When the Western Roman Empire fell in the 5th. century, the power vacuum was gradually filled by the Catholic Church. This institutional dominance lasted almost one thousand years
By the end of the 15th. century the Italian Renaissance had spread to Northern Europe. However, in contrast to the secular humanism of the city states in Italy, leaders of the Northern Renaissance put their emphasis on Christian humanism and concerned themselves with religious affairs and texts. Colet, Lefèvre d’Étaples, More and Erasmus underlined moral living over theological subtleties and ritual. As in Italy, the Renaissance in the North looked to the past for models, this time not at a classical past, but at the early Christians. They also emphasised Scripture and Erasmus applied philology to his Latin translation of the gospels into Greek. This served as a basis for later Bible translations by Protestants. The early northern humanists, though, remained within the Church.
Similarly to the Roman Empire the Church's dominion of territory and its bureaucracy led to corruption. One outstanding example of this degeneration was the selling of indulgences. This malpractice relied on the belief that people could take a fast route to heaven by buying indulgences to reduce their sentences in purgatory.
Luther was an Augustinian friar and his aim was to reform the Church from within. His thinking is briefly summarised as sola fide (only faith) and sola Scriptura (only the Bible). In short Luther argued that the relationship between God and humans was personal faith and only subject to the Bible. This eliminated the need for ecclesiastical mediation and placed individuals in the centre where they participated directly in their own faith. A clash with the domineering authorities of the Church was inevitable.
It was the issue of indulgences that led to Luther writing his 95 theses which were meant as an invitation to an academic debate on the topics of the changing values and morality of European culture, as the theses' subtitle implies: Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.
Selling indulgences had intensified under Pope Leo X who needed to raise funds for the new basilica of St. Peter in Rome. The legend has it that Luther nailed his theses to a church door in Wittenberg on the 31st. October 1517, although it remains unproven that he was actually in the town that day. He had sent his text to his superior, Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz, and possibly they were posted on the door as a church notice, as was the custom. However, because of the printed versions they quickly circulated widely.
Luther continued to publish criticism of the practices and doctrines of the Catholic Church and he was formally excommunicated in 1521. He refused to recant at the Diet of Worms and was declared a heretic which put his life at risk. He was sheltered by the Elector of Saxony at Wartburg castle where he initiated the translation of the Bible into the vernacular.
Theology was only one part of the Reformation. Numerous political factions also had their own power and economic interests in rejecting papal authority, for example Church taxes. The use by the reformers of the commercial printing press, invented by Gutenberg in 1450, meant that their ideas could spread quickly and widely in the vernacular language, countering Church statements which were in Latin.
Economic and political changes of the period were evidenced in the Deutsche Bauernkrieg (the German Peasants' War), 1524-1525. This was a popular revolt in several areas of modern Germany, together with Austria and Switzerland. It was motivated by social discontent as the feudal system unravelled. Reformation preaching with its criticism of the Catholic Church also probably played a role in the revolt since the Church was a feudal landowner, along with local nobles and princes. Protestant Reformers taught that everyone had direct access to God and that there was no need for ecclesiastical mediation. Some translated this into politics, arguing that everyone should participate in governance. These views were not held by Luther himself, who defended the power of the princes. He was in favour of policing society to avoid chaos and immorality.
Luther introduces himself as theology professor and invites discussion of the theses in order to determine truth. Those who cannot assist are encouraged to give their opinion in writing.
Theses 1 to 7: Guilt and repentence
Matthew's gospel states in chapter 4/7 that Jesus told his followers the whole of life was an act of repentance. This is different from the act of confession. Repentance is not a sacrament, but is a whole lifelong attitude. He argues that by repenting Christ meant:
“the entire life of believers be a life of repentance."
He also criticised the practice that indulgences can only be granted by the Pope to those who contravene the Church rules, set by ecclesiastics themselves. Luther concludes that the Scripture's internal repentance would imply guilt or the "hatred of self" which would only come to an end in the afterlife.
Theses 8 to 19: Death and purgatory
There is no authorisation for priests to fix penitence for the dying or the needy in the name of the Church. The supposition is that Church punishments will be paid for in purgatory.
If someone is on the verge of death and his faith is weak, he will fear death. That is enough punishment since hell, purgatory and heaven provoke feelings of despair, near despair and safety. Souls in purgatory need more love and less horror. Some of these souls may in fact be predestined.
Theses 20 to 37: What can an indulgence do and not do?
When the Pope declares a plenary indulgence he can only refer to those punishments he himself has imposed. Some priests declare that indulgences include more than the Pope's authority. No indulgence can be granted for sins not repented for during life. Affirming the contrary is deception.
"The ecclesiastical rules on penance only apply to the living, according to this, it is not possible to apply penance to the dead."
It is said that souls are freed from Purgatory, when enough money is paid. However, buying an indulgence only encourages greed. It is necessary to guard against those who spread the idea of an indulgence as the method for reconciliation. Indulgences only cover violation of Church laws. All Christians can be absolved if they repent, without paying, since God has given all believers an equal share in his Church.
Theses 38 to 48: Indulgences versus good works
Excessive indulgences are not a good sign. So many people are buying them that repentance appears secondary. A real Christian repents and accepts punishment for sin.
"Every Christian who truly repents has the right to receive a full leniency for his guilt and punishment, even if he does not have a letter of leniency."
It must be made clear that charitable actions always weight more than an indulgence. It is always more advisable to help the poor or someone in need than buy an indulgence. Good deeds multiply love and improve humanity.
Indulgences improve no-one, but only free themselves from punishment. God wills people to help their neighbours, not use money to buy indulgences. No Christian is forced to buy indulgences. It is better to dedicate a prayer to the Pope, in thanks for absolving sins, instead of giving him money.
Theses 49 to 55: The behaviour of the preachers of indulgence
To receive an indulgence is positive, but we must remember the fear of God. Even the Pope would surely be willing to sell St. Peter's Basilica to help the poor whose money was snatched by those preaching indulgences.
Nobody will enter heaven by simply buying an indulgence, even if the Pope promises that. In church, more time should be spent on the gospel than on indulgences because scripture is a hundred times more important.
Theses 56 to 68: What is the “treasure of the Church”?
It is said that the Pope dispenses indulgences from the "Church treasury". He can't be referring to property, since the clergy would not hand it over. It can't be about the merits of Christ and the Saints, since these come to the faithful directly, not through the Pope. Saint Laurentius says that the Church's treasure is her poor.
The Church treasure is the 'key of the Church', meaning the sacrifice of Christ. The biggest treasure of the Church is the Gospel, which tells of God's mercy and glory. That is why it is so sought after. The Gospel can catch out rich people; an indulgence only catches their wealth and benefits preachers.
Theses 69 to 80: Why should we act against the preachers of indulgence?
Those commissioned by the Pope to grant indulgences should be supported by the clergy. However, they must not spread lies or the Pope's anathema will reach them.
"Why can't the Pope, who today is richer than the richest of the Crassus, build at least one Church of Saint Peter with his own money instead of that of the poor believers?"
It is a foolish claim to say that a papal indulgence frees sinners from all guilt, no matter the crime. Indulgences can never absorb any sin. The Pope's greatest gift is not indulgences but the Gospel which also says, in Corinthians, that he has the power to heal. It is blasphemous to assert that the indulgence cross in churches is equivalent to Christ's cross.
Theses 81 to 95: Questioning the Pope
Many questions arise on the responsibility of the Pope. Why does he not release all souls from purgatory out of love? Instead of that he charges money for freeing souls and builds with it. Why are Masses celebrated for the dead if they already have indulgences and don't need prayers. The Pope should return the money paid for these Masses. What about those whose repentance is full and true? What more can they receive from the Pope? Why can't he grant plenary indulgences to everyone instead of to some once a day?
“It is essential to encourage Christians to strive to follow Christ, their leader, despite punishment, death and hell; and to trust that they will enter heaven after many tribulations, instead of reassuring themselves with a false spiritual security."
Indulgences can be traced back to the Roman persecution of Christians in the second century when they were forced into denying their faith. On recanting and wanting to join the Church again they acquired a writ from a respected deceased believer and were then accepted into the community.
At least from the 13th. century the Church authorities knew about abuses involving indulgences and had the power to correct them. Due to price wars where prelates competed to sell indulgences, the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) urged moderation. From that time on Popes and Councils curtailed abuses in the granting of indulgences.
Luther did not dispute indulgences in themselves or the doctrine of Purgatory, but he did denounce their abuse. In particular he criticised the granting of indulgences to living people on behalf of those in Purgatory, especially exchanging indulgences for money and not good works. This agrees with the correct Church teaching that indulgences cannot save people. Penance is the way to satisfy the temporal punishment for sin. Church teaching stated that paying in money or penitential acts allowed access to the Church's treasury of merit, a concept created by Aquinas. This merit could be applied immediately, banked for the future or applied to others in order to shorten the stay in Purgatory. At this point Luther was in compete agreement with Church teaching.
However, in 1520 the Pope condemned Luther and that radicalised him. He publicly burned the Papal bull Exsurge Domine which condemned him. He was excommunicated the next year.
The message put about by the indulgence selling Pardoners was that to be a good Christian you should buy indulgences. This concept was not Christian and Luther denounced it. Believers also noticed that some people bought their remission from sin without doing penance. This meant that the rich could avoid penance but the poor not.
"Papal indulgences must be preached with caution, lest people erroneously think that they are preferable to other good works of love.”
Luther radicalised his opinions and began to insist on the primacy of faith and scripture. This undermined Church mediation as God's representative on earth. He went on to accuse the Pope of being an antichrist, since he threatened believers with torments in hell and purgatory. Luther's political criticism was that indulgences were simply an effective means of maintaining papal power, both religious and monetary.
The Catholic Church continues to issue indulgences today, but they only relieve temporal purgatory punishment for personal sins, not for others.
Before his condemnation by the Pope in 1520, Luther was a convinced Catholic who esteemed the papacy. He thought that the problem lay with the Curia, not the Pope. His 1517 theses were an attempt to start a discussion, not a polemic threat. They seek to place the powers of the Pope under Scripture. Only God has power over souls in Purgatory (Theses 22 and 25), not the papacy, and Popes cannot confer absolution without God (Thesis 6). They are bound by the Word of God.
In a written discussion with the theologian Eck (Resolutio Lutheriana super propositione sua tercia decima de potestate papae) in 1519, Luther develops his criticism of the papacy. The Popes and Councils should be subordinated to the Bible since they are human institutions developed in history, not divine law. In Matt. 16, the "rock" is not Peter, but a reference to Christ himself. The papacy is not prescribed or foreseen in Scripture, so the Word takes precedence over the Pope. If the Pope disobeys Scripture, the faithful should follow the latter.
Luther had become convinced that the papacy was a power structure, but ot must be at the service of the Gospel. He replied to Ambrogio Caterino's defense of the Pope in an ardent attack. He likens the Pope to the ferocious king of Daniel 8/23-25 who devastates the saints, claiming he is a counterfeit Christ. He also mixes the Pope with the Turks, both as representatives of the Antichrist who were attacking the Church.
Luther composed the Schmalkald Articles in 1534. They are a summary of Lutheran doctrine. In them he describes the Pope's power as “false, mischievous, blasphemous, and arrogant" and insists that his interest is in diabolical affairs.
A year previous to his death in 1546, Luther wrote Against the Papacy at Rome, Founded by the Devil. He repeats the argument that the Pope is in league with the Turks to destroy the Church.
For believers to know their relationship with God, they must determine the authority to consult: experience, Church tradition, the clergy, the Bible? In his concept of sola Scriptura Luther affirmed that the only infallible source on justification, and so salvation, was the Bible.
Luther spent hours daily accusing himself of sins to his confessor. In order to get his mind off sin he was put on a doctoral degree course in theology, then appointed to lecture on the Bible at Wittenberg University. His work on the Bible taught him that righteousness comes through faith in Jesus.
However, sola Scriptura never rejected reasoning or Church tradition. It did mean that the Bible was the unique authority in teachings about doctrine and practice. Other paths to truth were useful, but they had to bow to the single authority on Truth.
“His Holiness [the pope] abuses Scripture. I deny that he is above Scripture.”
Study of Erasmus' publication of the Greek New Testament in 1516 encouraged Luther to criticise the Church's doctrine on penance. He argued that Jesus' words "do penance" had been mistranslated as "repent" and so the doctine had been built on an error
In his discussion with Eck who argued that if anyone’s interpretation of the Bible is valid because of their faith in that conviction, then there is no longer any authority to determine interpretation. If truth is only opinion, then there is no Truth. Eck claimed that Luther was no better than the heretic Jan Hus who had placed his own interpretation above the Pope's. Luther replied that he was also a 'Hussite', despite the fact that Hus had been buried at the stake for his beliefs. Some months later Luther was excommunicated. He declared:
"I am bound by the scriptural evidence adduced by me, and my conscience is captive to the Word of God."
Augustine of Hippo
Luther was an Augustinian friar and his entry into the order was done through the teachings of Augustine.
Luther based his concept of the genuine Church as invisible on Augustine's division of the visible and invisible Church. This allowed the German to explain the corruption of the everyday Church, since there also existed an ideal Church, as found in Scripture, which is the invisible Church. The community of believers and God's elect are hidden in the visible Church.
Luther derived the idea of operative grace from Augustine. God gives the first grace to passive humans which prompts their will to change from a tendancy to evil to a desire for good. The other type of grace, where human will is active, is known as co-operative. It is a free gift from God and can't be sought after or bought.
Free will in lutheranism has its source in Augustine. The German theologian's deterministic belief was that the human will was like a donkey and was led by God or by the Devil, depending on which drove it.
Augustine influenced Luther's conceptions of predestination and original sin. The doctrine of sola gratia was augustinian: believers only reach heaven by the grace of God, with no merit on their part. According to Luther both predestination and original sin were a comfort and hope for believers because they could be granted freely by God.
In 1520 Luther published Treatise on Good Works. The aim was to counter the criticism that his teachings forbade good works.
Scholaticism in the late medieval period offered an explanation of the relationship between good deeds and faith by saying that repetitive actions led to righteousness. Luther countered this conception in his doctrine of sola fide in which he argued that faith alone without performing works was the way to righteous living:
“He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ.”
His emphasises is that faith is above good works. His scriptural basis for this was the ten commandments. His main argument was that obedience to the commandments comes only from faith in Christ and his redemption:
"Faith, therefore, does not originate in works, neither do works create faith, but faith must spring up and from the blood and wounds and death of Christ."
Luther reversed the importance between works and faith. He contended that salvation does not come from good works, but good works come from salvation and faith. It is through belief in God that the faithful come to perform good works and no work is really good without faith. For Christians living their vocation, everything they do is a good work. This is the Protestant concept that work is prayer and it so dignifies work that this takes on a religious overtone.
After the Diet of Worms Luther was held prisoner for his own safety at Wartburg Castle by Frederick the Wise, for almost a year, between 1521 and 1522. He employed the time to translate Erasmus' New Testament in Greek into German. It was strikingly well printed and included woodcut illustrations from Lucas Cranach's workshop and selections from Albrecht Durer's Apocalypse series
Despite being a known antisemite Luther organised a weekly meeting which included Jewish scholars, to produce a translation of the Pentateuch in 1523. The Complete German version of the Bible was released in 1534, including the Apocrypha which had not yet been canonised by the Council of Trent (1546).
There existed a previous 14th. century German version translated from the Latin Vulgate. Wycliffe had also translated the Bible into English from the Vulgate in 1380. The Luther Bible made good use of the printing press and the older versions disappeared. He revised his translation until his death in 1546 and published his last edition in 1545.
Luther's translation was key to the spreading of Reformation ideas, particularly that of sola Scriptura which put Biblical authority above that of the Catholic Church. It also enabled the common people to access it in their own language, freeing them from the mediation of the clergy.
In the 16th. century the German language was a collection of regional dialects. The invention of the printing press, growth in trade, the rise of the commercial class and especially Luther's Bible, helped create the standard High German language.