Genre of the Week: Martin Luther’s 95 Theses

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This literary genre kicks off the series on the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther, his 95 Theses and how his church has made an impact on Germany and the US. For details on the series, please click here

When Martin Luther presented his 95 Theses in 1517, his intention was to bring the flaws of the Church to the forefront, with the goal of making the church open to everyone who believed in Jesus Christ and not to the priviledged. To better understand the role of the Church and why Luther was not happy with it, let’s have a look at the situation in summary.

The 95 Theses looks at five key elements which the gifted monk found fattening and needed to be changed. The first one was the concept of purgatory. When a person died during that time, he was taken to a purgatory if he had committed sins against others. The concept of sins varied from violating one or more of the Ten Commandments presented by Moses to hurting others through lies, robbery and assault to even speaking wrong about God or the Church. The person stays in the purgatory until the judgement comes and the decision between Heaven and Hell is made. To escape that, a person could be “bailed” out with gold from a devout church-goer, the same person who also bails out the living who is not “loving” of Jesus Christ or God. This was the second critique of Luther’s Theses. To secure free passage to Heaven without having to be tried in the Purgatory, the Christian can purchase Indulgence for a high sum. Like the German insurance coverage of today, Indulgence features a sheet of paper which states that the Christian is “sin-free” and is entitled to go to Heaven, no matter what happens. This type of insurance, which will be explained in detail later, Luther found as outrageous in his third critical point as only people who are rich, making money off the poor, were entitled to this luxury, even though the poor were also believers in Christianity and didn’t believe in the concept of Noah’s Ark, where only the pur and fittest survive. The exclusivity of the Church were the last two points that Luther made in his Theses. Luther criticzed the Church for excluding the poor and those who were accused of trying to bring the institution to its knees. Even the Bible was originally written in Latin, which made access to the readings nearly impossible until Luther himself translated it into German in 1534.  And finally, Luther criticized the Church for not helping the poor and allowing the rich to donate to the religion itself for their own use, such as the construction of the St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, at that time.

A more detailed explanation of the 95 Theses can be found here.

While Luther’s Theses was intended to spark a debate about reforming the church, it was met with mixed results, for even some of his friends became his opponents, the Pope ordered his condemnation and arrest and uprisings against the bishops, cardinals and the rich broke out over the course of the next decade. Luther was arrested and put into exile at Wartburg in Eisenach. Still Luther’s Theses led to the elimination of the concept of Indulgences by 1527 and as a consequence, the creation of the Lutheran Church, which exists to its original form but in different fragments today.

Interpreting the 95 Theses can be done from different aspects, pending on how Christianity is taught in the Lutheran Church and what age the students are. Some ideas worth doing could include:

  • Roleplays using the themes involving purgatory, indulgence, forgiveness, or even the works of Luther and the reactions
  • Newsstory about Luther’s Thesis, focusing on his speeches, trial in Worms, the uprisings or even a documentary on society’s problems at the time of Luther
  • Discussions about the aforementioned topics.
  • Putting Luther’s Reform in the 21st Century to find out what could be done with the Church- a.k.a. 95 Theses 2.0
  • Comparing the problems of the Church at the time of Luther to that of today- basically picking one or two aspects and discussing it

One can even produce an ad about the Church, something that came to mind when writing this review. In the following article, the author had a cool idea regarding Indulgence.

Luther’s 95 Theses has been interpreted by many as the beginning of the break-up of the Church, similar to the break-up of the Roman Empire, for the younger the generations, the more various ideas they had about Jesus Christ and how his teachings established the Church. Some promote tolerance, especially towards minorities regardless of social background. Others promote a Crusade to purify the world. Then there are some who pick and choose what is right and should be taught and what should be left out as they are wrong.

Being baptised Catholic but went through a couple religions before landing in the Methodist court, my personal question I have as we look at the 500th anniversary of Luther’s work is this: How has the Lutheran Church changed over the years and how do people both here in Germany as well as in the US (and to a certain degree, elsewhere) view Luther today, as changes in the landscape because of controversial topics have been received as mixed as Luther’s work.

Hence we turn the page and find out! 🙂

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