Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Did Luther Intentionally Post the '95 Theses' on All Hallows Eve?

Did Luther intentionally post the '95 Theses' to the church door in Wittenberg on the eve of All Hallows (a.k.a. All Saints), or was it a happy coincidence? I suspect it was intentional as that was a spiritually charged date in the church calendar, a fact Luther would have been all too aware of (not to mention that the Schlosskirche was dedicated to All Hallows, which, combined with its extensive collection of relics, would have had the town humming with visitors that day). All Hallow's Eve marked beginning of Allhallowtide, a three day festival period in the medieval church which, by the late middle ages, had come to be swathed in superstition. These superstitions arose from the practice of devoting this time to praying for, offering alms for, doing works of penance for and purchasing indulgences for the souls of the dead in Purgatory.

This focus on the dead led to the telling of ghost stories becoming a popular custom at this time. Ghosts were believed to be a visitation of the dead to this world to remind relatives of the need for prayers and other religious works to be offered for them - including, most importantly, the sacrificial work of the mass - so that their souls might obtain sufficient merit to pass from Purgatory to Heaven. While we may be temtped to consign these superstitions to the past, they in fact persist to this day in some Roman Catholic circles: a parishioner advised me in all seriousness that a Catholic relative received a phone call from her dead husband admonishing her for not having masses for the repose of his soul said! 

It was not for nothing, then, that Luther labelled "poltergeists" as the fifth in his list of abuses of the church of Rome which had thankfully been rooted out among the Evangelical churches (Exhortation to All Clergy Assembled at Augsburg, 1530, LW 34:54). Luther's rediscovery of the Gospel freed the church not only from the false doctrine of salvation by works (or faith + works) but also from these related sub-Christian superstitions and practices by which a fearful people were held in bondage to a false notion of the way of salvation. 

One does not suggest that the Roman hierarchy today approves of such superstitions, but it should be noted that the whole apparatus of Purgatory, including the efficacy of masses, alms, prayers and penitential works offered for the "poor souls" there, remains very much a part of Roman doctrine and practice (cf. 'Catechism of the Catholic Church', para. 1032). How all this co-exists after the much touted "breakthrough" of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, which supposedly achieved "substantial agreement" on the doctrine at the heart of the Gospel, is something I've never received a clear answer to from either Lutheran or Catholic theologians who support it. The usual response is the admonishment to be patient for "Rome takes time to change". Rome change? Is she not rather semper eadem? Rome will never change what it erroneously regards as a part of the deposit of faith entrusted to her. In light of this, celebrations of Reformation Day are not out of date, but as relevant as ever - for the sake of the Gospel.  

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