Moments in Church History 3: Reformation Day
Over the years Christians have tried to reclaim Halloween from the Devil in various ways, but most popular has been to celebrate the fact that October 31st , 1517 is the day that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg. I, as a good protestant, am a big fan of this strategy. If there was ever to be a strictly protestant holiday, Oct 31st is the obvious choice, and it has the added benefit of being annoying to Satan by ignoring his big day. (I will not argue about the true meaning of Halloween. There are ghosts and ghouls and witches everywhere, and children ask strangers for candy, therefore it is of the devil…..in all seriousness, though, the debate about Halloween is a classic case of overthinking. If you’re using Halloween as an excuse to wear sexy costumes, get publicly intoxicated, and consider yourself a minion of darkness, perhaps you should rethink things. If you’re using it to pretend to be Professor Plum or Doc Holliday, then not only are you a daisy if you do, but I want to be your friend).
As a fan of this practice of celebrating Reformation Day, I wanted to reflect on that day in 1517. Also we had Ryan McLaughlin post on our website a lot of pro-catholic chicanery the other day and we need to counter-act it with some protestant revelry. (In all seriousness, we kid because we love.) So, in celebration of Reformation Day, here are some fun facts about Martin Luther, the 95 Theses, and Johann Tetsel. (If you want to argue with any of my facts, Carl Trueman and Benny/Sheree Phillips are my sources. Jake, that historical fiend, is my source for points 6 and 7).
1. Martin Luther was 33 on October 31st, 1517. The same age as Jesus when he was crucified and resurrected. Really, there is no further evidence needed that everybody should be protestant.
2. Luther was a fully, he would have said radically, committed Catholic in 1517. He was making no attempt to start a reformation. Nailing the 95 Theses to the church door was simply University practice when starting a public debate.
3. He was trying to start a debate regarding indulgences, among other things.
4. Regarding the 95 Theses itself, Carl Trueman remarks ‘As a pamphlet of popular revolution, it is, with the exception of the occasional rhetorical flourish, a remarkably dull piece of work which requires a reasonably sound knowledge of late medieval Catholic theology and practice even to understand many of its statements..’ There is nothing of Luther’s justification by faith alone theology in the statements. It is a historical oddity that this document played such a key role in sparking the reformation.
5. Johann Tetsel was not allowed to sell indulgences in the area Castle Church was located because Frederick the Wise, who later protected Luther, had his own practice of selling relics and didn’t want competition.
6. Like any good theological disagreement, it eventually contributed to actual war, much to Luther’s chagrin. Addressing the literal fighting going on during Germany’s Peasants’ Revolt, Luther said, “[d]o you know what the Devil thinks when he sees men use violence to propagate the gospel? He sits with folded arms behind the fire of hell, and says with malignant looks and frightful grin: ‘Ah, how wise these madmen are to play my game! Let them go on; I shall reap the benefit…’ But when he sees the Word running and contending alone on the battle-field, then he shudders and shakes for fear.” Of course, Luther probably gave the theological motivations for the war too much credit. Although cultural and sociopolitical historians argue fiercely over the reasons for the Revolt, they mostly agree that such reasons were far more economic than religious. The aristocratic, bourgeois authorities in Germany were not generous at any point in history (hi, Karl Marx) but were particularly Scrooge-like in the 16th century.
7. Stunningly, the theological arguments developed during the Reformation were so spectactular, that only 17 years after Reformation Day, they convinced King Henry VIII to not only declared England to no longer be Catholic, but to develop the term Protestantism (protest)….oh wait, never mind, that was just because the Pope would not let him divorce and marry someone else. He would end up with six different wives, two of whom were executed and one who died under mysterious circumstances, which led to this doozy of a limerick: “King Henry the Eighth/To six wives he wedded/One died, one survived/Two divorced/Two beheaded.” But yeah, the Pope and his restrictive views on marriage. Love is love, Pope! Francis wants to have a word with you.
8. Despite the relative dullness of the 95 Theses, the non-descript way Luther posted them, and the fact that Luther was not intending on creating a revolution in the Church, the 95 Theses was quickly distributed far and wide and started causing trouble. Sometimes, it seems, countless unspectacular providences all build toward a tipping point (I see you, Malcolm Gladwell), and the nailing of the 95 Theses on that church door was the event that pushed everything over the edge. To which we say Soli Deo gloria.
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