Sunday, October 29, 2017

Rise of printing sparked Luther's Reformation 500 years ago

     There is no evidence that an Augustine monk named Martin Luther, unhappy with a popular fundraising tool of the Catholic Church, actually nailed his list of complaints — the famous "95 Theses" — to the door of the All Saints' Church at Wittenburg exactly 500 years ago. He never claimed to have done so, and the story wasn't circulated until after his death.
     We do know that he distributed them in a letter dated Oct. 31, 1517, to the archbishop, listing his 95 criticisms about the enthusiasm with which the church was selling indulgences.
     An indulgence was a piece of paper that, for instance, shortened the time that had to be spent in purgatory. The church had been vigorously selling them to raise money to rebuild the St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.
     This bothered Luther a lot, not because he was so liberal, but because he was so pious. He prayed, he fasted, he flagellated himself. Luther was getting to heaven the hard way, and it galled him that a rich man could just loosen his purse strings, dig out a few coins, and cut in line.
     "The treasures of indulgences are nets that are now used to fish for the wealth of people," reads thesis No. 66.
Indulgence issued by Pope Sixtus IV
      You can see an actual indulgence — from Pope Sixtus IV, raising money for an expedition against the Turks — on display at the Newberry Library in a fascinating exhibit, "Religious Change and Print: 1450-1700," that runs through Dec. 27.
     The show connects the beginning of the Reformation to the rise of printing, beginning with a leaf from the Gutenberg Bible. The publication of a Bible using moveable type, we tend to forget, was itself a radical act, moving the Holy Scriptures from hand-copied, vastly expensive work owned by churches, into mass-produced, less-expensive reading material that could eventually find its way into the hands of regular people, who could then fancy themselves free to not only read it, but to analyze and dispute what was within. Soon those people were printing books of their own, plus pamphlets and broadsheets. Printing and heresy went hand-in-hand.
     "They're very closely connected," said David Spadafora, president of the Newberry. "Print right away becomes a very important medium for people like Luther to get their views out to a wider public than could possibly otherwise have received them."

     The Reformation, as Luther's protest became known, was not the first break in the Catholic Church— branches had been sheering off since the 1st century, with the Great Schism of 1054 perhaps even more significant, leading to the East and West divisions.
      But Luther's schism gained momentum quickly with the help of printing and the desire of the faithful to take more control of their spiritual lives. Protestantism became important in the march toward modernity, a journey that saw God move from something defined by priests and manifested through relics and miracles, into something practiced by individuals. God went from living in the church to living in your heart.
     After Luther, "faith could not be coerced, and secular powers could not legislate in the spiritual sphere," writes Euan Cameron, professor of Reformation Church History at Union Theological Seminary in New York.
     Though not for lack of trying. The Catholic Church was quick to push back against Luther. Pope Leo excommunicated him in 1520, amid general cranking up of repression, as noted in the Newberry's exhibit, in one of the sharper sentences I've read on a museum wall:
     "No institution better encapsulates the official goals and approaches of the Catholic Church to regulation than the Inquisition."
     Half a millennium ago, remember. They did get better. Because repression only works until it doesn't; then it fuels the fires it's trying to extinguish. "Lutheran" was first used as a slight by Catholic authorities trying to emphasize the human, as opposed to divine, source of these new ideas.
     Luther himself did not want want to name his movement for himself—he wanted his followers to simply call themselves "Christians."
     Martin Luther became famous after his Ninety-Five Theses were made public in 1517, which explains his prominent portrait on the title page of his 1520, "De captivitate Babylonica ecclesiae," or "The Babylonian Captivity of the Church." | Courtesy of the Newberry Library
     "After all," he wrote, "the teaching is not mine. Neither was I crucified for anyone."
     Not to give Luther too much credit. Once he started questioning Church authority, Luther was surprised and aghast to find people started questioning him.
     "Definitely," said Spadafora. "That's one of the reasons why on the one hand, Luther really wanted to put Bibles in people's hands, on the other hand, he came to realize they were doing interpretation much more individualistically than even he felt comfortable with." (Nor was Luther, a fervent anti-Semite, comfortable with Jews, but that's a topic for a different day).
     One lesson, in our own time of shifting values and communications upheaval, is the importance of talking to people in the way they want to be spoken to.
     "Luther very cannily begins to use German, begins to use the vernacular and makes sure a lot of his materials are printed in the vernacular," said Spadafora, "vernacular" meaning "common speech."
     "Whereas the Catholic church is relatively slow to respond in the vernacular way. They lose the battle over the argument because they are slower and appealing in Latin to a different audience," Spadafora said. "We see this in social media all the time."
     Today the Catholic Church still dominates Christianity, at least numerically: 1.2 billion Catholics, compared to about 900 million Protestants. Since both groups tend to view Muslim sectarian bloodshed, say between Sunni and Shia, as representing that faith's inherent violence, it might be useful to remind them that modern scholars estimate that 50 million Christians were killed by one another in the centuries of Reformation and Counter-Reformation struggles that followed Luther's brash act.
     That schism has somewhat healed—last year Pope Francis formally apologized for the Catholic side of the slaughter, and the Catholic Church and various Protestant denominations have signed agreements within the past decade recognizing the legitimacy of each other's baptisms.


  1. Great stuff, Neil.

    If he Lord God Almighty has half the sick sense of humor that I think He does, He will take one of those little splinter groups that are always flaking off from the Mormon Church--The True Fundamentalist Church of the Prophet Billy Bob or whatever--and designate that as the One True Church, consigning all others to hell. That would be worth watching.

  2. In an attempt to give definition to the abstract concept of God, man created religion; over and over and over again. Our vainglorious insistence that our understanding of God is superior to another's, is a dangerous path. We've fought wars over fanciful notions. The humor in all of this is that we mean well.

  3. Your column reminded me about something I wonder every time I hear fervent Catholics like Newt Gingrich shriek about sharia law: what if the traditionally anti-Catholic KKK were to start making the case that American Catholics prioritize Vatican law over US law? It wouldn’t be difficult to point to the church’s sexual abuse cover up as evidence.
    Of course, that would be an irresponsible twisting of facts that would vilify millions unjustly . . .

    1. Kennedy first Catholic president. Prevoiusly, the idea of a Catholic president was tainted by the belief that a Catholic president would first serve the Pope, forcing his religious beliefs into the Constitution and onto the Natiom.

  4. 3 cheers for Luther, Calvin, Wesley, etc.

  5. Excellent piece, Neil. Hope to make it to the Newberry to see this exhibit while it's there.

    "Once he started questioning Church authority, Luther was surprised and aghast to find people started questioning *him*." ... "Luther really wanted to put Bibles in people’s hands, on the other hand, he came to realize they were doing interpretation much more individualistically than even he felt comfortable with."

    Yeah, once you open the floodgates, there's no telling what flotsam and jetsam might start making its way through...

    Off-topic: I realize that the S-T needs to make money, but the Rauner ad attached to this column that started auto-playing audio of folks extolling Mike Madigan's benefits to *other* states, was extra annoying. And isn't going to be changing this voter's opinion of the governor who doesn't govern one bit.

    1. Yes. Attention, Governor: We don't give a flying suck what the governors of neighboring hick states think about Mike Madigan, or anyone or anything else.

  6. My favorite part of this story is when Henry VIII of England wrote a book attacking Luther's theology in 1521 titled "Defense of the Seven Sacraments" for which Pope Leo X gave him the title "Defender of the Faith". Later, after Henry was excommunicated for breaking with the Church to start his own in order to divorce his wife and marry Anne Boleyn, this title was rescinded, but English monarchs still retain the title to this day though they're not Catholics.

    1. Which reminds me of what someone said of Queen Elizabeth I: that she was a papist at heart; she just wanted to be Pope herself.


  7. Printing did certainly have something to do with the Reformation, but credit is also given to the humanistic movement, instigated in Italy by a new interest in classical literature. Luther could be called a humanist, and was the most vigorous in attacking the Papacy, but others like Erasmus, Melanchthon and Zwingli were also prominent actors.

    Luther was, indeed, a fervent anti-Semite, but I don't think that carried over into modern Lutheranism in Germany. I have been told that, at least until the Third Reich, Lutheran Berlin was more tolerant than Catholic Vienna. And Hitler was a Catholic.


    1. Hitler was raised as a Catholic. I think it's safe to say that it didn't take very well.

  8. There you go again Neil. Every time I want to take a long piss all over this blog and never read again you write a balanced thoughtful and informative article. I know you suffer terribly from Trump Derangement Syndrome but it seems you're in remission for the weekend. Watch a little Fox say a few prayers(like people take stuff for Herpes outbreaks) and you can avoid flare-ups and write great media like Luther's 500th!

    1. You forget, MF, that given the bullshit you've written previously, praise from you carries very little weight. If you think it might do you some good someday, by all means keep reading, maintaining a manful silence if you possibly can. But don't do me any favors.

    2. There is only one person who suffers from Trump Derangement Syndrome, and his name is Donald Trump.

  9. Wow -- I did graduate work at the U of C's Divinity School and worked at a Lutheran-owned college for 8 years -- one that has been preparing for the 500th anniversary of the 95 theses for years -- and I never knew the "nailing them to a door" bit might not have occurred. I've read the account in a number of works/heard it in courses -- never heard it might have been an embellishment after the fact. Thanks for the lesson!


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