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Martin Luther’s Burning Questions
Four exhibitions for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation are in Minneapolis, New York, Atlanta, and Los Angeles. Here is a review with comments on books by Andrew Pettegree & Lyndal Roper.

By Ed Knudson

This year there is quite a focus being placed on Martin Luther because this is the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, marked by Luther's posting of 99 theses on a bulletin board for Wittenberg University for theological discussion. Ingrid D. Rowland writes about four museum exhibitions and two books to mark the occasion in the New York Review of Books with the above title.

The article is a very good, brief introduction to Luther and the Reformation. Here is an example:
Friar Martin focused his ire (and most of the ninety-five theses) on one particular practice of the institutional church: the sale of indulgences. These papal dispensations, confirmed by paper certificates, grew out of a traditional medieval conviction that prayer, repentance, good works, and pilgrimage could atone in some measure for sin. It was even possible to do penance for someone else, as Luther did during his stay in Rome, kneeling on the steps of the Holy Stairs at Saint John Lateran to earn an indulgence for his grandfather. Giving alms or endowing a church could also earn remission from sins, reducing the amount of time a person would need to spend after death in the uncomfortable realm of Purgatory, where, in late medieval Christian belief, human souls were gradually cleansed of their iniquities until they were pure enough to enter the Earthly Paradise, there to await final admission to Heaven on Judgment Day. By the late fifteenth century, however, remission from sins could simply be purchased from a papal agent, for oneself or for another person, whether alive or deceased.

The sale of indulgences became an industry only in Luther’s own lifetime and in his own lands, put into place by the “warrior Pope” Julius II and the Augsburg banker Jakob Fugger. After 1506, pope and banker directed the revenue from German indulgences toward the rebuilding of Saint Peter’s in Rome.
The article is particularly helpful in placing Luther's concerns about the faith and the church into the political context of the day.
Luther’s message swiftly found followers, especially in the German states: on the spiritual level with his doctrine of justification by faith, and on the practical level with his attack on the alliance between religion and capitalism that had turned remission of sins into a commercial enterprise. He survived the religious and political firestorm he ignited not only because of his courage and eloquence, phenomenal though they were, but also because the local sovereign, Elector Frederick III of Saxony, decided to side with his renegade friar rather than his bishop.

Nicknamed “the Wise,” Frederick was as shrewd as he was pious. Over the years he had amassed a staggering number of saints’ relics, some 18,970 by 1520, which he displayed once a year in Wittenberg Castle, each one lovingly installed in an opulent, beautifully wrought metal reliquary (several of which were on view in Minneapolis). Pilgrims flocked to see the collection and left their offerings of coins and valuables, ensuring that metal continued to flow into Wittenberg rather than Rome, and keeping Frederick free, unlike his bishop (and his nominal liege lord, the Holy Roman Emperor), of colossal debts to Fugger. Frederick the Wise never entirely sided with Luther’s revolution (he remained Catholic), but neither did he oppose it. And at one crucial juncture in 1521, he saved Luther’s life by hiding him away in Wartburg Castle disguised as a bourgeois layman named “Junker Jörg.”


The exhibitions are in Minneapolis, New York, Atlanta, and Los Angeles. Rowland just mentions the two books, one of which I have read, Andrew Pettegree, "Brand Luther: 1517, Printing and the Making of the Reformation" and the other one I have on the shelf waiting to be read: "Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet" by Lyndal Roper.

Too many Lutheran congregations will be approaching this 500th anniversary as an event to be celebrated among us Lutherans alone. But Luther is a figure who influenced not only religious life, but the life of the larger community as well. Events should be done to which the entire community is invited, as demonstrated by these exhibitions.


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Date Added: 5/21/2017 Date Revised: 5/21/2017 4:58:02 PM

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