Wild Boar in the Vineyard: Martin Luther at the Birth of the Modern World

“Wild Boar in the Vineyard”: Martin Luther at the Birth of the Modern World

Von der freyheyt eynes Christen menschen / Martinus Luther. Czu Vuittenbergk Im XX iar; Title page recto

On the Freedom of the Christian
Martin Luther (1483-1546)
Wittenberg: Rhau-Grunenberg, 1520
Burke Union Rare Pamplets GT2 1520fc

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“Arise, O Lord, and judge your own cause…Listen to our prayers, for foxes have arisen seeking to destroy the vineyard whose winepress you alone have trod...The wild boar from the forest seeks to destroy it and every wild beast feeds upon it.”

- Exsurge Domine, Pope Leo X, June 15, 1520

Martin Luther did not set out to transform Christendom. In 1517, he was a pious monk and professor of theology in a small, remote, unfashionable city. His composition (and reputed posting) of ninety-five points for a theological debate would have been common academic practice. He had written very little up to that point, but the Disputation on the Power of Indulgences – which addressed in technical terms the mechanics of sin, purgatory, forgiveness, and salvation – found a large and receptive audience, its reach and impact greatly amplified by the new technology of printing.

The controversies resulting from the Ninety-five Theses provoked Luther to clarify and develop his thinking in a torrent of publications, many of them short, easily reprinted, and addressed in German to a lay audience. A charismatic and volatile personality, Luther was both a formidable intellect and a potent propagandist who quickly became the figurehead for a burgeoning reform movement. Within a few years of 1517 he would be a condemned heretic as well as the most published author in western history.

Luther’s theology used the biblical text, the individual conscience, and appeals to secular power to challenge the authority of the Pope and the Church. He emphasized the precedence of divine grace in view of a radically impaired human condition and gave priority to sincere belief over external actions as the key to religious life. He underscored the primacy of a person’s direct experience of God, and many of his most popular works were devotional or practical in nature, written for ordinary Christians concerning matters of everyday life.

Although many of the theological, social, and political forces that would emerge as the Reformation were already present in 1517, the “Luther affair” (as his Ninety-five Theses and their aftermath were then called) turned out to be the impetus that set these latent forces of reform irreversibly in motion. Within a generation, and for many to come, Europe – and in turn, the places Europeans influenced – would irrevocably bear the stamp of the “wild boar” Luther.

- With thanks to Euan Cameron, Morgan Adams, Jenny Lee, Sean Quimby, Michelle Chesner, and Myong Jin.

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