The Protestant Reformation is usually held to date from October 31, 1517, the Eve of All Saints, when Martin Luther, a professor at Wittenberg University in Saxony, Germany, posted on the door of the Castle Church what he called “95 Theses for Disputation … Concerning Penance and Indulgences, in the desire and with the purpose of elucidating the truth.” “If a particular day may be selected as the birthday of the Reformation” said the late Anglican Bishop Herbert H. Henson, “it is perhaps impossible to select any other for the purpose” (Christian Liberty, pp. 104, 105). Why should this strictly academic proceeding—for such it was—of Martin Luther have developed into such a mighty religious upheaval as the Reformation?

The answer lies partly in the explosiveness of the subject with which the theses dealt, partly in the way Luther’s challenge was handled by the church authorities, and partly in the general situation of the church in Luther’s Germany, and indeed throughout Western Europe.

Luther’s theses had to do with indulgences. An indulgence may be described as a draft on the bank of heaven to pay for human sin. The underlying theory was that Jesus and his saints had accumulated a “treasury of merits.” This treasury was at the disposal of the pope, who could draw on it for the benefit of those sinners who were in arrears. Just how much could thus be effected was debatable. The moderate and traditional opinion held that an indulgence could remit only that punishment for sin which the Church had imposed. In 1476, however, Pope Sixtus IV (1471–84) had declared that an indulgence could shorten, and even end, the stay of a departed soul in purgatory. There was also an extreme view that an indulgence could not only remit penalties ...

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