Not long ago I had the privilege of standing in front of the Wittenberg Castle in Germany, where 500 years ago this month Martin Luther began a mighty Reformation by nailing his earthshaking document to the door of this church. The original doors no longer stand, but the Reformation that started on October 31, 1517, is alive today, half a millennium later.
When Luther posted his “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” (the “95 theses”), his intention was to start an academic debate, not a revolution. The document begins humbly:
“Out of love for the truth and from desire to elucidate it, the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology, and ordinary lecturer therein at Wittenberg, intends to defend the following statements and to dispute on them in that place. Therefore he asks that those who cannot be present and dispute with him orally shall do so in their absence by letter. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.”1
Two Central Beliefs
Going against the prevalent teachings of the time, Luther’s two central beliefs from which he argued were:
Sola scriptura: the Bible alone is the sole rule of faith and practice.
Human beings are saved by faith, not by works.
So strong was Martin Luther’s belief in the importance of Scripture—and the necessity of having it accessible to everyone—that in less than 11 weeks, while hidden away inside Wartburg Castle, he translated the New Testament into the common German language. The language formulation he used paved the way for the commonly used version of today’s German language Bible.
The power and strength of the Reformation brought people back to simple, yet profound, Bible truth. Taking the clear meaning of Scripture, Martin Luther was able to teach these Bible truths clearly and eloquently. Luther embraced sola scriptura, finding that Scripture itself is self-authenticating, is clear to rational readers, serves as its own interpreter, and is sufficient of itself to be the final authority of Christian doctrine.2
In the book The Great Controversy Ellen White comments that Martin Luther’s teachings “struck at the very foundation of papal supremacy. They contained the vital principle of the Reformation.”3
Sola Scriptura or Prima Scriptura?
Later, another doctrine, known as prima scriptura, entered some Protestant churches. This doctrine teaches that “while scripture is not the sole rule of faith in the church, it is the primary authority. It refers to the primacy of scripture, or that scripture is primary among traditions and ecclesiastical decisions, although those also carry some authority alongside scripture.”4
As good as prima scriptura may sound, it goes against the principles of the Reformation because it does not always place God’s Word as the final authority, above tradition or church teachings.
Commenting on Luther’s stand on the Bible alone, Ellen White wrote, “Luther saw the danger of exalting human theories above the Word of God. He fearlessly attacked the speculative infidelity of the schoolmen and opposed the philosophy and theology which had so long held a controlling influence upon the people. He denounced such studies as not only worthless but pernicious, and sought to turn the minds of his hearers from the sophistries of philosophers and theologians to the eternal truths set forth by prophets and apostles.”5
Those who embrace sola scriptura and scriptural methods of Bible study are sometimes mischaracterized as naive, ill-informed, and closed-minded by those who view the Bible as a human book and use critical methods of studying it. As explained in the official document “Methods of Bible Study,” voted by the members of the General Conference Executive Committee of Seventh-day Adventists:
“As it is impossible for those who do not accept Christ’s divinity to understand the purpose of His incarnation, it is also impossible for those who see the Bible merely as a human book to understand its message, however careful and rigorous their methods.
“Even Christian scholars who accept the divine-human nature of Scripture, but whose methodological approaches cause them to dwell largely on its human aspects, risk emptying the biblical message of its power by relegating it to the background while concentrating on the medium. They forget that medium and message are inseparable, and that the medium without the message is as an empty shell that cannot address the vital spiritual needs of humankind.”
Committed Christians “will use only those methods that do full justice to the dual, inseparable nature of Scripture, enhance [their] ability to understand and apply its message, and strengthen faith.”6
Personal Conscience and Scripture
When Luther took his famous stand at the Diet of Worms, he based his actions and informed his personal conscience by Scripture, not on tradition, culture, or personal opinion.
“Unless therefore I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture or by the clearest reasoning,” stated Luther, “unless I am persuaded by means of the passages I have quoted, and unless they thus render my conscience bound by the Word of God, I cannot and I will not retract, for it is unsafe for a Christian to speak against his conscience.”7
As Luther was urged to acquiesce to the demands of church and state regardless of what the Bible said, he made it abundantly clear that Scripture ruled his conscience.
“ ‘I consent,’ said he in reply, ‘with all my heart, that the emperor, the princes, and even the meanest Christian, should examine and judge my works; but on one condition, that they take the Word of God for their standard. Men have nothing to do but to obey it. Do not offer violence to my conscience, which is bound and chained up with the Holy Scriptures.’ ”8
Martin Luther allowed Scripture to inform his conscience and his actions. So must we. The essence of the Reformation is a personal relationship with God through His Word, and a living faith.
Reformation to Continue
The Reformation did not begin and end with Martin Luther. “It is to be continued to the close of this world’s history,”9 wrote Ellen White.
Throughout history God has preserved His truth through Scripture and, through the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, has been revealing new truths through His Word. It is vital that we, when considering “new truth,” adhere to the scriptural test given in Isaiah 8:20: “To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.”
Scripture was central in the Reformation, and it needs to be central in our lives today. We need to be heralds of sola scriptura (Scripture alone), sola fide (faith alone), sola gratia (grace alone), solus Christus (Christ alone), and soli Deo gloria (to the glory of God alone).
Is the Reformation over? No! May we continue to carry it on, because at the very end of time our witness must continue to be based solely on the Word of God. Let us remain faithful to God and His Word, so that when the test comes, we, like Luther, will be able to take our stand, having our conscience “bound up” with the Holy Scriptures. n
1 “The 95 Theses,” at www.luther.de/en/95thesen.html.
2 See “What the Bible and Lutherans Teach,” at wels.net/about-wels/what-we-believe/.
3Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Asn., 1911), p. 126.
4 See “Prima Scriptura, Sola Scriptura and Sola Ecclesia,” at www.orthodoxevangelical.com/2014/02/26/prima-scriptura-sola-scriptura-and-sola-ecclesia/.
5 E. G. White, p. 126.
6“Methods of Bible Study,” approved and voted by the General Conference of Seventh-day AdventistsExecutive Committee at the Annual Council in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, October 12, 1986. For entire document, see: www.adventist.org/en/information/official-statements/documents/article/go/-/methods-of-bible-study/
7 J. H. Merle d’Aubigné, History of the Reformation of the the Sixteenth Century, b. 7, ch. 8, cited in E. G. White, p. 160.
8 In d’Aubigné, b. 7, ch. 10, cited in E. G. White, p. 166. (Italics supplied.)
Ted N. C. Wilson is president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Additional articles and commentaries are available from the president’s office on Twitter: @pastortedwilson and on Facebook: @PastorTedWilson.