Monday, October 31, 2016

500: Martin Luther

Martin Luther was born in 1483 in Eisleben, Saxony, part of the Holy Roman Empire. His father operated a mining business but wanted to see his eldest son become a lawyer, so Martin was well-educated. He spent three years attending a school run by the Dutch lay community Fratres Vitae Communis (Brethren of the Common Life). The group lived in common houses, giving up personal possessions, and spent the day in prayer, working, and reading scripture aloud. (Erasmus also studied with them.) In 1501 Luther went to the University of Erfurt. In 1505 he entered then quickly dropped out of law school, taking up theology instead. He became an Augustinian monk.

In the cloistered Augustinian order, Luther spent his days fasting, praying, and going to frequent confession. It’s sad that he suffered from scrupulosity, or pathological guilt and doubt. He struggled to feel forgiven and would go to confession multiple times a day. In 1507 Luther was ordained a priest. The next year he began teaching theology at the University of Wittenberg During his course of studies, he began to emphasize the role of faith in salvation. He received his doctorate of theology from the university on October 12, 1512.

On October 31, 1517, Luther wrote a letter to the Bishop of Mainz, arguing against several Church practices. “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” commonly known as the Ninety-five Theses, addressed Luther’s concerns, most notably, the selling of indulgences. Dominican friar Johann Tetzel had arrived in Germany in 1516, selling indulgences for fundraising of the basilica in Rome. He is often credited with the phrase, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” 

In typical debate fashion for universities at the time, Luther posted a copy of the letter in a public forum, the church door at All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg the day before All Saints Day. I think it’s important to emphasize that Luther had no intention to break away from the Church. He was seeking a response to practices he saw as unhealthy. He sought only internal critique and reform. In January, copies of the letter were translated from Latin into German. Within weeks, the letter spread throughout Europe. The Protestant Reformation was underway. 


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