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It has been 500 years since Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg in 1517, an event that changed the world – and this great anniversary in 2017 will be marked in fitting style, not just in Wittenberg and Eisleben but across the Republic. Germany is paying tribute to one of its greatest sons with an entire decade devoted to Martin Luther: monk, professor and church reformer.

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Pope Francis travelled to Sweden to assist in the launch of a year-long commemoration of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing of his 95 theses to the door of the castle church of Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, officially launching the Protestant Reformation. Luther was excommunicated and his theses rejected by Pope Leo X in 1520. This split in Christianity was the second major break-off after the Orthodox split in the eleventh century.

When Martin Luther posted his “Ninety-five Theses” on the church door in Wittenberg in 1517, no one expected the breadth of evangelical reforms in Christian teaching and practice that followed. In every dimension of Christian faith a renewed trust in God’s forgiving mercy replaced a reliance on teachings and practices that, like the sale of indulgences, were vulnerable to abuse and corruption.

It is worth knowing that the sale of indulgences had become very lucrative to the Papacy in the funding of the re-building of the Basilica of Saint-Peter in Rome, the building we see today took 100 years to build, used several architects and many artists. Its interior decoration would take another 30 years and would be directed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) he was the creator of the Baroque style.

If Martin Luther was the writer of the Reformation, then Lucas Cranach, the Elder was its painter. The Cranach studio produced more than a thousand paintings, most notably for the Small Catechism and Luther’s German translation of the Bible. Some of the best portraits of Martin Luther were made by Cranach, the Elder. Cranach was also a printer and his print shop made German language copies of the Bible available to all.

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If you wish to read a good book on Martin Luther, here is a suggestion;

Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet by Lyndal Roper, pp 562

Luther was born in Eisleben in northern Germany in 1483, and grew up under the shadow of the Counts of Mansfeld’s castles in the small mining town of the same name. In later life he would always insist on his impeccable peasant origins, but his father was a mining inspector and prominent smelting master and it was in a smoky, slagheap-filled town on the edge of the civilised world that the young Martin grew up.

The wider context of the adult Luther’s rebellion — the growing anti-clericalism of the late 14th century, the extravagance and exactions of the Renaissance papacy, absenteeism, the shameful ignorance of so many clergy, the scandal of indulgences, the simmering hostility between Rome and Germany — is familiar enough territory, but for Roper it is impossible to understand Luther without understanding this Mansfeld world from which he came. There is a natural tendency in Reformation studies to concentrate on the independent imperial cities of the south, but the ugly, precarious and divided world that helped shape Luther’s passionate, authoritarian, unforgiving, coarsely physical nature was closer to a 15th-century German Deadwood than it was to the humanist culture and civic traditions of Nuremberg.

Even though Luther remained loyal to his childhood home, there can have been little about it that gave him a very elevated sense of man’s goodness, and nothing that can have inoculated him against the less lovely aspects of St Augustine’s theology when he defied his father to become an Augustinian monk. It might seem odd in retrospect that a man who spent so much of his time railing against monasticism should have joined so austere an order, and yet for whatever reason — and Roper is right to give no pat answer — there was a streak of guilt and self-loathing in Luther that found some perverse balm in the ascetic disciplines and baleful theology of the Observant Augustinians.

In Augustine’s teaching of the utter depravity of man and a strict reading of Paul we have all the ingredients needed for Protestantism; but it is hard not to feel that the Reformation took the direction it did because of Luther’s personality. It was perfectly possible in the early 16th century to square a moderate Augustinian theology with Catholic orthodoxy, but moderation was never part of Luther’s character, and thesis by thesis, crisis by crisis, prayer by prayer, revelation by revelation — it was in the privy tower, on the cloaca, he famously claimed, that the idea of justification by faith alone ‘struck him like a thunderbolt’ — the reformer and the theologian in him came into alignment to produce the Catholic church’s most implacable enemy.

It was this combination of doctrine and character that gave Luther’s assault on the papacy its momentum and destructive power. There was nothing in his attacks on relics or indulgences that was not common enough currency across Europe at the time; but if man could be saved by faith alone and all good works were intrinsically sinful, then the whole penitential edifice of the medieval church — the sale of indulgences, the intercession to Mary and the saints, the cult of relics, the authority of the Pope, the distinct existence of a priestly caste to mediate between man and God — were all so much rubble.

 

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