History is the account of vast social movements and cultural changes. To be sure, individuals play their part. But they are usually understood to be products of their times. The Reformation, though, whose five-hundredth anniversary we observe this year and whose impact on not only the church but the world has been monumental, was largely precipitated by one man: Martin Luther.
Yes, vast social movements and cultural changes were at work in sixteenth-century Europe. But Luther caused many of them, such as the educational explosion that would lead to universal literacy, the rise of the middle class, and eventually democratic self-government. All of these and more were direct consequences of Luther’s insistence that all Christians should be taught to read the Bible.
Rarely has a single individual had the historical impact that Luther did. But why Luther? What was it about this particular monk, university professor, and struggling Christian that made him such a spiritual and cultural catalyst?
The University of Wittenberg, where Luther taught, featured the new Renaissance curriculum alongside remnants of the old scholasticism. Its faculty boasted one of the greatest Renaissance scholars in Philip Melanchthon and a key figure in the history of science, Georg Joachim Rheticus, who popularized Copernicus’ theory that the earth is not the center of the universe. The Renaissance version of classical education emphasized the Greek language and returning to original sources. In theology, this meant returning to the Bible.
But the greatest Renaissance scholar, Desiderius Erasmus, who performed the crucial work of editing and publishing the Greek New Testament, remained in the Roman Catholic fold. And with his humanist insistence on the freedom of the will, he became the nemesis of Luther, who effectively took him on as a fellow classical scholar in The Bondage of the Will.
So, yes, the intellectual climate was changing. But that was not enough to start the Reformation. So, why Luther?
Yes, the political scene with the rise of the nation-state was ripe for the Reformation. Luther’s patron, Frederick the Wise, Duke of Saxony, was no provincial ruler. The highest position in the medieval governmental hierarchy was the Holy Roman emperor. This was an elected office, but only seven people could vote, one of whom was the Duke of Saxony. As Sam Wellman’s recent biography shows, Duke Frederick was a major player in European politics, notable as a good, effective, and just ruler. As an example of his integrity, the Duke had assembled one of the largest collections of indulgence-granting relics in the world, and yet he protected his subject Luther, even though his teachings were making his collection worthless.
But the monarch of England, King Henry VIII, was a much more forceful advocate of the nation-state, starting a reformation of his own by breaking away from the pope and establishing his own state church. But King Henry hated Luther, who wrote against his multiple marriages. The king banned his books on pain of death, conspired to get the Wittenberg-trained William Tyndale executed for translating the Bible into English, and burned the Lutheran Robert Barnes at the stake.
So, the European political landscape was a factor in the Reformation, but the independence-seeking princes did not particularly need Luther and his teachings. So, again, why Luther?
The new technology of the era, which created the first information media revolution with the printing press, played an important role in the Reformation. Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses were printed and reprinted, so that, within weeks, his critique of indulgences was being read throughout Europe. The printing press also mass-produced and disseminated Luther’s later theological writings and, most importantly, his translation of the Bible.
A generation earlier in nearby Mainz, Johannes Gutenberg’s first printing press published a Bible. But it also printed thousands of copies of indulgences to be sold by the church. The indulgence peddler Johann Tetzel also made use of the printing press, and Luther’s opponents used the press to answer his writings pamphlet by pamphlet. But there was something in Luther’s publications that resonated in a way that those written by the apologists of Rome did not.
Luther was not the first critic of indulgences and the moral and theological corruption of the medieval church. Jan Hus was burned as a heretic for teaching ideas that would later be staples of the Reformation, but John Wycliffe, who went so far as to translate the Bible into English, escaped martyrdom (though he was burned as a heretic posthumously). Neither had the effect Luther did.
Dante excoriated the evils of the church of Rome and consigned monks, bishops, and even popes to his Inferno not only for their moral faults but for attempting to sell the holy by charging money for church offices and spiritual benefits. Geoffrey Chaucer satirized corrupt clergy in his Canterbury Tales, most notably with the Pardoner, who, in addition to his trade in fake relics, sold indulgences.
Luther, too, was a great writer, which may account for at least part of his effectiveness. A superb stylist in both German and Latin, Luther wrote with wit, passion, and a personal voice. His writings are notable for their penetrating insights, their vivid explanations, and their honest portrayals of his experiences and struggles. And they can sometimes make a reader, even today, laugh out loud. To be sure, Luther’s writings are often tainted by his vulgar invectives, which were a staple of the discourse of his time, though still a fault. But Luther also wrote with a pastoral heart, offering struggling Christians the comfort of the gospel and giving his readers a sense of illumination through his perceptive readings of Scripture.
Luther’s efforts to reform the Christian spirituality of his day had such force in part because he had lived out that spirituality so thoroughly as to experience its contradictions.
Here is what it was like to be a believing Christian five hundred years ago. The church did teach that Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, bore the punishment for our sins and died for the forgiveness of our sins. It taught that the redemption that Christ won had to be dispensed by the church.
What this meant in practice was that Christ’s death, applied through baptism, was thought to free us from original sin. Sins committed after baptism had to be dealt with in a different manner. The Roman Catholic Church still teaches that Christians can be damned if they commit mortal sins. But these can be forgiven if the sinner feels contrition, confesses them to a priest, performs an act of penance, and receives absolution. Thus, the sins are forgiven, in the sense that they no longer will incur eternal punishment. But they will still incur temporal punishment.
This happens in purgatory. After death, Christians must be punished for the sins they committed on earth. This is necessary before the Christian may enter heaven. Purgatory was thought of not as Dante’s seven-story mountain, much less as C.S. Lewis’ shower to wash off the grime. Purgatory was a realm of fire. Sinners burn in purgatory, much as they would in hell, though these pains are only temporary. But suffering the fires of purgatory might last thousands of years.
This is what believing Christians have to endure, for sins for which they have repented and found forgiveness, that the church admits were atoned for by Christ, and that were confessed and absolved.
But God, by His grace, can reduce this time, the Roman Catholic Church says. This is why we must pray for the dead, that God would remit their penalty. Also, the church can reduce this time by means of the “treasury of merit.” The saints—defined as someone found to be already in heaven, their time shortened by God’s special grace and the holiness of their lives—have more merit than they need to enter heaven. So the church can transfer that extra merit to living Christians or to the dead already in purgatory. These are indulgences.
The church granted—and still grants—indulgences for various acts of devotion, such as venerating relics or going on a pilgrimage. And then, at the start of the Reformation, the pope was selling them.
Imagine the horror of believing that after death, for all of your piety, you would experience thousands of years of penitential fire. But imagine the relief if for a week’s wages you could buy a plenary or complete indulgence and go straight to heaven. And if you could raise another week’s wages, you could free your dead child.
Luther, too, lived in terror of damnation and penitential fire. He became a monk in the hopes of attaining enough merit to save his soul. Then he acquired the merit of priesthood and of becoming a doctor of theology. But he was still in torment. Then, in the course of preparing an academic lecture, he read in the book of Romans that “the just shall live by faith.” He suddenly saw through the accretions that had hidden the gospel, realizing that all of Scripture taught that salvation is by God’s grace, through faith in the work of Christ, and that He bestows complete forgiveness, taking all of the punishment we deserve and imputing to us His righteousness.
In the debate that Luther initiated over indulgences, his critique was unanswerable. If God by His grace can remit the need for purgatory, why do you not believe that His grace in Christ removes that need? If the excess merits of the saints can be applied to a sinner in such a way that purgatorial punishment is remitted, why do you not believe that the infinite merits of Christ can remove the need for purgatory?
The only way to defend indulgences was to invoke the authority of the pope. Against this, Luther invoked the authority of the Bible. Thus, the Reformation moved to another level. At issue was not just a church teaching and a church practice but authority in the church.
Luther never wanted to start a new church; rather, he sought reformation of the church along biblical principles. But instead of reforming the church’s practices, or even discussing them, the pope excommunicated Luther. That was the action that split Christendom, that started a new church.