500th Anniversary of Martin Luther’s Publication of his 95 Theses against Indulgences
On 31st October 1517 a German monk called Martin Luther published his 95 Theses against Indulgences. According to the Reformer Philip Melanchthon this happened at Wittenberg Church. Martin Luther had been born on 10 November 1483 at Eisleben. In 1505 he joined the Augustinian Order and in 1512 he was appointed Professor of Biblical Theology at the new University of Wittenberg. Due to the invention of the printing press, copies of Luther’s 95 Theses were circulated among academics, churchmen and others. In April 1518 his Sermon on Indulgences and Grace was published in German. 14000 copies were distributed, the mediaeval equivalent of ‘going viral’, and The Reformation began among the people.
Pope Leo X had required to raise large sums of money to support his extravagant lifestyle and to rebuild St Peter’s Basilica. He authorised a marketing and sales campaign for the sale of Indulgences throughout the Catholic Church. Indulgences were written statements of remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins. This was a gross abuse of spiritual authority. People generally recognised the practice as blatant mis-selling. Luther objected strongly to the sale of Indulgences and began his campaign against them. He was a gifted writer and communicator and his pamphlets and sermons were extensively printed and gained widespread interest. His intention was to begin a debate within the Church in order to reform it. Luther defended his Theses publicly in Augsburg in 1518 against Cardinal Cajetan who denounced him as a heretic. This meant that from then on his life was in danger. Luther’s spiritual journey and Biblical studies progressed and he was given moments of insight from the Book of Romans, in particular 1:17 which led him to understand that Christians are justified (made right with God) by a personal relationship of faith alone and not by the schemes of penances which the Church offered.
In 1520 Luther’s publications ‘To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation’ challenged the secular powers to reform the Church since the Pope had no intention of doing so; his ‘The Babylonian Captivity of the Church’ was an uncompromising attack on the sacramental edifice and theology of mediaeval Catholicism and ‘The Freedom of the Christian Man’ advocated an end to the Pope’s wealth and properties and marriage for the clergy. Thus far Martin Luther sought to reform the Church while still belonging to it. It was on 17 and 18 April 1521 at a public hearing known as the Diet of Worms (on the Upper Rhine) in the presence of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V that Luther’s refusal to recant his teaching led to the irrevocable breaking up of Christendom. Luther was taken into protective custody at the imposing Wartburg Castle by his supporter Frederick the Wise and there, living under an assumed name, he translated the New Testament from Greek to German. When published this became the most commonly used Scripture at the time. In 1525 Luther married Katherina Von Bora who had left her nunnery in 1523. They settled in Wittenberg, had six children and worshipped together as a family.
Luther released the essence of New Testament Christianity from the confines of the Catholic Church and made it understandable and acceptable to the many. Authority based hold on the laity was crushed. Bible literacy and informed conscience took its place. The forces Luther unleashed developed different forms. Political autonomy for nations and states from Papal authority and from the vestiges of the Holy Roman Empire came about. The flow of money from all over Europe to Rome diminished. Monasteries closed. Clergy married. Social unrest increased. In 1524 there was a large scale armed rebellion in Germany by the lower middle, artisan and peasant classes against their taxes and rents. Luther was sympathetic to their cause but disapproved of the uncontrolled violence that ensued. He was not for all out revolution and spoke and wrote against it. The name ‘Protestant’ originated in 1529 after Charles V tried unsuccessfully to stop the Reformation in its tracks.
Luther was sympathetic towards Anabaptists. These were Christians who having read the New Testament broke with the established churches, underwent adult re-baptism also known as believer’s baptism and largely decided to follow Jesus’ teaching on the Sermon on the Mount by embracing pacifism. Many sects sprung up under local leaders and their members were devout and exemplary. They were feared and despised and some were martyred for their faithfulness. In later years a few sailed for the New World. Brethren, Baptists, Pentecostals, Quakers and independent Evangelicals continue in large numbers throughout the world today. As part of the uncontrolled Reformation other independents became the stuff of corrupt sects and paid the ultimate price for their licentious follies. They too survive in the modern world in the form of cults.
Luther was also sympathetic to Jews in his formative years. In 1523 he published ‘That Jesus Christ was born a Jew’. He had thought that Jews would convert to Reformed Christianity but that did not happen. In 1538 his ‘Against the Sabbatarians’ appeared, followed by ‘On the Jews and their Lies’ in 1542. This advocated discrimination against Jews. Even if this was not on racial grounds because Luther had Jewish friends but was theological in purpose, sufficient extremities were advocated to allow people later to connect Luther indirectly with the 20th century Holocaust.
Luther had continued his labours, translating the whole Bible into German. He also loved music and singing and in 1529 published a collection of hymns which he composed to be sung by everyone in Church and at any time in daily life. ‘A safe stronghold our God is still’ is testament to his spiritual struggle, personal faith and effective calling. By 1542 Luther’s health had deteriorated and he was in poor physical condition. He had inspired The Reformation beyond Germany, as far as Switzerland, England, Scotland and Denmark. At the age of 63 Luther died on 18 February 1546 in the town of his birth now known as Lutherstadt Eisleben. He is buried under the pulpit in the Stadtkirche, Wittenberg. The Mass had been first said in German there and worshippers received Communion in bread and wine for the first time. The Stadtkirche became the Mother Church of the Reformation is now a UNESCO world heritage site.
The Catholic Church was slow to understand Luther and what he represented. The Popes were incapable of enacting the kinds of reforms he advocated. They regarded him with detestation and damnation. Catholics are still taught to think the worst of him. Eventually Pope Paul III convoked the Council of Trento and Bologna in Italy which sat from 1545 – 1563. This began the Counter Reformation. Its principle aims were to condemn Protestant principles and doctrines, reaffirm Catholic doctrine and set in motion plans to re-Catholicise the Protestant nations.
Other Reformers such as Luther’s colleague Philip Melanchthon in Wittenberg, John Calvin in Geneva and Huldrych Zwingli in Zurich played their parts. William Tyndale translated the Bible into English and suffered the extreme penalty for his Christian devotion in 1536. Henry VIII’s pivotal role in England is well known. John Knox became influential in Scotland.
Women were present and involved. Anne Askew, a Protestant, was cruelly tortured and burnt to death in London in 1546 for her confessional Christianity published in poems and writings. Two of the most brutal harbingers of persecution were France’s Queen Mother Catherine de Medici who ordered the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 3000 Protestants in Paris on 24th August 1572 and the Catholic Queen ‘Bloody Mary’ of England who sent 283 Protestants to their deaths, mostly by burning at the stake. Henry VIII’s daughter Elizabeth I negotiated a middle Lutheran liturgical and theological pathway between Catholicism and Calvinism. Catholics regard Mary Queen of Scots as one of their martyrs.
Martin Luther was one of the great movers and shakers of human social evolution. He was partially Christ-like in his simplicity of teaching which liberated the mediaeval world. He said that God had led him like an old blind horse. His steadfastness for truth inspires many Christians in difficult circumstances. The northern Protestant nations became driving forces of European intellectual development, civilisation and global expansion. The mediaeval world in which Luther lived was a violent and dangerous place in which any aspiration to Christianity was fraught with trouble and it was thought necessary to use force to defend it. Those who do not value Martin Luther today also depend on controlled violence for the safety of our societies and nations. Luther was a flawed genius, a representative human being, a Christian saved by faith. The personal freedoms we take for granted today are owed in no small part to him. Due to subsequent history Martin Luther’s life has had enormous influence and effect on all humanity.