On Oct. 31, 1517, a Catholic monk posted a document, “95 Theses,” on the door of the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Saxony, Germany. He was said to have intended it to stimulate academic discussions, but given its content, it sparked much more.
The document began with a line on repentance, then went on to question teachings on purgatory, papal authority and, most importantly, indulgences.
A certain Johann Tetzel had been going around in behalf of the pope raising funds to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica and offering, in exchange for donations, perpetual indulgences or a remission of temporal punishment in purgatory. In effect, indulgences were being sold—a practice that had drawn criticism from many theologians.
But this Catholic monk’s 95 Theses had good timing. The invention of the printing press had made it possible to reproduce documents and books rapidly, which was what happened to 95 Theses. It did provoke discussions, but not just academic ones. Tetzel was furious, and called for the audacious monk to be burned at the stake.
The monk was Martin Luther, and his questioning of indulgences sparked a religious movement throughout Europe, now called the Reformation. Some people think of it as the start of Protestantism, but a questioning of Catholic doctrines started as early as the 12th century with dissenters often dealt severe punishment, including execution. Luther was fortunate, getting away with excommunication in 1521, but his followers, as with those of other dissenting clerics like John Calvin in Switzerland, effectively broke away from Rome.
Even as Protestantism (from “protest”) spread, the Catholic Church had to respond, convening a Council of Trent and a Counter Reformation in 1545. Religious division led to social upheavals, including crusades and wars. In the English Reformation, after King Henry VIII established a Church of England independent of Rome, numerous martyrs were produced depending on the religion of the monarch. (I still remember reading about the lives of saints in high school and seeing the horrible “hdq”—hanged, drawn and quartered—attached to the biographies of those martyred in England.)
Reformation Day is certainly associated with Protestantism and this major questioning of doctrine, in particular “justification.” Luther had questioned the authority of the pope to offer indulgences and argued that one needed faith for “justification.” Other Protestants emphasized it had to be faith plus good works, citing James 2:26: “Faith without work is dead.”
Protestantism spread throughout the world and, in part because there was more room for independent thinking, spun off many denominations. This did not always happen peacefully; in the same way that Catholics persecuted Protestants, there was also repression by Protestants of Protestants. It was religious refugees, the Puritans, fleeing persecution by other Protestants in England, who established new English colonies that eventually became the United States of America.
Perhaps because of this history of persecution, many Protestant denominations became fierce advocates of social justice—for example, working against slavery in the United States in the 19th century, all the way up to providing safe passage and sanctuaries for slaves. In the 20th century, there were the historic peace churches—Church of the Brethren, Mennonites, Quakers—that advanced pacifism and resisted conscription into the army.
Protestant missionaries entered the Philippines during the American occupation in the 20th century, establishing many churches throughout the country.
The Protestants were strong with education. Silliman University was started as early as 1901 with Presbyterian support, followed by the Central Philippine University in 1905. These two universities, as well as several younger ones such as the Adventist University and Philippine Christian University, are large comprehensive institutions that are flourishing.
A less known historical footnote: The two American presidents of the University of the Philippines were not just Protestant but also ministers. Murray Bartlett, the first president, was Episcopalian with degrees in theology and a doctorate in divinity. Guy Potter Benton, who was the third president of UP, was a Methodist minister.
The Catholics had to respond to the influx of Protestants by sending in more of their own priests and sisters, this time from the United States, to establish their own schools. We’ve seen so many centennials in the last 20 years of these schools (for example, De La Salle, St. Scholastica’s and many more), almost like a counter-Reformation in education.
Animosity continues to exist between Catholics and Protestants, even leading to bloody conflicts, as in Ireland. In the Philippines the animosity exists, but is somewhat more subdued. The conflicts are still doctrinal, centering on the issue of papal authority and the still live issue of indulgences. Protestants also sometimes target the power of Catholic priests, especially in terms of interpreting the Bible. Protestants encourage Bible study, and a more personal direct relationship to God.
Protestantism is spreading, its appeal coming from the more personal approaches of its various churches. This is particularly the case with evangelical groups in rural areas. You can see all the small churches and chapels in the most remote villages.
In urban areas, nondenominational groups like Victory Christian and Christian Commission Fellowship have large followings, with worship services, schools, youth programs and other outreach projects working out of malls.
I do sense more tolerance now between Catholics and Protestants, perhaps in part because there is so much intermarrying now, which reduces the mystery around each other’s religions.
It helps, too, that we have an ecumenical Pope Francis, who made it a point to attend the 499th celebrations of the Reformation in Sweden last year. But as early as 1999, the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation issued a joint declaration on justification that starts: “We confess together that good works—Christian life lived with faith, hope and love—follow justification and are its fruits.”
I’m sure there was much discussion and debate to craft that document, as are the discussions among Protestants themselves, some of whom are now arguing for a reformation of deeds, rather than just of reformation of creeds.
All these developments are a testament to how Christian religions have developed. Certainly, religions, in the quest for truth and meaning, must be subject to debate. At least these days, dissent is not usually suppressed or punished with execution. People listen to each other and that should be as good a reason as any for all, Protestant or Catholic, to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
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