October 31, 1517 is a date that, by any historical standard, changed the world and the course of history. It was around two o’clock on that afternoon before All Saints Day that Martin Luther, an obscure 33 year-old monk and professor of moral theology, is said to have nailed a hand-written Latin document titled Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum (“Disputation on the Power of Indulgences”) to the door of All Saints Church in the university town of Wittenberg in what is now Northern Germany.
The image of this event is deeply entrenched in our repository of ‘Luther lore’ — but not everyone is convinced that it’s accurate. Though Luther’s writings and verbal reminiscences are extensively documented (the Weimar edition of Luther’s works consists of 121 volumes!) Luther himself never recorded this event. Though there are later accounts of the nailing, they were written by people who heard the story from others. So scholars debate on whether Luther might have used glue or wax rather than nails, whether he attached the theses to other doors as well, or to any door, etc. However, the familiar story remains plausible. Luther’s theses were brief ‘bullet points’ itemized for academic debate and it was a common practice of the time to post such notices on the doors of public buildings.
But even if the story about the church door is myth, there is no doubt that on the date of October 31, 1517 Luther did send off a similar list to Albrecht the Archbishop of Mainz. And what is also certain is that this mostly unremarkable action on the part of a ‘nobody’ monk out in a remote region (which Luther described as on the border of “barbarian country”) ignited a firestorm that permanently changed the world. Though Luther never intended to split the church, that’s what happened. And when the authority of the medieval church was challenged it unleashed demands for change and freedom which rippled out into all areas of society and still echo to the present.
Serving as priest in the local church, Luther had become incensed by a new sale of indulgences which Pope Leo X had authorized to pay for building of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome. The premise of such sales was that the Catholic Church possessed an inventory of excess grace, due to the merits of Christ and the saints, which it could then dispense – for a price. Luther was appalled at this blatant commodification of God’s forgiveness and the way his parishioners were unconcerned with repentance and avoidance of sin after they had purchased indulgences. Thus, he laid out his objections in the form of premises for public debate – normally a rather dry academic exercise that accomplished little other than to entertain the participants. (An irony is that such a debate never actually took place.)
So what made Luther’s theses become such an explosive document? Part of it was the usual villain: MONEY. Not only was Rome dependent on the revenues from sales of indulgences and similar, but Archbishop Albrecht was pocketing half the proceeds from his territory to pay off the large loan he had taken out to purchase his office from Rome. Though Albrecht never himself replied to Luther, he forwarded the theses to the Pope so that he could also feel incensed by this upstart attack on a prime revenue source.
The church was initially slow to react and this would probably have been either ignored or settled as an internal matter, were it not for the recent invention of the printing press. Though few could have read the Latin posting of his theses, Luther’s pointed and witty objections struck an inflamed nerve of discontent. The corruption and arrogance of the church was recognized and resented at every level of society (including in the church itself). The Theses were quickly translated by others and widely printed so that within a remarkably short period of time they were being discussed all over Europe and Luther was being idolized as a reformer. That created a crisis which Rome could no longer ignore – and the rest is history!
Though our resulting denominational fragmentation is regrettable, it is thanks in large part to this event that the Christian churches of today are publicly united in our commitment to thesis sixty-two: “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.”