Today is an important holiday. Well, not a holiday really, a commemoration. 494 years ago, a 33-year old Catholic monk and professor of theology, posted an invitation to debate certain abuses in the Church. It is marvelous that such a modest document should have had the world-shaking impact that it did. Reformation Day commemorates Luther’s post and the Reformation that followed.
Luther was offended by certain abusive practices in the selling indulgences, so, like a modern-day blogger, he posted. His post, entitled “Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” began with these words:
the following propositions will be discussed at Wittenberg, under the presidency of the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and of Sacred Theology, and Lecturer in Ordinary on the same at that place. Wherefore he requests that those who are unable to be present and debate orally with us, may do so by letter (text of The Ninty-Five Theses from Gutenberg.org).
In this modest notice, now commonly called the “The Ninty-Five Theses”, he does not attack core Romish errors, instead he assumes as valid many of the errors that had grown up within the Roman Church. Within three years, Prostestants would correct these errors; but on the 31st October in 1517, these errors were not even challenged. Let’s look at some of them.
- Papal Supremacy—Thesis 9. Therefore the Holy Spirit in the pope is kind to us
- The Semi-Divinity of Peter—Thesis 77. It is said that even St. Peter, if he were now Pope, could not bestow greater graces; this is blasphemy against St. Peter and against the pope.
- Purgatory—Thesis 35. They preach no Christian doctrine who teach that contrition is not necessary in those who intend to buy souls out of purgatory
- Selling Indulgences—Thesis 47. Christians are to be taught that the buying of pardons is a matter of free will, and not of commandment.
- Trafficking in Pardons—Thesis 73. The pope justly thunders against those who, by any art, contrive the injury of the traffic in pardons.
If these Romish doctrines were not being challenged, what, then, caused the uproar? Let us look at some more of the theses in this debate.
- Thesis 27. They preach man who say that so soon as the penny jingles into the money-box, the soul flies out [of purgatory].
- Thesis 43. Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better work than buying pardons;
- Thesis 46. Christians are to be taught that unless they have more than they need, they are bound to keep back what is necessary for their own families, and by no means to squander it on pardons.
- Thesis 51. Christians are to be taught that it would be the pope’s wish, as it is his duty, to give of his own money to very many of those from whom certain hawkers of pardons cajole money, even though the church of St. Peter might have to be sold.
Greed was one of Luther’s enemies. Greed had not only infiltrated the Church but usurped the reins of power. Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici (a.k.a. Pope Leo X) and his ilk wanted money. They had power and intended using this power to gather a rich harvest from the poor and illiterate masses The Medici’s were not about to let some uncultured German monk stand in the way.
But the problem is deeper yet.
- Thesis 53. They are enemies of Christ and of the pope, who bid the Word of God be altogether silent in some Churches, in order that pardons may be preached in others.
- Thesis 54. Injury is done the Word of God when, in the same sermon, an equal or a longer time is spent on pardons than on this Word.
- Thesis 62. The true treasure of the Church is the Most Holy Gospel of the glory and the grace of God.
- Thesis 63. But this treasure is naturally most odious, for it makesthe first to be last.
And this is the rub. Can you hear the medieval Medici’s ask with incredulity, “The first shall be last?” Pride was another of Luther’s enemies. Not only were Leo and his arrogant allies not about to permit some backwater monk stand in the way of their harvest, they were not about to let his God interfere either. Grace and the gospel make the first to be last; but pride hates grace, the gospel, and their goal.
Luther modesty objected to the abuses of Romish doctrine without questioning many of the underlying doctrinal errors. It was in the firestorm that followed that the Reformers examined the doctrines themselves and they discarded those doctrines which were found to be unscriptural.
That is what Reformation Day commemorates: the work of God in reforming his Church through a conflict between the Word of God and the mighty earthly prince, Giovanni de’ Medici, sparked by a debate invitation posted by a backwater German monk
“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25).
“Not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are” (1 Co 1:26b-28).