Martin Luther and the Reformation
Martin Luther, a German friar, first became famous for criticizing the Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences in his document titled “The Ninety-Five Theses”. He then set about undermining the institution of the Roman Catholic Church. After Luther challenged the Pope, declaring that no one man could be the perfect interpreter of Scripture, he was excommunicated from the church. He, with the help of some of his peers, translated the entire Bible from Latin into German, which made it much more accessible to the public.
The Reformation – Martin Luther
Martin Luther was a German friar who first became famous for criticizing the Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences. Indulgences were when members of the Catholic Church would say, “Ok, if you give us money to rebuild this part of the church, or you pay for this or that, or just for the church to have more money in general, then you won’t spend as much time in Purgatory, or you’ll go straight to Heaven, or more of your sins will be forgiven without any penance instead of asking forgiveness from God.”
They would say “Oh, I’ll pay this money to the church and the church will clear all of my debt with God, they will make sure that I go straight to Heaven, or that I won’t spend as long in Purgatory if I pay this money to them.” And since the church really didn’t have any jurisdiction over that, this was a problem for some people because the church was making money off of something that they were promising to people that they could not guarantee.
Martin Luther was one of the people who had a problem with this practice, and he wrote a critique of Catholic clerical abuses, especially the sale of indulgences. Now that wasn’t the only thing people had a problem with in the Catholic Church. They would take land as payment for the indulgences, and then they would sell the land and make money, or they would keep the land and have the church own it.
They would also sell the different offices in the church, if there was a high-ranking church member or a clerical member, that position available then people could say, “Oh, I’ll give you this land, or I’ll pay some money so that I can have that position,” because the church was very much a part of the political society during that day. There were other things that people had a problem with within the church, but the sale of indulgences was one of the big ones, especially for Martin Luther.
This critique that he wrote quickly spread throughout Germany and the rest of Europe. Pretty much everyone in Europe was reading it and a lot of people were saying, “Yeah, I agree with a lot of what he’s saying. The church shouldn’t be selling these indulgences. That Martin Luther is on to something.” This document became known as the 95 Theses, and it won him immediate fame.
If it was spreading that quickly all throughout his own country, and then all out the rest of Europe, it was something that was very popular, and it made Martin Luther a name that a lot of people throughout Europe were going to know. Luther then set about undermining the institution of the Roman Catholic Church.
He was unhappy with the practices of the church, and if they weren’t going to reform them then he was going to try to undermine the institution of the church and tell people there was another way and go against what the church was constantly telling people was the only way. He argued that individuals did not need the help of the clergy to establish a strong relationship with God. At this time, people weren’t encouraged to talk to God on their own.
They were encouraged to tell the different clerical workers, the different people that worked within the church. They were supposed to talk to these different clergymen and they were supposed to tell them what they wanted God to know, and then the clergymen were supposed to pass that on up. Your deacons, your priests, they were supposed to be relaying the message to God from the common people, instead of encouraging the common people to talk to God themselves.
People at this time, if they were part of the Roman Catholic Church. They were basically under the belief that they needed the clergy to be able to talk to God, to make sure that God heard them. If you paid more money, then it would be more likely that God would hear you, and that was the kind of thing that the church was telling people. Luther maintained that faith, rather than obedience to arbitrary church rules, would be what got people into Heaven.
If you had faith in God, if you repent of your sins to God directly, then that was what would get you into Heaven. You wouldn’t have to follow the church’s arbitrary rules, you wouldn’t have to pay them so much money, you wouldn’t have to do so many good works for the church or in honor of the church in order to get into Heaven. It wasn’t based on, like, an exact amount of work or money paid that you would get into heaven or get out of Purgatory quicker.
Luther maintained that it was your faith, what you believed, that was going to get you to Heaven and not what you were doing according to the church’s rules and regulations. Now, the final straw for the church was when Luther directly challenged the Pope. The Pope, the head of the Catholic Church, had a lot of power and Luther directly challenged him declaring that no one man could be the perfect interpreter of scripture.
It was a big deal for Martin Luther to challenge the Pope like that. He’d already written the 95 Theses, he’d already written a lot against the church, but this was the final straw for the church. Luther was saying no man could be the perfect interpreter of scripture, because everyone would just take the Pope’s interpretation as “this is what the scripture means.” the Pope is no more qualified to understand it than anyone else who’s able to read and come up with an interpretation.
At this time, a lot of the people couldn’t read the Bible because the Bible was still written in Latin. It hadn’t been translated. People had to go with what they were told about scripture, what the interpretation of the scripture was that was presented to them because they didn’t have another option. But when the only option being presented was that of the Pope, Martin Luther didn’t like that idea, he wanted people to be able to gain their own interpretations of scripture.
After Luther challenged the Pope and refused to recant any of his published statements, so he was given the option to take back what he’d said. He could take back his challenge, he could take back a lot of the statements in the 95 Theses and some of his other writings, and he could have been forgiven by the church. But Martin Luther didn’t want to be forgiven by the church, he wanted the church to change, he wanted the Reformation to start.
He was excommunicated from the church. He refused to take back any of his statements or his challenge. Now he did say “Oh, I stand by my statements, I did write them,” and he thought about it for a while. He said, “Let me think about if I want to take them back.” But he came to the conclusion that he couldn’t because that was what he truly believed, and it would be a lie to try to take it back, and he was going to let God judge him for his statements and not the Pope, he maintained- he believed all those statements, he was standing firmly behind them.
The Pope said, “Ok, you’re excommunicated from the church.” Even though he wasn’t any longer a part of the Roman Catholic Church, which was a big deal, Luther continued to spread his message. Some of the legacies that we get from Martin Luther are that those who identify with Luther’s teachings and became his followers were called Lutherans. This continues even today. There are Lutheran churches who base their belief system primarily on ideas that came from Martin Luther.
Luther wrote many hymns that greatly contributed to the development of singing in churches. There wasn’t a lot of singing in church or in church services before Martin Luther came around. He wrote so many hymns that encouraged singing, and that were worshipping God that more people started singing in churches and this tradition spread. Likewise, Luther got married, which further promoted the practice and acceptance of clerical marriage.
At this time in the Roman Catholic Church, priests were not allowed to get married. If you were a priest, if you were a church leader, you weren’t allowed to take a wife. Martin Luther didn’t believe that that was something that was based in scripture. He didn’t believe that there was anywhere in the Bible that was telling religious leaders that they shouldn’t get married, because God had created Eve for Adam and wanted man and woman to be together.
He believed that it was still fine for a man who was a religious leader to get married. When Luther himself got married, this further promoted the practice and acceptance of clerical marriage among people that were separating off from the Catholic Church. Now Luther, with the help of some of his peers, translated the entire Bible from Latin to German. Since he was living in Germany that was his native tongue, he had known Latin from studying in school.
He was able to read the Bible, but remember, the common person wasn’t able to read the Bible because it was written in Latin. Luther translated The New Testament and then he got some of his peers to help him and they translated the Old Testament as well into German. This made it much more accessible to the public. Now the Bible was available in German, in people’s native tongue in Germany, to be able to read it and then they could go and interpret the scripture themselves without having to just take the Pope’s word for it.
They could read for themselves come up with their own conclusions about what the scripture meant. We got lots of legacies from Luther within the church, but the primary one was that he undermined the church’s institution. That he went against the church so completely and became so popular, that he really divided the Catholic Church and encouraged a lot of people to separate off from the Catholic Church believing that the sale of indulgences wasn’t good, and that the path to Heaven was through faith and not through following the church’s rules.