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.
Talented visionary, diligent reformer, insurrectionist, class traitor, forerunner of German nationalism, anti-Semite, prophet of the Nazi Party – all of these epithets and more have been used to describe Martin Luther, a 16th-century German monk whose decision to defy the Catholic Church led to seismic shifts in the religious and political landscapes of Europe. Loved or loathed depending on who you ask, Luther was through and through a disruptor, with widely felt influence. The Protestant Reformation, which he started, would have consequences, both positive and negative, for the rise of European nation-states and the spread of “European civilization” beyond the European continent.
Luther was a rigorous student and a diligent pupil of Christian teachings. By the time he enrolled at the prestigious University of Erfurt in 1501, he already had built a solid foundation of Latin and the key tenets of Catholic doctrine. After completing his studies to the master’s level, he entered the Augustinian monastery of Erfurt in 1505. Two years later, he became a priest.
Luther would eventually gain his doctorate in theology from the new University of Wittenburg, but it was during his doctoral studies that he was chosen to represent his fellow monks on a mission to Rome from 1510 to 1511 that would have a lasting influence on him. The Augustinian order had been divided into “observant” and “non-observant” factions, indicating their level of adherence to the strict rule of the order. Pope Julius II had combined both factions under a compromise edict, but Luther petitioned the papacy in person for a meaningful separation – and recognition of the observant faction’s correctness. Julius, however, had already decided against Luther’s petition. It was this rebuff that stimulated in Luther an aversion to what he saw as a disturbingly decadent laziness at the center of the Catholic Church, the most-powerful religious institution in Western Europe.
Luther completed his doctorate at Wittenberg in 1512 and became a professor of biblical studies, in which position many of his students regarded him as an effective lecturer. As a professor, he was also able to publish his own writings on theology, which helped him clarify his stance on Christianity. In essence, Luther adhered strictly to the teachings of Augustine, the founder of his monastic order, who believed that the Bible superseded the clergy as the highest authority on Christianity, and that humans could not achieve salvation through their own works, but rather through God alone.
But there was a conflict brewing between Luther’s views and those of the Vatican. By the medieval period, the Catholic Church had begun to emphasize the value of righteous works in attaining salvation. Yet because its definition of what constituted a “righteous work” was open to ambiguity, the practice eventually became corrupt.
A new pope had come to power in 1513, and his papal name was Leo X. This Catholic leader needed enormous amounts of money to restore St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In essence, this restoration was about burnishing the collective ego of the papacy, not about reviving Christianity. But Leo used pretext after pretext to extort money from Europe’s churchgoers for the restoration. One of these pretexts was the issuance of “indulgences” – statements from the pope, purchased by money, that claimed to lessen the burden of a sinner ascending to Heaven. Money-hungry bishops were literally selling indulgences as commodities created out of thin air to line their pockets and embellish their lavish buildings.
Luther was incensed – to him, it was the same moral laxity he had earlier seen in Rome, expanded to an offensive degree and subverting the teachings of Augustine. So he decided to do something about it. The initial target of his ire was a Dominican monk named Johann Tetzel, who was going around shamelessly preaching that a letter of indulgence gained absolution of sins. So Luther wrote his own letter – a refutation of the idea of indulgences and similar Church abuses, which he posted on the door of Wittenberg Cathedral, also known as the 95 Theses. They were aimed at reform, not rebellion, but nonetheless they constituted provocative, arguably insurrectionist critiques of Church authority. Thesis 86, for example, poses the question, “Why does not the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?”
Luther decided to distribute copies of the Theses – and, thanks to a version of the moveable-type printing press that had been invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1439, Luther’s reform-minded text began to circulate quickly throughout Germany.
The consequences were profound. Luther was soon pitted against the best brains of the Roman Catholic oligarchy, and that is what began the Protestant Reformation. When Luther was summoned to Rome to be examined by Church authorities, Frederick III of Saxony, the prince of Luther’s territory, intervened to get the inquisition moved to Augsburg – evidence that Luther’s high-handed treatment by foreign authorities in Rome was already stimulating a type of German proto-nationalism. In 1520, the pope served Luther with the Bull of Antichrist, threatening him with excommunication if he refused to recant his views inherent in the 95 Theses. Luther dramatically issued his reply by burning the document in Wittenberg town square.
Escalation proceeded quickly. Charles V, the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire and also the vast Spanish Empire, summoned Luther to appear before the Diet of Worms the next year, where the imperial representative Johann Eck, assistant to the archbishop of Trier, demanded that Luther reject the “heresies” present in the Theses and other of Luther’s written works that elaborated on them. Luther calmly stated his refusal in court. In retort, the Catholic authorities eventually issued the Edict of Worms, which declared Luther a heretic and banned Catholics from owning or discussing his writings.
Across the German principalities, public support for Luther grew, and it was because he gained this support that the Edict of Worms was never enforced in Germany. By 1525, Luther had translated the Bible into German and conducted the first Christian worship in line with his own theological views. He called himself “the Prophet of the Germans,” and his German translation of the Bible effectively united Germans under one dialect of their language, since previously the dialect of German had varied by principality. Luther issued a detailed public explanation of the Lutheran doctrine, otherwise known as the Augsburg Confession, in 1530. Thus began the Lutheran Church – the mother church of the Protestant Reformation.
Several German princes in addition to Frederick III joined the new church, recognizing its practical value as a cloak for expanding their political and territorial rivalries with Catholic rulers. Luther’s spread of the Protestant movement soon helped solidify the ambitions of other, non-German rulers looking to defy Rome and Roman-supported monarchs. In 1534, King Henry VIII of England established the Protestant Church of England, a move that made him the head of that church and thereby allowed him to divorce Catherine of Aragon and sequester the property of many monasteries. In 1536, Norway declared itself Lutheran, and Sweden followed in 1544. By the time of Luther’s death in 1546, the conflict between Protestantism and Catholicism had become not only a religious divide but also a proxy for territorial war between monarchs and armies of the different faiths. From the Lutheran Church eventually arose a plethora of denominations and offshoots, all under the Protestant banner.
What made Martin Luther’s views so revolutionary? It wasn’t just that he had spotted and rejected the exercise of arbitrary power by the Vatican. He ultimately rejected the claimed authority of Catholic priests to interpret Scripture and serve as conduits to salvation. Luther believed that his adherents were the real authorities on interpreting the Bible – the parishioners, not the priests, were the arbiters of their own salvation. For Luther and the Protestants, salvation was not dependent on going to church, obeying a priest, or donating monetarily, but instead on justification by faith alone through the atoning sacrifice and resurrection of Christ alone. Furthermore, Luther posited that the only authoritative source for Christian belief was the Bible – at one fell swoop, rebuffing the validity of papal and other teachings issued by the Catholic Church. These ideas renounced the necessity for the Vatican’s elaborate, earthly empire of ecclesiastical edifices, officials, and edicts. And as we’ve seen, it also provided powerful religious cover under which princes and even kings could defy the Vatican’s demands on their resources and expropriate those resources for personal use.
Like all powerfully influential people in history, Martin Luther had positive and negative aspects – he was a genuinely polarizing figure, inspiring lovers and haters, each with strong justification for their views. As a rigorous academic and theologian, he sought to return Christianity to its true doctrine. Luther, his beliefs, and the Protestant Reformation, which they launched, all positioned him not only as a defining Christian figure, but also an early instigator of German nationalism.
Let’s wrap up with a review question:
Which of the following statements best explains why Frederick III’s early support for Martin Luther was important for the development of Protestantism?
- As a result of Frederick’s support, Luther gained a private escort of bodyguards and soldiers to protect him as he spread his faith throughout various German principalities.
- Frederick devoted part of his wealth to mass printings of Luther’s written works.
- The support provided sanctuary with which Luther was able to receive safe passage to and from the Diet of Worms, translate the Bible into German, and codify Lutheran doctrine.
- With the backing of Frederick, Luther sued the Catholic Church and received the Vatican’s sanction to conduct worship using his independent Christian theology.
The correct answer is C.
Thanks for watching, and happy studying!