31 October was traditionally a public holiday in the five German states of the former GDR. Christians in those states are mostly Protestants, and on 31 October, Protestants celebrate â no, not Halloween, but the âbirthâ of their denomination â Reformation Day. In many states of the old Federal Republic, by contrast, people donât need to work on 1 November â the Catholic All Saintsâ Day.
Yet this year is different: Reformation Day is a public holiday not only in East, but also in West Germany. For today, 500 years ago, on 31 October 1517, Martin Luther (1483â1546) nailed his 95 Theses against Indulgences on the door of a Wittenberg church.
Germanyâs commemoration of that event is ironic in three regards.
First, Catholics in West Germany get to enjoy an extra holiday honoring a movement that broke away from their Church, while for Protestants in East Germany, this year of work is no different from others.
Second, historians debate about whether Luther really posted his theses on a church door. Some facts speak against it: Such an act wasnât mentioned by anyone in Lutherâs lifetime, but for the first time only after his death by his collaborator Philip Melanchthon (1497â1560), who in 1517 hadnât been present in Wittenberg. Thus, in reality, Luther may just have sent his theses as a letter to his bishop, and then distributed them among other people.
Third, although posterity reveres â or condemns â him as the father of the Protestant or, more precisely, âLutheranâ Church, it wasnât Lutherâs intention to found a new Church. The word reformation (from the Latin reformatio), which he sometimes used himself, means the renewal or restoration of something already in existence.
In any case, who was Luther, why did he set out to âreformâ the Catholic Church, and what was the result?
Martin Luther was born in Eisleben in 1483. One day in 1505 â so the story goes â he was riding to his university in Erfurt when a thunderstorm came over him. Fearing for his life, he vowed that if God saved him, he would become a monk. Luther survived, and two weeks later joined the Order of St. Augustine in Erfurt.
He studied theology, was ordained priest and, in 1512, appointed professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg. There, he formulated and published, in 1517, his 95 Theses against Indulgences. âIndulgencesâ were slips of paper that promised people the remission of certain sins; they were at the time sold by the Catholic Church.
In reaction to Lutherâs criticism, the pope, in 1520, asked Luther to recant his statements. When the latter refused, he was excommunicated (that is, banned from the Church). In 1521, also the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, being Catholic himself, asked Luther to recant.
At the Diet (that is, imperial assembly) of Worms, Luther again refused to comply, perhaps by pronouncing the famous words âHere I stand, I can do no other.â As a result, he was outlawed, meaning that anyone could have killed him without being prosecuted.
Yet instead, after the Diet, Luther was secretly brought to Wartburg Castle at Eisenach by Frederick the Wise (1463â1525), the elector of Saxony who supported the reformerâs cause. Luther stayed at the castle until 1522, translating the New Testament (from Greek) into German.
In 1523, he married Katharina von Bora (1499â1552), a former nun, with whom he had six children. By 1534, Luther, along with collaborators, translated also the Old Testament (from Hebrew and Greek) into German. He died in his birthplace of Eisleben in 1546.
By then, the Reformation had spread to large parts of central Europe, embraced by local rulers, and was ready to spread further.
Luther had kept promoting the movement as a writer, preacher, and organizer. Today, Protestants form, within worldwide Christianity, the second largest group (900 million members) after Catholics (1.3 billion).
But letâs get back to what happened today, 500 years ago. Lutherâs Theses were triggered by the Catholic Churchâs practice of selling indulgences, through which people hoped to avoid at least part of Godâs punishment of their sins after death. Part of the saleâs returns was used by the pope in Rome to build the lavish Basilica of St. Peter (still existing today).
Lutherâs outrage about the Churchâs greed is understandable, but the indulgences were only a symptom of a general crisis of the Catholic Church that had been evolving for centuries. Swiss (Catholic) theologian Hans KĂŒng (*1928), a dauntless critic of his Church, attributes, in his History of Christianity (1994), that crisis to the Churchâs gradual
- Centralization: The popes in Rome took over the leadership of the Church in the style of absolute, universal monarchs;
- Judicialization: The Church constructed a complex legal system to regulate the lives of its institutions and people;
- Politicization: The Church claimed to stand above secular rulers including kings and emperors, and interfered within their affairs, striving for political power;
- Militarization: The Church organized violent campaigns â crusades â against the Muslims âoccupyingâ the Holy Land, and against Christians branded as âheretics;â
- Clericalization: The Church segregated its spiritual officials â priests and bishops â from âordinaryâ believers by imposing a monastic lifestyle (celibacy) on the former.
In the course of those five long-term processes, the Church veered further and further away from its origins â the Jesus described in the Bible: He may have been married; he condemned violence; he respected worldly authorities; he didnât judge people by rigid rules; and he conceived his movement as a community, not as a hierarchy.
Also Luther took offense not only at indulgences, but at the state of the papal Church on the whole. He hoped to correct its errors, but the Church wouldnât listen, so that he was forced to implement his proposals in a new â the Protestant â Church. Its central principles are:
- Solus Christus (âby Christ aloneâ): No Church, pope, priest, saint or whoever, but solely Jesus Christ mediates between God and a human. Consequently, every person is his or her own âpriest;â
- Sola scriptura (âby Scripture aloneâ): What Jesus said and did is to be learnt not from a Church, tradition or any human teacher, but solely from the Bible. That is why Luther translated the book into German â to enable ordinary people to understand or even read it by themselves, without depending on a clerical interpreter;
- Sola fide/Sola gratia (âby faith/grace aloneâ): People will reach salvation not by doing certain things â let alone buying indulgences â but solely because they believe in God, and God has mercy on them.
Probably, if Luther hadnât launched the Reformation in 1517, somebody else would have done something similar around the same time, as the Churchâs errors were growing ever more blatant.
Still, somebody else may not have been as intrepid, as charismatic or as brilliant as the professor from Wittenberg. His personality and actions did have downsides â for example, he despised Jews, and his Protestant Church has traditionally maintained close ties with the secular state. Followers of the Reformation depended on princes, who protected them from the pope â yet in return, Protestantism became so submissive to those rulers that it may have hampered the evolution of democracy in a country like Germany.
For other reasons, Germany is right to honor Luther today.
He renewed Christianity in regard to major problems, some of which the Catholic Church hasnât solved until now (it even did not ban the sale of indulgences before the 1560s, half a century after Lutherâs Theses). He founded a denomination that, especially in Germany, has enormously enriched philosophy and culture â Luther himself created timeless hymns. And by translating the Bible into vernacular German (although others had done it before) and widely circulating the product by means of the printing press, Luther crucially contributed to the establishment of the “High German” language that Germany speaks today.
The Leipzig angle: Also the city of Leipzig, which adopted Protestantism in 1539, was visited by Luther â multiple times. For the Reformationâs 500th anniversary, the city has set up a website with information on Luther in Leipzig, and a calendar of commemorative events such as concerts, talks and exhibitions from 2016 to 2018.
In honor of the anniversary of the Reformation, Leipzig Ballet premiered Mario SchrĂ¶der’s new work to Bach’s Johannes Passion last Friday. Next performances: 31 Oct, 12 Nov, 22 Nov, 31 March, 8 June and 10 June.