In an article written for the New Statesman, published on 30 January 2017, Simon Heffer traces the influence of Martin Luther across 500 years of world history. Though I cannot agree with all of his conclusions, some are unavoidable. What I particularly appreciate is the way in which Heffer describes the scene in 1517 when Luther 'sparks' the debate that accelerated to the break with Roman Catholicism.
"Luther, who was 33 when he picked this argument with his Church, had become a monk after a bolt of lightning hit the ground near him and thus spared him. Later, he was ordained as a priest. He was a gifted and disputatious academic theologian. The cause of his affront was that the then pope, Leo X – a Medici from Florence – had granted the sale of indulgences to raise money to complete St Peter’s at Rome, and had sent Johann Tetzel, his commissioner for indulgences, to Germany to raise funds in this way. Purchase of an indulgence supposedly guaranteed less time in purgatory.
Luther was outraged: he had developed a system of belief in which simple faith, not the execution of good works or donations of money to various forms of charity, was the way to salvation. In this way, he was also indirectly the father of the welfare state.
Luther’s 86th thesis asked why, given the pope’s wealth, he did not use his own money to pay for St Peter’s rather than that of “poor believers”.
Bishop Albrecht did not respond to his complaint, but sent the document to Rome.
Early in 1518, using the relatively new medium of the printing press, the 95 Theses, in the universal language of Latin, were distributed around Germany and, with remarkable speed, much of Europe, too.
Thomas Carlyle, for whom Luther was one of history’s heroes, called this expression of outrage a “shout”, and wrote: 'The Pope should not have provoked that ‘shout’! It was the shout of the awakening of nations'.”
To hear another clarion call that would once again awaken the nations of this world from spiritual slumber is our earnest prayer in this remarkable anniversary year.
“Oh that Thou wouldest rend the heavens, that Thou wouldest come down, that the mountains might flow down at Thy presence, As when the melting fire burneth, the fire causeth the waters to boil, to make Thy name known to Thine adversaries, that the nations may tremble at Thy presence!” (Isaiah 64:1-2).