Ninety-Five Theses and Counting
Anniversaries draw our gaze towards the past, especially if an event took place a pleasingly even number of years ago. Assassinations, coronations, defenestrations and revolutions almost demand a commemoration when 100, 200, or even 500 years have elapsed since they occurred. Public figures invariably seize the moment to unveil monuments, read speeches written by others, or preside at minutes of silence or cannon fusilades -- depending on the prevailing political mood. Journalists and historians sharpen their pencils to weigh in as well, and why not?
In case you hadn’t noticed, 2017 just happens to the 500th anniversary of an incident that is generally credited with sparking the Reformation – the significant religious upheaval that divided western Christendom between Catholicism and Protestantism. In 1517 a German Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, nailed, or is said to have nailed, 95 theses to his church door at Wittenberg. Luther’s purpose was to reform the Catholic Church rather than start a new religion and his theses constituted a critique of dubious practices such as the sale of indulgences. But the Church was not open to criticism nor ready for reform. Luther was condemned, refused to recant, and only avoided the roasting spit with the protection of German princes. He deserves recognition for his courageous stand against extraordinary odds and for being the first serious critic of Church doctrine and practice to get away with it.
One of Luther’s most enduring achievements was his translation of the Bible into German. Before this, only a scholar adept in Greek or Latin could read the holy book and the Church opposed vernacular versions lest they spawn a proliferation of heresies. Luther’s translation was a major step in in the development of German as a literary language. With the printing press making books less expensive than they had been prior to its invention, his Bible was eagerly sought by middle class families that could afford it. Meanwhile, over in England, William Tyndale was translating the Bible in to English under much less favourable circumstances. Since his country was still Catholic, Tyndale was forced to seek refuge on the continent where he was betrayed and burned in 1536. His translation, however, formed the greater part of the highly influential King James Bible that appeared when Protestantism was securely established in England. The availability of the Bible in the vernacular stimulated a new interest in education in jurisdictions where Protestantism prevailed, although universal literacy would have to wait until the establishment of state-sponsored schooling in the nineteenth century. For those of us who appreciate literacy, Luther, and Tyndale too, did point us in the right direction. And they may have contributed to saving many a generation of youngsters from wasted hours studying Latin, although I was not spared such tedium.
Nor should we underestimate the importance of Luther’s rejection of monasticism – signaled when he left the Augustinian Order and married Catherine von Bora, an ex-nun. This meant that Protestant churches not only distinguished themselves from the Catholic Church in their reliance on the Bible and in their use of the vernacular, but also in their acceptance of a married clergy. It was a repudiation of the Catholic doctrine that celibacy – described as a state of perfection – was more pleasing to God than matrimony. Ironically, as I write this, Pope Francis is considering a move that would allow for married parish priests if local bishops so approved and it appears that Brazil’s bishops are in favour. Some expected such a reform to emerge from the Second Vatican Council, but it never happened. A number of developments since then, however, suggest that the Pope’s initiative may be overdue. The rapid decline in religious vocations represents an obvious challenge. Ireland’s Maynooth Seminary, for instance, built to accommodate 500 annual entrants, had only six this year. To compound matters, for several decades the Church in many countries has been rocked by countless allegations of priests sexually abusing minors, attempted cover-ups that were ultimately exposed, criminal convictions, and costly litigations. A married priesthood might help; Luther was probably on the right track.
There is one further tribute that I wish to pay to Luther, although it is unlikely that his more ardent devotees will welcome it. As Protestantism in its various forms spread across central and northern Europe, accompanied by brutal wars that eventually subsided, religiously plural societies emerged where an uneasy tolerance of differing beliefs took root. The fragmentation of Christianity into many churches inevitably diminished the authority of each one, toleration became the price of social peace, and parochialism was replaced by integration across communities of faith. The separation of the sacred from the political meant a loss for the former, and the practice of religion became a private rather than a public affair. In modern secular societies there are no official state churches (Norway moved in this direction this year; there is no sign that England ever will), freedom of religion is an established right and, even more importantly, freedom from religion. It is not unreasonable to speculate that Luther’s rupture of Christianity eased the way for the rise of secularism.
And yet it must be pointed out that Luther was no great champion of religious tolerance and his writings betray a growing antagonism towards religions he disapproved of. Anabaptists, Jews, Muslims, and of course, Catholics were all targets of his bitter tirades. In fact, his language became increasingly intemperate as he aged, alarming his followers at times. I shall end with one choice sentence of his which I found a few years back when reading Harry Loewen’s Ink Against the Devil: Luther and His Opponents (2015): “When the Pope speaks, it’s like farts bursting from the Devil’s asshole.”
Posted: 30 November 2017