31 October 2017
95 facts or myths about
Martin Luther 500 years
after his 95 theses
Martin Luther proposed an academic discussion of indulgences when he posted his 95 Theses on 31 October 1517. Myth now says that on that day 500 years ago, he nailed those 95 Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, although in reality Luther had sent them to the Archishop of Mainz in an effort to stimulate debate.
Here are 95 points to mark today’s 500th anniversary:
1, In a recent feature in The Guardian, the Irish-born historian Dr Christopher Kissane wrote about the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and Martin Luther posting his ‘95 Theses’ in Wittenberg on 31 October 1517. He pointed out that this anniversary is ‘an opportunity for reflection’ and ‘a chance to heal old wounds.’
2, Martin Luther is unlikely to have nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Schlosskirche (Castle Church) in Wittenberg on 31 October 1517. In reality, he may have simply dispatched them to the Archbishop of Mainz by courier.
3, Luther may not have expected much of a response, because the powers of the Archbishop of Mainz were extremely limited in Wittenberg. Both the Elector’s All Hallows’ Foundation (tomorrow, 1 November, is the Feast of All Saints) and the parish church had held papal privileges since 1400, and these were extended to the university on its foundation in 1502.
4, Martin Luther (1483-1546) was born in Eisleben, Saxony, on 10 November 1483 and was named Martin because he was baptised the bext day, 11 November, the Feast of Saint Martin of Tours. His father’s Hans Luder (or Ludher), and he only later spelt his name Luther; his mother’s name Margarethe Lindemann.
5, Luther grew up in a Church in which calls for reform were already a commonplace. In 1512, Pope Julius II summoned the Fifth Lateran Council, which continued until 1517. This was, in part, a reaction to what the Pope saw as the illegitimate Council of Pisa of 1511, which had been called by the King of France.
6, Throughout the Western Church at the time, many bishops were also trying to reform their dioceses.
7, Luther was not the first reformer to emphasise the importance of preaching. Many mayors and city councils were appointing preachers, often Augustinian, Franciscan and Dominican friars, who were instructed to deliver sermons in the language of the people.
8, Martin Luther prayed to the saints: in 1505, he was caught in a thunderstorm, struck by a lightning bolt and thrown from his horse. He was terrified of death and divine judgment, and cried out: ‘Help! Saint Anna, I will become a monk.’
9, Luther joined the Augustinian order as a friar on 17 July 1505, was ordained in 1507 at the age of 24, and completed his doctorate in Wittenberg in 1512. During that time, he also visited Rome in 1510, and had his ‘Tower Experience’ (Turmerlebnis) which was a major changing moment in his life.
10, Luther wrote his 95 Theses in Latin, the language of academia and the Church. They could be read only by the educated clergy and by those who had received a Latin education.
11, A German translation of the 95 Theses was not made until Christmas 1517, when they were translated by a Nuremberg city councillor, Kaspar Nützel.
12, Luther’s subsequent decision to begin writing in German led to a string of pastoral works in 1518-1519, including explications of the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer, an instruction on Confession, and a series of ‘sermons’ or short treatises on Baptism, the Eucharist, Penance, and Marriage. These were short, accessible works that could be read by those who were literate, and read aloud to those who were not.
13, Much of what is accepted as Lutheran theology, including the Augsburg Confession, is actually the work of Luther’s more intellectual contemporary Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560).
14, Luther was willing to exaggerate, if not lie, about the Papacy. In Rome in the Middle Ages, unwanted infants were passed into the hospital at the Church of Santo Spirito in Sassia through a revolving, barrel-like door, the rota. When Martin Luther visited the hospital in 1511, he was shocked by what he saw. But he exaggerated the reports he heard and claimed the unwanted babies were the Pope’s own children.
15, Luther’s theological insights are often summarised in the ‘Three Solas’ or the ‘Five Solas’: Sola Scriptura (the Bible alone); Sola Fide (Faith alone); and Sola Gratia (Grace alone). To these, some add Solo Christo (‘through Christ alone’) and Soli Deo Gloria (‘to the glory of God alone’).
16, The ‘Three Solas’ were not identified systematically until the 20th century, and the ‘Five Solas’ are not listed together until 1965.
17, Luther gave primacy to Scripture, but does not ignore tradition. He had a very full grasp of Patristic writings. He chose Scripture over innovation that has no Scriptural foundation.
18, Luther was not innovative, and is not setting up a new Church. He stands in a long line of tradition that includes Francis of Assisi and the Brothers of the Common Life.
19, Luther retained sacramental confession.
20, Luther rejected Transubstantiation, but it was not defined in the present understanding until the 13th session of the Council of Trent in 1551, more than five years after Luther’s death.
21, Luther accepted the concept of ‘Real Presence’ and that the Eucharist is genuine participation in the life of Christ. There were other definitions and understandings of ‘Real Presence’ and they are held to this day, for example, within the Eastern Orthodox Church, without being considered heretical by Rome.
22, Writing about the Eucharist, Luther asks: ‘Now what is the Sacrament of the Altar?’ And he answers: ‘It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, in and under the bread and wine which we Christians are commanded by the Word of Christ to eat and to drink ...’
23, In the Large Catechism, Luther says: If a hundred thousand devils, together with all fanatics, should rush forward, crying, How can bread and wine be the body and blood of Christ? etc., I know that all spirits and scholars together are not as wise as is the Divine Majesty in His little finger. Now here stands the Word of Christ: Take, eat; this is My body; Drink ye all of it; this is the new testament in My blood, etc. Here we abide, and would like to see those who will constitute themselves His masters, and make it different from what He has spoken. It is true, indeed, that if you take away the Word or regard it without the words, you have nothing but mere bread and wine. But if the words remain with them, as they shall and must, then, in virtue of the same, it is truly the body and blood of Christ. For as the lips of Christ say and speak, so it is, as He can never lie or deceive.
24, But Luther moves the Eucharist from being a ritual action passively observed to a genuine participation by all present.
25, Luther emphasises the holiness of the everyday life of work, family and citizenship.
26, The Church has always been in a state of being reformed, although the principle of ecclesia semper reformanda, which has been attributed not to the Reformers but to Saint Augustine, is not one of Luther’s sayings. It was used only for the first time by Karl Barth in 1947, and then adapted by Hans Küng in the 1960s.
27, One early reformer was Pope Gregory the Great, one of the Doctors of the Church, who reformed the liturgy and structures of the Western and sent Saint Augustine on his mission to England.
28, From the mid-14th century, John Wycliffe and the Lollards were demanding Reform, and William Tyndale, who worked on an early translation of the Bible, was executed before the Anglican Reformation began.
29, In England, from the mid-14th century, the Lollards were demanding Reform under the leadership of John Wycliffe. He was a contemporary of Julian of Norwich, an early champion of women’s voices in the Church. Although she lived and wrote a century before Luther and Calvin, she may be seen as an early forerunner of the Anglican Reformation.
30, William Tyndale, who worked on an early translation of the Bible, was executed before the Reformation began. His prominence in Protestant folklore sometimes eclipses the influence of Desiderius Erasmus.
31, Long before Luther is said to have nailed his theses to the door of the Church in Wittenberg in 1517, Desiderius Erasmus was at Queens’ College, Cambridge. There between 1511 and 1514, Erasmus translated his new Greek and Latin versions of the New Testament that would inspire the kind of Bible study that created an interest in Luther’s writings and theology.
32, Erasmus remained a Roman Catholic priest, but through his work on the Greek New Testament in Cambridge while he was Professor of Divinity, he made the Bible accessible to the Anglican Reformers and he helped to stimulate an interest in Luther’s work.
33, Luther’s marriage to Katharina von Bora, a former nun, challenged clerical celibacy but also gave him six children. That marriage to a nun and a Roman Catholic would deny him membership if he applied to join many later Protestant organisations.
34, Until Luther, Faith was understood not as individual assent but as the Faith delivered to the apostles, preserved in the Church and expressed in the Creeds. But his emphasis on individual faith, conscience and interpretation made an insightful contribution to the Enlightenment.
35, The locus classicus of Luther’s doctrine of salvation by faith alone is found in the ‘Introduction’ he wrote to Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans, as part of Luther’s famous translation of the Bible of 1522.
36, Luther’s concept of ‘justification by grace’ was largely accepted by Vatican II in the 1960s. ‘It took us only 450 years to see Luther’s point,’ says the Catholic theologian John Borelli of Georgetown University. ‘In many ways, Vatican II was Luther's council.’
37, Luther did not see eye-to-eye with many other Reformers. When Luther and Zwingli met at the Marburg Colloquy, they agreed on many points of doctrine, but they did not reach an accord on the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
38, The most cogent critique of Luther came from King Henry VIII. For his tract Assertio Septem Sacramentum (A Defence of the Seven Sacraments), written in 1520, Henry VIII was honoured by Pope Leo X with the title Fidei Defensor, Defender of the Faith, on 11 October 1521.
39, Prompted by Christian II, the exiled king of Denmark, Luther sent a letter of apology to Henry VIII in September 1525. But a royal letter of ridicule and rebuke followed 10 months later. By 1527, however, Henry’s views were changing. He wanted a male heir and also wanted to marry Anne Boleyn in the hope that she would become the mother of a male heir.
40, Luther concluded that the king was bound under pain of eternal damnation to retain the wife he had married. But the divorce issue was settled for Henry in 1533 when Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, dissolved the marriage to Catherine of Aragon and declared the king lawfully married to Anne Boleyn.
41, In 1521, the Archbishop of Canterbury received complaints that Oxford was infested with Lutheranism. But Cambridge became the nursery of the English Reformation, and many of the English reformers and some of the early martyrs were students and scholars there.
42, The White Horse Inn, on a site that is now part of King’s College, Cambridge, became the meeting place for these young scholars from 1521. Because of their interest in Luther’s writings and theology, the White Horse Inn became known as ‘Little Germany.’
43, A future bishop in the Church of Ireland was among the Cambridge scholars who met at the White House. They included Thomas Cranmer, future Archbishop of Canterbury, Miles Coverdale, translator of the Bible into English, Matthew Parker, later Archbishop of Canterbury, William Tyndale, Bible translator, the martyr Hugh Latimer, and John Bale, later Bishop of Ossory.
44, Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) was six years Luther’s junior, and was martyred 10 years after Luther’s death. As a student in Cambridge, Erasmus was one of his favourite authors, but it was Luther who drew his attention to the Scriptures.
45, Hans Holbein’s painting of the Ambassadors (1533) shows the ambassadors at the court of Henry VIII standing on the floor mosaic of Westminster Abbey, with not one but two globes, and Luther’s Book of Psalms.
46, Luther rejected the centuries-old consensus on the canon of Scripture. He relegated many canonical books of the Old Testament to the Apocrypha, and tried to remove Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation from the New Testament because they challenged his views on Sola Gratia and Sola Fide.
47, Luther’s followers rejected these proposals, but they changed the order of the books, which remain last in the German-language Luther Bible. It should be asked whether Luther tried to shape the Bible to fit his theology rather than allowing the Bible to shape his theology?
48, Luther’s translation of the Bible was completed in 1534. It helped to standardise the modern German language, was a landmark in German literature and contributed to shaping German cultural and national identity.
49, Martin Luther’s Marian theology was developed out of the deep Marian devotion he experienced in his childhood and in his training for the priesthood. Later, it became an integral part of his theology and piety.
50, Luther asserted dogmatically what he considered firmly established biblical doctrines, including the divine motherhood of Virgin Mary and held to what were then pious opinions about the Immaculate Conception and the perpetual virginity of Mary, although they only became dogmatic teachings of the Roman Catholic Church as recently as the 19th and 20th centuries.
51, But Luther also taught that all doctrine and piety should exalt and not diminish the person and work of Jesus Christ. He emphasised that the Virgin Mary was a recipient of God’s love and favour, but could not see her as a mediatrix of intercession or redemption.
52, Luther accepted the Marian decrees of the ecumenical councils and the dogmas of the Church, and held to the belief that the Virgin Mary was a perpetual virgin.
53, Luther accepted the then-popular view of the Immaculate Conception, over three centuries before Pope Pius IX declared it a dogma in 1854, and he believed in the Virgin Mary’s life-long sinlessness.
54, Although Luther pointed out that the Bible says nothing about the Assumption of Mary, he believed that Virgin Mary and the saints live on after death.
55, In his Commentary on the Magnificat (1521), Luther extolled the magnitude of God’s grace towards the Virgin Mary and her own legacy of Christian instruction and example demonstrated in this canticle of praise.
56, Luther wrote a number of pious poems that focus on the Virgin Mary’s virginity, and translated into German old devotional Latin hymns about her.
57, Luther approved keeping Marian paintings and statues in churches, said ‘Mary prays for the Church,’ and advocated the use of the portion half of the ‘Hail Mary.’
58, Throughout his life, Luther called the Virgin Mary by the title Theotokos, Mother of God. He believed that as Christ was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary and was ‘born of the Virgin Mary,’ then she is the Theotokos, the God-bearer.
59, Luther’s cultural legacy is also found in the arts, including church architecture, painting and music. The altar pieces in Wittenberg and Weimar are among the great works by Lucas Cranach (1472-1553), who also painted the best-known portrait of Luther. His contemporaries included Matthias Grünewald (1470-1528) and Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528).
60, Luther was a singer, lute player and prolific hymn-writer. His best-known hymn is ‘A mighty fortress is our God,’ and many of his hymns were set to music later by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750).
61, Luther wrote several hymns, and it could be said he inaugurated congregational singing in church.
62, One ugly, unacceptable side of Luther is his antisemitism. His virulent anti-Jewish writings helped shape German, European and Christian expressions of anti-Semitism.
63, Luther’s language in On the Jews and Their Lies (1543) is vile as he claims the Jews are full of the ‘devil’s faeces ... which they wallow in like swine.’ He calls for synagogues and schools to be set on fire, homes razed, prayer books destroyed, rabbis forbidden to preach, property and money confiscated.
64, It is shocking to read Luther as he says Jews should be shown no mercy or kindness, afforded no legal protection and advocates their murder: ‘We are at fault in not slaying them.’
65, At an early stage in his life, Luther had very different views. In 1519 he challenged the view known as Servitus Judaeorum (‘Servitude of the Jews’), established in Corpus Juris Civilis by Justinian I (529–534). He wrote: ‘Absurd theologians defend hatred for the Jews. … What Jew would consent to enter our ranks when he sees the cruelty and enmity we wreak on them – that in our behaviour towards them we less resemble Christians than beasts?’
66, In 1523, he condemned the inhuman treatment of the Jews and urged Christians to treat them kindly. He wrote: ‘If I had been a Jew and had seen such dolts and blockheads govern and teach the Christian faith, I would sooner have become a hog than a Christian. They have dealt with the Jews as if they were dogs rather than human beings.’
67, Later, however, Luther campaigned against the Jews in Saxony, Brandenburg and Silesia, and in Wittenberg in 1543 he published his 65,000-word treatise On the Jews and Their Lies. There, he says that the Jews are a ‘base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth.’
68, Later, in Of the Unknowable Name and the Generations of Christ, he uses ugly imagery as he equates Jews with the Devil.
69, Luther’s views informed the foundation for Nazi attacks on Jews in the 1930s and 1940s. The historian Diarmaid MacCulloch says Luther provided a blueprint for the Kristallnacht, when Lutheran bishops applauded the burning of synagogues on Luther’s birthday, 10 November 1938. Bishop Martin Sasse of Thuringia and many other bishops, pastors and theologians used Luther’s writings to call for a ‘de-Judaised’ form of Christianity and to justify early Nazi measures against the Jews.
70, On the other hand, one of the towering figures of the 20th century was Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), the Lutheran theologian who died in a concentration camp for his resistance to Hitler and the Nazis.
71, Luther was also a misogynist and he condoned polygamy based on his interpretation of the practice of the patriarchs in the Old Testament.
72, The Lutheran influence that was dominant in the early Reformation in England diminished during the reign of Edward VI, when England became a haven for religious refugees, including Martin Bucer from Strasburg, who had once tried to bring Luther and Zwingli together and who influenced Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper.
73, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer invited Melanchthon and Calvin to England for a conference to discuss a united confession. But that conference never took place. The Lutherans were unfriendly to these exiles because of their denial of the real presence, and the heirs of exiles were among the later Puritans rather than among the Anglicans.
74,Thomas Cranmer drew on Lutheran catechisms, litanies, and liturgies as he compiled the Book of Common Prayer.
75, The 39 Articles were strongly influenced by phrases and sentences in the Augsburg Confession, and the Lutheran imprint is impressed on the Book of Common Prayer and the Anglican form of liturgy and worship to this day.
76, Since 1930, there has been full communion between the (Lutheran) Church of Sweden and the member churches of the Anglican Communion. The contacts maintained by Bonhoeffer and Bishop George Bell through Swedish mediation laid the foundations for the World Council of Churches.
77, Today, there is full communion between the Anglican churches in Europe and the Episcopal Lutheran churches through the Porvoo Communion, which brings together 15 churches. There are similar agreements in the US and Canada.
78, Luther’s primary demands were for an end to Church corruption, particularly in the abuse of Papal authority and the ‘sale’ of indulgences; the administration of Holy Communion under both forms of bread and wine; access to the Bible in the common language; and an end to compulsory clerical celibacy. In recent decades, the Vatican has resolved most of these debates, including even clerical celibacy, albeit in a limited and restricted way
79, ‘True Christians participate in all the blessings of Christ and the church, and this is granted to them by God even without indulgence letters,’ Luther wrote (Thesis 37). Such letters, he wrote, ‘are nets with which one fishes for the wealth of people’ (Thesis 66). In 1567, Pope Pius V abolished the sale of indulgences.
80, Many of the later divisive dogmas were not key issues at the Reformation, including the Immaculate Conception (1854), Papal Infallibility (1870) and the Assumption (1950).
81, In 1999, the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church issued the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, agreeing on Justification and lifting Roman Catholic anathemas that once applied to Lutherans. The declaration followed earlier affirmations of a shared, common faith, including the declaration on the Eucharist (1978).
82, Pope Francis recently spoke favourably about the process of dialogue, although there is still some way to go before the divisions of the past five centuries are healed.
83, Martin Luther’s reforms initially attracted widespread popular sympathy, but ultimately his success and the continuation of his ideas were guaranteed because of the support of secular princes and city magistrates.
84, ‘Catholics should do penance for setting the stage for the [division],’ says Bishop Denis Madden of Baltimore, who heads the Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. ‘It was not out of the blue that [Luther's protest] happened. The society, the church, the way things were being done at that time, called for reform, and there were very few courts of appeal where that reform could begin.’
85, In 2015, a ‘Declaration on the Way to Unity’ identified 32 issues on which Roman Catholics and Lutherans are approaching convergence.
86, A year ago, on 31 October 2016, Lutheran and Roman Catholic leaders held a joint ecumenical prayer service in Sweden, launching this year-long commemoration of the Reformation. Both continue to hope for an agreement that is going to allow Lutherans and Roman Catholics to celebrate Communion together.
87, Lutheran leaders have approached the Reformation anniversary with humility. ‘We’ve had to say that breaking up the western church was not a gift to the church,’ says the Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the largest of the Lutheran denominations.
88, There are still deep divisions within Lutheranism. Neither the Missouri Synod nor the Wisconsin Synod, for example, are yet willing to invite those who do not share all their beliefs, including other Lutherans, to share Communion.
89, Luther shaped the German language. His German Bible is for the German language what Chaucer, Shakespeare and the King James Bible are for English, or what Dante is for Italian.
90, Luther’s writings triggered wars and civil turmoil and wars throughout Europe. But he died in his own bed early on the morning of 18 February 1546, and was buried beneath the pulpit in the Castle Church in Wittenberg.
91, Although the Edict of Worms condemned Luther as a heretic, he escaped death as a heretic. Which just goes to shows how complex interaction between political and religious motives shaped and enabled the Reformation.
92, Unlike most scholars of his time, Luther was both interested in and knowledgeable about the technology of printing. He knew the economics of the business, cared about the aesthetics and presentation of books and understood the importance of what we now call brand-building.
93, Luther and theology aside, we could say the Reformation caused more than a religious rift. It has been said recently that through the world’s first ‘viral’ media campaign, the Reformation also transformed architecture, sparked the notion of secular democracy, and began to empower women in the Church.
94, Luther enjoyed his beer. He wrote: ‘Whoever drinks beer, he is quick to sleep; whoever sleeps long, does not sin; whoever does not sin, enters Heaven! Thus, let us drink beer!’
95, Luther suffered from constant, chronic constipation. Legend says he was inspired to write his 95 theses while seated comfortably on the chamber pot. That cannot be confirmed, but in 2004 archaeologists discovered Luther’s lavatory, which was remarkably modern for its day, featuring a heated-floor system and a primitive drain.
Saint Finian’s Lutheran Church, Adelaide Road, Dublin ... the Lutheran Church in Ireland dates from the late 17th century and a pastor from Hamburg who came to Ireland as military chaplain in the army of William III (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)