MARTIN LUTHER'S 95 THESES.pdf - THE NINETY-FIVE THESES OF MARTIN LUTHER 1517-1967 ROBERT E McNALLY S.J Fordham University year Western Christianity

MARTIN LUTHER'S 95 THESES.pdf - THE NINETY-FIVE THESES OF...

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THE NINETY-FIVE THESES OF MARTIN LUTHER: 1517-1967 ROBERT E. McNALLY, S.J. Fordham University O N OCTOBER 31 of this year Western Christianity observes the 450th anniversary of the publication of the ninety-five theses "on the power and efficacy of indulgences" to be defended publicly by Dr. Martin Luther of Wittenberg University. 1 The event, in itself unpre- tentious, rapidly developed in accord with the logic that the circum- stances demanded, and terminated in a Church schism of the first magnitude. What had commenced as the academic challenge of an obscure professor in a still more obscure university moved on to the broad theatre of European history and dominated it. The world that witnessed the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 was far different in structure from the world that had greeted the ninety-five theses in 1517. The Middle Ages and its ideal of Christian unity had vanished, and from the long, bitter polemic between Catholic and Protestant was born a religious pluralism whose intolerance proved a scandal to Christianity. Yet no one, least of all Luther, could have foreseen in the year 1517 the devastating anguish that lay before Christendom in the years ahead. The spiritual forces that led to the final dissolution of the medieval Church accumulated over centuries reaching back to the Carolingian age and even beyond it. 2 Public worship had become so esoteric and clerical in its external order that it had ceased to be what in fact it 1 The anniversary, 1517-1967, is largely symbolic; it would be a misreading of history to date to 1517 either the end of the Middle Ages or the beginning of the Reformation. The dramatic (perhaps legendary) episode of the nailing of the ninety-five theses to the door of the Schloßkirche in Wittenberg on Oct. 31, 1517, is truly significant in that it introduces us into the foyer of the Reformation and opens the portals to it. 1 The Cistercian Odo of Chériton (d. 1247) traced the principle of corruption and deca- dence in the Church back as far as Constantine: "Eadem die, qua Constantinus primo ecclesiam his temporalibus ditavit, audita est vox in caelo dicens: 'Hodie venenum infusum est in ecclesia. Maior facta est dignitate, sed minor religione/ " Cf. H. de Lubac, S.J., Exégèse médiévale 2/2 (Paris, 1964) 350. 439
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440 THEOLOGICAL STUDIES should have been: the heart and soul of all true Christian spirituality. The liturgy of the late-medieval Church was presented in mystical and allegorical modes; rarely, if ever, was it described in terms of salvation history, the saving progress of the Christian community as God's people gathered by the Spirit in faith and charity. Holy Scripture, which should have enjoyed a prominent place in Christian life, was neglected, at least to the extent that the Church rarely took pains to provide vernacular translations of her sacred books for the spiritual edification of laity and clergy alike. 3 The close alliance between im- perium and sacerdotium —the axis on which the Middle Ages turned— committed the Church to secular modes of thought and action, to
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