The Invasion of Wild Boar: 500 Years Later
Tuesday, October 31, marks the 500th anniversary of the day on which an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther nailed a list of 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Nailing his provocative theses to the door was not meant to be an act of rebellion, but an invitation to academic debate. The Wittenberg door was a little like a Facebook page: it was a public place that invited comment and critique.
The principal subject of the theses was the issuance of papal pardons. Luther did not deny the pope’s right to issue pardons, but he argued that the pope’s authority to pardon and remit penalties was limited to sins committed against the pope and penalties pronounced by the pope, and did not extend to sins committed against God and penalties pronounced by God.
The primary motivation behind Luther’s theses – the irritation that provoked him to act – was the Church’s practice of selling indulgences to fund, at least as Luther understood it, the building of the new St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, under Pope Julian II. These indulgences were promises of the remittance of the temporal punishment, in Purgatory, for sins.
Luther was disgusted by the way some priests were “hawking” indulgences, preying upon simple believers who had hardly enough money to feed and clothe their families. He considered it an affront not only to the poor, but to the pope, and submitted that the pope would choose rather to see St. Peter’s “go to ashes” than “be built up with the skin, flesh and bones of his sheep.”
The 95 theses did not come out of the blue, nor was Luther the first person to recognize corruption within the church. There had been reformers prior to Luther, like Wycliffe and Hus, and reformers who followed Luther, like Philip Melanchthon, John Calvin and John Knox. But Luther’s 95 theses set in motion a transformation of European and western society.
But the theses were not Luther’s most radical act, nor the one with the greatest impact. He went on to translate the New Testament into German, making it possible for common people to read the Scriptures. According to the renowned church historian Philip Schaff, Luther “made the Bible the people’s book in church, school, and house.” This may have done more to animate the Protestant movement than anything else.
The Church of Rome responded to the theses and to their author in a variety of ways. Luther was given the chance to recant his views, which he steadfastly refused to do. Instead of recanting, he buttressed his views with theological supports, claiming the pope and the Church were amenable to the Scriptures, advocating the priesthood of all believers, and challenging various Church doctrines.
The Pope responded by calling Luther a “wild boar that had invaded the Lord’s vineyard,” declared many of his theses heretical, and excommunicated him. But there was no stopping the movement Luther had begun. As the Reformation spread across Europe, the Council of Trent was convoked to condemn the principles promulgated by Luther and his fellow reformers. But the council also acted to halt the abuses and corruption which had rallied the reformers in the first place.
After 500 years, there are still significant doctrinal differences between Catholics and Protestants. The gap between them is arguably wider now than it was on the day the Augustinian monk nailed his theses to the Wittenberg door. Resolution of those differences is unlikely and is not, perhaps, the best place for Catholics and Protestants to spend their time.
Rather than seeking doctrinal resolution, the Church, both Catholic and Protestant, should seek continuing reformation. Her watchword must be, as Karl Barth stated it: “Reformed, and always reforming.” The need for reformation didn’t end in the 16th century.
But reformation must be more than a historical memory; it must be an ongoing lifestyle. Catholics and Protestants alike must confess their sins – not least, those committed against each other – and ask God to search them, restore them and reform them. If they do, they have a chance at something even more important that doctrinal agreement. They have a chance for brotherly love.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 10/28/2017