Back in a November post on this stream I summarized Luther’s radical insights into the nature of Scripture, conscience and the Church, an enlightenment focused in time with his famous posting of 95 theses or contentions in 1517. The language of his contentions—provoked by the selling of indulgences as “guarantees of salvation” was brusque, notably thesis 86, “Why does not the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?” And, his theological views were radical in multiple senses. Not only did he question absolute Church authority, as in the matter of indulgences, but he placed ultimate determination of salvation in the disposition of the heart, above the claims of canonical jurisprudence. As Eric Metaxas [see home page] puts it well, for Luther “the Christian faith was an affair of the heart and the whole person.” [p. 78] So it is not a ridiculous question to ask why the Church did not “lock him up?”
For all of that, Luther set forth his ideas as matters for academic and ecclesiastical debate, not marching orders to rebel bands. He was not the first to call for radical renewal; the famous monk Hildebrand—later to become Pope [St.] Gregory VII, led a wholesale reform against church ills, including clerical concubinage, in the eleventh century. Around 1200 Francis of Assisi experienced a vision from God in which he is told “Go, Francis, and repair my house which, as you see, is well-nigh in ruins.” Francis’ movement of reform, based upon his rule drawn from the evangelical counsels of Jesus, was never threatened by Rome because Francis cultivated close relationships with cardinals and popes, including the mighty Innocent III.
Even in his own day there were other Catholic thinkers who agreed with the general ideas of Luther’s writing and preaching. Probably the most noted of these was the Dutch humanist theologian Desiderius Erasmus [1469-1536]. Erasmus may have been best mind produced by the humanist Renaissance. His scholarship in Church history, particularly the Patristic era or the age of the early Church Fathers, convinced him that Church reform rested upon a return to its ancient wisdom, practice, and spirituality [a method today called Ressourcement, employed by the fathers of Vatican II.] Erasmus was also an unequalled philologer and translator; he discovered errors in the 1100-year-old Latin Vulgate Bible then in use, which Luther would have found very useful as a biblical scholar. Erasmus saw himself in later years as a unifier in the growing divisions of Protestant and Roman Catholic adherents, a position which brought suspicion upon him from both sides, though he always professed loyalty to the Catholic Church and died in the Church.
What Luther was calling for was a local academic and community discussion of the issues raised by the sale of indulgences in his region, a discussion we might compare to “peer evaluation.” Universities throughout Europe were Catholic to varying degrees of intensity, and the places where such discussions were normally conducted. Nor would it be unusual to invite the local bishop and even the local prince of the region. The famous Halloween posting on the cathedral door in Wittenberg is a later embellishment of Luther’s presentation of the 95 theses to Bishop Albrecht of Mainz, who had authorized the sale of indulgences in Luther’s region in the first place. Luther explained to the archbishop that the trafficking in indulgences was causing scandal to the faithful, and that Albrecht had the influence to protect the faithful.
As Metaxas observes, “…what Luther had no idea about when he wrote and sent this letter—and what his correspondent [Albrecht] had no idea about either—was that Luther had now put his finger on an issue that was but the uppermost excrescence of something else, something that was at least enormous, something with a root system so very deep and exceedingly vast that it stretched to the nethermost blind crevasses of hell itself.” [p. 110] That Luther’s theses would divide all of Christendom was something no one could see in 1517, and certainly not an outcome Luther would have joyfully longed for.
Albrecht, unfortunately, had ugly secrets far beyond the indulgence scandal that touched upon the legitimacy of Church governance and authority itself. Albrecht, a very ambitious churchman, much desired the see of Mainz, and after considerable wrangling, Pope Leo offered the title to Albrecht for a price, 23,000 ducats, a “staggering sum” per Metaxas. [For an overview of Pope Leo in this affair, see the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on Leo X, particularly the “Conflict with Luther” section.] Albrecht had no significant funds at this time, and thus turned to the wealthy bank, The House of Fugger, for a massive loan request with virtually no collateral. It was Pope Leo himself who provided a solution: Albrecht would authorize an aggressive campaign of the sale of indulgences in his own region, of which he would retain 50% of the proceeds to repay the House of Fugger.
Luther, ironically, was taking on greater corruption than he knew. He was incensed that Catholic faithful were being charged for a guarantee of salvation that only God could grant. But worse, and unknown to Luther and the purchasers, 50% of their offering was being siphoned off to pay for the political ambitions of their own episcopal shepherd.
One would think that, all things considered, Luther would have been at the very least silenced, or arrested and delivered to the Inquisition. But this did not happen because the governing prince [elector] of Saxony, Frederick, interjected his own agenda and in the process prolonged and gave wider exposure to Luther’s concerns. Luther would not suffer the fate of reformers before him such as Jan Huss and John Wycliffe, for he would have civil protection.