Reformation Day is upon us again. The day every year when Lutheran pastors will dress up like Martin Luther, say the Lord’s Prayer in German and sing “A Mighty Fortress is our God” at some point in the service.
It was around two o'clock in the afternoon on the eve of the Day of All Saints, October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther, hammer in hand, approached the main north door of the Schlosskirche (Castle Church) in Wittenberg. There he nailed up his Ninety-Five Theses protesting the abuse of indulgences in the teaching and practice of the Church of his day.
In remembrance of this event, millions of Christians still celebrate this day as the symbolic beginning of the Protestant Reformation. October 31 is not a day for the ghosts and ghouls of Halloween but a time to remember the Reformation, especially what Luther wrote in thesis sixty-two: "The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God."
But did this event really happen?
In his writings Martin Luther never said anything about nailing the 95 Theses to the church door. We get this story from one of Luther’s colleague, Philipp Melanchthon. The only problem is, Melanchthon didn’t move to Wittenburg until 1518, a year after the alleged ‘nailing’ and didn’t mention the event in writing until after Luther’s death.
The other problem is Luther originally wrote the 95 Theses in Latin, which would have been the standard academic practice of the day. Even if he did nail the document to the church door, only a handful of people would have been able to read it. The Reformation didn’t really start to cook until a year later when Christoph von Scheurl and a group of Luther’s students from Wittenburg translated the document into German and published it.
On or about Oct. 31 5117 Luther mailed a copy of his theses to Albert, the Archbishop of Mainz. Albert passed the message along to Pope Leo X but the pope originally dismissed the document as an argument among monks.
It’s not that Leo didn’t take Luther’s stance seriously; at the time he saw it as an academic disputation in which there was time for debate. Leo didn’t formally address Luther’s theses until 1520 with the Exsurge Domine, which criticized some—but not all—of Luther’s statements. By the time Leo responded, the 95 Theses had already been translated into the common language and published.
There is an argument that posting academic disputations to the church door was common practice in Wittenburg at the time; and Luther could very well have done that as well as mailed a copy to the Archbishop. One could also presume that although Melanchthon didn’t live in Wittenburg at the time, he could have been present.
In 2006 researcher Martin Treu discovered a letter in the Jena University and State library that was written by Luther’s personal secretary Georg Rörer. The letter specifically mentions that Dr. Luther posted the 95 Theses to the door of Castle Church. Again, Rörer wasn’t present at the event but would have had a unique insight.
The Debate Rages On
Some scholars have gotten fairly heated on this debate in the past. The story of Reformation Day will probably live as a mixture of fact and folklore. The specific date and time can be questioned but what is unavoidable is the impact Luther’s translated writings had on the Church in Saxony and the rest of the world.