*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 31st of October 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.
A very happy Reformation Sunday on Reformation day, this the 31st of October. And perhaps you wonder why the 31st of October is Reformation Day? Well, it was on this day in 1517 that Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg thus setting off the events that would become known as the Reformation.
Sometimes people ask us here at 1517 why we are called 1517 and this is the answer. The 95 Theses mark the beginning of the Protestant Reformation (which is a very complex, varied, and sometimes contradictory movement!). It’s a big deal! But, the 95 theses in and of themselves are a little bit “meh”. Not in their historical sense, but the theses were less earth-shattering than you may have been led to believe. We mythologize. We don’t have to apologize we just have to know when we are practicing this age-old habit in storytelling. Watch any of the Luther movies or look at any picture of the event and Luther invariably has a large hammer, a furrowed brow, a crowd is bustling, Luther gestures to the crowd, music swells, etc….etc…
Here is point number 1 for Reformation Sunday: Luther posting the theses was normal practice for academics. Academics would publicly post theses (not declarations, but ideas they were working through and wanted to debate), in fact in September of 1517 Luther posted 97 Theses on Scholasticism. But the important rich people didn’t care about that so no one ever talks about those.
Every once in a while, this time of year, I come across the “did Luther actually post the theses?” Debate. Oh boy. I’ve got a word from 2 Timothy on this…." Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels.” I say that in jest (in part). Yes, Luther probably posted the 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church, had them passed out around town, and sent to nearby towns. It’s what you did. I get the demythologizing spirit is fun (and can be useful) but find something else to fight about. That being said, maybe I am wrong! The point is that that’s not the point of the story.
The point of the story and the Theses was repentance. The common reading of Jesus telling his hearers to repent in the Vulgate was “do penance” and this became the foundation for the idea of penance as a specific thing you could do. This is what undergirded the penitential system of indulgences. And indulgences can be abused!
And they certainly were at this time. One problem was the selling of indulgences for the dead (the idea was that you could get them out of purgatory faster). Indulgences from the Pope for yourself were a common practice and remain to this day. The other problem was the publicity of the sale of indulgences at the time. Many made note that it was less than scrupulous. The benefactors of this indulgence were, in particular, Albert of Mainz who needed the money to pay back some bankers, and Pope Leo X who wanted a fancier St. Peter’s in Rome. So when news of Luther’s fuss got to them, they wouldn’t just let the Theses be. Luther was going after their pocketbook.
Luther was not the reformer he would come to be with the publishing of his 3 Treatises in 1521. In fact, if you look at the 95 theses you might be a little surprised. Luther’s point is that to “do penance” or “repent” is a lifelong activity and not something that can be bought. And this was believed by many! But Luther went public just as the two guys you didn’t want to anger needed indulgence money. [Think of someone posting something online that is not particularly radical but it just happens to hit a few of the folks up top the wrong way… not that this has ever happened.]
Thesis 41 is fascinating- Luther writes “The Pope's indulgence ought to be proclaimed with all precaution” What!? Luther would eventually fight against them, but not yet, not here!
Check out 81, another one scholars point to: “Such impudent sermons concerning indulgences make it difficult even for learned men to protect the Pope's honor and dignity”. Yes, Luther that radical was… *checks notes* trying to protect the honor and dignity of the Pope”.
Well, needless to say, the movement took off, grew, morphed, etc…from this posting of these 95 academic theses that wouldn’t normally cause such a ruckus, but such is history.
Today we remember the posting of the 95 Theses on this Reformation Sunday, the 31st of October.
The reading comes from Romans 1:
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 31st of October 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man whose favorite Luthers include Martin, Idris Elba’s fictional character, and Vandross. He is Christoper Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man whose favorite Luther is a Luther burger whereby you replace the bun with a doughnut. I am Dan van Voorhis
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.