on indulgences:
Christians receive “temporal punishment” for sin, even after its guilt and eternal punishment have been forgiven by God. That temporal punishment must be paid either here on earth or in a temporary, after-death holding place called purgatory.
The Roman Catholic Church has a “treasury,” composed of the “superabundant merits of Christ and the saints,” which the Church, through the exercise of the “power of the keys,” can transfer to the benefit of those who are due temporal punishment.
Of course, there’s more to Indulgences than just that, as I propose to explore with you next Tuesday, but right now let’s work with this small definition. In the early 16th Century, the Roman Catholic Church sold Indulgences in order to finance Saint Peter’s Basilica, which was being built at the time. Dominican priest John Tetzel came to Whittenburg as a seller of Indulgences, using manipulative sales tactics that disturbed Luther.
In a future essay, I’ll delve deeper into Luther’s objections to Tetzel, as well as to the whole matter of Indulgences, but right now doing so would distract from my main point. Contrary to what Tim Staples would have us believe, Martin Luther didn’t wake up on October 31st, 1517 and say to himself, “By golly, I think I’ll start me a church!”
C’mon, Staples, you should know that Luther never wanted to leave the Roman Catholic Church! In tacking up his 95 Theses, he simply hoped to begin a dialogue that might encourage Rome to stop this practice that had absolutely no Scriptural basis. He saw that the selling of Indulgences did nothing to guarantee release from Purgatory (another doctrinal invention of the Catholic Church), and that it took advantage of those who could least afford such taxation.
In short, Martin Luther saw a deviation from God’s Word in Catholicism. Over time, he would see other deviations, and his bravery to write about them would eventually lead Rome to excommunicate him, leaving him no recourse but to worship with others who recognized the Church’s departure from the Bible.
People like Tim Staples remind me that 21st Century Christians desperately need to study Church History in general and the Reformation in particular. If we suppose that Luther, Calvin and the others started churches out of little more than rebellion against Rome, we mischaracterize the men who restored Biblical Christianity to the world.