On October 31, 1517, the priest and scholar Martin Luther approached the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany and nailed a piece of paper to it containing the 95 revolutionary opinions that would begin the Protestant Reformation.
In his theses, Luther condemned the excesses and corruption of the Roman Catholic Church, especially the papal practice of asking payment—called “indulgences”—for the forgiveness of sins. At the time, a Dominican priest named Johann Tetzel, commissioned by the Archbishop of Mainz and Pope Leo X, was in the midst of a major fundraising campaign in Germany to finance the renovation of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
The term “Protestant” first appeared in 1529, when Charles V revoked a provision that allowed the ruler of each German state to choose whether they would enforce the Edict of Worms. A number of princes and other supporters of Luther issued a protest, declaring that their allegiance to God trumped their allegiance to the emperor. They became known to their opponents as Protestants; gradually this name came to apply to all who believed the Church should be reformed, even those outside Germany.
On the 500th anniversary of Luther’s protest, Catholics and Lutherans plan to celebrate together. Both sides have agreed to set aside centuries of hostility and prejudice. This will be the first centenary celebration in the age of ecumenism, globalization and the secularization of Western societies.
In Geneva, 2013, the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation released a joint document, “From Conflict to Communion,” that said there is little purpose in dredging up centuries-old conflicts. In the document, the two churches recognize that the celebration requires a new approach, focusing on a reciprocal admission of guilt and on highlighting the progress made by Lutheran-Catholic dialogue over the past fifty years. The report said, “The awareness is dawning on Lutherans and Catholics that the struggle of the 16th century is over. The reasons for mutually condemning each other’s faith have fallen by the wayside.”
Re-examining the history of the Reformation and the split it created, the document states that Luther “had no intention of establishing a new church, but was a part of a broad and many-faceted desire for reform. The fact that the struggle for this truth in the 16th century led to the loss of unity in Western Christendom belongs to the dark pages of church history. In 2017, we must confess openly that we have been guilty before Christ of damaging the unity of the church.”
During the decades since the Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council (1962-65), Lutherans and Catholics have sought theological common ground and after much ecumenical dialogue have “come to acknowledge that more unites than divides them,” says the document.
The rise of Pentecostal and charismatic movements over the past century “have put forward new emphases that have made many of the old confessional controversies seem obsolete,” it added.
“In the book of Revelation the prophet describes the scenes of the Gospel age, and he sees in heaven the ark of the testimony. There the holy law of God shines in holy dignity, just as when God wrote it with His own finger on tables of stone. John describes the work that will be done in the last days, when the Protestant churches form a confederacy with the Catholic power, and work against the law of God and against those who keep His commandments.” The Signs of the Times, March 12, 1896.
“With rapid steps we are approaching this period [when the whole Protestant world will be brought under the banner of Rome].” Ibid., March 22, 1910.