This Tuesday 31st October will mark the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. On that day Martin Luther issued 95 theological propositions (theses), which challenged the papacy’s power to issue indulgences which a person could purchase in advance, that would give them the forgiveness of sins before they had committed them. The legend is that Luther nailed the 95 theses on door of the Wittenberg Cathedral. What is more likely is that Luther wrote to his bishop, Albrecht von Brandenburg, protesting at the sale of the indulgences. He enclosed in his letter a copy of his “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”, which came to be known as the Ninety-five Theses. Although written in Latin, by January 1518 Luther’s friends had translated them into German – and then printed them on what was the new communication device of the age: the printing press. Within two weeks, all Germany had copies, within two months, all Europe. Luther advanced the view that a person is forgiven their sins and justified by God, on the merits of the death of Christ, and by faith in Christ, not in our religious works or religious sentiment or piety. The shift away from the authority of the Catholic church, its councils, and the received tradition, back onto the teaching of the Bible, broke its right to determine religious matters. Luther’s emphasis on ‘faith alone’, ‘Christ alone’, and the ‘Bible alone’ then fueled European nationalism and independence from Rome, the establishment of new denominations (including the Anglican church in England), and fed into the eventual flowering of democracy.

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