Father of the Revolution
2,000 years ago Christ established a visible church here on earth and gave his Apostles the authority over it. (Mt. 28:18-20, John 20:21-23)
1500 years later saw events which caused the largest schism of that church that has ever been seen since its founding. However, I think there are a lot of elements to understand in looking at that schism, why it took place, and what lead up to it. Any level-headed individual can see the issues (on some level) from both sides of the argument.
What is most difficult for me to understand, I think, is that Martin Luther didn’t just combat corruption, he jettisoned an entire faith system to create his own. Besides some key elements of theology, Martin Luther reasoned out his own ideas of what Christianity meant and gained followers who saw a simpler path to heaven free of the “Papist” yoke.
However, let me back up and start at the beginning and flesh out the scope of the entire thing so that there is a clearer understanding of why things happened as they did. This is the information as I understand it based on the research and reading I have done.
When Martin Luther was about twenty-three (and struggling to find his niche in this world – as all 23-year-old’s are want to do) he suffered a traumatic event which caused him to make a vow to become a monk. The story, often recounted in one way or another, is that he was out during a bad thunderstorm and that a bolt of lightning had struck near him frightening him horribly. Some say he called to Mary others to another saint, but that he vowed that if they’d save his life, he’d become a monk. This means of committing to a religious life is as impetuous as anyone in danger of death making any vow under duress. The mistake came from the monastery who actually admitted Martin Luther. Their discernment process – and in fact the entire Church’s – was slackened and hindered by the toll the Black Plague had taken on their numbers. So hurting for priests and religious were they that filling the need took precedence over quality candidates who were truly meant for the role.
Martin Luther took on monumental tasks at the time filling roles that the Church needed being pushed through theological schooling and up the hierarchical ladder in only a few short years.
- In 1507, he was ordained to the priesthood,
- In 1508 began teaching theology at the University of Whittenberg
- In 1508 he also already received a Bachelor’s degree in Biblical studies
- And another Bachelor’s degree in 1509.
- On 19 October 1512, he was awarded his Doctorate in Theology and two days later was received into the senate of the theological faculty of the University of Whittenberg having been called to the position of Doctor in Bible.
Does that seem a bit rushed to anyone else? In seven short years he went from being an ordinary person to a Doctor of Theology. This mistake of the Church’s in rushing him through and of Martin Luther being given heavy job responsibility on an overwhelming scale would be the platform of a revolution.
Because he was overwhelmed by his other duties to the community, Martin Luther neglected the disciplines required of his role as a monk. Prayers, devotions, readings, all were neglected and when Martin Luther was able to resume them he punished himself for his neglect by enforcing strict penances on himself. He also experienced a tremendous fear that all his efforts would not be enough and that he could not be saved. Belaying those fears and the attempts to do so by his superiors did not alleviate them in Martin Luther and these things set the precedence for what would eventually become his theological beliefs of justification by faith alone and salvation by grace alone known respectively as Sola Fide and Sola Gratia.
In those days Pope Leo X wanted to build St. Peter’s Basilica and in order to raise funds he asked for believers to donate money to its building. Acts of good works, devotional practices, works of corporal or spiritual mercy, or similar such things can be, through Papal decree, an act of gaining an indulgence either partial or plenary. Therefore, the free giving of money or alms gains one an indulgence. Very simply put, an indulgence is a remission of the temporal punishment due to sin, the guilt of which has already been forgiven (through Reconciliation). Therefore, if one does a pious act for a good intention an indulgence can be gained. This is what was behind Pope Leo’s intent to grant indulgences to those who would give alms to build the basilica in Rome.
When this got back to Martin Luther (either through his own ears or through his parishioners explanations to him) it came back that the Pope was selling indulgences for money to remit guilt for sin. For a man who was already struggling to understand faith, this was a boiling point. For a man whose extreme attempts at disciplined piety which was misconstrued and misunderstood, then, therefore misapplied, coupled with his frustration over the attainment of salvation culminated into his speaking out against the faith he felt had failed him.
Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Thesis to the castle church door which acted like a “blackboard” for the University of Whittenburg where he taught because he intended to hold a debate and these were the talking points. It wasn’t done in some bold defiant act of the Roman Catholic Church. NOW, the reason that he became so well-known for them is because he sent copies to the Church authorities and he was also aided greatly by the use of the printing press so that it was spread throughout the country relatively quickly. HOWEVER, it must also be noted that when Martin Luther was made to answer for these charges first to the Archbishop and even on up to the Pope himself, that BOTH times, he exclaimed profusely that he was not against the Church, he meant no ill will, and that all he wanted was to be directed by the Church and her Pope.
“I herewith send forth these trilling explanations… that I may be more safe under the defense of your name and the shadow of your protection. In them all may see, who will, how purely and simply I have sought after and cherished the power of the Church and reverence for the keys (the Papacy)… Wherefore, most blessed Father, I cast myself at the feet of your Holiness, with all that I have and all that I am. Quicken, kill, call, recall, approve, reprove, as you will. In your voice I shall recognize the voice of Christ directing you and speaking in you. If I have deserved death, I shall not refuse to die.”1
In fact, when he wrote Pope Leo he acknowledged that the teaching of “selling indulgences” didn’t come from the Pope but was only perpetuated by the priests claiming authority to do so under the Pope’s blessing.
“It is not long ago that the preaching of the Jubilee indulgences was begun in our country, and matters went so far that the preachers of indulgences, thinking that the protection of your name made anything permissible, ventured openly to teach the most impious and heretical doctrines, which threatened to make the power of the Church a scandal and a laughing-stock, as if the decretals De Abusionibus Quaestorum did not apply to them.”1
Not the words of a man looking to break away from Rome is it?
So what happened?
When reading Luther’s Ninety-five Thesis one sees a vision of a man struggling to understand his faith and not grasping – not necessarily the meaning of it but – the reasoning of it. Justification leads to Salvation and Justification, according to Biblical Catholic theology, comes through good works (Jas. 2:20-26) along with grace. Martin Luther failed to grasp the full understanding of that and so, in his mind, the concept of doing good works (the severe penances he was assigning himself) coupled with the fear of not being saved brought about great frustration to Luther because he reasoned that Salvation and faith in Christ should bring one peace and the “works” he was trying to do in order to “obtain salvation” wasn’t bringing him fulfillment and peace. In other words, he was going about it the wrong way and for the wrong reasons. Therefore, shortly after his letter to the Pope, Martin Luther picked up and continued to rail against the priests, the Pope, and the Church who were – according to him – “selling indulgences” and claimed, rightfully so, that no man could buy his way into Heaven and that, in fact, by the buying of indulgences, people were “buying salvation”.
Martin Luther became more and more emboldened with his theological beliefs and for three years Pope Leo tried to get Luther to recant. He appointed a commission of inquiry under Dominican scholar Silvester Mazzolini, a professor of theology who wrote a discourse against Luther. Luther simply dismissed it and republished it with an introduction that called it haughty, Italian, and typical of the school of Thomas Aquinas. So Mazzolini wrote another. Again Luther republished it, and he advised Mazzolini not to make himself any more ridiculous by continuing to write. All tolerance left the Pope at that point. Martin was called to Rome to recant his heresies. An interview was arranged at Aussburg with a Cardinal who didn’t take too kindly to Luther claiming the Pope wasn’t infallible. He told Luther never to enter his presence again unless he revoked his views. and he urged Luther’s superior to work to convert him. Luther went home and raged against Rome. Since Luther would not recant, he was excommunicated in 1520 by Pope Leo.
Martin Luther took to jettisoning everything Catholic, including the Bible and starting from scratch with only his own interpretation and reasoning to validate his theology. In compiling the Bible, Martin Luther turned, not to the annals of Christian history, but decided to turn to the anti-Christian Jewish council of Jamnia in 90 AD. That council convened to canonize the Hebrew Scriptures. They thereby removed from their cannon any texts that did not have a Hebrew original or were never written in Hebrew to begin with. Many Jews – because of the Greek conquest of Alexandria – read and understood Hellenistic Greek. The books that the Jewish culture most often read and understood was the Greek Septuagint version of Scriptures. When the council decided to remove books of a Greek origin (or that didn’t have Hebrew originals that could be found) they removed a total of seven books and parts of Esther and Daniel. However, the ancient Christian church, in keeping with the Jewish tradition of reading the Greek Septuagint, read, used, and taught from these books. However, when Martin Luther decided to abide by the Jewish council, these books disappeared from the main text of Scripture. (Originally it was in the appendix of his Bible – and the other Protestant Bibles until the mid-1800’s when it disappeared completely). Therefore, to this day Protestants do not have the books of Wisdom, Sirach, Tobit, Judith, Baruch, 1 and 2 Maccabees and parts of Esther and Daniel in their Bibles. Ironically, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls revealed that these books did exist in Hebrew. In fact, Martin Luther wanted to remove Revelation, Hebrews, James, and Jude but refrained from doing so only because of a threatened fallout from fellow reformers. In his original German version of the Bible he actually added the word ‘alone’ to Romans 3:28, “man is justified by faith (alone) and not by works of the law”, however this was eventually dropped. Another erroneous belief was that he was the first to translate the Bible into the common vernacular. That had already been done several times before. However, he did, with the aid of the printing press, give Germans the Bible to read for themselves in – not the high German as it had been translated before – but in a more common vernacular with which they could understand.
Lutheranism itself became more about ‘reform’ than ‘protest’ and thus there is what is sometimes considered a distinction between what became ‘reformed’ theology and ‘protest’-ant theology in how the theological and liturgical beliefs were re-tooled. There was good that came out of Luther’s challenge to the Church. It gave the Church the opportunity to assess and reform some of its principles in dealing with its religious. It helped the church solidify its faith and gave them cause to examine, reaffirm, and clarify why the Catholic Church believes what it does. Unfortunately, the Catholic Church at the time did not have the approach she does today in trying to work with those who hold different beliefs. Her grip on the world was unrivaled and her attitude toward dissenting ideas was to approach them like an autocracy to a traitor. Even when interviewing Luther, there was a rather angry and unrelenting approach to what was essentially his struggle with faith. Instead of helping, I believe their superiority complex and snobbish attitude contributed to the fallout. The priests seem to have been ill educated and in no true position to promote educated teaching to the laity. People went to church because they had to. There was no getting around going to church if you wanted to be a member of society in those days. These individuals probably had no more of an idea why they went to church than children do. They did what they did because they had to and they were morally charged with doing it to save their immortal souls, but ask them why and what for and it was probably nothing they could explain to you. Luther changed that when he put a Bible into their hands and told them, ‘read and interpret for yourselves.’ What else would the common laity think when they could read for themselves, the priests couldn’t give good answers, the Church as a whole dominated and subjugated their entire lives aided by the government, and faith suddenly became much more simplified and in essence easier for and on the believer?
Luther was, in fact, actually considered to be too “papist” by other emerging reformers who demanded he strip every single thing in his worship style and new-found faith that looked or mimicked anything Catholic. Even as far as the elevating of the chalice and host in the service. In fact, when the Reformers met years later at Whittenburg again to attempt to solidify their theologies into a common singular belief they couldn’t agree. In fact, at the time there were close to 130 different definitions of the words “This is my body” in reference to the bread of Communion and what that exactly meant. Some saw it symbolically, some saw it as both bread and body. So vehemently did they disagree with each other that they parted saying, “I shall not shake hands with thee, thou are no longer my brother.” Luther actually was, and Lutheranism today is, still very close theologically to Catholicism.
Luther didn’t escape scandal even after he separated from the Catholic Church. He was quite famous for his comments about the toilet, feces, the devil, and private parts and often used that imagery in a disgustingly foul way which betrays his common farmer’s roots. When Philip I of Hesse wanted to marry one of his wife’s ladies-in-waiting. Philip solicited the approval of Luther citing the polygamy of the patriarchs. Luther, along with other theologians, advised him to marry in secret. When the marriage became public Luther advised Philip to “tell a good strong lie.” It was a mistake that cost him in reputation for the rest of his life. Another huge mar on Luther is what became his fanatic anti-Semitism. According to historians, his anti-Jewish rhetoric contributed significantly to the development of anti-Semitism in Germany. In fact, so ugly did his anti-Semitism run that the Nazi party widely quoted and used Luther as a reference point. Luther’s most famous anti-Semitic work is About the Jews and Their Lies in which he recommended destroying their homes so that they would be expelled for all times.
Near the end of his life Luther suffered from many varied and crippling diseases and illness. (I half believe – half jokingly – that God’s Hand just might not have lain upon him in the kindest of ways.) He had Meniere’s Disease, which produces vertigo and ringing in the ears, an ulcer, kidney stones, arthritis, chronic constipation, hemorrhoids, an ear infection because of a ruptured ear drum, angina, and a cataract in one eye. Before he died he delivered a fire and brimstone sermon against the Jews and driving them from Germany. Three days later he succumbed to a massive stroke and died in 1546.
Today, the Catholic Church is seeing a huge influx of Anglican/Episcopalians entering – sometimes entire congregations – back into the Catholic Church. The Church today works and talks with leaders of the Orthodox Church and Protestant Churches to seek reconciliation, promote understanding, and most of all, to act in charity. While the past of both the Protestants and the Catholics is stained with blood and hate, both sides finally learned that the way to unity is not through force or hatred, and there is so much in common with those Protestant denominations which follow a liturgical standard. Most importantly, there is a true love of the Trinity and all the that Christ sacrificed to save all mankind which is common to both sides of Christianity.
1. Martin Luther’s Letter to Pope Leo X