08 June 2017
500 years since Martin Luther wrote his Ninety-five theses, we are delighted that Richard Rex's first tour with ACE has been so well received and we wish the group well before they depart in August. We decided to catch up with Richard to find out what particularly drew him to the subject of Martin Luther and why 2017 is an important anniversary in the history of the reformation.
ACE Interviews... Richard Rex
"This summer I’m going to be leading the tour In the Footsteps of Martin Luther: 500 Years of the Reformation that will explore Martin Luther’s personal theological development and his role both in the Reformation and the later course of German history through visiting some of the sites that were most important in his life.
The reason that the tour is being organised in 2017 is of course that this is the 500th anniversary of the famous posting of the Ninety-five Theses in 1517.
Whilst Luther is often thought of as a Protestant, it is important to consider Luther as a Catholic. Luther emerged from the religious culture of late medieval Catholic Germany and unless you get some sense of what that culture was, you don’t actually fully understand where Luther came from and where he was going.
The Ninety-five Theses were a kind of protest or discussion about ‘indulgences’, which were an important part of the religious landscape in early modern Germany.
‘Indulgences’ were a way of helping yourself or others on the path to ultimate salvation through reducing their time of suffering after death in purgatory.
People often think that indulgences were some dreadful abuse in the late medieval church and that people were itching for someone to expose the fraud and corruption that surrounded them.
Actually it was quite the opposite – everyone wanted indulgences, what Luther did was to challenge something that was a major feature of often everyday piety.
1517 Nuremberg printing of Martin Luther's Ninety-five theses
Luther’s protest against them didn’t occur because indulgences were unpopular but because they were popular, it was founded on the idea that in a sense ‘indulgences’ made salvation too easy.
Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses are often called the start of the Reformation but one of the things I’ll be suggesting on the tour is that the Reformation didn’t really start in 1517 with the posting of the Ninety-five Theses… what started then was Martin Luther.
It was the furore that they created that made Martin Luther a household name in early modern Germany.
Oddly enough in the end Luther himself looking back said, indulgences are not that important! And actually he’s right – Luther’s protest against the ‘indulgences’ was important because it established him as a major public figure, but actually the real importance of the Reformation story lies in what happened next.
Luther’s Ninety-five Theses became the subject of public debate throughout Germany in a remarkably short time. Luther himself became what we might term a media figure, a celebrity – anything he said and anything he wrote was saleable.
Over the next year or two Luther emerges as one of the most widely read living authors of his time in Germany and it’s through precisely this same period that Luther’s own theology is undergoing a crucial evolution, which led him to formulate essentially a new interpretation of the Christian faith.
He of course met with opposition from conservative Catholic figures from across Germany and beyond. Amongst his trials and tribulations in this regard were challenges to his views at public appearances and a summons to Rome, to face formal investigation – a summons which he wisely declined to take up.
Eventually it led to a papal condemnation of his doctrines which came at a time when they were gathering increasing grassroots support throughout Germany.
This process culminated in what in English is often termed the ‘Diet of Worms’, better termed in German as the Reichstag zu Worms, where Luther was invited to recant his now condemned views but famously took his stand upon – as he saw it – the Bible alone, and insisted that he would never recant.
Having been engaged over the last two or three years in writing my own study of Luther and in particular his theological development, I was especially interested in seeing the places associated with his life and work.
Probably because I know a lot about Martin Luther already, the trip didn’t end up telling me a lot more about him. What it did end up teaching me was something I hadn’t understood at all before I saw these places which is how important Luther was not for Protestantism but for Germany and the extent to which somehow Luther has become perhaps the defining figure of German history, or at least a certain version of it.
Germany as it were didn’t exist and therefore had to be invented, and in the invention of Germany, Luther ended up playing a crucial role and that exploration of Luther’s role in later German history is as interesting as the examination of Luther’s role in the context of his own times.
I hope to portray an account of Luther which is not quite so heroic as the traditional narrative might have us believe but the sense of this persistent presence of Luther through the longue durée of German history.
For getting some sort of access to Luther through these places, I think it is Wittenburg that does that. The building where he spent most of his adult life still stands, the doorway which Catarina his wife had built for him to celebrate one of his senior birthdays is still there, that does connect you with Luther in some way.
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