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Theses

by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the November 1999, A.S. XXXIV issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

Recently I read a report about how one branch of Lutherans and the Catholic Church were about to sign a concordat that resolved a number of differences between them. This in of itself is not all that earthshaking. There have been many such dialogs over the past decade. What did catch my eye was that they signed it on the anniversary of Luther's posting of his 95 theses: October 31, Halloween. I though it a bit ironic that a holiday so given to things unchristian was so prominent a milestone in Christian history. That got me to thinking about what those theses were. Normally I avoid the Reformation as it informs more on modern sensibilities then those medieval. Nevertheless it plays a major role at the end of the period. So here is the fuss that started it all.

The act of Luther posting these theses is dramatic only in the light of ensuing events. What Luther posted was an invitation to an academic discussion of the 95 points listed. It was nailed to the church door because that was where notices of this nature were posted, much like the posters found taped to the doors of the Student Union on many colleges. He posted them in response to being denounced by Johann Tetzel when Luther refused to attest to the efficacy of the indulgences he was selling. Nor was the date by chance, as the next day, "All Saints Day", featured a display of relics, and so insured a crowd. To further insure disseminating his challenge, he had the theses printed in German and circulated.

The 95 theses are not 95 separate issues. What these theses are were topic sentences of paragraphs. The central theme being the selling of indulgences. His disagreement was not with the concept of indulgences, or that the Pope could grant them. What he objected to was the extravagant claims being made about the scope the indulgences covered, particularly about the remission of sin without penance or covering those dead. And he made it a point to indemnify the Pope from these abuses.

Indulgences are an old tradition in the church, though they first came to prominence during the First Crusade when they were used as a recruiting aid. They were later used to raise revenue for various causes. In 1517 the cause was the expansion and repair of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Ironically the Pope who promulgated the indulgence inherited the project from his predecessor was not enamored with it. But as the old basilica was beyond repair, for the prestige of the Church he continued with it.

In practice the system of indulgences was as follows. The Pope would authorize indulgences for a set purpose. While, in theory, this was strictly an internal church matter, in practice, reality required others to be given a cut of the sales. Either so they would allow the indulgences to be sold, or for debts to be paid off. The Archbishop of Luther's region was very much in debt, and a representative of the Fuggers banking concern accompanied the Archbishop's agents to audit the proceeds. This created the circumstances that created the "hard sell" that so provoked Luther.

Initially, Luther had no intention to start a revolution. He became more radical after the Church attacked him. His interest was realigning the Church's actions with its ideals. But throughout the Middle Ages, many a group was branded heretical for such an effort. And with its revenue stream threaten, the Church acted no differently to Luther then it did to these others. The difference in outcome was the result of Luther's time and place.

Germany was part of the Holy Roman Empire. But in reality it was a loose collection of quasi-independent principalities, each jealously guarding its privileges. The emperor was Charles V, who just ascended the throne. Charles also held the crown of Spain, and had large holdings in Italy. While a capable leader, these extensive holdings left with too many distractions and too many enemies to allow him to effectively deal with Luther's growing supporters. The source of Luther's support among the princes was that his attacks against Rome feed their sense of German nationalism.

Also helping was the invention of the printing press. With it, Luther and his compatriots could quickly and widely spread his ideas. Various other social trends resonated with Luther's ideas creating an unstoppable movement. Middle class merchants responded to Luther's ideas of self-discipline and self-reliance. Political dissidents saw a way to reform society, while many clergy cheered the attacks on Church corruption. It was a long way from an academic disagreement about indulgences.

While Luther is the central figure in the development of the Protestant Reformation, it would be a mistake to make him the source. Even if he hadn't nailed those theses to that door, it was only a matter of time before someone else did something similar. Many of the key ideas and themes where not original to him. His genius was in putting them together elegantly and forcefully. Many of the details of Protestantism would have played out differently, but the Reformation had become inevitable. It just needed a spark. In this case, a spark of some 95 sentences.

 

Bibliography

Burgess, Stanley M. The Holy Spirit; Medieval, Roman Catholic, and Reformation Traditions. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997.

Durant, Will. The Reformation: A history of European Civilization from Wyclif to Calvin, 1300-1564. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1957.

The European Emergence: AD 1500-1600. New York: Time-Life Books, 1989.

Hale, John. The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance. New York: Atheneum, 1994.

 

Copyright © 1999 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.

 

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