Today is known as All Saints’ Day, in recognition of the Roman Catholic Saints, who are too many to have a day of celebration for each. Five hundred years ago yesterday, Martin Luther posted his 95 theses, marking the beginning of the Reformation. We know that he mailed his propositions to the Archbishop of Mainz that day, and tradition has it that he also posted his theses on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, the town where he was a professor of moral theology. The propositions were originally intended as topics for debate and not statements of belief, but his opinions were clear, and his stance ultimately led to his excommunication.
The first thesis argued that Christian’s entire life should be one of repentance. From that he went on in the remaining statements to criticize the prevailing practice of selling forgiveness, or indulgences, by the church as corrupt and harmful to the proposition of salvation by faith and to the welfare of the poor.
Two years earlier, Pope Leo X had granted open indulgences to pay for the building of St. Peter’s Basillica, preempting local sales of indulgences for eight years, which probably chaffed local clergy in northern Europe.
Luther was not the first to criticize indulgences. Wycliffe, Hus and others had done so earlier, but history seems to decide when the time is ripe for change and if you believe that history has a direction, Luther was its chosen messenger. Similarly, the issue of indulgences was the vehicle for more fundamental change, a revolution in religion that was more mildly named the Reformation.
Luther was finally excommunicated in 1521 for refusing to recant his condemnation of indulgences, two years before the construction fund for the Basilica ended. He went on to form the Lutheran church and emboldened others in Europe to establish new faiths.
Today, the notion that God wants his people to be wealthy holds sway in much of this country. On Sundays in church and on the airwaves you can hear propositions that God will reward you with greater wealth if you give handsomely to the church.
The Gospels hold the last word, I believe. All that need be said is found in Luke 21:1-4.
Sidenote: Another German, German Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable type printing press around 1440. While it is true that the first book he printed using this process was the Bible, that was clearly not his reason for creating movable type. After all, the text of the Bible doesn’t change, so a fixed page was much simpler and cheaper to create and reuse.
It is more likely that his movable type was first used to insert names into documents granting indulgences by the church, which would have been a lucrative and suitable use for his invention.