MARTIN LUTHER and the REFORMATION

It is a paradox that the Church is the sinless Bride of Christ and yet she is full of sinners.  Christ promised that the gates of Hades would not prevail against His Church (Matthew 16:18-19) and yet in the abuse of God's gift of "free will" those who follow after the sin of Judas have continually wounded the Body of Christ with their selfish, prideful desires and abuses of authority.  Why did Jesus include Judas among the chosen Twelve when He knew Judas would betray Him?  The failure of Judas was to be a warning to His Bride, the Church, that there will be "wolves among the sheep."

Long before the Protestant revolt faithful Catholics were convinced that the Church needed to be reformed.  It was not the religion of the Church that needed reform but instead those in authority who professed the Catholic faith but did not live it. Father John Laux writes, There is no better proof for the divine origin and guidance of the Church than the fact that she not only survived the great apostasy of the 16th century, but emerged from the conflict rejuvenated and prepared to meet new ones.  Church History, page 458.  The Renaissance was a time of "rebirth" in learning and culture throughout Europe but the spirit of the Renaissance was also the greatest obstacle to reform in the expression of its pagan spirit which unfortunately reigned supreme in the city of Rome, home of the Catholic Church.  Sadly men of good will who desired reform were stymied at every level until the crisis boiled over in the challenge presented by Martin Luther and the German princes who supported him in what came to be known as the Protestant Reformation. 

Martin Luther was born in 1483 to a humble but respectable family at Eisleben [Saxony, Germany].  At 18 he entered the University of Erfurt and graduated in the usual time.  His father, who had become more prosperous, wanted his son to study law but Martin who was constantly plagued with fear for his soul's salvation resolving to become a monk entered the convent of the Augustinian Hermits at Erfurt in 1505.  Even though he advanced to the priesthood in 1507 and received a degree of doctor of theology in 1512 he was constantly tormented by uncertainty concerning his soul's salvation and continually subjected his body to all kinds of mortification in hopes of making amends for his imperfections and in order to achieve personal sanctity. 

In 1510 Luther was sent to Rome on a mission for his Order.  He had hoped the Eternal City would give him some assurance of his salvation but instead he was horrified and repulsed by the sin and degradation he witnessed even among the leading clergy of the Church.  A few years later in 1512 Luther was sent by his Order to teach theology and Sacred Scripture at the newly founded University of Wittenberg where he came to be recognized as a gifted and popular teacher of Sacred Scripture.  It was at Wittenberg that he decided his struggle to live a life of perfect holiness was impossible and persuaded himself that good works, since they had failed to give him the peace he desired in his soul, were useless for salvation, that "faith alone" justified man before God, and that God's forgiveness could be won only by trusting to God's promises.  Such faith and trust in his view would win the sinner complete and total forgiveness without any consequences.  He rejected the doctrine that defined true repentance as sorrow for sins evidenced by the willingness to offer acts of penance for sins forgiven'selectively ignoring John the Baptist's rebuke to the Sadducees and Pharisees, Produce fruit in keeping with repentance in Matthew 3:8 and St. Paul's testimony to King Agrippa: I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision.  On the contrary, first to those in Damascus and in Jerusalem and throughout the whole country of Judea, and then to the Gentiles, I preached the need to repent and turn to God, and to do works giving evidence of repentance [Acts 26:19-20].  His false view of justification led to his belief that man had become, through the consequence of original sin, incapable of willing or doing anything that was good, that all man's acts were sins, and that man, through the corruption of original sin, had become a rotten tree that is incapable of ever bearing "good fruit": all good works, including almsgiving and indulgences, were useless to the condition of sanctity to one's soul.   Using the Epistles of St. Paul as proof of his beliefs Luther began to teach these doctrines in his lectures as early as 1516. 

By the end of the 15th century old St. Peter's Church in Rome, built by the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century, had become so deteriorated that it was decided the old church must be torn down and rebuilt.  Pope Julius II [died 1513], anxious to secure enough funds to properly rebuild St. Peter's, proclaimed a Plenary Indulgence throughout Europe.  Through this indulgence the Church proclaimed that anyone who confessed their sins, received Holy Communion, and contributed according to their means toward the building of St. Peter's would receive remission of time spent in Purgatory for their confessed sins.  In 1517 during the pontificate of Leo X, Albrecht the Archbishop of Mainz published the Indulgence in Germany and sent the Dominican John Tetzel to preach the Indulgence throughout Germany.  It was the Archbishop's intention to have half the contributions collected go to the rebuilding of St. Peter's but the other half to come to him to pay a tax that he owed to the Holy See.  When Luther heard Tetzel preach in Saxony, assuring the faithful that contributors would "buy their way into heaven" according to the generosity of their donation, Luther in disgust nailed his 95 Theses on the doors of the Wittenberg church in protest.  Most of the list of the 95 Theses were directed against Indulgences.  Many of the points were orthodox with the exception of the opposition to the teachings of the Church on Indulgences and Purgatory.

A local printer made copies of Luther's 95 Theses, and in a few weeks they were read through Germany and within a month they had been spread all over western and southern Europe.  All who had grievances against the Church from peasants to princes began rallying to Luther, assuring him of their approval.  These supporters included the Elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony and Luther's own Provincial Staupitz.  But it had not been Luther's intention to break with the Church.  He even wrote a letter to Pope Leo X in which he declared: "In your voice I recognize the voice of Christ, who lives in you and speaks through you." Pope Leo summoned Luther to Rome but fearing for his safety Frederick of Saxony retracted the order and arranged instead a meeting between the Papal Legate and Luther at Augsburg in the fall of 1518.  At the meeting which became hostile and confrontational, Luther was commanded to admit that the merits of Christ and of the saints constitute the treasury out of which the Church takes her indulgences.  Luther refused but did promise to remain silent.

In the meantime Luther's doctrines [including his assertion that the sacraments work merely in proportion to the faith with which they are received] were thoroughly examined by the Holy See.  A papal bull, Exsurge Domine, condemned 41 of Luther's propositions and threatened him with excommunication unless he retracted these statements and renounced certain writings in his books within 60 days.  In his pride Luther refused to be disciplined by the Church in Rome, instead he posted a notice inviting the people of Wittenberg to be present at the burning of the Papal Bull, which took place on December 10th 1520.  In that action Luther essentially burned the bridge uniting him with Rome.  Instead of taking his place as a Church reformer he chose instead to become a festering wound on Christ's Body, the Church. 

In further writings Luther appealed to his mass of common supporters to desert a Church that had become "the whore of Babylon."  He appealed to the princes by offering to make them the heads of the Church in their own states and promising the distribution of the lands owned by the Church in their individual states.  On January 22, 1521 the Emperor Charles the V attempted to resolve the revolt by calling the first German Diet at Worms.  Luther was summoned to stand trial for his theology.  He agreed to appear under the promise of a safe-conduct promised by the Emperor himself.  Luther was asked if he maintained or abjured what he had written against the Catholic faith.  At first he seemed to abjure and then he asked for time to prepare an answer.  In the meantime he had received assurance of the support of Frederick of Saxony and other German princes and nobles.  In his next appearance Luther refused to retract his doctrines unless they could be shown to be false by Sacred Scripture and by reason. 

The verdict of the assembly was that his books were to be burned; his writings destroyed and all future writings to be censured before publication.  Luther planned to return to Wittenberg under his safe-conduct but he was fully aware that when it expired in 21 days he was liable to be arrested and executed as a heretic.  To protect him Fredrick of Saxony brought Luther to the safety of the Castle of Wartburg and spread the rumor that he had been found murdered.  Luther spent the next 10 months sheltered in the safety of Wartburg castle writing his German translation of the Bible, which he completed in 1534.  This was not the first translation of Sacred Scripture in the German language.  Eighteen other translations had been made previously but none, including Luther's, were accurate, scholarly translations.  For example, in order to support his false doctrine of justification by "faith alone" Luther he added the word "alone" after the word "faith" in Romans 3:28 and he omitted the New Testament Epistle of St. James, which he called "a straw Epistle" because the letter of St. James taught "..a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone" [James 2:24] and "..faith without works is dead" [James 2:26], which was contradictory to Luther's teachings.

Luther's call to separate from the Church established by Jesus Christ and to follow doctrines that denied free will, asserted the complete corruption of human nature by Original Sin, the doctrine of justification by "faith alone", and the Scripture as the sole authority (sola Scriptura), denying the authority of the Traditions passed down from Jesus to the Apostles to generations of Bishops, began what became a shattering of the Body of Christ that has led to the formation of thousands of different "Protestant Christian" denominations.  The first results of this disillusionment began with war.  Aroused by Luther's teachings and his disregard for authority the peasants rose against the state authorities in a war that devastated Germany.  Monasteries, convents and churches were attacked; priests were murdered and nuns raped.  Luther renounced the violence too late.  When the revolt was finally crushed the peasants were reduced to greater hardships than before the war began.  Before long every principality in central and northern Germany had broken with Rome and had its own "State Church" with each elector or prince as its chief bishop and these states made war against states that had kept faith with the Catholic Church.  Peace finally came with the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, which sealed the Protestant heresy in Europe.  The princes of Germany could choose their own religion and this religion was what their people were obliged to accept.  From the Lutheran break the cancer spread as Lutheranism was followed by numerous movements like Calvinism and later Anglicanism in the defection King Henry the VIII of England who established himself as head of the Church in England in order to obtain a divorce, which the Pope had refused to grant, from his good Catholic queen so he could marry his pregnant mistress.

Luther's defection did some good, however.  God can turn the worst of our mistakes to the better when we submit to His will.  Catholic reformers were spurred into action.  Pope Paul III reformed the Papal Court, and men like St. Ignatius of Loyola brought about many needed reforms.  St. Ignatius of Loyola founded the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, and this valiant Order of priests carried the Gospel message to the New World while great missionaries like St. Francis Xavier spread the Gospel of Christ in the Far East, encircling the world with the message of salvation through Christ Jesus. 

The Great Council of Trent was called by Pope Paul III in December of 1545 in order to address the reforms in the Church necessary to combat Protestantism.  Against the Protestants the Great Council declared that both Scripture and Tradition are the two sources of Divine Revelation and that all the books of both the Old and New Testament are equally inspired because they have God as their author.  The council also declared that the Bible scriptures, in matters pertaining to faith and morals, cannot be interpreted without being interpreted in the living tradition of the Church in accord with the authoritative interpretations of the Church and the unanimous consent of the Fathers.  Other doctrines clearly articulated were dogmatic definitions concerning Original Sin, Justification, the Sacraments, the Sacrifice of the Mass, Purgatory, the Invocation and Veneration of the Saints, Sacred Relics and Images, and Indulgences.

The Universal Church of Jesus Christ has faced numerous challenges down through the centuries and yet she remains the promised "fifth Kingdom" [Daniel 2:44], "the glorious City of God" [Revelation 21:2], and the "true Bride of Christ" [Revelation 19:6-9].  Cardinal Newman wrote of the Church's progress in history: The Church is ever militant; sometimes she gains, sometimes she loses; and more often she is at once gaining and losing in different parts of her territory.  What is ecclesiastical history but a record of the ever-doubtful fortune of the battle, though its issue is not doubtful. Scarcely are we singing 'Te Deum,' when we have to turn to our 'Miserers'; scarcely are we in peace, when we are in persecution: scarcely have we a triumph, when we are visited by a scandal.  Nay, we make progress by means of reverses; our grief's are our consolations; we lose Stephen to gain Paul, and Matthias replaces the traitor Judas...  [Church History,Laux, page 619].  

But no matter what our struggles we can never lose heart because we have been promised victory by Christ Himself!  Remember that you are a witness to the unfolding of Salvation history in the Last Age, that you are a soldier in this great battle to spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth, and that Jesus Christ, the King of Kings has promised that your perseverance in faith with be rewarded with eternal life and an private audience with the Master of History!

"We firmly believe that God is master of the world and of its history.  But the ways of His providence are often unknown to us.  Only at the end, when our partial knowledge ceases, when we see God 'face to face,' will we fully know the ways by which -- even though the dramas of evil and sin -- God has guided His creation to that definitive Sabbath rest of which He created heaven and earth."

Catechism of the Catholic Church #314

Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2002 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.

 

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