October, 2017, marks the 500th anniversary of the igniting of what became known as the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther is generally considered the father of the Reformation. Luther’s nailing his “95 Theses” to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany, on October 31, 1517, is commonly cited as the event that sparked reformation fires. While there had been other reformers and reformation efforts before Luther, he certainly was the leading human instrument in the much fuller reformation movement that God brought about in Luther’s era.
Martin Luther was born on November 10, 1483, in Eisleben, Saxony (part of modern east Germany). He studied at the University of Erfurt, earning the Bachelor of Arts degree in 1502 and the Master of Arts degree in 1505. He then began to study law in keeping with his father’s wishes. But when caught in a severe thunderstorm on July 2, 1505, Luther feared for his life and cried out, “St. Anne, I will become a monk!”
Thus bound by an oath to his father’s patron saint, Luther joined the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt where he practiced strictest discipline in devoting himself to study, prayer and the use of the sacraments. In rigorously employing the sacrament of penance he constantly and closely scrutinized himself for transgressions, sorrowed over his sins, confessed them to a priest and fulfilled whatever recompense was imposed on him. He sought to discipline and even punish himself with prolonged periods of prayer and fasting as well as through sleepless nights and physical self-flagellations.
Luther’s wise superior, Johannes von Staupitz, recognizing the young monk’s tremendous intellectual abilities, encouraged him away from excessive introspection and into the fuller pursuit of his studies. Luther learned Greek and Hebrew and eventually committed most of the New Testament and large portions of the Old Testament to memory. He was ordained a priest in 1507, taught at the universities of Wittenberg and Erfurt 1508-1511, and received his doctoral degree in 1512. That latter year he returned to the University of Wittenberg as a professor. There he carried out his lectures on the Bible, teaching through the Psalms (1513-1515), Romans (1515-1516), Galatians (1516-1517) and Hebrews (1517-1518). Those books of Scripture were foundational in shaping his theological understanding.
Luther experienced his Christian conversion around 1515, through his contemplation of Romans 1:17, which declares of the Gospel: “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.” Luther came to understand the Gospel (good news) is that God reckons the perfect righteousness of Christ to sinners who receive it by faith. Faith in Christ and His atoning sacrifice on the cross alone leads to being justified (declared righteous) in the sight of God. This, Luther realized, clashed sharply with the Catholic Church’s elaborate system of sacraments, rituals and other good works by which people hoped to earn their salvation.
In 1517 Luther began publicly preaching against abuses in the sale of indulgences, which had been a favored source of papal income for centuries. People were told that by purchasing indulgences they were exempted from acts of penance over their sins. Indulgences could be purchased for the forgiveness of one’s own sins or for people in purgatory. A Dominican priest named John Tetzel was then preaching throughout much of Germany, to raise funds for the Pope to complete the construction of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome. “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings,” Tetzel claimed, “the soul from purgatory springs.”
On October 31 of that year, Luther nailed his 95 Theses, also entitled Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, to the Wittenberg church door. That was a traditional way in those days of inviting the academic community to discuss an issue. Others realized the great importance of Luther’s 95 Theses and, without his permission, translated them from Latin (the language commonly used by scholars) into German, then published them.
Luther was soon denounced by the Dominicans and a Vatican theologian as a teacher of dangerous doctrines and guilty of heresy. In July, 1519, Luther was involved in an eighteen-day debate with prominent Catholic theologian John Eck at Leipzig. During the course of that debate Luther publicly declared that the Bible alone, not popes or councils, was invariably true and reliable. “A council may sometimes err,” he stated. “Neither the Church nor the Pope can establish articles of faith. These must come from Scripture.” Eck recommended to Rome that Luther be condemned as a heretic.
Nearly a year later, in June, 1520, Pope Leo X issued a bull (named after the seal – bulla – on the official document) in which forty-one of Luther’s beliefs were condemned as heretical, false and repugnant to Catholic truth. Luther was called to recant of his teachings under threat of excommunication. He received his copy of the papal bull on October 10. At the end his sixty-day grace period, Luther led a throng of students and other supporters outside Wittenberg where he burned copies of the Canon Law, the works of some medieval theologians and a copy of the bull that condemned him.
During the last five months of that same year, 1520, Luther also produced three of his most influential treatises: (1) His Address to the German Nobility appealed to secular princes to call a council to implement reforms that were needed in the Church. He thought such a necessary, corrective council would otherwise never be convened and appropriately carried out due to the corrupt clergy and the vested interests of the princes of the church.
(2) Luther’s The Babylonian Captivity of the Church examined the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church and concluded that only baptism and the Lord’s Supper were true, biblical sacraments. Luther rejected the Catholic teaching of transubstantiation (that the bread and cup became the actual body and blood of Christ during communion) as well as the doctrine of eucharistic sacrifice (that in communion the priest offered Christ as a propitiation to the Father on the altar). That treatise also promoted the concept of the priesthood of all believers – that all true believers can approach God through Christ and present spiritual sacrifices to Him, rather than relegating such access and service only to Catholic priests.
(3) Luther’s On the Freedom of the Christian Man taught that the inner spiritual freedom that comes through faith in Christ results in outward good deeds on the part of all true believers. True Christians lovingly serve the Lord and their fellow human beings, not to try to earn anything from God, but to seek to please Him in all things. Man needs the law to learn of his moral helplessness and to be led to repentance. But the Gospel is the free promise of grace in Christ and is received through faith in Him rather than by one’s own good works.
In January of the following year, 1521, Luther was excommunicated by the Pope as a heretic. Two months later he was summoned to appear before the emperor Charles V at the imperial diet (assembly) meeting at Worms. Luther was promised a safe conduct, guaranteeing that he could travel safely to and from Worms. He well recalled the similar imperial safe conduct promised to John Hus that was not ultimately honored at Constance, resulting in Hus’s arrest, imprisonment and burning at the stake as a supposed heretic. Despite the possibility of that same fate befalling him, Luther set out for the imperial diet at Worms.
[To be continued in my next Perspective]
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Sources consulted: Church History in Plain Language, Bruce L. Shelley (Word, 1982), pp. 255-264; Great Leaders of the Christian Church, John D. Woodbridge, Ed., “Martin Luther,” W. Robert Godfrey (Moody, 1988), pp. 187-196.
Copyright 2017 by Vance E. Christie