Today is the day on which Protestants commemorate the anniversary of the day in 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church, thus sparking the Protestant Reformation. The Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences ( Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum) were written by Martin Luther in 1517 and are widely regarded as the catalyst for the Protestant Reformation. The disputation protests against clerical abuses, especially nepotism, simony, usury, pluralism, and, most especially, the sale of indulgences.
The Theses reject the validity of indulgences, that is, pardons that were sold for the forgiveness of sin. Luther argues that the sale of indulgences was a gross violation of the original intention of confession and penance, and that Christians were being falsely told that they could find absolution through the purchase of indulgences.
All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg where the Ninety-Five Theses famously appeared, held one of Europe’s largest collections of holy relics. These had been piously collected by Frederick III of Saxony. At that time, pious veneration of relics supposedly allowed the viewer to receive relief from temporal punishment for sins in Purgatory. By 1520, Frederick had over 19,000 relics, purportedly “including vials of the milk of the Virgin Mary, straws from the manger [of Jesus], and the body of one of the innocents massacred by King Herod” – without doubt, all frauds sold by unscrupulous dealers.
As part of a fund-raising campaign commissioned by Pope Leo X to finance the renovation of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Johann Tetzel, a Dominican priest, began the selling of indulgences in the German lands. Albert of Mainz, the Archbishop of Mainz in Germany, had borrowed heavily to pay for his high church rank and was deeply in debt. He agreed to allow the sale of the indulgences in his territory in exchange for a cut of the proceeds. Luther was apparently not aware of this. Even though Luther’s prince, Frederick III, and the prince of the neighboring territory, George, Duke of Saxony, forbade their sale in their respective lands, people in Wittenberg traveled to purchase them. When these people came to confession, they presented their plenary indulgences for which they paid, claiming they no longer had to repent of their sins, since the document promised to forgive all their sins. Luther was outraged that they had paid money for what was theirs by right as a free gift from God. He felt compelled to expose the fraud that was being sold to the people. This exposure was to take place in the form of a public scholarly debate at the University of Wittenberg. The Ninety-Five Theses outlined the items to be discussed and issued the challenge to any and all comers.
Luther objected to a saying attributed to Johann Tetzel that “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory [also attested as ‘into heaven’] springs.” He insisted that since forgiveness was God’s alone to grant, those who claimed that indulgences absolved buyers from all punishments and granted them salvation were in error. Christians, he said, must not slacken in following Christ on account of such false assurances.
On 31 October 1517, Luther posted the ninety-five theses, which he had composed in Latin, on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, according to university custom when a scholar wished to initiate a debate. On the same day, Luther sent a hand-written copy, with honorable comments appended, to the archbishop Albert of Mainz and Magdeburg, who was in charge of the indulgence sales, and to the bishop of Brandenburg, Luther’s superior at the time. Hans Hillerbrand writes that Luther had no intention of challenging the church but saw his dispute as a scholarly objection to church actions, and the voice of the letter is accordingly “searching, rather than doctrinaire.” Hillerbrand writes that there is nevertheless an undertone of confrontation and dispute in several of the theses, especially in Thesis 86, which poses the question: “Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of Saint Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?”
Within two weeks, copies of the Theses had spread throughout Germany; within two months throughout Europe. In January 1518 Christoph von Scheurl and other friends of Luther translated the Ninety-Five Theses from Latin into German, printed, and widely copied them, making the controversy one of the first in history to be aided by the printing press.
On 15 June 1520, Pope Leo X issued a rebuttal to Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, a papal encyclical titled Exsurge Domine (“Arise, O Lord”), from its opening words. This document outlined where the pope believed Luther had erred, and firmly asserted that the pope was the sole authority on these matters.
As early as 29 October 1521, the chapel at Wittenberg began to turn away from private masses, that is, masses paid for by the wealthy for themselves and dead relatives to limit their time in Purgatory. In 1522, much of the city began celebrating Lutheran services instead of Roman Catholic services. Luther’s popularity grew rapidly, mostly because the general Roman Catholic church members were dissatisfied with the corruption and worldly desires and habits of the Roman Curia.
As the Reformation progressed, another element drew adherents to the ideas and practices that gradually became known as Lutheranism. Luther and others had urged that greater balance be observed in the attention given to the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures versus the long-accepted sources of tradition and reason in the formation of doctrine. This concept, called “sola scriptura,” offered a basis for querying the tight hold Catholic prelates then had over both the content of faith and over practices such as the sale of indulgences. As availability of the recently invented movable type printing press spread, literacy also began to grow among a wider population that was increasingly getting exposed to books and began to hear the Bible read aloud in the vernacular at church. The laity, now able to read and examine traditional Catholic doctrine, was encouraged to test its faithfulness to Scriptures, resulting in a new emphasis on personal faith and piety instead of relying on the priesthood to interpret scripture. Thus arose a need for informed interpretation of the Scriptures, so that attendance at public preaching and lecturing events grew. Individuals became more invested in understanding and living out their faith. Naturally the church, whose stranglehold on doctrine had been complete, were deeply threatened.
By disseminating his theses, Luther was acting as the spokesman for a general shift that was taking place throughout Europe, where the general authority of the pope and the church were being challenged. Luther’s movement had many forerunners, most especially Jan Hus and John Wycliffe a century earlier, but they failed to take hold owing to their brutal suppression by a church tha had no intention of giving up wealth and power. Luther, and Lutheranism, succeeded because he had the support of rulers who wanted to rid themselves of papal authority in their states and were willing to go to war for their freedom.
Wittenberg lies on the Elbe River in what was then Saxony and is now Saxony-Anhalt. The cuisine of the region is similar to German cuisine in general but with distinctive dishes as well. Fishing was once prominent in the Elbe River, which contains 33 of the 40 species of fish caught in the region. Sadly however, mercury, hexachlorobenzene, DDT, musk compounds and heptachlor have severely polluted the river and in consequence commercial fishing has been banned since 1989. Fortunately there are other favorites besides river fish, such as, Leipziger Allerlei (Leipzig mixed vegetables), Ochsenschwanz (oxtails), Pfefferkuchen (gingerbread), Fürst Pückler Eis (Count Pückler ice cream), Schwemmklösschen (dumplings), Eierschecke (lemony cheesecake), Bienenstich (“Bee Sting” cake), and Dresdener Christstollen (Dresden Christmas cake).
2 cups beef broth
½ lb. baby carrots
½ lb. asparagus, cut in 1 inch pieces
1 small cauliflower, separated into rosettes
2 cups fresh green peas
½ lb. mushrooms, sliced
2 tbsp. butter
1 tbsp. flour
½ cup cream
salt, white pepper, nutmeg to taste
2 tbsp. chopped parsley
Bring the broth to a boil in a large pot.
Add the carrots and simmer 5 minutes.
Add the cauliflower, peas, and asparagus and simmer 8 minutes.
Add the mushrooms and simmer 10 minutes.
Drain the vegetables and reserve the broth.
Make a white roux by melting the butter in a heavy skillet over medium heat and slowly whisking in the flour. Do not allow it to take on color.
Turn off the heat and slowly whisk in the reserved broth. Let the mixture gently heat and then add the cream, salt and pepper to taste, and nutmeg.
Add the cooked vegetables back into the sauce and serve garnished with parsley.