As the story goes, Martin Luther, the German Catholic monk and scholar, nailed his “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” also known as the “95 Theses” to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church on October 31, 1517.
Martin Luther’s 95 Theses were a strong stance against the Roman Catholic Church and its institutional practices at the time. Specifically, the practice of selling indulgences, a transactional system of paying the Church for one’s sins, instigated Luther toward action. The price for indulgences was determined by the Catholic clergy in charge, usually based on how much money priests felt needed to be raised for church builds and repairs, or to support certain clergy lifestyles. The selling of indulgences was a system that had become corrupt over time by those in power and some faithful, like Martin Luther, were done with the corruption.
Martin Luther was also influenced by his reading of Saint Augustine of Hippo. Saint Augustine emphasized the reading of and cultivating a personal relationship with the bible. He also believed that people held the capacity to provide their own morally and spiritually sound actions based on their faith and integrity. The Roman Catholic Church at the time emphasized that it was the sole authority on scripture and what actions ought to be practiced in the world. This put the Catholic Church in a position of power that Martin Luther, based on his faith and convictions, wanted to stand up against.
Martin Luther laid the foundation for the Protestant Reformation by displaying his 95 Theses. As a result, Christianity has poured forth many versions and evolutions of its own identity through the various denominations that have developed since the Reformation period.
Martin Luther is the face of a movement.
He didn’t just provide a space for new Christian denominations to take shape, he provided space for new thinking to have power. He created a way for new thinking to blossom that challenged the norms of society and institutions. This was a new thinking, informed by deep spiritual practice and faith, that stood up for justice and created space for other voices.
And this new thinking, informed by faith with integrity, has fueled countless faith and justice movements, trickling all the way down to Christians today. Recently we see faithful Christians standing up for love and peace against a flood of society’s elite and powerful who seek domination and control.
Martin Luther’s namesake, Martin Luther King Jr. is one such example of a deeply faithful leader who also did the proverbial nailing of the 95 Theses to the castle door in his work as a Christian minister and pacifist in the Civil Rights movement. Both men wanted to overturn the powerful unjust systems of their time that took advantage of those marginalized and poor. Both men
helped the everyday individual realize their voice had power, even against the power systems oppressing them. And they did this all in the name of the one they followed, Jesus Christ.
Martin Luther died on February 18th, 1546 and we remember and give thanks for his faithful witness today. I am grateful to Martin Luther for his nerve and his courage to stand up against the systems he felt were unjust, doing so with deep faith and integrity. He blazed a trail for others – for us – to follow in his footsteps. It’s a trail that opens doors to new ways of thinking for followers of Jesus. A trail that shows us the power of our voice and how we can use it to stand up for and with the marginalized.
Click here to read more about the similarities of Martin Luther and Martin Luther King Jr.
[Image Credit: Property of Public Domain via The Metropolitan Museum of Art.]