Re-thinking the Renaissance


The cheap, commercial luridness of October 31 here in the United States almost totally obscures an event of immense proportions, an event that quite literally changed the world ' an event that should never go unnoticed on its anniversary because it marked the beginning, both for better and for worse, of the individual consciousness.

It was on this day in 1517 that Martin Luther, a German priest of the Catholic Church and a professor at the University of Wittenberg , nailed to the door of the church his 95 Theses. Physically, it was a small act and not at all unusual. Apparently, nailing a work to the door of the church in those days simply represented the potential beginning of a debate. Indeed, the English translation of the short preface to his Theses states that, 'out of love and concern for the truth, and with the object of eliciting it, the following heads will be the subject of a public discussion at Wittenberg under the presidency of the reverend father, Martin Luther, Augustinian, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology, and duly appointed Lecturer on these subjects in that place. He requests that whoever cannot be present personally to debate the matter orally will do so in absence in writing.'

Intellectually, however, and, perhaps more importantly, morally, this was an enormous act. A single man had, in essence, come forward all alone, with nothing to defend him but his words and those of a book in which he had faith, to challenge the Power that had ruled the entire world for hundreds of years. He knew as he pounded that nail into the door that this act could very well end his life. And yet, for the sake of his own conscience, he was willing to take that chance. For Luther, exposing his ideas to that world had more value than his one small life.

His Theses systematically laid out why he had come to a major and fundamental disagreement with the Church concerning its practice of selling 'indulgences.' Simply put, for the right price, you could spring a dead loved one out of purgatory and get them straight into heaven.

Now on one hand, you could make the case that this was simply the free market at work: one group with money, power, and intellectual influence profiting off those without those things. The Church, certainly, did not force anyone to buy indulgences. The churchmen merely advertised their wares and marketed them extremely well (after all, what better marketing can you imagine than a trusted spiritual leader convincing his flock that, for the small sum of just $10, Grandpa will get into heaven ' especially when the one who takes the money can also officially certify that it's been done?).

Luther, if he had wanted, could easily have participated in this profiteering. He was, after all, one of the select few ' he was a priest of the greatest Power the world had ever known. But his conscience wouldn't let him. He couldn't participate in this because of what he saw, what he knew, and what he believed.

On a journey to Rome in 1510, Luther had been shocked at what he had experienced there. Heiko Oberman writes in his 1982 biography of Luther that 'The indulgences for sale in Germany were only poor imitations of what could be purchased in Rome ' (p. 146). He says that Luther, in order to free his grandfather from purgatory, had 'scaled the Santa Scala on his knees, with an Our Father on each step, for by praying this way it was said one could save a soul. When he had arrived at the top, however, skepticism overtook him,' a skepticism that 'arose from the conviction that God would not allow Himself to be pinned down this way' (p. 147).

Oberman also mentions 'the shock and horror (Luther) had felt in Rome at hearing for the first time in his life flagrant blasphemies uttered in public. He was deeply shocked by the casual mockery of saints and everything he held sacred. He could not laugh when he heard priests joking about the sacrament of the Eucharist. In Erfurt, his first mass had him shivering with awe; now in Rome he had to stand by while servants of God thought it funny to blaspheme the most sacred words of institution' (p. 149).

A few years later, at home in Wittenberg, he learned of a priest named Johannes Tetzel, who was especially enthusiastic about collecting funds for St. Peter's Basilica (one of the major efforts of the Pope at that time ' and what better way to raise money than by selling indulgences?). According to the Wittenberg website, Tetzel 'went from being a simple Dominican priest to Papal Commissioner for Indulgence. People streamed to him wherever he went . . . . Tetzel's activity brought about fatal consequences for Wittenberg . . . as indulgences were bought, traditions and customs started falling apart. The spiritual problem with the sale of indulgence was that the inner struggle between the burden and the sin became meaningless; all one had to do was buy indulgence and everything was fine. Repentance was no longer a sign of remorse. Martin Luther read the instruction manual for indulgence merchants in October of 1517. The things he read in this manual made it clear to him that as a theologian, he couldn't keep silent any longer.'

Luther knew that this selling of indulgences, particularly to fund the building of St. Peter's, was, quite simply, immoral ' and that this immorality was perpetrated for profit by the Church. That some people felt better because of buying them and that others felt better because of the profiteering did not mitigate things in the least for Luther, who believed that the sinful person ought to spend his life filled with remorse and in humility towards God's majesty rather than by simply buying his way out. Finally, in October 1517, he began writing his thoughts and concerns down.

We must keep in mind here how relatively recent the very notion of a literate man, of one who could both read and write, really was in 1517. Gutenberg had only invented the printing press about 80 years before. Before then, what books there were ' mostly Bibles ' were handmade and thus quite rare and expensive. The people took the priests' readings and interpretations of the Bible on faith. After all, the priests were learned men.

And then, suddenly, one of these learned men, one of these priests, a professor at the university, had the audacity, the boldness, the courage ' had the unshakable conviction ' that the Church, this most powerful and holy of human institutions, was wrong. 'Those who preach indulgences,' he wrote, 'are in error when they say that a man is absolved and saved from every penalty by the pope's indulgences . . . . the major part of the people are deceived by that indiscriminate and high-sounding promise of relief from penalty . . . . There is no divine authority for preaching that the soul flies out of the purgatory immediately the money clinks in the bottom of the chest. It is certainly possible that when the money clinks in the bottom of the chest avarice and greed increase . . . .'

Word of Luther's challenge to the Church spread immediately, partly due to the political climate in Germany at the time, which, as luck would have it, was extremely favorable to Luther. Depending upon to whom you spoke, Luther had become either 'famous' or 'infamous.' In 1521, the Pope excommunicated him and, condemned as a heretic, he was summoned to the diet (a formal general assembly of the princes or estates of the Holy Roman Empire ) at Worms , where he was to face questioning by the empire and the emperor. According to Oberman, Luther 'could no longer be treated as just any case to be tried in a papal, imperial, or local court and thereby be nipped in the bud. So many people had become familiar with his theology and recognized their own criticisms of pope and Church in his writings that the name Luther had taken on an unmistakably pupil profile all the way down to the so-called common man' (p. 36).

On April 17, 1521 , before the emperor, the electors, and the princes, Luther was asked two questions: 'Do you, Martin Luther, recognize the books published under your name as your own?' and 'Are you prepared to recant what you have written in these books?'

He confirmed the books as his own. But he asked for and was granted an extra day to answer the second question. And on the 18th of April, he said this to his questioners:

'Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason ' for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves ' I consider myself convicted by the testimony of the Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one's conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen' (Oberman, p. 39). The mass media of the time ' pamphlets and supposedly 'private' letters actually intended for publication ' made sure Luther's speech spread throughout Germany . 'In fact,' adds Oberman, 'the nation heard even more than its rulers ' namely the impressive final statement that can only be found in the published version of Luther's confession: 'Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.''

One man, alone, facing possible death, stood up to the most powerful institution the world had ever seen, aided, certainly, by luck and by politics, but armed only with his ability to read, to write, to think, and to speak. It represented one of the greatest, bravest, and most important acts of liberation that any individual has ever made in human history. It broke the mental chains that the Church had placed on people's minds and set them on the way to becoming free to think on their own. And yet, here in the United States , the significance of the great event that occurred on this day is sadly lost amid candy, fakery, fantasy, and trick or treat.

It would be fitting then, on this 486th anniversary of the event, to take just a moment to think about Martin Luther walking up to the door of that church and nailing to its door his 95 theses. Take just a moment to celebrate him and to thank him for what he did. Because without his intelligence, without his integrity, without his courage, our world would today be a very, very different place indeed.

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Craig Russell's picture
Columns on STR: 35

Craig Russell is a writer and musician in upstate New York.