Today in 1517, Wittenburg, Saxony, Martin Luther nailed his ‘Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences’ (also known as his 95 Theses) on the door of All Saints’ Church.
Although this may not seem to be a monumental act, it proved to have a huge impact on the religious, cultural and political traditions of Europe. For many, this event serves as the initial catalyst for the Protestant Reformation.
This 95 Theses challenged the pope’s authority by declaring that
“The pope has neither the will nor the power to remit any penalties beyond those imposed either at his own discretion or by canon law.”
In a period where the utmost devotion to Catholicism and the Papacy was undisputed and assumed, Luther’s attack on the validity of the scope of the pope’s authority, as well as the legitimacy of the sale of indulgences were considered heretical. His refusal to withdraw these challenges to Papal power led to his excommunication in 1520.
“Any Christian whatsoever, who is truly repentant, enjoys plemary remission from penalty and guilt, and this is givenhim without letters of indulgence.” Here Luther encouraged a return to Scripture by championing the doctrine that forgiveness and redemption came from God himself – not the pope. He was voicing the theory that the pope was overstepping his boundaries by granting pardons and letters of indulgence and by encouraging Christians to do so by teaching it as the only way to truly gain redemption.
The Catholic Church had grown increasingly wealthy through this encouragement to purchase letters to the point where it became common practice. Luther, angered by the growth of iconoclasm (that is, worship of religious idols/images in the place of God) and dependance on the authority of the pope rather than God, made his doctrine that followed Scripture more closely, public.
He believed in the doctrine of justification and redemption by faith alone, as he did not believe that the pope had the authority to grant redemption through the purchase of indulgences.
Although the Protestant Reformation did not necessarily promote Luther’a theology as dictated in his 95 Theses, it is clear that Reformation theology and doctrine emerged and grew from his points. It could be argued that it was the foundation of the Reformation as it allowed other theologians to follow suit and speak against the archaic values of the Catholic Church at the time and encourage debate.
If in any doubt over the impact of the rise of this Evangelical (it was not named Protestant for a while yet) theology, we need look no further than the Church of England. The writings and discussions of the new theologians and reformers across Europe allowed Henry VIII to consider and alternative route to gain his divorce rather than carry on fruitlessly by appealing to the Papacy. In the process of seeking alternative guidance he broke away from Rome and created the Church of England that placed him firmly as the head of both state and religion in his own country. It is a Church and doctrine that is still followed today (although greatly modified and developed over the past 500 years) in England.