October 31, 1517 — Way back at the beginning of the 16th Century, Pope Leo X had a mission: he wanted to rebuild St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. A costly business, but he had a money-raising scheme. He and his cardinals sold “indulgences” to sinners.
Those who paid out for “indulgence” documents were promised that not only would they receive a lesser punishment for their sins, but the same would apply to departed loved ones, and in some cases, there would be total forgiveness for all sin.
Defiant monk Martin Luther took strong exception to the practice and it lay at the heart of his 95 Theses – questions about Church activities – which, on this day, he famously nailed to the door of Wittenburg Castle Church in Germany where he was serving as a priest.
It was an act that was later to have monumental consequences, changing the course of religious and cultural history and becoming the foundation of the Protestant Reformation.
“The 95 Theses,” were a list of questions and propositions for debate. On the matter of “indulgences” he asked: “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?”
Luther, born in 1483, was the son of a hard-working German miner who wanted his boy to become a lawyer and, indeed, Martin started studying law in 1505.
But that same year, while enduring a terrible thunder and lightning storm, so the story goes, Luther feared for his life and called out to God to save him. He vowed to become a monk if he survived.
Less than a month later, much to the disapproval of his father, he became an Augustian friar, his ordination following in 1507. He went on to teach as a professor of biblical theology at the University of Wittenburg.
Luther, appalled by what he saw as immorality and corruption among the Catholic priests when he visited Rome, believed passionately that Christ was the only mediator between God and mankind. He declared that faith alone – not deeds –would lead to salvation and the forgiveness of sins. The “indulgences” question again.
All this was too much for the Catholic Church and in time the Pope issued a papal bull (public decree) declaring that Luther’s propositions were heretical. He was given 120 days to recant. When the period stipulated in the bull expired on December 10, 1520, Luther cancelled his classes, marched to a bonfire started by his students outside one of the city gates, and threw a copy of the bull into the fire.
He was excommunicated in 1521, then ordered to appear before Emperor Charles V in Worms, Germany, for a general assembly of the Holy Roman Empire – known as the "Diet of Worms".
There, he again refused to renounce his views and concluded his testimony with the defiant statement: “Here I stand. God help me. I can do no other.” He was then issued the Edict of Worms, which banned his writings and declared him to be a "convicted heretic."
Condemned as both a heretic and an outlaw, he 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 from Latin into German, which took him 10 years to complete.
Sadly, Luther seems to have lost the plot as he grew older. Not only did he accuse the Pope of being the Antichrist, he also called for the expulsion of Jews from the Holy Roman Empire and their synagogues burned. Most bizarrely, he supported polygamy, since the practice had been followed by patriarchs in the Old Testament.
Nevertheless, having questioned some of the basic tenets of Roman Catholicism, his followers soon split from the Roman Catholic Church to begin the Protestant tradition. His actions set in motion tremendous reform within the Church. Luther died on February 18, 1546, aged 62.
Published: September 26, 2019
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