Martin Luther and The Protestant Reformation

For historians, and those engaged in religious studies, the beginning of 2017 marked a rather important benchmark.

500 years ago the Protestant Reformation began. It was in the year 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittneberg (Lutherstadt), Germany.

This movement is thought to have either ended with the 1555 Peace of Augsburg or the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia. But, I’ll get to all of that in a minute.

First, let’s briefly unpack the reformation.

When speaking of the Reformation we generally credit the movement as simply the genesis of Lutheranism. We would be doing ourselves, Martin Luther, and the study of history a great disservice if we stopped there.

It is certainly true that Martin Luther’s reformation began a new sect of Christianity. However, that was never the intent. If it were – we’d call it the Protestant Revolution.

In the study of the Reformation we often mistake Luther’s movement to be a revolution against the Catholic church. This isn’t quite the case. Luther did not set out to create his own church. Luther was a devout Catholic. He was both an Augustinian Monk and a Professor of Theology at the University of Wittenberg.

If any of the above is new information to you – you certainly have a lot of questions. First, you might be wondering how all of that happened and how we ended up with Lutheranism.

Let’s start from the beginning.

Luther’s goal was simply to purify Catholicism. What does that mean? He wanted to fundamentally change both the teachings and execution of the church. At the top of his quest he laid out his arguments. We refer to these as the ’95 Theses.’

Now, what was it that Luther wanted to change?

First, the Catholic church preached from a bible that was written in Latin. Luther transcribed the bible into German. Allow me to veer off course slightly. Luther’s point was to make the bible accessible to all Germans. In translating the bible and working to have it distributed — Luther actually played a tremendously early role in the creation of mass media.

Back to the Reformation.

Luther’s second contention was the sale of indulgences. The Catholic church was essentially selling forgiveness. The church argued that when you sinned all you had to do was purchase an indulgence and it would allow your sin to be forgiven thus moving you through purgatory quicker.

Luther’s key theological arguments would stem from this. As many of us today would understand – the repenting of sins shouldn’t be a financial transaction.

If we are to understand Luther’s position here we must first understand Luther the man.

Luther truly felt that, no matter what he did, he would always fall short of the glory of god. But, he found solace in the scripture. In Romans 1:17 St. Paul wrote, “The just shall live by faith.” Translated into modernity it means that we are saved by faith alone — a key tenet of Lutheranism.

Good works, charitable attitudes, purchasing indulgences…none of that truly mattered. Luther concluded the passage to mean that we are saved by god’s grace through faith.

Because of this revelation, Luther also bought into the idea of scripture alone. He, and his followers, rejected the teachings of the church on its face. He argued that the only reliable source of instruction was the scripture.

This is why Luther translated the bible into a popular vernacular and distributed it widely.

In the evolution of Christianity this is a critical development. It also provided a lot of fuel to Luther’s Reformation. As the bible was made available, and as more started to read it, they found that the teachings of the Church were inconsistent with the teachings of the text.

For example, Luther challenged the teaching of the Eucharist. This difference may seem a little technical but it is quite important. The Catholic church believed in an idea called ‘transubstantiation.’ The idea was that, when administering the communion, the Priest changes the bread and wine into the ‘body and blood.’ Luther argued for an idea that we refer to as consubstantiation. He believed that rather than the Priest transferring the ‘body and blood’ that it is always present.

We know the ultimate outcome of the reformation. But, there was much more in-between.

What we next must understand is that challenging the Catholic church at this time was a risky endeavor. The Holy Roman Empire was made up of German speaking regions ruled by princes, dukes, and electors.

In this regard, the Reformation was an important step in weakening the rule of the Papacy which had become increasingly powerful. Dating back to the 1300s and 1400s the empire also suffered some internal power struggles as rule was held by multiple Pope’s.

With this level of temporal and spiritual power Popes often commanded armies, forged alliances, and waged war. Earlier attempts were made to reform the church, most notably by Jan Hus, but the efforts ultimately failed.

Corruption ruled the church. There was power to be had and money to be made. The church initially ignored Luther’s movement. But, after his movement began to gain traction Luther was asked to recant his writings at the Diet of Worms — yes that is real. It was a council held by the Holy Roman Emperor in the city of Worms.

Luther refused. He was later quoted as saying, “I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen.”

Luther was excommunicated from the Church. This period was known as the Counter-Reformation.

Following his excommunication, Emperor Charles issued the Edict of Worms declaring Luther a heretic and ordering his death. But, Frederick the Wise of Saxony ‘kidnapped’ Martin and hid him in Wartburg Castle. Luther spent nearly a year in hiding. While there, Luther translated the New Testament into German.

The purpose of this lengthy entry is this: The Protestant Reformation had far reaching impacts across Europe. Catholicism was fundamentally changed, Lutheranism came into existence, and Europe experienced cultural advancements. Not to mention, the Scientific Revolution gained momentum.

So, while celebrating the Reformation for the remainder of this year remember that this movement, though it was intended to reform the church, was one of the greatest eras in world history.

In conclusion, I leave you with these words from Martin Luther: “If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write.”

-History Hero


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