By Theuns de Bruyn
On October 31, 1517, the world would change forever. The date marks the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. It was an event that freed the church and community from the prevailing abuse and exploitation of the peoples in Western Europe. It was an event in which the Lord would give Light in the dark Middle Ages.
Darkness in the Middle Ages
At the beginning of the sixteenth century, things looked bleak for the peoples of Western Europe. The masses lived largely in ignorance. Most people were illiterate. It was a time where people were basically at the mercy of the tyranny of kings or the exploitation of the church.
Virtually every area of people’s lives was subject to the dominance of the state or the church. The Roman-Catholic Church was at that stage the only church in Western Europe and had a monopoly on education. Science and its development was largely regulated by the church. Even the arts were subject to the will and taste of the church’s prescriptions.
Malpractice and deception on the part of the church ran rampant. Persons who took a stand against it were often executed. At this time the church also started selling indulgences. All people, so the Roman Church taught, had to go to purgatory for a period of time after their death to finally burn clean of their sins. According to the Roman Church, this suffering was even destined for those who would go to heaven.
But, the church taught, there was a way in which your suffering in purgatory, and even the suffering of your deceased loved ones, could be shortened. You could simply buy a letter of indulgence. Purgatory’s flames would torment your loved ones for a shorter period of time. It’s no wonder the Vatican had the money to build such pretty impressive cathedrals.
However, matters changed drastically when a German monk in Wittenberg took a stand against the Roman Church’s heresy and exploitation. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses against the indulgences to the church door of Wittenberg. This was shortly after the printing press was also invented.
His ideas spread like wildfire in Europe. This brought about the reformation of the 16th century. Under the influence of reformers such as Martin Luther, Johannes Calvin and Guillaume Farel, the church reformed back to the Scriptures(1). Life in society also became more bearable. The reformers strove for the education of the masses on the European continent. Even the arts were freed from the dominance of the church. Many universities were built under the influence of the reformers.
Church and society were never the same after that. The darkness of the Middle Ages had to give way to the Light of God’s Word.
So where did the reformation really begin? Some may argue that this was simply the result of a confluence of circumstances. Others may look for the origin in the structures that formed in the period of the reformation. However, to get an answer it would be wise to determine where it started for Luther With the realization of who God is and who He is.
Before the events of 1517, Luther had already wrestled deeply with the biggest problem in the world: The darkness of sin. He also found in Jesus Christ the just and merciful forgiveness of sins. So the reformation began there. At the Holy Spirit’s work in the heart of a sinner. It began with the Light that a sinner received from God.
It is there where true reformation will also begin today – in the hearts of sinners. It will begin when people who have come to know the Light of the gospel work reformatively on the community(2). This will happen when the children of God give expression to the glory that God has made known to them in their hearts. This will happen when we want to build from faith. This will happen when we can confess before the Lord in a deep sense of dependence: In your light we see the Light(3).
(1) Paas, S. 2016. Christianity in Eurafrica.
(2) Floor, L. 1977. The kingdom of God and the renewal of the company.
(3) Psalm 36:10
- Theuns de Bruyn is a 5th year student at the Theological School in Potchefstroom.