31st October each year marks an event that was to usher in fundamental changes in Europe's political, social, economic and religious history. When a young monk wanted a public discussion about the abuse of indulgences in and by the church, he nailed a notice with the issues to be discussed in the door of Wittenberg Cathedral. Hence started a series of events that would have world-wide repercussions, and that brought liberty from darkness and superstition to many beleaguered people right across Europe.
Dr Martin Luther was the young monk who initiated, under God, the Protestant Reformation in Europe. He was concerned initially about the abuse of indulgences which the poor bought under the pretext that in so doing their loved one's soul would get a quicker release from purgatory.
|Dr Martin Luther (1483-1546)|
Beyond doubt, Luther dominated the Reformation. At age 17 he entered Erfurt University, Germany's most important seat of learning. It was here that the centre of conflict between the Renaissance humanists and those known as scholastics was located. These scholastics were expert at combining medieval philosophy and theology. In the Faculty of Philosophy, Luther studied law and theology in addition to philosophy. At this time he also read widely in the classical authors, especially Cicero and Virgil, gaining his Master's degree four years after entering the university in 1505.
It was then that Luther rejected the world and all it had to offer. He experienced the first great event in his life after being struck by a lightning bolt, which was for him a kind of conversion experience, though clearly not of the truly evangelical kind. Crying out to St. Anne, he promised to become a monk. He felt that God was in everything and found it impossible to reconcile his faith with his worldly ambitions. He was plagued with an overwhelming sense of guilt, fear and terror. The one thing he wanted - and most people who experience this kind of turmoil - was to be rid of his guilt; so he joined the Augustinian Order of monks where he would be protected from the distractions of the world and find the true pathway to heaven. Poor old Luther fasted and prayed and inflicted pain on himself using scourges; but to no avail. The peace of God eluded him and his doubts remained unabated.
Luther was a keen biblical scholar and one day while at his books he opened his Bible at random and the page that was before him had the words of Rom.1:17, "For the justice of God is revealed from faith to faith in that it is written, for the just shall live by faith." Others assert that it was while he was teaching his students from Paul's letter to the Romans that the light of the truth dawned upon him, and he was savingly converted to Christ.
The import of this verse gripped him like a vice and refused to let him go. But more later. In 1512, he returned to Wittenberg and all he wanted to do was to preach the Gospel and teach the Scriptures in the University. He ignored the scholasticism of his day and focused on the humanities. He wasn't particularly unhappy to be a monk in his church, but with the passage of time, ecclesiastical politics were working and senior churchmen were hatching plans to make themselves important and wealthy by telling to poor that if they wanted the early release from purgatory of their deceased loved-ones, they had better buy indulgences from the Pope. These were documents that the Pope sold to the faithful and that will shorten the time for loved-ones to spend in purgatory. One senior cleric, Albert of Hohenzollern, got very wealthy through the religious scam and the construction of the basilica of St. Peter's in Rome was done by the other half.
This religious scam and abuse of the poor could not go on unchallenged, so on 31st October 1517, on the even of All Saints Day, and according to Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) ( a friend of Luther's and a professor of Greek at the university) Luther nailed a copy of his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg.
The die was cast and the storm was coming. Luther wanted to dispute these 95 statements which focused on the prevalence of indulgences. The date chosen by Luther was significant because all of Wittenberg was crowded with peasants and pilgrims who had come to honour the consecration of the church there. The interest was such that the theses had to be translated from the Latin into German so that the people could read them. Once printed, the document spread throughout Germany like wildfire. The printing press was a God-send for Luther at that time and the message was spread far and wide.
Rome's agent in Wittenberg was Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar, whose job it was to raise money for the building of St Peter's. By attacking indulgences, Luther was in reality attacking the entire theology and structure of the Church of that day. He was claiming that salvation was received by faith in Christ alone, thus abolishing the need for the church, priests, sacraments, confession to a priest, penance, the lot. This made the otherwise indispensable church dispensable so far as salvation was concerned. What a challenged Luther presented to Rome! Salvation was received by faith, not by good works of any kind.
Thank God for a man like Dr Martin Luther.