Yeah, everybody knows 31 October is the day Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the church door and started the Reformation. Everybody knows it's Halloween too. What does this mean?
What does "Halloween" mean?
Let's start with Halloween. The word is a contraction actually, the "een" being short for "even" which is in turn short for "evening". Evening of what? Evening before All Hallows, that's what. So what or who in the hell are the hallows? "Hallow" is the modern English form of a Germanic root word meaning "holy", which also survives in modern German as "heilige". The Hallows are the holy ones, meaning the saints.
1 November has for centuries been celebrated in the West as the Feast of All Hallows, cognate with the German word for it, Allerheiligen, which is now usually expressed in English as the Feast of All Saints. The term Hallowmas was once common for it, the mass of all hallows. Halloween then is a contraction for the Eve of the Feast of All Hallows, the night on 31 October before the feast on 1 November.
This in turn is part of a triduum. Huh, ain't that in Holy Week? Well, yes, that's the best known one, and these days about the only known one, but there's actually several tridua in the liturgical year, and this is one of them, called Allhallowtide. It's comprised of the Eve of All Hallows, All Hallows (Saints) Day on 1 November, and All Souls Day on 2 November.
About the only other times you hear "hallow" in some form or other in modern English is its retained use in the traditional wording of the Our Father, "hallowed be thy name", or in the phrase "hallowed halls" in reference to a university or some esteemed institution. "Hallowed be thy name" literally means held holy be thy name, "thy" being the second person familiar form of address modern English doesn't use.
The Origin of All Saints' Day. Lemuralia.
So when did we start having a Feast of All Hallows on 1 November? Well, we started having a Feast of All Hallows, or Saints, before it was on 1 November! In the Eastern Church, all the saints are collectively remembered on the first Sunday after Pentecost. It really got rolling when the emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire Leo VI (886-911) built a church in honour of his wife when she died, but as she was not a recognised saint he dedicated the church to all the saints, so that she would be included in a commemoration of all saints whether recognised as such or not.
In the Western Church, the whole thing got rolling when Pope Boniface IV got permission in 609 AD from the Roman emperor Phocas -- again this would be the Eastern Roman Emperor, as the Western Roman Empire was long gone by this time -- to rededicate the Roman Pantheon to Mary and all martyrs. What's the Pantheon? A big temple built by Agrippa, Caesar Augustus' best general officer, to Jupiter, Venus and Mars in 27 BC. It was destroyed in a major fire in Rome in 80 AD. The emperor Domitian rebuilt it, but it burned again in 110 AD. The emperor Trajan began reconstruction and it was completed by the emperor Hadrian in 126 AD. That's the building that's there now.
Boniface rededicated the Pantheon to Mary and all martyrs on 13 May 609 (might have been 610) AD. Why 13 May? Because it was on that day that the old Roman Lemuralia concluded. What's a Lemuralia? The Roman poet Ovid says it originated when Romulus, one of the co-founders of Rome and from whom the city is named, tried to calm the spirit of his brother Remus, the other co-founder. Why would Remus' spirit need calming? Because Romulus killed him with a shovel to make sure he didn't name and rule the city, that's why.
At any rate, over time it became the day, or rather days, there were three of them, 9, 11, and 13 May, when the head of the household (the paterfamilias, father of the family) chased off the lemures (one lemur, two or more lemures) who were vengeful spirits of the dead ticked off at the living, for either not having been buried properly or treated well in life, or remembered well in death, and out to harm or at least scare the crap out of the living.
Because they appeared so scary, they were also called larvae (one larva, two or more larvae) meaning "masks", which is also how the "mask" of early stage life, which in some animals is nothing like the adult stage, such as the caterpillar to the butterfly, came to be called larva. Anyway, paterfamilias went out at midnight looking to one side and tossing black beans behind him saying "haec ego mitto his redimo meque meosque fabis", or "I send these (beans), with these I redeem me and mine" nine times. Then, he banged bronze pots to-gether saying "manes exite paterni" or "Souls of my ancestors, exit" nine times.
Western All Saints' Day Gets Moved By The Pope. Way More To It Than That Though.
In putting the Feast of All Saints on 13 May, Boniface meant to both replace the old Lemuralia and transform it into a Christian observance for all the Christian dead. The replacement anyway worked, and over time the Lemuralia were largely forgotten. So why isn't All Saints' Day still 13 May? Because Pope Gregory III (731-741) built a place in St Peter's in Rome for veneration of relics of all saints, and moved the date to 1 November. Now, this isn't the St Peter's that's there now, it's the old one begun by Constantine -- remember that because it's gonna be a big deal on this subject later in this post. It stuck, and in 835 Louis the Pious, son and successor to Charlemagne (aka Karl der Grosse), with a big nudge from Pope Gregory IV, made it officially stuck, and there it is to this day.
Btw, Gregory III was a Syrian and the last pope who was not a European until the current pope, Francis. Sort of: Gregory was Syrian descended too, whereas Francis was born of Italian immigrants to Argentina, so, Gregory III is still the last pope both neither European nor European descended.
Gregory III is also the last pope to have held off assuming office until approval by the Exarchatus Ravennatis. Holy crap, what's that and how did it hold up papal installations? In Gregory's time the Western Roman Empire was long gone, and the surviving Eastern Roman Empire was trying to hold Rome, and Italy generally, to-gether against the onslaught of Germanic types, mainly Lombards, by means of exarchs, direct representatives of the Eastern, and now only, Roman Emperor, in Constantinople. The Emperor Maurice (Flavius Mauricius Tiberius Augustus, actually) established two exarchs, one in 584 in Ravenna, the last capital of the Western Empire before its collapse, and one in Carthage in 590 to administer northern Africa and Spain, which were also having trouble holding off Islamic forces. You didn't think this Islamicist thing was anything new, did you?
This preserved something of the old full Roman Empire, and re popes, this preserved the approval of the "bishop" of Rome by the emperor of Rome. The Exarchate of Africa lasted until 698 when it was defeated by forces of the Islamic Umayyad Caliphate (capital, Damascus). The Exarchate of Ravenna lasted from 584 until 751, when the last exarch (guy named Eutychius) was killed by the Lombards, whereupon the Franks under their king, Pippin, Charlemagne's dad, took over and gave the exarchate's lands to the pope in 756, which began the Patrimonium Sancti Petri, the Patrimony of Saint Peter. These papal states continued in one form or another for 1,173 years, until 1929, when the Lateran Treaty between the pope, Pius XI, via his secretary of state, and the king of Italy, Victor Emmanuel III, (the last one, he and all male members of the House of Savoy were ordered permanently out of Italy by the referendum in 1946 to establish a republic) via his prime minister, Benito Mussolini, abolished them and established as the only papal state the Vatican City State which exists to-day.
The end of the Exarchate of Ravenna in 751 didn't end the ratification of "bishops" by the "Roman" emperor btw. The empire of the Frank general Charles Martel would evolve into The Holy Roman Empire, Imperium Romanum Sacrum, and see itself as the continuation, the transfer of rule, translatio imperii, of the full Roman Empire -- meaning, not just from the end of the Western Roman Empire with the deposing of Romulus Augustus by Odoacer in 476, as is often noted, but the whole pie, from Caesar Augustus through Constantine VI of the Eastern Roman Empire.
Huh? Whozat? OK, first Charles Martel. He lived from 23 August 686 to 22 October 741. His name means "Charles the Hammer", from the Latin Carolus Martellus, Karl Martell in German. Boniface said he couldn't have evangelised the Germans without him (and his army). He was one of the greatest generals anywhere anytime. He held off the Islamic invasion of Western Europe in October 732 (you didn't think this Islamicist thing was anything new, did you?) at Tours, defeating vastly superior forces, which is how he got the name "the Hammer". But, he was not all hung up on being king of anything.
His son Pippin was, and, the Eastern Empire had failed, exarchates and anything else, to protect the West against the Lombards or the Islamic Caliphate. Plus, Emperor Constantine VI, who had become Emperor at age 9 and presided over the Second Council of Nicaea at age 16 (hey, when you're emperor with a state church you get to do stuff like that), kept losing battles, which led to a revolt he crushed severely. Then he divorced his wife for not producing a son (happens a lot, too bad they didn't know anything about genetics) and married his mistress, which lost him what little support he had left.
His mom Irene hadn't relinquished regent powers over him and kept the title Empress, so her supporters blinded and deposed him on 19 April 797. So now, on top of the inability of the remainder of the Roman Empire to hold things to-gether in the West, it's gonna be led by a woman, and that's a bit much! I mean, a woman can be Empress by being the wife of the Emperor (Empress Consort), or by being the widow of an Emperor (Empress Dowager) and if she's also the mother of the current Emperor (Empress Mother), but rule in her own right (Empress Regnant), another story. So, the next big Western step was, against all this, the crowning of Charles Martel's grandson Charlemagne as Emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day 800 in St Peter's (the old one, remember?). Which kinda worked both ways, as Charlemagne had just bailed old Leo out from being blinded by the Romans themselves!
Yes this was the first Roman Emperor in the West in about 300 years, but the coronation was explicit; this wasn't just a restoration of the Western Roman Empire that ceased in 476, Charlemagne was the rightful successor to the Eastern Roman Emperor Constantine VI, so he and not Irene was straight up Roman Emperor, period. For a while Irene thought marrying Charlemagne might fix this, but that idea never made it to first date, although Charlemagne's fourth and last wife, Luitgard, had died 4 June 800, so he was eligible.
So now there were two "Roman" emperors, not West and East, but each claiming rightful rule over the whole thing in continuous succession. Neither one of them actually Roman, but hey. Now it's kinda hard to preserve an empire when you gotta split it up among your kids, so things bobbled for a century or so, until 2 February 962, when the German king Otto became der Große, the Great. Having overcome all opposition from anybody, he was crowned King of Germany in Aachen, Charlemagne's old capital, on 7 August 936, and on 2 February 962 was crowned Romanorum Imperator, Emperor of the Romans, in Rome at St Peter's (still the old one) by Pope John XII -- whose control over the Papal States (remember that, I told you this stuff all hangs to-gether eventually!) he had just secured. John though soon sent emissaries to the Eastern Empire, Otto got wind of it, went back to Rome and had a pope more suitable to him selected (that's Leo VIII). Poor old John went off with one of his mistresses and died of a heart attack during sex, though other accounts say her jealous husband killed him. Apostolic succession, indeed. BTW, "Pope Joan" legends come from one of his mistresses who had a real influence on him.
This whole deal was so about being the Roman Empire that the "holy" thing didn't get added until a couple hundred years after Otto, with Frederick the Red Beard (ok Barbarossa), crowned, as it's done, King of the Germans (ie Romans) in Aachen on 9 March 1152 then Emperor in Rome (where else?) by the pope (who else?, this time Eugene III) on 18 June 1155. Fred btw asked for and got an annulment of his marriage to his wife, Adelheid, in 1153, on the grounds that they were too closely related (that's called consanguinity) to be married. They were only fourth cousins but the consanguinity became suddenly an issue after she kept not having kids, imagine that, then he tried to get a wife from somebody at the Eastern Empire court in Constantinople to further express the whole one Rome thing, but that didn't work out, so on 9 June 1156 he married a nice French girl, well countess actually, who became Empress Consort (remember what that is) and they had 12 kids, one of whom became the next "Roman" Emperor (Henry VI).
Btw, ever wonder why it's called the Vatican? Because it's on the Vaticanus Mons, that's why. OK but what is that? The hill (mons) where the Vates (that's VAH-tays) hang out, that's what. OK but who are they? They were prophets and oracles of pre-Christian Rome. The name originally applied to the Janiculum, a hill across the Tiber from Rome itself and its "seven hills" founded by the god Janus, according to Roman religion. Eventually it came to include the plain in front of it, where Nero built a circus, that became the supposed site of the martyrdom of St Peter, over which supposed site Constantine began construction of a big church, St Peter's. Remember that? All this stuff does tie to-gether!
Thing is, there already was another non Christian celebration about this time. The Celts had something called Samhain, which means "Summer's end" and is still the word for November in Irish, as two other of their big celebrations, Bealtaine and Lunasa, are the Irish words for May and August. It was a harvest festival, but also included the realisation that Winter is coming and thus grain and meat for the season for people and livestock alike is prepared, the bones of the slaughtered animals thrown into bone fires, which is now contracted to bonfires, from which the whole community lighted its individual home fires. Also it was thought the world of the living and the dead intersected on this date, and the dead could cause damage to the living, so the living wore costumes to look like the dead or appease them or confuse them and minimise the potential damage. Your original trick or treat.
So a feast that started out to replace or transform one pagan observance involving the dead ends up on another, first Roman then Celtic. So whadda we got? A supposedly Christian celebration that's just a non-Christian one with a Christian veneer over it? Well, to some extent, yes. The mistake would be to see this as the whole story. Judas Priest, we ain't even got to the Reformation yet, howzat figure into all this? And how come Luther's out there nailing stuff to the church door on Halloween? Was he trick or treating or something?
As to the general idea, guess what, people die, Christian or non Christian, and the people they leave behind feel the loss and want to remember them. Hardly surprising that Christians would want to do that, hell, everybody does, and that's why there's remembrances of various kinds in cultures all over the world. Given the Christian knowledge of salvation from sin and death by the merit of the death and resurrection of Jesus, a commemoration of those who have passed from this life to the joy of that salvation in God's presence would even more suggest itself, and show the fulfillment of a universal human inkling with all its folklore in the revelation of the Gospel. IOW, if anyone ought to commemorate their dead, it's Christians who know God's revealed truth as to what death, and life both here and beyond, is all about.
But, as we've seen, it's easy to get confused again, get drawn back into the folklore, begin to evolve a sort of hybrid of truth and the guesswork expressed in the folklore, and confuse that for Christianity itself. As an example, remember old Gregory III setting up a place to venerate relics in St Peter's? Why would one venerate something from the body of a dead Christian? Is there even the slightest suggestion of such a practice, or it having any merit, in the Bible? No. Luther mentioned there are many things which even if they began with a good intent originally become so clouded with the sort of thing we manufacture for ourselves in folklore that the intent is long since lost.
What Is An Indulgence?
What is an indulgence anyway? It has nothing to do with forgiveness of sin, and we'll see in a minute doesn't have bupkis to do with Purgatory either. In Roman Catholic thinking, a sin may indeed be forgiven, but, consequences remain for punishment. Some sins are so serious that, if one does them knowing they are serious yet freely deciding to do it anyway (full animadversion is the term for this if you want to impress somebody), the rejection of God is so complete that it is mortal to the life of the soul, for which reason they are called mortal sins, and the punishment and consequence is eternal if there is no repentance.
But, even if one repents and is forgiven for a mortal sin, it's still like most sins which aren't so serious, called venial sins, where the punishment is not eternal loss of life, but temporal. The sin reflects an attachment to some part of God's creation over God himself, and one must undertake the removal of that attachment to creatures rather than the Creator through works of mercy, charity, penance, prayer and the like; one must undertake the sanctification, the making holy, of himself. The problem is, while this may be done over time, you may die before you have enough time here. Hence Purgatory, where the process begun here is completed if you die before completing it here and "walk right in" as they used to say.
But good news! Not good news as is the Gospel; if that were understood we wouldn't even be into this nonsense, but guess what, you don't actually have to do all this cleansing and sanctifying yourself. There's a whole treasury of merit from Jesus and the saints, and just as one's sins affect others, so since we're all members of the body of Christ the church, the merit of Christ and the saints can affect others too, and the church, given the power to bind and loose on Earth and it will be bound or loosed in Heaven, can apply that merit to other members, not to forgive the sin but reduce the temporal consequences needing sanctification, and that application is tied to various pious things you do, like say venerating a relic.
Holy crap that's a lot of thinking! I guess the message that by HIS stripes, meaning the marks of his suffering, we are healed, that he redeemed us like a coupon, paying the price, taking for us the punishment we are due, is just too good to really be true, so we tack all these human thinkings-through onto it to make it more palatable to our understanding.
St Peter's, Luther, and Tetzel.
Well back to this church that's been standing in Rome for over 1000 years through lots of stuff good and bad and is in pretty bad shape, but given as Constantine started it you kind of don't demolish stuff like that, so whaddya do? Pope Nicholas V (1447-1455) was the first guy to think yeah maybe you do either completely rebuild it or tear it down and build a new one. He had some plans drawn up but died before much was actually done. Finally Pope Julius II (1503-1513), the one just before Leo X to whom Luther addressed "The Freedom of the Christian", laid the cornerstone for the new St Peter's in 1506.
Costs a lot of money, and Julius liked building stuff. The project was begun 18 April 1506 and wouldn't be completed until 18 November 1626 when Pope Urban VIII dedicated the church. Funding was to be provided in part by selling indulgences. Facilitating this was Albrecht, or Albert, von Hohenzollern, who became archbishop of Magdeburg at age 23 in 1513 and bought himself election to the powerful post of archbishop of Mainz in 1514. To pay for it he got a HUGE loan from Jakob Fugger. Don't laugh at the name, he was a serious, serious dude, banker to everyone who mattered. He loaned Charles V, he to whom the Augsburg Confession was presented, most of the money to buy being elected Holy Roman Emperor, for example.
Albrecht then got permission from Pope Leo X to sell indulgences to pay the loan off as long as half was sent to Rome to pay for St Peter's. A Fugger agent tended the money, and Albrecht got his top salesman in a damn Domincan (friars are always suspect; if they were up to any good they'd have been proper monks like the Benedictines, everybody knows that) named Johann Tetzel.
When the gold in the coffer rings,
the soul from Purgatory springs.
Sobald das Geld im Kasten klingt,
Die Seele aus dem Fegefeuer springt!
That's not even RC theology, as Cardinal Cajetan later said. Whozat? The Dominican (them again!) who was papal legate to the Diet of Augsburg to examine Luther's works. So, it would be overly simplistic to the point of just plain false to ascribe Luther's posting of the 95 Theses to Tetzel and that famous jingle. The sources, the depth, the background of what led to the Reformation go much deeper than that -- which is why I spent all that time on all that ancient stuff. This had been coming for a long, long, time, centuries of it. Luther knew that. Tetzel died a broken man, shunned by all sides, and while Luther fought him strenuously in life, as he lay dying Luther wrote him a personal letter saying the troubles were not of his making, that this "child" had a different father, as Luther put it.
For us Lutherans to-day to not understand what that different father was would be false to our Lutheran Reformation and to Luther himself. What do we really have here? A misunderstanding (Luther) in reaction to a misunderstanding (Tetzel and indulgences and the late mediaeval papacy) which once the misunderstandings are cleared up, we can maybe issue a joint declaration on the doctrine of justification or something, the whole thing can be resolved and we're one big happy family again? No, and in the words of the great theologian Chris Rock, hell no.
Theologians like to call the problem one of justification versus sanctification. What does this mean? Sanctify, to make sanctus, which is the Latin word for holy, right back where we started. Justify, to make justus, which is the Latin word for just. How can a person be just before God if he is not holy? Well, he can't. It gets worse. Not only can he not be just before God if he is not holy, there is no amount of time and works that will make him holy enough to be just before God. It gets worse yet. Even when God calls out a people and gives them his Law to show them exactly what he wants, and sends prophet after prophet to get them back on course, we still can't do it.
But having shown us this is the case through the Law, it gets better with the Gospel, which is just a contraction of old English words for good news. And the good news is this, that he has himself done for us what we could not do for ourselves, which is, fulfill the Law on our behalf, taking the punishment we deserve on himself and paying our debt, thus literally redeeming us. Turns out those human inklings were on to something but couldn't grasp what it is. Salvation is by works, but the works of Jesus, not us; our salvation is by faith in the merit of Jesus, that as he took our sin and it was credited to him though sinless, we take on his holiness and it is credited to us though we are unholy.
It's so utterly simple. What then, we are to do no works at all? Not in the least. We are to do good works; we are not to trust in them for our salvation in any part but to trust wholly in his works. This too is utterly simple. It's our sinfulness that wants to make it complicated. This happens in two opposite directions. Among Lutherans it happens when to keep clear on justification we mention sanctification little if at all, as if once justified sanctification will take care of itself. It doesn't. Justified is the adjective, sinner is the noun. We are justified sinners; we remain sinners. Simul justus et peccator is the Latin for this.
The other direction is to figure our works have just got to have something to do with it, and mix that in with the good news of salvation through faith in the works of Jesus, his death and resurrection, and come up with a sort-of good news where it's all him, except that it's you in there too with some punishment to work off and holiness to attain.
Thus do indulgences become a corruption of the Gospel and obscure it, whether they are sold or not. Thus does so much else become a corruption of the Gospel and obscure it -- the office of holy ministry becomes a priesthood, celebration of those who have gone before us in faith become another spirit/ancestor thing, the church itself becomes a part of the state, doing good works because we are saved becomes doing good works in order to be saved, on and on.
And worst of all in that the mass, or Divine Service as we often call it, becomes no longer first his gift of his word to us through the transformed synagogue service of prayer, Scripture reading and preaching, and then his gift of the same body and blood given for us now given to us as the pledge of our salvation and his testament to us his heirs, but it becomes a work to be done, and effective not through the power of his word to do what it says, but by simply by having worked the work (ex opere operato).
Reformation Day. Reformationstag.
And so on 31 October 1517 Father Martin Luther posted his document on the door of a church in Wittenberg, right? Well, no. What he did that day was send a cover letter with his document to Albrecht, mentioned above, since it was by his authority that the indulgences were being sold. That's what happened on 31 October 1517. Albrecht got them in late November (and we complain about snail mail now!), conferred with theologians on faculty at the University of Mainz, and forwarded them to Rome.
OK. so what about the church door thing? Here's the deal. The title of the document is Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum. A Disputation, disputatio in Latin, is a formal moderated academic event, in which a statement or statements are argued to be true or false by reference to an established written authority, such as, in religion, the Bible. This kind of argumentation is called argumentum ad verecundiam, argument from authority, in which the authority is cited in support of the argument's conclusion. It is one kind of what is called defeasible reasoning. Great Caesar's Ghost, what is that? It simply means reasoning that is rational but not demonstrated by logical deduction from a prior statement. Musty late mediaeval stuff? Defeasible reasoning is a major player in the development of AI (artificial intelligence) these days.
Luther was awarded the Doctor of Theology degree by the university on 19 October 1512 and two days later became a member of the theological faculty there with the position Doctor In Bible. The "95 Theses" as they are commonly called were written therefore in the academic language, Latin, rather than the language of the land, German, because it was an academic document calling for the academic event called a disputatio, or Disputation. Neither the document nor the posting of it was intended to start a popular movement, it was a university, academic matter.
The church was All Saints Church in Wittenberg -- hey, the all saints thing again! -- which was and is commonly called the Schlosskirche, or castle church, as distinct from the Stadtkirche, or town church, of St Mary. It was built by Frederick III, called The Wise, who was the Elector of Saxony, one of the seven who elected Holy Roman Emperors. He also founded the University of Wittenberg in 1502, and attached the castle church to it as the university's chapel.
So why All Saints Church to build a story? Huge reason. All Saints Church, unlike the town church, had a huge collection of relics of the saints, thousands of them, collected by Frederick, and veneration of them was one way to earn an indulgence, for which purpose they were put on display once a year. You get 100 days indulgence per relic. By 1520 Frederick had over 19,000 of them, and taking that as a round number, (19K x 100)/365 is 5,205 years and some change. Now, the "days" are not, as is often thought and was noted above, time off from Purgatory; it is time off from what would otherwise have to be punishment here on Earth, therefore shortening one's stay in Purgatory, where there are no earthly days, to complete what was not completed here in earth.
Holy crap that's a lot of thinking! Oh yeah, we've been there before. Now we see how out of hand it was, and also see that the out of hand thing isn't even the worst part, you can curb the out of hand stuff, and it is now largely curbed even in the RCC, but the worst part remains, the near total eclipse made of the good news of salvation in the Gospel, getting justification and sanctification all mixed up. Luther as a priest saw the effect of this first hand, with parishioners skipping right over the repentance and changing lives, the sanctification mentioned above, to a financial transaction that takes care of everything, when in fact the indulgences themselves presuppose such repentance and emendation of life and only affect temporal punishment, not forgiveness.
Luther preached on this earlier in 1517, wrote an academic treatise on indulgences, and followed correct church procedure, contacting his ordinary (that means his ecclesiastical supervisor, a "bishop") the Bishop of Brandenburg Hieronymus Schultz, and finally the archbishop on 31 October in hopes that they would take corrective action.
So what's up with a story about nailing stuff to a door when that isn't what happened? Just more spurious legends about religious stuff that ought to be left in the past where they belong? No, and here's why.
The corrective action for which Luther hoped never happened, and neither did the disputatio. University documents are not private documents, and the Latin document was soon printed in Basel, Leipzig and Nuremberg and widely distributed, and in Nuremberg a city official named Kaspar Nützel translated them into German around Christmas and distributed them, so those outside of academia could read them. So how'd he get them if they weren't posted? Universities at that time were in transition, from the Scholastic mode of the Middle Ages to the Renaissance mode of humanism. One feature of that was discussion societies to promote classical ideas, called sodalitas litteraria. One such fellowship was the Staupitzkreis, or sodalitas Staupitziana, around Luther's mentor and dean, Johann von Staupitz, and Nützel was a member.
Academic custom calls for a disputation document to be published by the university press, and there is no evidence that the University of Wittenberg ever did so. Of course not, things never got that far. Rules also called for posting on every church door, so, for one thing such a posting would not be unusual or draw a crowd, and also, only one church is mentioned in the account from which the legend grew, that of Phillip Melanchthon, who wasn't there and took a post in Wittenberg the following year, in his book Historia de vita et actis Lutheri in 1548, 31 years later.
Albrecht's advisers in Mainz suggested local action to silence Luther but Albrecht wanted action from Rome, and he got it. In January 1518 Tetzel had theologian Konrad Wimpina write theses against Luther, which Tetzel defended in a Disputation at the University of Frankfurt. By February 1518 the pope (Leo) tried to get authorities in the religious order to which Luther belonged, the Order of St Augustine, to shut him up, and appointed a then-renowned theologian, Silvestro Mazzolini (another bleeding Dominican!) to prepare a formal case against him, which he did, side-stepping the spiritual aspects to focus on papal authority. In April 1518 Luther published a popular work, thus, in German, a "Sermon on Indulgences and Grace", stressing the case for repentance and good works rather than indulgences with money going to build the new St Peter's Basilica rather than help the local poor. It circulated throughout the Holy Roman Empire and this, not a posting on Halloween, is where a large audience beyond academia heard of these things. Then in August 1518 Luther was summoned to Rome. In preparation, Luther wrote an "Explanations" on his theses, showing this was not an attack on the pope. His defence before Cardinal Cajetan was in Augsburg in October 1518. The Explanations were rejected, as was Luther's request to have the matter reviewed by theologians, and Luther appealed to the pope directly.
Luther didn't see any of this coming in his activities of 1517. He was not out to begin a Reformation. But as 1518 unfolded, with the Explanations, the Sermon, the various formal proceedings, he could see that the matter of indulgence abuse was but the tip of the iceberg. The power and efficacy of indulgences was the surface of a much deeper problem, the obscuring of the Gospel and the perversion of the church's mission to spread it and minister its sacraments, those gifts of grace, grace coming from the Latin for "free", gratis, from Christ himself, in Baptism and the Eucharist. A reformation of the church, not a founding of a new church, was indeed underway. Ten years later, 31 October 1527, Luther, now excommunicated from the Roman Cathoic Church, and company toasted the sending of the theses to Albrecht as the beginning, 21 years before Melanchthon wrote his story about nailing stuff to a church door.
The imagery of the church door story may be just a story, but it expresses something quite real. So well that even by the 100 year anniversary of the Reformation (let's call it centenary, that's the Latin-derived name for such things) in 1617 it was celebrated as such.
A Quick Look East.
BTW, the Eastern Church isn't off the hook here; while this indulgence thing was a Western thing and there is no equivalent to the remission of temporal punishment for sin in the Eastern Church, there was the practice of absolution certificates, which in some places did lift punishments, but primarily were issued by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem to pilgrims there and were distributed abroad, which absolved the sins of whoever bought them -- as distinct from an indulgence which does not absolve sin but remits punishment due to forgiven sins, which if they're forgiven then why is there still punishment, holy crap brace yourself for another lot of thinking -- and the proceeds paid for the heavy costs, including taxes, of maintaining the shrines in the Holy Land. Even worse than indulgences, or at least just as bad, technical differences regardless.
So we see that Luther had a specific purpose on a specific day in a specific place for specific reasons.
You know what? Though the Disputation the 95 Theses called for was never held, something much better happened. It's called the Lutheran Reformation, in which no new church was started, but the one church, the church that has been there all along, the church that will be there all along, the only church there will ever be, was reformed where the Gospel is rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered after the institution of Christ rather than that plus a hell of a lot of thinking that added all sorts of emendations by Man.
This reformation in the beginning was at the risk of life from the powers that be. Thankfully those times are over, but as with the indulgences themselves, it is not that itself which is the main thing, but the Gospel for which it was done. We celebrate this great working of the Holy Spirit, in reforming the church against both pressures to maintain the old errors and against pressures to take the Reformation into further errors, on 31 October, Reformation Day.
Reformation Day, whether it's Sunday or not, until recently. As if something for which our Lutheran fathers risked literally everything needs to be moved for the convenience of us who benefit from it to the nearest Sunday to make it easier and therefore get more numbers. Do any of us need police protection to safely move about as Lutherans that moving it to Sunday will change?
Thanks be to God for the reformation of his church!
And Happy Halloween while you're at it. Happy All Saints Day (Allerheiligen) too!
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