Exactly 500 years ago – on October 31st, 1517, a monk named Martin Luther changed the world. Concerned about the serious errors he that he believed were being taught by the Roman Catholic Church, he wrote down a list of 95 problems that he believed needed change, and (depending on the historian you talked to) either nailed them to the door of the All Saints Church in Wittenberg, or else mailed them from Wittenberg to the archbishop of Mainz. Whichever way it happened, that event is how all the turmoil started.

I am studying at Brandenburg University of Technology, and my blog has been silent for a few months while I adjust to my studies. But I wanted to write something for this special time, the 500th year since Luther started the Protestant Reformation. But what is the Protestant Reformation? What happened 500 years ago that was so special? What is so important about this list that Martin Luther made? Today, as I travel out to Lutherstadt Wittenberg, the birthplace of this theological revolution, this post will upload and you can learn the basics of just what makes that day so remarkable.

Who was Martin Luther?

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Martin Luther, 1529, as painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder. Credit: Public domain. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by User:Jonathunder.

Martin Luther was a German man from Saxony who joined a monastery in 1505 after getting caught in a bad storm and seeing lightning strike a tree in front of him. As a monk, he was greatly concerned about his salvation. He would confess his sins, he would give to the poor, he would perform penance and go on pilgrimage. Luther would later say that “if ever a monk got to heaven by monkery, it would have been I.” Yet no matter how much he confessed his sins, how much he worked to atone for the wrong he had done and still did in his life, nothing seemed sufficient. Nothing he did removed the guilt that he felt. He earnestly studied the Scriptures, trying to understand what he was doing wrong.

Why did he challenge the Church?

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Pope Leo X, as depicted by Raphael in Papa Leone X con i cugini, i cardinali Giulio de’ Medici e Luigi de’ Rossi, painted between 1518 and 1519. Leo X was Pope during the beginning of the Reformation.
Credit: Public domain. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by User:Hohum.

As Luther devoted himself to following God, he started finding himself in disagreement with the Roman Catholic Church, which governed the spiritual concerns of most of Western and Central Europe. The Church was riddled with corruption, with leadership positions often going to family members or political supporters rather than being based on ability and maturity. And there also was the problem of indulgences. The Pope in Rome needed money to support ambitious construction projects and so offered “indulgences” for sale. The concept was that some Christians lived such exemplary lives that now, in heaven, they had extra merit of God’s favor that they were willing to bestow to those who had less merit. By making a financial donation to the church, you, or a deceased loved one who was being tortured in purgatory (a kind of halfway place between hell and heaven), could receive some of this extra merit. When a friar named Johann Tetzel began selling indulgences in Germany to help finance the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, he allegedly used the slogan “when the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

The idea that God’s mercy and grace could be bought and sold bothered Luther. He continued studying the Bible and new, better translations of early church writers such as Augustine, translations that were not readily available in prior centuries. He came to find that he disagreed with some of the Roman Church’s teachings. Chiefly, he rejected the idea that favor from God could be bought and sold as indulgences, he considered reasoning based on the written Scriptures of more validity than the teachings of religious authorities, and he believed that faith alone in God can save – the good works someone does do not contribute to salvation, but rather result from salvation.
And now we come to the fateful day: On October 31, 1517, Luther, whose ministry was based in the town of Wittenberg, published 95 theses (or points of argument) attacking Catholic practice of selling indulgences and some then-popular ideas regarding purgatory. As mentioned in my introduction, there is debate among historians is to how the theses were published. The popular narrative is that Luther nailed the theses to the door of All Saints Church in order that they could be discussed in the town. Many historians challenge this narrative, and instead say that Luther sent the theses to the Archbishop in Mainz.

Regardless of how the theses were published, Luther’s ideas spread like fire across Europe. The moveable-type printing press, a fairly recent invention in Europe at the time, allowed for the rapid production and distribution of printed literature. Luther quickly attracted the attention of Catholic authorities. While he hoped to reform the Church, he soon found that his ideas were not welcomed, and when he refused to recant he was excommunicated in 1521. Later that year, he was called to an assembly (known in German as a “diet”) at the Imperial Free City of Worms. Presiding over the council was Charles V, Holy Roman Empire and proclaimed ruler of half the world (literally – he controlled not only the Holy Roman Empire that governed half of Europe, but Spain and its overseas holdings, which theoretically included the entirety of North and South America). Luther was asked once again to recant, but he stood his ground and refused. According to tradition, he finished his statement with the words “Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me. Amen.” This also is something that is challenged by historians – there are no mentions of this statement in the transcripts of the council or in eyewitness accounts. Still, Luther refused to recant, and thus his attempts at reform instead created another permanent schism in Christianity (the other major schism being between Rome and the Eastern Orthodox Churches).

What happened next?

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Gustav Adolphus leading troops in the Thirty Years’ War, which was the culmination of a hundred years of political and religious dispute initiated by Luther. Painted by Johann Walter in 1632. Credit: Public Domain, uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by User:Velvet.

Even as Luther in the Holy Roman Empire argued for reforming the Catholic Church, over in the mountains of Switzerland a man name Huldrych Zwingli argued for reforms in the ministerial system of the Church. This reform movement quickly became swept up in the theological revolution that Luther sparked. Luther soon lost control of the Reformation – numerous other reformers began appearing all across Europe, with theological movements such as Calvinism and Anglicanism arising alongside Lutheranism. The “protest” of Luther now grew into a set of theologies resisting the Catholic Church: Protestantism. And the theological turmoil rapidly turned into political turmoil as well, with different rulers and nobles takings sides in the dispute, and peasant rebellions erupted across Europe. Along with this revolution in theology were revolutions in what was then called “natural philosophy,” today known as science; revolutions in economies and societies as trade expanded across the globe in the wake of European explorers and conquerors; and revolutions in forms of government. The increasing political and theological tensions continued to grow over the course of a century, culminating in a devastating war across most of Europe, a war which lasted from 1618 to 1648. The uneasy peace the ended the conflict helped establish the political boundaries and alliances that would define Europe in the Modern Era.

As for Luther, he continued to minister, and married a former nun, Katharina von Bora, who naturally became an influential spiritual leader for women in the Protestant movement. He is a key individual in the German culture, with a mixed but powerfully influential legacy for that land. Luther wrote hymns in German rather than Latin and translated the Bible into German, helping develop the modern German language. Not all of Luther’s later legacy is so positive – in his old age, he came to be angry with the Jewish populations of Europe, who he had hoped would convert to Christianity now that the faith was being reformed. When this failed to happen, he published some vehemently anti-Semitic writings and argued that the Jews be driven out of Europe. This anti-Semitism became entrenched in German culture, and possibly influenced the Nazis, with their violent anti-semitism, 400 years.

500 years after Luther published his theses, his work lives on. A man of his time, with his own flaws, inconsistencies, and frailties, as every individual has, he managed to initiate a world-wide movement that challenged the old ways and old authorities, instead looking to reasoning based on the written word. One man, at one little church on the day of All Hallows Eve, spoke up against corruption and preached the convictions of his conscience. And changed the world.

References

All sources accessed October 30, 2017

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