When Luther issued his 95 theses, there was already a surprisingly vibrant understanding of the Scriptures among the faithful, beyond the universities and the walls of monasteries, waiting to be tapped and shaped.
Also an unease about indulgences. The furore ensuing his act of defiance made Luther a celebrity. This had two effects. The well-known one is that it made him a hot property in the rapidly growing publishing industry. It also gave him the confidence to pursue his own theological insights in more innovative and disruptive directions. His central doctrine ‘justification by faith alone’ was formulated from the letters of St. Paul. It demanded accepting one’s own utter incapacity as a sinful human being to contribute one iota towards one’s own justification.
At a stroke the entire economy of late medieval Catholicism was swept away.
Luther’s key doctrine was simple but left him open to the retort: “Ah then – so as long as I have faith, does it matter what I do? I’ll go to heaven anyway.”
And there was also the blow to self-esteem, to realise one’s own incapacity for good.
Yet St James says: “Faith without good works is dead.” The answer to this challenge is that faith by its very nature, bore fruit in works of charity. It was not a licence for the blithe disregard of moral principles.
The papal legate Cardinal Cajetan identified the seeds of a new religion when he met Luther who, when he refused to recant his disturbing ideas, was excommunicated by Pope Leo X. In return he denounced the Pope as Antichrist. (Ian Paisley, all is forgiven!)
It got very heated. Wars were fought. The stiff decrees of the Council of Trent snuffed out whatever faint hopes of compromise and reconciliation that still lingered on. I have always had a big problem with excommunication as a way to solve anything, from my own personal history and certainly not on keeping with my understanding of the inclusiveness of Christ’s message.
How we interpret the past is subjective. We believe what we want to believe depending on which history books we read. For some the Middle Ages was a period blighted by superstition, intolerance and fear. They add that the values we now claim to hold dear: freedom of conscience, reason, and principled resistance to corruption, all are fruits of the Reformation.
Others say on the other hand that Luther’s project gave the greedy a chance to take over monasteries and church land. That it opened Pandora’s box. ‘’Once the box is open and the stuff comes out you can’t put it back in’’ according to Carlos Eire from Yale university. ’It’s like a branching tree’’ he adds. ‘’This branching continues with over 25,000 distinct Protestant groups in the world today.’’
The open-endedness of the Reformation process right from the start in the early 1520s, meant the reformers kept dividing among themselves and still don’t know how to stop.
Many of the commemorative events that are being organised across the globe are being conducted in a spirit of respect and ecumenical understanding. The mutual good will of these negotiations since Vatican Two has led to the acceptance that most of what we Christians now believe is shared in common. Let us continue to pray for that ultimate healing and reconciliation so that, as Christ himself said, may there be one flock and one shepherd.
Word of wisdom
An atheist is one who had no invisible means of support
What did 0 say to 8? Nice belt!
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