Saturday, October 31, 2015

The 95 Theses: Nailed to the Church Door or Mailed to Ecclesiastical Authorities?

On the anniversary of the traditional beginning of the Reformation, here's a post from the Beggars All archives:

In the 1960's a Roman Catholic scholar took aim at one of the generally accepted facts of the Reformation: the nailing of the 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church door. Erwin Iserloh's book The Theses Were Not Posted: Luther Between Reform and Reformation challenges this dramatic aspect of Luther's story. He held the 95 Theses weren't nailed to the Wittenberg church door, but rather mailed to particular ecclesiastical superiors."Luther did not post the Theses but only sent them to Archbishop Albert of Mainz and Bishop Jerome Schulz of Brandenburg, the appropriate representatives of the church, for their approval" [LW 31:23].

Some of the Facts: Nailed or Mailed?
The genesis of Luther and the Wittenberg door story appears to have come from Melanchthon's Memoirs / Preface to the second volume of Luther's collected works (Wittenberg edition, 1546) [English, Latin]:
When Luther was in this course of study, venal Indulgences were circulated in these regions by Tecelius the Dominican, a most shameless Deceiver. Luther, angered by Tecelius' impious and execrable debates and, burning with the eagerness of piety, published Propositions concerning Indulgences, which are extant in the first volume of his writings, and he publicly attached these to the Temple, which is next to Witteberg Castle, on the day before the feast of all Saints, 1517.
Notice the Theses were "publicly attached" (or affixed). There's nothing at all about hammering a document to a door.  One other source from a few years before Melanchthon's text actually does though mention "doors," not "a door." Georg Rorer in 1540 mentioned "on the folding-doors of the churches" in a private note (see Franz Posset, The Real Luther, p. 23). Neither Melanchthon or Rorer were in Wittenberg in 1517, so whatever the origin of this story, it certainly wasn't an eyewitness account.

Luther himself never mentions anything about nailing the 95 Theses to the church door but rather explains how they were sent out to particular ecclesiastical authorities. The first bit of evidence is Luther's letter (or cover letter) to Albrecht from October 31, 1517 (LW 48:43) sent with a copy of the 95 Theses. Then in a letter dated March 5, 1518 to Christopher Scheurl, he states, "... As you are surprised that I did not send them [The 95 Theses] to you, I reply that my purpose was not to publish them, but first to consult a few of my neighbors about them, that thus I might either destroy them if condemned or edit them with the approbation of others. But now that they are printed and circulated far beyond my expectation." In a letter dated May 30, 1518 to Pope Leo he states, "So I published some propositions for debate, inviting only the more learned to discuss them with me, as ought to be plain to my opponents from the preface to my Theses." In a letter dated November [21?], 1518 to Elector Frederick,Luther states, "...[S]ome liars among ourselves falsely assert that I undertook the disputation on the Indulgences by your Grace’s advice, when the fact is, that not even my dearest friends were aware of it."He also states that previous to the 95 Theses becoming public, he sent two letters (to the Archbishop of Magdeburg / Mainz and the Bishop of Brandenburg). So from Luther's own accounts, he never mentions nailing the 95 Theses to the Wittenberg door. William Pauck notes,"...Luther, who had a tendency to speak freely about his career and who, in his later years, loved to reminisce, never mentioned the incident. Moreover, there are no other contemporary sources which support the old story" [Olin, John (ed.) Luther, Erasmus and the Reformation (Massachusetts: Fordham University Press, 1969, p. 52].

The Aftermath of Iserloh
Eugene Klug from Concordia Theological Seminary argued:
Someone has observed that it is in the nature of German university life that a professor’s claim to fame, the ability to excite and to attract students to his lecture hall, often lies in his capacity to spin the web of awe and mystique over his audience, or to strike new lode by coming up with some novel, unique, controversial, often “way-out” position. This appears to have been the case with Erwin Iserloh’s widely read and disputed The Theses Were Not Posted [Word And Scripture In Luther Studies Since World War II (Trinity Journal Volume 5:16)].
Klug then recommends Kurt Aland's response to Iserloh: Kurt Aland, Martin Luther’s 95 Theses (St. Louis: Concordia, 1967). Klug affirms "Aland shows that there is no solid evidence to throw into doubt Luther’s own rehearsal of the event as occurring on October 31, 1517, with the posting on the Castle Church doors" (p.16). On the other hand, Roman Catholic writer Franz Posset says "Kurt Aland... tried to defuse the presented source material and digressed from the essential problem" [The Real Luther, p. 23]. The basic response to Iserloh can be summed up as follows:

1. There's nothing in any of Luther's statements that rules out a posting of the 95 Theses.

2. Melanchthon is to be considered a reliable source of information (as is Rorer) because of their close relationship with Luther. Even though Melanchthon's memoirs have minor errors, it is nonetheless reliable.

3. Wouldn't a contemporary of Melanchthon have questioned such a blaring historical error?

Argument #1 is an argument from silence. Argument #3 is weak, because (as far as I know) no contemporary of Melanchthon's stepped up to correct any of Melanchthon's minor errors. As far as I can navigate this controversy, the entire thing rests on whether or not one trusts the account of Philip Melanchthon. Roman Catholic scholar Franz Posset has recently written quite convincingly that Melanchthon's memoirs of Luther are to be trusted more or less, but yet states, "Did Rorer and Melanchthon concoct the Posting in good faith? It looks like it" [The Real Luther, p. 23]. I'm not so sure though that "it looks like it" settles anything.

Richard Marius rightly points out that "Luther always claimed to have gone through channels, and Iserloh takes him seriously, concluding that the Theses were not posted" (Martin Luther, The Christian Between God and Death, p. 138). Marius then asserts that "Protestant scholars have reacted with dismay at the shattering of an icon" which is indeed overstating the case. In an earlier work Marius calls this controversy a "furious scholarly debate" and Iserloh "succeeded in raising a bellow of outrage from those current disciples of Luther who cannot bear to lose a single glitter of their idol's glamour" [Luther, a Biography (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1974) p. 70]. Marius has given this controversy more importance than it actually has.

It should be mentioned that even though a Roman Catholic, Iserloh was sympathetic to Luther. Otto Pesch points out that,
Iserloh's booklet of a few years ago on Luther's 95 Theses drew considerable attention. Even the treatment of this question from church history is characterized by a concern to present a true picture of the man Luther, and Iserloh was happy about the findings in his booklet, which rejects the story of Luther's nailing his theses onto the church door, not least because they succeeded in minimizing the picture of Luther as an angry revolutionary and placed the event which started the Reformation, stripped of all theatrical sensationalism, back into the form of a sober academic dispute [Otto Pesch, “Twenty Years of Catholic Luther Research” Lutheran World, 13, 1966, p. 305].
While I'm not any sort of scholar, I wouldn't be at all dismayed to find out the nails going into the Wittenberg door is the stuff of legend. Someone may say: "Who cares if the 95 Theses were nailed or mailed?" I can understand such a response.  What interests me about this is that to be consistent, I can't simply focus on the many Roman Catholic myths without taking a closer look at some of their charges of Protestant myth making from time to time. It is indeed the case that Luther's 95 Theses went 16th Century viral rather quickly. It is indeed plausible that the 95 Theses were posted as Melanchthon asserts.

The only real question in this controversy: is Melanchthon to be trusted? Unless someone can definitively prove that he cannot be on this point, Luther nailing the 95 Theses to the Wittenberg Door will remain part of the Luther story. If one reads Melanchthon's account, he doesn't appear to make it an outstanding central fact to Luther's story. That is, I see no reason why Luther's dramatic history needed to be embellished or concocted by Melanchthon with Rorer.

Addendum: Rorer's Note
This is from Cyberbrethren:
In 2006, Martin Treu from the Luther Memorials Foundation of Saxony- Anhalt rediscovered a handwritten comment by Luther’s secretary Georg Rörer (1492-1557) in the Jena University and State Library, which although printed, had so far played no role in research. Right at the end of the desk copy for the revision of the New Testament in 1540, Rörer made the following note: „On the evening before All Saints’ Day in the year of our Lord 1517, theses about letters of indulgence were nailed to the doors of the Wittenberg churches by Doctor Martin Luther.”

Now Rörer was also not an eye-witness, but he was one of Luther’s closest staff. The copy of the New Testament, in which he made his note, contains many entries in Luther’s own hand. The note right at the end of the volume leads us to assume that it was made at the conclusion of the revision work in November 1544. Directly beside it is another note, according to which Philipp Melanchthon arrived in Wittenberg on August 20, 1518, at ten o’ clock in the morning. This information is not to be found anywhere else and presumably came directly from Melanchthon himself. Rörer’s reference to the Wittenberg churches in the plural must be emphasized, as it corresponds to the statutes of the university. According to these, all public announcements had to be nailed to the doors of the churches.

Monday, October 19, 2015

What Posts Catholic Answers Deem Ecumenical

The moderators over at the Catholic Answers discussion forum have a knack for deleting my posts or charging me with devious behavior. Here's the sort of love notes they appear to not have any problem with:

Yesterday, 3:24 pm
Senior Member
Join Date: November 23, 2012
Posts: 9,641
Religion: Catholic
Default Re: Martin Luther's translation of the bible.........

Originally Posted by FollowChrist34 View Post

Yee shall knowe them by their fruits: Doe men gather grapes of thornes, or figges of thistles?
1. New International Version
for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,

2. New International Version
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.

3. Martin Luther: I have no clue if he said this or not quite honestly but we are dung heps
covered with snow; he did have a bathroom fixation it seemd.

4. Might go along with #3

Isaiah 64:6New International Version (NIV)

All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
and like the wind our sins sweep us away.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Challenging the Significance of Luther's Bible... on Catholic Answers

Via the Catholic Answers forums discussion, Martin Luther's translation of the bible........., I came across a fascinating article: The Contested History of a Book: The German Bible of the Later Middle Ages and Reformation in Legend, Ideology, and Scholarship by Andrew Gow (University of Alberta). The author takes a helpful look at the significance and impact of pre-Reformation Bibles. There's a lot to chew on in this article. Overall it's probably one of the best concise contemporary overviews on this subject I've ever read in regard to pre-Reformation Bibles.

Some of the Catholic Answers participants are up to their usual shenanigans. One participant citing the article asks,

[W]as [Luther] lying or just mistaken when he said this?

"In his ‘Table Talk’, Luther is reported to have presented an example of the ‘extreme blindness’ under the Papacy, on the 22nd of February, 1538, namely that “Thirty years ago, no-one read the Bible, and it was unknown to all. The prophets were not spoken of and were considered impossible to understand. And when I was twenty years old, I had never seen a Bible. I thought that the Gospels or Epistles could be found only in the postills [lectionaries] for the Sunday readings... "

From the actual context of the article, the author (Gow) doesn't appear to think it's "lying." In the very same paragraph the above comes from, the author states:
"Memory plays tricks, and an old man’s reminiscences about a period for the putative end of which he had come to consider himself to have been a cause might not be the best source of information for historical inquiry."   And then later in the same article in regard to Luther's claim of the unavailability of the Bible ( and the related infamous Bible kept "under the bench" comment): "Both contemporary Catholic polemicists as well as those of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries tried hard to show that Luther was exaggerating or lying." Here we see one of Rome's unwritten traditions alive and well: Luther was a liar.

One other related issue brought up in the Catholic Answers discussion is: who during the Reformation period was able to actually read a Bible? Rich people? How many were literate? Gow's article makes an interesting comment as to who it was reading Luther's Bible:
Luther’s 1522 ‘September Testament’ was immediately and wildly successful, selling out rapidly and experiencing multiple reprintings in the same year. As Johannes Cochlaeus, one of Luther’s fiercest opponents, later wrote with some venom, 
"Luther’s translation was read (as the source of all wisdom, no less) by tailors and shoemakers, even women and simpletons, many of whom carried it around and learned it by heart, and eventually became bold enough to dispute with priests, monks, even masters and doctors of Holy Scripture about faith and the gospels."
Medieval prelates’ fears had come true, Cochlaeus is informing us. He tells the story in this form not necessarily because these were the only people reading the Luther Bible, but because they were precisely the unqualified readers of Scripture the medieval church had sought to discourage or exclude.
This is actually one of the most significant comments from the article that the Catholic Answers folks should dwell on.  Here the issue of authority comes front and center.  One can quibble about which Bibles came before Luther, how important they were, how accurate they were, how expensive they were, who could read them, etc. These sorts of tedious Internet discussions go on endlessly as people cut-and-paste facts off the internet intending to prove their position owns history.

Luke tells us the Bereans "were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true" (Acts 17:11).  This is exactly what "tailors and shoemakers, even women and simpletons" were doing with Rome's Biblical interpretation and ultimate authority claims. Rome's medieval defenders like Cochlaeus would have it the other way around: the Bereans first had to be authorized by Paul to hear his message and then authorized to read the Bible to see if what Paul said was true. That is, the authority is assumed before it's proved.

The current generation of Rome's cyber-defenders (like those on Catholic Answers) ultimately want people to accept the absolute authority of their infallible magisterium, and that they are the ones qualified to interpret the Bible and that those not accepting this authority are not qualified. There's not much of a difference in intent between the complaint of Cochlaeus and Rome's modern cyber-warriors.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Two respectful discussions about the Qur'an and the Bible - Dr. James White and Imam Muhammad Musri

The world at this time needs this kind of discussion and debate.  We can disagree without resorting to sinful anger, ad hominem arguments, insults or violence.

Dr. White did an excellent job; and the Imam was very respectful and showed better knowledge of the issues than most Muslims.  He had to be corrected on the common mistake that Muslims repeat that "The Council of Nicea and Constantine decided which books belong in the canon".

Canon Issues have to be constantly talked about, because:
1.  Liberal scholarship constantly attacks the dates of the NT books and distorts the canon process.
2.  The claims of the Roman Catholic Church put the Church over the canon, and that needs to be challenged also.

Dr. White gave the Imam 2 books on the canon by Dr. Michael J. Kruger.

The Canon Revisited

The Question of Canon

These are two good blog series also by Michael J. Kruger on the canon:

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Tetzel: "For every mortal sin a man commits he must, after making a good confession, suffer seven years in purgatory, unless he has done seven years penance"

Here's one from the mailbox:

Hi James. I hope this email reaches you. I am a PhD student in History.  I am frantically searching for the source of this letter, written by John Tetzel:

Tell your people,” he wrote, “that for every mortal sin a man commits he must, after making a good confession, suffer seven years in purgatory, unless he has done seven years penance. Bid them think how many mortal sins a day are committed, how many each week, each month, each year. All but infinite, then, are the pains they must undergo in the flames of purgatory. This indulgence will mean for them full remission of all the punishment due to them up to the time they gain the indulgence. And for the rest of their lives, whenever they go to confession the priest will have the power to grant them a similar indulgence; and they will receive an indulgence again in the very moment when they pass from this life to the next.”

Can you help? Thanks in advance.

Yes, I can help.  The quote appears to be a condensed version of this extract from a Tetzel sermon.  Note the similarities below (placed in bold type). See also my blog entry here.
You may obtain letters of safe conduct from the vicar of our Lord Jesus Christ, by means of which you are able to liberate your soul from the hands of the enemy, and convey it by means of contrition and confession, safe and secure from all pains of Purgatory, into the happy kingdom. For know, that in these letters are stamped and engraven all the merits of Christ's passion there laid bare. Consider, that for each and every mortal sin it is necessary to undergo seven years of penitence after confession and contrition, either in this life or in Purgatory. How many mortal sins are committed in a day, how many in a week, how many in a month, how many in a year, how many in the whole extent of life! They are well-nigh numberless, and those that commit them must needs suffer endless punishment in the burning pains of Purgatory. But with these confessional letters you will be able at any time in life to obtain full indulgence for all penalties imposed upon you, in all cases except the four reserved to the Apostolic See. Thence throughout your whole life, whenever you wish to make confession, you may receive the same remission, except in cases reserved to the Pope, and afterwards, at the hour of death, a full indulgence as to all penalties and sins, and your share of all spiritual blessings that exist in the church militant and all its members. Do you not know that when it is necessary for anyone to go to Rome, or undertake any other dangerous journey, he takes his money to a broker and gives a certain per cent—five or six or ten—in order that at Rome or elsewhere he may receive again his funds intact, by means of the letters of this same broker? Are you not willing, then, for the fourth part of a florin, to obtain these letters, by virtue ofwhich you may bring, not your money, but your divine and immortal soul, safe and sound into the land of Paradise?
I'm fairly confident that the quote you sent me is from the very context of this sermon selection. I've worked through many of these sorts of things before. The language of the quote is very similar to that sermon. Keep in mind that there is not a lot of Tetzel available in English, so I would be greatly surprised if the quote you sent me is from something different than the sermon snippet posted above.  
The source of the sermon is cited as, "From the Latin. Gieseler: Ecclesiastical History, Vol. V., pp. 225-26." This source can be found here. There you will find the Latin version of part of Tetzel's sermon. The author also notes, "Tetzel also issued an Instructio summaria for the parochial clergy, in what they were to go to work in behalf of the indulgence..." This is probably the "letter" you're referring to.  The source goes back at least one more step to Herr D. Löscher, Reformationsacten, whom I think, published in the 18th century. I do not have access to that. It may be online somewhere, I don't know.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Luther's Practical Advice on Honoring the Saints

Here's a snippet from The Festival Sermons of Martin Luther on the best way to honor the saints.

The entire sermon is an interesting read. Luther goes on to describe the proper way to honor departed saints, as well as offering a few tips on how or if one should pray for the dead (he makes similar comments in the treatise, Confession Concerning Christ's Supper, see my discussion here about prayers for the dead).