First, a caution – this is the day most people BELIEVE Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five Theses to the door of the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg. It’s the day he sent them to the Archbishop of Maintz and people assume that both events occurred together – enough to make this the officially-celebrated Reformation Day for the Lutheran and Calvinist churches – but it’s not completely confirmed.
The key issue in the Theses was the Church’s practice of granting indulgences – essentially telling people they could buy their way into Heaven. By this point, it had become incredibly widespread – to a certain extent, Church economics actually depended on the sale of indulgences. Luther argued that this led Christians to avoid true repentance and sorrow for their sins – and discouraged them from actively working to be good and charitable since their indulgence certificates would cover everything.
Henry VIII reacted with horror to Luther’s attack on the Church, and responded to him with his own theological treatise: The Defense of the Seven Sacraments, which he dedicated to Pope Leo X. For this, the Pope awarded Henry the title Defender of the Faith, which Henry was so proud of that he kept it even after his break with the Catholic Church. (Fun Fact: Henry’s defense of the church was so strong that Thomas More – of all people! – suggested he tone it down a bit. Henry refused and it provided an interesting contrast when he did his 180 several years later….)
Interestingly, when Luther wrote his Theses, he did not believe that his beliefs diverged from the Catholic church – there had been criticisms of the practice in the past without any hint of schism. It was the Church’s reaction to Luther’s accusations that started the Reformation, and led Luther to other key theological positions such as justification by faith alone (the idea that belief alone can lead to salvation) and the bondage of the will (the idea that humanity cannot in fact have free will because they are overwhelmed by the influence of sin).
In any event, it was five hundred years ago today that Luther took his stand, five hundred years ago tonight that Luther and his friends raised a glass of beer to commemorate the “trampling out of indulgences.” Personally I intend to celebrate with wine, but I think Luther would be just fine with that…