The Reformation - 500 Year Anniversary

Martin Luther

2017 being the 500th anniversary of the beginning of The Reformation, I thought it a good opportunity to briefly write about what is one of the most meaningful and revolutionary movements in all the history of Western Civilization.

In the 16th century, people’s religious theology was their most prized possession. The Catholic Church in Rome would not recognise any king as legitimate unless papally confirmed, and granted itself the right to depose kings from their thrones at will. But there was a rising sense of nationalism in all of northern Europe that resented the authority the Pope claimed over all peoples.

The changes in European society starting around the year 1300 included a large range of learned trades, prosperous economies, and a rising spirit of nationalism. By 1500 a post office connected all major towns and was open to everyone. This created a people that would no longer tolerate feudalism or the supposed authority of the papacy in Rome.

There were many factors, economic, political, and moral, that had been suppressed for centuries that culminated into what would be one of the most turbulent upheavals Europe had ever seen. The demand for change was driven by the general weakening of the papacy, corruption within the clergy, the extensive peddling of indulgences, the victory of Islam over the crusaders, the influx of Arabic science, the discovery of America, the invention of printing, the proliferation of education and literacy, the simplicity of the Apostles compared to the extravagance of the Church, the growing economic independence of England and Germany and of the middle class, the demand for a less ritualistic and more personal and direct religion, and a personal relationship with God. All of these influences were aching to crack through all of the medieval custom and authority of the Catholic Church. It would shatter Europe into nations and sweep away any comforts afforded by traditional beliefs.

A major issue of contention was the sale of indulgences by the Church. That is, if an individual were to purchase an indulgence, the Catholic Church would guarantee the forgiveness of specific sins. But the opportunity for corruption had been far too appealing for some time. By this point the Church was even selling indulgences in sealed letters granting that even the sins a person was intending to commit would be forgiven.

It Begins

The Holy Roman Empire in 1517 AD.  Ruled by Charles V. The Holy Roman Empire in 1517 AD, ruled by Charles V.

In 1517 in the kingdom of Ernestine Saxony in Germany, Frederick the Wise forbade the papacy in Rome from advertizing a particular indulgence in his territory. But people in the town of Wittenberg, a part of Frederick’s kingdom, began crossing the border into the neighboring kingdom to obtain the indulgences. Several people brought these letters to a professor of theology named Martin Luther, asking him to verify their efficacy, to which he refused. The Church became aware of Luther’s refusal and immediately denounced him, bringing him instant notoriety. Luther’s response was to quickly compose a ninety-five theses titled: Disputatio pro Declaratione Virtutis Indulgentiarum (Disputation for Clarification of the Power of Indulgences).

Wittenberg, Germany 1517 The small town of Wittenberg, Germany in 1517. Population 3000.

Luther, a 34 year old monk and professor of theology living in the small town of Wittenberg, Germany, considered himself a conservative. He yearned to return to the medieval religious beliefs and customs. He thought of himself as a restorer, not an innovator. He did not view his theses as heretical, nor was it so. He still thought of himself as a faithful Catholic who had no intention of upsetting the Church. Luther’s issues with the Church were mainly with indulgences and the use of Scripture. He thought that the simple financial bargain one could make to absolve sins reduced sin to just a trivial matter, and believed each individual had the right to interpret Scripture on their own.

An old custom at medieval universities was to post theses from time to time, of which the author would defend. On November 1st of every year, All Saints Day, relics were collected and displayed in front of the Castle Church of Wittenberg. A good crowd could be expected every year. And so it was the day before this event, on October 31st of 1517, that Luther chose to post his ninety-five theses on the front door of the church, where it was sure to be noticed. To make sure all would have the opportunity to read his theses, he distributed a German translation to the masses.

To his theses he attaches an invitation:

Out of love for the faith and the desire to bring it to light, the following propositions will be discussed at Wittenberg under the chairmanship of the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology, and Lecturer in Ordinary on the same at that place. Wherefore he requests that those who are unable to be present and debate orally with us may do so by letter.

In such a humble way, the Reformation had begun.

95 Theses A portion of the 95 Theses

A Message for the People

Luther’s writings were made in the German language. The revolution he was initiating was not only religious but a nationalist revolution. His vocabulary was rooted in the speech of the people, and easily understandable to the national mind. It was meant to be written for everyday adherents of Christianity, and paid little mind to the religious leadership of the age.

When bishops sought to silence Luther, he issued a pamphlet titled : Against the Falsely Called Spiritual Order of the Pope and the Bishops stating:

“It were better that every bishop were murdered, every foundation or cloister rooted out, than that one soul should be destroyed, let alone that all souls should be lost for the sake of their worthless trumpery and idolatry.”

There were no newspapers or magazines at this time. Luther was one of the first to use the newly invented printing press to change the world, and he did so with great skill. Under the influence of the Protestant revolt the number of books printed in Germany rose from 150 in 1518 to 990 in 1524. Most of these new books strongly favored the Reformation.

The new books outsold all others throughout Europe. As early as 1519, books favoring the Reformation were being shipped from Germany to England, France, Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands. The literary passion of the reformers shifted the dominant source of publications from southern to northern Europe, where it has remained ever since. This vast amount of literature was the Reformation, and Gutenberg's printing press made it possible.

Luther’s Translation of the Bible

Martin Luther's German version of the Bible in 1534 Martin Luther's German version of the Bible. Completed in 1534.
source: Cornell University Library

But Luther’s greatest literary achievement was the translation of the Bible into German. Eighteen such translations had already been made, but were awkwardly phrased and filled with grammatical mistakes. Luther used the Greek text that Erasmus had edited with a Latin version in 1516 as the basis for his translation of the New Testament. This is no easy task as there were yet no dictionaries from Hebrew or Greek into German.

After years of hard work his task is complete and Luther publishes a German language version of the New Testament in 1522. And after another twelve years of labor, and with the help of Latin and Jewish scholars, he publishes the Old Testament in German.

The translations are major events in German literature. They established the “New High German of Upper Saxony” as the literary language of Germany. Yet the translations were deliberately un-literary, as they were designed to speak to the people. Luther describes the intent as only he can:

“We must not, as asses do, ask the Latin letters how we should speak German, but we must ask the mothers in their houses, the children in the streets, the common people in the market place . . . we must be guided by them in translating; then they will understand us, and will know that we are speaking German to them.”

Laboring for so long on his translation of the Bible only strengthened Luther’s respect for the text. Combining this with his medieval belief of its divine authorship, he makes it the foundation of his religious faith. All the years of reading and translating the Bible made Luther that much more aware of the enormous volume of laws the Catholic Church had added to the word of God. Although he does accept some traditions not based on scripture such as infant baptism and the Sunday Sabbath, he rejects many of the elements added by the Catholic Church such as purgatory, indulgences, and the worship of Mary and the saints.

As Luther saw it, this was essentially the issue he sought to resolve. What authority should we use as the anchor of the Christian Faith? To the Catholic Church the answer was, the Church, because only a living body could respond to change. Luther believed that the Bible should be the final authority, since all acknowledged it to be the Word of God.

Chaotic Changes

Luther rejected all uses of force and urged his followers to bring about change peacefully. Had he not freed millions of souls with only his pen? But change as drastic as this was not always orderly.

In Geneva, Switzerland, the rulers of the municipality, the Great Council of Two Hundred, began flouting the authority of the local bishop, who in turn declared the town to be in rebellion. The bishop summoned ducal troops to his aid and took control of the town. The city of Bern, Switzerland, sent its army to Geneva’s aid and was successful. The bishop fled immediately. Angered by this altercation and with strong support from the citizenry, the Great Council declared themselves for the Reformed faith in 1536.

On May 21st of 1536, the council decreed the abolition of the Mass, and the removal of all relics from the church. Catholic properties were converted to Protestant churches or places of education. Education was made free of charge and all citizens were called to swear allegiance to the Gospel. Those who refused were banished. Such was the case in many regions.

Inspiration for Others

Martin Luther’s educational approach inspired those in other countries. In France, Jacques Lefevre d’Etaples translated the Scriptures and found no instances of popes, indulgences, purgatory, celibacy of the clergy, or worship of Mary. In various places all across Europe it seemed the Reformation was an idea whose time had finally come.

Peasants in nearly every corner of Germany began revolting, not only towards the hierarchy within the Church but also towards their lords. They demanded freedom.

Martin Luther’s Testimony

On April 18th of 1521, Luther appears before a council of the Holy Roman Empire, including emperor Charles himself. Many in attendance sensed that this would mark a turning point in history. The leader of the council, Eck, asks Luther in Latin:

I ask you, Martin “answer candidly and without distinctions” do you or do you not repudiate your books and the errors which they contain?

Luther makes his historic response in German:

“Since your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without distinctions. . . . Unless I am convicted by the testimony of Sacred Scripture or by evident reason (I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other), my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against my conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.”


The Reformation severely challenges the theological certainties of the age and shatters the feeling of a European civilization united under one faith. From what we can tell, approximately half of the monks in Germany left their monasteries and headed for marriage, as well as starting new denominations of Christianity. Four years later, Luther himself would marry. The changes in Europe are, at times, peaceful. Some churches choose to serve communion to all, and worship with Catholics and members of the Reformed faith together. But ultimately the peasants of the age felt they had been suppressed for far too long, and the leadership in the Church and government saw the Reformation as heretical and destructive.


Luther's complete 95 Theses can be found here.

Originally published

Sources:
  The Story of Civilization - Volume VI by
  A History of Christianity by
  Sketches From Church History by



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