In the 1960s folk song 500 Miles Away From Home the songster laments his long journey from home. As he reads his mother’s note, tears fall from his eyes as he shuddered since he, or could be a she, is “cold, tired and all alone”.
The 500 mile journey home begins, but as the song continues the poignant reality is just as it began:
But I’m 500 miles away from home
Away from home away from home
Oh I’m still 500 miles away from home
On October 31, 1517 a German professor of theology in his early 30s nailed his 95 Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences to the chapel door of the University of Wittenberg (there is some historical disagreement about this point of nailing the document to the chapel door). These theses were written in Latin, and the poster wanted to have a scholarly debate over his points.
What happened next was a perfect media storm in 1517-18. Copies were made of the 95 and sent all over the continent. Later they were translated into German and distributed to ordinary folk.
The stage was set for the reformation or revolution from the Church of Rome. 500 years later Protestantism is alive and well but deeply divided by disagreements, schisms and intolerance.
Who knows how many different Protestant groups there are and the ones which are in the gray areas of belief. Many of these groups are more than 500 miles apart in their theology and tradition.
Women are treated fairly and accepted as equals in many groups after a long history of debate and controversy. While in many other groups, women are treated like second or third class citizens who are not deserving of equality because of male headship or just plain misogyny.
The Genesis account of Eve in the Garden of Eden and her “miscalculation” still resonates with many men that women are not superior in any way to them. To them she is like Pandora who opened the box and allowed evil into the world. To them Adam was placed in a difficult situation and because Eve was the only female around, he chose her because he could not live without her—so it goes.
LGBT individuals find the same to be true—acceptance or intolerance, especially within their own faith heritage. All people hunger for fellowship, belonging and acceptance from their “family”.
It is sad that so many faith communities do not find in their hearts the attitude of love and compassion for all people, especially those who travel a different path than they choose to follow. The teachings of the Gospels do not find a home in these communities.
It is true if the Nazarene Teacher sought a place today, there would be only a few places where the welcome mat would be truly receptive. Perhaps, this is why the Nazarene Teacher found the outcasts of society to be a group with genuine hunger for fellowship and belonging.
500 years of Protestant history in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas is a tapestry soaked in indigenous blood, slavery, and prejudice. There have been many bright moments where individual men and women challenged the status quo and sought to change the course of history.
The same is true today where people help others without expecting a reward. They have the same compassion and love as manifested in the teachings of the Gospels.
Unfortunately, others still pursue their proclivities of living within their box of exclusions. Their vitriolic words and actions bring a great deal of anguish to those outside their box as well as those in their box who seek a better light for their path on this planet traversing the cosmos.
Martin Luther and the other reformers like John Calvin were men who brought radical changes to their societies, but they were frail, biased and somewhat unforgiving of those who listened to a different flute or drummer as Thoreau wrote. Individuality was not a trait fostered in the decades to come.
The path of life has many branches. Roger Williams of Rhode Island found his Puritan faith heritage too claustrophobic for the Holy Spirit and himself.
He founded the Rhode Island Colony in the 1630s. This place became a safe haven for those who wanted to express their religious beliefs and pursue their own destinies.
As history has shown, when a person or a group of people embrace some new or forgotten “truth”, a schism happens and a new faith community arises. These fissiparous communities eventually have the same schisms from an individual or a group—they separate and seek their own quixotic truth.
All in all the last 500 years has seen a plethora of controversies. Of course the Church of Rome has not been immune to its own share of controversies and poignant revelations as well as schisms and challenges to patristic traditions and church teachings.
In the Letter of James Chapter 1:27 he declares
“Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Lexham English Bible (LEB)
This restates to a limited degree what his Brother declared in Matthew 25:31-46. In the final analysis as one’s journey ends on this planet traversing the cosmos and s/he stands on the shore of the cosmic ocean, what was done to help those in need—and there are many needs in society—will the only real criterion used for those who profess to be followers of the Nazarene Teacher and those who truly lived the teachings of the Gospels. The indubitable distinction will be clear as a sunny day.
G. D. Williams © 2017
Martin Luther (November 10, 1483 to February 18, 1546) was a German monk who began the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, becoming one of the most influential and controversial figures in Christian history. Luther called into question some of the basic tenets of Roman Catholicism, and his followers soon split from the Roman Catholic Church to begin the Protestant tradition. His actions set in motion reform within the Church. A prominent theologian, Luther’s desire for people to feel closer to God led him to translate the Bible into the language of the people, radically changing the relationship between church leaders and their followers.
Luther began his education at a Latin school in Mansfeld in the spring of 1488. There he received a thorough training in the Latin language and learned by rote the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, and morning and evening prayers. In 1497 Luther was sent to nearby Magdeburg to attend a school operated by the Brethren of the Common Life, a lay monastic order whose emphasis on personal piety apparently exerted a lasting influence on him. In 1501 he matriculated at the University of Erfurt, at the time one of the most distinguished universities in Germany. The matriculation records describe him as in habendo, meaning that he was ineligible for financial aid, an indirect testimonial to the financial success of his father. Luther took the customary course in the liberal arts and received the baccalaureate degree in 1502. Three years later he was awarded the master’s degree. His studies gave him a thorough exposure to Scholasticism; many years later, he spoke of Aristotle and William of Ockham as “his teachers.”
Luther’s sudden and unexpected entrance into the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt occurred 17 July, 1505. The motives that prompted the step are various, conflicting, and the subject of considerable debate. He himself alleges, as above stated, that the brutality of his home and school life drove him into the monastery. Hausrath, his latest biographer and one of the most scholarly Luther specialists, unreservedly inclines to this belief. The “house at Mansfeld rather repelled than attracted him” (Beard, “Martin Luther and the Germ. Ref.”, London, 1889, 146), and to “the question ‘Why did Luther go into the monastery?’, the reply that Luther himself gives is the most satisfactory” (Hausrath, “Luthers Leben” I, Berlin, 1904, 2, 22). He himself again, in a letter to his father, in explanation of his defection from the Old Church, writes, “When I was terror-stricken and overwhelmed by the fear of impending death, I made an involuntary and forced vow”.
To Luther the church was no longer the institution defined by apostolic succession; instead it was the community of those who had been given faith. Salvation came not by the sacraments as such but by faith. The idea that human beings had a spark of goodness (enough to seek out God) was not a foundation of theology but was taught only by “fools.” Humility was no longer a virtue that earned grace but a necessary response to the gift of grace. Faith no longer consisted of assenting to the church’s teachings but of trusting the promises of God and the merits of Christ.
Augustine (340–430) had emphasized the primacy of the Bible rather than Church officials as the ultimate religious authority. He also believed that humans could not reach salvation by their own acts, but that only God could bestow salvation by his divine grace. In the Middle Ages the Catholic Church taught that salvation was possible through “good works,” or works of righteousness, that pleased God. Luther came to share Augustine’s two central beliefs, which would later form the basis of Protestantism.
Meanwhile, the Catholic Church’s practice of granting “indulgences” to provide absolution to sinners became increasingly corrupt. Indulgence-selling had been banned in Germany, but the practice continued unabated. In 1517, a friar named Johann Tetzel began to sell indulgences in Germany to raise funds to renovate St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Luther, then an obscure theologian and minister, was outraged by the behaviour of Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar who was selling indulgences to raise money to fund the pet project of his boss, Pope Leo X: the reconstruction of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Hand over your money, went Tetzel’s sales pitch, and you can ensure that your dead relatives are not stuck in purgatory. This crude commercialisation of the doctrine of indulgences, encapsulated in Tetzel’s slogan—“As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, so the soul from purgatory springs”—was, to Luther, “the pious defrauding of the faithful” and a glaring symptom of the need for broad reform. Pinning a list of propositions to the church door, which doubled as the university notice board, was a standard way to announce a public debate.
Few if any men have changed the course of history like Martin Luther. In less than ten years, this fevered German monk plunged a knife into the heart of an empire that had ruled for a thousand years, and set in motion a train of revolution, war and conflict that would reshape Western civilization, and lift it out of the Dark Ages.
Luther’s is a drama that still resonates half a millennium on. It’s an epic tale that stretches from the gilded corridors of the Vatican to the weathered church door of a small South German town; from the barbarous pyres of heretics to the technological triumph of printing. It is the story of the birth of the modern age, of the collapse of medieval feudalism, and the first shaping of ideals of freedom and liberty that lie at the heart of the 21st century.
But this is also an intensely human tale, a story that hurtles from the depths of despair to the heights of triumph and back again. This is the story of a man who ultimately found himself a lightning conductor of history, crackling with forces he could not quite comprehend or control.
The document was written in Latin for theology students to debate, not for the average person. “Luther wrote hymns and was the first one to develop the hymnal,” which fostered congregant participation, Dr. McQuillen added. “But probably the most critical and important thing Luther invented was the Reformation pamphlet”: short theater-playbill-size tracts of eight to 16 pages, written, printed and spread quickly to the public. (About 20 are on view at the Morgan.) Typical texts by Luther might have had 15 printings, and been distributed from 15 cities, with about 10,000 copies in the region. The immediate spread of his message and its popularity are “the thing that pushed the Reformation so far, so quickly,” Dr. McQuillen said.