Martin Marty, the eminent Lutheran theologian, asks in October 31, 1517: Martin Luther and the Day that Changed the World, “Do days change the world?” It’s a timely question about the events in Wittenberg, Germany—500 years ago today—that opened the door to the Protestant Reformation. If Professor Marty had asked me if that day in 1517 when an obscure Augustinian monk tacked 95 Theses or propositions to a church door in distant Deutschland (photo 1) changed my world, the answer would be an emphatic, “Yes!”
I was raised a Lutheran and attended Lutheran schools. I learned the 10 Commandments in light of Luther’s Small Catechism. Had it not been for Martin Luther and his break from the Roman Catholic Church, it’s doubtful that my fifth grade classmates and I would have memorized this verse from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves. It is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast. I can still recite it by heart more than fifty years later. And without Martin Luther, these Latin words would not have appeared on a banner behind the dais at my Lutheran high school’s graduation ceremony: Sola Fide, Gratia, Scriptura; Faith, Grace, Scripture Alone.
That Bible verse and banner represent in my mind the essence of Luther’s theology of salvation: faith and grace are what matter when we face the divine Judge at the end of our days. Building his case on scripture as the sole and ultimate authority in matters of Christian belief—not papal pronouncements or non-Biblical ecclesiastic tradition—Luther proclaimed that we are justified, that is, made right with the Almighty, through faith in God’s saving grace. That idea, and the way Luther doggedly pursued it, caused quite a stir in early 16th century Europe where many people, Luther included, often felt powerless to prevent demonic spirits from tipping the scales of divine justice against them (photo 2).
This post marks the 500th anniversary of the day most historians associate with the start of the Protestant Reformation. Our points of departure are stained glass and sculpture, mainly in the United States, featuring images related to Luther and his work. We’ll start with a statue and sculpted niche in one of the bays along the north aisle at the Washington National Cathedral (photo 3).
The statue shows Luther as he prepares to nail his 95 Theses to the church door, mallet in hand. The pedestal below forms a triptych, with its central panel highlighting the 95 Theses on a door framed by a Gothic portal. The flanking scenes depict Luther as a writer working at a desk on the left, and as a preacher in a pulpit on the right. An open Bible underlies the three scenes and symbolically provides their foundation (photo 4). The composition clearly implies that the 95 Theses are central to Luther’s story.
Martin Luther’s 95 Theses What prompted Luther to post his 95 propositions on the church door of a small university in remote Saxony and invite others to join him in a debate about the nature of repentance? Or more simply put, what was the bee in his bonnet? The impetus, Professor Marty explains, was the Roman Catholic system of penance. A pervasive bureaucracy developed in the church during the late middle ages that had turned the forgiveness of sins into a money-making enterprise. Luther objected in particular to the sale of indulgences, a term rooted in the Latin word for “leniency.”
The practice of granting indulgences stemmed from a belief that penalties attach to sins and weigh against Christian souls, with heavier penalties for more serious sins. Consequently, anyone who hoped to enter heaven must do something beneficial to purge the stain of sin from one’s soul or, using the justice metaphor, tip the scales in one’s favor. One could give alms to the poor, join a Crusade, or rebuild a church among a wide range of “good works” that could offset the gravity of the sin. But if a person’s penitential acts were insufficient at death to clear the record and ensure a quick ascent to heaven, his soul would land in Purgatory where cleansing penance might continue indefinitely. An indulgence granted by the Church could count to a person’s credit after death, and thus facilitate the soul’s movement from Purgatory to Heaven.
At some point in the early 1500’s, Pope Leo sanctioned the sale of indulgences to raise funds for the construction of a new St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, begun in 1506, completed in 1626, and ever since the largest church in the world (photo 5). In 1514, 24 year old Albert of Brandenburg borrowed 21,000 ducats from the Fugger banking house in Augsburg to pay to become the Archbishop of Mainz. Since Albert already was the Archbishop of Magdeburg, holding two high church offices simultaneously violated canon law. Pope Leo agreed to overlook the infraction if Albert made a sizable contribution to St. Peter’s building fund. Albert agreed and, with the Pope’s permission to sell indulgences, used half the money raised to repay the loan and the other half to make good on his deal with the Pope. One of Albert’s most effective front men in the indulgence sale was a Dominican friar named Tetzel. Using clever jingles and making outrageous claims, he persuaded many of Luther’s neighbors to buy indulgences guaranteed to shorten their or their deceased loved one’s stay in Purgatory. “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings,” Tetzel assured, “the soul from Purgatory springs.” Tetzel’s indulgences were reportedly so powerful that they could even save the soul of someone who raped the Virgin Mary!
Luther was incensed. His 95 Theses scorched the church’s penance industry and its abusive exploitation of common folks’ fear for the fate of their souls. He minced no words about the malevolence of Albert’s and Tetzel’s fund-raising scheme when he wrote in thesis 32, “Those who believe that through letters of indulgence they are made sure of their own salvation will be eternally damned along with their teachers.” Then, to drive home the point with the clergy and others in authority, he juxtaposed true compassion and self-interest in thesis 45, asserting that “Christians should be taught that those who see another in need and pass on by, and then give money for indulgences, are not purchasing for themselves the Pope’s indulgences, but rather God’s anger.” Luther called out Pope Leo directly in thesis 86 as he wondered aloud, “Why does not the Pope, whose riches today are ampler than those of the wealthiest of the wealthy, build this one Basilica of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with that of poor believers?”
With his 95 Theses, Luther challenged the corrupt indulgence enterprise from top to bottom and, in the process, called the Pope’s authority into question. That didn’t set well with Leo. When Luther refused to recant at an imperial hearing in 1521, the Pope excommunicated him and the emperor declared Luther an outlaw. Luther avoided the fiery fate of earlier reformers who were branded as heretics, notably Bohemia’s Jan Hus (photo 7), largely because Frederick the Wise, Saxony’s ruler, came to Luther’s defense (photo 8). Frederick’s men took Luther into hiding at Wartburg Castle at Eisenach, where he stayed for nearly a year and wrote prolifically.
Writer and Preacher Luther was indeed an accomplished writer and preacher. During his year-long hiatus at the Wartburg Castle, Luther translated the New Testament from Greek into German and wrote a slew of polemics against indulgences, the private Mass, monastic vows, and other non-Biblical accretions in church life. It was just the beginning. Over the course of his lifetime, Luther wrote Biblical commentaries, doctrinal statements, and various tracts under more than 600 titles. He was also a gifted hymn writer. He wrote A Mighty Fortress is Our God, the great anthem based on Psalm 46 that reverberates in Lutheran churches on the Sunday immediately preceding October 31 (photo 9). The hymn became something of a call to arms in the wars of religion that followed the Reformation. Sweden’s King Gustavus Adolphus reportedly had his troops sing A Mighty Fortress as they marched off to battle Catholics in the Thirty Years War, a sad and unfortunate conflict that devastated parts of Europe and killed half the population of several German cities in the early 1600’s. As for preaching, one scholar estimates that between 1510 and 1546, Luther delivered nearly 7,000 sermons, an average of one sermon for every two days. Nearly 2,300 of them are still extant in writing.
Influence The spark Luther struck on October 31, 1517, kindled a fire that spread quickly to Britain, Switzerland, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and France, fanned by newly manufactured printing presses that churned out his pamphlets by the tens of thousands. His words freed many from the uncertainty they felt about the afterlife, and moved other reformers like Zwingli, Calvin, Cranmer, and Wesley to search the scriptures for fresh insights into the nature of the priesthood, sacraments, and saving grace. A stained glass window at the interdenominational Riverside Church in New York honors Luther and some of the reformers who followed him (photo 10) in Chartres-like scenes that depict (from bottom to top and left to right) Luther, Philip Melancthon, Zwingli, John Fox, Calvin, John Wesley, Balthazar Hubmaier, Hugh Latimer, and Roger Williams.
Article & photos (except #5) copyright 2017 by Michael Klug; firstname.lastname@example.org; 10-31-2017