95 Theses

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Now, here’s a thing – ‘It has been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon…’ That was the regular opening to the monologue by Garrison Keillor on his radio programme ‘The Prairie Home Companion’ which ran in America in the 1980’s, with a later revival also.[1] ‘Lake Wobegon… where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.’  Keillor’s stories are the funniest I have ever read or heard (they are better heard, with Keillor’s flat mid-western tones and long pauses adding to them considerably).

I am just re-reading one of his later books – ‘We Are Still Married’ which reminded me that  Keillor’s background was in Lutheranism and he writes about that with affection and insight.  One of his essays was built around Martin Luther’s 95 Theses which in turn led me to think about that historic event on 31 October 1517, when Luther delivered his 95 Theses to the Bishop of Mainz and nailed them to the door of All Saints Church, Wittenburg.

Read today, the 95 Theses seem quite Catholic and moderate in their tone, aimed mostly at the practice of selling indulgences that allegedly gave some sort of eternal pardon and promise of entrance into Heaven. Number 1, for example, says:

 ‘Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, in saying, “Repent ye, etc.,” intended that the whole life of his believers on earth should be a constant penance.’

Number 7, oddly to our eyes says:

“God forgives none his sin without at the same time casting him penitent and humbled before the priest His vicar.”

It is worth noting that Luther himself thought some of his later works more important, but like famous film makers, later ones may be better but it is the first that brings them to public attention.

Many people cite this event as the beginning of the Reformation, although there had  already been stirrings of  reform by such as Jan Hus in Bohemia and John Wycliffe in England. The Reformation, of course, was not the work of men, but of the Holy Spirit. The institution of the Church had become overbearing and over-powering. Indeed, the clergy were seen as “the Church” with the people seen as subjects and supplicants only, expected to serve the Church and be grateful for whatever they received from it. As I mentioned in a previous one of these articles (“The Pillars of the Earth”) it just leaves you thinking ‘No you’re not the Church, the people are’.

There are lessons here for us today. The truth is that the Church can be subject to attacks from within and those attacks may be justified or not on the basis of their merits.  Just to be clear; Church unity is a prize to be highly valued, but when the Church strays too far from from the truth then it needs to be pulled back in the right direction – hopefully without the sort of schism that was necessary in the 17th Century. The truth is that Luther and the other reformers sought to take the Church back to its scriptural roots and to correct abuses and clear errors.  These things can creep up on us and new orthodoxies can emerge without us quite realising it.  Before we know it, the truth of scripture can be lost and with it eternal salvation for many. Luther’s emphasis was on true repentance – he became especially concerned when he heard people claiming that they no longer needed to repent and change their lives in order to be forgiven of sin. Sounds somewhat like a lot of what we hear today, doesn’t it?

[1] Original recordings available here: https://www.prairiehome.org/shows/58393.html