THE day on which the monk of Wittenberg posted up his "Theses," occupies a distinguished place among the great days of history.
It marks a new and grander starting-point in religion and liberty. The propositions of Luther preached to all Christendom that God does not sell pardon, but bestows it as a free gift on the ground of the death of his Son.
The "Theses" in short were but an echo of the song sung by the angels on the plain of Bethlehem fifteen centuries before - "On earth peace, good-will to men".
The world had forgotten that song: no wonder, seeing the Book that contains it had long been hidden. Taking God to be a hard task-master, who would admit no one into heaven unless he paid a great price, Christendom had groaned for ages under penances and expiatory works of self-righteousness. But the sound of Luther's hammer was like that of the silver trumpet on the day of Jubilee: it proclaimed the advent of the year of release - the begun opening of the doors of that great prison-house in which the human soul had sat for ages and sighed in chains.
Luther acted with spontaneity - so he afterwards confirmed. He obeyed an internal calling and what he felt to be his duty at the moment. He had not fully considered the blow might fall on those greater than Tetzel. His arm would have been unnerved, and the hammer would have fallen from his grasp, had he been told that its strokes would not merely scare away Tetzel and his pardons and money chest from Juterborg, but would resound through Christendom, and centuries after he had gone to his grave its echoes would precipitate the fall of hierarchies and the overthrow of that throne before which Luther was still disposed to bow as the seat of the Vicar of Christ. Luther's eye looked only at what was before him - the professors and students of the university; his flock in Wittenberg in danger of being ensnared; the crowd of pilgrims assembled to earn an indulgence - and to the neighbouring towns and parts of Germany. These only he hoped to influence.
But far beyond these modest limits was spread the fame of Luther's "Theses." They contained truth, and truth is light, and light must necessarily diffuse itself, and penetrate the darkness on every side. The "Theses" were found to be just as applicable to Christendom as to Wittenberg, and as hostile to the great indulgence-market at Rome as to the little indulgence peddler at Juterborg.
And now that instrumentality which God had prepared beforehand for this emergency - the printing-press- took centre stage. Copied with the hand the theses would have spread but slowly. The printing-press, multiplying copies, sowed them like snow-flakes over Saxony. Other printing-presses then set to work. Soon there was no country in Europe where the "Theses" of the monk of Wittenberg were not as well known as in Saxony. The moment of their publication was singularly opportune. Pilgrims from all the surrounding States were then assembled at Wittenberg. Instead of buying an indulgence they bought Luther's "Theses," not one, but many copies, and carried them in their wallets to their own homes. In a fortnight these propositions were circulated over all Germany. They were translated into Dutch, and read in Holland; they were rendered into Spanish, and studied in the cities and universities of the Iberian peninsula. In a month they had made the tour of Europe. "It seemed as if the angels had been their carriers," wrote an observer. Copies were even offered for sale in Jerusalem. In four short weeks Luther's tract had become a household book, and his name a household word in all Europe.
The "Theses" were the one topic of conversation everywhere - in all circles, and in all sorts of places. They were discussed by the learned in the universities, and by the monks in their cells. In the market-place, in the shop, and in the tavern, men paused and talked together of the bold act and the new doctrine of the monk of Wittenberg. A copy was procured and read by Leo X. in the Vatican.
The very darkness of the age helped to extend the circulation and the knowledge of the "Theses". The man who kindles a bonfire on a mountain-top by day will have much to do to attract the eyes of even a single parish. He who kindles his signal amid the darkness of night will arouse a whole kingdom. This last was what Luther had done. He had lighted a great fire in the midst of the darkness of Christendom, and far and wide over distant realms was diffused the splendour of that light; and men, opening their eyes on the sudden illumination that was brightening the sky, hailed the new dawn.
No one was more surprised at the effects produced than Luther himself. That a sharp discussion should spring up in the university; that the convents and colleges of Saxony should be agitated; that some of his friends should approve and others condemn, was what he had anticipated; but that all Christendom should be shaken as by an earthquake, was an issue he had never dreamed of. Yet this was what had happened. The blow he had dealt had loosened the foundations of an ancient and venerable edifice, which had received the reverence of many preceding generations, and his own reverence among the rest. It was now that he saw the full extent of the responsibility he had incurred, and the formidable character of the opposition he had provoked. His friends were silent, stunned by the suddenness and boldness of the act. He stood alone. He had thrown down the gage, and he could not now decline the battle. That battle was mustering on every side. Still he did not repent of what he had done. He was prepared to stand by the doctrine of his "Theses." He looked upward.
Tetzel by this time had broken up his encampment at Juterborg - having no more sins to pardon and no more money to gather - and had gone to the wealthier locality of Frankfort-on-the-Oder. He had planted his red cross and the large chest on one of the city's more fashionable promenades. Thither the rumour of the Wittenberg "Theses" followed him. He saw at a glance the mischief the monk had done him, and made a show of fight after his own fashion. Full of rage, he kindled a great fire, and as he could not burn Luther in person he burned his "Theses." This feat accomplished, he rubbed up what little theology he knew, and attempted a reply to the doctor of Wittenberg in a set of counter-propositions. They were but poor affairs. Among them were the following: -
There is but one doctrine taught in Tetzel's "Theses " namely the Pontifical supremacy. There is but one duty enjoined - absolute submission to the pope. At the feet of the Pope are to be laid the Holy Scriptures, the Fathers and human reason. The man who is not prepared to make this surrender deserves to do penance in the fire which Tetzel had kindled. So thought the Pope's vendor of pardons.
The proceeding of Tetzel at Frankfort soon came to the knowledge of the students of Wittenberg. They espoused with more warmth than was needed the cause of their professor. They bought a bundle of Tetzel's "Theses" and publicly burned them. Many of the citizens were present, and gave unmistakable signs, by their laughter and hootings, of the estimation in which they held the literary and theological attainments of the renowned indulgence-monger. Luther knew nothing of the matter. The proceedings savoured too much of Rome's method of answering an opponent to find favour in his eyes. When informed of it, he said that really it was superfluous to kindle a pile to consume a document, the extravagance and absurdity of which would alone have effected its extinction.
But soon abler antagonists entered the lists. The first to present himself was Sylvester Mazzolini, of Prierio. He was Master of the Sacred Palace at Rome, and discharged the office of censor. Stationed on the watch-tower of Christendom, this man had it in charge to say what books were to be circulated, and what were to be suppressed; what doctrines Christians were to believe, and what they were not to believe. Protestant liberty, claiming freedom of thought, freedom of speech, and freedom of printing, came at this early stage into immediate conflict with Roman despotism, which claimed absolute control over the mind, the tongue, and the pen. The monk of Wittenberg, who nails his "Theses" on the church door in the open day now encounters the Papal censor, who blots out every line that is not in agreement with the Papacy.
The controversy between Luther and Prierio, as raised by the latter, turned on "the rule of faith". Surely it was not altogether of chance that this fundamental point was debated at this early stage. It put in a clear light the two very different foundations on which Protestantism and the Papacy respectively stood.
To be continued.....