“Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen! Martin Luther.
For the 1 billion Protestant Christians worldwide the nailing of the Ninety-Five Theses will always remain a milestone in Reformation. In this feature article I discuss Martin Luther (1483-1546) his Ninety-Five Theses and his contempt for Indulgences.
The night was dark and gloomy. A lonely tree stood waterlogged in the shadows, it offered little shelter to the solitary young traveller. Thundering clouds clashed and banged overhead like cymbals being hit with a thousand drumsticks. “Help me! Don’t let me die like a dog on this road, help me!” This is how Eric Hill depicts Martin Luther’s epiphany in his 2003 film, which he titled ─ Luther.
Luther’s epiphany occurred on 2 July 1505 when he was returning to his studies at the University of Erfurt. The treacherous storm struck near the Saxony village in Stotternheim and a lightning bolt threw him to the ground. With no help in sight, the young Luther called out to Saint Anne, the patron saint of miners. Bainton, a leading authority on Reformation history says, Luther cried out, “St. Anne help me, I’ll become a Monk.” With that simple oath a fate was sealed, a life transformed, and a destiny averted.
Luther was born in Eisleben, Germany on 10 November 1483. Soon after his birth, his parents Hans and Margaretha Luder, abandoned farming in Eisenach and entered a career in copper mining in Der Harz Mountains. Even though, the history of copper mining dates to ancient times, never in its history had the metal been in such great demand as in medieval Germany. Copper was needed for the newly discovered Gutenberg Printing Press. Sleek copper plates replaced outdated wooden printing blocks because copper produced a much more refined print.
In their small copper smelting business, the Luder family experienced some upward mobility. Albeit, Hans did not want his intelligent son to enter the business. Instead, Hans wanted Luther to become a lawyer. Initially, Luther fulfilled his father’s desires by completing a Master of Law in 1505 at the University of Erfurt. However, unbeknown to his father, Luther concealed his deep, dark secret: his vow to become a monk. In a spontaneous move Luther joined the Augustinian Order of Monks. One of the strictest orders around but reserved for the highest intellectuals and academics.
By 1507 Luther was fully committed to the new direction his life was taking. Leaving his family behind, he began teaching Theology at the University of Wittenberg. It was there, where he later received his Doctor of Theology. Hans and Margaretha remained shattered on the sidelines with no prospects of support in old age. In a letter they disinherited their son and withdrew their affections towards him. Nicols, Luther’s biographer and Christian historian, quotes Luther as saying, “When I became a Monk, my father almost went out of his mind, He was all upset and refused to give me permission.”
Luther’s decision shocked not only his parents but also his peers. They saw him as throwing away his talents for a worthless cause. Because by then, the word bandied around to describe Luther was ‘genius’. Faculty member and notable scholar, Philip Melanchthon, whom Luther called a ‘scrawny shrimp’ in turn called Luther, ‘genius’. Reformation expert, Merle D’Aubigne, states that Pope Leo X when urged by his master of palace, Sylvester Prierias to renounce Luther as heretical, turned around and said … “This Friar Martin Luther, is a great genius; all that is said of him is mere monkish jealousy.”
But all was not well with Dr. Luther. Within the confines of the monastery he battled his demons. He had severe doubts about the role God played in human existence. He questioned why a loving God would allow so much suffering in life and in death. Often struggling with paralysing depression, the stoic monk put aside his own feelings and fought tirelessly to fulfil his duties to the Holy Roman Church. The Holy Roman Church was the only church, there were no other churches. God was everywhere in medieval Europe, but so were demons, goblins, elves, gargoyles and the black death. With uncertainty of life came vulnerability, and the people became open to exploitation. It was unfortunate that exploitation came from the very source the people went to for comfort.
Luther wanted to offer his parishioners comfort. So, when he discovered they were being sold Indulgences by Johann Tezel, it made him angry. Tezel was Germany’s salesman extraordinaire! He was a Dominican monk who was held in highest regard by the church. There was no sin Tezel couldn’t pardon with an Indulgence slip. His authorized Papal Bull even annulled sex with one’s own mother. Pomp, ceremony, processions, crosses and his very own jingle accompanied Tezel wherever he went. “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” That’s all it took for the money to come pouring in.
What were Indulgences and why was Luther so perturbed by them? Indulgences were relics considered ‘holy’ by the church and were purchased at great cost. The Indulgence slip issued for the purchase pardoned the buyer from current and future sins and a reprieve from purgatory. Not only for themselves but also for others. Lucas Cranach famous artist of the Reformation boasted 5,005 such particles: The Virgin Mary’s hair, swaddling from Christ’s crib, leftover bread from The Last Supper, St. Jerome’s tooth, John the Baptists severed head and a myriad of holy bones to name a few.
In 1516 Luther began openly preaching against Indulgences, but nobody was listening. Eventually, Luther was driven to take drastic action and force the church into a scholarly debate about Indulgences.
On All Saints Day, 31 October 1517 Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the All Saints Church (Castle Church) in Wittenberg. The Ninety-five Theses was a series of dot-point disagreements Luther had with the church. Like an artery that runs through the body, the central theme of his Theses was his disdain for Indulgences. Luther wanted a scholarly debate, instead he got much more than he bargained for. Author, Frederick Nohl writes Luther’s students churned out hundreds of copies of his Theses and spread them near and far: making Luther a household name in Germany overnight.
Indulgences proved lucrative for the Church and Luther was biting the hand that fed him. Indulgences also built and restored many sites including St. Peter’s Cathedral. Luther’s own parishioners were sold Indulgences to build St. Peter’s. Luther commented. “Why doesn’t the Pope build the Basilica of St. Peter out of his money? He is richer than Croesus.” In 1521 the disagreement reached a climax and Luther was excommunicated for heresy and by all accounts should’ve been burnt at the stake. His friend and German leader Frederick the Wise intervened. Kidnapped him and hid him in Warburg Castle, in Eisenach, Germany, where he wrote in exile. It would be some seventeen years after Luther’s death in 1546 that Indulgences were condemned by the church. They then established the concept of ‘Good Works’ for salvation rather than buying one’s way into heaven. A victory for Luther no doubt, and a milestone in Reformation.
At the start of this paper we were introduced to a fearful young man who cried, “Help me” in a thunderstorm. The young man’s name was Martin Luther. In time his name became synonymous with his Ninety-five Theses and a challenge to the highest authorities of Church and State. During his lifetime his name would reverberate through the innermost chambers of the Papacy. And in his death, it would be forever etched in the history of Christianity and Reformation. Those around recognised his genius, at the very start. But Luther was flawed like the rest of us and battled moments of deep depression. He told us so much about himself in his writings. Some 500 years later we are still learning about Luther. Luther’s legacy is that he showed us that through perseverance and faith we can be more pleasing to God than through corrupt practices.
Bainton, R. (1977). Here I stand A Life of Martin Luther. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers.
Duggan, L. (2019). Indulgence | Roman Catholicism. Retrieved 24 October 2019, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/indulgence
History of copper – through the ages from the Copper Age to modern times. (2019). Retrieved 10 November 2019, from https://copperalliance.org.uk/about-copper/copper-history/copper-through-the-ages/
Luther, M. (2008). The bondage of the will. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers.
Luther, M., Jacobs, C., & Grimm, H. (1957). Luther’s ninety-five theses. USA: Fortress Press.
Man, J. (2009). The Gutenberg Revolution. London: Bantam Books
Martin Luther. (2019). Retrieved 19 November 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Luther
Merle d’Aubigné, J., & White, H. (1987). History of the Reformation of the sixteenth century. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House.
Nichols, S. (2002). Martin Luther A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought. Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Publishing.
Nohl, F. (1963). Martin Luther Hero of Faith. Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.
Pettegree, A. (2015). Brand Luther. New York: Penguin Press.
Till, E. (2003). Luther [Video]. Eric Hill. https://youtu.be/_rJwCqhTyY8 “Help me! Don’t let me die like a dog on this road! Don’t let me die.”
Author: Cheryl Mason © December 2019