Friday, June 17, 2005

Lesson 23 Martin Luther (1483-1546)

Martin Luther was born in Eisleben, Germany, a century after the death of John Wycliffe. His father was a miner, and his parents provided Martin with a first class humanist education, with the hope that he would become a lawyer. God had different plans.

In 1505, Luther received his Master’s degree and proceeded to study Law. He wouldn’t be a law student for long. One day Luther was returning home from a visit to Mansfeld. As he neared the village of Storterheim, he found himself in the rages of a severe thunderstorm. Suddenly, a bolt of lightning struck the ground next to him, throwing him off his horse (and killing his friend and traveling companion). Terrified, Luther cried out, "St. Anne, help me! I will become a monk!" He kept his word. On July 17, 1505, Luther entered the most rigorous of the seven major monasteries at Erfurt, the Augustinian priory. Luther's father was outraged at the decision, and remained alienated from his son for some considerable time.

In 1507, Luther was ordained as a priest. He was sent from Erfurt to Wittenberg to become a tutor at the university. There he obtained his first degree, a Bachelor’s degree in the bible. After one year he was transferred back to Erfurt. There, at age twenty-six, he obtained his second degree in theology.

While teaching in Efurt, Luther was sent to Rome on monastery business. While there he was shocked by the city’s decadence. He also visited many shrines, including Scala Santa. The twenty-eight marble stairs carefully preserved in this handsome building are said in Catholic tradition to be the steps walked up by Christ on his way to trial before Pilate. St. Helena, mother of the Constantine, was a collector of relics, and the staircase is supposedly among her finds, brought to Rome in c.326 AD.

According to Luther’s son Paul (there is no other confirmation of the episode), when Luther was crawling up these stairs, about halfway up, he heard a voice saying “The just shall live by faith.” It is said the realization of what he was doing and its inconsistency with the words he heard caused him to get up, turn about, and walk down the stairs. Nevertheless, at this time Luther returned to Efurt as a loyal Catholic.

Shortly thereafter Luther returned to Wittenberg and earned a Doctor of Theology degree. For the rest of his life he would lecture on the bible at the university.

In the monastery, Luther lived a life of severe asceticism. He prayed, fasted, and chastised himself well beyond the strictest standards of the monastery. From fasting, he wasted away until he was skeletal, and even in the dead of winter his cell remained unheated. He would, at times, beat himself bloody with a whip. It is said that other priests dreaded taking Luther’s confessions, for each daily confession, covering only the sins since the previous day, could take up to six hours. Luther, in spite of the (perhaps apocryphal) insight on the steps of the Scala Santa, was trying to obtain salvation through his works. But no matter how hard he tried, he could never convince himself that he had done enough.

Some light shone in the darkness. He found comfort in the writings of Bernard of Clairvaux, who stressed the free grace Christ of salvation. He was greatly influenced by the writings of Augustine, so much so that although it occurred over a millennium after his death, some have said that Augustine, not Luther was the father of the Reformation. But most of all, he studied the bible.

Sometime toward the end of 1512, Luther was in his cell, having launched into a study of the book of Romans. There he 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." (Rom. 1:17)
He would later say an unspeakable joy flooded his heart and his oppressive burden to prove himself worthy was lifted away. For Luther, Romans 1:17 was “a gate to Paradise”.

Indulgences Revisited

Indulgences grew out of the system of penance developed by the Catholic Church. In an indulgence, the Catholic Church allowed the penitent to substitute a cash payment for other forms of satisfaction. The Church would even issue an official statement saying that one had been released from other penalties. It was this official document that was called an indulgence. In a sense, the indulgence amounted to e receipt for payment of a fine.

Additionally, one could purchase indulgences for those who were dead, to reduce their time in purgatory. This was based on the Catholic doctrine of supererogatory merit.

Catholicism and Merit

Catholics speak of three types of merit, each of which plays a role in salvation:

  • Condign Merit. This is merit attributed to our works for which God is obligated to give reward. This is like paying a laborer his due wages.

  • Congruous Merit. This is merit that is “reasonable”, but not obligated. In secular terms, it is something like a waitress’ tip. It is attained through works and penance.

  • Supererogatory Merit. This is the stuff of saints. It is their “excess” merit and it is deposited in a treasury of supererogatory merits. It can then be drawn upon to free people from purgatory. Attaining supererogatory merit is also possible for a priest living a life of celibacy in devotion to Christ. A layman can accrue supererogatory merit through regular church attendance and constant attention to the sacraments. Mary is thought to have contributed enormous excess merit into the treasury.

The Catholic doctrine of supererogatory merit is based on an interpretation of the story of the rich young ruler.
17And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" 18And Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 19You know the commandments: 'Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.'" 20And he said to him, "Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth." 21And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, "You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." 22Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. (Mark 10:17-22)
According to Catholic teaching, the ruler was saved. The fact that he could do more means that there would have been further reward. That reward would have come in the form of supererogatory merit.

At Luther's time, the sale of indulgences had reached scandalous proportions. (Luther was not predisposed against indulgences, in fact at one time, lamenting over the spiritual health of his parents, he offered that, if they died, then at least through his purchase of indulgences there would be a way in which he could help them.) The most notorious of the salesmen employed by the Church to sell indulgences (and fund the construction of St. Peter’s) was a Dominican friar by the name of Johan Tetzel. Tetzel's territory included the area of Wittenberg. His sales pitch included the infamous: "The moment you hear your money drop in the box, your mother will jump out of purgatory."

The Ninety-five Theses

With his newfound peace—many would say as a result of his recent conversion while reading Romans 1:17—Luther could no longer tolerate the crass abuses of the church, personified by the indulgence salesman Tetzel. He went to his cell and put down his views in the form of ninety-five theses. Around noon on October 31, 1517, he nailed the theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. It should be noted that this was a common practice among academics of the time. Scholars would post theses (propositions) on any number of topics and challenge one another to public debates.

This was not the Reformation: Luther did not advocate a schism. But it was the first shot across the bow. Here are a few examples:

28. It is certain that when the penny jingles into the money-box, gain and avarice can be increased, but the result of the intercession of the Church is in the power of God alone.

36. Every truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without letters of pardon.

49. Christians are to be taught that the pope's pardons are useful, if they do not put their trust in them; but altogether harmful, if through them they lose their fear of God.

86. Again: -- "Why does not the pope, whose wealth is to-day greater than the riches of the richest, build just this one church of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with the money of poor believers?"

At this time, Luther was thirty-four years old.

The most striking thing about the theses is that they were far from central. They were concerned with relatively minor issues—questions of related to the sacraments, purgatory, and to indulgences and some criticisms of the pope. Nowhere in the ninety-five theses did Luther rise to defend the individual priesthood of believers or the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Although Luther, from his reading of Romans, was already stewing in Reformation juices, his theses were not very juicy at all. That is the reason why nobody was more surprised that Luther that his theses seemed to awaken all of Germany. The theses included a challenge, for any doctor of theology, to debate him. The challenge was not accepted for two years.

The news of the theses spread throughout Germany. Here we see God’s providence at work. The ruler of Saxony (the area that includes Wittenberg) was one Frederick the Wise. Frederick was a very pious Catholic. He had collected thousands of relics from all over Christendom. The Castle Church, whose door Luther utilized, had been built by Frederick to house the relics. He would put them on display for the public on All Saint’s Day, November 1st. Thus when Luther posted on All Saint’s Eve, the area was bursting with pilgrims who read his theses, copied them, and returned home to cities throughout Germany, spreading the word. Furthermore, printing had been invented, and soon the theses were translated from Latin into a number of languages, printed, and sent to cities throughout Europe.

The effect was tremendous, and almost stopped the sale of indulgences. The archbishop of Mainz, who was to receive a cut of all the proceeds from indulgences sold by Tetzel, was not thrilled. He sent a copy of the theses to Pope Leo X in Rome. At first, Leo did not regard it as a serious matter. He simply advised Luther’s superiors to tell Luther to keep quiet.

Tetzel published a set of theses of his own, defending the sale of indulgences. Mazzolini, a Dominican monk (and inquisitor) wrote a book highly critical of Luther’s position. A theology professor by the name of John Eck rebutted Luther in a pamphlet. Luther countered with a pamphlet of his own.

In April, 1518, the monasteries of the Augustinian Order held their annual meeting in Heidelberg. Luther encountered strong but mostly congenial opposition. Upon return, Luther wrote a book entitles Resolutions, addressed to the pope, in which he carefully defended his theses, point by point.

It has been said that from this time on, Luther lived in a glass house. Every word he spoke, and every word he wrote was carefully analyzed. He was on a cart, racing downhill, and he had no brakes.

Luther Summoned to Rome

The popularization of Luther and his theses hit the pope in two places: it challenged his power and it reduced his purse. When the pope was told that the meeting of the Augustinians had not silenced Luther, he summoned Luther to Rome, in July 1518. If Luther had responded to this summons, it probably would have meant death.

Fortunately Luther had a friend in the Elector Frederick (the Wise). He also had some history on his side: for years the German people had grievances against the Italian popes. A bit of German nationalism was Luther’s friend. Frederick had actually forbidden Tetzel to sell indulgences in Saxony—he did not want his country’s money ending up in Roman coffers. Furthermore, the university in Wittenberg was Frederick's pride and joy, and Luther was now its most famous professor. Frederick used all his influence to have the summons to Rome revoked. The reason the pope listened to Frederick was likely political. The emperor at the time, Maximilian, was dying. Frederick was one of three likely successors, and the one favored by the pope—who believed that Frederick would be easy to control. The pope granted Frederick’s request, both to signal favor toward him and a false signal that he had great respect for Frederick’s authority.

Cardinal Cajetan

At this time, the pope's legate, Cardinal Cajetan, was in Germany to attend a diet in Augsburg. The pope sent Cajetan a letter empowering him to summon Luther for an appearance. Cajetan was to speak to Luther in Augsburg and persuade him to recant. If Luther did not recant, Cajetan was to have him bound and sent to Rome. Having previously declared that Luther was "suspected" of heresy, the pope now dropped all pretenses and openly described Luther as a notorious heretic. Luther was once again in grave danger.

And once again, his patron Frederick came to his assistance. This time Frederick used his influence to obtain from the sickly Maximilian a promise of safe passage for Luther.

In October, 1518, Luther had three meetings with Cajetan, who by all accounts was imperious and arrogant. The discussions were hot and furious. In the end, Luther refused to recant. He stole away from Augsburg secretly in the night.

Cajetan, having failed, appealed to the pope to make an official pronouncement. The pope took an interesting approach. Without mentioning Luther by name, he issued a bull in which he declared that certain statements made by certain monks regarding indulgences were heretical. From then on, Luther could no longer make his claims while contending that the Church had not officially ruled on the matter,

A slight calm thanks to Von Miltitz

The pope's next strategy was to try to blunt the protection of Frederick. For this task he chose Charles Von Miltitz, who was a close friend of Frederick's private secretary.

Upon arriving, and before presenting his credentials, Von Miltitz went to see Luther. (He tried to see Tetzel as well, but was unsuccessful. (Tetzel was holed up in a convent, and expressed fear for his life.) Amazingly, Von Miltitz got Luther to promise not to speak about indulgences any more. The quid pro quo being that his opponents would also stop discussing indulgences. Luther also promised to send a submissive letter to the pope. (Luther did not completely trust Von Miltitz, and speculated to friends whether the kiss from Von Miltitz, signaling their agreement and the end of their meeting, was a Judas kiss.) The pope was so delighted upon receiving Luther's letter that he sent a very friendly response in which called Luther his dear son and invited him to Rome to make his confession. The pope even offered to pay the expenses of the journey.

After the reconciliation, the pope became preoccupied with another matter. In January 1519, the emperor Maximilian died. The pope busied himself in his effort to get Frederick the Wise selected. While the pope was distracted, two foes in Germany did not remain silent.

The Debate with Eck

One of Luther's university colleagues, Andreas Carlstadt, came out with a set of theses against Eck, professor of theology at the university in Ingolstadt. Eck was that man who had written a pamphlet attacking Luther’s ninety-five theses. Eck responded to Carlstadt with his own theses in which he expounded an extreme view of papal supremacy. Luther responded with counter theses of his own. In the twelfth of Luther’s theses, he argued that the claim of Roman supremacy over all other churches rested on only weak papal bulls of the previous four hundred years, and for the eleven hundred years before that, no such supremacy had existed.

The indulgences battle had a call for "internal reform." The challenge to Roman authority had the earmarks of schism. The reconciliation was history—the matter was even more serious than before.

An attack such as this on the papacy, from a man of Luther’s stature, was unprecedented. Eck (who may have been out to trap Luther) challenged Luther to a debate on papal supremacy. This debate was schedule for nine months later! During that time, Luther studied intensely, looking for arguments useful for refuting a doctrine that he had cherished most of his life. He engaged himself in a study of church history and canon law, and was dismayed to discover that many decretals of the church were forgeries.

The debate (disputation) took place in the city of Leipzig. Guards surrounded the duke's palace where the debate was held. More guards were stationed in the inns to keep the Leipzig and Wittenberg students from fighting.

As the debate began, it was obvious that both Luther and Eck were worthy opponents, matched in their verbal and intellectual abilities to defend their positions. However, not being able to argue his own position based on its merits, Eck cleverly got Luther to concede that he agreed with some of the teachings of Jan Huss, who had been condemned by the Council of Constance and sent to the stakes. Luther said Huss had been condemned in an unrighteous manner. As soon as Luther was perceived as siding with an officially condemned heretic, the psychological advantage went to Eck. A wave of astonishment swept over the listening audience. Duke George of Saxony was heard to exclaim, "God help us; this is the pestilence."

Despite the psychological advantage going to Eck, Luther did win the strategic advantage, in that he based his arguments on fact, using the historical process. Luther pointed out that the Eastern Greek Church had never acknowledged the supremacy of the bishops of Rome. Yet, it was admitted by all, that the Eastern Church was Christian. The papacy faced a dilemma. How could the pope claim supremacy over all the churches, and yet a large part of the Church, recognized as Christian, not honor that claim? In addition, Luther noted that the great ecumenical councils of the early centuries did not teach the supremacy of the papacy.

Though the immediate impression might have been that the debate at Leipzig was won by Eck, important results went with Luther. He was far from being defeated. Following the Leipzig debate, the supporters of Luther grew. Among those who joined in Luther's cause was Martin Bucer (1491-1551). In time, Bucer would become a leading Reformer in Strassburg and a colleague of John Calvin.

Besides gaining more converts, a second result of the debate at Leipzig was that Luther's own thinking was solidified. His motive all along was to reform the Catholic Church, not to leave it. But now Luther had publicly rejected the supremacy of the pope and the infallibility of the Church councils. The Leipzig debate main it painfully clear that irreconcilable differences existed between Luther and Rome.

At this point, everything was in place. Luther was in a position where reconciliation was impossible. He also had a large following. Schism was just ahead. Soon after the debate, Eck went to Rome to recommend Luther's excommunication. The pope complied.

Schism was in the air.

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