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A controversial German national, Martin Luther, was presented varyingly as a revolutionary, reformist, and a philosopher. Luther, a teacher of theology, a composer, and a priest, was born in November 1483, whose father was a mining cooper, in Eisleben, Saxony, at that time Holy Roman Empire. He studied at the University of Erfurt, which is in Germany nowadays. This philosopher and theology teacher later grew to a crucial person in the Protestant Reformation movement (Freewalt & Thornton 13). During his life, Luther initiated the reform movement that discarded most of the schoolings of the Roman Catholic Church (and multiple practices of the church). He would challenge the office of the pope and what the papal authority represented. His involvement in the translation of the Bible from Latin into his native tongue made the word of God (as presented in the holy book) more accessible to believers. He developed hymns that mainstreamed the practice of singing in Protestant churches and helped shape the practice of clerical marriage in those churches (a departure from the norm practice by the Roman Catholic clergy). By far, however, his most influential work was the 1517 publication “The Ninety Five Theses” which shall, in combination with other contributions he made to religious revolution, form a major part of this essay article.

Involvement with the Protestant Revolution

Luther, in his day, was extensively involved with efforts that were viewed as antagonistic towards the Roman Catholic Church which at the time was the dominant force, and was for all intents and purposes, the law. The pope wielded power second to none, and the decrees of the papal office were considered not just sacred but were almost always binding to all citizens of the Holy Roman Empire as Wilson (51) writes. It is the power vested in the papacy that would inspire Luther to spearhead, and become a crucial part of the Protestant Reformation movement. In his theology, Martin Luther labored to challenge the authority of the office of the pope; in so doing, he taught anyone who cared to listen that the bible, rather than the papacy or the Roman Catholic Church, was the only source of divine knowledge from God as revealed to mankind.

As a priest and theologian, trained and later employed by the Roman Catholic Church, Martin Luther challenged the status quo that had prevailed, in the very same church he was supposed to serve, ever since its founding. He dismissed the notion of a celibate clergy and ended up marrying a former nun in the mother church. His actions and vies on celibacy of the clergy would set the precedent for married clergy in the Protestant churches, a great departure from prevailing norms at the time. Instead of the solemn hominies and recitals during church services, as was the norm in the Roman Catholic Church masses, Luther wrote and composed hymns which influenced the development of singing during church services in Protestant churches. In his teachings to the congregations, Luther decried the practice of “purchasing salvation” as was done in the Roman Catholic Church through the sale of indulgences (accompanied by church prescribed good deeds and acts of charity) and instead pointed out, as Leppin & Wengert (377) observe, that salvation from sin and the eternal life to follow could only be received, as a gift from God due to His grace, by believers who had faith in Jesus Christ. To this effect, Luther pointed out that only God, and not the church, could grant forgiveness to sinners and as such those who purported to “sell forgiveness, absolution and salvation” through indulgences (including the Roman Catholic Church and the papacy) were in error.

The Ninety Five Theses

Resulting from his great protest about the sale of indulgences to poor believers in the Holy Roman Empire, the Ninety Five Theses is the name that was given to the disputation that Luther wrote to his bishop, Albert who was based in Mainz, in protest of the sale of indulgences in Germany by the Roman Catholic Church to aid in rebuilding the St. Peter’s Basilica which was in Rome. The disputation, notes Wengert (44), titled “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” was not intended, at least when it was written, to confront the church but rather to seek clarification on a number of issues; it was Hendrix (91) claims, a mere scholarly based objection to a number of practices advanced by the church. Originally in Latin, the theses later came to be translated into German in 1518 and subsequently distributed throughout the nation before spreading all over Europe in the following months; marking the start of his involvement with the protestant revolution as he sparked critical thought of the church among students through his travelling lectures series which saw him talk widely to students and faculty across Europe.

Martin Luther’s disputations contained ninety five theses, posed as question to his bishop who based in Mainz, on the practices of indulgence selling by the Roman Catholic Church and the purported purchase of absolution and salvation. The theses were not just questions but also a sort of proposition for scholarly thought on the practices of the church. Among the central tenets of the disputations was the role of the church and the sale of indulgences as a way of accumulating money not just for the church but for the pope, both in person, and additionally as the head of the church. Leppin & Wengert (387) write that through the theses, Luther advanced his position against the perceived (and actual) practices by the church of reduction of temporal punishment of the sins of believers (and their relatives who had passed on) by buying “forgiveness certificates” from the church.

Among the postulations of the ninety five theses was that of the doctrine of justification which he noted fundamentally differed from the practices advanced by the church.

According to Luther, as Wengert (49) highlights, only a believer’s faith through the grace of God, could make a sinner whole and righteous. In essence, he dismissed the notion of supposed intercession by the Catholic Church on behalf of the congregation (after the purchase of indulgences) as a corruption of the sacred requirements of the holy book, and of Christianity. Another view advanced in the theses was that of confession and forgiveness of sins, to which end he posited that only spiritual repentance rather than just external confession for the purpose of sacrament taking would lead to forgiveness of sins. Summarily, he highlighted the fact that indulgences led to the avoidance of true repentance and submission to the teachings of Christ by the congregation; preventing the engagement in acts of mercy and charity. In essence, Luther, from as far back as 1514, had been of the view that the abuse of indulgences tended to cheapen grace by bypassing the need for true repentance of sins.

In the ninety five theses, Luther also challenged the widely believed notion among subscribers of the Roman Catholic Church that the pope could, using the good deeds of the holy saints who lived in the past, forgive sinners and absolve them from would-be temporal punishment. By so opposing, he pointed out that the pope, and by extension the Catholic Church, had no prerogative to forgive sins (Wengert 51). In this way, he, through the first thesis supposes that the act of repentance should be a one off event characterized by a desire to live a pure life devoid of wilful acts of sin and instead characterized by mercy, good deeds and acts of charity. To him therefore, the act of repentance would ordinarily have been an inner struggle with sin by a Christian rather than, as the Catholic Church did advocate, the external confession for the purpose of partaking the holy sacrament.

His theses also delved into the authority and supposed powers of the pope and the papal office; maintaining that the pope was only capable of freeing people from punishment levied by the pope himself or the church (through the system of penance) but not the guilt that attends acts of sin against the commandments of God. In the disputations he wrote, Luther also greatly differed with the common held notion among Catholic faithful that the spirit of those who died before fully repenting and atoning for their sins would be stuck in the spiritual state of purgatory until their loved ones interceded on their behalf (Hann S183) by among other actions, the purchase of indulgences after which the pope would relieve such souls. To this end, he noted that the pope could not possibly have any power over the non-living, and that the pope could not unbind a soul stuck in purgatory for only God has the power to forgive sins to all (body and soul; stuck in purgatory or living on earth).

For Luther, as depicted by his theses, indulgence was a wholly unnecessary system perpetuated by the Roman Catholic Church for its own (and the pope’s) selfish gains. To illustrate the truth behind his position and line of thinking, he advanced the view that indulgence would make repentance of sins by the faithful unnecessary as they could just buy off salvation and forgiveness by the mere act of purchasing indulgences rather than showing remorse (through repentance) for their sins and misdeeds. For him, as he points out through the thirty first to thirty seventh theses Leppin & Wengert (384), any believer who was truly repentant for their sins may be the ones to benefit from the system of indulgence; but being that by already having truly repented their salvation was assured, they then had the benefits that the system of indulgence was tailored to offer. As such, his postulations and thoughts seemed to render the system of indulgence moot. To further illuminate the case against indulgence, his thirty ninth and fortieth theses noted that true repentance was hindered by indulgence as the former sought punishment of sins from God while the latter taught one how to avoid the punishment from God that their sins would attract (by “purchasing forgiveness”).

According to Wengert (46), the theses were mainly intended, though to peak some scholarly curiosity, to highlight the downfalls of the practice of the Roman Catholic Church. He criticized the practice of treasury merit that was under the control of the pope, and which was the foundation on which the system of indulgence rested. For Luther, the system of indulgence as a sort of net to catch the wealth of the believers. In his suppositions as outlined in the disputations, Luther concludes by urging all believers in Christ (basically the members of the Roman Catholic Church) to endeavor to live like Jesus Christ did even if the imitation of that life brings pain to them for enduring punishment on earth for the piety of their lives and later entering heaven would be better than purchasing a false sense of security through the system of indulgences. Luther’s stance on the issues highlighted in the Ninety Five Theses saw him disobey the orders of both the Holy Roman Emperor and Pope Leo X to renounce his writing (Hendrix 89); he was subsequently excommunicated from the church and condemned by the empire as an outlaw.

Conclusion

Born to a simple copper miner in present day Germany, which was then a part of the Holy Roman Empire, Martin Luther became the driving force behind the formation of the Protestant Revolution and later on the establishment of the protestant churches. With beginnings in a simple disputation to his bishop (as detailed here-above) which was meant to question a number of practices of the Roman Catholic Church mainly revolving around the system of sale of indulgences and the powers of the papacy, Martin Luther came to reject many of the church’s teachings and practices, and was able to add on to his cap the title of a revolutionary by inspiring the formation of the Protestant Movement. Many of his actions influenced the adoption of many practices that can still be seen in the operations of Protestant churches to this day including clerical marriages and the incorporation of singing during church services.

Works Cited

Freewalt, Jason, and Heather Thornton. "The Spark that Ignited the Reformation: Leo, Albrecht, Luther, and the Ninety-Five Theses." (2016): 11 - 21.

Hann, Chris. "The Heart of the Matter: Christianity, Materiality, and Modernity." Current Anthropology 55.S10 (2014): S182-S192.

Hendrix, Scott H. Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press (2015): 81-95.

Leppin, Volker, and Wengert, Timothy J. "Sources for and against the Posting of the Ninety-Five Theses." Lutheran Quarterly, 29 (2015): 373–398.

Wengert, Timothy J. Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses: With Introduction, Commentary, and Study Guide. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress (2015): 44-56.

Wilson, Peter H. Heart of Europe: A History of the Holy Roman Empire. Harvard University Press, 2016: 42-77.

August 09, 2021

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