“Monday Musings” November 9, 2015
Volume V, No. 45/253
By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DSc (Hon), DLFAPA*
A week ago, Saturday October 31, 2015 was the 498th anniversary of Martin Luther’s affixing his 95 theses/questions on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Last week we had aimed at celebrating and observing the occasion, but we thought since Martin Luther’s birthday is coming up on November 10 (1483) we would combine the anniversary of the posting the theses and his 532ndbirthday together in one “MM”. When affixing the questions to the door of the church, Martin Luther had no idea that he was kicking up a huge ecclesiastic revolution in Christendom, later called Reformation and Protestantism. At your leisure go over the individual questions. You will find them all reasonable and docile. There is no flavor of reform, no hostility, no accusation and no demand, except benign curiosity seeking answers to issues practiced by the church; issues such as nepotism, usury, selling indulgence and grace. But some of his theses riled up the Pope Lorenzo De’ Medici (aka pope Leo X), leading to Luther’s ex-communication from the church and his trial called Diet of Worms in 1521. For example, consider question no. 86: “Why does not the pope, whose wealth is today greater than the riches of the richest, build just this one church of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with the money of poor believers?” or No. 76 questioning the conduct of the Pope and the church: “We say, on the contrary, that the papal pardons are not able to remove the very least of venial sins, so far as its guilt is concerned. “
Well, these activities led the church toward Reformation giving birth to Protestantism. To celebrate both the birth of affixing the 95 theses and the birth of the author, we are re-running an earlier “MM” (from November 11, 2013) on the brilliant reformer, and formidable theologian, Martin Luther (November 20, 1483- February 18, 1546). I am planning a trip to be in Wittenberg on October 31, 2017, the quincentennial anniversary of posting of the 95 theses.
November 10 is the natal anniversary of one of the most formidable children of God, Martin Luther of Eisleben, Germany. He was born 520 years ago, nine years before Christopher Columbus discovered America, and 21 years after the birth of Gutenberg, inventor of the printing press. Martin Luther was not a rip-roaring revolutionary. He did not set out to usher Protestantism in Europe and challenge the well-established Catholic Church and the papacy. He was a scholar, a rather reclusive and obscure Augustinian monk and a university professor. In 1517, he posted 95 questions on the door of the church, a common practice when disputation (discussion, exegesis, and examination) was routinely used to clarify a philosophical or theological issue. He innocently posed 95 questions of the established church. The questions caught fire and from that humble beginning, by 1521 he was catapulted to such prominence that even most peasants would recognize his name. Indeed, he was feared by the Pope and the Catholic establishment. He was openly defying the papacy and the Emperor. 1521 was the year Protestantism and the Lutheran Church were established. Martin Luther’s argument was simply the issue of corruption in the Catholic Church– selling grace, selling salvation, and implementing other slanderous devices to raise money to build Saint Peter’s Basilica. Being an Augustinian monk and well-grounded in Augustinian theology of grace, Martin Luther insisted that grace is given freely– It is not sold…Martin Luther maintained his steadfast Augustinian stand ‘sola fide, sola scriptura’ which means by faith and scripture alone (not by purchase of redemption and grace) one may find the pathway to salvation. He wrote about a quarter million words about faith. He concluded that faith must be ‘living’, expressed in concrete actions of altruism and love for one’s fellow humans. To exercise faith requires discipline, vigilance and sacrifice.
History of Protestantism
- Before Martin Luther, many ‘protestors’ had questioned the practice of selling grace by the Catholic Church. Among these protestors was John Huss (1369-1415), the Czech theologian, and founder the Hussite Church. Papal Inquisition which was a common practice of the 15th and 16th century condemned Huss as a heretic. He was burned at the stake. He is recorded in history books as the first martyr of the Hussite Church. Meantime, the air of dissatisfaction and malaise generated by the Catholic Church was prevalent among European peasants which constituted the vast majority of the European population. There was no middle class. The societal structure consisted of a few super rich land owners, those who worked in the government, and those secure in the hierarchy of the church and priesthood. The remaining 95% of the population were poor farmers and peasants. Historical demography suggests these people suffered illiteracy and servitude with no hope for advancement or opportunity to break loose from the shackles of slavery.
- Another factor which complicated matters was the general public had not recovered from the devastation of bubonic plague, 1347-1350. The plague wiped out three forth of Europe’s population, while the papacy, to protect itself against the plague, moved from Rome to Avignon, southern France, a safer territory. The public felt abandoned and neglected by the Church, breeding much anger. The European public continued to carry for some 70 years its pent up hostility against the Catholic Church. All these factors helped ignite and sustain the fire of protestant reform. From 1240 on, there were many voices raised in protest of the church practices but often, if not always, silenced by the force of organized papal inquisitions with the ultimate punishment of death by hanging or burning at the stake. But in 1521 the reform succeeded.
The influence of non-theological forces
- In addition to the lingering effect of Black Death seventy years earlier, other social injustices generated immense pent up anger in the vast majority of peasants. The unequal distribution of wealth, where 93% of wealth was controlled by less than 10% of the people, helped the maturation of the notion of Protestantism. Other factors included high infant mortality which in Central Europe was between 15 to 35%, with another 10 to 20% of children dying before age 10 years, helped inflame the public dissatisfaction and anger. Other forces were exposure to famine, epidemic diseases and the ravages of wars. These factors collectively made people lose faith in the authority of the government, the church and priests. The people were numbed by societal injustice. And finally by the time Martin Luther started publishing his theses, thanks to Guttenberg, the magical printing press became available enabling Martin Luther to disseminate his work widely through throughout northern Europe. All these forces pushed our birthday hero to pursue answers to his original 95 questions, setting the world on fire of protestation.
Martin Luther, a musician and polymath
- Besides his theological and philosophical contributions and writings (his collected work exceeds five million words), Martin Luther was a hymnologist and an accomplished musician. The number of hymns the authorship of which is contributed to Martin Luther is in the hundreds. He encouraged return of music to church services. Martin Luther was a polymath. He was trained in law (he did not finish law school as his father wanted him because he found studying law to be boring!), theology, philosophy, epistemology, rhetoric, linguistics, political organization and music. He was the formidable author of more than five million words, among them some 3000 letters he wrote to friends, colleagues, students, fellow Augustinian monks, and fellow parishioners. I view Martin Luther as a representation of God and a role model in achieving one’s maximum potential.
Happy Birthday Brother Luther!”
*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, Life Member American Medical Association; Life Member, Southern Medical Association and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012).