Five hundred years ago this month, in October, 1517, an obscure Roman Catholic monk and university professor named Martin Luther published a list of 95 theses for public debate, highlighting the Catholic Church’s overreaching, in his view, of its authority in the oversight of souls. Specifically, he objected to the Church’s selling of “indulgences” — supposed commutations of a soul’s tenure in purgatory — as part of Pope Leo X’s fundraising strategy for the new St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. Supposedly Luther posted these theses on the cathedral door in Wittenberg, where he lived and taught, though it’s not clear that this iconic event ever happened, What is clear is that Luther’s 95 theses were an opening salvo in a dramatic worldwide re envisioning of Christian faith and a reconfiguring of the Church whose effects continue to this day.
We Baptists, though some in our midst have questioned it, are children of the Reformation. There is an idiosyncratic view of church history among some Baptists called the “Trail of Blood” theory. I grew up with it. Its proponents claim that since Christ and the Apostles to the present day, there has been a marginalized remnant of Christian believers — often persecuted, hence the “trail of blood” — who have clung to believers baptism and have rejected popes and bishops and recognition by kings and magistrates. There may be some truth to this claim, but modern Baptists as we know them are descended from English dissenters who rejected the English Reformation as inadequate and were often persecuted for their stands — for instance, John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, who wrote much of this classic work from jail — and driven into exile in the tolerant Netherlands.
The most widely known proponents of Reformation, such as Luther and John Calvin, became known as “magisterial” reformers, because they formed alliances with friendly governments for support and protection — hence the emergence of state sponsored Lutheran churches in Germany and Scandinavia, Reformed churches in Switzerland and Scotland and the Anglican Church in England. The English Puritans who settled New England were among many who objected to this sort of arrangement. But all of these churches continued the ancient Catholic practice of infant baptism, and echoed Catholic tradition in their creeds and confessions. The early English Baptists and their first cousins on the continent — Moravians, Mennonites and others — insisted on believers baptism by immersion, which is our practice to this day. So why then should we Baptists celebrate the Reformation, and why do I insist on calling us “children of the Reformation?”
Martin Luther was clear and compelling in his rejection of religious ceremonies and affiliations and “works” of any kind as instruments of salvation. In his own life he had seized on the biblical affirmation that “the just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17) as a balm for his guilty conscience, and he clearly taught salvation by grace through faith. Luther and Calvin and their colleagues lifted up the Bible as God’s special revelation, and the only authoritative source of true doctrine. Confessions and creeds were only useful as elucidations of Bible doctrine, not binding and authoritative in their own right. The Reformers were early adapters of the revolutionary new technology of the printing press (What is the lesson in that for us today?) and produced a tidal wave of inexpensive Bibles, hymnals, catechisms and devotional tracts in the language of the people. This allowed ordinary people to become the subjects of their own faith, not merely passive sheep under the dominion of the clergy. The widespread distribution of printed Christian resources and a surge in literacy went hand in hand.
In all of these ways, Baptists and many others are indeed heirs of the Reformation, and it behooves us to celebrate this great historical move of God . But there’s one more thing: In the America’s and around the world, millions of Christ followers in many traditions — Reformed, Lutheran, Catholic, Orthodox and Pentecostal — confess a personal, faith relationship to Jesus Christ, seek baptism as believers and prioritize the role of scripture in their faith walk. Might we suggest that just as Baptists are children of the Reformation, many members of Reformation communities — and others — are becoming more Baptist?
—Dr. David L. Wheeler
P.S. Watch for Dr. Martin Luther’s visit to First Baptist Church on October 29.