Remembering the Reformation: Sola Scriptura (III)

To celebrate the Protestant Reformation, here at jasonkallen.com we are revisiting the five solas of the Reformation, especially sola Scriptura.  As we look back to the 16th century, we must remember that the five solas were not then packaged together as we know them now. They were there, in seed form, but they would not be packaged together until much later as Protestantism’s legacy crystalized.

In parts I & II of this series, we introduced the solas and established sola Scriptura biblically and theologically.  Let’s now contextualize it historically. To do so we must journey back to the 16th century and consider three scenes from the life of Martin Luther.

Many of us are familiar with two of these scenes, but there is one most of us are not. These three, epic scenes occurred in 1517, 1519, and 1521. In these three scenes, we get a glimpse into the heart of Luther, and thus a glimpse into sola Scriptura.

Knocking on Wittenberg’s Door

For Luther, he didn’t just arrive in 1517 and send out a public service announcement declaring sola Scriptura. Rather, he grew into his understanding of sola Scriptura over a period of years. He reasoned within himself through several conflicts, eventually embracing Scripture as the final, divine authority.

The first scene is Reformation Day, October 31, 1517. Luther, the young Augustinian monk, nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Chapel Church. Enumerated in 95 theses, Luther protested many abuses and aberrations of the Roman Catholic Church.

Luther’s most urgent concern was the selling of indulgences. The selling of indulgences was, perhaps, the dastardliest abuse of authority in the history of the church.  In response, Luther, who was not seeking to leave the church, but initially seeking to help the church, sets forth these 95 theses on the chapel door of the Wittenberg church. He intended to spark a debate. Instead, he sparked a conflagration that would sweep through Europe and beyond, and in so doing he set forth Scripture as the church’s plumb line.

Here I Stand

The second scene, occurring in 1521, is less familiar than Reformation Day, but still is relatively well known. It happened just four years later and is known as the Diet of Worms. The Hoy Roman Emperor, Charles V, of the Holy Roman Empire, convened this diet just four years after Luther had nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg Chapel door.

Charles V called Luther to give an account for what he had said and written. Luther was granted assurance of safe travel and promised that he would not be put to death upon arrival at Worms.  So, Luther came to the diet against the counsel of many and with the wishes of others.

Luther showed up on April 16, at 4:00 p.m., and was told to report the next day, April 17, at 4 p.m. At the appointed hour, he entered the assembly and took his place in the middle of the auditorium. Before him were his collected writings and around him a gathering of ecclesiastical and imperial authorities.

For Luther, at this point, his choice was binary—reaffirm or renounce. As you read the account, you can almost feel the drama of the moment. The presiding officer, Johann Eck, asked Luther if the collected books were his and if he was prepared to retract their heresies. Luther asked for 24 hours to pray and deliberate.

The next day the diet reconvened at 4 p.m. In this setting, Luther uttered those immortal words, “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture or by clear reason, for I do not trust either the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often errored and contradicted themselves, I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.”

In short, at the Diet of Worms, Luther declared sola Scriptura. Luther declared at Worms what had settled in his heart two years prior.

I am a Hussite

Finally, the third, and most pivotal, of the scenes is sandwiched in between the two previous accounts. It is often the one most overlooked. The event was the Leipzig Debate of 1519.

On previous occasions, Luther had affirmed Holy Scripture as his authority, but as he gathered at the Leipzig Debate, a lot was clarified for him. Luther was called to a debate with Johann Eck. Here is where, it appears, he almost stumbled into the doctrine of sola Scriptura.

Luther’s opponent, Eck, was a formidable adversary. Luther held Eck in antipathy, as he did most all his critics. The Reformer declared Eck to be a “little glory hungry beast.” In the debate, Luther was the better exegete, Eck the better historian.

Eck’s strategy was to link Luther with his forbear Jan Hus. The church had officially condemned Hus and his teachings, so Eck knew if he linked Luther to Hus, he would be condemned and may well be put to death. Thus, Eck agitated for Luther to stumble into affirming Hus.

A century earlier, at the Council of Constance, Hus was burned at the stake. Luther, perhaps, would meet the same fate. But a funny thing happened at Leipzig. During the fracas they took a lunch break. During this break, Luther slipped out and re-read the reports from the Council of Constance, reminding himself of what took place and reminding himself of what Hus claimed.

When the debate resumed, Luther declared, “I am a Hussite.” He knew what he was saying; he knew what was taking place; and in that moment, he was, in essence, saying, “I stand with Hus; we are men of the Book.”

Hus, who died 100 years earlier, prophesied before he was martyred. He said, “Today you burn a goose, but 100 years from now a swan will come that you will neither roast nor boil.” Luther received that mantle and—humble man that he was—perceived Hus to be prophesying about him. That is why today in the Lutheran Church, the pulpit will oftentimes be in the shape of a swan. The two great men are forever linked.

Eck’s whole plan was to back Luther into a corner by getting him to affirm Hus. Luther was backing Eck, and all who were hearing, into a corner by saying, “Your popes have failed. Your councils have failed. In fact, they have contradicted one another. So, if you do not have a pope who is legitimately authoritative, and you do not have a council that is authoritative, then what do you have?” Luther stood on sola Scriptura.

In Conclusion

Thus, we see Luther’s doctrine of sola Scriptura taking shape within him over a period of years. Alas, at that historic, pivotal moment at the Diet of Worms, indeed he did stand. He could do no other than be in submission to the Word of God.

topicsReformationSola Scriptura

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