For many Protestant Churches across the world, Sunday was a tribute to Martin Luther and the Reformation. October 31st marks the anniversary date when Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. K. Konnie Kang of the Los Angeles Times, wrote a piece titled, “Protestants celebrate their heritage, the Reformation”. Kang also featured a quote that simply explains Protestant theology from the Rev. Nathan P. Feldmeth, who is a professor of medieval and Reformation history at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Feldmeth declared:
“The Reformation was about the centrality of Christ in the life of the individual and centrality of the word of God in worship. At the heart of the Reformation is the doctrine of justification by faith — meaning people are saved by God’s grace, through faith in Jesus Christ, not by good deeds.”
Most people, at least those who are minimally knowledgeable of theology, understand basic Reformation theology. Some however, may not be aware of how the Protestant Reformation heavily influenced civil and religious liberty. I know it’s not taught in the public schools anymore, because I was never aware of this until I learned it on my own.
The pastor at the church I attended Sunday in Grand Rapids briefly talked about how the doctrine of sola scriptura (scripture alone) is directly related to the ideas and concept of the American Constitution. While Protestants interpret scripture through Christian tradition, for the reformers scripture trumps the decrees and councils of men. Likewise, for the American Founders at least, the U.S. Constitution is above any human official, elected or not.
Luther’s doctrine of “the priesthood of all believers” also heavily influenced the emergence of representative democracy. In addition, the Presbyterian style of church government further set the stage for individual rights and liberties. Responsibility for the governance of the church is not just for the clergy , but laity as well. This model of church government, where elders serve as leaders can be contrasted with the episcopal style of church government, which better reflects a monarchy. King James I of Great Britain rightly predicted, “If bishops go, so will the king.” At its very heart, it expresses a belief that humans in their depravity cannot set themselves above the law of God, no matter their office.
When Martin Luther declared his “conscience was captive to the word of God” it had political repercussions. Luther’s protest showcased a primary debate about ultimate authority, and where this authority stems from. The legacy and impact of the Reformation directly affect our society today, especially in relation to government, human rights, and religious and political freedoms.