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The Luther Affair, or the causa lutheri, refers to a collection of theological controversies and events following Martin Luther’s posting of the Ninety-Five Theses in 1517. The theological disputes were wide ranging, but they focused mainly on the power and efficacy of indulgences, Luther’s developing understanding of justification by faith alone, and the extent of papal authority. There were three phases in the debates that culminated in Luther’s excommunication by the pope in 1521 and his trial before the Holy Roman Emperor later that spring at the Diet of Worms. The first phase ran from 1513 to 1517 and centered on Luther as he explored the question of justification and its implications for the medieval practice of indulgences. The Ninety-Five Theses, which focused on indulgences, were posted in late October 1517. From 1518 to 1519, Luther defended his new theological positions in lectures, monastic colloquies, public debates, and, most importantly, in short pamphlets, published sermons, and longer theological treatises. Defenders of the church’s authority and tradition met him in those debates and responded with their own theological tracts. The final phase ran from 1520 to 1521, during which time his theological views were further clarified, he was excommunicated, and then was tried in Germany. While theological debates continued for many years, the parameters of those debates and Luther’s legal situation were largely set by the end of 1521. In what follows, we will look at each episode briefly and end by looking at the reactions among University of Paris theologians to the Luther Affair. John Calvin arrived at the University of Paris at the tail end of the Luther Affair, but its reverberations would be felt throughout his education there.
Martin Luther remains a popular, oft-quoted, referenced, lauded historical figure. He is often seen as the fulcrum upon which the medieval turned into the modern, the last great medieval or the first great modern; or, he is the Protestant hero, the virulent anti-Semite; the destroyer of Catholic decadence, or the betrayer of the peasant cause. An important but contested figure, he was all of these things. Understanding Luther's context helps us to comprehend how a single man could be so many seemingly contradictory things simultaneously. Martin Luther in Context explores the world around Luther in order to make the man and the Reformation movement more understandable. Written by an international team of leading scholars, it includes over forty short, accessible essays, all specially commissioned for this volume, which reconstruct the life and world of Martin Luther. The volume also contextualizes the scholarship and reception of Luther in the popular mind.
I once quipped in a class that I wondered if the Martin Luther portrayed in some books would even be able to recognize the Martin Luthers of other works. Would Erik Erikson's sexually repressed, rebellious Luther recognize the confident and assertive Luther of the recent popularly aimed biography How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World? The five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation seems an apt moment to reflect a bit on the place and significance of Martin Luther in the Reformation and the church. The anniversary year will see at least a half-dozen new biographies, numerous conferences, and nearly ubiquitous commemorations. As we mark this year, what portraits are now being drawn? What conclusions? Is there any hope of synthesis and common representation, or shall we each have our own Luther, few of whom recognize the other? Since the last centennial of the Reformation, scholarship on the Reformation generally and Luther specifically has emerged from the tight quarters of confessionalized history. In 1917, there were no commemorations. Luther was celebrated by Protestants and lamented by Roman Catholics. There was little in the way of neutral ground between those two poles. In 1999, the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican issued a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. In 2016, Pope Francis traveled to Sweden to participate in a joint commemoration of the Reformation with a Lutheran (and female) bishop. Such would have been unthinkable in 1917, or 1817, or 1617. As Luther has been released from the confessionalized walls that held him so long, what image do we see now? In what follows, I would like to reflect on three aspects of the “new” or “newer” Luther that has emerged.