By 1517, when Luther was only thirty-four years of age, some of his teachings were being questioned. On 31st October 1517 he sent to the bishops of Brandenburg and Magdeburg his now-famous ninety-five thesis topics that he was willing to debate.
Scholars believe that even the famous ninety-five theses topics by Luther on indulgences and other issues were probably inspired and supported by Johann von Staupitz, the German Observantine Vicar General of the Augustinians with whom Luther had discussions during 1517 about their implications in theology. In the theology expressed by Luther, Staupitz thought he saw the orientation of Saint Paul and Saint Augustine, and he gave support to this aspect of it.
Luther was not by any means the first to be aroused by the anomaly of indulgences. It was precisely the preaching of an indulgence in Bohemia, in 1412 (an Indulgence issued by the pseudo-Pope John XXIII to raise money for a war he was fighting against Naples), that had encouraged the priest, John Hus to believe he must persevere in his reform movement. In a Swiss valley in 1517 another Catholic priest was agonising about the pilgrimages, relics and Indulgences which brought so much business and so much worldliness and apparent abuse of the Gospel to the Benedictine monastery of Einsiedeln where he ministered. That was Ulrich Zwingli — who at that stage knew nothing of young Martin Luther.
For more than a hundred years, European literature had been full of irony and sarcasm at the expense of the priestly salesman of relics and indulgences. In the Canterbury Tales in the late fourteenth century England, Geoffrey Chaucer (1342 - 1400) spoofed at indulgences as being akin to an ecclesiastical racket. His pilgrim described as a ‘pardoner’ offers relics that turned out to be chicken bones; Chaucer preceded Luther by nearly a hundred and fifty years.
The tone of Luther's ninety-five 'theses' (even though in fact they were only thesis topics), as they come to be known, is academic. But the underlying point, apart from overt criticism of the church’s practice of selling indulgences, is that truth is to be sought in Scripture rather than in the teaching of the church. By nailing his theses to the door of All Saints' Church in Wittenberg, as Luther did on 31st October 1517, he had merely intended to propose them as subjects for debate.
Instead of simply launching a debate in Wittenberg, the ninety-five theses sparked off a European conflagration of unparalleled violence. The resulting Protestant Reformation ravaged much of western Christendom for over a century. No sectarian dispute in any other religion has matched the destructive force and the bitterness which began in Wittenberg in 1517. Luther was denounced for error in his theology, and his trial began in 1518. He was as surprised as anyone else by the eruption which then engulfed him, slowly at first but with accelerating pace after a year or two.
Before the invention of a practical printing press by Gutenberg, news of Luther's heresy would have circulated only slowly. But copies of his ninety-five theses were spread are all over Europe within weeks. A fierce debate developed, with pamphlets rolling rapidly off the printing presses - many of them from Luther's pen. Within six years, by 1523, Europe's printers produced 1,300 different editions of his tracts. Against Luther’s intentions, his ninety-five theses were rapidly spread throughout Germany. Luther's writings did not go un-noticed by his major superiors in Rome, for as early as February 1518 Gabriele della Volta O.S.A., the Vicar to the Prior General of the Augustinians, in accordance with the Pope's wishes, dispatched instructions to Johann von Staupitz O.S.A. to admonish Luther.
Della Volta ordered Luther to attend the Heidelberg Chapter in March/April 1518 of the German Augustinian Observantine Congregation. Della Volta evidently expected that the other friars at the Chapter in Heidelberg would take that opportunity in order to censure their errant brother. But such was not exactly to be the case. The friars gave Luther a good hearing and, instead of curbing him, some of them became followers of the doctrines that the Church had hoped to quash. This German Augustinian Observantive Chapter of 26th March 1518 has become known in Lutheran history as the Disputation of Heidelberg.
After failing to secure the desired results through the Heidelberg Chapter, the Prior General on 25th August 1518 ordered Gerard Hecker O.S.A., the Saxon Provincial, to seize Luther and keep him in custody but, protected by a safe conduct from the Emperor and with the assured support of the Grand Duke Elector of Saxony, Luther had by then passed beyond the bounds of ecclesiastical restraint. To the next Chapter of the Congregation, which the German Observantine Vicar General (Johann Staupitz) called (in 1520) a year before the customary time because he wished withdraw from the situation by resigning from office, the Prior General sent a severe reprimand to Staupitz for not curbing Luther. Staupitz resigned nevertheless and, contrary to the Prior General's express directive, Luther remained unchastised by the Order.
The Order had failed in its attempts to arrest Luther, both literally and metaphorically, and hence papal authority had to step in directly. On 15th June 1520 the pope declared that forty of the propositions of Luther were contrary to the teaching of the church. Luther refused to change his theology, and was forced from the Roman church. He apparently was still officially a member of the Order until 5th April 1525, when his marriage brought into force his automatic dismissal from the Order. The registration files at the University of Wittenberg show that, up until 1522, Luther had taught a hundred Augustinians, many from the German Augustinian observant communities, and some from as far afield as the Netherlands. A good number of these later followed Luther out of the Catholic Church.
Image (above): The Lutherstube ("living room") of the Luther House. It was here that the conversations recorded by students in "Table Talk" (starting in 1531) took place. The only woman allowed here was Luther's wife, Katherine von Bora. It was not until around 1535 that Luther could afford to decorate the living room with the painted walls and stove. When Luther's house was sold to the university in 1564, all the rooms were renovated except this one. It has been shown to visitors as a museum ever since. The stove was restored and the ceiling was painted in 1602.His writing flourished, and eager publishers printed and distributed it widely, with considerable financial gain on their part. The remainder of this paragraph lists numeropus titles that Luther wrote: The Persons related by Consanguinity and Affinity who are Forbidden to marry by Scripture (1522), The Estate of Marriage (1522), An Exhortation to the Knights of the Teutonic Order that they lay aside False Chastity and assume True Wedlock (1523), That Parents should neither compel nor hinder the Marriage of their Children and That Children should not become engaged without their Parents’ Consent (1524). And other texts: Letter of Consolation to all who Suffer Persecution (1522), Temporal Authority: to what extent it should be obeyed (1523), covering a wide range of the responsibilities of the state, Ordinance of a Common Chest (1523), That Jesus Christ was born a Jew (1523), a defence of the teaching that Jesus was the promised ‘Messiah’ of the Jews, To all Christians in Worms (1523), Concerning the Ministry (1523), Trade and Usuary (1524), stricter than some earlier medieval theories but not in practice greatly different (and he sent a letter to the Saxon Chancellor, Gregory Bruck on the same topic), To the Councillors of all Cities in Germany that they establish and maintain Christian Schools (1525), How God rescued an Honourable Nun ( 1524), the story of an escape from a convent, A Christian Letter of Consolation to the People of Miltenberg (1524).
By October 1524, Luther’s personal situation had become anomalous. He was still wearing his Augustinian habit, but the Priory was empty. It was two years since he had disavowed any canonical alliance, although he still desired to remain essentially a ‘religious’. But the habit had become an empty symbol, and one day in October 1524, recognising the fact, he laid it aside and never wore it again. He thus sat down and wrote to the Elector (ruler) of Saxony: ‘I am now living in this monastery alone except for the Prior (not counting some who were exiled by the enemies of the Gospel whom we lodge here temporarily out of Christian love). The Prior expects to leave soon, and in any case I cannot endure the daily moaning of the people whom I must remind to pay their rents’ - the income which originally had been used to help upkeep up the monastery. Therefore we are inclined to relinquish and hand over the monastery, with all its property to Your Electoral Grace." Luther suggested that perhaps he could live on in the sick bay. As ever, the Elector did not like to act precipitately. He simply let Luther stay where he was and said nothing about the way the monastery was used by ex-monks and ex-nuns as a staging post back to secular life. Luther and Johann Brisger, the Prior, stayed on, knowing that the Elector was not likely to ask them to move. By this time, ex-friars were getting married, and nuns were leaving their convents when they could. There was no sign that Luther thought his praise of marriage might apply to himself. He had no mistress, and had always kept his distance from younger unrelated women.
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