Saturday, October 31, 2009

It was on this day that Martin Luther (books by this author) published his 95 Theses in 1517, an event that led to the Protestant Reformation. He was protesting corruption within the Roman Catholic Church, and he was particularly upset by the selling of indulgences, which the Church was doing to raise funds for restoration work on St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Luther's initial goal was not schism nor even confrontation; he was operating more in the mode of muckraking (a tradition that would become popular centuries later). Luther was hoping that his statements would shame the Church into mending its ways.

In Thesis # 86, Martin Luther posited: "Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?" But the selling of indulgences was the iceberg tip of a deeper theological issue: a debate over the doctrine of Justification, and its role in salvation. The Roman Catholic Church's position was that man could not be saved by faith alone; good works must accompany the faith. And at the time, buying indulgences to save one's soul and help achieve salvation in the afterlife counted as something somewhere between good works and spiritual insurance.

Luther insisted that this was wrong, theologically so, because only God could grant salvation. The pope could not, Luther said, and the practice of selling and buying indulgences was harmful to Christianity because the false assurance misled people from being faithful Christians. His language grew stronger over time, and he wrote: "All those who consider themselves secure in their salvation through letters of indulgence will be eternally damned, and so will their teachers."

There were attempts at mediation and counseling by the Vatican, but slowly a virulent confrontation between Luther and the pope developed. Luther was called to Rome and asked by the pope to recant 41 of the sentences from his writings, including some from the 95 Theses, or else he would be excommunicated. He refused and grew increasingly outspoken. He proclaimed: "The Roman Church, once the holiest of all, has become the most licentious den of thieves, the most shameless of brothels, the kingdom of sin." He was excommunicated, declared a heretic and an outlaw. He was a hero of many German townspeople.

And it was on this day just 10 years ago — in 1999 --- that Lutheran and Roman Catholic clerics signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. It's an 8,000-word document that aims to explain misunderstandings and resolve differences over the very doctrine that was at the heart of the of the Protestant Reformation. The document's preamble states that the two churches, Lutheran and Catholic, "are now able to articulate a common understanding of our justification by God's grace through faith in Christ." The document is not all encompassing when it comes clearing up issues about Justification, it disclaims, but does say that no one will be excommunicated over the issue of Justification anymore.

From: The Writer's Almanac

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