The Ridley Institute, named after the Oxford Martyr Nicholas Ridley, self-consciously places itself within the Reformation tradition of English Christianity, which of course represents the very roots of that expression of Christianity that has come to be called Anglicanism. Just a little over a week ago, Protestant Christians celebrated Reformation Sunday. Articles were published. Even the Pope tipped his hat to Martin Luther and his penetrating insights into human behavior under sin and the need for God’s extravagant grace. I had hoped to publish something myself last week, nevertheless travels interfered with writing. So here is my own contribution to Reformation Sunday. In keeping with the tradition of the English Reformation, which lagged about a decade behind its European counterparts, I offer this reflection a week late.
There is perhaps no more iconic image of the Reformation to be conjured than that of Martin Luther nailing his (in?) famous 95 Theses to the door of All Saints Church in the small university town of Wittenberg, Germany. The action was not nearly as dramatic nor revolutionary as history has made it out to be. The public posting of theses for debate within the scholarly community was a normal part of day-to-day life in university towns such as Wittenberg and was an integral part of the scholastic tradition within which Luther was trained. By all accounts, Luther was stunned at both the attention as well as the blowback the Theses received. All the more so considering he sincerely believed the Pope would be in agreement with the Theses!
So what were the 95 Theses actually about? The Latin title gives a clue: Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum, which may be translated “A Disputation on the Power of Indulgences.” There is much that could be said in regards to indulgences, both in the past and in the present. For now it is sufficient merely to define what an indulgence is and how such things were being used in the 16th century. Briefly put, an indulgence deals with the penalty of sin. In the Roman system, one may have their guilt forgiven but the penalty nevertheless remains. A sinner may work off the penalties of their sins in this life or in purgatory. As I’ve written elsewhere, the early medieval doctrine understood purgatory to be a place of training and purification for life in heaven. However by the 16th century, purgatory had come to be viewed as a place of despair and torture. The prospect of an indulgence, which had the power to free the sinner or a relative from thousands of years of torment and misery, was a welcome ray of hope in an otherwise dismal view of the afterlife. In 1515 Pope Leo X granted a special indulgence that had the power to remit punishment for almost any sin including (scandalously) the “rape of the Mother of God.” The indulgences were purchased with money that was promptly shipped off to Rome to help build St. Peter’s Basilica.
If you take the time to read Luther’s 95 Theses for yourself, and I hope you will, you’ll notice many things. But something I’d like to draw your attention to, that often goes overlooked, is Luther’s care and concern about the oppressive effects of false doctrine upon the poor. Let me highlight a handful of examples:
Theses 43: Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than he who buys indulgences.
Theses 45: Christians are to be taught that he who sees a needy man and passes him by, yet gives his money for indulgences, does not buy papal indulgences but God’s wrath.
Theses 46: Christians are to be taught that, unless they have more than they need, they must reserve enough for their family needs and by no means squander it on indulgences.
Theses 48: Christians are to be taught that the pope, in granting indulgences, needs and thus desires their devout prayer more than their money.
Theses 50: Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the indulgence preachers, he would rather that the basilica of St. Peter were burned to ashes than built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep.
Theses 51: Christians are to be taught that the pope would and should wish to give of his own money, even though he had to sell the basilica of St. Peter, to many of those from whom certain hawkers of indulgences cajole money.
Theses 59: St. Lawrence said that the poor of the church were the treasures of the church, but he spoke according to the usage of the word in his own time.
Theses 86: Again, “Why does not the pope, whose wealth is today greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build this one basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?”
The retired Bishop of South Carolina, Fitzsimmons Allison, once said that heresy was cruel. And indeed, we get a glimpse in the above of the particular cruelty of heresy that Luther saw as he penned the 95 Theses. Playing off of the fears and superstitions of the poor and uneducated, the Roman church enriched itself through the sale of these indulgences. This had the double effect of oppressing the poor, whom Christ treasures (see Theses 43,45,59) as well as denying all of God’s people the free gift of God’s mercy in Christ. It is this free mercy, the Gospel, that Luther said was the highest treasure of the church (see Thesis 62).
Now I bring this up to illustrate a very simple point. When Protestants think about the Reformation, their discussions are often limited to a reformation of doctrine. Thus the Reformation is often reduced to the righting of wrong thinking. But the Reformers understood that wrong thinking wasn’t just wrong, but that it was cruel. And they also understood one cannot be abstractly cruel, but cruelty is always relational and social in its scope. In the 16th century the wrong thinking behind indulgences worked out into the social cruelty of oppressing the poor. Thus the right thinking of the Gospel led to a renewed interest in lifting the burdens and victimization of the poor and correcting the social ills they suffered from. Here it’s worth briefly mentioning how the Gospel liberated the social consciousness of the Reformers. Luther worked hard to establish one of the first social welfare programs in Europe. John Calvin determined that care for the poor was a matter of #social justice long before the phrase was cool enough to be turned into a hashtag. Hugh Latimer, another Oxford martyr, preached before the rulers of England that God gave men money so that they could act as his heavenly treasurers in the distribution of wealth to the poor. For the Reformers there wasn’t a wedge between the “social Gospel” and the real Gospel. There was only one real Gospel. But the Reformers understood that the Real Gospel had social implications. They understood when the Gospel was rightly preached and believed it led to social engagement in matters of mercy, justice, and equity among other things. These concepts by the way are not foreign to the Biblical witness and neither are they foreign to the Reformation heritage that so many Protestants would claim as their own.
The Reformation’s keen insights into how false doctrine leads to cruelty and how that cruelty can become institutionally sanctioned is worth remembering. The same may be said of the Reformers courage not only in righting wrong doctrine, but challenging the institutionally sanctioned cruelty that false doctrine props up. Modern day children of the Reformation owe more to the legacy of the Reformation than merely singing “A Mighty Fortress” on the Sunday closest to Oct 31st (though I cherish doing that). These great-grandchildren of Cranmer, Ridley, Latimer, Luther, Calvin and others must not only cling to the precious doctrines of grace recovered in the Reformation, but also search out those dogmas that need reforming in their own day as well as curing those social ills caused by such false teaching be it in the church or the world.
This post was written by Rob Sturdy