Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Reformation Day 500

As Christians committed to recovering the integrity of our witness to Jesus Christ, today offers us a perfect opportunity to do so. We might excuse a lukewarm Olympian indulgence in the observance of Halloween. Far better, however, would be to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the surprising start of a profound reformation of the Roman Catholic Church sparked by Father Martin Luther on October 31, 1517. We might celebrate this well by reading the original Ninety-Five Theses that caused all the excitement to begin with. We might do this even better by discussing this document with our companions in our prophetic mission group.
To better understand The Ninety-Five Theses as spark, some background might prove helpful.
Martin Luther was born on November 10, 1483, in Eisleben, Saxony. He was baptized the next day on the Feast of St. Martin of Tours.
After earning his master’s degree at the University of Erfurt in 1505, he followed his father’s wishes and began to study law there. Law, however, soon seemed less important than philosophy (Aristotle and William of Ockham) and eventually the Bible. On July 2, 1505, a thunderbolt striking nearby frightened Luther so much that he vowed he would become a monk. Two weeks later he joined St. Augustine’s Monastery in Erfurt. Luther’s father believed his son was completely wasting his past achievements and future potential.
Luther eventually earned his doctorate in theology and became professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg (founded in 1502) in 1512.
In 1514, Albert of Brandenburg became Archbishop of Mainz. To gain this honor and the wealth that went with it, Albert borrowed a vast sum of money. To help him repay it, Pope Leo X, son of Lorenzo de’ Medici, made a deal with Albert. Leo would give Albert permission to sell indulgences in his territory to pay off his loans if Albert would forward half the profits to Leo so that he could rebuild the Church of St. Peter in Rome.
In the early 1500s, the Catholic Church taught that if a Christian committed a sin, forgiveness of it required that Christian to repent of the sin, confess it to a priest, and undergo whatever temporal (“limited in time”) punishments seemed right. An indulgence was the pardoning or waiving, by the pope’s authority, of some or all of that temporal punishment. Good Christians could buy an indulgence on behalf of dead relatives or friends whom they believed were still undergoing punishments, or enduring purgation, in Purgatory before being allowed to enter Heaven.
In 1517, Johann Tetzel, a Dominican, began selling indulgences on behalf of Albert and Leo in the area around Wittenberg where Luther, himself a soul in torment, taught theology. Luther had misgivings about indulgences. He carefully studied the matter almost the whole year.
On the basis of reason and Scripture, Luther believed that indulgences and their sale opposed the Spirit of Jesus. What Jesus seeks is a repentant way of living renewed daily (Thesis 1). Those who deny this by preaching that an exchange of money releases souls from Purgatory preach falsely (Thesis 27). Rather, such an exchange of money truly witnesses only to the greed of church leaders (Thesis 28). Jesus Christ himself fully forgives truly repentant sinners of all guilt and punishment without any indulgence by the Church (Thesis 36). The sale of indulgences distracts good Christians from rightly repenting of their sins and committing themselves to works of love (Theses 40-46). Sunday sermons rightly focus on preaching from the Bible rather than on encouraging on the purchase of indulgences.
Luther wrote 95 objections to the sale of indulgences and posted a printed version of these on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. At that time the church door served as a community bulletin board, so Luther intended his objections to be publicly debated. At the same time, he wrote his theses in Latin, the language of church leaders and scholars, so he expected this public debate to be between colleagues rather than between ordinary people and church leaders.
As it was, Jesus, in his always surprising and often irritating way, took the words of his servant Martin and used them to initiate some broad and deep reforms his Church needed.

Copyright © 2017 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.