Martin Luther (1483-1546) and the Protestant Reformation

In 1520, every church In Western Europe was a Roman Catholic Church. Yet by 1540, people of several new Christian denominations were found worshipping in many of the same churches. In that relatively small amount of time, Europe underwent a religious revolution- a protestant movement where people protested the ways of Catholicism. This is because many of Rome’s oppressive rules and regulations did not settle well with the new Renaissance era. People were thinking differently and began to question the ways of their governing system.

Over a thousand years of unbroken Catholic domination of Christianity ended in Western Europe with a rebellion against the wealthiest and most powerful institution in the world. This movement is known today as the Protestant Reformation.  It was sparked and heavily influenced by the ideas of Martin Luther, a German monk who radically challenged the Church, particularly the unjust power of the Pope in Rome. Martin Luther’s influential writing resulted in the ultimate dissolution of the united Christendom into countless other religions, many of which are still practiced today.

Luther in 1533 by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

Luther in 1533 by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

The Pope in Rome had authority over the governments of Europe and therefore was a direct influence on peoples’ personal lives. For hundreds of years, people had been forced by the Catholic Church and obliging governments to accept Jesus as their savior and the Pope as their Earthly leader. Even to kings, the pope was considered a holy, untouchable figure of a sacred institution to which even they were subjects. He was the closest man to God, and God was the most feared creature in the universe, so his legislation was often unquestioned. This kind of power caused many tensions in Europe throughout the early part of the millennium- for example, the expensive Crusades, after which certain policies were invented to help the Church endure through donations.[1] The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries experienced both military and economic feudalism throughout Europe.[2] This means that there was a class system that put peasants at the bottom of society and kings, emperors, and the pope on top. The corruption in all of this, however, was the fact that the Church was a private entity not funded by the state, and the Pope had to come up with some money to support both the Church and his own lavish lifestyle.

Raphael's Portrait of Leo X with cardinals Giulio de Medici and Luigi de Rossi. Leo X reigned from 1531-1521.

Raphael’s Portrait of Leo X with cardinals Giulio de Medici and Luigi de Rossi. Leo X reigned from 1531-1521.

By the time that Martin Luther began to practice theology, Pope Leo X had become the richest man in Europe, and he collected assets through three predominant policies. The first was annate, where the first year of income of a new bishop went directly to the pope. The second was reservation, where the pope declared vacancy, delayed appointments, and continued to claim the income.[3] The last and most corrupt strategy was the indulgence policy, where a person could buy merits from God and the saints. This rapidly became, in modern language, a Christian business that had gotten way out of hand. In other words, forgiveness and merit were sold, not earned.[4]

An indulgence was a way of gaining merit from Christ to make up for sin. In other words, if you wanted God to forgive you, then you had to pay. John Dillenberger writes that “[in] consideration of the payment of a sum of money to the Church…a great deal, if not all, of the punishment for one’s sins was said to be remitted, and a written certification of this remission was provided by the Pope’s agent.”[5] According to Dillenberger, Indulgences had been declared for service in the Crusades. More recently, however, “they had been offered for gifts to the Church when special financial goals had to be met.”[6] He also writes that the indulgence policy stretched the power of the pope beyond death. The papacy proclaimed that such an indulgence was not only suited for living sinners, but also of great worth for the departed dead.[7] This policy is what inspired the father of the Reformation, Martin Luther, to speak out against Rome.[8] His determination to keep a spiritual and personal connection between God and the sinner in repentance provoked him to attack this practice of the indulgence system through the publication of his Ninety-five Theses, which marked beginning of the Reformation.[9]

Luther was an incredibly influential writer. He inspired change among Europeans who were heavily oppressed by the pope’s authority through his clarity and daring writing. He was born in 1483 in Thuringian Saxony, or modern-day Germany.[10] After being sent to law school by his father, he decided to become a monk, an Austin Friar.[11] It was during his years as a monk where he began to feel a deep sense of guilt. He tried to praise God, but was troubled by the fact that one could fear him but not love him.[12]

Abraham Stoll writes that around 1518, Luther’s ideas of conscience and righteousness became key origins of his theology because the “role conscience plays marks the centrality of the faculty to the reformation itself.”[13] He found himself fighting for faith in quantities of doubt, but the guilt wore him down to the point where he felt compelled to begin writing about the corrupt nature of people’s relationship with God in the Christendom. Dealing with his inner struggles, Luther wrote:

For however irreproachable I lived as a monk, I felt myself in the presence of God to be a sinner with the most disturbed conscience… I did not love, and whether he did this just guard who punishes sinners, and with huge murmuring I was indignant against him- as if it were really not enough for God to oppress miserable sinners with the 10 Commandments, but he must bring sorrow upon sorrow and through the gospel reveal his justice and through the gospel reveal his wrath to bear. Thus I raged with a fierce and agitated conscience and yet I kept on marking at Singapore in that place, with a burning first to know what he really met.[14]

This inner guilt and questioning forced Luther into prayer and meditation on Scripture. The doubt that he experienced was because of a conscience tarnished by the artificiality of the Church. According to Stoll, he was dissatisfied with the orthodox confidence that human action could establish righteousness. He found himself resisting a proper Monk’s life in the monastery and even God himself, but in his final step of the conversion, he had an epiphany and understood that true righteousness comes from faith, not works.[15] He wrote:

There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.[16]

This was the discovery that made Luther begin to go out and preach to the public with his new insight. He gave the justification of faith a new importance upon a new Protestant agenda.[17] Faith and the mercy of God were not viewed as they had been in the Middle Ages, but that “[salvation] is a divine gift, that God’s forgiveness is free and undeserved, these are truths which the words ‘by faith alone’ were intended to safeguard against an over-reliance on human achievement or ritual observances.”[18]

Luther’s outlook and ideas revolved around the notion of salvation, which he believed was attainable by God who would accept a sinner without any merits or good works.[19] To Luther, the sacrifice of Christ was central to the redemption and all religious thinking of men.[20] He also expanded far beyond his Augustinian roots in preaching justification by faith alone.[21] This allowed him to explain that justification was not just a gradual cleansing of the believer by divine grace, but as an instantaneous act, where a believer in Christ earns justification that he has earned.[22] Above all, Luther re-envisioned the way that we view morality. He condemned the idea of man-made morality where people were awarded ‘credit points’ for every good deed performed.[23]

In 1517, all of his protests against clerical abuses and the sale of indulgences were compiled into his Ninety-Five Theses.[24] By nailing them to the door of a church in Germany, he guaranteed his writing a fair amount of immediate publicity.[25] He also wanted to make sure that the local churches knew what he was up to.

According to one account, Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of All Saints' Church in Wittenberg on 31 October 1517, sparking the Reformation. The original wooden door has not been preserved; Luther's theses were engraved into today's bronze gate.

According to one account, Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg on 31 October 1517, sparking the Reformation. The original wooden door has not been preserved; Luther’s theses were engraved into today’s bronze gate.

Luther quickly grew in popularity and support with his fresh, new understanding of God in a world that was trying to stray from the religious oppression of the Dark Ages. His writing appealed to people at the bottom of the feudal society and even upwards. There was an overall sense of unity. The Theses were issued after Luther was especially irked by the notion of fear instilled by the Middle Ages, and the Church’s ways of forgiveness. The Theses were particularly against indulgences, which was a major policy in the Church’s scheme to make a profit. His Ninety-five Theses was ultimately about the forgiveness of sins and is what truly sparked the beginning of the Reformation.[26] People saw for the first time in plain, simple writing that the system was indeed corrupt.

The Ninety-Five Theses were presented to indulgence salesman Johann Tetzel in 1517, who was even accused of selling forgiveness for sins not yet committed.[27] He was working on behalf of Pope Leo X, a rich leader who was a son of the notorious Medici family of the Renaissance who became pope at the age of 38 in the year 1513.[28] He reigned until 1521. This pope is known for his wild spending sprees after having ascended the papal throne (or in a sense, all of the thrones in Europe) at the expense of his people.[29] His most prominent economic issue, despite his lavish lifestyle, was his intent to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica.[30] The costs were expected to range over one million ducats, the golden currency of most European countries at that time. Given that the pope had exhausted the papal treasury of over seven million ducats, Pope Leo X was in a state of embarrassment and relied on indulgences.[31] Needless to say, when Luther spoke out against these sales by presenting Tetzel with his Theses, he considered this a huge bout of treason.

Martin Luther also addressed the indulgences, among other oppressing factors, in An Appeal to the Ruling Class. He wrote to question the ruling class about how such a religious institution founded on faith could revolve their actions around money, asking “what value is the pope to Christendom, if he only uses his power for defending and practising [sic] such arch-wickedness?”[32] This is a very bold statement for the Reformation, as it was a very radical thing to point out the pope’s flaws. Again, it was considered a high treason for anyone to question the pope. He made it absolutely clear that he believed these ways had to change.

This corrupt issue had become a trademark of Lutheran theology and was widespread as early as 1525, where it had been used almost as a base for the Twelve Articles. These were part of German peasants’ demands raised towards the Swabian League in the German Peasants’ War in Germany that same year.[33] This very movement was very tenuous in relationship to the Reformation since the reasons for the peasants’ discontent revolved around the abuses of the church. Writing of the Reformers such as those by Luther, Erasmus and Calvin appealed to peasants because they had been following man-made religious laws, many of which aimed to collect their hard-earned money, and the rest of which had little to do with scripture or the life of Christ. The very first article appealed to Luther, as it implied that every municipality should have the right to elect and remove a preacher if he behaves improperly, further stating that he should only preach the gospel without any human amendment.[34]

Luther Before the Diet of Worms" by Anton von Werner (1843–1915).

Luther Before the Diet of Worms” by Anton von Werner (1843–1915).

In May of 1521 in the town of Worms in the Holy Roman Empire, Martin Luther had to appear before figures of high authority, including Emperor Charles V. This convention is known as the Diet of Worms, where Luther stood by his conscience in refusing to retract his writings.[35] This is where the Emperor declared him an outlaw, meaning essentially that his writing would be banned and that it would not be illegal for a commoner to kill him.[36] The pope also excommunicated him for his persistent radicalism. Following the meeting, Frederick III, Elector of Saxony had Luther intercepted on his way home by masked horsemen.[37] He was then escorted to Wartburg Castle at Eisenach, where he eventually translated the New Testament from Greek into German and produced tens of writings, shaming other religious authorities for their promotion of indulgences.[38]

The Wartburg room where Luther translated the New Testament into German. An original first edition is kept in the case on the desk.

The Wartburg room where Luther translated the New Testament into German. An original first edition is kept in the case on the desk.

By sparking the Reformation, Luther had inspired anti-papal sentiments across Europe with his inspirational writing, which may have contributed to one of the most profound moments in British history. Luther’s writings reached England between 1517 and 1529 and continued to reach people despite all efforts to ban them from entering the country.[39] Needless to say, there was a lot of personal thought and reflection in England in terms of religion. During this time, Henry VIII sought to divorce Queen Catherine (otherwise known as Catherine of Aragon, a former Spanish princess, mother of Queen Mary I of England, and the aunt of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor). She could not produce a male heir to carry on Henry’s lineage, and so the King intended to marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn.

King Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.

King Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.

There were several obstacles that jumped in front of Henry’s plans, which turned him from a complete opponent of Martin Luther to a radical supporter of the Reformation. First and foremost was the fact that by January of 1533, he knew that Anne Boleyn was pregnant.[40] He had to divorce Catherine immediately and marry Anne in order for the child to be a legitimate heir to the English throne. One problem was that in the Catholic faith, you could not marry if the first spouse was still living. Catherine stood no grounds for execution or exile. Being the aunt of the closest sovereign to the now Pope Clement VII (pope from 1523-1534), she may not have been able to stop Henry’s plans to marry Anne, but she certainly was able to make things difficult for him.

Before Henry knew that Anne was pregnant, the Pope was hesitant to allow the nullification of Henry and Catherine’s marriage, as he feared he would lose the valued support of Charles V (Catherine’s nephew, the Holy Roman Emperor).[41] In December of 1530, the Pope heavily interfered and forbade the Archbishop of Canterbury from taking the cognizance of the cause and barred Henry from cohabiting with any other woman except Catherine.[42] The Queen, however, refused to give consent to have the cause tried in England, making the situation increasingly difficult for her husband as he continually wrote to Rome for papal advice and consent.[43]

Ultimately, Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn privately in January of 1533, only days after learning of her pregnancy.[44] To his dismay, the new Queen Anne gave birth to the future Queen Elizabeth I, a daughter whom he fondly loved, but one who’s gender infuriated him.[45] Henry VIII was ultimately excommunicated from the Catholic Church and thus the early days of the Church of England (Anglican Church) began, which still exists today as it did during his reign.

Henry VIII did in fact dispute with Luther originally. In fact, when Henry supported Catholicism, he was granted the title ‘Defender of the Faith’ because of his opposition to Luther. He only originally supported the Pope because he thought if people challenged papal authority, they would also challenge the monarchy. However, after his break from the Church, he became a sort of pioneer during the Reformation era. He continued to differ from Martin Luther in a sense that he forced all of his people to adhere to his form of Protestantism, supporting only some of Luther’s claims.

Ideally, had Luther not jump-started the Reformation, the United Kingdom might very well be a Catholic nation today.

The people of Europe presented the most radical idea that anyone could conjure in the sixteenth century- to break from the Catholic Church and remove all allegiance to papal authority. Try to imagine it this way, through a small re-cap. King Henry VIII of England sticks out in our minds today as a man of extreme power and wealth. Since it is so complicated of a history, we understand not why Anne Boleyn was eventually beheaded, but simply that she was, leaving a bitter taste in our understanding of what he was truly like. Now to gain a greater sense of just why the Reformers such as Martin Luther were so radical, try to imagine personally challenging a much more feared ruler than Henry VIII, with almost double the power and wealth, a much wider band of support, and a history of torturing those who suggest otherwise.

The Reformation, much thanks to Luther, resulted in dissociations from the Catholic Church to form churches and sects that relied on a less man-made image of God.[46] Some of these churches and sects aimed to restore Christianity to its roots by strict reference to documented facts, others focused on new rules and regulations.[47] Despite often disagreements, the movement continued to focus on Luther’s justificatory issue- raised during the earlier years of his revolt.[48]

These factors and contributions to the church were in fact executed radically. The Renaissance had only just begun to re-shape the mentality of Europe when Luther spread it into faith, causing people to think more carefully about the Christendom that governed their own leaders. Had the Ninety-Five Theses not been written, changes would likely not have been made, and the course of history would look much different. According to A.G. Dickens, without the Protestant Reformation, we would never have been able to see the work of Milton, Rembrandt, Newton and Bach.[49] Religion was the core of society in the early sixteenth century and were it not reformed, Europe would have remained in the Middle Ages- and the New World would have followed its example. After all, how could we enjoy the science and art of the splendid Baroque era in a world that was not culturally diversified? Catholics and Protestants agree that Luther was right on many points and that the world was changed for the better. Ultimately and most importantly, Luther’s life-long, brave and radical work resulted in changes not only in society and culture but in the pope’s authority, making religion a much more accessible center of people’s lives, and the pope much less of a despot.

  • [1] John Dillenberger. Martin Luther: Selections From His Writing. Edited by John Dillenberger. New York: Anchor Books, 1962. Introduction, xx.
  • [2] A.G. Dickens. The German Nation and Martin Luther. London: Harper & Row, 1974. 16.
  • [3] Dillenberger, Martin Luther, Introduction, xx.
  • [4] Joel Hurstfield. The Reformation Crisis. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1966. 24.
  • [5] Dillenberger, Martin Luther, Introduction, xx.
  • [6] Dillenberger, Martin Luther, Introduction, xx
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Hurstfield, The Reformation Crisis, 22.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] Abraham Stoll. “Thus Conscience : Synderesis and the Destructuring of Conscience in Reformation England” 24 (2012): 62–77. 69.
  • [14] Hurstfield, The Reformation Crisis, 23.
  • [15] Stoll, “Thus Conscience,” 69.
  • [16] Ibid.
  • [17] Hurstfield, The Reformation Crisis, 23.
  • [18] Hurstfield, The Reformation Crisis, 23.
  • [19] Dickens, The German Nation and Martin Luther, 52.
  • [20] Ibid., 55.
  • [21] Ibid., 56.
  • [22] Ibid.
  • [23] Dickens, The German Nation and Martin Luther, 57.
  • [24] L. Roper. “‘To His Most Learned and Dearest Friend’: Reading Luther’s Letters.” German History 28, no. 3 (August 5, 2010): 283–295. 284.
  • [25] Ibid.
  • [26] Hursfield, The Reformation Crisis, 24.
  • 12/10/12 4:18 PM[27] Paul Thigpen. “Friends and Enemies.” Christian History 11, no. 2 (1992): 38.
  • [28] Ibid.
  • [29] Ibid.
  • [30] Ibid.
  • [31] Ibid.
  • [32] Ibid.12/10/12 4:18 PM
  • [33] H.J. Hillerbrand. The Protestant Reformation. London: Macmillan, 1968. 63.
  • [34] Ibid., 64.
  • [35] Hurstfield, The Reformation Crisis, 25.
  • [36] Dennis Bratcher. “The Edict of Worms (1521).” The Voice: Biblical and Theological Resources for Growing Christians, n.d.
  • [37] Diarmaid MacCulloch. Reformation: Europe’s House Divided, 1490-1700. London: Allen Lane, 2003. 135.
  • [38] Ibid.
  • [39] Erwin Doernberg. Henry VIII and Luther: An Account of Their Personal Relations. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1961. 6.
  • [40] Doernberg, Henry VIII and Luther, 80.
  • [41] Doernberg, Henry VIII and Luther, 78.
  • [42] Ibid., 79.
  • [43] Ibid., 79-80.
  • [44] Ibid., 80.
  • [45] Ibid., 81.
  • [46] Dickens, The German Nation and Martin Luther, 188.
  • [47] Ibid.
  • [48] Ibid.
  • [49] Ibid., 190.