Don’t let anyone tell you that Martin Luther was a simple monk who kick-started the Reformation. Yes, Luther was a monk, but he was far from simple. By the time he posted his famous 95 theses in Wittenberg, Luther had five degrees, including a doctorate, and was the abbot in charge of 11 abbeys. He was a man who knew the Bible forwards and backwards, and who certainly knew his own mind.
WHO WAS HE?
Luther was born in Saxony, part of modern-day Germany, in 1483. His parents were comfortably off and he received an excellent general education before preparing, at the age of 22, to study law. Martin Luther’s life seems to have been punctuated by dramatic moments that changed his direction. Caught in a thunderstorm, the young Luther made a desperate vow to St Anne that if his life was spared, he would become a monk. Much to his father’s annoyance, Luther stuck to his vow, and entered a strict Augustinian monastery.
A brilliant academic, Luther continued his studies after becoming a monk, but this time he studied theology. Soon he was ordained priest, but this responsibility weighed heavily on him. The first time he had to speak the words that were supposed to turn the Communion elements into the body and blood of Christ, he almost collapsed with terror.
Luther had an extremely sensitive conscience. His confessor told him to go away and come back when he had some proper sins to confess, because he was getting worn out with Luther’s constant tiny niggles. Nothing seemed to quiet his conscience; not the fasting, the manual labour or even sleeping practically naked on a stone floor in winter. Luther went above and beyond everything the monastic order demanded of him, but he still wasn’t sure he was doing enough to offset his sins – and, of course, if he didn’t, or if he left even the tiniest sin unconfessed, he believed he would face years in purgatory after he died.
In 1510 Luther visited Rome in order to try to persuade the Pope to cancel plans to merge his order with a less strict one. This was another key moment in his life, because the holy city he had longed to see was ‘more corrupt that Babylon or Sodom ever was’.
The top clergy lived in indescribable luxury, teenage children and grandchildren of (supposedly celibate) popes were promoted to high positions in the Church, and some priests considered themselves comparatively virtuous because they only broke their vows with women. Luther returned to the little university town of Wittenberg disillusioned and doubtful.
AN ACCIDENTAL REFORMER
In 1517 a turning point in Luther’s life became a turning point in the history of the world. In neighbouring cities, indulgence sellers were using hard-sell tactics to get people to buy remission from sins. Indulgences were nothing new. The idea was that some saints, and Christ, of course, had been so good that they had stored up merits beyond what they needed for salvation. The Pope could then dispense these to other people who were less moral, so they could get years off their time in purgatory by doing things such as viewing relics or contributing to the Crusades, in person or financially.
Quantum of Solas
The things that set the new Protestant Church apart from the Roman Catholic Church can be summarised in three Latin phrases each starting with ‘sola’, meaning ‘alone’.
SOLA SCRIPTURA – by scripture alone.
The Bible is the ultimate authority on all matters of faith, and all you need in order to interpret the Bible correctly, is the Bible.
SOLA FIDE – by faith alone.
Christians are made righteous in God’s eyes entirely by faith. Good works are evidence of salvation, but they don’t help a person gain salvation.
SOLA GRATIA – by grace alone.
Salvation is the free gift of God. It cannot be earned, and it is not a joint work between human beings and God. No one deserves to be saved – but God saves us anyway, simply because he loves us.
This new indulgence was different, though. Pope Leo X, who needed extra money to finish St Peter’s Basilica, had proclaimed that those who bought them could get complete remission of sins for themselves, or the release of their loved ones from purgatory. ‘The moment the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs’, as the sardonic jingle went. This wasn’t just an addition to people’s good works, it was salvation for sale. The indulgence sellers went so far as to tell people that this was the only way they could be sure they were saved, and that if they didn’t buy them for their dead parents (suffering in purgatory) then they were ungrateful children.
Luther couldn’t let these outrageous claims stand. On the day that people were due to enter All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg to view its collection of relics and earn (more conventional) indulgences, he posted a set of 95 propositions on the door (or, according to another version, posted them to the Bishop of Brandenburg). The document invited people to discuss ideas such as ‘Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters’ and that if the Pope really could release people from purgatory, he should do it out of Christian love rather than for money.
It might not have gone much further than that, if it hadn’t been for the fairly recent invention of the printing press. Soon what was intended to be an academic discussion in a university town had spread across Germany and beyond – and Martin Luther was being called upon by the Catholic Church to explain himself.
CONTINUING THE PROTEST
Indulgences might seem like a fairly narrow issue, but Luther’s objections to them had implications that went much further than even he realised at first. He was prepared to believe that the Pope was unaware of the antics of his indulgence sellers, and would soon put the matter right. However, when the Church took the other side, refusing to make even the most urgent reforms, Luther was put in a position where he had to back down, or take it further. And being the brave and stubborn character he was, he took it all the way to the top.
Over the years following the publication of the 95 theses against indulgences, Luther revisited Paul’s letters, which he had previously lectured on, to back up his view that the Pope does not have the right or the ability to take away people’s sins for payment. His moment of epiphany came in 1519 when the words ‘The righteous will live by faith’ (Romans 1:17) spoke directly to his soul. Luther described an experience like the door to heaven opening, as he realised that God freely forgives the Christian through Christ’s sacrifice; he no longer had to worry about being good enough. That reassurance sustained him throughout the rest of his life.
‘My Conscience is Captive’
Luther may never have said ‘Here I stand. I can do no other’, but his statement to the Church authorities at the Diet of Worms was no less forthright:
‘Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason (I do not accept the authority of popes and councils for they have contradicted each other) my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.’
Through debates and interviews with Church representatives, Martin Luther continued to stand by his view that salvation depends only on faith, not on works (or payments), and that faith is a free gift from God. He wasn’t the first person to question the authority of Church hierarchy, but he was the first to get away with it.
Despite being summoned to a hearing called the Diet of Worms (the source of many Christian jokes) to recant his views, and vehemently refusing to do so, he made it back to Saxony. There he was able to translate the whole Bible into German and produce many other works setting out the model for a Church where each member had access to Christ’s righteousness through faith alone, where everyone had a right and a duty to study the Bible for themselves, and where clergy could and should marry. (Luther himself married a former nun called Katharina von Bora.) The Protestant Church was born – and it wasn’t long before nations were fighting wars for or against Luther’s ideas. Astonishingly, despite being wanted by the Roman Church for heresy, the ex-monk died of natural causes at the age of 62.
To some extent Luther’s story was a case of right place, right time. There were already calls to clean up the Catholic Church, and the Catholic Reformation that followed was not entirely caused by a reaction to the Protestant Reformation. It was also a time of power struggles at the highest levels in Europe, which raised the stakes. German princes, who wanted to be more independent from Rome, seized on Luther’s new ideas, and protected him from the Church. Without their help, Luther would almost certainly have been executed before he could publish most of his important works. Despite that, however, without Luther’s courage, sincerity and sheer doggedness, the Church, and the world, might have been a very different place.
Karen Murderasi is a freelance journalist Introducing Major Theologians (IVP) is available now.