Author: Craig Harline

Title: "A World Ablaze – The Rise of Martin Luther and the Birth of the Reformation"

Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2017; 275 pages of text with illustrations throughout

Historian Craig Harline writes in a conversational style of Martin Luther during the years from 1517 through 1522 covering the posting of his 95 theses (propositions for debate) through his return to Wittenberg after being hidden by Prince Frederick in a castle in Saxony.

Martin Luther became Dr. Martin through a payment made by Prince Frederick, the patron of the university in Wittenberg. A doctor of theology required no advanced education, only the payment of a large fee. Dr. Martin was a fine teacher with more students coming to the university to take his classes, which pleased Prince Frederick.

1517 was a timely year for Martin’s 95 theses on indulgences as the mood in Saxony and much of Germany was much against yet another round of indulgences. In 1517, a new indulgence was being sold by the church in Rome. Harline writes each indulgence was a written document that “officially granted complete forgiveness of sins and total escape from purgatory, complete forgiveness of sins for loved ones in purgatory for good, and, for another quarter gulden, absolution from whatever horrible crime you might commit in life – once at a time of your choosing, and once at the hour of death. All you had to do was sincerely confess, and offer some prayers, and of course make an offering that would go to the badly needed building of St. Peter’s.”

Luther as a teacher had written theses on many subjects, but he called these 95 theses the “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.” Though they were written in Latin, someone republished them in German so they were widely read and distributed. This put Luther in direct conflict with the pope and the building of St. Peter’s in Rome. But Luther was not the first to question indulgences.

“In Paris, Peter Abelard had already criticized them by 1120; in England, John Wycliffe (d. 1384) said the pope had no jurisdiction over purgatory and Geoffrey Chaucer (d. 1400) poked fun at indulgence-preachers; in Bohemia Jan Hus (d.1415) said real penance didn’t need indulgences; in German lands, Johann Rucherat von Wesel (d. 1481) called indulgence a pious fraud …. all before Brother Martin was born.”

In “A World Ablaze,” Harline deals with the efforts to convince Luther to recant and to get back in line with the religious teachings of the church. This was a very serious situation that could very well have led to his burning at the stake as had happened to Jan Hus in Bohemia. But the political and religious climate was changing, especially in the German states, helped by the invention of the printing press and spread of books in German, which found a wide audience.

Luther continued as a prolific writer of books in German (and Latin translated into German), condemning indulgences, advocating that faith alone was what was needed to get into heaven and condemning the pope as the “Anti-Christ.” (Pope Leo by age 13 held 27 different church offices at once, and at age 13 became a member of the College of Cardinals, becoming Pope Leo at age 37.) All of this led to repeated efforts to have Luther arrested and brought before a tribunal.

But Luther was protected by Prince Frederick, who would not arrest him, and by other German princes who guaranteed Luther a safe passage to a tribunal on German soil at the Diet of Worms in 1521. The Diet was a meeting of the political and religious leaders, and the first one for Charles, the 21-year-old emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Luther was not the only topic, but the sessions involving what to do with him went on for days.

He was allowed to leave without being arrested only to be taken in a sham kidnapping on May 5, 1521, arranged by Prince Frederick to keep him out of sight. Harline contends the May 26, 1521, edict of Charles condemning Luther did not have the effect desired as Charles left for Italy for 10 years, and “Without Charles around to press the matter, German princes who didn’t like the edict were just going to ignore it.” After 10 months of hiding, Luther returned to Wittenberg and resumed his preaching and becoming ever more popular.

As a life-long Lutheran, this book finally gave me an understanding of why indulgences were part of what caused the split between the church and Luther. This book is an easy read not overburdened with scholarly notes.

Bob Wefald is a retired North Dakota State District Court judge. Wefald became a lawyer in 1970. His career included serving a year as a law clerk, four years as attorney general, more than 23 years in private practice in Bismarck and 12 years as a judge. He served as an officer in the Navy for three years of active duty plus 24 years in the Navy Reserve.

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