Blog #50: Martin Luther’s 500 Years of Effect

By John Cline
It was 500 years ago that Martin Luther famously posted his 95 theses issuing a list of items that the Roman Catholic Church needed to change, in his opinion. A Roman Catholic priest, Martin Luther was very much influenced by the writings of the fourth century church theological giant, Augustine who had emphasized the primacy of the Bible rather than Church officials as the ultimate religious authority and who also believed that humans could not reach salvation by their own acts, but that only God could bestow salvation by his divine grace. In the Middle Ages the Roman Catholic Church taught that salvation was possible through “good works,” or works of righteousness, that pleased God. Luther came to share Augustine’s two central beliefs – that the Bible rather than Church officials is the Christian’s authority, and that salvation was by grace through faith alone and not by doing good works.
Committed to the idea that salvation could be reached through faith and by divine grace only, Martin Luther vigorously objected to the corrupt practice of the Roman Catholic Church selling “indulgences”, the practice of granting “indulgences” being a way to provide absolution to sinners of their sins. In other words, one could buy forgiveness for their sins, and for the sins of their departed relatives. Put another way, one could buy their way into heaven. This alarmed Martin Luther. Indulgence-selling had been officially banned in Germany, but the practice continued unabated anyway. In 1517, a Roman Catholic friar named Johann Tetzel began to sell indulgences in Germany to raise funds to renovate St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Yes, the construction costs of that beautiful cathedral were paid for partially by the donations of Christians who had been told that they could, in effect, buy their way into heaven by purchasing indulgences from the Roman Catholic Church.
Acting on his disillusionment, Martin Luther wrote a paper entitled the “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” also known as “The 95 Theses,” a list of questions and propositions for debate. Popular legend has it that on October 31, 1517 Luther defiantly nailed a copy of his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church. The reality was probably not so dramatic; Luther more likely hung the document on the door of the church matter-of-factly to announce the ensuing academic discussion around it that he was organizing.
The 95 Theses, which would later become the foundation of the Protestant Reformation, were written in a remarkably humble and academic tone, questioning rather than accusing. The overall thrust of the document was nonetheless quite provocative. The first two of the theses contained Luther’s central idea, that God intended believers to seek repentance and that faith alone, and not deeds, would lead to salvation. The other 93 theses, a number of them directly criticizing the practice of indulgences, supported these first two.
In addition to his criticisms of indulgences, Luther also reflected popular sentiment about the “St. Peter’s scandal” in the 95 Theses, asking, “why does not the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?” Rome was not amused.
The 95 Theses were quickly distributed throughout Germany and then made their way to Rome. In 1518, Luther was summoned to Augsburg, a city in southern Germany, to defend his opinions before an imperial diet (assembly). A debate lasting three days between Luther and Cardinal Thomas Cajetan produced no agreement. Cajetan defended the church’s use of indulgences, but Luther refused to recant and returned to Wittenberg.
On November 9, 1518 the pope condemned Luther’s writings as conflicting with the teachings of the Church. One year later a series of commissions were convened to examine Luther’s teachings. The first papal commission found them to be heretical, but the second merely stated that Luther’s writings were “scandalous and offensive to pious ears.” Finally, in July 1520 Pope Leo X issued a papal bull (public decree) that concluded that Luther’s propositions were heretical and gave Luther 120 days to recant in Rome. Luther refused to recant, and on January 3, 1521 Pope Leo excommunicated Martin Luther from the Roman Catholic Church. It is important to note that Martin Luther never intended to leave the Roman Catholic Church but only to see it reformed from within.
On April 17, 1521 Luther appeared before the Diet of Worms in Germany. Refusing again to recant, Luther concluded his testimony with the defiant statement: “Here I stand. God help me. I can do no other.” On May 25, the Holy Roman emperor Charles V signed an edict against Luther, ordering his writings to be burned. Luther hid in the town of Eisenach for the next year, where he began work on one of his major life projects, the translation of the New Testament into German, which took him 10 years to complete.
Luther returned to Wittenberg in 1521, where the reform movement initiated by his writings had grown beyond his influence. It was no longer a purely theological cause; it had become political. His followers were derisively called “Protestant”, a word which means “for the truth” and through their lining up behind Martin Luther, a populist wave of anti-establishment discontent arose among those who felt themselves shut out and forgotten. If this story sounds familiar to our modern-day political reality, it should as the anti-establishment feelings of the populace of that day against the political rulers of the day (i.e. the Roman Catholic Church to whom every government in Western Europe paid taxes to) were very much like our own today here in North America and England and many other nations in Europe.
The result of the political powers in Saxony (Germany) supporting Martin Luther’s fight against having to send money to the Vatican in Rome set off a firestorm of political rupture, the like of which had never been seen before and has not been seen since. Nation after nation threw off their allegiance to Rome and soon Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Holland, England, and Scotland (among others) became officially “Protestant” in both the church and politically.
Martin Luther is one of the most influential figures in Western history. His writings were responsible for fractionalizing the Catholic Church and sparking the Protestant Reformation. His central teachings, that the Bible is the central source of religious authority and that salvation is reached through faith and not deeds, shaped the core of Protestantism. Although Luther was critical of the Catholic Church, he distanced himself from the radical successors who took up his mantle. Luther is remembered as a controversial figure, not only because his writings led to significant religious reform and division, but also because they returned to the church the teachings of Augustine of “only scripture” as our authority and “salvation by grace through faith alone” as the only means of salvation.
In our increasingly secular society, the legacy of Martin Luther on society is largely forgotten or dismissed but, truly, he was a revolutionary used by God to bring good.
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