Episco-Fact #66
October 29, 2017

You have been talking about celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. So, what is the Reformation and why is it important?

In truth, we are celebrating the 500th anniversary of a monk named Martin Luther posting 95 Theses on the door of All Saints Church, Wittenberg, Electorate of Saxony in the Holy Roman Empire. The nailing of the Theses, a fuller explanation to follow, is not confirmed. October 31, 1517 is the date when Martin Luther sent his work to Albert of Brandenburg, Archbishop of Mainz.

The Reformation did not really start until after the Roman Catholic Authorities reacted to Martin Luther's Theses, which are propositions for academic and religious inquiry. But those authorities reacted quickly. Copies of the document Luther composed were distributed throughout Germany in two weeks and throughout Europe in about two months. And the Archbishop of Mainz mobilized his responses just as quickly. This is a direct consequence of the increasingly available printing presses with moveable type-set.

Reformed Churches of Northern Europe, especially Germany, and the Calvinists churches celebrate this date with some enthusiasm.

The theses were not contentious when looking back from our position in the twenty-first century, but they impelled a conflict between Augustine's understanding of grace, the position of Martin Luther, and the Augustinian understanding of Church authority, the position of the Pope and the Archbishop of Mainz. The primary theme of the theses were indulgences, but other controversial actions and activities were addressed as well.

Underneath the 95 Theses was the recently initiated campaign of raising money through the selling of indulgences to support Pope Leo X's rebuilding of St. Peter's Basilica. Yes, the St. Peter's in Rome that we admire today, was the presenting issue. Indulgences were written documents assuring the holder of the forgiveness of their sins and release from, or shortened time, in Purgatory.

Adding to this issue were the growing numbers of Middle Class and Merchant faithful wanting to engage the sermon in their own tongue, and the practice of selling church offices, better known as Simony.

Martin Luther and a range of supporters, including a young Benedictine from England, Thomas Cranmer, quickly expanded their review of the Western Church. Lutheran's remained relatively conservative, or at least Magisterial (connected to the ruling authorities), but quickly added a Bible in German, as opposed to Latin, a reduction of Sacraments to Baptism and Communion, and a doctrine of salvation by grace through faith.

Those changes are still part of our debate and evolving understanding today. Though the date may not be fact, the date holds truth to dramatic changes in our approach and understanding of Church today.

 

The Rev. David Lucey