Friday, October 31, 2008

Reflections on the Eve of All Saints' Day

I've been reading over, Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses seeking to gain a clearer picture of the issues he was confronting. First, the formal title and introductory paragraph which was omitted from the list I initially printed out last weekend clearly identifies Luther's purpose in writing out these theses. The formal title is Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences (1517). Here is the initial paragraph:
Out of love for the truth and the desire to bring it to light, the following propositions will be discussed at Wittenberg, under the presidency of the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and of Sacred Theology, and Lecturer in Ordinary on the same at that place. Wherefore he requests that those who are unable to be present and debate orally with us, may do so by letter.
(Works of Martin Luther. Translated and edited by Adolph Spaeth, L.D. Reed, Henry Eyster Jacobs, et al. (Philadelphia: A. J. Holman Company, 1915), Vol.1, pp. 29-38; online here)
Second, I found and read Luther's Letter to the Archbishop of Mainz which properly introduces the Ninety-Five Theses. Luther explains his complaint:
Papal indulgences for the building of St. Peter's are circulating under your most distinguished name, and as regards them, I do not bring accusation against the outcries of the preachers, which I have not heard, so much as I grieve over the wholly false impressions which the people have conceived from them; to wit,—the unhappy souls believe that if they have purchased letters of indulgence they are sure of their salvation; again, that so soon as they cast their contributions into the money-box, souls fly out of purgatory.
(Works of Martin Luther. Translated and edited by Adolph Spaeth, L.D. Reed, Henry Eyster Jacobs, et al. (Philadelphia: A. J. Holman Company, 1915), Vol.1, pp. 25-28; online here)

Third, I pasted the text of the Ninety-Five Theses into the Wordle website and came up with these word pictures:

English text: Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences

Latin text: Disputatio pro Declaratione Virtutis Indulgentiarum.

A Few Conclusions:

A handful of the most frequently used words are:
  • Those from the root venia (Eng. pardon) = 34
  • Those from the root remissio (Eng. remission) = 17
  • Those from the root purgatorium (Eng. purgatory) = 9
  • Those from the root indulgentia (Eng. indulgence(s)) = 8
  • Other words (with their derivatives) that appear frequently are pope, penalty, Christian, God, man, death, preach, teach, treasure, grace, contrition, Gospel, and assurance.
As you can clearly see, Luther was stirred up about the practice of the sale of indulgences for the supposed remission of sins—for those living and also for those who had already died. Luther, who had come to understand that sinners are justified by faith alone (sola fide), that believers have direct access to God through Jesus Christ, and that the canon of Scripture was the rule of faith (sola scriptura), was outraged that the purity of the gospel was being traded for the pennies of the poor. Some friars (monks who served the Church as traveling preachers) were offering pardon and assurance of salvation for sale.

The medieval period (500-1500), prior to the time of the Protestant Reformation, was a time of intense darkness. The Church had grown with the spread of the Roman Empire after the days of Constantine. Conquered peoples where added to the Church which introduced a multitude of problems. The breakdown of the Roman Empire allowed for the Church to gain unprecedented power. It continued to use its alliances with monarchs and emperors to exercise authority over the people; and, in a similar manner, monarchs and emperors took advantage of the power and position of the Church to justify crusades and wars. It was a dark period indeed.

Theologically speaking, these days were equally troublesome. Partly due to the mixture of the ecclesiastical and governmental powers, and the great disparity between the rich and the poor, the doctrines of grace became distorted into a merit-based system where people sought to earn their salvation. Some Christians, seeking to answer the age-old question of how to live a life of devotion in the midst of pagan society, turned to living as hermits, monks and nuns. In time, monasteries were established to house those who had committed themselves to a life of solitude, prayer and meditation. The popes blessed these devotees and the laity (common people) came to consider this as the sure way of salvation. It would be going too far to say that the clergy (monks, nuns and priests) were assured of their own salvation, but if anyone had a better chance, it was believed to be them. In light of this, the laity would request the clergy to pray for them. The laity sought to support the clergy in their lives of devotion in return for, at least, a temporary sense of pardon. The sale of indulgences was another way to support the clergy and the Church, and in return the laity were offered pardon for sins (either for their own, or for loved ones who were thought to be lingering in purgatory).

With the establishment of monasteries came an increase in the study of the Scriptures and the practice of theology. This discipline was called the practice of the sacred page (sacra pagina). In the twelfth century, a middle class began to emerge; schools and universities were established. This period of scholasticism brought about a shift from the practice of theology to the hammering out of sacred doctrine (sacra doctrina). This was the era of Thomas Aquinas when commentaries and theologies were written. The Bible began to be looked at as literature more than as a sacred text or even as sacred doctrine, and a period of humanism was inaugurated. The fifteenth century became known as the period of Renaissance, and it was near the end of this period that the printing press was invented.

With the invention of the printing press and the increased output of theological writings, the Scriptures where no longer seen as the source of the practice of theology. Rather, the Scriptures were used to lead in the effort to improve society, church and government. Luther, however, had come through the ranks of the monastery seeking to practice the sacred page (sacra pagina). He sought to approach the Scriptures for what the are rather than imposing his own agenda upon them.

Between 1512 and 1517, Luther had been lecturing in the University of Wittenberg on the books of Psalms (1513-15), Romans (1515-16), Galatians (1516-17), and Hebrews (1517). It was while lecturing on the book of Romans that Luther came to understand the doctrine of justification by faith alone (per solam fidem). He discovered that he had been misinterpreting the phrase in Romans 1:17, "the righteousness of God." He had considered this to be referring to God's exacting righteousness. However, through prayerful meditation on the logic of Paul's arguemnt in the book of Romans, Luther came to see that "the righteousness of God" is the righteousness secured by Jesus Christ alone. It is on the basis of Jesus' perfect righteousness that God declares sinners to be in the right. Sinners are justified, not on the basis of their own merits, but on the the merits of Jesus, the righteous One.

So, there Luther was, in the middle of the Renaissance Era in the University teaching the sacred page (sacra pagina), practicing theology. He had recently discovered that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone; and he had come to rest with full assurance that his sins were fully pardoned in Christ. The eve of All Saints' Day, October 31, 1517, had arrived. It was no doubt a cool night like tonight: approximately 40°F and cloudy. Luther had just learned from some of the town's folk that traveling preachers were in the area selling indulgences. These indulgences were for a worthy cause: the construction of St. Peter's in Rome which had been under construction for the previous 11 years (and would not be completed until 1626). In exchange for the purchase of indulgences, these friars were promising pardon for sins and the assurance of salvation.

The town must have been all a buzz with such news. However, Luther had retreated to his study to pray and to seek counsel from the Lord about how to address this situation. This was not good news at all, but a crisis. The very people to whom he had been ministering during these early years after his conversion were being duped into believing a damnable set of lies (see #32).

He decided to work through this issue carefully and exactly. He pulled out a large piece of paper and began to sketch out a numbered response. He began with the gospel call as Jesus announced it:
  1. Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Poenitentiam agite [Repent], willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.
From this beginning point, Luther argued for the Scriptural definitions of repentance and pardon. The fruit of genuine repentance and divine pardon is assurance of salvation. Assurance cannot be bought (see #35). He argued against those who were preaching "man" (or "human doctrines," see #27; and "unchristian doctrines," see #35) and acted ignorantly and wickedly (see #10). Those who promised only what the hand of God can accomplish once money had been collected were charged with "greed and avarice" (see #27-28).

The gospel had not merely been sidelined, it had been utterly distorted. Men were being taught by servants of the Church that her treasures were in her authority (see #60-61) and merits (see #58). Luther argued that "The true treasure of the Church is the Most Holy Gospel of the glory and the grace of God" (# 62). Nothing else is fit to be compared with "the grace of God and the piety of the Cross" (#68). "To say that the cross, emblazoned with the papal arms, which is set up [by the preachers of indulgences], is of equal worth with the Cross of Christ, is blasphemy" (#79).

He concluded his arguments with the following two theses:

94. Christians are to be exhorted that they be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, deaths, and hell;

95. And thus be confident of entering into heaven through many tribulations, rather than through the [false] assurance of peace.

With that, Luther penned a letter to the Archbishop of Mainz, expressing his deep concerns for the cause of the gospel and the testimony of the church. He took his list of theses, titled it, and carried it down to be posted to the Castle Church door. All of this was written in Latin, the language of the clergy, and was intended for his fellow clergymen to consider for academic debate. Unbeknown to Luther, the time was ripe and a chord of reform had been struck. In time, Luther's Ninety-Five Theses where printed up on the presses and distributed around Europe. Luther was summoned before Pope Leo X in 1518 and debated John Eck in 1519. In 1521, he was excommunicated from the Church.

The Lord spared his life, setting him aside under security, and he used that time to begin translating the Bible into the German tongue. He completed the New Testament in 1522 and the Old Testament in 1534.

What amazes me the most is what the Lord did by means of a young preacher taking heed to his calling by standing up and speaking out for the purity of the gospel. He saw the people in his congregation being troubled by false teachers and he fought for their souls. May we be willing and courageous enough to stand up and fight for the purity of the gospel and the souls of men. May we speak decidedly against the heresies of the prosperity preachers: they are preaching another gospel. May we speak out against all who preach cheap grace: it is another gospel. Sinners cannot earn it, cannot borrow it, and cannot buy it. Sinner can only receive it and then cling to it.

This is a very late addition to Tim Challies' Reformation Day Symposium - 2008.