It was around two o’clock in the afternoon on the eve of the Day of All Saints, October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther, hammer in hand, approached the main north door of the Schlosskirche (Castle Church) in Wittenberg and nailed up his Ninety-Five Theses protesting the abuse of indulgences in the teaching and practice of the church of his day. In remembrance of this event, millions of Christians still celebrate this day as the symbolic beginning of the Protestant Reformation. At Beeson Divinity School, for example, we do not celebrate Halloween on October 31. Instead we have a Reformation party.
But did this event really happen? Erwin Iserloh, a Catholic Reformation scholar, attributed the story of the theses-posting to later myth-making. He pointed to the fact that the story was first told by Philip Melanchthon long after Luther’s death. Other Luther scholars rushed to defend the historicity of the hammer blows of Wittenberg. In fact, the door of the Castle Church did serve as the official university bulletin board and was regularly used for exactly the kind of announcement Luther made when he called for a public disputation on indulgences.
But whether the event happened at two o’clock in the afternoon, or at all, is not the point. Copies of Luther’s theses were soon distributed by humanist scholars all over Europe. Within just a few weeks, an obscure Augustinian monk in a backwater university town had become a household name and was the subject of chatter from Lisbon to Lithuania.
It was not Luther’s intention to divide the Church, much less to start a brand new church. To the end of his life, he considered himself to be a faithful and obedient servant of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. Though Luther renounced his monastic vows and married a former nun, Katarina von Bora, he never forgot that he had received a doctorate in Holy Scripture. His vocation was to teach the written Word of God and to point men and women to the Lord of Scripture, Jesus Christ.
On this Reformation Day, it is good to remember that Martin Luther belongs to the entire Church, not only to Lutherans and Protestants, just as Thomas Aquinas is a treasury of Christian wisdom for faithful believers of all denominations, not simply for Dominicans and Catholics. This point was recognized several years ago by Franz-Josef Bode, the Catholic Bishop of Osnabrück in northern Germany, when he preached on Luther at an ecumenical service. “It’s fascinating,” he said, “just how radically Luther puts God at the center.”
Luther’s teaching that every human being at every moment of life stands absolutely coram deo ”before God, confronted face-to-face by God”led him to confront the major misunderstanding in the church of his day that grace and forgiveness of sins could be bought and sold like wares in the market. “The focus on Christ, the Bible and the authentic Word are things that we as the Catholic church today can only underline,” Bode said. The bishop’s views have been echoed by many other Catholic theologians since the Second Vatican Council as Luther’s teachings, especially his esteem for the Word of God, has come to be appreciated in a way that would have been unthinkable a century ago.
Next year will mark the fifteenth anniversary of the Joint Declaration of Justification between the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church. Like The Gift of Salvation statement issued by Evangelicals and Catholics Together in 1997, the Joint Declaration represents a measure of convergence between Catholic and Reformational understandings of that article of faith by which the Church either stands or falls, to quote a favorite Lutheran saying. For example, the Joint Declaration asserts, “We confess together: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.”
But convergence on justification does not equal consensus on all aspects of the doctrine of salvation. The framers of the Joint Declaration itself were forced to add an annex to the document delineating unresolved differences on simul iustus et peccator , Luther’s idea that justified believers are at one and the same time sinful and righteous before God. How justification and sanctification are related in the life of the Christian still continues to be debated. On these and many other issues related to authority and ecclesiology, the way forward is not to smudge over deep differences that remain between the two traditions but to acknowledge them openly and to continue to struggle over them together in prayer and in fresh engagement with the Scriptures. The way forward is an ecumenism of conviction, not an ecumenism of accommodation.
Several years ago I was asked to endorse a book by my friend Mark Noll called Is the Reformation Over? I responded by saying that the Reformation is over only to the extent that it succeeded. In fact, in some measure, the Reformation has succeeded, and more within the Catholic Church than in certain sectors of the Protestant world. The triumph of grace in the theology of Luther was”and still is”in the service of the whole Body of Christ. Luther was not without his warts, and we can hardly imagine him canonized as a saint. (Remember: simul iustus et peccator !) But the question Karl Barth asked about him in 1933 is still worth pondering this Reformation Day: “What else was Luther than a teacher of the Christian church whom one can hardly celebrate in any other way but to listen to him?”
Timothy George is founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University, a member of the editorial board of First Things , and a theological advisor for Christianity Today. This article originally appeared in 2009 .