The Reformation was probably bound to happen one way or another, but it actually was set in motion by a morally self-flagellating friar in the Order of St. Augustine who was offended by egregious and brazen Church corruption. This reformer was Martin Luther (1483-1546), from Eisleben, Saxony—monk, professor of moral theology and founder of the Evangelical (Lutheran) Church.
Rather than belabor the copious biographical material on Luther, let me just say that he grew up the son of a copper mining industrialist, was intended by his father to become a lawyer but drifted to philosophy and finally theology. There are several largely legendary stories of his development and more of his life once he became a public figure.
The first of these is that he chose to become a monk in 1505 while still a law student, when he was caught in a thunderstorm on his way to visit his parents, was thrown to the ground and at that moment called to Saint Anne, “I will become a monk!”
Other sources say that he suffered from depression, had been affected by the accidental death of close friends and after a going-away party with friends, he went away to a monastery, very much against his father’s will. In the monastery he became known as overly self-critical and was said to experience long bouts of bowel maladies during which he believed he had visions of the devil.
The second legend was until very recently regarded as fact. On the basis of testimony of Luther associate Philip Melanchton (1497-1560), the first Protestant systematic theologian, the story goes that as an ordained priest and a professor of moral theology at the University of Wittenberg, Luther nailed 95 theses on the door of All Saints Church on October 31, 1517, a date widely commemorated as Reformation Day.
The actual story—uncovered in 1961 by Luther researcher Erwin Iserloh, who proved that Melanchton was not at Wittenberg at the time—began with the 1516 arrival in Germany of one Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar commissioned by the pope to sell indulgences in order to raise money to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. A saying attributed to Tetzel was that “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs,” which was in no way representative of Catholic teaching on indulgences at the time (or ever); if Tetzel said such a thing it was a case of marketing gone wild.
Luther, who had visited Rome in 1511 on business related to his order and been thoroughly shocked at the moral decay of the metropolis, on October 31, 1517, wrote a letter to his bishop protesting the sale of indulgences. With the letter, he enclosed a copy of a paper titled “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.” This document included a series of statements that came to be known as the 95 theses or holdings. Although there was no Internet at the time, the Latin version was printed in several places in Germany in 1517, then translated by friends in January 1518 into German. Within weeks, copies were circulating in Germany and soon after throughout Europe.
Cardinal Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz and Magdeburg, to whom the letter was addressed, did not reply to Luther. He was an interested party, as he needed the revenue from the indulgences to pay off the pope for a dispensation that allowed him to be bishop of two sees at the same time. This allowed Luther to charge later that not only had the fundraising been questionable but not all the money was for the purpose claimed. Thus, Albrecht passed the matter on to Pope Leo X, who ordered an investigation of Luther on charges of heresy.
Two attempts at reconciliation were made that could have prevented Luther from causing the Reformation.
First, the local Holy Roman Empire elector, Frederick the Wise of Saxony, persuaded the pope to have Luther examined at Augsburg, where an Imperial Diet was being held. Unfortunately, the three-day questioning of Luther in October 1518, by papal legate Cardinal Cajetan, degenerated into a shouting match. Cajetan had been instructed to arrest Luther if he failed to recant, but the legate failed to do so and Luther slipped out of the city at night.
Next, in January 1519, the papal nuncio Karl von Miltitz, a relative of the elector, adopted a more conciliatory approach. He managed to extract from Luther some concessions and the promise to remain silent if his opponents did.
Unfortunately, as always happens in these cases, Luther’s opponents did not go with the program. Theologian Johann Eck staged a disputation in June and July 1519 with Luther’s colleague Andreas Karlstadt at Leipzig and invited Luther to speak. There, Luther asserted that Matthew 16:18 does not confer on popes the exclusive right to interpret scripture and that neither popes nor church councils were infallible. In response, Eck branded Luther a new Jan Hus.
In June 1520, the pope himself warned Luther in a papal bull (or edict) that he risked excommunication unless he recanted 41 sentences drawn from his writings, including the Ninety-five Theses, within 60 days. Von Miltitz once again attempted to broker a solution but Luther, who had sent the pope a copy of new writings the previous October, publicly set fire to the bull and decrees in Wittenberg in December 1520 and distributed a written explanation for his act. In response, Luther was excommunicated by Pope Leo X on January 3, 1521, in the bull Decet Romanum Pontificem. The die was cast.
One more event was needed to turn the theological dispute into a political matter that set off conflict in Europe for a century and a half, and more. The enforcement of the ban fell to the secular authorities, and in April 1521 Luther was ordered to appear before the Diet of Worms, a general assembly of the estates of the Holy Roman Empire that took place in Worms, a town on the Rhine, with Emperor Charles V (who was also king of Spain) presiding and Eck, now assistant to the archbishop of Trier, playing the role of effective prosecutor.
It was at this event, before the Diet, that reputedly, Luther exclaimed the epochal response to Eck’s demand for a recantation: “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me, Amen!” New research shows these actual words were not in witness accounts of the proceedings and were probably no more than a negative, followed by the recorded “May God help me.”
Over the next five days, private conferences were held to determine Luther’s fate. The emperor presented the final draft of the Edict of Worms on May 25, 1521, declaring Luther an outlaw, banning his writings and ordering his arrest and punishment as a “notorious heretic.” The ruling also made it a crime for anyone in Germany to give Luther food or shelter and permitted anyone to kill him without legal consequence.
Luther was protected by the elector and hidden in Wartburg castle. However, while Luther translated the New Testament and wrote other works, his followers embarked on radical reforms that led to disturbances, including revolts in monasteries, the smashing of church statues and images and public protests, as well as the German Peasant War. The tide began to turn in Luther’s favor with the recruitment of princes and merchants; then began Lutheranism, which we will discuss later.