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Luther, of course, is the root of those roots, even for those of us who look back to John Calvin for our particular tradition. Brother Martin was born to a miner and his wife, nine years before Columbus discovered America, and twenty-six years before Calvin came along.
Young Martin had every intention of becoming a lawyer until, one day in 1505, he was caught in a thunderstorm. A bolt of lightning knocked him to the ground and terrified him. He cried out to the patron saint of miners, "St. Anne, save me, and I'll become a monk." Much to his parents' dismay, he kept that vow and, two weeks later he entered the Augustinian monastery in his hometown of Erfurt.
Martin proved to be a dedicated monk, but obsessed with guilt. He fasted till his cheeks caved in; in freezing winter he slept without a blanket; he would confess his sins for six hours at a stretch. (Who can remember that many?) Years later he recalled, "I kept the rule so strictly that I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven by his sheer monkery, it was I. If I had kept on any longer, I should have killed myself with vigils, prayers, reading and other work." No amount of penance, no soothing advice from his superiors could overcome Luther's conviction that he was a miserable, doomed sinner. Although his confessor counseled him to simply love God, Luther one day burst out, "I do NOT love God! I HATE Him."
The troubled young priest finally found the love he sought through the study of scripture. One day, in 1515 - ten years after entering the monastery - while pondering Paul's epistle to the Romans, he came upon the words we read a moment ago: "The righteous will live by faith." Here was the key to spiritual certainty. People are saved ONLY by their faith in the merit of Christ's sacrifice. The cross alone can remove our sin. Brother Martin had come to the doctrine that has been called the cornerstone of the Reformation: Justification by Faith Alone.
But Luther's new understanding clashed sharply with what he had been taught. The church's position was that people are saved by both faith AND good works - God is willing and able to forgive sins, but God requires some religious ritual or good deed, some act of penance, to prove that the sinner is truly sorry. If the forgiven sinner dies before getting the slate wiped clean, he or she has to spend time in purgatory, a place of purifying pain, until the spiritual obligations are met. For Luther's new understanding, this was a problem.
And there was more. The church taught that if the right circumstances existed, sinners could possibly leave purgatory early. It worked like this: although most Christians failed to satisfy God's expectations, the saints, the Virgin Mary, and of course Jesus performed above and beyond God's righteous demands. God gathered this EXTRA righteousness and put it in a kind of heavenly bank account called the "Treasury of Merits." Then God entrusted the treasury to Christ's representative on earth, the Pope, who could transfer this righteousness to "overdrawn" spiritual accounts if he chose and reduce the sinner's stay in purgatory. Such transactions became known as INDULGENCES.
Sounds all well and good so far...EXCEPT the indulgences were FOR SALE, a practice that had begun several hundred years before to finance the Crusades. In exchange for a meritorious work - frequently, a contribution - the church offered the sinner exemption from his or her acts of penance by tapping into the "treasury of merits." Sorrow for sin was not involved...and this troubled Luther deeply.
Martin had no idea where his spiritual discoveries were leading him. It took a flagrant abuse of this sale of indulgences to propel him from the frying pan into the fire, this time regarding the authority of the Pope.
Enter a new player onto the stage, a Dominican Friar named Johann Tetzel. Tetzel had been commissioned to travel throughout much of Germany on behalf of a fund-raising campaign to complete the construction of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. In exchange for a contribution, Tetzel would provide donors with an indulgence, either for a departed loved one, or even perhaps yourself to be used later (sort of a pre-need service). The sales pitch was down to a science, even an ancient version of "We love to see you smile." Tetzel's jingle went, "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings/ a soul from purgatory springs." (If he had lived today, he would have been a TV preacher.)
To Luther, Tetzel's preaching was not simply bad business, it was bad theology. He promptly drew up 95 propositions (or THESES) for theological debate, and legend has it that on October 31, 1517, according to the custom of the university where he was teaching at the time, he posted his theses on the Castle Church door at Wittenburg, a place that served as a kind of community bulletin board. Among other things, the theses argued that there is no such thing as a Treasury of Merit, and if there were, the Pope, out of the goodness of his heart, should use it to empty purgatory; indulgences cannot remove guilt, and are harmful because they produce a false sense of security in the donor; the Pope should prefer that St. Peter's church in Rome lie in ashes than build it out of the blood of impoverished Germans. The Reformation had begun.
Luther did not expect anything remarkable to happen now other than a scholarly debate. But, this thing began to lose all proportion and take on a life of its own. The people in the streets began discussing the issue; Luther became a hero, not because of his theology, but because he wanted to keep German money in Germany.
Within a short time the Dominicans denounced Luther to Rome as a man guilty of preaching dangerous doctrines. A Vatican theologian issued a series of counter-theses, arguing that anyone who criticized indulgences was guilty of heresy. Luther's response was, "Prove it...show me from scripture where I am wrong!" He even questioned the pope's authority over purgatory. During one debate Luther blurted out, "A council may sometimes be wrong. Neither the church nor the pope can establish articles of faith. These must come from scripture." Thus, Luther had now moved from his first great conviction (that salvation came from faith in Christ alone) to a second: that the scriptures, not popes or councils, are the standard for Christian faith and behavior.
After the debate Luther was declared a heretic by the Roman church, but rather than leave matters there, Brother Martin decided to take his case to the German people in a series of pamphlets. In one called ADDRESS TO THE NOBILITY OF THE GERMAN NATION, the reformer called upon the princes to correct abuses within the church, to strip bishops and abbots of their wealth and worldly power and to create, in effect, a German national church. In another pamphlet called THE BABYLONIAN CAPTIVITY OF THE CHURCH, Luther argued that Rome's sacramental system held Christians "captive." He attacked the papacy for depriving the individual believer of the freedom to approach God directly by faith, without the mediation of priests. To Luther, the church was a community in which EVERYONE is a priest called to offer spiritual sacrifices to God...another foundation stone for the faith we share today.
In another pamphlet, THE FREEDOM OF A CHRISTIAN MAN (inclusive language was not an issue in his day), Luther set forth his views on Christian behavior and salvation. He wrote, "Good works do not make a man a Christian, but a good man does good works." The essence of Christian living, he wrote, lies in serving the Lord in one's calling, whatever it happens to be. All useful work is equally sacred in God's eyes.
In June of 1520, Pope Leo X issued a bull (or proclamation) condemning Luther. The writing began, "Arise, O Lord and judge your cause. A wild boar has invaded your vineyard." Luther was condemned again as a heretic and called to repent, repudiate his errors, or face the dreadful consequences. He had sixty days to think it over. At the end of the period of grace, he led a throng of eager students outside Wittenburg and burned copies of the Canon Law and the works of some medieval theologians. As an afterthought, he added a copy of the bull condemning him. That was Luther's answer, so his excommunication followed.
The problem now fell into the hands of the young Emperor, Charles V, who was under oath to defend the church and remove heresy from the empire. He summoned Luther to an imperial assembly (or DIET) in the town of Worms to give an account of his writings. (When I first read about Luther and the Diet of Worms as a boy, I thought "Whew - if you disagreed with them, they made you eat WORMS." It took me years to get over that.) At any rate, the assembly met, and Luther once again insisted that only the Bible would sway him. He told the court, "My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither honest nor safe...Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen!"
The emperor was not impressed. He declared Luther an outlaw. His pronouncement said, "This devil in the habit of a monk has brought together ancient errors into one stinking puddle, and has invented new ones." Luther had 21 days for safe passage to Saxony before the sentence of death fell. It never came - Luther was saved by his friend Duke Frederick the Wise, who gave Martin sanctuary at his lonely Wartburg castle. The reformer stayed there for nearly a year, during which time he translated the New Testament into German, an important first step toward reshaping public and private worship, and a legacy of which we are all beneficiaries to this day - scripture in a language we can all read and understand.
Meanwhile, the revolt against Rome was spreading. In town after town, priests and city councils removed statues from churches and abandoned the Latin Mass for worship in the language of the people. The office of bishop was abolished since Luther found no warrant for it in scripture - he said the churches needed pastors, not dignitaries.
Most of the priests in Saxony and the surrounding territories abandoned celibacy and married. Under a certain amount of pressure from his fellow clerics, Luther also took a wife, a former nun, Katherina von Bora, and fathered six children with her. A new image of the ministry appeared in western Christianity - the married pastor living like any other man with his own family. Luther said later, "There is a lot to get used to in the first year of marriage - one wakes up in the morning and finds a pair of pigtails on the pillow which were not there before."
Martin Luther was quite a man. Not perfect by any means. He took questionable political stands; he endorsed the bigamous marriage of one of his powerful supporters; he sounded worse than Hitler in his statements about Jews. By the time of his death in 1546, Luther was, in the words of his biographer, "an irascible old man, petulant, peevish, unrestrained, and at times positively coarse."(1) Fortunately, the defects of an aging rebel do not in any way detract from the grandeur of his achievement, which ultimately transformed not only Christianity but all of Western civilization.
Martin Luther laid important foundations for the faith you and I share today:
1. Roland Bainton