Friday, 5 October 2018

Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation

Apparently, he was a very naughty boy
It is difficult for us living in the 21st century to contemplate the sheer secular power and authority held by the Pope and the Catholic church in the Middle Ages. It could be said that the collapse of this authority or at least the beginning of its decline was largely down to the energies of one man, a German Monk, called Martin Luther who initiated the Protestant Reformation. Before the Reformation, virtually all Christians, at least in Western Europe, belonged to the Universal or Catholic church. And at the top of this theological edifice sat the supreme arbiter of religious doctrine, the Pope.   
You may ask why an atheist such as myself should be consumed with things theological. Regardless of individual beliefs, religious belief has proved important in society both ancient and modern and religious beliefs have been overwhelming in shaping world history and culture. Thus, if we want to understand the world we live in today it is important that we take a glance at theology and religion even if that glance is achieved with a tired and jaundiced eye. 

Setting the Scene/Schism
Not only was the Catholic Church incredibly wealthy back in the Middle Ages, but it also had a monopoly on the social services of the time. It ran the orphanages and gave alms to the destitute. Monks were literate in an illiterate society and therefore were responsible for interpreting Christianity’s sacred literature, the Bible. And this interpretation was strictly controlled by the Catholic hierarchy. What little medical care was available was often administered by the Monastery. Importantly, the Church was the caretaker of the human soul and had a great influence over whether a person would eventually abide in eternal bliss or suffer the eternal fires of hell. The parish priest was a pivotal entity in the community providing spiritual guidance, confession and presided over a succession of life’s important punctuations such as baptism, marriage and finally the full stop, last rites.
So how did a chronically constipated Monk set forth a chain of events which proved the Catholic Church’s undoing? Back in 1517, Luther was a resident at Wittenberg University and was already an outspoken and turbulent priest. However, the flame that engulfed Christianity was kindled by a spark in the incandescent form of an itinerant friar, named John Tetzel. When John arrived in town he began to sell indulgences to the town’s folk. An indulgence remitted the time spent in ‘cleansing’ purgatory after death. A necessary intermediate step before advancing unto eternal paradise. As purgatory involved extreme agony, perhaps through burning, it was something that most folk would like to omit or at least minimise. Consequently, ‘indulgence’ was a big revenue spinner for the Church at a price of 3 marks per soul- about 6 months income for the average sinner. 

Luther was outraged at what he saw as a blatant ploy to exploit the flock through fear. Luther opined that Salvation could only be attained by faith, not by good works, revelation, prayer and certainly not by paying a toll. His anger was propelled by a righteous appreciation of how corrupt and venal the Church had become; no different from a money-grubbing extortion racket. Indignation propelled Luther to dramatically nail his 95 Theses, against indulgences, to the gates of the local church, on 31st October 1517, for all to see, but not all to read.  Opposition against the Church was a big thing and Luther’s action provoked much debate amongst the clergy and the literate (mostly the same thing). 

Luther’s theological stance began to evolve and became more radical with time culminating with the denial of Papal and Church infallibility. Furthermore, he stated that the Church lacked any spiritual authority. This was an extremely bold condemnation requiring a bold reaction from the Church and ruling elite. In 1521 Luther was called before the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, at Worms to explain his theological position. Needless to say, others had criticised the Catholic Church before Luther (cf John Wycliffe) without causing catastrophic and irrevocable damage to this teetering power structure/stricture. However, new to the mix was the power of the newly arrived, printing press. This allowed a wide dissemination of Luther’s tracts and pamphlets enabling large numbers of literate folk to access and consume Luther’s revisionist ideas. Over two thousand editions of his work appeared between 1517-1526. This volume of work, greatly propagated, introduced the literate clergy to criticism of the Catholic Church. For many, this proved a novel and intellectually refreshing experience. Of equal importance, Luther translated the Latin Bible into German. For the first time, non-priests could read the Bible for themselves- hundreds of thousands of copies were printed. Lay people could now discuss the meaning and interpret Biblical passages for themselves. The genie was out of the bottle. Once scripture became widely available coupled with the injunction that anyone’s interpretation was as valid as the Pope's you arrive at alternative interpretations of scripture only limited by the imagination of the beholder. Catholicism was no longer all-inclusive. 

Alternative views resulted in a shattering of doctrine culminating in the formation of numerous and diverse Protestant churches each with their own religious understanding and ‘truth’. Then, of course, the fractured/fractious religious groups started to fight amongst themselves and the Catholic Church fomenting social discord and violence. Years of religious strife and intolerance ensued. What started as a doctrinal dispute transformed into a peasant’s revolt in 1525 involving 300,000 people. People applying Luther’s ideas and methodology not only criticised the Church but the landowners and rulers as well. The German peasant revolt was eventually crushed with great loss of life, but Protestantism was here for good and soon found favour with various rulers of Europe and not just because Lutheran doctrine proved theologically attractive. It also gave rulers an excuse to appropriate Church lands and money if they could. Certainly, King Henry VIII profited greatly from appropriations and this is why the Queen of England, Elizabeth II, is the greatest landowner in England today. 

Consequently, the Reformation was not just a religious revolution, it proved a potent force for political and social change. Thus, European civilisation lurched toward the modern era and this is why today we have only one Catholic Church and  200 of the Protestant persuasion.  Arse.    



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