500 years of reformed Christianity after Luther redefined ‘The Church’

UP graphic by Shelby Strickland

UP graphic by Shelby Strickland

Tuesday marked 500 years since the confrontation and debunking of Catholic church theology when Martin Luther, a German friar and innovative priest, glued 95 theses to a church door, singlehandedly taking the printing press from a side-industry to one of the central economic forces of the day — all in the small, quiet town of Wittenberg, Germany.

“It was further north and east than other of the great cities of North Germany, like Erfurt and Leipzig,” Andrew Pettegree, author and professor of modern history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, said in an interview with Tony Reinke, writer for DesiringGod.org. “Most sophistication (as much as there was at the time) was to be found in larger places — principally Leipzig (the established university town) and Erfert (another major center of scholarship).

“Crucially, Wittenberg didn’t really have, like the great cities Augsburg and Nuremberg, an elite of merchants who ruled the place. There were a lot of people working in farming or at breweries, so it was fairly agricultural and really not very sophisticated.”

Luther came from a successful family, where his father, Hans, had him educated at a Latin school. When he was 21, young Martin looked to become a lawyer.

In 1505, after visiting his parents, Luther was caught in a violent thunderstorm.

“(I was) besieged by the terror and agony of sudden death,” he wrote, according to Josep Palau Orta, historian and specialist in religion in 16th-century Europe, writing in National Geographic.

Luther made a terror-stricken vow to St. Anne that he would join a religious order if she promised to save his life. Luther was true to his word, and in 1506 he gained full admission to the order. A year later he was ordained, and in 1508 he began teaching theology at the University of Wittenberg.

“The current pope, Julius II, had decided to merge two opposite branches (the observant and nonobservant) of the order,” Orta writes. “A plan that horrified Luther’s strictly observant monastery.”

In 1510, Luther traveled to Rome to defend the views of his monastery before the general Augustian council. During his stay, he discovered corruption festering within the Catholic Church.

“The specific thing that was happening at that time was that (The Church) was selling indulgences — essentially a fundraiser where the Pope and others in authority would say, ‘If you just put this money in as an offering to help build Saint Peter’s Basilica, the soul of your dear, departed grandmother will rise up from purgatory into Heaven,’” Jim Menke, Pastor at St. John Lutheran Church in Beaumont, said.

In 1515, Pope Leo X published a new indulgence that would help to fund the reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

This enraged Luther, but he did not allow such corruption to discourage his faith, rather he wrestled with his dissatisfaction until 1517 when he published his 95 Theses.

“That’s just one example of the practices of the Catholic Church that Luther confronted and challenged in his theses,” Menke said. “The word of the pope was as authoritative for the people of the church as the Bible, so Luther literally confronted that teaching.

“Luther essentially took everything out of the hands of the pope and Catholicism in general, and said that anyone with faith could interpret scripture.”

Luther wanted to bring to light the liberties that church authorities were taking for those unable to read the Bible’s Latin text — and so sparked the Protestant Reformation.

In 1518, Luther was summoned to Rome. However, Frederick the Wise, the elector of Saxony and founder of the new university at Wittenberg, intervened and Luther was questioned in Germany. This allowed Luther the opportunity to engage in public debate on religious reforms.

Luther stated that any person could challenge the pope as long as their arguments were based on scripture. Luther was excommunicated from the church in 1521 and sent to trial. Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, named Luther and his followers outlaws and wanted their writings burned. Luther fled and hid at Wartburg Castle.

While there, Luther translated the Bible into German, being that there was no version in the vernacular or the language of the common man at the time. His writing continued to spread through Germany, despite his being hidden from society. Medieval Europe was already full of handwritten books, but the printing press (invented in 1436) is owed partial credit.

“At the beginning, what would have sold the books to these people is the scandal of Luther,” Pettegree writes. “The sense buzzing around the news world was that something very odd was going on in this tiny place in North Germany — this monk was standing up against the whole church.”

Pettegree writes that what is fascinating about print is that it had to be sold to people who didn’t know they wanted it — and it was not an easy sale.

“Instead of the multicolored object that was their manuscript book, they were being offered something in black and white,” Pettegree writes. “In many respects, the printing press represented a step backwards for book culture rather than a step forward. It’s important to recognize that.

“The publishers of the first books very often went bankrupt. In order for books to survive — in order for print to survive as a technology — they had to find a way to reach new markets.”

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Pettegree writes that Luther used the printing press to present theology in the language of the country, in short text — all of which was new. Together they formed a sweeping combination.

“A lot of the people who printed for Luther had, in the years before the Reformation, printed for the church and, therefore, printed indulgences,” Pettegree writes. “What the Reformation did, is it inculcated the habit of buying books into many people who would not have previously owned books and certainly not have owned a collection of books.”

Aside from print, Pettegree writes that the Reformation would not have established itself without a local preacher who supported Luther.

“That’s where Luther’s Latin works are important. He’s still a very effective Latin writer, and this is persuading his fellow priests that his criticisms are justified,” Pettegree writes.

Once the German people saw their respected leaders preaching in this particular way, they began to buy Luther’s work.

“(The invention of the printing press) is one of the reasons, I believe, God ignited the Protestant Reformation,” Menke said. 

“Once the Bible translated into the language of the people, they didn’t have to have a priest translate it. The people started reading it for themselves and the spirit caught fire in their hearts.”

The Reformation had an enormous impact on history, both politically and religiously.

“Politically, it essentially led to a Europe divided into nation-states instead of united under one empire,” Rebecca Boone, LU history professor, said. “In terms of culture and religion, the Reformation has allowed more independence of thought and contrasting viewpoints in the long run.”

In addition, the Reformation led to the development of all protestant denominations that exist today, Menke said.

“On this side of Heaven there is always going to be the human side of the church,” he said. “There were differences of opinion concerning what scripture said about different aspects of our faith and our life, and our practice of that faith.

Martin Luther as a young monk.

Martin Luther as a young monk.

“The real foundation of the Reformation is the basic fundamental salvation principle that people are saved by God’s grace through faith alone — and Jesus is the source of that salvation. There’s nothing we can try to do to earn God’s love, trying to live good enough lives or anything like that. That was the whole emphasis of (the Catholic Church) — you have to do certain things, buy certain things, give so much money to the church, and so on, for God to love you, and for you and others to get to Heaven someday.

“(Luther) never intended to start a new church called a ‘Lutheran Church.’ His wish and goal was to restore the Catholic Church of that time. It is my personal opinion that Martin Luther would be rolling in his grave if he knew that there was a church body named after him called ‘Lutheran.’”

Although Luther made a substantial impact on history and religion, he was not the first to confront the Catholic Church.

Without the Protestant Reformation, where we would be today?

“Other revolts might have erupted, causing the same upheaval,” Boone said. “The inventions of the printing press and guns pretty much assured massive rebellion in the 16th century, but perhaps these conflicts would not have been based on religion.”

Without the publication of Luther’s 95 Theses not a single protestant church would exist today, or as Menke said, “Maybe God would have used someone else.

“Maybe there would have been someone else 100 years later that God would have used to get his church, the Christian church on earth, back on track again is the way I like to put it — back on the track of the Gospel.”

Luther is not remembered for the man he was, but for the result of the actions a German monk instigated when he questioned authority when authority is acting in a questionable manner.

Although some insurrections followed, Luther condemned such acts. He was not a social reformer, but a theological radical, never condoning separation or violence.

We celebrate the Protestant Reformation Martin Luther provoked that changed an entire world — even after 500 years.

In addition, the Reformation led to the development of all protestant denominations that exist today, Menke said.

“On this side of Heaven there is always going to be the human side of the church,” he said. “There were differences of opinion concerning what scripture said about different aspects of our faith and our life, and our practice of that faith.

“The real foundation of the Reformation is the basic fundamental salvation principle that people are saved by God’s grace through faith alone — and Jesus is the source of that salvation. There’s nothing we can try to do to earn God’s love, trying to live good enough lives or anything like that. That was the whole emphasis of (the Catholic Church) — you have to do certain things, buy certain things, give so much money to the church, and so on, for God to love you, and for you and others to get to Heaven someday.

“(Luther) never intended to start a new church called a ‘Lutheran Church.’ His wish and goal was to restore the Catholic Church of that time. It is my personal opinion that Martin Luther would be rolling in his grave if he knew that there was a church body named after him called ‘Lutheran.’”

Although Luther made a substantial impact on history and religion, he was not the first to confront the Catholic Church.

Without the Protestant Reformation, where we would be today?

“Other revolts might have erupted, causing the same upheaval,” Boone said. “The inventions of the printing press and guns pretty much assured massive rebellion in the 16th century, but perhaps these conflicts would not have been based on religion.”

Without the publication of Luther’s 95 Theses not a single protestant church would exist today, or as Menke said, “Maybe God would have used someone else.

“Maybe there would have been someone else 100 years later that God would have used to get his church, the Christian church on earth, back on track again is the way I like to put it — back on the track of the Gospel.”

Luther is not remembered for the man he was, but for the result of the actions a German monk instigated when he questioned authority when authority is acting in a questionable manner.

Although some insurrections followed, Luther condemned such acts. He was not a social reformer, but a theological radical, never condoning separation or violence.

We celebrate the Protestant Reformation Martin Luther provoked that changed an entire world — even after 500 years.

Story by Shelby Strickland, UP managing editor

 

Learn more about Lamar University at lamar.edu

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