October 31st 2017 marks the 500th anniversary since the German monk Martin Luther published his famous 95 Theses against the practice of selling indulgences. While no movement flows from a singular event or person, Luther’s 95 Theses were a significant catalyst for great change and reformation of the church of the time.
In the 16th century ‘indulgences’ were offered by the church authorities as a means of atoning for one’s sins in financial terms. In 1517 Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar, was the local purveyor of indulgences. Tetzel coined the jingle: ‘As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs’. Luther was concerned about the false sense of assurance that these indulgences gave. First of all he aired his concerns in his preaching. Then, on Oct 31, 1517 he wrote a concerned letter to the local ruler, Albert of Brandenburg, who was also Archbishop of Mainz and Archbishop of Magdeburg. Included in the letter was a copy of his 95 Theses ‘On the Power of Indulgences’. It was, it turned out, Albert who had commissioned the selling of indulgences in his region, in order to finance a debt incurred when he acquired his Archbishopric. Albert forwarded the letter to Rome, suspecting it of heretical teaching.
The theses were also posted publicly in Wittenberg, and within just a fortnight they were spread throughout Germany. Widespread questioning of the churches authority and its use of Holy Scripture ensued. In Luther’s 95 Theses he attacked the system of indulgences, but he was also saying something more profound: namely, that repentance is a lifelong attitude expected of Christians. Penance on the other hand, the performance of duties (or the payment of a fee) as a proof of penitence, was only effective at removing the impositions of the human Church.
To mark the significance of Luther’s work we have a series that looks at Luther’s critical contribution at the time and why it is still important today.
- Two types of Rightness, Romans 3:21-22; Romans 4:1-12 (Oct 22)
- Daily Repentance? Matthew 4:12-17; 2 Corinthians 7:5-13 (Oct 29)
- The Power of Faith, Hebrews 11:24-40 (Nov 5)
- The Word of God, Genesis 1:1-5; John 1:1-5 (Nov 12)
- Law and Gospel Together? Psalm 40:4-8; Romans 6:1-15 (Nov 19)
- The Cross and Weakness, Isaiah 52:13-53:12, 2 Corinthians 12:1-10 (Nov 26)