H372 - The Reformation in Germany: Martin Luther

ASSIGNMENT: Read Kurt Aland's "History of Christianity", Vol 2, chapters 1-2.

The end of the Middle Ages and the dawn of the Renaissance was perhaps the most trying period of human history. The world was moving from childhood to adulthood -- and the growing pains were terrible to behold.

The old order was passing and the new was rising. The Church of Rome was expanding and building in order to maintain its power and appearance. And perhaps the most striking thing about the entire period was its fascination with appearance. In fact, that fascination with appearance has remained in western culture till this very day.

The protests of Wycliffe and Hus against the wealth of the Church and its misuse had not been very effective; for the Church continued to expend its resources not on people but on things, like buildings. St. Peter's Basilica in Rome was built during the lifetime of Luther; and it was the catalyst for Luther's reaction. But how so? Rome needed money in order to build St. Peter's, and in order to raise money the Pope authorized the sale of indulgences.

By purchasing an indulgence one could assure that either oneself or a loved one were spared a long stay in Purgatory. Rome made bundles of money by the sale of these indulgences -- most from Germany.

At the same time, Luther came to realize that salvation did not depend on works but on grace; and with this realization he boldly attacked the economic basis of the Roman Church because he did not want to see his beloved countrymen robbed of their property for a religious action of no avail -- so that it is fair to say that the Reformation came about because of both spiritual and economic factors.

Luther was, without a doubt, the most significant of the Reformers. Born on Nov. 10, 1483 at Eisleben, and frightened as a young man in a storm, he joined the Augustinian movement at Erfurt and lived there for a brief time. He studied theology after his novitiate and accepted the theological perspective of his day. He believed at that time that salvation was accomplished by the grace of God, along with human merit for good deeds. Or, in other words, salvation comes about because of faith plus works.

In 1505 the turning point in Luther's life took place. He became incredibly interested in the Bible. This interest grew over a period of many years and later came to fruition. Luther journeyed to Rome in 1510 on business for the order, and was disappointed by the great luxury which he saw among the cardinals. In 1511 Luther was sent by his superior to Wittenberg to be the professor of Biblical Theology. Before he could assume this duty he was required to obtain a doctorate in theology, which he accomplished in 1512. He then assumed his duties as lecturer at the university of Wittenberg, where he would remain the rest of his life.

In 1514 Luther was appointed preacher of the city Church in Wittenberg. Thus, he combined the pulpit and the podium in his ministerial duties.

As Luther continued to lecture on the Biblical text, he became more certain that salvation was by grace alone. His lectures on Psalms, Romans, Galatians and Hebrews show that this confidence in grace was growing slowly but surely. Especially in his lectures of 1516-1517 on Galatians can one see his growing love of grace and disdain of merits accomplished by human effort or bought in an indulgence sale.

By the time Luther lectured on Romans, he had completely repudiated the idea of merit as earned grace. It seems clear then that Luther did not come to his understanding "all of a sudden"; but that the development of his theology took place over a period of many years.

The consequences of this change in theological perspective were far reaching.

The popular understanding of salvation was undermined; and the power of the papacy was threatened. Rome had no choice but to respond.

The matter with Luther came to a head in 1517 when Luther sent letters to his superiors asking them to repeal the indulgence sale; and along with the letter a series of 95 theses which supported his request. These theses were spread all around the country and they ignited a fire of protest against the economic and spiritual misdeeds of Rome.

In 1519 Luther was summoned to Leipzig in order to defend his views or recant them.

He presented his case with vigor -- and the Reformation was born in Germany.

As the Reform movement grew, the ideas of Luther were spread around Germany; and beyond. At the University of Wittenberg the reigning scholastic theology was replaced by Biblical languages and studies in 1518. In 1520 Luther wrote his three most significant works: "Sermon on Good Works", "Babylonian Captivity of the Church" and "The Freedom of a Christian". These works set forth the ideas that 1) Christian ethics arise from faith; 2) there are only two sacraments, the Eucharist and Baptism; and 3) freedom means responsibility. These ideas served as the foundation stones of all later Lutheran thought, and their influence can be felt to the present day.

The Roman Church was not sitting on its hands during this period of uproar. In 1520 Luther received notice that if he did not recant he would be excommunicated.

Luther, of course, refused, and was excommunicated in 1521. He was then summoned to the Diet of Worms (pronounced "dee-ut" of "vurms"; not that he ate a diet of worms!!) where he was offered one more opportunity to recant. He refused and in order to avoid capture was taken to the castle at Wartburg for several years.

While at the castle Luther translated the New Testament into German and published it in 1522. (By 1534 he had translated the entire Bible).

Unfortunately, Luther's adherents in Wittenberg could not maintain his leadership in his absence and the seeds of the "radical reformation" were planted which would later blossom in the bloody horror of the peasants revolt. When Luther returned to Wittenberg, he again took the reins of the reform and returned it to its Biblical track. He died in 1546, in the very town in which he was born.

For the remainder of his life, Luther vigorously pressed his views into the public eye. But nothing new was accomplished after 1520. By that time the egg had been laid and it was only a matter of warming it until it hatched.

But what exactly was born of Luther's reform? It is certain that Luther returned to the Biblical concept of faith -- but did he throw the baby out with the bath water? After all, one of the most devastating effects of the Reformation was a withering of piety (which the Pietists and Pilgrims would later rediscover). Luther's reform was excellent for the intellectual elite -- but for the peasants, who did not and could not comprehend the theological subtleties which were the foundation of Luther's thought. The peasants saw only an opportunity for license and laziness -- now they were free to pursue their own interests instead of the interests of the Church and therefore of God.

The ultimate result of Luther's reform was that the Church was plunged into a never ending strife: religious wars and witch hunts. Dogma replaced love as the litmus test of Christianity, and a new gnosticism was born which placed knowledge above action.

Huldrych Zwingli's reform was far more balanced; and if it had gained the popularity which Luther's did, then the Church would have been able to retain its significance into the modern age. It is to Zwingli that we now turn.