By Sebastian Temlett and Caryn Tennant

When looking at history, it is important to examine both sides of the story – those for and those against. Having done this I think we’ll find the truth (or something like it) lies somewhere in the middle.

To discuss the reformation is to firstly discuss Martin Luther, a German Catholic priest who was born in 1483. A devout man, he desired to live the perfect Christian life but he found his inability to achieve this a cause for great anguish. In his mind, human nature was too flawed, too fallen to perform any good work that could be seen as good in God’s eyes.

In Catholic theology a person receives grace through Christ’s death and resurrection, to which he or she can freely respond. This act of “choosing to respond to God’s grace” was something Luther came to reject.

He concluded that instead of a process of healing where sin is wiped away through repentance and an active faith, salvation is a once off event. Furthermore, when a person places his or her trust in Christ and is saved through that Faith then and there, salvation cannot be lost. Protestant Theology refers to this idea as Sola Fide: “Faith Alone”.

There is a tendency in Catholic literature to vilify Luther, to paint him as a lost theologian (albeit a brilliant one) with a troubled mind, plagued by scrupulosity and doubts about his salvation. While he certainly did struggle with these issues, I believe it is important to see him as a whole person, neither a villain nor a hero but a man attempting to follow his convictions and find peace in his life.

Luther struggled with the concept of his own sinfulness and he found no relief in the sacramental lifeof the Church. His upbringing had been austere, his father authoritarian, which perhaps played a part in forming his view of a wrathful God who he could not appease.

This character sketch is relevant in order to understand Luther’s mind set and internal struggles as atheologian, which played a part in the events that led up to his ultimate separation from Rome.

In 1508 he was sent to the University of Wittenberg to pursue his theological studies. After graduation he returned to Wittenburg to lecture.

An excellent mind, he quickly rose through the ranks as a Professor at Wittenberg University.

At this time, a priest named John Tetzel appeared in Jüterborg, not far from Wittenberg and began preaching on indulgences and accepting donations for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica.

There are many conflicting opinions as to whether Tetzel was promoting the sale of indulgences by claiming the purchase would immediately release a soul from purgatory, or if he was merely accepting an optional monetary contribution for St. Peter’s.
Either way, Luther took strong offense to this practice. This sparked him to write out his famous “95 Theses” which opposed the sale of indulgences and called into question the Church’s authority to pardon sin.

As the story goes, on the 31st October 1517 he pinned his 95 Theses to the Castle chapel door, which was a sort of University blackboard at the time. Luther hadn’t intended his writings to start trouble;he was merely seeking refutation, an intellectual debate. However, the events that followed were to shape the future of Christianity and Western Civilization.

The archbishop of the region gave a copy of the theses to his councillors in Aschaffenburg who came to the conclusion that the theses were heretical.

Luther was quick to state that he would submit to the authority of the Pope if it could be shown through scripture that he was wrong. He was summoned to an assembly at the Diet of Worms (pronounced “verms”) in 1521. Luther refused to recant his theories and thus was officially excommunicated and declared a heretic. Luther had never intended to split from The Catholic Church nor to found a new movement of Christianity. But the western world was primed for revolt. The printing press had just come into the picture and the people were tired of being trodden underfoot by their rulers and clergy alike. This, coupled with Luther’s actions, gave the people a path to follow, an example that it was possible to oppose the powers at be and get away with it. Many people latched onto his ideas and used them as an excuse to rise up, sometimes violently, against the authorities in demand of more just economical conditions. Luther condemned the violence but believed that uprisings should be dealt with severely.

Over time, Luther moved further away from the Catholic Church and strengthened his ideas leading the Reformation as a movement. However, already amongst his followers, divisions arose and different ideas formed around Luther’s theories, which lead to a long line of split offs from the mainReformation movement. By now the Catholic Church had realised the seriousness of Luther’s challenges but it was too late.

At this time, the Church was arguably the most fragile because of the corruption caused by some bad apples in the papacy – and this is the part of Catholic history we grieve. However, was it the right thing to divide the Church? The implications were that many more churches would form – based on many of the ideological ‘isms’ of the day. Nationalism caused countries to create churches such as the Dutch Reformed Church, King Henry VIII, a devout Catholic who even partook in her Sacraments until the end of his life, formed the Church of England to better suit his life choices; individualism caused the formation of churches that opposed the Church’s structure of authority – it displeased some that God would have representatives (those who succeeded St. Peter upon whom Christ built His Church) to lead God’s many followers.

While Luther’s decision bore fruit by challenging the wrongdoings of the Church at the time, the division he caused had a snowball effect that has hurt the unity of Christians to this day. There is no going back now, but what we can do is recognize our commonalities among denominations. We all believe in Christ as our Saviour, and although the angles of our theology might differ, we can find comfort in the fact that through our joint belief in Christ we are one.


About the AuthorsProfile from Caryn

Caryn Tennant

My inspirations are the smell of croissants, Pope Francis and café interiors. I have had too many hometowns, but currently I’m living in Cape Town where I finished my BA degree and am now teaching
English at a high school. My bucket list includes studying theology, speaking Spanish in Spain, and running a half marathon.





Profile from Caryn

Sebastian Temlett

Sebastian is a theology student who lives in Belgium. He was born in Zimbabwe and spent eight years in Cape Town working in the film industry. Find him at @SebTemlet