Indulgences and Luther's Ninety-Five Theses:
In the year 1517 Pope Leo X made Dominican prior John (Joann) Tetzel inquisitor and commissioner of indulgences. Tetzel was a virtual "salesman" as noted by Alister McGrath in his Christianity's Dangerous Idea. He created a crude theology and materialism to preach the people into obtaining indulgences. This was seemingly the last straw, or the trigger, for Luther because shortly thereafter he rapidly drew up ninety-five theses (topics for debate), in Latin not German, which he nailed on the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517.
Historically, the door of the church served as a bulletin board for the university. McGrath has noted that "It was only when Luther circulated his demands more widely that controversy began to develop." It was not long before printed copies of the theses were disseminated around Europe. The power of the pamphlet almost wrecked the effectiveness of the indulgences.
The Catholic Church taught that mortal sins may require punishment while on earth or later in purgatory. This means that Baptism and Penance was not enough for some people’s sins but an “indulgence offers the penitent sinner the means of discharging this debt during his life on earth.” Interestingly, the money acquired from indulgences have gone to finance the Crusades and likely, as in the time of Luther, to build certain edifices. McGrath notes that such indulgences were raised "partly in order to raise capital for the rebuilding of St. Peter's Basilica." In fact, Church historian Howard Vos suggests that the income generated from the sale of indulgences around the area of Luther was “split equally between the archbishop and the pope.”
Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses are particular writing that symbolizes the change taking place in human thought during the Middle Ages. In content the theses defied the dogma and authority of the Roman Catholic tradition. For several years the Roman Catholic tradition had monopolized Christian thought and limited the study of it primarily to its clergy who spoke and studied in Latin while the vast majority of the general populous did not even know Latin. Besides the persecution of Luther himself as a result of these writings, the horrible deaths of men like John Wycliffe and William Tyndale demonstrate the Catholic Church’s desire to keep the text of Scripture and its interpretation firmly in their grasp.
It also demonstrated the growing trend toward the Christian humanistic tradition. Justo Gonzalez notes that “In this context, the term ‘humanist’ does not refer primarily to those who value human nature above all else, but rather to those who devote themselves to the ‘humanities’.” Christianity began to stress the need for human dignity, freedom, and autonomy. The Reformation adopted some of the motifs of humanism but “could not easily be reconciled with Martin Luther’s (1483–1546) central concern for the soul’s salvation and the relation to God.” As Kenneth Latourette has noted, “Luther did not long carry all those with him who wished change.”
Until the time of Martin Luther and others like him men and women simply took the word of the clergy without question. This was due in large part because of the high illiteracy rates of those times. Luther, however, created an impetus for future investigation into the Christian tradition and its sacred literature.
Protestantism and Lutheranism subsequently spread into the rest of the world. Most of the world only knew of Catholicism and Popery and subsequently its religious ideology. The text of Scripture and the Gospel it contains should not be absorbed by only an elite class. If the death of Christ upon Calvary meant anything it meant that its atoning efficacy was for all who would believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and His work on Calvary paid the penalty for our sin debt. Since the time of Luther’s theses this Gospel is now known almost globally and even the simple can read the words of Christ for themselves from various translations.
Woodcutting and The Four-Horseman of The Apocalypse:
During this time woodcutting as art was discovered and became popular. It firstly used a style of art that was not known prior and allowed for mass proliferation of book illustrations and painting (as well as engraving). Woodcuts were a relatively new printmaking process at the time.
Prior to this time images, relics, statuary and icons of Catholicism had been abandoned, and in some places destroyed. Once again, however, the Reformers brought something new to the table of this era of human thought and development. Catholicism had incorporated worshipping statues and icons (painted images of sacred personages that were worshipped) into their praxis and this was routinely rejected by Protestant thinkers.
The art of woodcutting artistically depicted Biblical themes and subjects without crossing into idolatry. Albrecht Durer designed a popular woodcutting, during this time, which was called The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. This artwork was unique since it depicted the horse of death, famine, war and pestilence—all drawn from Revelations 6:1-8.
In the woodcut bishops and clergy of the Catholic Church are depicted being trodden under foot by these horsemen. Ironically, this is partly the impact of the Reformation era and times shortly following Luther’s offering of the ninety-five theses. Strangely this woodcut prophesies of the death, war, famine and pestilence that would come from subsequent religious wars.
A Mighty Fortress Is Our God and Communal Worship:
During this time Luther’s song “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (authorship can be debated) was chosen to express the change taking place during this era. First, by use of this song and others that were similar a communal expression of theological doctrine was allowed. This hymn has been called the “Battle Hymn of the Reformation” for its effect in increasing the strength and ideology of the Reformation cause.
Communal or corporate expression of worship was a dramatic change in their services or meetings of assembly. The Roman Catholic tradition primarily included a Mass which was symbolic of the sacrifice at Calvary without actual blood. This inclusion of a musical expression offered a sense of thanksgiving rather than sacrifice.
Such songs were also sung together and at the same time by all present. This new tradition reflected the Protestant, rather Biblical view, that everyone had equal access to God at the same time. Unlike the priestly intercessions of the Catholic Church Protestantism demonstrated that man can worship God and give Him thanksgiving without any further mediation.
1. McGrath, E. Alister. Christianity's Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution--A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First. Copyright 2007 by Alister E. McGrath. Harper One publishers. pg. 44;46
2. Kent, William. "Indulgences." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 11 Feb. 2010
3. Howard Frederic Vos and Thomas Nelson Publishers, Exploring Church History, Nelson's Christian cornerstone series (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996).
4. Gonzalez, L. Justo. The Story of Christianity Copyright 1984, 1985 by Justo L. Gonzalez. Prince Press
5. Latourette, S. Kenneth. A History of Christianity Volume 2: Reformation to The Present Copyright 1975 by Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. Prince Press
6. Erwin Fahlbusch and Geoffrey William Bromiley, The Encyclopedia of Christianity(Grand Rapids, Mich.; Leiden, Netherlands: Wm. B. Eerdmans; Brill, 1999-<2003). 2:606. "The Encyclopedia of Christianity is the first of a five-volume English translation of the third revised edition of Evangelisches Kirchenlexikon.