The interior of Wittenberg Castle
Church where Luther was to become
Luther had access to Erasmus’ Greek New Testament, published in 1514 and was thus able to read the New Testament in its original language. Reading especially Paul’s Letter to the Romans proved to be a conversion experience for the young friar. Long troubled by scrupulosity and unable to satisfy his spiritual anguish by religious observances, Luther discovered in Paul that we are set right with God not by our religious practices but by our faith in Jesus Christ. This was revolutionary for Luther.
By the sixteenth century the Catholic Church had drifted far from the New Testament, not so much in doctrine as in piety and devotion. Keeping the scriptures in Latin made the Bible the prerogative of the clergy and left the vast majority of laity dependent on the clergy for spiritual guidance. There were always a few laity who were educated enough to be able to read the Latin text of the Scriptures, and even fewer among them who actually did. In England, for example, you had Saint Thomas More who as a layman took his faith seriously and whose devotion was very much in line with the best biblical and patristic scholarship of his day. This was, after all, the beginning of the Renaissance and More is perhaps the best example of the new piety emerging by those desirous of a reformed Catholicism. But most people were less educated—and less committed—than Thomas More and simply listened to sermons and accepted the Christian faith second hand from preachers—not all of whom were sufficiently disciplined to maintain biblical orthodoxy.
As I write this I know that I am sounding like an anti-Catholic “evangelical” (the sort of person I usually refer to as “pseudo-evangelical” by how they themselves distort the scriptures by taking texts out of context and making the “Good News” (the evangelion) bad news for most of us. (Evangelion means “The Good News of a Victory” but for many who call themselves evangelicals it has come to mean the bad news of sin supposedly trumping grace in anyone who doesn’t follow their particular religious notions. They are sort of today’s scribes and Pharisees who claim to know God’s mind because of their particular twist on the Scriptures.) The fact of the matter is that I am an ardent and convinced Catholic but as a historian I need to acknowledge that the Catholic Church, in its practice if not in its doctrines, had drifted far from the apostolic faith revealed in the Christian scriptures.
One of the reasons—and I believe the primary reason—for this drift away from the apostolic truth was a dramatic switch in theological method that took place in the 13th century and afterwards. Saint Bernard is often called “the last of the Fathers” because he was the last major Christian writer to use the old patristic method of drawing theological reflection from the scriptures. Bernard’s nemesis was Peter Abelard. (Actually the way it worked out was that Bernard was Peter Abelard’s nemesis for Bernard brought Abelard down and all but destroyed him for his new ideas.) Abelard, a professor at the Cathedral School of Paris, drew not on the patristic tradition of scriptural reflection but on a new method based more on Aristotelian logic. Aristotle’s philosophical methodology had recently been introduced in Europe through contact with the Arab world and its philosophers who had long preserved this tradition that they had learned from the Syrian culture that in turn was strongly shaped by Greek influence. In Abelard’s system logic trumped Tradition and the new theologians were anxious to redefine the ancient truths of the Christian faith using his new system. Abelard was condemned for his innovations, but the methodology persisted and became know as “scholasticism,”—the methodology of the “schoolmen.” (The Latin word for school is schola.) This revival also coincided with the revived interest in law and philosophers and theologians began working like lawyers—taking an established premise and drawing from it new conclusions far deviant from the intent of the original author. Thus they might start with a scripture quote or a quote from the Fathers but by the use of logical deduction draw from it entirely new and very untraditional meanings.
The Christian author whose work legitimized the new system was Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas, of course, was most orthodox in his conclusions even if he was quite revolutionary in his methodology. The problem is not in the conclusions—at least in Aquinas’ conclusions—it is in the methodology. Aquinas used the unorthodox system to establish the intellectual legitimacy of traditional doctrine. Other writers were to take the faith and distort it way beyond the limits of authentic Tradition leading to all sorts of problems for the Church as bizarre practices became legitimized by this faulty system that valued logic over Tradition. An example of this is that ideas about “sacrifice” were attached to the Mass that had no foundation in Scripture or the Fathers of the Church. (There are legitimate concepts of sacrifice connected to the Eucharist found both in the language of the New Testament and the Fathers of the Church but the new theologians exaggerated them far beyond their Traditional meaning.) There were also emerging among the scholastics bizarre notions about sin and about the forgiveness of sin and the punishments due to sin. There were exaggerations of the difference between clergy and laity and the “powers” of the priesthood. All these and other distortions led to some very bad practices in Catholic life.
One of the most egregious distortions concerned the notion of “indulgences.” Indulgences were originally substitutes for public penance. Perform certain acts or say certain prayers and days were taken off the penance given to a penitent in confession. So, a donation to the Church or a pilgrimage to a local shrine might mean that a penitent had only to fast for a week instead of a month. That was the original idea. But as public penance disappeared in the central Middle Ages, let’s say the eighth through the twelfth centuries, and as the doctrine of purgatory gained more and more acceptance, indulgences became seen as so many “days” chopped of a soul’s sentence in purgatory. Purgatory itself was a problematic doctrine without scriptural foundation and by the sixteenth century an elaborate understanding had evolved of how even when sins had been forgiven there was still a “temporal punishment” due for them. In other words, most people would have to serve time in some sort of post-mortem jail until their sins had been sufficiently punished and then and then only could they go to heaven. Indulgences shortened—or even wiped out—the punishment and won the poor soul an early parole. This is just another example of how scholastic theology invented doctrines and created practices foreign to both the Scriptures and the Church Fathers.
Luther looked on this whole theological house of cards that scholasticism had created and saw how far it was from the theology of Saint Paul, particularly in the Letters to the Romans and the Galatians. He posted 95 theses he wanted argued at the university in order to re-focus the Church on its own authentic roots rather than the invented doctrines and practices of the scholastic era. He would have caused not even a ripple in such debate except for one thing. The pope needed money to build Saint Peter’s and a German preacher, the Dominican friar John Tetzel, was raking it in with his distorted preaching on indulgences.