The word protest is likely to conjure up all kinds of images, some less peaceful than others. We live in a world where protests, irrespective of their nature, have become a staple part of our collective lives. They have come to represent many things; a statement of disapproval, a forum for dissent, a space for divergence.
Protests shatter the peaceful veneer of uniformity and draw lines of division. That can be scary and uncomfortable. It can generate all kinds of reactions. 500 years ago, when the most definitive protest in history took place it too followed the same trajectory as modern protests do. It was both a statement of disapproval and dissent, it created divergence in the midst of almost universal uniformity and it generated a host of varied reactions.
The prevailing mindset in Medieval Europe played into this sequence of events beautifully. The church had established an eternally burning hell over the communal conscience at a time when the stench of death roiled over Europe on every hand. Life expectancy around 1300 AD was 35 years of age and this dropped significantly when the plague swept through Europe. By the middle of the 14th century, Europe had lost 30-50% of its population to the Plague. When Tetzel marched through Germany 70 years later there wasn’t a single part of Europe that had not been devastated by its effects and there wasn’t a single household that hadn’t been touched by its toll. The prospect of springing a loved one from the terrors of eternal torment for a small fee was extremely appealing. Luther was appalled and enraged at the level of spiritual abuse and exploitation exhibited by those who claimed to be shepherds of the flock. He could no longer remain silent and so the protest began.
What was it that Luther and others were protesting against? There are myriad detailed reasons but I would like to suggest that there were three broad overarching themes.
The first was a protest against a false perception of God. The picture of God that was presented by Medieval Catholic theology was that of a cruel, exacting tyrant bent on oppression and revenge. When Luther found a God of love and grace in the words of Romans 1:16-18, that picture formed a huge component of his protest.
Secondly, it was a protest against the false system of worship set up by the Papacy. This system, much like the Greco-Roman paganism around which it was built, was a system dependent on the performance of certain rituals in order to obtain favor with God and therefore obtain salvation. This was one thing Luther and other reformers vehemently protested against.
And thirdly it was a protest championing freedom of conscience. The Papacy had robbed individuals of their right to worship according to the dictates of their own conscience. They did this by denouncing anyone who refused to comply with the teachings and traditions of the church and burning them as heretics. This clampdown on independent thought led to terrible social and spiritual declension.
So here we are 500 years after Luther’s radical move to mount a protest against the only stable bulwark of medieval society. The question is, 500 years later, is the protest over? The Biblical answer is NO. The reformation was just the beginning of the race and there is still a final runner left on the field carrying the torch. Revelation 12:17 describes this runner as the remnant and Revelation 14:6-12 gives us a breakdown of their message. The three angels’ messages uphold the overarching themes of the Reformation. Taken together these messages protest against a false perception of God and offer a more accurate perception of Him by way of upholding the gospel and presenting Him as the Creator. They protest against a false system of worship code-named Babylon and the infringement on freedom of conscience by that same power. Interestingly enough the Papacy is right in the thick of things 500 years later.
So, is the protest over? No, it’s not. The torch has been passed to the final runner and the work that was begun 500 years ago is now approaching its climax. As Seventh-Day Adventists, we believe that God has raised us up to be that final runner on the field. We have been handed the torch that was lit 500 years ago today and we have been called to carry it faithfully across the finish line, triumphant at last.
So, no, the reformation wasn’t a failure and the protest isn’t over. The torch is in your hands and mine. The real question is will we carry it forward as faithfully as those who have gone before us?