, , , , , , ,

“I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach…”

This passage, traditionally interpreted as referring to Luther, is commonly the text preached on during Reformation Day services.

Door of the Schlosskirche (castle church) in Wittenberg to which Luther is said to have nailed his 95 Theses on the 31st of October 1517, sparking the Reformation.

Sunday was Reformation day, if you didn’t know it. 497 years ago that the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther posted 95 theses on the door of the Slosskirche, more properly the All Saints Church, in Wittenberg. Rather than me reinventing the wheel here, this is how Wikipedia describes it.

In 1516–17, Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar and papal commissioner for indulgences, was sent to Germany by the Roman Catholic Church to raise money to rebuild St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

On 31 October 1517, Martin Luther wrote to Albrecht, Archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg, protesting against the sale of indulgences. He enclosed in his letter a copy of his “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” which came to be known as The 95 Theses. Hans Hillerbrand writes that Luther had no intention of confronting the church, but saw his disputation as a scholarly objection to church practices, and the tone of the writing is accordingly “searching, rather than doctrinaire.” Hillerbrand writes that there is nevertheless an undercurrent of challenge in several of the theses, particularly in Thesis 86, which asks: “Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?”

Luther objected to a saying attributed to Johann Tetzel that “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory [also attested as ‘into heaven’] springs.” He insisted that, since forgiveness was God’s alone to grant, those who claimed that indulgences absolved buyers from all punishments and granted them salvation were in error. Christians, he said, must not slacken in following Christ on account of such false assurances.

According to Philipp Melanchthon, writing in 1546, Luther “wrote theses on indulgences and posted them on the church of All Saints on 31 October 1517”, an event now seen as sparking the Protestant Reformation. Some scholars have questioned Melanchthon’s account, since he did not move to Wittenberg until a year later and no contemporaneous evidence exists for Luther’s posting of the theses. Others counter that such evidence is unnecessary because it was the custom at Wittenberg university to advertise a disputation by posting theses on the door of All Saints’ Church, also known as “Castle Church“.

The 95 Theses were quickly translated from Latin into German, printed, and widely copied, making the controversy one of the first in history to be aided by the printing press. Within two weeks, copies of the theses had spread throughout Germany; within two months throughout Europe.

Luther’s writings circulated widely, reaching France, England, and Italy as early as 1519. Students thronged to Wittenberg to hear Luther speak. He published a short commentary on Galatians and his Work on the Psalms. This early part of Luther’s career was one of his most creative and productive. Three of his best-known works were published in 1520: To the Christian Nobility of the German NationOn the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and On the Freedom of a Christian.

This is, of course, the traditional hymn for the day.


There are a couple of lessons of the Reformation, I’d like to highlight.

First the power of unfettered communication. This has been a year in which we have seen both church and state attempt to curtail our free speech rights, and they have made some inroads but for the most part they have been defeated by an aware part of the population. We need to keep it up.

Second, the Reformation has much to do with how moral our churches  are, even, maybe especially, the Roman Catholic Church, which with its Counter-Reformation, addressed almost all of the concerns that Luther posted in his 95 Thesis. I’ve often said that our churches now have a tendency to keep each other honest. When there is only one (of any type organization) it nearly always becomes corrupt. When there are two or more, it seems to reduce that temptation drastically.

Crossposted and updated from Nebraskaenergyobserver, 31 October 2012.