October 31 is Halloween, a favorite holiday of children, when they get to go out trick or treating dressed as ghosts and goblins. I’ve always enjoyed Halloween. But October 31 can also be remembered for another reason. On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther posted a list of 95 points on the church doors in Wittenberg, Germany. What happened to him and the church as a result changed the world. He had not been seeking a revolution. He merely wanted to debate the practice of “indulgences” in an academic forum.
What were indulgences?

In Roman Catholic theology of the time, an indulgence was a way for the Church to grant either the full or partial remission of “temporal punishment” from sins that had been committed. They were given after a sinner had confessed to his bad behavior and performed penance. Temporal punishments were punishments that a person endured either in this life or in Purgatory. They were temporary, rather than permanent and eternal like the flames of Hell. According to Roman Catholic theology, human beings by nature commit many sins of a non-serious nature called “venal” sins which usually go unconfessed. Though they don’t break communion with God, they do cause spiritual damage, and so these temporay punishments were the result. And such temporay punishments could be paid for by penance and by indulgence. Indulgences happened when the church, by virtue of its authority, applied existing merit from the church’s treasurey of good deeds to an individual. The idea was, that the saints had built up a storehouse of merit greater than they needed individually, and so this extra merit could be applied to those who were not so good.

The church had been trying to raise funds to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome for many years. Originally constructed during the time of Constantine over what was believed to be St. Peter’s tomb, by the fifteenth century the building was falling apart and so the church began the process of trying to rebuild it or replace it. By 1517, the Pope at this time, Leo X came up with what seemed a good idea: offering indulgences for those who gave alms for the rebuilding.

Johann Tetzel was a Dominican Friar whom the Pope had made the commissioner of indulgences for all Germany. Tetzel took his job seriously and promoted indulgences rather agressively in Germany. He apparently went so far as to create a chart that listed a price for each type of sin a person might need forgiveness for. He claimed that the indulgences he sold could even save a soul who had violated the Virgin Mary. According to Luther, as part of his marketing campaign, Tetzel had used the clever phrase, “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.”

In his list that he had nailed to the church door in Wittenberg, Luther wondered at the compassion of a church that had the ability to shorten the suffering of people in Purgatory but who would grant such relief only for those that coughed up the cash to pay for it. In the end, of course, Luther denied that the Pope or the church had any such power in the first place: he argued that pardon for sin was something only God could grant and that Jesus’ death on the cross had paid for all sins, so there was nothing left that needed forgiving by indulgences.

The pillars of what became the Protestant Reformation are three: first, only Scripture is authoritative for faith and practice in the church; it doesn’t matter what the traditions, church councils or the Pope might say. Second, all Christians stand equal before God, with no need of any human intermediary: all are priests. And finally, salvation is by grace, through faith alone: Jesus paid the entire penalty for sin. There is nothing left to do or not do, no penance to perform, no indulgence to purchase.

Luther’s list of questions is now known as the 95 Theses. They were not designed to provoke a rebellion against the church or the Pope. The church door was commonly used as a bulletin board for the purpose of making announcements. The 95 Theses were written in Latin and thus only addressed to academics. Luther was seeking a debate among the theologians of the church. However, his list was copied, translated, and spread across Europe, creating a controversy between Luther and the Pope over a variety of church doctrines and practices. Three years later, Luther and his supporters were excommunicated. Thus began the Reformation. All the Protestant churches, from the Lutheran to the Presbyterian, from the Baptist to the Methodist can trace their roots back to what Luther did that October day.

Were there any other results of the Reformation, besides the numberless denominations that exist within Christianity today? Between 1618 and 1648 there were a series of wars in Europe that came to be called the Thirty Years War. The Catholic Hapsburgs, who ruled Spain, Austria, the Spanish Netherlands and even most of Germany and Italy, fought against those princes in Germany who were Protestant. Denmark and Sweden supported the Protestant princes. France ultimately chose to ally itself against the Hapsburgs, swinging the tide away from the Hapsburgs. The Peace of Westphalia which followed asserted that each prince would have the right to determine the religion of his own state. Christians living in states where their denomination was not the official denomination would nevertheless be permitted to practice their religion publicly during certain designated hours and in private whenever they wished. The Peace of Westphalia also brought to an end the Pope’s political and secular power in Europe. As a consequence, Pope Innocent X declared the treaty “null, void, invalid, iniquitous, unjust, damnable, reprobate, inane, empty of meaning and effect for all times.” It didn’t matter, of course. The kings and princes of Europe, whether Catholic or Protestant, simply ignored him. The seeds of secularization and the separation of church and state had been planted. Also, significantly, the Peace of Westphalia established the modern concept of a nation-state and set up the still existing system of relationships between these nations that we so much take for granted.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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