Peter Espeut | Luther and Catholics: 500 years later
Five hundred years ago next week Tuesday, German Roman Catholic priest and Augustinian monk Fr Martin Luther, OSA, wrote a scholarly letter (in Latin) to his bishop, Albrecht von Brandenburg, protesting the sale of indulgences. This document has come to be known as the 'Ninety-five Theses of Martin Luther'.
The date October 31, 1517, has come to be associated with the start of the Protestant Reformation.
Luther was professor of moral theology at the University of Wittenberg and wrote the 'Ninety-five Theses' as a scholarly disputation to stimulate formal debate rather than as a profound attack upon the Catholic Church itself. It was not Luther's intent to split the Church, but to reform it and renew it from within.
However, church authorities reacted hastily to Luther's attempt, calling upon him to recant his views or face excommunication. He refused and asked that the case be reviewed by university theologians. His request was denied, and he was excommunicated in 1521.
Were this theological dispute to have occurred in modern times, I don't believe that the profound schism within the Church would have occurred. University theologians would have reviewed the case, and it is likely these would have been agreement.
In the 'Ninety-five Theses', Luther's objection was to the selling of indulgences, not to the indulgences themselves - and the fact is that Luther did have a valid criticism. Twenty-five years later, the Council of Trent (1545-1563) banned the selling of indulgences, and in 1567, Pope Pius V cancelled all grants of indulgences involving any fees or other financial transactions.
Until today, indulgences remain a feature of Catholic belief and practice because the theology of indulgences has a scriptural basis. When someone repents of sin, God removes his guilt (Is. 1:18) as well as any eternal punishment due to him (Rom. 5:9), but temporal penalties may remain.
One passage demonstrating this is 2 Sam 12:13-14, in which Nathan, the prophet, confronts David over his adultery with Bathsheba: God forgave David, but David still had to suffer temporal punishments, including the loss of his son.
While Jesus paid the price for our sins before God, He did not relieve us of our obligation make restitution for what we have done. If you steal someone's car, you have to give it back; it isn't enough just to repent. God's forgiveness (and man's!) does not include letting you keep the stolen car.
Scripture says that death entered the world through sin, and Jesus's sacrifice on the cross allows our sins to be forgiven (Gen. 3:22-24, Rom. 5:12). When we first come to God in baptism, we are forgiven, and when we sin later, we are able to be forgiven. Yet that does not free us from the temporal penalty of physical death. Even the forgiven die, but a penalty remains after our sins are forgiven.
Temporal punishment could be satisfied by the penitent performing works of mercy. If the temporal punishment is not satisfied during life, it would need to be satisfied in purgatory (that is another discussion). With an indulgence (which may be translated 'kindness'), this temporal punishment could be lessened.
Under abuses of the system of indulgences, in Luther's time, clergy benefited by selling indulgences, and the Pope gave official sanction in exchange for a fee. Luther's actions were successful because the reforms he advocated actually came to pass.
SAVED BY FAITH ALONE
One of the doctrines that split the Catholic Church at the time of the Reformation was Luther's insistence (following Rom 3: 28) that Christians are saved by "faith alone" and "not by works". Catholics argued (following James 2: 14-26) that "faith without works is dead", and that in Jesus's parable of the sheep and the goats (Mt 25: 31-46), what separated them was not their faith (or lack thereof) but their works (of mercy: feeding the hungry, etc).
In 1997, the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church issued a 'Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification', which resolved their differences that originated 500 years ago with Luther.
The church needed reform, and reformation could have taken place without schism. Both sides in the conflict acted with intemperance. The 1964 Decree on Ecumenism of the Second Vatican Council admits that "often enough, men of both sides were to blame" (Paragraph 3).
Addressing a conference on Martin Luther at the Vatican in March this year, attended by Lutherans and Catholics, Pope Francis remarked, "An attentive and rigorous study, free of prejudice and polemics, enables the churches, now in dialogue, to discern and receive all that was positive and legitimate in the Reformation, while distancing themselves from errors, extremes, and failures, and acknowledging the sins that led to the division."
We can't turn back the clock, but with understanding and dialogue, we can grow closer, hoping one day to become one sheepfold with one shepherd.
- The Rev Peter Espeut is a theologian and Roman Catholic deacon. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.