THE REFORMATION really began when Martin Luther (1483-1546), a German friar and lecturer at the University of Wittenberg, criticised the idea of indulgences. He was unexpectedly driven by this action to challenge the whole position of the Pope’s authority, and much of the teaching of the Medieval Church. The climax of his defiance came when he refused to give up his beliefs at the Diet of Worms, which was the supreme assembly of the Holy Roman Empire.
Luther always remembered vividly how, as a schoolboy, he had seen Prince William of Anhalt who had joined a Franciscan friary in Magdeburg: ‘Once when on my way to school at Magdeburg at the time when I was fourteen, I saw the prince of Anhalt going barefoot and cowled in the public street, begging for bread and carrying the sack like a donkey. He looked the image of death, nothing but skin and bone; in fact, he died shortly afterwards, unable to stand such a rigorous life. Those who saw him were struck with awe and could not help being ashamed that they too were not friars (13).
Luther himself became a friar in 1505 and lived an austere and pious life, but could find no spiritual relief. For years he studied the Scriptures, especially St Paul’s Epistles: ‘I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, “the justice of God”, because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. My situation was that, although an impeccable friar, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him. Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant (14).
Luther was urgently aware of the contrast between God’s supreme goodness and man’s desperate wickedness. He wrote: ‘It is God’s eternity, holiness and power which thus continuously threaten man throughout the whole of his life. God’s ever-present judgment clutches man in the loneliness of his conscience, and with his every breath conveys him to the Almighty and Holy One to prosper or destroy (15).
At last in 1515, he found spiritual relief while studying the verse in St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, ‘The just shall live by his faith’: ‘Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and that statement that “the just shall live by his faith”. Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. This immediately made me feel as if had been born again and had entered paradise through newly opened doors. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the “justice of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love, so that the passage of Paul became to me a gate of heaven (16).
Upon this experience Luther based his central doctrine of justification by faith, the idea that a Christian could enter the kingdom of Heaven by his beliefs alone: If you have a true faith that Christ is your Saviour, then at once you have a gracious God, for faith leads you in and opens up God’s heart and will, that you should see pure grace and overflowing love. This it is to behold God in faith that you should look upon His fatherly, friendly heart, in which there is no anger nor ungraciousness. He who sees God as angry does not see Him rightly, but looks only on a curtain, as if a dark cloud had been drawn across his faith (17).
Justification by faith, Luther insisted, meant that a man was free from human authority such as the Pope, and answerable to God alone: ‘Faith is enough for a Christian, he does not need any works: he is definitely freed from all commandments and all laws, and if he is freed from them, he is surely free. Such is Christian liberty, and faith alone causes it (18).
To Luther the only certainty in religion was a man’s own personal experience of God’s truth: ‘If our theology achieves certainty, it is because it takes us away from ourselves and puts us outside ourselves, so that we no longer rely on our own strength, our conscience, our senses, our personality, our works, but only on what is beyond ourselves, namely the promise and truth of God who cannot deceive us (19).’
He believed that a man must find his own salvation and not rely upon ‘works’ (baptism, confirmation and other outward actions): ‘The freedom of conscience is that which frees our conscience from works, not in order to reject them completely, but in order to avoid putting our trust in them (20).
Scripture alone, he urged, must guide a man in religion: ‘The conscience must not be bound by anything except by the Word of God (21).
Luther was aroused to action by the question of indulgences. The theory behind indulgences, as Pope Clement VI had stated in a Bull of 1343, was that the saints had handed down to the Church a ‘treasury of merit’ available for the pardon of sinners: ‘And to this heap of treasure the merits of the blessed Mother of God and of all the elect, from the first just man to the last, are known to have supplied their increment: and no diminution or washing away of this treasure is in any wise to be feared, as well because of the infinite merits of Christ (as aforesaid) as because the more men are drawn to righteousness as a result of its application by so much the more does the heap of merits increase. . . . (22).
In 1517 Pope Leo X commissioned John Tetzel, a Dominican friar, to sell thousands of pounds worth of indulgences in Germany to raise money for the rebuilding of the cathedral of St Peter’s, Rome. This is an account by an eyewitness of his campaign: ‘[Tetzel] gained by his preaching in Germany an immense sum of money, all of which he sent to Rome: and especially at the new mining works at St Annaberg, where I, Frederick Mecum, heard him for two years, a large sum was collected. It is incredible what this ignorant and impudent friar gave out. He said that if a Christian had slept with his mother, and placed the sum of money in the Pope’s indulgence chest, the Pope had power in heaven and earth to forgive the sin, and, if he forgave it, God must do so also. Item, if they contributed readily and bought grace and indulgence, all the hills of St Annaberg would become pure massive silver. Item, so soon as the coin rang in the chest, the soul for whom the money was paid would go straightway to heaven. The indulgence was so highly prized that, when the commissary entered a city, the Bull was borne on a satin or gold-embroidered cushion, and all the priests and monks, the town council, schoolmaster, scholars, men, women, maidens, and children, went out to meet him with banners and tapers, with songs and procession. Then all the bells were rung, all the organs played; he was conducted into the church, a red cross was erected in the midst of the church, and the Pope’s banner displayed; in short, God himself could not have been welcomed and entertained with greater honour (23).
Luther was shocked. He nailed his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of Wittenberg Church. These are some extracts from a sermon on Indulgence and Grace in which he explained them to the people: ‘Sixth, it cannot be proved from any Scripture that divine justice requires or desires any other punishment or satisfaction from the sinner than his hearty and true repentance and conversion, with a resolution henceforth to bear the cross of Christ and practise the good works before-mentioned, also imposed on him by no man …
‘Ninth, if the Church were at this day to decide and declare that indulgence made more satisfaction than works, still it were a thousand-fold better that no Christian man should purchase or desire the indulgence, but rather perform the works and suffer loss …
‘Fourteenth, indulgence is allowed for the sake of imperfect and slothful Christians, who will not exercise themselves industriously in good works or are impatient. For indulgence improves no man, but only tolerates and allows his imperfection. So men should not speak against indulgence, but neither should they persuade any one to take it (24).
Luther was severely condemned for this in the Bull of Pope Leo Luther X: ‘We can no longer suffer the serpent to creep through the field condemned of the Lord. The books of Martin Luther which contain these errors are to be examined and burned. As for Martin himself, good God, what office of paternal love have we omitted in order to recall him from his errors? Have we not offered him a safe conduct and money for the journey? And he has had the temerity to appeal to a future council, although our predecessors, Pius II and Julius II, subjected such appeals to the penalties of heresy. Now therefore we give Martin sixty days in which to submit, dating from the time of the publication of this Bull in his district. Anyone who presumes to infringe our excommunication and anathema will stand under the wrath of Almighty God and of the Apostles Peter and Paul (25). But Luther ignored this.
In a letter to a friend he commented on the Bull: ‘This Bull condemns Christ himself. It summons me not to an audience but to a recantation. I am going to act on the assumption it is spurious, though I think it is genuine. Would that Charles were a man and would fight for Christ against these Satans. But I am not afraid. God’s will be done. I do not know what the prince should do unless to dissemble. I am sending you a copy of the Bull that you may see the Roman monster. The faith and the Church are at stake. I rejoice to suffer in so noble a cause. I am not worthy of so holy a trial. I feel much freer now that I am certain the pope is Antichrist (26).
Luther had now moved on to attack the whole position of the Pope, as shown in this extract from an account by John Eck, a Professor of Theology, with whom Luther had a debate at Leipzig: ‘Luther denies that Peter was the chief of the apostles: he declares that ecclesiastical obedience is not based on divine right, but that it was introduced by the ordinance of men or of the emperor. He denies that the Church was built upon Peter: “Upon this rock”, etc. (27).
Here is a sympathetic description by an eyewitness of Luther at Leipzig: ‘Martin is of middle height, emaciated from care and study, so that you can almost count his bones through his skin. He is in the vigour of manhood and has a clear, penetrating voice. He is learned and has the Scripture at his fingers’ ends. He knows Greek and Hebrew sufficiently to judge of the interpretations. A perfect forest of words and ideas stands at his command. He is affable and friendly, in no sense dour or arrogant. He is equal to anything. In company he is vivacious, jocose, always cheerful and gay no matter how hard his adversaries press him. Everyone chides him for the fault of being a little too insolent in his reproaches and more caustic than is prudent for an innovator in religion or becoming to a theologian (28).
In an Appeal to the German Nobility in 1520, Luther put forward the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers: ‘There has been a fiction by which the Pope, bishops, priests, and monks are called the “spiritual estate”; princes, lords, artisans and peasants are the “temporal estate”. This is an artful lie and hypocritical invention, but let no one be made afraid by it, and that for this reason: that all Christians are truly of the spiritual estate, and there is no difference among them, save of office. As St Paul says (1 Cor. xii), we are all one body, though each member does its own work so as to serve the others. This is because we have one baptism, one Gospel, one faith, and are all Christians alike; for baptism, Gospel, and faith, these alone make spiritual and Christian people (29).
But storms gathered on the horizon. Luther was summoned to appear before the Diet of Worms and called upon to take back what he had said. He made this reply: ‘Unless I am convicted of error by the testimony of Scripture or (since I put no trust in the unsupported authority of Pope or of councils, since it is plain that they have often erred and often contradicted themselves) by manifest reasoning I stand convicted by the Scriptures to which I have appealed, and my conscience is taken captive by God’s word, I cannot and will not recant anything, for to act against our conscience is neither safe for us, nor open to us. On this I take my stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen (30).
Charles V wrote angrily of Luther: ‘A single monk, led astray by The Emperor’s private judgement, has set himself against the faith held by all view Christians for a thousand years and more, and impudently concludes that all Christians up till now have erred. I have therefore resolved to stake upon this cause all my dominions, my friends, my body and my blood, my life and soul. For myself and you, sprung from the holy German nation, appointed by peculiar privilege defenders of the faith, it would be a grievous disgrace, an eternal stain upon ourselves and posterity, if, in this our day, not only heresy, but its very suspicion, were due to our neglect. After Luther’s stiff-necked reply in my presence yesterday, I now repent that I have so long delayed proceedings against him and his false doctrines. I have now resolved never again, under any circumstances, to hear him (31).
But Albert Durer, the artist, greatly admired Luther and wrote in his diary: ‘Every man who reads Luther’s books may see how clear and transparent is his doctrine, because he sets forth the holy Gospel. Wherefore his books are to be held in great honour and not to be burnt; unless indeed his adversaries, who ever strive against the truth and would make gods out of men, were also cast into the fire, they and all their opinions with them, and afterwards a new edition of Luther’s works were prepared. Oh God, if Luther be dead, who will henceforth expound to us the holy Gospel with such clearness. What, oh God, might he not still have written for us in ten or twenty years! (32).
An extract from a despatch from the Venetian Ambassador to the Diet, shows how much German opinion favoured Luther: ‘Luther is a man who will not relinquish his opinion, either through argument, fear or entreaty … He has many powerful partisans who encourage him, and against whom none dares to proceed … His books are sold publicly in Worms, although the Pope and the Emperor, who is on the spot, have prohibited them (33).