Sunday, January 1, 2017


It’s one thing to write 95 fiery theses and argue on their behalf, in public but mostly academic disputations; but quite another to run with them, direct a movement formed around them and set up a church-like structure to rival the existing one. The latter was the task that faced Luther after the 1521 Edict of Worms and his enforced seclusion in Wartburg castle.

Luther referred to his stay at the estate of Elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony as “my Patmos,” a reference to the apostle John’s exile to the Isle of Patmos, in the Greek Mediterranean, under Emperor Domitian. In seclusion, Luther translated the New Testament from Greek into German and began to develop the basis of the reshaped faith in three works.

In On the Abrogation of the Private Mass, he condemned the idea that the Mass is a sacrifice. This was a much-debated point among the Early Fathers, which Cyprian of Carthage, representing the eventual consensus, had summarized as follows: lay people are priests in the offering of themselves as a sacrifice to God in the form of bread and wine, and the high-priest, or bishop, takes the united oblations of all the members of the Church, given to become the Body of Christ.

Now Luther asserted the Eucharist was a gift to be received with thanksgiving; this, too, had been argued in the past although it had been subsumed into the notion of sacrifice. The argument was on a pointy-headed issue for theological scholars; on the more important issue of the Real Presence, Luther remained with the Catholic Church.

In On Confession, Whether the Pope has the Power to Require It Luther rejected compulsory confession (required, for example, before reception of the Eucharist if in a state of grave sin) and encouraged private confession and absolution, but argued that “every Christian is a confessor.” In The Judgement of Martin Luther on Monastic Vows, he addressed monks and nuns, saying they could break their vows without sin, because vows were an illegitimate and vain attempt to win salvation.

In a letter to his follower Philip Melanchton, he advised “Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2 Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign. It suffices that through God's glory we have recognized the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world.”

Separately, he launched a renewed attack on Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz, whom he shamed into halting the sale of indulgences in his episcopates.

In his refuge Luther had little idea of what his followers were doing, nor they of the erstwhile monk’s essential refusal to encourage radical rebellion. Lutheran leaders Andreas Karlstadt and Gabriel Zwilling launched radical reform in June 1521 that provoked disturbances, including a revolt by Augustinian friars against their prior and the smashing of statues and images in churches.

Luther secretly went out from the castle in disguise and was appalled by what he saw. Returning to the castle, he wrote to his followers A Sincere Admonition by Martin Luther to All Christians to Guard Against Insurrection and Rebellion and in March the following year to the Elector, his protector, “During my absence, Satan has entered my sheepfold, and committed ravages which I cannot repair by writing, but only by my personal presence and living word.”

Too late! The fire of revolt was raging among poorer towns-people and peasants between 1521 and 1525. Luther’s pamphlets against the Church and the hierarchy now encouraged many peasants to believe he would support an attack on the upper classes in general; revolts broke out in Franconia, Swabia and Thuringia in 1524, even drawing support from disaffected nobles fed up with imperial and church taxes. Writing against these rebellions in Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants, Luther expressed outrage at the widespread burning of convents, monasteries, bishops’ palaces, and libraries and the economic communitarianism of the movement.

Amid all the controversy, Luther married Katharina von Bora, one of 12 nuns he had helped escape from a Cistercian convent, in April 1523. Katharina was 26 years old and Luther was 41 years old. They had six children, three of whom survived childhood; only one of them, his youngest, Margaret, who married into Prussian nobility, is known to have living descendants today.

Then, by 1526, Luther began to devote himself to establishing his church, the Evangelical Church (Evangelische Kirche), known as “Lutheran” initially only to its detractors.

Luther wrote a German Mass in early 1526 that was based on the Catholic service, except for “everything that smacks of sacrifice” and in returning to distributing both species of the Eucharist to everyone, a practice stopped in the Middle Ages in response to Barbarian abuses with the wine. He retained the elevation of the host and chalice, while vestments, altar and candles were made optional. Zwinglians deemed Luther’s service, as well as his Eucharistic theology, as too “papist.”

Alone among reformers, he insisted on the doctrine of the Real Presence of the body and blood of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine, which he called the “sacramental union.” The overwhelming majority of his opponents, and many followers, believed God to be only symbolically present in the Eucharist. Luther’s statement on the matter is his 1528 Confession Concerning Christ's Supper.

He also compiled his ideas into two catechisms. In 1529, he wrote the Large Catechism, a manual for pastors and teachers, as well as a synopsis, the Small Catechism, to be memorized by the people themselves.

Lutherans retained many of the liturgical practices and sacramental teachings of the pre-Reformation Church. Luther emphasized congregational singing of hymns and psalms in German; he authored close to 40 hymns himself; one of the most famous, sung today even in Catholic churches, is Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress Is Our God) based on Psalm 46. He also provided simplified versions of the baptism and marriage services.

Before turning to the broad ideas of the movement there is one unfortunate legacy of Luther’s that cannot go unnoted: his two virulently anti-Jewish works Von den Juden und Ihren Lügen (On the Jews and Their Lies) and Vom Schem Hamphoras und vom Geschlecht Christi (On the Holy Name and the Lineage of Christ). Luther argued that the Jews were no longer the Chosen People but “the devil's people” of whom he spoke in violent language. Although they are not linked to the broad Lutheran views until tragic and recent times, some scholars have argued plausibly that they sowed the seed of German anti-Semitism.

The landmark document defining Lutheranism, however, came from a committee put together in 1530 in advance of the imperial Diet of Augsburg by the Elector of Saxony. The authors were a panel of Lutheran leaders—Martin Luther, Justus Jonas, Johannes Bugenhagen and Philipp Melanchthon—who met in Torgau to produce what is now known as the Augsburg Confession (Confessio Augustana), which was presented before Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

In the document (the full text may be reviewed at Wikisource), the authors speak of what “our churches” believe and teach in 28 articles of belief. The first three, concerning the trinity, sin and the Son of God, present minor variations on the orthodox thinking of the time, although there is an excessive touch of pessimism concerning the original human condition.

Article IV, Justification by Faith, is widely seen as the entire point of Lutheranism, and it states that “men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins.” The idea pops up in various places, such as Article VI (“good deeds of Christians are the fruits of faith and salvation, not a price paid for them”). It affects the Lutheran dim view of any rite of Confession or repentance, and it touches on the nature of baptism, faith, final judgment, the entire collection of rites and holidays, and absolution—all including the idea that good behavior of Christians is merely a result of salvation, not a means to it.

Otherwise, according to the Confession, there are only two sacraments, baptism and “the Lord’s Supper,” which are “physical manifestations of God's Word.” Only those “rightly called” can administer them or preach. The document repeatedly emphasizes distribution of Eucharist in both forms to all people.

In other matters the Lutheran creed hews to a fairly conservative line. Believers are to obey civil (or governmental) law unless it commands sinful acts, absolution and confession may be retained but neither is obligatory nor a path to salvation and the Mass (Luther’s version) is retained. Extraneous ideas brought up by some Protestant rebels are flat out rejected—for example, the idea of a millennial kingdom before the end of the world.

The Confession throws out the saints as intercessors but not as examples, sees no good in monastic vows and views fasting as a useful practice but not for gaining merit. The document implicitly accepts, but does not describe, the episcopal order. “Priests and bishops” are explicitly mentioned as teachers and ministers of sacraments, who may marry. The document limits any authority for the clergy in matters of governance or civil law, rather than divine ordinance; this was clearly a shot across the bow of the papal states and the various feudal principalities headed by bishops.

In sum, the two linchpin teachings that separated Lutherans from the Catholic Church were the manner in which humanity is saved, or doctrine of justification, and the teaching that Scripture alone is the final arbiter on all matters of faith. Lutheranism chose to differ from Reformed or Calvinist theology in Christology, the purpose of God's Law, the divine grace, the concept of perseverance of the saints and predestination.