Lessons from the Reformation: When papal power trumps legitimate debate

Anne Inman

This article compares the way in which an appeal to papal authority was used to stifle legitimate debate over Luther's Ninety-five Theses with the way in which a similar appeal was used at the Synod of Whitby to stifle legitimate practices in Anglo-Saxon England. Anne Inman is a retired lecturer in Theology.

whitby abbeyIn 1517 Luther was troubled by the effect that the peaching of indulgencies was having on his parishioners at the Castle Church at Wittenberg. In order to address the undoubted abuses that plagued the penitential system he wrote his Ninety-five Theses as a vehicle for debate. His concern all along was for the immortal souls of his flock. It has long been thought that the theses were posted on the door of the Castle Church on 31 October 1517. Yet recently there has been some debate over when and even whether these theses were posted. Peter Marshall's negative conclusion in his recent book: 1517: Martin Luther and the invention of the Reformation, seems compelling.

Luther seeks a debate among scholars
On 11 November 1517 Luther sent the Ninety-five Theses to Johannes Lang, prior of the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt, where Luther himself had previously resided.  Luther asks that Lang and others in the Erfurt community comment on the theses, indicating honestly any faults they can find. Clearly Luther does not expect Lang to have come across the theses already, which he would have done if, as Marshall puts it, 'they had been posted with any panache in Wittenberg twelve days earlier.'1

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