Luther’s ’95 Theses’

The 95 Theses, famously posted on the door of the Wittenberg Church in 1517 by Martin Luther (1483-1586), were a series of short points that he was willing to debate. They were primarily concerned with indulgences (the partial or total remission of temporal punishment due to sin), and particularly the sale of indulgences. During this time Pope Leo X was renovating St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and he permitted indulgences to be granted to people who contributed money to this project. Martin Luther condemned this practice in his 95 Theses, but he did not yet condemn the entire system of indulgences. Thesis 71 says “He who speaks against the truth of apostolic pardons, let him be anathema and accursed!”. The ideas that eventually became Lutheranism had not been fully developed yet. His theses did not deny the Pope’s authority, the truth of indulgences, or the doctrine of purgatory. All these and more would be denied in years top come, but here Luther did not stray too far from traditional Church doctrine.


Flat Earth?

Popular culture likes to dismiss the Middle Ages as a period of ignorance, epitomised by the supposition that everybody thought the earth was flat. Many school textbooks still hold this outdated belief. The idea that people of the Middle Ages thought that the earth was flat is completely false. That the earth was round was general knowledge all the way back to Classical Greece.

Pythagoras, all the way back to the 6th century BC, believed in a round earth. The great philosopher and scientist, Aristotle, was a round-earther. The Hellenistic scientist of the 3rd century BC, Eratosthenes, actually calculated the circumference of the earth by measuring the angle of the sun in different locations. The really impressive bit is that he calculated it within 10% of today’s accepted figure. By the time the Middle Ages rolled along the Greeks had not only posited a round earth but had calculated its circumference with astounding precision for the time.

Now, another myth is that the Medieval Catholic Church was so dismissive of Greek learning that they never would have allowed anyone to accept any ideas of the “pagans”. In fact, the Church was interested in finding truth wherever it could and in integrating it with itself. Scholastic philosophy, exemplified by St. Thomas Aquinas, was very interested in extracting truth from the Classical world and injecting it with Christian doctrine. Thomas Aquinas wanted to show that the teachings of Aristotle and the teachings of the Church were compatible. His proofs for the existence of God were based on Aristotelian principles. St. Justin Martyr even compared Socrates with Christ in his first apology. Many other great Catholic scholars were favorable to Classical knowledge, including St. Jerome, St. Ambrose of Milan, Origen, Minucius Felix, and more. Interestingly, Christians who rejected Classical thought fell into heresy themselves, such as Tertullian and Hippolytus, both Rigorists.  The Catholic Church was not dismissive of Greek knowledge and learning, it wanted to embrace as much of it as it could.

There were very few major figures that believed the earth was flat. There were two people that had this belief in the Middle Ages, and are cited as proof that this was the prevailing opinion. Lactantius, a 3rd-4th century converted pagan and Christian heretic; and Cosmas Indicopleustes, a 6th century Greek geographer. These figures were not influential, and were at odds with the belief of the time. Lactantius was anxious to disprove all pagan beliefs (as he was a recent convert) which included the theory of a round earth. Cosmas Indicopleustes made a model of the universe that showed the earth as flat, and was criticized by contemporary Christian thinkers. His influence was also small because he wrote in Greek, which had been largely forgotten at the time.

The fear among potential sponsors that Christopher Columbus would sail off the edge of the world did not exist. The real fear was that he had estimated the circumference of the world at one-third of the figure Eratosthenes had calculated, and would die of starvation before he would reach India. In truth, the existence of the Americas saved Columbus and his crew from death.

The idea that people believed the earth was flat in the Middle Ages is not at all true. Of course, there may have been some people who had this belief, just as there are some odd people even today who believe the earth is flat, but it was hardly the prevailing opinion in those days. The Greeks had already calculated the earth’s circumference in the 3rd century BC, and the Catholic Church was not at all close-minded to the ideas of the Classical Greeks, epitomised in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. The people of the Middle Ages were not ignorant barbarians, nor were they dismissive to the ideas of the great civilizations that preceded them.

Centralization in Spain

Today when we think of Spain we think of a single, unified country that, along with Portugal, comprises the Iberian peninsula. However, it was not always this way. It was once comprised of four separate kingdoms: Navarre, Aragon, Castile, and León (which joined Castile in 1301); and Grenada, which was controlled by the Muslims. There were three major events that took place in the late 15th century that unified Spain and made it a world power.

Before 1479, Spain had not been one country but a series of smaller kingdoms. This changed in 1469 when the future King Ferdinand of Aragon married the future Queen Isabella of Castile, and the crowns of the two kingdoms were united ten years later in 1479. Spain now had a strong and centralized government. The authority of the Pope was not as acknowledged by the Spanish Church as it was elsewhere, which also contributed to a centralization of power in Spain.

From the early 8th century up until 1492, Spain had been occupied by the Muslims. Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand were focused on the Reconquista, or the total retaking of Spain. By the 15th century, Grenada was the last Muslim outpost in Spain. Grenada had been sending a tribute to Castile, but in 1466 it refused to send any more. The King and Queen sent 30,000 men to destroy Grenada’s cropland, and began the actual attack in 1481. Ten years later, in 1491, the siege of Grenada began. Isabella accompanied her husband to the battle, and when a fire destroyed the tents of their army Isabella ordered that a fully-functioning city be built on the spot, which she named Santa Fe. Finally, in 1492, Grenada was defeated. Interestingly, there was no massacre of the defeated, nor any forced conversions to Christianity. The Muslims were allowed to continue practicing their religion, and were granted a degree of self-government.

The third event that contributed to the centralization of Spain was the Spanish Inquisition, which was established in 1478 and ended in 1700. Religious uniformity would make Spain easier to govern in the eyes of the rulers, so Jews and Muslims who had converted (Morranos and Moriscos, respectively) but whose faith was suspect were sought out. The Inquisition was not targeted at non-Christians, but at converted Christians who were still secretly practicing their old religion. Jews and Muslims who had not converted were subject to different persecution than the Inquisition. Under a law made in 1492, all unconverted Jews and Muslims were forced to leave Spain. This violated the terms of the treaty made at Grenada. The real purpose of the Inquisition was to seek out and correct heresy, but it had a political agenda as well. Many people were convicted, but only approximately 2% of those were executed, which is still a large figure (around 3000), but it also encompasses a large amount of time (well over 200 years). Contrary to popular opinion, torture was not as rampant as people today are led to believe. It was allowed, but it was a common feature of all contemporary European tribunals. Torture was prohibited from causing permanent damage and from drawing blood, and lasted no longer than 15 minutes.  The Inquisition accomplished a greater religious unity among Christians, as well as political centralization.

These three events, the joining of Aragon and Castile, the reconquest of Grenada, and the Spanish Inquisition greatly contributed to the centralization of Spain. One of the reasons why Spain’s unification was so significant is that it gave Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand the confidence to fund one of the most important voyages of discovery in history: the expedition of Christopher Columbus to the “New World”.

Luther’s Early Thought

Martin Luther had not yet fully developed his ideas on Protestantism when the 95 Theses were published in 1517. The 95 Theses were concerned with the perceived sale of Indulgences during the reign of Pope Leo X. Leo X offered an Indulgence to anyone who would contribute money for the renovation of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. This appears to be a sale of Indulgences for money, but in fact it was simply a donation to the Church that was repaid in an Indulgence. In the 95 Theses, Luther did not object so much to the idea of Indulgences as to the pardon-preachers who were indeed selling them.

Luther still had trust in the Pope when he wrote the 95 Theses. He did not blame the Pope for abusing the use of Indulgences, he blamed the pardon-preachers. In Theses 50 and 51 Luther upheld the Pope, saying:

50. Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the pardon-preachers, he would rather that St. Peter’s church should go to ashes, than that it be built with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep.
51. Christians are to be taught that it would be the pope’s wish, as it is his duty, to give of his own money to very many of those from whom certain hawkers of pardons cajole money, even though the church of St. Peter might have to be sold.

It is clear from these that Luther was trying to defend the Pope to some degree. He was basically saying that if the Pope knew what was going on with the pardon-preachers he would definitely stop the reconstruction of the Basilica and reimburse the public.

Luther also did not deny the efficacy of the Indulgences themselves. In Theses 71 and 72, he said:

71. He who speaks against the truth of apostolic pardons, let him anathema and accursed!

72. But he who guards against the lust and license of the pardon-preachers, let him be blessed!

His arguments were not against the pardons themselves, but the “hawkers” who were selling them.

At the time of the writing of the 95 Theses, Luther’s more radical ideas had not yet developed. He had not yet denied the power of the Pope, and he had not yet denied the efficacy of the Indulgences. Luther would move on to deny all of these things in the future, but at this point he was still working out his ideas.

The Catholic Church on the Eve of Reform

In the years preceding the Church reforms of the 15th century there were many abuses of Church office, and degeneration among the clergy and the laity. This is not to say that the Church on the eve of reform was totally degenerate. On the contrary, there were many important saints during this period, and several important theological works of literature. The degeneration of this time can be attributed to the effects of the Black Death, and subsequently those of the Renaissance.

During this period (14th-15th centuries) there were vastly different ideologies concerning what a reformation should encompass. On the one hand there were the protestant reformers and on the other there was the Catholic Church itself. The Catholic Church’s idea of reform was to fix all of the existing institutions that had become corrupt. The protestants’ idea of reform was far more radical, and entailed the abolition of these institutions. The Catholic Church did eventually accomplish its ends in self-reform at the Council of Trent which took place from 1545 to 1563.

Concerning the actual condition of the Church, various abuses had sneaked in. Mass attendance was not at its greatest, but people still had religious fervor. Attraction to the more dramatic aspects of religion was popular. Preachers drew in thousands of people, among which were St. Vincent Ferrer, St. John Capistano, St. Bernadino of Siena, and the unfortunate Girolamo Savonarola who was a fanatic that even took control of Florence with his rhetoric, but met a grisly end. In this period there was also a lot of superstition and a focus on death. These may be attributed to the disastrous effects of the Black Death, which shook everybody’s belief in God and in the Church. The Renaissance played an important part in the secularization of society and the general degeneration of religious fervor as well. The Popes of the Renaissance were especially focused on things that were of little religious significance, such as art, wealth, and power. Possibly the most notorious Pope, Alexander VI, was from this period. Wars of this time were often savage and cruel. It was common practice to slaughter all of the inhabitants of a city under siege if they did not surrender. There were also many cruel rulers and monarchs during this time. Some priests even refused Holy Communion to those sentenced to death.

Among the clergy there was a great desire for money. This was not always due to greed because churches were often destitute and priests had no way of funding themselves. This may be an effect of poor Mass attendance during this time, as churches survived off of donations from the congregation. There was also the abuse of absenteeism. Bishops and priests held offices for the incomes that they produced, but were not actually present to perform their duties. At one point priests were so absent that they were urged to celebrate Mass at least four times a year when they should have been celebrating it every single day. There were no seminaries until the Council of Trent instituted them, so priests were often not properly educated in theology. This made it difficult for them to defend against the heresies of the protestants.

Despite all of these abuses, there were many saintly people from this period that are still venerated. Very important was St. Joan of Arc, who led the French in retaliation against the English during the Hundred Years’ War. Her most notable victory was at the siege of Orléans in 1429. Also there was St. Bridget of Sweden and St. Catherine of Siena, who encouraged Pope Gregory XI to move the papacy from Avignon back to Rome, which he did. St. Colette was another important figure. She was very involved in Monastic reform, but soon discovered that the Church was desperately in need of all-encompassing reform, which sadly she knew she could not accomplish. Important literary works of this period include The Art of Contemplation by Raymond Lull, The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, and Treatise on the Ten Commandments by Jean de Gerson.

Although this period saw the Church in desperate need of reform, it was not by any means totally corrupt. One of the most widely known saints of all time, St. Joan of Arc, was active in this period. In addition to the radical reform of the protestants, there were attempts (ultimately successful ones) to reform the Church in a way that kept all of its traditional institutions. The Black Death, and subsequently the Renaissance, may also have played an important part in the overall degeneration of piety at this time.