Theological Roots and Moral Fruits of Reformation

The leader of a major campus ministry recently said "If forty people approach a campus minister with an objection to Christianity, one worries about Bart Ehrman and his attacks on the authority and reliability of Scripture. The other thirty-nine have moral questions: Why does the Bible have a repressive sex ethic? Why is it silent about abuse of power? Why do evangelical churches support politicians who tolerate racism and misogyny? Why do so many pastors say "God wants you to be rich" and get rich pushing that message? In short, they ask, "Can I look to the church for moral direction?"

     The Reformation era had similar questions and they fueled a desire for reform in an era when the church was society's dominant institution. Priests were everywhere and their flaws were clear. For example, Zurich had a population of 5,000 people and about 400 priests – over 20% of the adult male population. They lived beside the people, who saw that most of them had concubines and illegitimate children. At the time, popes like Alexander VI and Julius I had acknowledged children.

     We rightly assent to the doctrinal elements of the Reformation, but it began as a moral movement and retained a moral flavor. The church was corrupt; it defrauded the poor to pay for its luxuries. This is a major element of Luther's protest against indulgences. In 1517, Johann Tetzel, an itinerant preacher, offered a special deal – a plenary indulgence, a complete remission of all penalties for sin, even covering purgatory. But indulgences were expensive. And they financed the lifestyle of a wealthy archbishop of Mainz and paid for the construction of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

     Carlos Eire, professor of history at Harvard and practicing Catholic, comments, "It was a very sweet deal through which everyone profited at every level, even in the afterlife." But eventually, as Charles Taylor, another Catholic said, it "set fire to the whole structure of the medieval church." The problem was two-fold: corrupt church leaders and the abuse of common folk who scraped together meager savings to buy worthless scraps of paper. Many Catholic leaders, including Erasmus, a mentor of Zwingli, and Johan Staupitz, Luther's mentor, called for reform. Indeed, forty years later, the Roman church launched a successful reform that corrected financial, sexual, and ecclesiastical abuses.

     But there was more to Luther than moral reform. Luther never intended to start the Reformation. He meant to protest Tetzel's indulgences for moral abuse and theological error. To quote theses 50-51, if "the pope knew [what] the indulgence-preachers [do], he would rather the church of St. Peter were reduced to ashes than be built with the skin, flesh, and bones of the sheep." The pope ought "to sell the church of St. Peter, and give his own money to… those from whom the pardon-merchants conjure money." Why redeem souls "for the sake of miserable money" that he uses "to build a church? The cause "is most trivial" and indulgences promote "greed and avarice," not prayer (theses 28, 48).

     Clearly, the presenting issue in 1517 was moral, but the root was theological. Luther's critique of indulgences had staying power because he went past moral dimensions and questioned the edifice of Catholicism, including the sacramental system for obtaining grace.

     The medieval church had an orthodox theology of the Trinity. It affirmed Jesus' bodily resurrection and the centrality of his atoning death. The disagreement lay in the doctrine of human nature and sin.

     The medieval church said justification and salvation comes by grace, but it said salvation comes by an infusion of grace, an empowering grace, granted by the Spirit to counter human sinfulness. Specifically, Baptism washes away original sin, but corruption or "concupiscence" remains in the desires of the flesh. Grace cannot quench this desire, which easily bursts into flame. But mankind, according the influential late Medieval theologian Gabriel Biel, is wounded, but not dead, prone to burst into sin, but capable of doing good and loving God. Mankind is wounded but alive, crippled but standing.

     Biel offered a simple prescription: "Do what is in you" ("Facere quod in se est") - do what you can. If you do, take heart, for God chose to obligate himself to infuse grace into you. This idea supports sacramental theology. By taking the sacraments, Christians do what they can and receive grace.

     This is not the moment to recount Luther's rediscovery of the gospel, but when he realized that the just live by his faith alone, through grace alone, he had a stronger reason to object to indulgences: they confused the gospel. They are part of a theology that tells people to do what they can to gain grace.

     Many agreed on the need for church reform, but Luther gave the reform theological roots. Many protested financial misbehavior, but Luther's objection rested on a new perspective on God, humanity, and the gospel. He said the will is in bondage to sin and dead to God, not wounded. The cure is not that men do what they can, but that God does what men cannot. Hence salvation is by grace alone, through Christ alone, received by faith alone. That teaching led to Luther's greatest moral reforms. I will merely mention two: the close of monasteries, which brought new respect for marriage, and the idea that work, in this world, is a vocation.

     The monastery was attractive to the pious because it offered constant access to grace-giving sacraments, especially penance and Eucharist. But the gospel deprives monasteries of a key theological foundation. The Spirit, the gospel and union with Christ offer all necessary grace. Therefore monasteries can empty and people with no calling to singleness can leave and marry. Marriage can regain the esteem it deserves.

     The gospel also drove Luther's reforms of work. Medieval theology said monks and priests have a vocation, serving God, gaining grace, and keeping (meritorious) vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. But if everyone has the necessary grace through Christ, the need for a sacred vocation fades, and the path is open to see all work as a vocation.

     Luther's view of work will be the subject of a later blog. For now, let's see that the gospel drove the greatest social reforms of the Reformation era. Then we can explore the way reforms most needed today also rest in the truth about God, mankind, and the gospel.

Dan Doriani