Leseprobe Rubrik: Culture

The Freedom of a Christian

When Luther changed the world

Reformation Day was first celebrated in the former electorate of Saxony on 31 October 1617, marking the one-hundredth anniversary of the day Martin Luther nailed his theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church. Although it is doubtful whether this event really occurred, the theses heralded the start of the Reformation.
When Reformation Day is commemorated again in Germany on 31 October 2017, it will be an official national holiday for the first time. Its celebration throughout Germany is not only a reminder of the historic significance of the Reformation far beyond the country’s borders, but also of its profound impact on society, which is still evident today.

The Protestant Church has been preparing for the anniversary with a “Reformation decade” that started in 2008. But what are the celebrations really about? The Reformation refers to an ecclesial revival movement between 1517 and 1648, which finally led to Western European Christendom splitting into different denominations.
The Reformation has its roots in the electorate of Saxony, the second-largest state of the German Empire at the time. Saxony’s former territory is today divided between the federal states of Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, Thuringia and Brandenburg. Smaller regions belong to present-day Bavaria, the Czech Republic and Poland. Even the first Reformation Day was a political statement: The Reformation not only reflected the era, it was also exploited by some rulers in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, as the German non-national state was then called, to weaken the power of the emperor and the church.

The schism was not planned: Whatever their political objectives, the protagonists of this movement intended to call for a return to Christian values and the message of the Bible – the Latin term “reformatio” means “restoration”. But Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and theology professor, could never have imagined when he wrote his 95 theses criticizing the church’s practice of selling indulgences in 1517 that, rather than bringing the Catholic Church back to its roots as he had hoped, he would create a new religious denomination. He first sent the theses to members of the clergy and the nobility for discussion. On 31 October 1517, he also allegedly nailed them to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church with loud strokes of a hammer. Although experts disagree as to whether this actually happened, many sources since suggest that he did indeed post his theses. It was not an act of protest, but complied with the statutes of the University of Wittenberg, which required students to publish their theses, or more specifically pin them to a Wittenberg church door, as a basis for defending them.

In his theses, Luther attacked the practices of the Catholic Church, in particular the selling of indulgences: People who had committed a sin could shorten their time spent in purgatory by purchasing what were known as “letters of indulgence”. While the peddling of indulgences was strictly regulated up to the 15th century, and only certain sins could be atoned for with money, this had changed by Luther’s day.

Under Pope Leo X, indulgences took on a far more important role, as he used them to collect money for building St. Peter’s Cathedral. German cardinals, who had purchased and accumulated church offices and had to buy the Pope’s favour, also upheld the system. The indulgence preacher Johann Tetzel from Pirna in Saxony became one of the best-known figures in connection with this practice. He was a Dominican friar from Leipzig, who travelled throughout the country promising deliverance from all sins with slogans like “As soon as coin in the coffer rings, the
soul from purgatory springs!”

As a preacher in Wittenberg, Luther found that ever fewer people were coming to confession and, instead of repenting, preferred to rely on letters of indulgence, which they bought in neighbouring towns. But Luther was convinced that God would only forgive people’s sins if they showed repentance. He believed that man depended solely on the grace of God for salvation, which he could only receive through faith. Shortly after being nailed to the church door, Luther’s theses were translated into German and spread like wildfire thanks to the printing press with movable type, which had recently been invented. Six months later, Luther defended his theses at the “Heidelberg Disputation”, an academic debate at Heidelberg University.(excerpt)

Dr. Susanne Kailitz, Wolfgang Gärtner

Photo: (c) Wolfgang Gärtner

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