Luther’s 95 at 500

October 31 has been known on the Christian calendar for centuries as All Hallows’ Eve, contracted to”Hallowe’en” for most of us. “Hallows” is archaic English for saints, all of whom are celebrated on November 1 of each year. The theme of composer Modest Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” famously animated in Disney’s Fantasia, portrays it as the night when Satan and his minions have a final romp before the saints take over at dawn. (Mussorgsky actually composed the piece for St. John’s Eve, June 21, not All Hallows Eve, but it has become associated with Hallowe’en.)

Legend has it as the day Martin Luther posted his “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” known popularly as his” 95 Theses,” on the Wittenberg Castle church door in 1517. The day and the act popularly marks the beginning of the Reformation, the downstream effects of which shaped the modern world.

Not all of the accounts of Luther’s publication of his Disputation are based on precise facts. Posting of debate notices by theology and philosophy scholars was not unusual at the time; it was not an act of defiance when first posted. Debate on the nature of indulgences and other challenges to Catholic Church doctrine had occurred before among theologians – John Wycliffe and William Tindale in England and Jan Hus in Bohemia among them. The 95 Theses were probably not personally nailed to the church door by Luther. More likely, the church sexton pasted them in a prominent place as was the custom. And probably not on Hallowe’en. But, when legend becomes fact, print the legend.

Luther’s posting of his Disputation, whichever day it was, nevertheless is as good as any marker for the beginning of the Reformation. As it turned out, Luther’s role in the movement became crucial, but there are arguments that the Reformation would have occurred anyway.

Historians have posited a number of theories as to the causes of historical change and evolution. Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle opined that history is but the biographies of great men — the Great Man Theory. Russian writer Leo Tolstoy maintained the opposite: popular mass movements transform societies. Both theories have their followers and critics among able minds, which suggests that the best answer is some synthesis.

Western European Christianity at Luther’s time was ripe for reform. The Christian church and secular powers, since the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine, through Medieval period, and into the early Modern period, had never been separate. The schism between the Eastern Orthodox and the Western Catholics in the Eleventh Century, though ostensibly precipitated by an arcane theological disagreement, was essentially a political move. The Eastern Patriarchs considered the Pope in Rome to be perhaps the first among equal bishops, but not the absolute the authority. The Western Church believed otherwise – the Pope was the supreme authority as the Vicar of Christ. Kings and sovereigns of other appellations were his and God’s lieutenants. Popes and secular powers, in a symbiotic, occasionally contentious, relationship maintained that authority for the half millennium before Luther.

The principle under which the Church and state maintained absolute power was the promulgation of incontestable dogma that bolstered their authority. The touchstone was the authority of the past; that is, Scripture, as interpreted by the Popes and church councils, and tradition. The ancient writings of Aristotle and that of early and Medieval scholars, particularly Thomas Aquinas, formed a canon of authority that settled all philosophical and theological arguments. Deviation was heresy. Heresy was a capital crime and mortal sin, punishable by being burned alive, the first taste of eternal hellfire.

The methodologies of Aristotle and Aquinas were brilliant, and sound, as far as they went. To this day, their logical forms are used to frame issues and make arguments, and can be persuasive. But many of the observations, particularly those of the physical world, and other sources, which formed the premises of their logic, were flawed, and led to flawed conclusions – the garbage in, garbage out paradigm. Those conclusions, whether they had anything to do with spiritual well-being, nevertheless became doctrine and thus not contestable. The Church, and secular authorities, believed that denying any part of the doctrine or challenging its validity would bring the entire canon into question.

The major source of authority for the Church was scripture. But what did the Bible really say? Before Luther’s time, all copies of the Bible were written in Latin. While Latin was the lingua franca of Europe, few could read it. Indeed, only scholars and some churchmen could read. Common folk and even parish priests generally were illiterate. Many country priests recited the Latin Mass by rote with as much understanding of what they were saying as that of a parrot. Even kings and nobles mostly were illiterate. They relied on the Church officials and scholars to inform them what the Bible taught. Leaders could interpret, or even make up biblical tenets to suit themselves, and probably did.

Martin Luther’s scholarly research convinced him that the ability of the Pope to grant indulgences – the remission of punishment for sin in this world or the next – had no basis in scripture, and was otherwise suspect. The notion that indulgences gave leave to one to commit future sin seemed outrageous, although that was not the Church’s official position. This issue was precipitated by the efforts of one Johann Tetzel, a Dominican monk enlisted by Albrecht, Archbishop of Mainz to raise money to defray the cost of a donation he made for his appointment by the Pope Leo X. At the time, the Pope was in the process of rebuilding Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome in a high Renaissance, that is to say expensive, style, and needed money. Tetzel claimed authority to grant indulgences on behalf of the Church to donors in proportion to their donation ostensibly for that purpose. Evidently he was a charismatic speaker and a persuasive salesman. Disturbed by Tetzel’s Barnumesque sales tactics, and the idea that an indulgence could be sold for money, Luther posted his invitation to debate Tetzel on multiple issues concerning indulgences. Such an invitation to a disputation in prior times would probably been purely local, and news of it would have been confined to a few scholars who would have received handwritten copies.

Until the second half of the 15th Century, books and multiple copies of any writings were rare. The was no way to make copies except than by hand writing. Books like the Bible were mostly copied by monks in monasteries. Few churches actually had Bibles, and those that did kept them under lock and key, often chained to a lectern. The printing press using moveable type invented by Johann Gutenberg in the middle of the 15th Century had the potential to change all that, and ultimately did.

By 1517, the printing press had been in use for around 60 years. Luther’s 95 Theses were printed and disseminated throughout Germany and even reached Rome. A number of the issues raised by Luther were read as challenging the authority of the Pope and Church. The effect was to create distress in the academic community and led the Catholic hierarchy to fear a challenge to Papal authority. One thing led to another and the Reformation, a wholesale schism among Christians, occurred.

Regardless of one’s religious beliefs and allegiance, or lack thereof, today, Luther’s act and the corollaries to it should be recognized as the elevation of the individual’s freedom of conscience, which meant free inquiry into ideas, and the ensuing Enlightenment and scientific revolution. Its immediate effect was a political upheaval and bloody conflict throughout Western Europe for the following two centuries — entrenched establishments do not go gently. But Luther and his subsequent refusal to recant his beliefs set in motion the progression to the present day world, where unskilled laborers and even homeless persons have an exponentially better life in this world than Medieval kings did in the world into which Martin Luther was born.

More to come.

Sources: Barbara W. Tuchman, The March of Folly, (1984)

Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther (2017)

Donald Wilcox, In Search of God and Self, (1985)

See also:

Josep P. Orta, “Luther’s Legacy” National Geographic History, (Sept.- Oct. 2017)

Joseph Loconte, “How Martin Luther Advanced Freedom” Wall Street Journal (Oct. 27, 2017, p. A13)

“When the legend becomes fact, print the ledged.” – from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, John Ford film (1962)

One comment on “Luther’s 95 at 500

  1. Mike Kerr says:

    Fun read. Well written, but how did Luther’s 95 turn into 96 in the second to last paragraph? I am puzzled with the source of the “print the legend” quote. It has been one of my favorite sayings for years – now I find out it is sourced only to a John Ford script writer. I remember the scene quite well. I am looking forward to your next chapter.


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