This week (Oct. 31) in 1517, Martin Luther crossed the religious Rubicon when he posted his 95 theses on the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany.
His action led to a schism in the Catholic Church and the subsequent formation of the Protestant sect, and — no small thing — it paved the way for the Reformation.
In a nutshell, Luther’s 95 theses proclaimed that the Roman Catholic Church was corrupt, that the pope was abusing his powers and that the church’s practice of selling indulgences (for a price the church would lower a sinner’s punishment in the afterlife) violated Catholic teachings.
He had a point. By 1517 a series of “Renaissance Popes,” as they were called, were so obsessed with money and power that they had abandoned all pretense of piety, spending huge sums on grand architectural and artistic monuments (granted, the Sistine Chapel is one of them), wild parties, ostentatious jewelry and clothing, and other luxuries. Most had gone into such debt they not only sold indulgences for past sins, but also for sins yet to be committed!
Luther also differed with the church’s contention that “good works” — that is, the good things people do to make up for their sins — was what led to salvation. Luther contended that only faith in God led to salvation, which was best achieved by reading the Bible and following one’s conscience.
The pope was not amused at Martin Luther’s acts of defiance, quickly branding him a heretic, demanding that he recant and eventually excommunicating him.
Luther responded by leaving the church and stepping up his denunciations of its practices, including calling for a revolt against the papacy.
His protest started a fire, one that had been smoldering for some time, and his movement grew quickly. Indeed, his mass following, which included many powerful German princes (who resented the authority that an Italian pope had in their land), probably prevented him from being burned at the stake.
Emboldened, Luther decided to further his cause by translating the Bible into German, which — for the first time ever — allowed citizens to read it, and interpret it for themselves. Perhaps even more than his 95 theses, this action loosened the church’s hold on the people, and soon questioning Church dogma became common.
The subsequent flowering of independent religious thought soon led to other kinds of independent thinking, leading in turn to a blossoming of creativity in all fields — science, the arts, medicine and so on.
The Reformation was on.
Luther was far from perfect.
He was tyrannical, paranoid and anti-Semitic.
But he had an effect on history that will last as long as we are free to think independently about religion, politics and a host of other issues.
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