FC84: The roots and birth of the Protestant Reformation


FC84 in the Hyperflow of History;
Covered in multimedia lecture #2083.

The roots of the Reformation lie far back in the High Middle Ages with the rise of towns and a money economy.  This led to four lines of development that all converged in the Reformation.  First of all, a money economy led to the rise of kings who clashed with the popes over control of Church taxes.  One of these clashes, that between pope Boniface VIII and Philip IV of France, triggered the Babylonian Captivity and the Great Schism.  Second, the replacement of a land based with a money economy led to growing numbers of abuses by the Church in its desperation for cash.  Both of these factors seriously damaged the Church’s reputation and helped lead to the Lollard and Hussite heresies which would heavily influence Luther’s Protestant Reformation.

Another effect of the rise of towns was a more plentiful supply of money with which humanists could patronize Renaissance culture.  When the Renaissance reached Northern Europe, the idea of studying the Bible in the original Greek and Hebrew fused with the North’s greater emphasis on religion, thus paving the way for a Biblical scholar such as Martin Luther to challenge the Church.

Finally, towns and trade spread new ideas and technology.  Several of these bits of technology, some from as far away as China, helped lead to the invention of the printing press which helped the Reformation in two ways.  First of all, it made books cheaper, which let Luther have his own copy of the Bible and the chance to find what he saw as flaws in the Church’s thinking.  Second, the printing press would spread Luther’s ideas much more quickly and further a field than the Lollards and Hussites ever could have without the printing press.

All of these factors, growing dissatisfaction with corruption and scandal in the Church, the religious emphasis of the Northern Renaissance, and the printing press, combined to create a growing interest in Biblical scholarship.  Nowhere was this interest more volatile or dangerous than in Germany.  The main reason for this was the fragmentation of Germany into over 300 states, which helped the Reformation in two ways.

For one thing, there was no one power to stop the large number of Church abuses afflicting Germany, thus breeding a great deal of anger in Germany against the Church.  For another thing, the lack of central control also made it very difficult to stop the spread of any new ideas.  This was especially true in Germany, with over 30 printing presses, few, if any, being under tight centralized control, and each of which was capable of quickly churning out literally thousands of copies of Protestant books and pamphlets.  If Germany could be seen as a tinder box just waiting for a spark to set it aflame, Martin Luther was that spark.

Luther, like all great men who shape history, was also a product of his own age.  He had a strict religious upbringing, especially from his father who frequently beat his son for the slightest mistakes.  School was little better.  Young Martin was supposedly beaten fifteen times in one day for misdeclining a noun.  All this created a tremendous sense of guilt and sinfulness in him and influenced his view of God as a harsh and terrifying being.  Therefore, Luther’s reaction to the above mentioned thunderstorm in 1506 should come as no surprise.  He carried out his vow and joined a monastic order.

As a monk, Luther carried his religious sense of guilt to self-destructive extremes, describing how he almost tortured himself to death through praying, reading, and vigils.  Indeed, one morning, his fellow monks came into his cell to find him lying senseless on the ground.  Given this situation, something had to give:  either Luther’s body or his concept of Christianity.  His body survived.

Out of concern for Martin, his fellow monks, thanks to the printing press, gave him a copy of the Bible where Luther found two passages that would change his life and history:  “ For by grace are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves:  it is the gift of God; not of works, lest any man should boast.”  (Ephesians 2:8-9)  “ Therefore, we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.”  (Romans 3:28)  As Luther put it, “ Thereupon I felt as if I had been born again and had entered paradise through wide open gates.  Immediately the whole of Scripture took on a new meaning for me.  I raced through the Scriptures, so far as my memory went, and found analogies in other expressions.”  From this Luther concluded that faith is a “free gift of God” and that no amount of praying, good deeds or self-abuse could affect one’s salvation.  Only faith could do that.

The storm breaks

In the following years, Luther’s ideas quietly matured as he pursued a career as a professor, back then a Church position.  Then, in 1517, trouble erupted.  Pope Leo X, desperate for money to complete the magnificent St. Peter’s cathedral in Rome, authorized the sale of indulgences.  These were documents issued by the Church that supposedly relieved their owners of time in purgatory, a place where Catholics believe they must purge themselves of their sins before going to heaven.  Originally, indulgences had been granted to crusaders for their efforts for the faith.  In time they were sold to any of the faithful who wanted them.  The idea was that the money paid was the result of one’s hard work and was sanctified by being donated to the Church.  However, it was easily subject to abuse as a convenient way to raise money.

Indulgence sales were especially profitable in Germany where there was no strong central government to stop the Church from taking money out of the country.  This greatly angered many Germans and made them more ready to listen to criticism of the Church when it came.  The Church’s agent for selling indulgences in Brandenburg in Northern Germany, John Tetzel, used some highly questionable methods.  He reportedly told local peasants that these indulgences would relive them of the guilt for sins they wished to commit in the future and that, after buying them, the surrounding hills would turn to silver.  He even had a little jingle, much like a commercial:  “ As soon as coin in coffer rings a soul from Purgatory springs.”

Luther was then a professor in nearby Wittenburg, Saxony, not far from the home of the Hussite heresy in Bohemia.  When some local people showed him the indulgences they had bought, he denied they were valid.  Tetzel denounced Luther for this, and Luther took up the challenge.  On October 31, 1517, Luther nailed a placard to the church door in Wittenburg.  On it were the Ninety-five Theses, or statements criticizing various Church practices, some of which are given here.

26. “They preach mad, who say that the soul flies out of purgatory as soon as the money thrown into the chest rattles.

27. “It is certain that, when the money rattles in the chest, avarice and gain may be

 increased, but the suffrage of the Church depends on the will of God alone…

32. “Those who believe that, through letters of pardon, they are made sure of their own salvation, will be eternally damned along with their teachers.

43.“Christians should be taught that he who gives to a poor man, or lends to a needy man,

 does better than if he bought pardons…

56. “The treasures of the Church, whence the Pope grants indulgences, are neither sufficiently named nor known among the people of Christ.

65 & 66. “Hence the treasures of the Gospel are nets, wherewith they now fish for the men of riches...The treasures of indulgences are nets, wherewith they now fish for the riches of men…

86. “Again; why does not the Pope, whose riches are at this day more ample than those of the wealthiest of the wealthy, build the one Basilica of St. Peter when his own money, rather than with that of poor believers…?

Luther’s purpose was not to break away from the Church, but merely to stimulate debate, a time honored academic tradition.  The result, however, was a full-scale religious reformation that would destroy Europe’s religious unity forever.

Soon copies of Luther’s Ninety-five Theses were printed and spread all over Germany where they found a receptive audience.  Indulgence sales plummeted and the authorities in Rome were soon concerned about this obscure professor from Wittenburg.  Papal legates were sent to talk sense into Luther.  At first, he was open to reconciliation with the Church, but, more and more, he found himself defying the Church.  Luther’s own rhetoric against the Church was becoming much more radical:

“If Rome thus believes and teaches with the knowledge of popes and cardinals (which I hope is not the case), then in these writings I freely declare that the true Antichrist is sitting in the temple of God and is reigning in Rome—that empurpled Babylon—and that the Roman Church is the Synagogue of Satan…If we strike thieves with the gallows, robbers with the sword, heretics with fire, why do we not much more attack in arms these masters of perdition, these cardinals, these popes, and all this sink of the Roman Sodom which has without end corrupted the Church of God, and wash our hands in their blood?”

“…Oh that God from heaven would soon destroy thy throne and sink it in the abyss of Hell!….Oh Christ my Lord, look down, let the day of they judgment break, and destroy the devil’s nest at Rome.”

Luther also realized how to exploit the issue of the Italian church draining money from Germany:

“Some have estimated that every year more than 300,000 gulden find their way from Germany to Italy…We here come to the heart of the matter…How comes it that we Germans must put up with such robbery and such extortion of our property at the hands of the pope?….If we justly hand thieves and behead robbers, why should we let Roman avarice go free?  For he is the greatest thief and robber that has come or can come into the world, and all in the holy name of Christ and St. Peter.  Who can longer endure it or keep silence?”

The papal envoy, Aleander, described the anti-Catholic climate in Germany:

“…All German is up in arms against Rome.  All the world is clamoring for a council that shall meet on German soil.  Papal bulls of excommunication are laughed at.  Numbers of people have ceased to receive the sacrament of penance…  Martin (Luther) is pictured with a halo above his head.  The people kiss these pictures.  Such a quantity has been sold that I am unable to obtain one…  I cannot go out in the streets but the Germans put their hands to their swords and gnash their teeth at me…”

What had started as a simple debate over Church practices was quickly becoming an open challenge to papal authority.  The Hapsburg emperor, Charles V, needing Church support to rule his empire, feared this religious turmoil would spill over into political turmoil.  Therefore, although religiously tolerant by the day’s standards, Charles felt he had to deal with this upstart monk.  A council of German princes, the Diet of Worms, was called in 1521.  At this council, the German princes, opposed to the growth of imperial power at their expense, applauded Luther and his efforts.  As a result, Charles had to summon Luther to the diet so he could defend himself.

Luther’s friends, remembering Jan Hus’ fate, feared treachery and urged him not to go.  But Luther was determined to go “ though there were as many devils in Wurms as there are tiles on the roofs.”  His trip to Worms was like a triumphal parade, as crowds of people came out to see him.  Then came the climactic meeting between the emperor and the obscure monk.  Luther walked into an assembly packed to the rafters with people sensing history in the making.  A papal envoy stood next to a table loaded with Luther’s writings.  Asked if he would take back what he had said and written, Luther replied:

“Unless I am convinced by the evidence of Scripture or by plain reason—for I do not accept the authority of the Pope, or the councils alone, since it is established that they have often erred and contradicted themselves—I am bound by the scriptures I have cited and my conscience is captive to the Word of God.  I cannot and will not recant anything, for it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.  God help me.  Amen.”

Having defied Church and empire, Luther was hurried out of town where he was “ambushed” by his protector, Frederick of Saxony, and hidden in Wartburg castle to keep him out of harm’s way.  However, although Luther dropped out of sight for a year, the Reformation did not go away.

Luther’s religion

Because of his criticism of papal authority and Church practices, Luther had been excommunicated from the Church.  This along with the dramatic meeting at Worms led him to make a final break with the Catholic Church and form Lutheranism, the first of the Protestant faiths.  This was not a new religion.  It had basically the same beliefs about God as the Catholic faith.  However, there were four main beliefs in the Lutheran faith that differed substantially from Catholicism.

  1. Faith alone can gain salvation.  No amount of good works can make any difference because man is so lowly compared to God.  In the Catholic faith, penance and good works are important to salvation.

  2. Religious truth and authority lie only in the word of God revealed in the Bible, not in any visible institutions of the Church.  This largely reflects what Wycliffe had said about the many institutions and rituals the Church valued.  As a result, Lutheranism tended to be simpler in practice than Catholicism.

  3. The church is the community of all believers, and there is no real difference between priest and layman in the eyes of God.  The Catholic Church gave greater status to the clergy who devoted their lives to God.

  4. The essence of Christian living lies in serving God in one’s own calling.  In other words, all useful occupations, not just the priesthood, are valuable in God’s eyes.  This especially appealed to the rising middle class whose concern for money was seen as somewhat unethical by the Medieval Church.

The spread of Lutheranism

When the Church burned 300 copies of Hus’ and Wycliffe’s writings in the early 1400’s, this dealt a heavy blow to the Hussite movement.  However, from the start of the Reformation, printed copies of Luther’s writings were spread far and wide in such numbers that the movement could not be contained.  By 1524, there were 990 different books in print in Germany.  Eighty percent of those were by Luther and his followers, with some 100,000 copies of his German translation of the Bible in circulation by his death.  Comparing that number to the 300 copies of Hussite writings underscores the decisive role of the printing press in the Protestant Reformation.

When discussing whom in society went Lutheran or stayed Catholic and why, various economic and political factors were important, but the single most important factor in one’s decision was religious conviction.  This was still an age of faith, and we today must be careful not to downplay that factor.  However, other factors did influence various groups in the faith they adopted.

Many German princes saw adopting Lutheranism as an opportunity to increase their own power by confiscating Church lands and wealth.  Many middle class businessmen, as stated above, felt the Lutheran faith justified their activities as more worthwhile in the eyes of God.  The lower classes at times adopted one faith as a form of protest against the ruling classes.  As a result, nobles tended to be suspicious of the spread of a Protestant faith as a form of social and political rebellion.  Many Germans also saw Lutheranism as a reaction against the Italian controlled Church that drained so much money from Germany.  However, many German people remained Catholic despite any material advantages Lutheranism might bestow.  For both Catholics and Protestants, faith was still the primary consideration in the religion they adopted.

Lutheranism did not win over all of Germany, let alone all of Europe.  Within Germany, Lutherans were strongest in the north, while the south largely remained Catholic.  However, Germany’s central location helped Protestants spread their doctrine from Northern Germany to Scandinavia, England, and the Netherlands.

Luther’s achievement

Although Luther had not originally intended to break with Rome, once it was done he tried to keep religious movement from straying from its true path of righteousness.  Therefore he came out of hiding to denounce new more radical preachers.  He also made the controversial stand of supporting the German princes against a major peasant revolt in Germany in 1525, since he saw the German princes’ support as vital to the Reformation’s survival.  This opened Luther to attacks by more radical Protestants who saw him as too conservative, labeling him the “Witternburg Pope”.  However, as the Protestant movement grew and spread, it became increasingly harder for Luther to control.

Martin Luther died February 18, 1546 at the age of 63.  By this time events had gotten largely out of his control and were taking violent and radical turns that Luther never would have liked.  Ironically, Luther, who had started his career with such a tortured soul and unleashed such disruptive forces on Europe, died quite at peace with God and himself.  Like so many great men, he was both a part of his times and ahead of those times, thus serving as a bridge to the future.  He went to the grave with many old Medieval Christian beliefs.  However, his ideas shattered Christian unity in Western Europe, opening the way for new visions and ideas in such areas as capitalism, democracy, and science that shape our civilization today.