Saturday, August 31, 2013

Foundations of the Anglican Church XXXVI

Wittenberg Castle Church where Martin Luther
posted his 95 Theses
Before we look at why Henry didn’t get his annulment, we need to look for a moment at the broader picture of Europe in the first quarter of the sixteenth century. 
In 1517 a Saxon friar of the Augustinian Order, one Martin Luther, a professor of Sacred Scripture at the newly founded University of Wittenberg, posted 97 theses for debate on the door of Wittenberg Castle Church.  There was nothing unusual about this in an university town.  It was not an act of rebellion.  There was a long established tradition in university towns of professors or students posting subjects for debate.  Debate, particularly theological debate, was a major form of entertainment in university life.  Participation in such public debate was part of the requirements for one to be given the Doctorate.  Luther was a young hot-shot professor at a new university and both he and his university were trying to establish their respective reputations.  But this list of topics was to set off a chain reaction that shattered the Catholic world.
Luther had been born in 1483.  His parents were upwardly mobile but not particularly wealthy Germans of peasant stock but who had acquired some property and means.   His father was in the copper business, leasing mines and operating smelting works.  His mother was industrious and added to the family income through various domestic industries.  While the family was sufficiently devout, his father, Hans, wanted to see his eldest son, Martin, become a lawyer and was not enthused about Martin’s religious vocation when it emerged.  Martin had been given a very sound education by the Brothers of the Common Life.
Luther had a spiritual restlessness and Law was not meeting his psychological needs.  He seems from an early age to have been preoccupied with the question of his eternal salvation.  Law is a profession for cynics not searchers and Luther soon abandoned it.  There is a story—and it seems to be rooted in fact—that the young Luther was frightened during an electrical storm in which he was caught in a woods and vowed to Saint Anne that he would become a monk should he be delivered. 
Luther entered a very strict order, technically not of monks but of friars, the Augustinian observants.  (The various orders of the day mostly had observant branches which were reform movements within the orders and followed very strict rules regarding fasting, prayer, and separation from the world.  It is significant that Martin had joined an observant order, and one of the strictest, as that tells us about this religious enthusiasm.)     Luther had an excellent spiritual director in his superior, Johan van Staupitz, but seemed unable to break through scrupulosity that verged on a serious neurosis. Luther was ordained a priest and sent on for studies, receiving the Doctorate in 1512. Two years before he had made a fateful trip to Rome where he was thoroughly disillusioned by the scandalous conditions and cynical “faith” of so many involved in the governance of the Church.   (For information about Martin Luther’s trip to Rome, check out blog entries for September 13th and 15th 2011).   Rome can still be a scandal to the faithful.  Saint Francis had admonished his friars that for the good of their souls they should avoid going to Rome.  
Luther joined the faculty at Wittenberg in 1512 and a professor of Bible.  In 1514 the Dutch scholar, Desiderius Erasmus, published the first critical edition of the New Testament in Greek enabling biblical scholars to look at the text in the original language.  It was a huge breakthrough for scripture scholars and the young professor from Wittenberg threw himself into the task of studying the scripture in Greek.  He came to be thoroughly familiar with the Epistles of Saint Paul and was captured by Paul’s insistence that we are saved not by our righteous works but by faith in Jesus Christ.  Here Luther found a balm for his scruple troubled soul and as began to take St Paul to heart he became more and more uncomfortable with many contemporary Catholic practices.  This led to the publication of the 95 thesis.

More to follow. 

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