I) Introduction: By the sixteenth century attempts at reforming all or parts of the church had a long pedigree. The earliest attempts at reform may be seen in the efforts of the majority party to eradicate from the church other Christians whom they considered either evil, or heretical or heterodox. Most of the later reform movements, in western Christianity, arose from the monastic movements. However, these attempts at reform were often directed at fellow monks or clergy who were seen as either lax in their morals, or insufficiently disciplined to their calling. Irish monks, in the 6th and 7th century, traveling through continental Europe, were appalled at the state of affairs among the clergy and in the Benedictine houses. There were priests and/or monks who were living in open marriage or with unmarried women. Others had become alcoholics, where others were practically illiterate. Their efforts to reform the clergy were viewed as meddlesome. We have already discussed the reforms begun at Cluny and Citeaux, and by Francis and Dominic. We have also studied the Popes who were viewed as reformers. However, all of these reforms were short lived, and the inheritors of these reform movements, within two to three generations were guilty of the same abuses that the founders of the movement had sought to either fix or escape from.
What differentiates these earlier reform movements and the Protestant reformation is that these earlier manifestations of reform were concerned either primarily or solely with morals. The leaders of the Protestant Reformation, while also addressing moral issues, understood that the entire organism was beyond repair. There was nothing salvageable. Both the hierarchy and theology needed to be jettisoned.
Martin Luther was in the vanguard of this movement, and perhaps its most memorable leader, and it is his life, his theology and his enemies that are the focus of our study this week.
II) His Life: Luther was born in 1483 in Eisleben, Saxony. His father intended him to have a career in the law, and Luther enrolled at the University of Erfurt in 1501 to study law, but in 1505 he abandoned his legal studies and entered a monastery. He was ordained a priest two years later, and by 1512 he was a professor of Biblical theology at Wittenberg University; a position he held for the rest of his life.
The first controversy in which Luther became involved concerned the church’s selling of indulgences. The people who purchased these indulgences were told that an indulgence freed them from punishment for confessed sins and could even release souls from purgatory. In 1515, the papal legate, Johann Tetzel began touring Germany selling these indulgences to raise money for the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In October 1517, Luther sent a letter to Archbishop Albrecht denouncing Tetzel’s tactics. He enclosed with the letter Ninety-Five Theses (articles for academic debate), that criticized indulgences. According to tradition, Luther also posted the Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church, which acted as the university’s bulletin board.
Luther feared that urging people to seek escape from divine punishment through indulgences would lead them away from true sorrow for their sins. But by early 1518, the Theses were circulating throughout Germany and prompting widespread debate. The controversy over the sale of indulgences was gradually transformed by Luther’s critics into a debate over the authority of the pope.
By 1519, Luther had publicly criticized papal claims to authority, and in a debate with Catholic theologian Johann Eck in Leipzig Luther went asserted that not only could popes be in error, but so could ecclesiastical councils. Scripture had become, for Luther, the sole authority for religious truth.
The final break between Luther and the church came in 1520. In that year, Luther published three highly influential works—To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and The Freedom of a Christian. In these works Luther claimed that all baptized believers are spiritually equal in God’s eyes because all must depend on faith in Christ. Luther also criticized pilgrimages, devotion to saints, and other practices that he claimed emphasized works rather than faith. In addition, he reduced the number of sacraments from seven eventually to two, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These new views were too radical for the papacy, and in January 1521, Luther was formally excommunicated.
In April 1521, Luther was given a hearing before Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at a diet at Worms, Germany. Luther was urged to retract his teachings, but he refused. He made his famous statement: “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything.” The emperor declared Luther an outlaw. On his journey home from Worms, Luther was taken by supporters and hidden at Wartburg Castle, where he translated the New Testament into German.
Attempts by Catholic princes to keep people from reading Luther’s German New Testament led Luther in 1523 to publish an important work, On Temporal Authority, To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed. In this work, Luther argued that God had established two “kingdoms”—a spiritual kingdom and a worldly one. Within the spiritual kingdom, God rules through the Word, or Gospel of Christ. Within the worldly one, He rules through secular authorities. God is lord of both kingdoms, but they must not be mixed. Therefore, Luther attacked the papacy for meddling in secular matters, and rebellious peasants during a revolt in 1525 for using the Gospel to support their secular demands.
In 1525, Luther published another important work, The Bondage of the Will, where he argued that people cannot do anything to contribute to their salvation. They must receive it from God as a gift. In the same year Luther married Katherina von Bora, a former Cistercian nun. They had six children, three sons and three daughters.
Luther spent the last 20 years of his life establishing the Lutheran church. In 1529 he issued the Small Catechism, a work designed to bring Lutheran Christianity to a population largely ignorant of even the basics of Christianity. The following year, Luther’s younger colleague Philipp Melanchthon wrote an important summary of the Lutheran faith to be presented to Emperor Charles V. Known as the Augsburg Confession, this summary was meant to show the similarities between Lutheran and Roman Catholic beliefs while defending Lutheran interpretations. In 1534, Luther and his colleagues completed their German translation of the Hebrew Bible. Luther also lectured regularly, helping the University of Wittenberg prepare the new pastors needed to bring the Reformation to the people.
Luther became profoundly disturbed by events in the last years of his life. Everywhere he saw signs that the end of the world was at hand. During this time, Luther issued ferocious attacks against what he thought were the enemies of Christ—the papacy, the Muslim Turks, Protestants whom he considered extremists, and Jews.
By the time of his death on Feb. 18, 1546, Luther was recognized as a major figure in the history of Christianity and the world, and his teachings continue to be the source of some of the most powerful ideas in Christianity.
III) Theological Issues:
A) Justification by Faith (soteriology): The battle over the definition of justification by faith was the most critical of all of the theological battles of the Protestant Reformation. Luther not only did battle with the Catholics on this issue, but with the Radical Reformers as well. When Luther was able to see that the righteousness of God included God’s forgiveness (justification) of sin as well as God’s condemnation of sin, it set the tone for the rest of his theological writings. Luther’s understanding of justification is best understood against the backdrop of the Roman Catholic understanding of justification. For Luther justification is objective rather than subjective.
B) Salvation by Grace through Faith (soteriology): Luther’s writings and sermons on salvation by faith through grace must be viewed against the backdrop of the soteriology of the Roman church. Essentially, roman Catholic soteriology in the sixteenth century was a blending of faith and good works. However, it was somewhat more complicated than it appears at first glance. The catholic believer was required to proceed through several “gate keepers” beginning with and including: the local priest; -> the sacraments (administered by the priest); -> the Pope (whom the priests represented); -> the saints (including the exceptionally important virgin Mary); -> Jesus Christ (whom the Pope represented (one of his names being the “Vicar of Christ”)); -> and finally God. Access to God, therefore, could only happen through the proscribed method laid out by the church hierarchy. Luther’s doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers,” essentially did away with all of the intermediaries between the believer and Jesus Christ, and taking the Hebrew Scripture’s description of the Temple services, taught that all believers had direct access to God through the only legitimate intermediary, Jesus Christ.
C) Sola Scriptura (ecclesiology): Luther’s teaching on Sola Scriptura is also not at straight forward as it first appears. First, it was a reaction, again, against the teachings of the Roman church, vis-à-vis, what was authoritative in a believer’s life. For the Roman Catholic church, by the Middle Ages, the following sources of “truth” held equal authority for the body of Christ: The Bible (which included the Apocrypha; rejected by all Protestant leaders); specifically designated early Church Fathers; Canon Law (the teachings approved at Ecumenical Councils); and the “ex cathedra” pronouncements of the Pope (papal bulls). All of this the Protestant’s, including Luther, rejected. However, Luther came to believe that only those books of the Bible that correctly speak of or to “the Gospel” were accounted Scripture. And Luther’s definition of the Gospel was the “Good News;” i.e., the doing and dieing of Jesus Christ. Therefore, he had great difficulty with the Epistle of James (which he called “the Epistle of Straw”) as well as the Epistle to the Hebrews and the book of Revelation.
D) The Priesthood of All Believers (ecclesiology): By the Middle Ages the church was no longer the “ecclesia” (Greek = the called out ones), but the clergy. All things holy, including the sacraments, were not to be handled by common believers. It is reported that in England not only were the common believers forbidden to taste the host (the body and blood of Jesus), but they were not even allowed to witness its presence. So the priest would perform the Eucharist in a language that none of the believers understood (ancient Latin), behind a screen. The story is told of one congregation on one Sunday calling out to the priest, “Heave it higher John; heave it higher,” referring to the host.
E) On the Bondage of the Will (anthropology): Many scholars believe that Luther’s teaching on anthropology is, perhaps, the teaching out of which all of his other teachings come. And it is interesting that his clearest teachings on the essence of humanity comes not from his conflicts with the church, but with the Christian Humanist Erasmus, who taught that humans were essentially good. Luther, on the other hand believed that all of the descendents of Adam and Eve were “totally depraved.” By this he did not mean that humans were irredeemable, but that all were stained by the curse of sin. Luther believed that we were born sinful, with a full propensity toward sin, and that no amount of good works or intentions were sufficient to free us from this curse. Unaided by the Holy Spirit, we would always choose sin; in fact he taught that our choices were sin and sin. Further not only were we unable to keep from sinning (because we are essentially sinful), but even our attempts to escape this state through good works only further damns us to hell. In other words, our good works are sinful. The only escape from this predicament, was a total surrender to God, to confess our sinfulness, and plead for God’s forgiveness which He provided through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ; the fountain of all grace.
This led Luther into one of his most interesting and controversial teachings. He taught that the person who becomes a follower of Jesus Christ, a justified sinner is, paradoxically, “simul justus et peccator.” The justified believer is, at the same time, simultaneously, fully sinful and fully righteous. The justified sinner, therefore, lives in two worlds or eras. He/She lives in this fallen, sinful age; the age into which he/she was born, but he/she now also lives in the new age. He/She does not fully escape the stain of the sin of this world, but, through the blood of Jesus Christ, and only through the blood of Jesus Christ, the believer can stand fully righteous before God; not on his/her own merits (which have absolutely no value before God), but on the merits of Jesus Christ.
F) Sacraments (soteriology): Luther reduced the number of sacraments from seven to three, and then to two (baptism and the Eucharist). However, it was his understanding of what happened when the believers celebrated the death of Jesus on the cross that caused Luther the most problems, not only with the Roman church, but with fellow Reformers. The nuances of his position cannot be fully articulated here, but suffice it to say that although all of the believers repudiated transubstantiation and adopted consubstantiation, exactly what that meant caused the Protestant Reformation to stall, almost before it began. And while the other Reformers were willing to compromise on their positions, Luther would not.
IV) Luther’s Enemies: By the end of Luther’s life, he had alienated a great many people, and while he had a few admirers outside of Wittenberg, most of his friends were from that small community. For various reasons, and at various times Luther alienated the following groups of people: The Papacy; Papal Supporters (Monks: Jesuits and Dominicans), and Secular Rulers; Humanists; Jews; Turks; Other Reformers (Reformed and Radical); Peasants.
Answer the following question in the Turabian style for references:
How did Luther’s enemies shape his theology?