EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the seventh column in a year-long series leading up to the 500th anniversary of the 16th-century Reformation on Oct. 31, 2017.
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Martin Luther never planned to tear the medieval church apart. The division of western Christianity into its various denominations—Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Anglican, Baptist, Mennonite—wasn’t inevitable. Luther’s declaration that sinners are justified—made righteous in God’s sight—solely by faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ didn’t necessarily have to stir up the religious revolution that occurred in the 16th century.
Indeed, some theologians who ultimately sided with the Pope against Luther basically agreed with what Luther was saying about justification by faith alone. For example, Gasparo Contarini—a Cardinal in the Roman church—understood Luther’s message about God’s gracious gift of salvation and devoted much of his career (in vain) to helping reunify the divided church. When Contarini wrote his own tract on justification by faith, Cardinal Reginald Pole—who would oversee the brief restoration of Roman Catholicism in England during the mid-1500s—applauded him for shedding light upon “that holy, fruitful, indispensable truth.” Although sympathy for Luther’s views about salvation would eventually be pushed out of the Roman church, these views weren’t shunned by all Catholic churchmen when Luther first expressed them.
In that case, what about Luther’s message was so revolutionary that it led to the break-up of the medieval church in Western Europe? A short essay can’t answer this question fully, but here is a brief response: Prodded along by circumstances and by his enemies’ rebuttals, Luther ultimately applied and defended his message in ways that chipped away at the foundation and framework of medieval Catholicism. We can see this simply by looking at his three famous Reformation tracts of 1520—namely, “To the Christian Nobility of the German;” “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church;” and “On Christian Liberty.” In these tracts, Luther hammered away at the Roman church in the following ways:
• He redefined the sacramental system. The beliefs and practices of medieval Christians centered upon seven sacraments—namely, baptism, confirmation, penance, the Eucharist, marriage, ordination and extreme unction. Luther ultimately cut the sacraments down to two: baptism and the Eucharist (known by many as the Lord’s Supper). Moreover, whereas medieval Catholics insisted that priests repeatedly sacrificed Christ for our sins every time the Lord’s Supper was celebrated, Luther argued that Christ’s one sacrifice on the cross was unrepeatable and was alone sufficient for the salvation of sinners.
• He challenged the authority of the Pope, arguing that both popes and councils could err and that they had erred in the past. He rebutted the claim that only the Pope’s interpretation of Scripture was authoritative and that only the Pope could call together a valid council of the whole church. Moreover, he said that—if the Pope refused to bring about a reformation of the church in Germany—the emperor, princes and nobles of the German people had every right, as well as the obligation, to do so since they also were baptized Christians.
• He attacked monasticism and questioned medieval Catholicism’s understanding of the priesthood and ministry.
• He argued that canon law—the massive collection of church law that had developed by the 16th century—was not equal with and sometimes even contradicted the law of God as expressed in Scripture.
This is only a short list of the challenges that Luther brought before the Roman church, and a full discussion of each could fill a book. In any case, this should suffice to explain why Luther was condemned in an edict (called a “papal bull”) by Pope Leo X in 1520, and why he was summoned—with the promise of a safe conduct—to present himself before the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms in 1521. During this gathering at Worms, Luther stood firm against the majesty of both the Roman church and the Holy Roman Empire.
“Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason, I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils,” he said, “for they have contradicted each other. My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything.”
For making this revolutionary stand, Luther was officially condemned as a heretic by Charles V, who nevertheless remained true to his promise of a safe conduct and allowed Luther to return to Wittenberg. Indeed, Luther started the long homeward trek, but his own prince—Frederick ‘the Wise’ of Saxony—made certain that he was stolen away before his enemies could do him harm. For the next 10 months, he remained in hiding in the Wartburg Castle. But his pen was active even then, and during this relatively short period he translated the New Testament from the original Greek into the High German language.
But when Luther finally came out of hiding in March 1522, he found that his stand against the Roman church had sparked a religious revolution that even he couldn’t control.