I was recently asked by Dr. Tom Woods, instructor of my on-line Western Civilization course, to consider: “What were the 95 Theses about? What was the basic message of Luther’s complaint?
Here are my thoughts.
Martin Luther, who is sometimes referred to as the ‘father’ of the Protestant Reformation, wanted to reform the Catholic church. In a sense, he wanted to reboot the whole system. If possible, his goal was to replace all the Catholic beliefs with new ones. And, naturally, preferably with his. As one can imagine, this did not go over well with the Catholic leadership or even normal, everyday parishioners so he ended up forming his own sect of religion instead. What he is most known for was the bold way he and ‘hand-delivered’ his complaints, nailing 95 statements against the selling of indulgences.
An indulgence was a slip of paper that, when purchased, declared you forgiven of your sins. Along with a few required actions, like saying a prayer, all you really had to do was purchase one every time you needed to do some repenting. For instance, Theses No. 27 chides, “They [Catholic bishops and other authorities] preach man that as soon as the penny jingles in the money box, the souls fly out of purgatory.” I am curious to know if the Catholic bishops back then actually believed that divine forgiveness required money more than a change of heart, but either way it is easy to understand how this could get out of hand. For the poor, what was it like if they had to choose between buying food or indulgences?
Another one of Luther’s arguments that kills the practice at its core, and one that I particularly liked, is No. 36: “Every truly penitent Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt without letters of pardon.” He is saying that not just some Christians have the chance to be saved, but all of them!
While I’m sure the Catholic church has changed and moved on since the 16th Century, I believe God inspired Martin Luther, and other truth seekers like him, to courageously stand up against what they felt was wrong for the benefit of believers.
During a recent lesson in my Western Civilization course, I had the opportunity to read a small part of Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. First though let me briefly tell you a little bit about this religious man then I will mention what I found about his religious and doctrinal opinions.
Ignatius lived in 16th Century Spain. When he was a young man, he joined the Spanish military. While serving in the military, he was shot in the legs by a cannonball and he survived! Unfortunately for him, he was discharged from the military. That incident left him with a limp for the rest of his life. When he was in the hospital he read some religious texts that sparked an interest in religion. In 1540 he and a few other theologians, including St. Francis Xavier, were granted permission, by Pope Paul III, to organize the Society of Jesus or Jesuits.
You cannot read Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises and not get the sense that he really was a committed Catholic. However I found it interesting in the reading that he does not want time to be wasted explaining faith vs. good works in depth. Instead, he felt that people should decide on their own whether they faith or did good works. He argued that there would be no need for faith if everybody practiced good works and no need for good works if everybody had faith.
In many ways Loyola accomplished much, but his greatest contribution was to the betterment of the current state of the world that he lived in. And even though he is not alive today, his contributions, such as his Spiritual Exercises can still be read and have the same impression it had on someone then as it does today. That is the great thing about religious books and texts, they will always be applicable no matter where and when you live!
Do you know who St. Francis Xavier was? No, you say? Well, then let me tell you about him! This man was a Spaniard who was one of the founders of the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits. He was a missionary, and was sent all over Europe and Asia to teach and spread Catholicism. At one point, while in India he wrote a letter to the Society. He titled his ‘Letter from India’ and shared his recent experiences. I want to share some highlights that I found with you.
Francis mentions all the children he is teaching and how he tasks them with sharing what they are learning with their friends and family. In one excerpt of the letter, he told the children that all idol, not made for the intention of worshipping the one, true God, it was to be torn down. And the kids took them down! Sometimes very violently! This did not go over very well with the Brahman worshippers in Hinduism (which is a polytheistic religion). The Brahmans would sometimes test Francis on his knowledge of the Catholic religion. They tried to trip him over his words so they could argue. He was able to report one of his amazing accomplishments – his successful teaching and conversion of a Brahman worshipper to Catholicism. This Brahman man did not care about whether or not his religion was correct. This man was “a man of learning” as quoted by Xavier. This man answered questions that Francis had, and had his questions about Francis’s religion answered as well. Francis made the man promise that he would publish all that he had just told him so that other people could read for themselves all the answers to their questions pertaining to Francis’s religion. The man later asked Francis to secretly make him a Christian and Xavier also gave him the task of teaching all people.
“I charged him to teach the ignorant and unlearned that there is only one God, Creator of Heaven and Earth.”
This may not be the 16th Century or a time when religion defined just about everything you did, but it still is just as important then as it is now. Many people, young and old, teaching their religion to all no matter where or who they are.
How would you describe the condition of the Catholic Church on the eve of the Protestant Reformation?
In the 16th century, the Catholic church was very lazy in following their rules and exercising authority. One big event in a series of many changed all of this. It was started by Martin Luther and it came to be known as the Protestant Reformation. People were searching for something new because they did not like the corruption and inefficiencies of the church. Due to hundreds of years of being a main religion it had fallen into disarray. For example, Catholic bishops would take on the duty of looking after multiple villages and hamlets to spiritually help them. For money. Sometimes the bishops didn’t even visit their area because all they wanted was money and to be lazy. Maybe they didn’t know how to spiritually help a village!
One way to get roasted (figuratively) in those days was to bring a bishop and university professor together and see who who was more knowledgeable in theological matters. Usually the professor won. I am surprised at this! The bishops were very untrained and not taught in theology, but the Church seemingly found a warm body and told them to help the people however they could. All without training! No wonder they struggled. This made the bishops pretty useless.
Not all followers, like normal church-goers or bishops were like this, whether they cared or were untrained, but there were enough of those kind of people, that the Church was in need of desperate reform. Many people, like Martin Luther took the incentive and made other paths for people to meet their spiritual needs. The Catholic Church was paying the price of not functioning at its best, and the people voted with their feet to switch their religion.