A Nearly Infallible History of the Reformation - by Nick Page
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A Nearly Infallible History of the Reformation - by Nick Page

A Nearly Infallible History of the Reformation - by Nick Page

On the desk in front of me is a Playmobil® figure of Martin Luther. I don’t think it’s an exact replica, I mean, apart from anything else, he hasn’t got a nose. Anyway, the figure was released to mark ‘500 years of Reformation’.

Now, it’s not easy to get into the Playmobil® Hall of Fame. As far as I can find out, the only other historical characters they have ever done are Cleopatra, Caesar and the Butterfly Fairy. But amazingly, the Luther figurine became Playmobil®’s fastest-selling figure, ever, with some 34,000 of the tiny plastic toys selling out within 72 hours.

Not bad for a 500-year-old theologian.

So what is this all about? Well, the little brochure accompanying the figure explains that it commemorates Luther’s ninety-five theses nailed to the church door in Wittenberg.

This event has been called “the hammer blow that launched the Reformation”, and here’s the story as it’s commonly recounted. Catholic salesmen are making a killing selling indulgences – basically vouchers for time off in purgatory. Luther, outraged, writes down his Ninety-five Theses. Then, on 31 October – All Saints’ Eve – 1517, he strides to the Wittenberg church and nails his theses to the door. A crowd gathers. “Guten tag! Vorsprung Durch Technik,” they exclaim, slapping their Lederhosen. “Es ist der Reformation!”

The scales fall from their eyes. There are cheers and tears and everyone goes home to be Protestant and be righteously happy ever after.

Suffice to say, it didn’t happen quite like that (indeed the whole ‘nailing to the door’ bit may not have happened at all).

The fact is that Luther was not the first person to call for a reformation of the Church. He wasn’t even the first person to criticise indulgences. But he was the person who, above all others, took these ideas and stood by them. He refused to back down. And that’s why he, more than anyone else, is the ‘star’ of the tale.
Little Marty Luder

Martin Luder (‘Luther’ is the posher version) was born on 10 November 1483, in the town of Eisleben in Saxony. He was named ‘Martin’ because the day of his baptism was St Martin’s Day. Just as well he wasn’t baptised on Christingle, really.

He was a clever boy and his father wanted him to be a lawyer. So he attended university in Erfurt, and he was on his way back there in 1505 when he was caught up in a terrifying thunderstorm. A bolt of lightning struck a nearby tree with such force that it threw him to the ground. He prayed desperately to his favourite saint: ‘Help me, Saint Anne, and I will become a monk.’ The storm abated. He survived.

Unlike many of us who, in moments of peril or desperation, pray similar ‘I-promise-I’ll-be-good-and-I’ll-always-go-to-church-and-possibly-become-a-vicar’ prayers, Luther kept to his word. He gave up his law career and joined the monastery.
A sweaty monk

Luther became an Augustinian friar. He keenly embraced poverty, obedience and chastity (insofar as you’re allowed to embrace chastity) and at first it brought him peace. He observed all the rules and regulations about how to walk, how to talk, even how to hold your spoon. He attended prayers seven times a day, but he could never quite escape the feeling that he was doing something wrong. He attended all the services, wore the rough clothes, punished his body, often taking no bread or water for three days at a time, but still he couldn’t feel acceptable to God: “The more I sweated it out, the less peace and quiet I experienced.”

No matter how hard he prayed, how thoroughly he confessed, this increasingly sweaty friar struggled to feel clean. For all his “holy monkery”, as he called it, Luther was painfully aware of his own sin and plagued with anxiety about his salvation. It wasn’t for lack of trying. He was an Olympic-standard confessor, sometimes exhausting his poor superiors by spending up to six hours listing his sins. Then he’d exit the confessional only to realise that he’d spent so long confessing that he’d missed chapel – which was a sin. So it was straight back in again.

Then there was the whole forgiveness thing. Forgiveness depended on how contrite you truly were, and Luther could never be sure that he was sorry enough. “The more I tried to remedy an uncertain, weak and afflicted conscience with the traditions of men,” he said, “the more each day I found it more uncertain, weaker, more troubled.”

His superiors, perhaps thinking that a change might do him good (and probably seeking a break from all that confessing), persuaded him to join the staff of the newly founded University of Wittenberg. Teaching suited Luther and his academic career prospered. And perhaps he would have remained there, an academic in an out-of-the-way town, were it not for the fact that the Pope, as popes tend to do, decided that it was time for another building project.
Indulge me a minute

The Pope was Leo X. Leo’s career illustrates some of the problems with the Catholic Church at the time: he had become an abbot at the age of eight, and took over the great Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino aged just 11. Beats a paper round, I suppose. And when he became Pope he hit the jackpot. On his election, he said to his brother, Giuliano, “Since God has given us the Papacy, let us enjoy it.”

And enjoy it he did. Leo led lavish processions and held huge banquets. He spent millions on tapestries and paintings and sculptures. He was a very cultured man, who revived Rome’s university, appointing nearly 100 professors and widening the range of subjects to include medicine, mathematics, botany, astronomy and, probably, media studies. It was a golden age. But the trouble with golden ages is that gold is expensive. As well as supporting his luxurious lifestyle, Leo had an ambitious plan to rebuild St Peter’s Basilica. And that needed even more money. So he launched a massive indulgence sales drive.

For most people in the Middle Ages, life was cold, muddy and bleak. But the good news was that after your death – if you were Christian – you got to go to heaven. However, only certain people – martyrs and saints – got into heaven straight away. The rest had to spend time in purgatory, being purged of their sins.

Purgatory was imagined as a crowded place, where you had to spend a long time enduring a series of trials or punishments. A bit like going to IKEA. But the souls were happy to accept the punishments because they knew that a visit to purgatory would, in the end, bring rewards. Like IKEA. But purgatory wasn’t heaven, and most people looked to spend as little time there as possible… Like IKEA. And so a whole purgatory-avoidance industry grew up. People could buy indulgences – vouchers – which would give them time off from purgatory. These promo codes were backed by the authority of none other than the Pope.

It wasn’t long before Leo’s indulgence sellers arrived in Luther’s patch. Suddenly, people started turning up at Luther’s confessionals armed with copies of their indulgences. They no longer had to do any kind of penance, and they had the paperwork to prove it.

Luther went ballistic. On 31 October 1517, he wrote to the local bishops accusing them of allowing unbiblical practices: “Christ has nowhere commanded indulgences to be preached, only the gospel.” And this was when he wrote his famous 95 Theses – 95 bullet-point statements challenging the whole indulgence-selling racket. These are the bullets which are credited with starting the Reformation.

The theses were sent on to Rome. Luther was ordered to back down. He didn’t.

And the rest is history. Or theology. Or something.
Punk theology

If Luther had just objected to the sales of indulgences, then the Reformation would have fizzled out. But what happened was that in subsequent years, Luther went on to challenge the very basis of medieval Christendom.

And what made this possible was that he was an absolute master of the new technology of printing. In pamphlets and books, Luther challenged not only indulgences, but the authority of the Pope himself. He wrote books which called for the abolition of things like clerical celibacy, Masses for the dead, obligatory fasting, the canonisation of saints, pilgrimages and all religious orders. He denied any distinction between laity and clergy: “All are truly priests, bishops, and popes”, he wrote. “A cobbler, a smith, a peasant, each has the work and office of his trade, and yet they are all alike consecrated priests and bishops … For all Christians whatsoever really and truly belong to the religious class, and there is no difference among them except insofar as they do different work.”

One of his most important ideas was that Christianity is not about doing ‘good works’, about earning your salvation. Christians, he believed, have been liberated by faith. “For faith alone and the efficaciousness of the Word of God, bring salvation”, he wrote.

These are radical, incendiary ideas. And Luther used radical, outrageous, incendiary language. He was famously rude, outspoken and even sweary. These books must have been astonishing to read in the 16th century. This is medieval punk theology, agitprop protest writing 400 years ahead of its time. Luther dipped his pen in pure outrage and let rip.

He was a one-man publishing empire. Tracts, pamphlets, books poured from his pen. From 1517 until his death in 1546, he published an average of one work every two weeks. Had he been alive today he would have been a brilliant and deeply annoying newspaper columnist: he had that knack of writing books that people wanted to read – that they had to read. Luther grasped very early on that the only thing which would silence a book was if nobody read it. So he made his books and pamphlets saleable – they were outrageous, urgent, polemical, readable, compelling, a must-have. There were peddlers who went from door to door selling nothing but Luther’s writings, and his books were described as being “not so much sold as seized”.

Small wonder that Luther’s writings scorched across Europe. One-third of all books sold in Germany in the early 1520s were by Martin Luther.
Heroes and villains

Luther wasn’t a saint. He was a difficult, outspoken, prickly individual who abused his friends and enemies alike. But the history of the Reformation is full of people like that: people capable of writing wonderful truths about God, but also words of hatred and abuse. People who behaved in ways that both served God and served their own interest. People capable of heroism and villainy. Human beings, to use a technical term.

What matters, I suppose, is the ideas. The ideas of the Reformation changed our world. They were not just about religion: they were about what it means to be an individual. They led to our concept of modern democracy, even our concept of the nation state.

And in all of this Luther, takes centre stage. He wasn’t the first person to call for a Reformation of the Church, or to object to the sale of indulgences, or to deny the Catholic theory of transubstantiation. He wasn’t even the first person to invent the idea of justification by faith. But he was the first person to really take these ideas and run with them.

And that’s why we celebrate the 500th anniversary this year. And why this miner’s son from Saxony gets to be not just a Playmobil® figure, but the best-selling Playmobil® figure of all time.