500 years ago, Europe was not what we see today. It was a continent which strove to leave behind the wars and plagues of the 14th century, and was slowly changing in the course of the 15th. With Byzantine’s fall, scholars fled West, bringing with them a knowledge of Greek not previously seen. Their students contributed to a Platonic challenge to the reigning orthodoxy of Aristotle, who had long ruled the roost of Catholic teaching.
Christianity, split into Catholics and Orthodox, had long ceased to be the faith of fishermen. It had become the domain of the faithful monk, the corrupt Pope, the peasant, and the burgher. It had long left behind any simplicity, acquiring accretions of doctrinal error and flawed spiritual practice. Divisions in the Roman Church had shivered to pieces the notion of Christian love and brotherhood. Corruption from monks to Popes had done away with Paul’s imprecation that teachers will be judged more harshly than others, and that he who would lead must first serve. A Papacy, grown into a political entity, waged war with other potentates. Renaissance, growing from Northern Italy, was spreading a new admiration for culture, and with it the cry of ad fontes, to the sources.
Into this cacophony of events and individuals stepped a humble monk, named Martin Luther.
Luther’s 95 Theses
On this day, October 31st, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the castle church of Wittenberg, initiating the Reformation. That was the account I was taught at my mother’s knee, and it is a good one for a child. Happily, the story loses little when expanded.
We are not certain that Luther nailed the Theses to the church door, indeed some say it never happened. It is known that he mailed his Theses to church leaders, in accordance with the practice of his time. If the Theses were posted publicly, it was to start an academic debate, as university professors then did, for Luther taught theology.
At this stage of the game, Luther was not a Lutheran, or a Protestant, these terms didn’t exist. He was a Catholic monk and theologian seeking to debate reform within the Church. The topics he sought to debate were chiefly those of indulgences.
Catholic teaching holds an indulgence is a remission of sins, granted to a person already forgiven. They are meant for those who show contrition, and complete spiritual practices like an act of mercy. But by Luther’s time the indulgence was sold as salvation for money. Their greatest salesmen, John Tetzel, supposedly said, ‘when a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from Purgatory springs.’ Such wanton abuse of a Catholic teaching called for challenge, and it came from Luther. What came next was incredible.
Luther spent the next 3 years in debates with Papal representatives, first John Eck and then Cardinal Cajetan. The argument made against Luther was not that he was wrong, but that he could not question the Catholic hierarchy. Where Luther wanted to debate the correctness of doctrines, they changed the debate to one over authority, claiming infallibility for the Church.
All came to a head in 1521, in the city of Worms. A Diet was held, calling together the lords spiritual and temporal of the Holy Roman Empire, and the Emperor himself, Charles V, a Hapsburg.
Luther went to Worms, under a guarantee of safe travel, expecting not to survive. When challenged, by John Eck (a different Eck from the first), Luther begged a day to consider. The next day he delivered a quivering statement that he could not recant his books, unless it could be shown that he was violating the Bible’s teaching.
Translating God’s Word
Upon leaving Worms, Luther was abducted by friends, and taken to the Wartburg, a castle, where he translated the New Testament into German. Throughout these years, Luther was to publish at an astonishing rate. He wrote more than his opponents, and his friends, at his peak.
Luther ended his days, having fashioned something new, a spiritual movement which ended up becoming a church to oppose that of Rome. But why didn’t Luther end like past reformers, a pile of ash?
Luther should have died in the years following the 95 Theses, but he did not. The reasons are not hard to grasp. The Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, was young, and distracted. To the east, the Ottoman Turks conquered Hungary in 1525, and besieged Vienna in 1529. Charles V, as a Hapsburg, came into conflict with the Pope, which ended with his sacking Rome itself in 1525.
Surrounded by dangers, and heavy with responsibility, the young Emperor had little time to attend to a minor church debate, much less consider a minor professor of theology in Saxony. By the time he got around to attending to the Reforming movement, it was too late. The 1530 Diet of Augsburg, led by the Emperor’s brother Ferdinand, saw the formulation of the Augsburg Confession, the doctrinal standard of Lutherans to this day. The final act of break was the Protestation at Speyer, where 6 Lutheran princes and 14 German free cities refused to give up their faith. For their defiance of the Emperor, they were called Protestants.
When I look at this history, I see Providence. The right man for starting a movement of reform. Luther was not a refined figure. He was beer swilling, theological brawler, with a gift for words and rhetorical savagery against his enemies. He should never have lived past 1520 or so. But he did. By the series of events just discussed, the powerful men of his time were unable to focus their attention upon him. In a more peaceful age he would have been shunted off the stage of history. Instead, his name and legacy are with us today.
Luther would be horrified at people calling themselves Lutherans. As he himself asked, was Luther crucified for your sins? But his work lives on. His passionate love affair with God’s Word lives today. His great rediscovery that man is justified by faith alone, and by no merit of his own, has served to change the world. From Luther’s legacy have sprung countless men of faith to spread the Gospel. Calvin, Wesley, Edwards, Schaeffer and countless others stand in the shadow of Luther.
Raise a glass this day to Martin Luther, and the legacy he left us. He is the giant upon which we stand, and we may see farther than he, but only because we stand upon his shoulders.
I know not the way God leads me, but well do I know my guide. ~ Martin Luther. Let us follow God as did Luther.