This episode of CS is titled, Martin’s List.
In the summer of 1520 a document bearing an impressive seal circulated throughout Germany in search of a remote figure. It began, “Arise, O Lord, and judge Your cause. A wild boar has invaded Your vineyard.”
The document was what’s called a papal bull—named after that impressive seal, or bulla bearing the Pope’s insignia. It took 3 months to reach the wild boar it referred to, a German monk named Martin Luther who’d created quite a stir in Germany. But well before it arrived in Wittenberg where Luther taught, he knew its contents. 41 of the things he’d been announcing were condemned as à “heretical, scandalous, false, and offensive to pious ears; seducing simple minds & repugnant to Catholic truth.” The papal bull called on Luther to repent and publicly repudiate his errors or face dreadful consequences.
Luther received his copy on the 10th of October. At the end of his 60-day grace period, he led a crowd of eager students outside Wittenberg and burned copies of the Canon Law and works of several medieval theologians. Included in the paper that fed the flames was a copy of the bull condemning him. That was his answer. He said, “They’ve burned my books. So I burn theirs.” That fire outside Wittenberg in December of 1520 was a fitting symbol of the defiance toward the Roman Church raging throughout Germany.
Born in 1483 at Eisleben in Saxony to a miner, Luther attended school at Magdeburg under the Brethren of the Common Life. He then went to university at Erfurt where he learned Greek, graduating w/an MA in 1505. His plan was to become a lawyer, but the story goes that one day he was caught in a thunderstorm; a bolt of lightning knocking him to the ground. Terrified he cried out to the patron saint of miners: “St. Anne, save me! And I’ll become a monk.” To his parents’ dismay, Luther kept the vow. 2 weeks later he entered the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt where he became a dedicated brother. Some years later he said about his being a monk, “I kept the rule so strictly that I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven by sheer monkery, it was I. If I had kept on any longer, I should have killed myself with vigils, prayers, reading, and other work.” Luther pushed his body to health–cracking rigors of austerity. He sometimes engaged in a total fast, meaning no food OR water, for 3 days and slept without a blanket in winter.
In the Erfurt monastery he did further theological study & was made a priest in 1507. When he transferred to Wittenberg in 1508 he began teaching moral theology, the Sentences of Peter Lombard, and the Scriptures. A visit to Rome on Augustinian business in 1510 opened Luther’s eyes to the corruption so prevalent among the higher clergy there. When he returned to Wittenberg in 1512 he earned his Doctorate in Theology & was appointed to the Chair of Biblical studies which he occupied for the rest of his life.
But all throughout this time, Luther was consumed by guilt & the sense his sinfulness. While the majesty & glory of God was inspiring to most, it tormented Luther because he saw himself as alienated from a holy God.
While performing his first Mass, Luther later reported, “I was utterly stupefied and terror-stricken. I thought to myself, ‘Who am I that I should lift up mine eyes or raise my hands to the divine majesty? For I am dust and ashes and full of sin, à and I am speaking to the living, eternal and true God?’” No amount of penance, nor counsel from his peers could still Luther’s conviction he was a miserable, doomed sinner. Although his confessor counseled him to love God, Luther one day burst out, “Love God? I do not love Him – I hate him!”
Luther found the love he sought in studying the Word of God. Assigned to the chair of biblical studies at the recently established Wittenberg University, he became fascinated with the words of Christ from the cross, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” Luther found an odd solace in the idea that that Christ was forsaken. Luther was a sinner. Christ wasn’t. The answer had to lie in Christ’s identification with sinful humans. Luther began to ponder the possibility that Jesus endured estrangement from God for us.
A new and revolutionary picture of God began to develop in Luther’s restless soul. Finally, in 1515 while pondering Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, Luther came upon the words of 1:17 “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.”
This was the key that turned the lock & opened the door to everything else that would follow. He said, “Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that ‘the just shall live by his faith.’ Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise.”
Luther saw it clearly now. Man is saved only by his faith in the merit of Christ’s sacrifice. The cross alone can remove man’s sin and save him from the grasp of the devil. Luther had come to his famous doctrine of justification by faith alone. He saw how sharply it clashed with the Roman church’s doctrine of justification by faith and good works—the demonstration of faith through virtuous acts, acceptance of church dogma, and participation in the sacraments.
The implications of Luther’s discovery were enormous. If salvation comes through faith in Christ alone, the intercession of priests was unnecessary. Faith formed and nurtured by the Word of God, written and preached, requires neither monks, masses, nor prayers to the saints. The mediation of a Church magisterium crumbles.
At first, Luther had no idea where his spiritual discovery would lead. It took a flagrant abuse of church finances to move him to the center of rebellion in Germany, and into a revolutionary position regarding papal authority.
The sale of indulgences, which had been introduced during the Crusades, remained a major source of church income, especially that destined for Rome. The theology behind indulgences is rather complex and a subject we could spend considerable time on, but the upshot is this: Jesus & the saints have done far more good than they need for themselves & have lived lives that produce an excess of righteousness others can draw upon. The Church hierarchy, specifically the Pope and his agents, are able to open what’s called the “Treasury of Merit” all this excess goodness has gone in to, and assign it to less worthy individuals. So, in exchange for a meritorious work—like, making a pilgrimage, going on a Crusade, or making a financial contribution—the Church offered the sinner exemption from acts of penance.
All too often, the peddlers of indulgences made them seem a sort of magic—as though a contribution automatically earned the one seeking it a reward, regardless of the condition of their soul. Sorrow for sin was conveniently overlooked. And some even implied you could buy permission to sin before committing it. All this deeply troubled Luther.
So, armed with his new understanding of faith, he began to criticize the theology of indulgences in his sermons. He ramped things up in 1517 when the Dominican John Tetzel was preaching throughout Germany on behalf of a Vatican fund–raising campaign to complete the construction of St. Peter s basilica in Rome. In exchange for a contribution, Tetzel boasted, he would provide donors with an indulgence that would even apply beyond the grave and free souls from purgatory. Tetzel was a clever sloganeer who understood the power of marketing. He came up with the catchy ditty – “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”
To Luther, Tetzel’s preaching was more than bad theology, it bordered on blasphemy. Irked by Tetzel’s fleecing of the common people & provoked by his studies in Scripture, Luther drew up 95 propositions for theological debate and on October 31st of 1517, following university custom, posted them on the Castle Church door at Wittenberg, which was the place people put public notices. Among other things, Luther’s list argued that indulgences can’t remove guilt, do not apply to purgatory, and are harmful because they create a false sense of security. Little did anyone know that the spark had just been lit that fired the Reformation.
Within a short time, Tetzel’s fellow Dominicans in Germany denounced Luther to Rome as guilty of preaching dangerous doctrines. A Vatican theologian issued a series of counter-theses to Luther’s list, claiming that anyone who criticized indulgences was guilty of heresy.
At first, Luther was willing to accept a final verdict from Rome. But he quickly shifted to the position that his critics show him in Scriptural that he was wrong. As his appeal to the Bible grew, he began to question the doctrine of purgatory. During an 8–day debate in 1519 with Church theologian John Eck at Leipzig, Luther said, “A council may sometimes err. Neither the Church nor the Pope can establish articles of faith. These must come from Scripture.”
Luther had moved from his first conviction—that salvation was by faith in Christ alone to a second conviction; that the Scriptures, not popes or councils, are the standard for Christian faith and behavior.
John Eck didn’t miss Luther’s spiritual resemblance to Jan Hus. After the Leipzig debate he asked Rome to declare Luther a heretic. Luther put his case before the German people by publishing a series of pamphlets. In his Address to the Nobility of the German Nation, Martin called on the princes to correct abuses within the Church, to strip bishops and abbots of their wealth and worldly power, and to create a national, German Church.
In his work titled, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church Luther spoke not to the Great Papal Schism of a century & a half before but how the doctrine of justification by faith had reformed, get this, his doctrine of the Church. He argued that Rome’s sacramental system held Christians “captive.” He attacked the papacy for depriving individual Christians of their freedom to approach God directly by faith, without the mediation of priests. He said that in order for a sacrament to be valid, it had to be instituted by Christ and exclusively Christian. By these tests Luther could find no justification for five of the Roman Catholic sacraments. He retained only Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and placed even these within a community of believing Christians, rather than in the hands of an exclusive priesthood.
All this had sweeping ramifications for the Church. It brushed aside the traditional view of the church as a sacred hierarchy headed by the pope and returned to the early Christian view of a community of Christian believers in which all believers are priests called to offer spiritual sacrifices to God.
In his 3rd pamphlet published in 1520, The Freedom of a Christian Man, Luther set forth in a conciliatory but firm voice his views on Christian behavior and salvation. This work is probably the best introduction to his central ideas. He wrote. “Good works do not make a man good, but a good man does good works.”
On the eve of his excommunication from the Roman Church, Luther removed the necessity of monasticism by stressing that the essence of Christian living lies in serving God in one’s calling whether secular or religious. All useful callings, he said, are equally sacred in God’s eyes.
In June of 1520, Pope Leo X issued his bull condemning Luther, giving him 60 days to turn from his heretical course. The bonfire at Wittenberg made clear Luther’s intent, so his excommunication followed. In January of 1521 the pope declared him a heretic.
The problem now fell into the hands of the young emperor, Charles V, who was under oath to defend the Church and remove heresy from the empire. Remember that all Church hierarchy can do is examine those suspected of heresy & declare them innocent or guilty. Punishment was not the duty of priests or monks. That was for the civil magistrate to carry out. So when Luther was declared a dangerous heretic & booted from the Church, it fell to the Emperor to carry out his execution. He summoned Luther to the imperial assembly at Worms, called a Diet, to give an account of his writings. Charles V understood how highly charged the political situation around Luther was since he’d become the hero for a good part of the German nobility Charles desperately needed. The emperor wanted to make sure Luther was a verifiable heretic and not just someone Rome wanted to be rid of.
While the exact record of the Diet at Words is a little cloudy, it seems one day, as Luther was shown a table full of books purported to be his, wherein his radical ideas were expressed, when asked if they were indeed his, and if he stood by all that he had written in them, he hesitated and showed some uncertainty. Whether his hesitation was due to his concern that maybe there were books there he’d NOT authored, or that some of his earlier writings may not have been as accurate in reflection of his present views – or that with the Emperor watching him he was being faced with a potentially life-ending challenge – we don’t know. In any case he was allowed to retire for the day where he reflected on what he was really being challenged by and emerged to stand before the assembly on the morrow were he once again insisted that only Biblical authority would sway him. In a famous & oft quoted line he stated, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither honest nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.”
Bold. Courageous. But Charles V was not impressed. He declared Luther an outlaw. He pronounced, “This devil in the habit of a monk has brought together ancient errors into one stinking puddle, and has invented new ones.” Luther had 21 days for safe passage to Saxony before the sentence fell. It never came. Luther was saved from arrest and death by Duke Frederick the Wise, the prince of Saxony whose domains included Wittenberg. The Duke gave Luther sanctuary at his lonely Wartburg Castle. Disguised as a minor nobleman, and given the alias Junker George, Luther stayed for a year. He used the time to translate the New Testament into German, an important first step toward reshaping public and private worship in Germany.