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The Catholic Historical Review 90.1 (2004) 114-117
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Penitence, Preaching and the Coming of the Reformation. By Anne T. Thayer. [St Andrews Studies in Reformation History.] (Brookfield, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Company. 2002. Pp. xiv, 226. $84.95.)
Penance was the central sacrament in Luther's Reformation. Although the other sacraments soon came under attack as well, they all did so in light of his radical assault on the penitential system, particularly as it had developed since the age of the Crusades with the belief in Purgatory, the system of indulgences, and fatal linkage of the salvific process with money. Of the Ninety-five Theses, number 82 was perhaps the most lethal. Luther cleverly posed it as one of the "shrewd questionings of the laity" about papal control of the Treasury of Merits: "Why does not the Pope empty purgatory for the sake of most holy love and the supreme need of souls? This would be the most righteous of reasons, if he can redeem innumerable souls for sordid money with which to build a basilica, the most trivial of reasons." This was arguably one of the most brilliant rhetorical questions ever asked. It was certainly one of the most devastating in its effects, for to it Pope Leo X and his theologians could have provided no satisfactory response.
In explaining the extraordinary and rapid success of Luther's ideas, probably unparalleled in the history of ideas, one can focus on his central message: Salvation is free, and one does not have to do anything to have it. This was an enormously liberating message in its own right—assuming that it was immediately apprehensible. But was it? I had already been teaching Reformation history for over fifteen years when I heard this crisp formulation given by a Presbyterian minister in a sermon on Reformation Sunday. So, too, it took Luther some years before he realized the full implications of his misreading of Paul (who in his Epistle to the Romans never speaks of justification by faith alone—this was Luther's later willful addition). So although we can see by hindsight how trenchant Luther's ideas were, we cannot assume that Luther's contemporaries did, above all since he himself did not.
A different way to approach the subject is to look at the receptivity of Luther's audience to messages of liberation. For some time historians were inclined to generalize from Luther's own experience of Angst in response to the [End Page 114] pentitential system and its capacity to inspire fear in him, but offer no consolation. But in fact there seems to be precious little pre-1517 evidence for such commonplace anxiety, as I argued some years ago ("Fear and Confession on the Eve of the Reformation," Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte, 75 , 153-175), and now the argument about receptiveness has shifted yet again. This book, completed as a dissertation at Harvard University under the direction of Mark Edwards, contributes to the exploration of the openness of the hearers of Luther's message in light of what they are likely to have heard in the previous few decades about how the pentitential system worked.
Anne Thayer, who is assistant professor of theology at Lancaster Theological Seminary, has devised an ingenious approach to the issue of examining closely books of sermons printed in those decades with an eye to distinguishing their central foci in explicating the operation of the sacrament of penance. Sermon collections from the period of the Crusades have, for example, in recent years been studied to good effect to discern whether they treated the Holy Land differently from other areas as goals of the crusaders. Thayer is interested in examining what kinds of receptiveness to Reformation teachings pre-Reformation sermons might have created. She sorts these sermons out into three basic groups according to the emphasis they placed on the priest in the forgiveness of sins: the rigorist, which stressed that forgiveness came to the penitent directly from God in the context of contrition; the moderate, which balanced this stress on...