Martin Luther’s Road to Reformation
Martin Luther is one of the most remarkable and influential figures in all of European history. In 1517, he was an obscure Augustinian monk and university professor; by the spring of 1521, he had defied both Pope Leo X and Emperor Charles V on behalf of his understanding of Christian faith and life. After his early life and university education, he joined the Observant Augustinians in 1505. In October 1517, he objected to abuses regarding indulgences in his Ninety-five Theses, which appealed to Christian humanists. At the Leipzig Disputation of June 1519, he asserted that scripture alone, not popes or councils, possesses ultimate authority for Christians. In the latter half of 1520, he published three important treatises after the pope threatened him with excommunication: Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and The Freedom of a Christian. After his excommunication, Luther refused to recant his views at the Diet of Worms (April 1521) and was condemned as a heretical outlaw by Charles V. Four factors crucial to Luther’s success from 1517–1521 included the protection of his territorial prince, Frederick of Saxony; anti-Roman sentiment in Germany; support from humanists, including Erasmus; and the widespread, rapid diffusion of his writings via print.
After his early life and university education, Luther joined the Observant Augustinians in Erfurt, the strictest monastic order accessible to him, in 1505.
Luther was born in Eisleben in central Germany in 1483. He attended school in Mansfeld and Eisenach before studying in the arts faculty at the University of Erfurt.
Though he developed a love of Latin literature in Erfurt and had a high regard for the fruits of humanist learning, Luther was not as deeply influenced by humanism as many of the reformers.
After a traumatic experience in 1505 (he was thrown to the ground by a bolt of lightening), Luther made the decision to enter the Observant Augustinian order as a monk. This religious order was the strictest, and the monastery would be the matrix for his Reformation.
Luther’s “revolt” against the Church came from a consummate “insider,” one who had sought for years the path of Christian perfection through the rigors of monastic life. As a monk, Luther was deeply stricken with anxiety about his own sinfulness and inability to live up to God’s commandments.
In late 1517, Luther’s Ninety-five Theses first brought him to public attention.
Luther objected to the campaign of papal indulgences being promoted by the Dominican Johann Tetzel under the authority of the Archbishop of Mainz. At this stage, he was concerned that the laity was getting a distorted understanding of good works.
Luther sent his objections to the Archbishop of Mainz and posted them on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg on October 31. He gained his first public notoriety when humanists immediately translated the objections into German and had them printed in multiple editions.
At the Leipzig Disputation in June 1519, Luther stated that scripture alone, not popes or councils, is the locus of ultimate authority for Christians.
Luther’s skilled Catholic opponent in the disputation, Johannes Eck, pushed Luther to claim that neither popes nor councils can interpret scripture infallibly. This unsettled those humanist supporters who had seen him as an anti-papal conciliarist in his views on ecclesiastical authority.
The Latin phrase describing Luther’s view that the Bible alone is authoritative for Christian faith and life is “sola scriptura.”
In response to the threat of excommunication, Luther wrote three important treatises in late 1520. He was excommunicated, then condemned by Emperor Charles V after the Diet of Worms in April 1521.
After the theologians of Louvain and Cologne condemned propositions from his works, Luther was threatened with excommunication in June 1520 by Pope Leo X in the papal bull Exsurge domine.
Between August and November 1520, Luther wrote three treatises that addressed different audiences and issues and were widely read in Germany, Switzerland, and the Low Countries.
In August 1520, Luther published the Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, urging the nobility to reform the Church in Germany, because the papacy had made reform impossible through its tyrannical monopoly of power.
In October 1520, Luther published The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, a manifesto for the reform of the Church’s worship, with considerable attention devoted to the sacraments. This work was written in Latin and intended for an educated audience.
In November 1520, Luther published The Freedom of a Christian, his early programmatic statement of his theology of justification, which reconfigured the relationship between faith and works in the Christian process of salvation: Humans are saved by faith alone. Faith is a free gift from God.
After his excommunication in January 1521 by Pope Leo X, Luther refused in April to recant his views before Charles V at the Diet of Worms, whence he was secretly taken into protective custody and translated the New Testament into German. In May 1521, the Edict of Worms condemned him as a heretical outlaw.
At least four major factors contributed to Luther’s success between 1517 and 1521.
· Frederick of Saxony, Luther’s powerful territorial prince, protected him politically.
· German anti-Roman sentiment benefited Luther.
· Humanists esteemed Luther for his emphasis on scripture and hostility to scholastic theology.
· Luther’s many early writings were widely and rapidly diffused through print.
The Theology of Martin Luther
Three core ideas of Luther’s theology include his “Reformation discovery” of justification by faith alone, his insistence on scripture as the sole normative authority for Christian doctrine and life, and his idea of the “priesthood of all believers.” Common popular misconceptions about his theology and intentions include the idea that he championed a subjective “right” of individuals to interpret the Bible as they pleased, that he was primarily motivated by the desire to correct abuses and corruptions in the Church, and that he sought to establish his own church. Luther’s theology was deeply subversive of numerous late medieval Christian beliefs, practices, and institutions. The gulf between Erasmus’s and Luther’s views of Christianity and reform came to a head in 1524– 1525 in their debate over the place of free will in Christian life.
Luther’s forceful expression and apocalyptic
expectations are constant features of his theology.
Luther’s gritty, and sometimes
vulgar language is more than merely
an expression of his personality. It is an attempt
to move people.
Like many of his contemporaries, Luther thought he was living in the Last Days, which lent urgency to his theology.
Luther was not a systematic, academic theologian, but rather primarily a preacher, biblical interpreter, and pastor who expressed his theology in a wide variety of genres: sermons, treatises written for specific occasions, biblical commentaries, letters, hymns, and in conversation.
At the heart of Luther’s theology are the notions of justification by faith alone, the Bible as the sole and final authority for Christian doctrine and life, and the “priesthood of all believers.” His theology emerged gradually between about 1513 and 1519. Luther’s “Reformation discovery” was a new idea about, and experience of, the way in which Christians are saved: not by contributing in any way to their own salvation but by faith alone in Jesus Christ as savior. Before his breakthrough, spiritually anxious and convinced that absolute sinfulness was the universal human condition, Luther thought that a just God could not but condemn everyone to damnation.
By seizing on Paul’s dictum that
“The just will live by faith,” Luther understood that salvation is something
passively received. Only by trusting
in Christ’s redemptive sacrifice are sinners justified in God’s sight.
According to Luther, scripture alone possesses an authority independent of, and higher than, the authority of both popes and church councils, neither of which is infallible in interpreting scripture.
Luther’s “priesthood of all believers” is directed against the idea that the clergy is intrinsically holier or closer to God than the laity. All legitimate callings in the world are equally good and holy insofar as they are pursued out of obedience to God. The primary purpose of the clergy is not to mediate grace through the sacraments but simply to proclaim God’s word and to teach.
Luther distinguished sharply between the domains of faith and secular authority. His social and political views remained profoundly conservative.
Three popular misconceptions of Luther’s theology and purpose include the idea that he supported a subjective “right” of individuals to interpret the Bible as they desired, that he sought primarily to correct abuses in the Church, and that he sought to establish his own church.
Far from offering an “alternative” Christianity or proclaiming the right of each individual to understand the Bible as he or she wished, Luther thought he had properly understood the one and only Christianity that existed, rescuing it from medieval distortions.
According to Luther, abuses and corruptions in the Church were symptoms of deeper, doctrinal errors. Even at its best, medieval Catholicism was inherently perverted insofar as it taught that human beings contribute to their own salvation.
Luther did not seek to establish his own church but rather to call the one and only Catholic Church back to what he regarded as true doctrine, worship, and practice. But once the Pope had throughly rejected Luther's ideas he came to the realization that reforming the church was not feasible.
The implications of Luther’s theology and his principle of sola scriptura were subversive of numerous late medieval Christian beliefs, practices, and institutions.
Luther rejected many important traditional Catholic beliefs.
With his principle of sola scriptura, Luther rejected the medieval view that scripture must be understood in the tradition of the Roman Church and its authority.
According to Luther, good works are important as an expression of Christian love, not as attempts to please God. Liberated by faith, Christians are free to love others.
Luther rejected the notion that the
Mass was a reenactment of Christ’s sacrifice, as well as the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation.
Luther condemned many late medieval Catholic practices as
illegitimate or harmful.
He repudiated four of the sacraments
as being unbiblical, retaining only baptism, communion,
and confession (all of which he
He rejected any and all practices inconsistent with justification by faith alone, including prayers to saints, the purchase of indulgences, participation in pilgrimages, and bodily asceticism.
Luther’s theology ran deeply counter to many traditional Catholic institutions.
Luther’s reconception of the clergy robbed monasticism of its rationale and subverted clerical vows of celibacy.
Because he claimed that they fostered harmful particularisms and factions, Luther rejected confraternities.
Erasmus and Luther disagreed fundamentally on the nature of Christian faith, Christian life, and reform. Their differences came to a head in 1524–1525 in their debate over the role played by free will in Christian salvation.
Luther thought Erasmus grossly misconceived Christian life as a process of gradual moral reform based on education, as opposed to the liberating power of faith radically to transform the depraved sinner. Luther’s view of human nature was much less optimistic than that of Erasmus.
In 1524, Erasmus wrote On the Freedom of the Will, which argued against Luther that human beings must play some role in responding freely to God’s commandments. Luther responded in 1525 with On the Bondage of the Will, which ridiculed Erasmus and argued that salvation was entirely God’s initiative.