In the Church of All Saints in Wittenberg, Germany, the ritual of the Roman Catholic church was in full swing. The air swirled with the scented smoke of incense, almost obscuring the statues and images that lined the walls of the building and its magnificent vaulted ceiling. From the high altar came the musical drone of the Latin mass. From all over the building came the clack of rosaries and the murmur of prayers, interrupted only when the tinkle of a golden bell drew the adoring gaze of the congregation to the elevated host, a sacrifice that they could look at but not partake of. The wealth and error that the church had acquired through the Middle Ages was on display, a vast religious machine smoothly turning souls into money, ever adding to its wealth and prestige. But, suddenly, a new sound was heard – simple but portentous, cutting through the sonorous hum that filled the air, startling the priest and the people, and halting the liturgy in its well-worn track. It was the sound of nails being driven into the hard oak of the massive cathedral door. That sound would echo beyond the walls of Wittenberg until the whole world rang with it.
In reality, the scene that took place when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses (or topics for discussion) to the door of the cathedral was probably less dramatic – nailing a notice to the door was an established means of initiating public debate. But it is difficult to overestimate the repercussions of Luther’s action. Though only a humble monk, he was to become the piece of grit that brought the well-oiled machinery of the Catholic church almost to a standstill, that sowed consternation and alarm amongst the princes and prelates of Europe, and that brought light and hope to their benighted and despairing peoples. In this mission, Luther was not motivated by political ambition or by religious fanaticism. Rather, he was inspired and impelled by the Word of God. It was the study of Scripture that had brought him to faith in Christ. It was in its pages that he discovered that “the just shall live by faith.” And, it was to Scripture that he appealed as he stood before the hostile Diet of Worms, saying “my conscience is captive to the Word of God … here I stand, I can do no other, may God help me.”
Direct appeal to the authority of God’s Word does not, perhaps, seem a remarkable thing to us. But in Luther’s day it was both radical and revolutionary. Throughout the Middle Ages the Roman Catholic church had done everything it could to declare Scripture off-limits, and to replace it with the traditions of the church and the decrees of the papacy. Indeed, that trend had commenced before the Middle Ages. The church at Rome had always been prominent – a sort of first among equals in the world at the time. That position was based on the respect of believers for the doctrinal strength and the faithfulness of the believers in Rome. At the conversion of Constantine, however, the Roman church gained a political power that was far from Scriptural. As such power does, this new importance quickly corrupted the Roman church, which developed territorial ambitions to match those of the Empire with which she was now identified. And because Scripture that was freely available and open to all would not serve these ambitions, the place and power of the Word of God was undermined and circumscribed by the teaching of the Roman church.
This attack involved three strategies. The Roman church claimed a monopoly on the correct interpretation of Scripture. Only the teachings of the doctors of the church, and ultimately of the Pope could be regarded. This teaching authority, vested in the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic church, is called the Magisterium, and it is still the teaching of that church. “The task of interpreting the Word of God authentically has been entrusted solely to the Magisterium of the church, that is, to the Pope and to the bishops in communion with him.” This teaching cut believers off from the Word of God, it denied them the opportunity to emulate the noble Bereans who “received the Word with all readiness of mind, and searched the Scriptures daily, whether those things were so,” and it meant that the church had tremendous power to control the way in which they understood Scripture.
This attempt to monopolize the interpretation was bolstered by the way in which the church opposed the translation of Scripture into the vernacular languages of the European peoples. The intent of Jerome’s Vulgate, in providing a new translation of the Hebrew and Greek of the Bible into Latin, had been to make Scripture widely and accurately available. In a world where there was no longer an overlap between literacy and the ability to understand Latin, the use of the Vulgate further empowered the church, and further disempowered those who might otherwise have been too aware of the growing divide between the teachings of the Apostles, and those of the Roman church. Some access to vernacular Scripture remained in glosses and lectionaries, and some – both priests and laymen – continued faithfully to preach the truth of God’s Word. But there were many whose only knowledge of Scripture was dependant on the teaching of the church.
In its drive for power, wealth, and dominion, the papacy did not wish to be limited to “the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 1:3), or even to Scripture as interpreted by the pope. So, the doctrine of papal infallibility developed. This taught that, when the pope made pronouncements on “doctrines of faith or morals,” the dogmatic pronouncements of the pope had the same force and effect as the teaching of the apostles. If the political or financial interests of the Roman church needed the support of doctrine, the pope could provide it.
Thus, through the Middle Ages, Scripture was sidelined, locked away from the people, interred in a foreign language, and belittled by the introduction of new dogmas. Believers in this period had no way of evaluating the truth of what they heard from their priest, no way of knowing when innovative doctrine was being foisted upon them. They simply had to take, on trust, the teaching of the Roman Catholic church, and to accept the proposition that the pope knew best.
It is in this context that the true significance of Luther’s action must be understood. Along with the other reformers, Luther’s teaching had an influence on the way in which all sorts of doctrines were understood. But his return to Scripture was the most important, most fundamental, and most radical of all his contributions to the health of the church. Sola scriptura, or “Scripture alone” became one of the great watch cries of the Reformation. Luther in Germany, Tyndale in England, Olivetan in France, and Diodati in Italy began the translation of Scripture into the vernacular languages of Europe. Scripture once again became widely read and widely discussed in the markets and the taverns as well as in the schools and universities. Volumes of Biblical commentary began to pour from the presses. Like a mighty river, the torrent of Scripture swept through Europe, washing away the accumulated junk of centuries, undermining the power of the papacy, bringing truth and its sister, freedom, to those who sat in great darkness.
We look to Scripture, and not to the Reformers, for our doctrine. Nonetheless, we should thank God for those who were raised up by Him to restore His Word to its rightful place as the only source and final arbiter of spiritual truth. And these men have a great deal to teach us – they were captives to the Word of God. They were, in Luther’s memorable phrase, captives to the Word of God. They were prepared to put everything – wealth, safety, and life itself – on the line in order to stand for its truth against human traditions. We need to maintain a similar attitude to God’s Word. We ought not to oppose tradition simply because it is tradition. But we should never obey tradition when it is in contradiction with the teachings of Scripture. Moreover, we must be always on our guard lest we imitate the Pharisees who were upbraided by the Lord Jesus because they taught “for doctrines the commandments of men” (Matt 15:9). May God help us to live the truth of sola scriptura, individually and as assemblies of His people.