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Discover the Book - Feb. 18, 2009

  • 2009 Feb 18

Luther and the RCC


The Reformation

About noon on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and a professor of theology, posted on the doors of the Cathedral of Wittenberg, Germany, his 95 theses  (complaints). These questions were written in Latin on the subject of indulgences, and invited a public discussion about possible errors in the teachings and practices of the medieval Roman Church. At the same time he sent notice of the fact to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz. He chose the eve of All Saints' Day (Nov. 1), because this was one of the most frequented feasts, and attracted professors, students, and people from all directions to the church, which was filled with precious relics.

With this event, the 16th century Protestant Reformation was formally born.

No one accepted the challenge, and no discussion took place. The professors and students of Wittenberg were of one mind on the subject. But history itself undertook the disputation and defense. The Theses were copied, translated, printed, and spread as on angels’ wings throughout Germany and Europe in a few weeks.

After serious deliberation, without consulting any of his colleagues or friends, but following an irresistible impulse, Luther resolved upon a public act of unforeseen consequences. It may be compared to the stroke of the axe with which St. Boniface, seven hundred years before, had cut down the sacred oak, and decided the downfall of German heathenism. He wished to elicit the truth about the burning question of indulgences, which he himself professed not fully to understand at the time, and which yet was closely connected with the peace of conscience and eternal salvation. He chose the orderly and usual way of a learned academic disputation.

The rapid circulation of the Reformation literature was promoted by the perfect freedom of the press. There was, as yet, no censorship, no copyright, no ordinary book-trade in the modern sense, and no newspapers; but colporteurs, students, and friends carried the books and tracts from house to house. The mass of the people could not read, but they listened attentively to readers. The questions of the Reformation were eminently practical, and interested all classes; and Luther handled the highest themes in the most popular style.

The Theses bear the title, "Disputation to explain the Virtue of Indulgences." They sound very strange to a modern ear, and are more Catholic than Protestant. They are no protest against the Pope and the Roman Church, or any of her doctrines, not even against indulgences, but only against their abuse. They expressly condemn those who speak against indulgences (Th. 71), and assume that the Pope himself would rather see St. Peter’s Church in ashes than have it built with the flesh and blood of his sheep (Th. 50). They imply belief in purgatory. They are silent about faith and justification, which already formed the marrow of Luther’s theology and piety. He wished to be moderate, and had not the most distant idea of a separation from the mother church. When the Theses were republished in his collected works (1545), he wrote in the preface: "I allow them to stand, that by them it may appear how weak I was, and in what a fluctuating state of mind, when I began this business. I was then a monk and a mad papist, and so submersed in the dogmas of the Pope that I would have readily murdered any person who denied obedience to the Pope."

The Protestant Reformation movement was built on three main tenets:

  • The re-establishment of the Scriptures.
  • Clarifying the means of salvation.
  • The restoration of congregational singing.

Martin Luther's Problem

In the spring of 1521, a Roman Catholic monk and professor of theology was summoned to appear before Emperor Charles V and the Imperial Diet of the Holy Roman Empire. For the previous few years, Martin Luther had fearlessly criticized the abuses of the Roman Church. His criticisms had fanned into flame the long smoldering resentments of the German people toward Rome.

Determined to put an end to the popular religious uprising Luther had sparked, the young Emperor summoned him to Worms, where the Diet would convene. There he would stand trial, and if convicted, he faced execution. Luther’s friend Spalatin warned him against going to Worms, although he had a safe conduct pass from the Emperor. A century earlier, John Hus had been burned at the stake at the Council of Constance, his safe conduct pass notwithstanding. In reply, Luther wrote that he would enter Worms in spite of the "gates of hell and the powers of darkness,” even if there were “as many devils in it as there were tiles on the roofs of the houses”

On April 16 Luther entered Worms in a Saxon two-wheeled cart preceded by an imperial herald. Although it was the dinner hour, 2,000 people were present to observe his entrance.

On the following day at four o’clock Luther stood before “Charles, heir of a long line of Catholic sovereigns—of Maximillian the romantic, of Ferdinand the Catholic, of Isabella the orthodox—scion of the house of Hapsburg, lord of Austria, Burgundy, the Low Countries, Spain, and Naples, Holy Roman Emperor, ruling over a vaster domain than any save Charlemagne, symbol of the medieval unities, incarnation of a glorious if vanishing heritage.”  Most men of God would have been intimidated. Luther was not.

After an exchange between the Archbishop of Trier, Johann Eck, and Martin Luther, the Augustinian monk, overwhelmed by the immensity of what he was doing, requested and received the night for prayer and consideration. We can be sure Luther really prayed that night. From his own pen comes this prayer he later recalled as having been his plea:

How frail and sensitive is the flesh of men, and the devil so powerful and active through his apostles and the wise of the world!… O Thou, my God, my God, help me against the reason and wisdom of all the world! Do this! Thou must do it, Thou alone! For this cause is not mine but Thine. For myself I have no business here with these great lords of the world. Indeed, I too, desire to enjoy days of peace and quiet and to be undisturbed. But Thine, O Lord, is this cause. And it is righteous and of eternal importance. Stand by me, Thou faithful, eternal God! I rely on no man.…  

O God, stand by me in the name of Thy dear Son, Jesus Christ, who shall be my Protector and Defender, yea, my mighty Fortress, through the might and strengthening of Thy Holy Spirit.

Wouldn't we wish we could have been at Worms on April 18, 1521, when Martin Luther stood against his world? There before him were arrayed the princes and theologians of the Church, and along with them, Charles, heir of a long line of sovereigns—of Maximillian, of Ferdinand the Catholic, of Isabelle—the orthodox-scion of the Hapsburgs, Lord of Burgundy, Austria, Naples, Spain, the Low Countries, Holy Roman Emperor!

Only the Emperor was allowed to sit because the hall was absolutely packed full. Eyewitnesses report that Luther stood at the far end, a ray of sunlight lighting him as he spoke with the boldness of a lion. To the questioning of Johann Eck, Archbishop of Trier and his antagonist, Luther refused to recant what he had written. He would take back nothing, he asserted, that his accusers could not prove wrong from Scripture. And then in that place and at that momentous point in history came this famous dialogue:

ECK: Martin, how can you assume that you are the only one to understand the sense of Scripture? Would you put your judgment above that of so many famous men and claim that you know more than they all? You have no right to call into question the most holy orthodox faith, instituted by Christ the perfect lawgiver, proclaimed throughout the world by the apostles, sealed by the red blood of the martyrs, confirmed by the sacred councils, defined by the Church in which all our fathers believed until death and gave to us as an inheritance, and which now we are forbidden by the pope and emperor to discuss lest there be no end of debate. I ask you, Martin—answer candidly and without horns—do you or do you not repudiate your books and the errors which they contain?  

LUTHER: Since then Your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. 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.  

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (For I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me, Amen.




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