Enter Martin Luther

Statue of Martin Luther at St. Mary’s Church, Mitte, Berlin
Adam Carr, Wikimedia Commons

By John Martin

October 31 marks the anniversary of an obscure German monk nailing a notice on the door of the Wittenberg parish church and inviting debate on practices in the medieval church. Martin Luther’s name would soon be known all over Europe. Luther could hardly have foreseen the consequences of his action. It would lead to a huge split in the Western church, and disastrous religious wars that left much of Europe in ruins.

Pope Francis will lead an ecumenical service at Lund Cathedral in Sweden that marks the anniversary. It is the first papal visit to Sweden in 25 years. Many ecumenical services and conferences will meet during the next year in order to recover momentum in the search for Christian unity.

Popes John Paul II and Benedict maintained ecumenical dialogues. And Pope Francis has brought a new warmth to the quest for unity. He will lead prayers asking for “forgiveness for divisions perpetuated by Christians from the two traditions.” He will then travel to Malmö, where he will celebrate a Mass before an expected congregation of 10,000 people.

Today some scholars doubt whether Luther actually nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. There is a scholarly consensus that he aimed neither to split the Church nor spark a revolution with his 95 theses.

“He started by wanting reform,” said Bishop William Kenney of Birmingham, Roman Catholic co-chair of the international dialogue between Lutherans and Roman Catholics. “He never planned to split away from the Latin church.”

The presenting issue was Luther’s opposition to selling indulgences by which people were told they could win release from purgatory and hell. Luther insisted that salvation is a matter between an individual and God and that the Church had no powers as an intermediary.

The spread of Luther’s ideas was aided enormously by the invention of the printing press and translation into other European languages. When Pope Leo X condemned Luther as a heretic, Luther burned the papal edict.

In the United Kingdom, debate continues about the Reformation. Was the medieval church as bad as its critics have painted? In The Stripping of the Altars, the Cambridge historian Eamon Duffy has painted a church that was in rude and lively health in the years before the Reformation.

“It had a dark side, but it did move the religious debate on from divine authority imposed from above, and brought into the conversation a sense of protest against that,” Bishop Richard Holloway, former primus of the Church of Scotland and now an agnostic, said in The Guardian. “I think it would have happened in some other way even if it hadn’t been kicked off by Luther. Humans are revolutionary species that are constantly revising and challenging their institutions.”

Of the current state of dialogue, Francis had “softened the tone,” Holloway said. “The conversation will get warmer and sweeter, and who knows where it will lead. But the Roman Catholic Church is a bit like a colossal aircraft carrier, and it takes a long time to make even tiny modifications.”

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