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Luther's flawed hardware decisions


Luther nailing 95 Theses to Wittenberg church door

I think we are in in agreement at this juncture that Martin Luther was absolutely correct and right philosophically when he nailed his Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences to a chapel door in Wittenberg.

The Catholic Church of his time was rife with greed and corruption and scandal and lies and theft and devious financial plots, as it still is, and probably always has been; such is the fate of entities run and staffed by human beings, from countries to corporations to city councils to colleges, although perhaps that will not always be their fate, if we ever manage to evolve away from snatching and hoarding, which is possible, if not probable.

But I maintain that Luther was utterly wrong and incorrect in his choice of tools.

Why would you smash a nail into the lovely wooden door of All Saints Church? Could he not have used tape, or gum, or sap from the nearby towering and beloved village oak? Did he feel the slightest regret at punching a monstrous hole in a door that some poor workman had laboured over for weeks?

Imagine how you would feel if a Catholic monk (we forget that Luther was an Augustinian priest) showed up at your front door, the one you had specially made by your brother the master carpenter, who found some unbelievably beautiful black walnut, and planed it and carved it for months, and even installed it properly for you, because that is the kind of gracious and excellent guy he is, and then some portly monk storms up, and hammers a nail into your door?

Would you feel all warm and grateful about this? You would not. You would shriek and rage, and stomp and storm, and roar and bluster, and set all three of the dogs on the guy, and chortle evilly as he sprinted away down the street, the dogs shredding his cassock, and then you would think seriously for a moment of stuffing some birch gum into that hole, and carefully painting over the hole with shoe polish or peanut butter, to match the russet colour of the door, but then you would realise that your wife will eventually notice that, and sigh that sigh she sighs when you misuse the peanut butter, so you man up about the whole thing, and call your brother, and then you call the local religious authority, and file a blistering complaint for damages, and enclose a very nasty note to the priest’s personnel file.

Again let me say that the paper that Luther nailed to the door was a very fine paper indeed; again and again the man makes the most perfect and admirable sense, and calls the Church he loved, and indeed had joined in a professional capacity, to task for vast and stunning lies and corruption; no reasonable soul could argue with his general propositions that the pope is not actually God, and ought not to be acquisitive financially, and money donated on earth does not actually expurgate the sins of those who have died.

Nor can any reasonable soul argue with the tidal shift that Luther’s tart note then caused in the long history of Christianity; while we may rue the splits and carvings, we must admire the impulse toward honesty and piety that drove those shearings-away, even as we daydream about some sort of Great Détente, in which the myriad Christian traditions come back together under one flag or another, even, perhaps, as a tremendous tribe of defence and reverence for the faith Christ Himself practiced, which is to say eternally besieged Judaism.

No, no – we can have nothing but great respect and even a sort of awe for Martin Luther the author – a brave man, taking on the fabulously wealthy powers of his day. But we ought to be aghast and appalled at the man with a terrible nail in his hand. He might have borrowed some glutinous material from a snail; he might easily have tapped an evergreen for a drop of its lifeblood; he might have snatched a cinnamon bun from a child, and used a dab of that awful gleaming sticky muck to affix the Theses.

But no: a whopping nail, and a whole day’s work for some poor guy who probably was all set to slip up into the mountains for a day to hunt ibex. In a just and fair world, Luther himself should have had to go back the next day and fix that hole, and not with peanut butter, either. Perhaps he did; he was, by all accounts, a decent sort, and it may well be that an hour after he posted his revolutionary document, he slapped himself on the forehead and went back to plug the hole. Let us hope so; in fact, let us pray that this was the way it was, on a cold November day, many years ago. 

Brian Doyle headshotBrian Doyle is the author most recently of A Book of Uncommon Prayer (Ave Maria Press). His books are distributed by Garratt Publishing in Australia.

Topic tags: Brian Doyle, Martin Luther, ecclesiology, church history, Protestantism



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Existing comments

Re 'Luther nailing theses to the door' legend! "Luther made no reference to this public act in any of his writings and Melancthon, the sole source of the story, did not arrive to take up a post at the university until the following year. What Luther did do was fully in line with academic convention. He distributed to various scholars a series of propositions on the theological implications of the sale of indulgences. Out of courtesy he sent a copy to his diocesan bishop" [Forget 'hammer and nail and piece o' wood' ] Wilson, Derek (2014-09-25). Out Of The Storm: The Life and Legacy of Martin Luther (Kindle Locations 1841-1844). Random House. Kindle Edition.

Father John George | 27 January 2015  

Perhaps, given the circumstances and the non- response to the urgent calls - not just from theologians - for reform (not necessarily Re-form in the first instance) some minor "vandalism" might be tolerated as necessary? Perhaps the Church authorities of the time did not take on board the adage "Ecclesia semper reformanda" ? The number of "ifs" in this instance is tantalising.

Edward Fido | 28 January 2015  

This trivialisation of the reformations is almost offensive.

Peter Sellick | 28 January 2015  

An intellectually disappointing piece. Please lift your game as there are many persons that are not given the opportunity so richly afforded to you.

Jackie | 28 January 2015  

Thanks Brian. A fine example of the competing emphasis between the medium and the message!

Maureen O'Brien | 28 January 2015  

Mr Fido sir. perhaps the 'reformanda' did not occur as quickly and in the way you and Luther wished but never ever underestimate the raducal reforms of the far reaching glorious Council of Trent.
Before canonising Luther and wife, there is the little matter of his rampant antisemitism.

Father John George | 28 January 2015  

Mr Fido sir. perhaps the 'reformanda' did not occur as quickly and in the way you and Luther wished but never ever underestimate the radical reforms of the far reaching glorious Council of Trent.
Before canonising Luther and wife, there is the little matter of his rampant antisemitism. making Nazi antisemitic tirades sound like
get well wishes!

Father John George | 28 January 2015  

Martin Luther submitted his 95 theses in 1517, peanut butter wasn't developed until the late 19th century. No amount of money can buy indulgence for historical anachronism.

chris g | 28 January 2015  

I can't see any offense. I was trying to use humor to remind people of the man's courage, and how right he was. That's offensive? I figure any piece that makes people stop and think a minute about how corrupt our church and all churches tend to be is a decent piece; and all genuine humor seems like a plus to me.

Brian Doyle | 28 January 2015  

Have to agree with you, Peter Sellick! A trite, unfunny piece that does no credit to either the author or to Eureka Street for publishing it.

Yuri Koszarycz | 28 January 2015  

John George, I don't think the nailing to the door is meant to be taken literally in this creative piece of writing, Perhaps the message in this essay is more complex than you might realise.

Ellen | 28 January 2015  

Thank you Brian Doyle , a timely reminder of how man can corrupt , even God's plans . But eventually God's plans will triumph.

David | 28 January 2015  

If indeed our Church is corrupt, Brian Doyle, why haven't you and indeed all of us professed Christians abandoned it? Surely that is what Christ would have expected of us. My point simply is that the Church as constituted by Christ can't be corrupt by definition - otherwise Christ could not has been a sinless God. It is the human being in the Church (as you do imply) who is corrupt and it is long overdue that these damaging self-absorbed apostates were dealt with along with the post- Vat II reformers and renewalists who clamour daily against the teachings of Vat II and the Popes since that Council who indeed acted in true "spirit" - if we are believers, that is.

john frawley | 28 January 2015  

Come on, folks, lighten up. It was a bit of whimsy.

Vince | 28 January 2015  

Perhaps the desecration you decry is indicative of his frustration at those who should have known better, doing what they were doing and not listening to voices calling for truth and transparency.. As for his anti-Semitism - read 'Europe and the Jews' - it was the accepted stance for too many centuries.

hilary | 28 January 2015  

Thank you for the humour; the sharing of joy is an act of grace in itself, especially in grim times.

Barry G | 28 January 2015  

I can't believe how precious and lacking in any sense of humour some people are!

JanetM | 28 January 2015  

I'm with Vince, here - lighten up, people.

Brian's writing has appeared in ES long enough for most people to have learned to appreciate his lightness of touch - like Michael Leunig without the pictures. Hey, they've even got books with near-identical titles.

Thanks, Brian. It's good to hear your voice again in these pages.

Kim Miller | 28 January 2015  

Thanks Brian, very funny.

Not the 9... | 28 January 2015  

Perhaps Brian meant that we do not have to murder people because they draw cartoons we find offensive?

glen avard | 29 January 2015  

My thanks especially to Kim Miller. I believe that a wry gentle sidelong communal silly humor is a blow against pompous fatuous arrogant darkness, myself. I think laughing is better than sermons. I think the more we laugh with each other the closer we are to achieving what the Mercy has in mind for us, I suspect. I think folks who are loath to laugh are missing a great gift from the Mercy. I don't think any writer can lift his or her literary game higher than wit and humor. I think that's why Twain is America's finest writer. I think readers who think I am making light of the welcome reformation of a lovely and holy and flawed church totally missed the point of the piece.

Brian Doyle | 30 January 2015  

Posting a notice in this way was of course a normal procedure there. However,to be more serious, I should add that despite achievements, Luther's later vicious attacks on Jews and synagogues and their terrible effect on German Christians thereafter is what should be remembered. The Nazis made use of his writings about the Jews even though Luther himself would have been horrified with the extreme Nazi actions against our Lord's own people. Of course, tragically there are anti-Jewish elements among some earlier "saints" and not least in the New Testament itself and some still in the Church today - even, for example, in some of its popular hymns. As an Australian Episcopalian, I very much regret that Luther is included in our latest Calendar (already marred by the inclusion of "Saint" Cyril of Alexandria).

John Bunyan | 30 January 2015  

To 'nail' down the folk-tales the Wittenberg church door is impassable solid bronze. The bronze door is a relatively new addition. During the Seven Year’s War (1756–1763), the original, wooden door was lost in the great fire that consumed much of the church building in 1760. As a result, King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia had the door replaced with the present bronze door, upon which are inscribed Luther’s 95 theses.[In fact he 'mailed out' rather than 'nailed in' his theses] cf 'appended'[!] 95 theses imitation sans cinnamon confectionery or snail juice etc http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/52/912u_Luther%27s_95_Theses%2C_Schlosskirche%2C_Wittenberg%2C_GER%2C.jpg

Father John George | 30 January 2015  

Uncommonly erudite, Brian. One can only admire Luther's vision, his extraordinary courage in facing down the powers of his day, and, of course, his Ninety-Five Theses! I would guess if this disaster(?) happened to my front door I may be a little peeved about it. Looking on the positive side though it could mean a new front door. One of my neighbours has recently installed a rather nice one with glass panelling. I would just need a competent carpenter. btw, have you read Alan Bennett's "The Uncommon Reader" - most enlightening.

Pam | 03 February 2015  

A fine piece of writing. I didn't get it at the first glimpse, but it became better and better after a while. On reading the comments, I just realized, how hard it would be for you to publish this article in Luther's time. Cheers.

Aldi | 04 February 2015  

Aldi,the article in Luther's day would be put through the rigours of scholastic syllogistic disputation, which would make modern shredders look like friendly faxers. Such scholastic 'disputas' were common fare'in latin', globally in seminaries until Vat2 and early postlude.

Father John George | 04 February 2015  

How you avoided a pun on splinter is beyond me, Brian.

Penelope | 09 February 2015  

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