It is fitting to briefly take a glance at history at arguably the greatest Reformer, Martin Luther, who firmly stood by “Scripture alone”, and preached “faith alone” as the means of salvation. His testimony is both a relevant challenge and encouragement to us today to stand by the “Five Solas” amidst hostility against pure Christian doctrine from within and without the church.
“The term 'Reformation' is used by historians and theologians to refer to the western European movement [1517-1648], centering upon individuals such as Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, and John Calvin, concerned with moral, theological, and institutional reform of the Christian church in that region.” (McGrath, 1998:156). “Martin Luther... is one of the few men of whom it may be said that the history of the world was profoundly altered by his work... Whether honored or opposed, none can deny his preeminent place in the history of the church.” (Walker, 1959:302). “Other men and women felt deeply the need for reform but none matched the burly German” (Shelley, 1982:256).
Early in the 20th century, Ernst Troeltsch defined Protestantism as a “modification of Catholicism” in which Catholic problems remain, but different solutions given (Shelley, 1982:256). The four Catholic concerns that Protestantism answered in a new way are: How is a person saved? Where does religious authority lie? What is the Church? And what is the essence of Christian living? It is Luther that finally offered biblical solutions that have stood the test of time to these questions.
Luther before the Reformation
Luther was born in Eisleben, Germany on 10th November 1483. His father was a poor Saxon miner. His parents had high hopes for him academically, desiring that he become a lawyer. He obtained free education at Eisenach School. “His father valued education and made it possible, through hard work in the mining industry, for Martin to attend college in Erfurt. The University of Erfurt was the most celebrated in all Germany.” (Murrell, 1998:15). He proved to be a brilliant law student, and obtained an MA degree by 1505. While at university, John Wesel, a Christian humanist greatly influenced him. It was also at university that he got introduced to the Bible when, to his amazement, he discovered a copy of the then rare document in the library while browsing the books.
On a certain day in 1505, as he was returning to Erfurt from a visit to his parents at Mansfeldt, Luther was caught up in a thunderstorm. He was struck by a bolt of lightning, knocking him to the ground. In fear, he called out to the Roman Catholic's patroness of miners crying, “St. Anne, save me! And I'll become a monk.” (Shelley, 1982:256). Luther had every intention of becoming a lawyer according to his parents' wishes. But two weeks after his lightning experience, consumed by guilt, Luther kept his vow to St. Anne by joining the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt. His parents were disappointed as their hopes of Luther becoming a lawyer went down the drain.
He was ordained a priest in 1507 after studying theology. And in 1508 he got a teaching position at the University of Wittenberg, where he also earned his Bachelor of Bible degree in theology. After a year at Wittenburg, he was transferred to Erfurt, where he earned his second theology degree, and taught the Sentences of Peter Lombard, the standard text of theology then (Murrell, 1998:16). He would later receive his Doctor of Divinity degree in 1512 while he continued to teach.
Luther was a very dedicated monk. The Pelagian teaching that surrounded him taught him to save himself through good works. “In the monastery he lived a life of strict asceticism... He cheerfully performed the humblest tasks. He prayed and chastised himself even beyond the strictest monastic rules. He wasted away till he looked like a skeleton. His cell, even in the severest cold of winter, was unheated. He often spent the night in vigils and only occasionally slept on a mat.” (Kuiper, 1964:162). He would recall years later that, “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” (Shelley, 1982:256). “And yet, despite all of his efforts, Luther was still burdened with a sense of shame and guilt. His soul was in the deepest depths of despair because, no matter how hard he tried, he knew he had not done enough to merit salvation” (Murrell, 1998:17).
In 1515, while pondering Paul's epistle to the Romans, He came across the words in chapter one verse 17 that read: “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘But the righteous man shall live by faith’” (NASB). Luther later recalled, “Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that 'the just shall live by his faith.' Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise.” (Shelley, 1982:257). Luther now clearly understood that man only got saved by grace through faith in Christ's finished work on the cross, and not by any personal merit. This clashed with what he had previously known as the Roman Catholic Church's doctrine of justification by faith and good works. Luther would later argue that: “Good works do not make a man good, but a good man does good works.” (Shelley, 1982:260).
The Beginning of the Reformation
The Renaissance, spanning the 14th to 17th centuries, was a cultural revolution in Europe that inspired the exploration of the literal and arts classics. Scholars in this era were known as humanists, to which Desiderius Erasmus is reputed as the greatest of them. Though many of the greatest Christian humanists died Roman Catholic, such as Erasmus, “it would be impossible to exaggerate their importance as precursors to the Reformation.” (Renwick & Harman, 1999:106, 107). With a return to the classics, the Renaissance led people back to original Greek and Hebrew Scriptural documents, looking beyond the Latin Vulgate and other patristic translations. Erasmus himself produced an invaluable Greek translation of the New Testament, the first in print. It was against this background that Luther “launched the most gigantic revolution in the history of the Christian Church” (Walker, 1959:302).
The sale of indulgences, introduced during the Crusades, was a great source of income for the pope. Roman Catholicism taught that payment of indulgences (contributions to a worthy cause) absolved the individual from partial or even full punishment for sins that had already been confessed and forgiven. So with the discovery that justification is by faith alone, Luther began to attack the theology behind indulgences in his sermons.
But it is a particular incident that heightened Luther’s fury with the issue of indulgences. The Dominican monk, John Tetzel, was preaching throughout Germany raising funds on behalf of the pope to complete the construction of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Tetzel alleged that indulgences paid for this cause would even free souls from purgatory, claiming that, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs” (Shelley, 1982:258). Duke Frederick, prince of Saxony, forbade the sale of these indulgences in his territory. But his Wittenberg citizenry traveled to other towns to buy the indulgences. It is this act that prompted Luther's response against indulgences (Vos, 1960:79).
Luther drew up 95 propositions (theses) for theological debate on 31st October 1517. On All Saints' Day, he posted them on the Castle Church door at Wittenberg in accordance with the university custom of proposing a debate. Among other things, the 95 Theses argued that “indulgences cannot remove guilt, do not apply to purgatory, and are harmful because they induce a false sense of security in the donor.” That was the spark that ignited the Reformation (Shelley, 1982:258). Within four weeks, the theses, originally in Latin, were translated into several languages and distributed to every country in Western Europe (Murrell, 1998:18).
The Dominicans immediately reported Luther to Rome as a man guilty of preaching “dangerous doctrines”. The pope summoned him to Rome in July 1518 but Luther snubbed the invitation because honoring it would have led him to his execution (Renwick & Harman, 1999:110).
Luther insisted on Scriptural proof that he was wrong. During an 18-day debate in July 1519 with theologian John Eck in a highly charged atmosphere at Leipzig, Luther said, “A council may sometimes err. Neither the church nor the pope can establish articles of faith. These must come from Scripture.” (Shelley, 1982:259). Luther henceforth denounced papal authority and took on Scriptural authority to govern him instead. After the debate, Eck lobbied for Luther to be declared a heretic. But Luther sought audience with the German people by publishing a series of pamphlets. Three of the most famous pamphlets produced in 1520 are: 'To the Nobility of the German Nation', 'On the Babylonish Captivity of the Church', and 'Concerning Christian Liberty' (Renwick & Harman, 1999:111). Issues he addressed through the pamphlets included: the church's wealth and political power, and the invalidity of the seven sacraments (Luther recognized Baptism and the Lord's Supper only as the two ordinances instituted by Christ).
Luther also became a controversialist. “He insisted that people either side entirely with him – because of what he saw as the great danger of the church of Rome and the papacy – or else get away from him and become his enemies” (Olson, 1999:378). In his expository series of the Gospel of John in 1538, he began one of his sermons by stating: “Although we must always expect the best from man, especially from the believers, we remember that they may err and go astray. If this truth had been observed in Christendom, we would have had neither the pope nor all the filth and stench of his anti-Christian doctrine with which the Christian Church was later seduced” (Murray, 1965:30).
On 15th June 1520, Pope Leo X issued a Bull (a papal document named after its seal) condemning 41 of Luther's beliefs as “heretical, or scandalous, or false, or offensive to pious ears, or seductive of simple minds, or repugnant to Catholic truths.” (Shelley, 1982:255). The bull called upon him and his followers to recant within 60 days, and also ordered for his works to be burned. But in response, on 10th December 1520, Luther instead publicly burned the Bull condemning him, the Canon Law, and forged Decretals (decisions of popes and general councils) in a bonfire outside Wittenberg (Renwick & Harman, 1999:111).
In January 1521 the pope declared him a heretic and excommunicated him from the church. In the same year, Emperor Charles V summoned Luther to the Diet (a national meeting of princes and powerful leaders) at Worms to account for his writings. The exchanges are reported to have been hostile as he was questioned about his writings. Luther again appealed to the authority of Scripture and stated, “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.” (Shelley, 1982:260). The emperor responded by declaring him an outlaw with the sentence to fall in 21 days.
But Duke Frederick, whose territory included Wittenberg, saved him from execution when he sent troupes to intercept Luther's journey back home by staging a kidnapping. Disguised as a nobleman with the name Junker George, Luther was afforded refuge at the Wartburg Castle for almost a year. But this time wasn't spent without productivity. It is here that he translated the New Testament into German using Erasmus Desiderius' recent Greek translation. Luther's German translation was pivotal to the Reformation.
At the same time, the revolt against Rome spread. More radical reformers than Luther emerged. Princes, dukes and electors are among those that gave support to the movement. Younger humanists also rallied behind him. Luther returned to Wittenberg in March 1522 to this excitement among the people. Upon his return he did away with the office of bishop, advocating for the pastoral office instead. Monks and nuns also abandoned celibacy and began to marry, with Luther himself taking a former nun as his wife in 1525.
Challenges during the Reformation
Both the Nobles' Revolt in 1523 and the Peasants' Revolt in 1525 caused Luther great anguish as he was blamed for them. In 1524, the German peasants took advantage of the atmosphere of reform and attempted to extend it to their social and economic ills by revolting against their lords. When the peasants turned violent, Luther reacted furiously against them in his pamphlet: 'Against the Thievish and Murderous Hordes of Peasants', calling on the princes to crash the revolt. In 1525 the princes did likewise, leaving about 100,000 peasants dead. As a response, surviving peasants labeled Luther a false prophet, with many returning to Catholicism, while others resorting to more radical forms of the Reformation (Shelley, 1982:261). Many of his followers became Anabaptists. Luther, initially opposed to persecution tactics, would later recommend the persecution of the Anabaptists in 1530 as the movement grew rapidly (Renwick & Harman, 1999:116).
Charles V called the first Diet of Speyer in 1526 aimed at inciting action against Luther's views. But in a rare twist of events, the Diet gave the edict of toleration, allowing each German state to adhere to the religion of its ruling prince. The second Diet of Speyer in 1529 ruled that Lutheran districts should remain Lutheran, and Catholic districts should remain Catholic, but with the Catholic Church allowed religious freedom in Lutheran territory. The evangelical minority in attendance protested against the decision, thus the origin of the term 'Protestant' (Renwick & Harman, 1999:113). After the Diet, Germany was divided into Protestant and Catholic sections that bitterly opposed each other.
In 1530 Reformation leaders gathered at Augsburg to draft a common statement of faith. Luther was unable to attend because he was still outlawed. Philip Melanchthon, a young Greek professor at Wittenburg, and Luther's eventual successor as the leader of the Reformation, drafted the Augsburg Confession. The Confession was signed by Lutheran princes and theologians (Shelley, 1982:263).
Despite his problems with the law and the church, at about 1531 Luther began to suffer health problems that included kidney and bladder stones, arthritis, and eventually angina. He died in Eisleben, his birthplace, in 1546 after suffering a stroke. He was buried in the Castle Church in Wittenberg.
Almost 10 years after his death, The Peace of Augsburg (1555), following a civil war between Charles V and Lutheran princes (1546 -1555), allowed each prince to decide the religion of its subjects. It also banned all other sects of Protestantism except Lutheranism. As a result, Lutheranism eventually became a state religion in large sections of the empire (Shelley, 1982:263). But princes and bishops who turned Protestant had to surrender their estates.
Despite his brilliance and zeal for the Lord, by all means Luther was not perfect and earned quite some warranted criticism along the way. This is seen in some controversial theological views he held and his extremist reaction to the peasant revolt and other issues. But it is his solutions to the four Catholic concerns mentioned above that render his contribution to the Reformation of the Church as matchless. With submission to Scriptural authority, Luther answered the concerns as follows: How is a person saved? Not by works but by faith alone. Where does religious authority lie? Not in the Roman Catholic Church but in Scripture alone. What is the Church? It is the community of all Christian believers since all are priests unto God. And what is the essence of Christian living? Serving God in any useful calling, whether ordained or lay (Shelley, 1982:264). Thus his influence lives on even today.
Kuiper, B. K. 1964. The Church in History. Michigan: Christian Schools International
McGrath, A. E. 1998. Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of the Christian Thought. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing
Murray, I. H. 1965. The Reformation of the Church: A collection of Reformed and Puritan documents on Church issues. Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust
Murrell, S. E. 1998. A Glorious Institution: The Church in History. Parts Three and Four. Pensacola: Mount Zion Publications
Olson, R. E. 1999. The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press.
Renwick, A. M. & Harman A. M. 1999. The Story of the Church. 3rd Edition. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press
Shelley, B. L. 1982. Church History in Plain Language. Dallas. Word Publishing
Vos, H. F. 1960. Highlights of Church History. Chicago: Moody Press
Walker. W. 1959. A History of the Christian Church. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark