Luther nailed it

Act 500 years ago started Protestant Reformation

Posted: October 28, 2017 at 1 a.m.

William Haas of Bella Vista portrays Martin Luther during a program Wednesday at Village Bible Church in Bella Vista. Haas’ Luther reflects on his beliefs later in life. “Luther did not want the church named after him,” Haas said. “It had gotten out of hand by the time he died.”

"On Oct. 31, 1517, an Augustinian monk walked outside his parish, where he served willingly, and nailed 95 statements to the church door to start collegial conversation with the Roman Catholic Church about the church's errors.

"He didn't know he was setting the world on fire," said the Rev. Paul Hass, pastor of Bella Vista Lutheran Church, part of the Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod.

Anniversary celebration

Many area churches have programs planned to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 thesis to the door of his church in Germany. Many Christians in the Reform Tradition consider this the start of the Protestant Reformation. To get information about these events, read the Local Notes in today’s Religion section.

Hass was referring to Martin Luther, who with his action, is generally credited as starting the Protestant Reformation. Many churches will celebrate Sunday the 500th anniversary of his act on the eve of All Saints Day.

"The Protestant Reformation allowed western Christians to burst into 1,000 forms," said Michael Johnson, a teacher of Western and world civilizations at Northwest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville. "Most Christian denominations today owe their existence to the Protestant Reformation -- including Mennonites, Mormons and Seventh-day Adventists. They would not have come into existence without the Protestant Reformation.

"Luther wanted to have a discussion ... to start a debate at the college, the university and the diocese," said the Rev. Phil Butin, pastor of First United Presbyterian Church in Fayetteville. Nailing the thesis to the door? "That's what one did in those days when they wanted to have a discussion."

Johnson said historians debate whether Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door -- and say perhaps it was done a couple of weeks later. "But they definitely agree he mailed a copy to Mainz and the archbishop. And definitely in Wittenburg, he made an effort to make them known."

INDULGENCES

Luther was born Nov. 10, 1483, in Eisleben, Germany. His father wanted him to attend law school, so he enrolled at the law school in Eisleben, where his father worked as a miner.

But in 1505, he was outside on a road during a thunderstorm -- and he didn't like storms, Johnson said. Lightning struck not far from him, and Luther prayed, saying if he survived, he would become a monk.

"Luther was a quirky guy," Johnson continued. "While in the monastery, you could argue that he developed an obsession with his own sinfulness. He went to confession to the point of worrying his superior."

The superior felt Luther needed something to occupy his mind, so he suggested Luther study theology. With a doctorate soon obtained, Luther began teaching Hebrew and the Old Testament to young men studying to be priests at the University of Wittenberg.

"His own angst and anxiety drove him to discover -- while studying and reflecting on God's word in its original language -- that the Roman Catholic Church was doing things differently than the way God said to do them," Hass said.

His main focus was liturgical practice, and he was particularly concerned about indulgences," Butin said. "He felt the church was manipulating the people -- especially the poor."

In Catholic tradition, parishioners are called to confess before they can take Eucharist (or communion), Butin continued. Traditionally, the priests who heard the confessions urged the sinners to say prayers for restitution with God. But the church began asking for monetary gifts to relieve the sin -- called "indulgences." Then the church began offering the sale of indulgences on behalf of dead relatives and friends, to pay penance for their sins and move them out of purgatory into heaven.

"In Catholic theology, eternal punishment for sins could be alleviated by indulgences," Johnson said. "The church said it had absorbed merit with God, which it would apply to sinners."

"The more guilty you were, the more money you paid," Butin said. "That's how they rebuilt St. Peter's Basilica (at the Vatican in Rome). The people were paying for forgiveness."

"The Roman Catholic Church was going broke," Hass said. "At this time, Michelangelo was painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and that's why they were going broke. Indulgences were a brilliant money-making scheme.

"What people were doing was changing the rules of eternity. But Luther believed we should be contrite and broken-hearted over our sin."

During the 15th and 16th centuries, the Roman Catholic Church did project a certain financial focus, said the Rev. Jason Tyler, pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Fayetteville. Leaders were selling the sacraments and the offices of the church, including priest, bishop and pope. "There was a climate of corruption," Tyler said. "But what Luther said about the sacraments was they broke church practice, beliefs and doctrine."

TRANSLATION

"In Luther's day, there was only one church: the Roman Catholic Church," Hass explained, and many efforts at reform were stopped by the church with the execution of the reformer as a heretic, Johnson added.

Luther was called before the Diet of Worms (an assembly of the Holy Roman Empire) in 1521 and asked to recant his charges. He refused, saying, "'I trust the truth of God's word more than I trust anything else,'" Hass related.

Luther ultimately was ex-communicated by the church, as were his followers. "He became somewhat of an outlaw," Hass continued. "Now, when we think of an outlaw, we think of Jesse James or Bonnie and Clyde. But any citizen of the realm had the right and responsibility to take his life on sight."

The Holy Roman Empire was a collection of 13 princedoms in central Europe, which included modern-day Germany, Hass explained. Rome needed the Germans to fight the Muslim Ottoman Empire, which was just about ready to take over. The church also appeased the princes because they held the vote for the rulers of the empire.

Frederick III, or Frederick the Wise, elector of Saxony, became Luther's champion. Frederick had Luther kidnapped and protected him in his Wartburg castle.

While in exile, Luther translated the Bible from its original languages -- Hebrew in the Old Testament and Greek in the New Testament -- into the German language.

"Nearly everything broke loose because that was illegal," Hass said. "The only legal Bible was the Roman Vulgate (a late fourth century Latin translation)."

Johnson countered that only in England was it against the law to have an English vernacular Bible, which was a reaction to John Wycliffe's translation into the vernacular Middle English in 1382.

During the Renaissance (1300 to 1700), people were called to return to the original sources to understand a subject, Johnson said. In politics, reformers would go back to the Greek and Roman ideas, and so they did with the Bible, he said.

"If you hear (scripture) in sanctuary language that you don't speak and only understand it in part, it doesn't mean anything to you," said David Jensen, the academic dean and professor of reformed theology at Austin (Texas) Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Jensen spoke about the Reformation on Sunday and Monday nights as part of the Clabaugh lectures at First Presbyterian Church in Bentonville.

The Bible translation gave people access to the Word themselves -- not words interpreted through a translator or somebody else, he said.

"In Luther's time, Christianity was best lived by monks and priests," said the Rev. Clint Schnekloth, pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. "Most Christianity was conducted without anyone else. Luther wanted to give worship back to the people."

Jensen pointed out that priests spoke and served Eucharist facing the altar, not the people.

"Luther was not just against indulgences, he was getting the Bible into people's hands in their individual faith language," Schnekloth said. "He wanted to turn the whole world into a monastery."

MOVABLE TYPE

Adding fuel to the fire of the Reformation was the invention of the printing press with movable type by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440.

"The first thing Gutenberg published was the Bible," Butin said. Prior to that, the only Bibles available were written by hand, and one would have to be in a monastery to read it.

"Now, the people could compare the preaching of the church to the teachings of the Bible," Butin continued. "They could see the teachings contrary to Scripture. They didn't have to just take it the way the church said to take it."

"With access to the Scripture, people can read for themselves what did God do, rather than hearing it through the mediation of a priest," Hass said.

In addition to his 95 theses and his Bible translations, Luther continued writing prolifically in exile, and Gutenberg was looking for things to publish. Luther and the Reformation went "viral," Schnekloth said.

"He was the first social media person in the history of the world," Hass said. "He loved to write in low German -- not high German. And it went everywhere."

"Luther probably would have graduated to Twitter," Jensen said. "He had a flair for the dramatic. He used colorful language. He was good at the one-liner. And he was not afraid to put down his opponent."

"He was so popular that everything he wrote down was printed -- the next day," Hass said. "People sensed what was going on with Luther was important, but he did not seek celebrity.

"That Luther and movable type came on at the same time is not an accident. Something bigger than Luther and the government had in mind it was something he needed to do."

WORLD WIDE

"There was a lot going on in the world during that time that played a big part in the Reformation," Schnekloth said.

In 1054, what became the Eastern Orthodox Church split with the Roman Catholic Church in what was called the "Great Schism," Johnson began. And from the 1300s to the 1500s localized reform movements started -- including movements led by John Wycliffe, an English theologian who attacked the privileged status of the clergy and translated the Bible into Middle English; Jan Hus, a Czech priest and reformer executed for heresy in 1415; John Calvin, a French theologian working from Geneva who also translated the Bible from its original languages; and John Knox, a Scottish minister who split from the Church of England and founded the Presbyterian Church.

"For a while, the archbishop of Rome actually resided in Avignon in France," Johnson continued. In 1376, a pope was elected who wanted to move back to Rome, but he didn't live very long.

The College of Cardinals then elected two popes -- one to live in Avignon and one to live in Rome. "But there can only be one bishop, according to the law of canon of the fourth century," Johnson said. "They both excommunicated each other and their followers."

The Council of Constance (1414-1418) was convened to reconcile the authority, but members ended up electing a third pope.

"This breaks down the authority of the church and calls into question the pope's authority," Johnson said.

Also, the Americas had just been discovered, Schnekloth said, and to the east, India and China.

"This totally changed the imagination of the Europeans," he said. "Christians begin to imagine where God is, where the future is. This gives the reformers a mission impulse, a sense that things can change, that the world can be different than it is."

Schnekloth noted that the Roman Catholic Church stopped building -- no large-scale Cathedral projects were started after the discovery of the New World. Indulgences were used only to finish St. Peter's, he said.

Luther died in 1546, just one year before Britain's King Henry VIII. Henry pulled his country out of the Roman Catholic Church and formed the Church of England (today Anglican and in the United States, Episcopalian) after the pope refused to grant him an annulment for his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon, who did not bear him an heir.

"His discontent was not over beliefs, but politics," Butin said of the king. "He wanted rule to separate from Rome. But he didn't want to change much. He liked everything about the Catholic Church but the pope over him."

The Catholic response to the accusations of reformers was slow by modern standards, said Tyler, the Fayetteville parish priest. There was not any significant response for 20 or 30 years until the Council of Trent, and the council lasted for 20 years, from 1545 to 1563.

"The council's goal was to reform bad practices," Tyler said. "It was the Catholic reformation or the counter reformation.

"We take so much for granted today," he continued. "The whole role of the bishop was financial affairs. And with no telephone or internet, it's mind boggling how he could do that from so far away (in France)."

The councillors at Trent decreed the bishop would live in Rome, Tyler said. They also strictly forbade selling indulgences and decreed that all priests had to attend seminary and be educated before they were ordained.

"They were ordained because they had family connections," Tyler said. "And most were not literate in a large part of the world. The basic function of the priests would be to say Mass, and those that couldn't read it would learn a few and say them over and over again."

Luther also differed from the church on the authenticity of sacraments. Catholics believe in transubstantiation, that the elements of the bread and wine change substance and become the literal body and blood of Christ. "Luther rejected that Christ, in any sense, was actually present in the elements of communion," Johnson said.

The Council of Trent defended and reaffirmed the doctrine of sacraments, assigned 49 books to the Old Testament and pushed against absent bishops. The church also saw new religious orders with certain focuses -- such as the Jesuits, who work to educate, and the Carmelites, who withdraw for periods of long prayer -- develop during this time.

"As much as they recognized at Trent, they were stopping corruption and going back to the roots. They were curbing wrong practice and eliminating the ways the faithful could live corrupt," Tyler concluded. "But they also defended aspects of the faith and who we are."

REFORM

"(Luther's) intent was to reform the Roman Catholic Church," Hass said. "He never intended to start a new church."

"(Luther and Calvin) just felt the best traditions were lost along the way," Jensen said.

"It's hard for us to imagine (Luther didn't want to leave the Church). As Americans, when we don't like something that's going on in a church, we just go start another church," Schnekloth said.

"When Luther was excommunicated, he was just trying to figure out how to provide Christian ministry to his subjects, who were also excommunicated," Schnekloth continued. "He just went into crisis mode, but now the Lutheran church was born."

"He wanted to fix the church, not throw it out," Hass said. "But it's probably the truth that God had other plans."

NAN Religion on 10/28/2017