The Year 2017 – Or “The year of Commemorations”

1517 :      31 October

Martin Luther nails his 95 Theses to the Church Door in Wittenburg to announce his university debate. They are distributed throughout northern Germany within 14 days.

In this first of a 6 part series by Beulah Edwards, we will consider Martin Luther, who, in 1517 nails his 95 Theses to the Church Door in Wittenburg to announce his university debate.

1517 Martin Luther

In 1506, St Peters in Rome began to be rebuilt. It was an expensive and slow task and, by 1514, the walls had risen only a few feet. It was time for the Pope to launch a fundraiser, the sale of indulgences.

An artist’s rendering of the marketplace sale of indulgences.

For a price, a man could pay for his sins in advance. There was such a good response that Pope Leo X shared the profits with the ruler of Brandenburg so that he could recoup his debts! The idea needed a little pushing along, a sort of spiritual commercialism.

The Pope appointed a Dominican friar called Tetzel to run the publicity campaign. Tetzel had been selling indulgences for some years and had developed a travelling exhibition, which he presented like a showman. It was claimed that he had saved more souls through the selling of indulgences than the blessed Peter himself had through the lowly preaching of the gospel! Tetzel was just the sort of man to be the final straw to anyone already fed up with the excesses of the Papacy. The money began to roll in and needed some managing, so accountants from Fuggers accompanied Tetzel, taking charge of the till and keeping the books.

Tetzel, the indulgence preacher, arrived in Wittenberg, the town of Luther, and set up the parish church like a bazaar, filling its eight aisles with relics. Plenary (complete) indulgence was to be offered. Luther objected to the practice because he said indulgences prevented a true and inward repentance before God. He opened his attack in a sermon on the eve before the church was to be opened to the public for the ‘relic show,’ 31 October 1516. Indulgences are well named, he said, because they indulge sinners. The Elector of Saxony was impressed and refused Tetzel permission to enter the city of Wittenberg. But the refusal did not stop the indulgence market.   Such trade is spoken about in the book of Revelation where the merchandise of spiritual Babylon (Rome) is listed: “The merchandise of gold, and silver, and precious stones … horses, and chariots and slaves and the souls of men”.[1] The whole Church system had become related to trade: Church positions were sold, property was traded and acquired, collections for this and that, Church tax and so on. Instead of saving men, they enslaved them to their great politico-religious system. Public opinion reacted strongly, turning so rapidly against Tetzel that he became fearful of appearing in public.[2]

A year later, when Luther saw the written instructions for those involved in the indulgence racket, he was again spurred into action. The instructions suggested that men could be reconciled to God through the sale of indulgences. Martin Luther was incensed. This teaching took away from the forgiveness available in the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ, in effect negating the work of the cross. The forgiveness of sins involved belief and a change of life: “Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out.”[3] By “indulging sin” the Church was actually encouraging sin. Luther took issue with this travesty of the gospel. He arranged a debate at the University and drew up a list of the subjects[4] and fastened them to the church door, as was the custom for public notices. He did this as a matter of form, never foreseeing the long-term effects of the course he was now adopting. He also distributed a number of copies among friends. The same friends had the document translated and printed, and so they were widely circulated.  Within two weeks, they had been circulated across much of Germany. Two of the points he raised in his Theses were:

  • They are the enemies of Christ and the Pope who forbid altogether the preaching of the Word of God in some churches in order that indulgences may be preached in others.
  • Injury is done to the Word of God when, in the same sermon, an equal or larger amount of time is devoted to indulgences than to the Word.

At this stage, Luther was not merely a priest. He was Doctor of Theology in the University of Wittenburg. As a student, he had been directed to use the Greek text in his studies (Erasmus had recently produced the first Greek New Testament in parallel Greek and Latin columns), and so his mind was opened to the meaning of true Christianity. He came to see what John Colet had found, that true change in a person could only result from taking heed to the Word of God (Romans 10:17).

The Printed Word

A key component in the spread of the Reformation was the development of printing. A remarkable invention of the moveable typeface around 1450 was used by Johann Gutenburg at Mainz in Germany and William Caxton in England, to speed up printing production. Within fifty years, there were more than one thousand printing shops established. It was a huge breakthrough at just the right time, providing the means to rapidly produce written material. The timing was truly a work of God. It was one thing to begin a work locally, quite another to communicate the information further afield.

The first printing techniques were laborious compared to modern standards. Metal letters were arranged in a plate, and inked, so that one piece of paper was pressed against the inked metal plate to receive the images of the letters. But it was vastly quicker than the laborious hand copied texts by monks in the monasteries. Just as the transport and roading systems in the Roman Empire aided the spread of the gospel message, so the printing press now delivered into the hands of all who could buy it, their very own copy of the Bible. Things would never be the same again.

Once the ripples started, they spread outward. In the decade from 1522 the message of the protesters spread across Europe, reaching to every part of Christendom. Reform movements began in other places.

[1] Revelation 18:12,13

[2] Todd, John M, Luther : A Life, p 149

[3] Acts 3:19 NKJV

[4] Known as the 95 theses

Sis Beulah Edwards (Christchurch NZ)

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