Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The spark that ignited the Reformation

Since this blog is named after Martin Luther, it is fitting that I write about the day when Martin nailed his 95 theses to the front door of Castle Church in Wittenberg: October 31, 1517. In commemoration, it has since been named Reformation Day, but it took place on the eve of All Saints, a holiday that the Roman Church used to remember all their departed saints and martyrs. As they had done on many other occasions, the Catholic Church supplanted a pagan holiday with their own holiday to replace its purpose. Today most people only know of October 31st as the night of Halloween.
“The ancient Celtic festival of Samhein marked the end of harvest and the beginning of winter, a time of year associated with death. The pagan Celts believed that on that night, the boundary between the worlds of the living and dead blurred, and the ghosts of the dead returned to the earth. It was a night for preternatural communication with the dead, various forms of divination and prophecy, and sexual rituals. By the 800s, the influence of the Catholic Church entered into Celtic lands. In the seventh century, Pope Boniface IV designated November 1 All Saints' Day, a time to honor saints and martyrs. Later, the Church would make November 2 All Souls' Day, a day to honor the dead. The eve of All Saints' and All Souls were celebrated with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels, and devils.” (sound familiar?)

This preoccupation with death and the fate of the departed was the emotional fodder that the Catholic Church used to sell indulgences (basically you can shorten your time or your departed loved one’s time in purgatory for a price). Martin’s theses (academic statements for discussion and debate) were written to attack the whole practice of indulgences. Defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, an indulgence is 'the remissions before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven.'
The money of course went to Rome in order to bankroll their own building projects and other questionable uses. Luther saw the corruption in Rome when he went there in person from the fall of 1510 until the spring of 1511. He was using this occasion to begin the Reformation.
Here are a few samples from the 95 Theses:
"1. Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ in saying: “Repent ye, etc., intended that the whole life of believers should be penitence.
2. This word cannot be understood of sacramental penance, that is, of the confession and satisfaction which are performed under the ministry of priests.
3. It does not, however, refer solely to inward penitence; nay such inward penitence is naught, unless it outwardly produces various mortifications of the flesh.
4. The penalty thus continues as long as the hatred of self—that is, true inward penitence—continues; namely, till our entrance into the kingdom of heaven.
5. The Pope has neither the will nor the power to remit any penalties, except those which he has imposed by his own authority, or by that of the canons.
6. The Pope has no power to remit any guilt, except by declaring and warranting it to have been remitted by God; or at most by remitting cases reserved for himself; in which cases, if his power were despised, guilt would certainly remain.
7. God never remits any man’s guilt, without at the same time subjecting him, humbled in all things, to the authority of his representative the priest.
8. The penitential canons are imposed only on the living, and no burden ought to be imposed on the dying, according to them.
9. Hence the Holy Spirit acting in the Pope does well for us, in that, in his decrees, he always makes exception of the article of death and of necessity.
10. Those priests act wrongly and unlearnedly, who, in the case of the dying, reserve the canonical penances for purgatory.
50. Christians should be taught that, if the Pope were acquainted with the exactions of the preachers of pardons, he would prefer that the Basilica of St. Peter should be burnt to ashes, than that it should be built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep.
51. Christians should be taught that, as it would be the duty, so it would be the wish of the Pope, even to sell, if necessary, the Basilica of St. Peter, and to give of his own money to very many of those from whom the preachers of pardons extract money.
52. Vain is the hope of salvation through letters of pardon, even if a commissary—nay, the Pope himself—were to pledge his own soul for them.
53. They are enemies of Christ and of the Pope, who, in order that pardons may be preached, condemn the word of God to utter silence in other churches.
86. Again; why does not the Pope, whose riches are at this day more ample than those of the wealthiest of the wealthy, build the one Basilica of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with that of poor believers?
94. Christians should be exhorted to strive to follow Christ their head through pains, deaths, and hells.
95. And thus trust to enter heaven through many tribulations, rather than in the security of peace."
Luther summarized how his theology developed in the monastery:
“There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is revealed by the Gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’ Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 34, page 337--Concordia Publishing House).
The posting of the theses became the spark that ignited the Reformation.

No comments:

Post a Comment