Luther, the 95 Theses, and the Birth of Protestants Part 1

About the history of the reformation of the Church and a biography of Martin Luther who posted 95 theses on the Church leading to the Protestant split with the Roman Catholics.


WHEN: October 31, 1517

HOW: In itself, his posting of the theses meant little. After all, the castle church door in Wittenberg served as a kind of bulletin board, and all he meant to do was to call for a debate on a matter of some theological importance. "Those who cannot be present and discuss the subject orally are asked to do so by letter," Martin Luther appended to his 95 theses. Indeed, the whole matter seemed rather academic, a dispute within the Roman Catholic family that would be resolved in the traditional manner: The Church hierarchy would either ignore Luther or execute him as a heretic. There were precedents for either course of action, and certainly the behavior of some obscure Augustinian monk in Germany was not about to ruffle the equanimity of the mighty Leo X, Pope of the Roman Catholic Church.

For, despite challenges from such individuals as John Wycliffe and John Huss, and from such diverse political and intellectual trends as nationalism and neoclassicism, the Roman Catholic Church entered the 16th century as a "catholic" church--the single most powerful unifying force in Western culture. There can be no doubt, however, that Europe was a fertile seedbed for revolt; in addition to the challenges to Church orthodoxy posed by the religious dissenters, there was tremendous social and economic unrest as the feudal order decayed and a capitalist and urbanized society began to replace it. Luther would tap these feelings of discontent--quite unknowingly, a great portion of the time--in launching what the world would later call the Reformation.

Martin Luther was, in fact, a reformer; he was not a revolutionary. He was an insider, a member of the establishment, who for personal and psychological reasons--as well as out of concern for his fellow Christians--could not remain silent in the face of what he considered to be gross impiety on the part of the Roman Catholic Church. It was the meshing of Luther's own theological position with the Church's inability to curb its worst practices that created the schism in Christian ranks between Protestant and Catholic.

Luther abandoned his intention of pursuing a legal career and turned instead to the Church. He became an Augustinian monk, and in 1512 was appointed a professor of biblical studies at the University of Wittenberg. Driven by a profound fear of his own damnation and by a deep concern for the fate of his parishioners (he was also parish priest for the town of Wittenberg), Luther immersed himself in the Scriptures. He had to find exactly what it was that God demanded in return for His saving grace. Did He expect people never to sin? That, of course, had not been possible since Adam fell from Eden. No loving God could expect the impossible from corrupt humanity.

Was God satisfied with the confessions, good works, and other acts of atonement prescribed by the Catholic Church? As a novice at the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt, Luther had exasperated his confessor, reciting the most trivial wrongdoings in sessions that could last up to 6 hours. Finally, Luther became convinced that no person could remember all his sins, much less atone for them via good works and confession. The problem, therefore, was to reconcile the notion of a loving God with the concept of divine justice. How was a human being--unable to escape his sinful nature and unable to alter his inherent corruption--to win God's mercy and salvation?

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