Reformation Day: 500 Years Later

Scholarship is a conversation” is a librarian aphorism. True as it may be, it can be difficult to see the big picture when reading any one book or article. The same could be said for civic or public discourse. This month marks the 500th anniversary of Augustinian monk and theologian Martin Luther’s “Ninety-five Theses,” titled “Disputation on the Efficacy and Power of Indulgences,” which laid out Luther’s opposition to the sale of indulgences (to shorten time-bound punishment for sin) and is commonly credited with sparking the Protestant Reformation. You can view a 1517 printed copy of the “Ninety-five Theses,” written in Latin, through the Berlin State Library website (English translation from the Morgan Library and Museum in New York). Luther and the early Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation provide a challenging legacy for thinking about how to have scholarly and public conversations that are impassioned, rigorous, and respectful. As we think through this past to inform our present forms of dialogue with one another, over the next few weeks, we invite you to post your own ideas—your own theses—and respond to others’ on the Reformation door in the lobby of William H. Hannon Library.

Door in library lobby
We invite you to share your ideas for a better and more just world.

Scholars disagree about what exactly transpired in 1517. We do know that on October 31 Martin Luther sent letters about the dangers of indulgences along with copies of his theses to his bishop, archbishop, and later several friends asking for their opinions. Traditionally, Luther is said to have nailed his theses to the doors of a church in Wittenberg, Germany in an act of bold defiance on October 31, 1517, in time for the influx of indulgence-seeking visitors on November 1, All Saints Day. Many historians doubt whether Luther ever posted his theses and think it’s a “pious fiction” passed on by followers of Luther, who had a flair for the dramatic himself. In part, the story comes from a later account by Philip Melanchton, a friend and fellow theologian, who may have simply assumed that Luther acted in accordance with the norms of the University of Wittenberg at the time.

It would not have been a radical act of defiance but part of a tradition of discourse in late medieval Europe. The door of Castle Church functioned as a sort of bulletin board for the university, and notices for disputations (structured, public debates) were typically posted along with their theses (or reasoned propositions). As the joint Lutheran-Catholic statement on the 500th commemoration states, by sharing these ideas Luther’s aim was to “inaugurate an academic disputation on open and unresolved questions regarding the theory and practice of indulgences.” Luther’s theses are definitely academic, composed in Latin with a tightly-worded rhetorical structure, but his words aimed at both head and heart, appealing to other scholars with theological nuance and to lay people by working in questions and complaints they could understand and sympathize with.

The Catholic Church’s response to Luther and other reformers was tepid at first. Pope Leo X referred to him as a “German drunkard” whose concerns amounted to a “monkish squabble,” but as the controversy grew, Cardinal Cajetan was deputized in fall 1518 to interrogate Luther on charges of heresy in Augsburg, Germany. Luther did not recant, was denied further avenues of appeal, and was pressed again to take back his earlier statements. As a last-ditch effort, Luther officially appealed Cardinal Cajetan’s decision to the pope by again posting a notice on the cathedral door– this time in Augsburg. Finally, in June 1520 Pope Leo issued the papal bull Exsurge Domine that set a deadline for Luther to recant or face excommunication. LMU’s Department of Archives and Special Collections has a copy of the papal bull that was printed that same year that you can view. In the years following, the model of spirited but peaceful dialogue represented by the posting of arguments and responses on church doors was challenged by violent clashes between peasants and rulers and Protestants and Catholics, as well vitriolic and even menacing discourse— some penned by Luther himself.

Controversy surrounding the “Ninety-five Theses” catalyzed Luther into radically rethinking his theology. Important elements of his thought were shaped in dialogue with and reaction to his Catholic critics— and vice versa. Luther and like-minded folks were quick to spread their Protestant messages more colloquially and in the vernacular (and not just Latin), employing humor, satire, illustrations, and the liberal distribution of printed pamphlets and sermons, making ample use of new printing technology. From 1517 to the Council of Trent in 1545, Catholic response to Luther and other reformers was often dismissive or uncoordinated, but as the rise of Protestantism made reform and revitalization more urgent, many interrelated “reformations” were carried out within the Catholic Church. The survival of various Protestant groups challenged the Catholic Church’s universality, and in response, the Church pursued greater clarity in doctrine, institutional reforms, and revitalization through the creation of new religious orders and form of spirituality, as well as stricter control of its clergy and books published and read by Catholics. The Council of Trent (1545-1563), tasked with theological clarification, structural reform, and trying to reconcile with Protestants, formed the Church in many ways for centuries, until the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

It was in the context that the Society of Jesus was established in 1540. Jesuits, who wrote and published at a furious pace, were at the forefront of Catholic printing efforts, which rivaled those of Protestants by the mid-16th century. The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the order, offered a positive presentation and practical application of Catholic principles that implicitly rebutted many of the challenges of Protestant theology.  Likewise, although Catholic missions outside of Europe began prior to 1517, the extent of Catholic missionary efforts by the Jesuits and others across five continents advanced the Church’s claims to universality through the 16th century and beyond. This year’s LMU common book, Silence by Shusaku Endo depicts the tensions at the core of these efforts (watch the film directed by Martin Scorsese on Swank).

Polarization benefited Catholics and Protestants by allowing each to define and redefine themselves in opposition to the other, but many hoped for and worked toward reunification of Christian factions from the very outset of the Protestant Reformation. There were multiple, formal efforts at reconciliation from 1530 through the end of the Council of Trent. In 1541, a reformer named Martin Bucer observed, “Both sides have erred, ours by defending some matters all too vehemently; yours by not removing many abuses” (as quoted in Hillerbrand, see below). Great strides have been made in Catholic-Protestant relations in the last 50 years, and the Catholic and Lutheran Churches are taking advantage of the 500th anniversary of Luther’s “Ninety-five Theses” to seek a deeper level of mutual understanding and respect, if not quite reconciliation.

“Oppositions were constructed and handed down to the next generation,” the joint Catholic-Lutheran statement issued earlier this year reads, calling on both sides to “let themselves continuously be transformed by the encounter with the other.” The issuing of Luther’s “Ninety-five Theses” has been commemorated for centuries, remembered in wildly different ways and for wildly different purposes. What can we choose to learn today from the long and turbulent history of academic and public discourse tipped off by Luther’s theses? How can you help create the conversations you want to see in the world? We’re hoping that the Reformation door in lobby of the library can be a place for us to keep working out and trying out the kind of community dialogues we want to have.

Resources @ William H. Hannon Library

For more information about the Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and their legacies, check out these titles at William H. Hannon Library:

This post was written by Reference and Instruction Librarian for Theology Desirae Zingarelli-Sweet.