He was born on November 10, 1483 and died on February 18, 1546. Martin Luther was a Catholic priest, composer, and professor of moral theology at the University of Wittenberg in Germany. Protesting abusive indulgence practices in the Catholic Church, he became a key figure in the Protestant Reformation.
This year we celebrate his 500th anniversary.
He may or may not have actually nailed them to the church door in Wittenberg, (the majority of contemporary Luther researchers stress that Luther did NOT nail his theses to the door of the Castle Church) but on 31 October 1517 theologian Martin Luther did send his “Ninety-Five Theses” to Albert of Brandenburg, the Archbishop of Mainz. His theses were a list of propositions for an academic disputation about abusive practices connected with the Roman Catholic sale of indulgences.
A bit of background: Although one does not hear much about it these days, medieval Catholics had a strong belief in PURGATORY: a place of temporal punishment between hell and heaven, a place to purge souls of the remnants of sin and enable them to eventually move on into heavenly glory. They visualized the time in purgatory the same way they understood earthly punishment or imprisionment for criminal actions: calculated in so many days, months, or years.
An indulgence was like an official pardon that could wipe out all or part of the time one had to spend in purgatorial punishment and purification. Church authorities could grant indulgences for saying certain prayers, performing good deeds, or visiting and praying at special shrines. If one had a loved one who had died, for instance, a person could gain indulgences for him or her and lessen the number of days that person would have to endure the pains of purgatory. One could also pile up indulgences for oneself; and indulgences could be plenary (wiping out all purgatorial time) or partial (just wiping out a certain number of days). If, for example, one performed a pious act labeled as “300 days’ partial indulgence,” then that person would spend 300 fewer days in purgatory.
By the late Middle Ages, granting indulgences became big time big business for the church. In Martin Luther’s Wittenberg, for example, Johann Tetzel, a Dominican monk and a popular preacher, visited churches and traveled through neighboring towns and villages selling indulgences at good prices. He was a top salesman. Legend says he even had a little jingle for selling his indulgences: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings/ The soul from Purgatory springs.”
The pope too was in the indulgence business. In the early sixteenth century, the current St. Peter’s basilica in Rome was under construction but the pope ran out of money. Indulgences solved his financial problems. More than a few coins of course had to ring in the
On March 15, 1517, Pope Leo X declared that anyone who contributed to the St. Peter’s building project would be granted an indulgence. His decree explains the product he was selling and its benefits: “…[I] absolve you …from all your sins, transgressions, and excesses regardless how enormous they might be…and remit all punishment which you deserve in purgatory on their account; and I restore you…to the innocence and purity which you possessed at baptism, so that when you die the gates of punishment shall be shut… If you shall not die at present, this grace shall remain in full force when you are at the point of death.” That’s quite an insurance policy.
Luther of course was disgusted and flabbergasted at such a crass distortion of Christianity. The young theologian, was strongly condemned by church authorities and the Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms in 1521. Nevertheless, he was a Christian prophet and his message endured.
In every age we need to be alert and critical and prophetic believers. Institutions and institutional leaders (as we see in the political arena as well) often succumb to self-promoting power maneuvers that distort the truth, offer people false hopes, and end up using and abusing them. There will always be someone who takes advantage of people and offers them quick salvation by selling the latest golden calf.
It would help if we could see the church not as an institution but as a community of faith: a vibrant community of brothers and sisters, united in the spirit of Christ, and constructively critiquing and motivating each other to be his living presence in our contemporary society.
Jesus of course said absolutely nothing about indulgences. He never constructed a golden calf. He did say the Reign of God has already begun….He wants us to live the Reign of God here and now, today.
We can ignore all the contemporary, and often colorful, Johann Tetzels.
Thank you Martin Luther!