He Didn’t Expect to Change the World

MARCH / APRIL 2017: BY RACHEL KOVACINY

Five hundred years ago this October, a monk and professor at the University of Wittenberg, Germany, wanted to discuss some theological questions with other learned Christians. So he wrote them all down and, since the internet was a few centuries from being invented yet, he posted them to the door of the church instead of to his blog or Facebook wall. He wasn’t trying to cause trouble, he wasn’t trying to start a new church body, and he definitely wasn’t trying to change the world. He just had questions about some church practices that troubled him, like charging money to get souls out of purgatory.

His name, of course, was Martin Luther. And, whether he meant to or not, he most certainly caused trouble, started a new church body, and eventually changed the world. But what he’d meant to do is reflected in the name we now have for the movement he started: the Protestant Reformation. He was protesting that some of the church’s activities went against what was taught in the Bible, and he wanted to reform the church, to fix things that had gone wrong. Not overthrow it, not replace it, just reform it.

The trouble was, he attacked the selling of indulgences. Indulgences were like “get out of jail free” cards for purgatory, which the church taught was a sort of limbo world between earth and heaven. They said that if you believed in Jesus as your Savior, but you’d committed more sins than the good works you’d done would atone for, you had to hang out in purgatory for a while until, as the Ghost in Shakespeare’s Hamlet put it, your foul crimes were “burnt and purged away” in “sulfurous and tormenting flames” (I,5). If you or someone you loved was probably going to have to stay in purgatory for a while, the church said you could lessen their sentence, or even forgo it entirely, by buying an indulgence. That was a piece of paper that entitled you to some of the extra good works done by various saints who had done so many good things in their lives that not only would they go straight to heaven, but they had leftover goodness you could get credited to yourself or a loved one. Why worry that your mother or father or child who died recently was languishing in torment when you could pay the church to get them released? Or, as a popular rhyme about indulgences went, “As soon as the coin clinks in the chest, the soul flies up to heavenly rest.”

Selling these indulgences was a really big moneymaker for the church at that time, which made church officials happy. Why? Because they were building a gigantic cathedral in Rome called St. Peter’s Basilica. This was an expensive and lengthy project, and selling indulgences was a super-successful fundraising idea. So when some upstart monk had the audacity to question whether or not selling indulgences was a scriptural practice, the church authorities couldn’t ignore him.

But wait — what was one unknown professor at some German university going to do against the power of the church, which had the support of the entire Holy Roman Empire? What did it matter if he posted ninety-five discussion questions on the door of some church? How many people were going to attend his little theological debate, anyway? The internet didn’t exist, TV didn’t exist, radio didn’t even exist — nobody except some musty old professors were going to care about this, right?

A century earlier, that would have been true. But by 1517, the world had Gutenberg’s printing press, which allowed pamphlets and books to be printed cheaply and quickly. Ideas spread swiftly and accurately now, not passed by word of mouth or by people copying out what someone else had written, but by being printed and distributed in massive quantities. And that’s what happened with Luther’s 95 Theses — someone printed them up and started passing them around. People got excited about this debate. Word spread that some professor in Wittenberg was daring to question the church’s practice of selling indulgences. Shocking! Exciting! News-worthy!

Suddenly, Dr. Martin Luther was the center of all kinds of attention and controversy. Simply by wanting to discuss church practices and whether or not they were based in Scripture, he’d caused trouble, he was on his way to starting a new church body, and the Reformation he began would end up changing the world.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Kovaciny’s story “The Man on the Buckskin Horse” appears in the Five Magic Spindles anthology now available in paperback and Kindle editions. Learn more about her at her author website, rachelkovaciny.com

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