As Martin Luther approached the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on October 31st, 1517, he did not expect anything remarkable to occur. Knowing something of what has transpired since that momentous event, I find this fact about Luther fascinating and worth some reflection.

Not long before posted his “Ninety-five Theses,” Luther had already written and posted a different set of theses (ninety-seven) to be debated in an academic setting. There was nothing unusual about his action: posting theses for debate was a regular part of the life of the university.   Yet Luther had high hopes that his critique of traditional scholastic theology would create a stir, and perhaps allow him to advance his thinking on justification by faith. He was disappointed. Beyond the university itself, there was little interest in his claims. When later he posted the “Ninety-Five Theses” he could only expect a similar result.

And then the storm broke…

The foregoing story throws some light on a misconception I once had about Luther. I used to imagine him heroically marching up to the church door in an obvious and dramatic act of protest. It was a Luther fully aware of what he was doing and all that was to come of it.

But history tells a different tale. The theses themselves, while marked by Luther’s characteristic zeal, show his intention of reforming the Roman Catholic church, not of breaking away from it. By revealing key errors in the doctrine and life of the church, he hoped that his ecclesiastical superiors would repent and make the needed adjustments. Luther’s work was the catalyst for the Reformation, but he hardly seemed to know it at the time.

Of course, historical hindsight allows us a perspective that Luther himself did not have. Something much larger than Luther’s own intentions was at work. I have in mind something close to what Paul summarized as “the fullness of time” in his epistle to the Galatians. The phrase in Greek refers to the completion of a certain process or period of time established by the father of a house. Paul intends the phrase to capture all that the Father had done to prepare the world for the advent of Christ and his Church. The birth of the Christian Church came during the “Pax Romana” (Peace of Rome) when the Roman empire experienced unprecedented stability and unity both politically and economically. The circumstances proved quite favorable to the spread of Christianity. Paul and his companions were able to travel with relative ease, either by land or by sea. The same can be said of countless Christians who made their way around the empire for one reason or another. Within a century, sizeable Christian communities could be found throughout the Mediterranean basin.

Could something similar be said of the circumstances leading up Luther’s theses? I believe so.

First, the fall of Constantinople in 1453 brought numerous scholars into western Europe, and with them came new perspectives and, most important, ancient texts. Western scholars came to realize the numerous changes and interpolations that had taken place in the copying and recopying of these ancient texts, especially the Bible. Luther called attention to one such change in the first of his theses: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘repent,’ He intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.” In his “Explanation of the Ninety-Five Theses” Luther points out that the Latin Vulgate translates the term “repent” as paenitentiam agite, “do penance,” a markedly different meaning than what is indicated by the original Greek term metanoia (literally meaning “change of mind”). Such insights engendered in Luther and others a deep desire to remove the layers of traditional Roman dogma and uncover the genuine teachings of the Bible.

Second, the feudal system of medieval Europe was beginning to collapse, and in its place several powerful monarchies came to rival the nobility and papal authority. The popes no longer seemed concerned about the ideal of “one flock under one shepherd” and instead were exemplars of realpolitik. Leo, the pope of Luther’s day, was no exception. Fearing the ascension of either Francis I of France or Charles I of Spain to the imperial throne, Leo desired to be on good terms with Fredrick the Wise of Saxony – a man who could rival both Francis and Charles. However, Fredrick the Wise was Luther’s ruling prince and one of his staunchest defenders. The result was that Luther’s condemnation was delayed, thus buying critical time for Luther’s impact to spread.

Lastly, Gutenberg’s printing press (c. 1440s) made it possible not only to copy texts repeatedly and without error, but for scholars to broadcast their ideas to a much larger audience. Furthermore, this technology came just when the use of Latin was on the decline and the respectability of vernacular languages was on the rise. Consequently, Luther’s theses (originally published in Latin) saw rapid publication, translation (into German), and distribution beyond what Luther himself anticipated. In the years to come, Luther would make good use of this new technology, particularly in the publication of pamphlets in which he presented his ideas in terms comprehensible to both the clergyman and the commoner. His “Three Treaties” of 1520 are a perfect example. The demand for Luther’s writings soon spread throughout western Europe. Pope Leo’s efforts at damage control were futile.

The fullness of time indeed.

Another Reformation Day approaches, and as I revisit Luther’s story I am reminded that his role was but one part of a much larger and more dynamic story. I am no longer inclined to think that the existence of the gospel hung by a thread and that Luther was its heroic savior. Luther did not save the gospel; the gospel saved Luther. His story is a remarkable example of the power of the gospel of Christ. It is not man’s power, but God’s power. And God will not allow His gospel to fail in its work.

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,

and do not return there but water the earth,

making it bring forth and sprout,

giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,

so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;

it shall not return to me empty,

but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,

and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

Isaiah 55:10-11


Dr. Tom Vierra teaches courses in The Great Conversation, Logic, and Rhetoric and is part of the administrative staff at WHA.