by Dr. David P. Scaer
October 31, 1517, the day on which Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, is remembered as the beginning of the Reformation. Luther protested the sale of indulgences, the then common church practice of selling the forgiveness of sins.
His 95 Theses must rank with the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence as a world-shattering document. Unlike the writers of other pace-setting documents, Luther never intended that his theses would be so decisively ultimate. The 95 Theses turned Luther into the great reformer. He was not the first or the last to lodge a protest against church abuses, but five centuries after his birth, his reforms are influencing even the successors of those who rejected and condemned him.
In the nearly 30 years that Luther lived after that fateful day, he was involved directly or through his associates in reforming the church and society.
At first others were more aware of Luther’s world-shattering ideas than he was himself. What was for him the solution to an internal religious problem became for others a call for reformation. The printing press and the translation of his views from Latin into German spread his views so quickly throughout Europe that they soon came to the attention of princes, bishops, and even the pope.
While Luther’s concern was the justification of the sinner before God through faith without works, the church authorities understood them chiefly as a direct attack on the church institution. This was so far from Luther’s mind at first, that he even appealed to the two popes as dear fathers in Christ. His religious concerns were, nevertheless, seen as treachery against the civil authorities, since the church and empire were unified under the pope and emperor.
To protect this world, the authorities reacted to Luther’s concerns, first by debate and persuasion. Then on June 15, 1520, hardly a full three years after his original protest, he was excommunicated by Pope Leo X. After his courageous stand before Emperor Charles V on April 17, 1521, at Worms he was, until his death in 1546, an outlaw in most of imperial Europe. Bu this time Luther had set forth in many writings his ideas of reform.
Because of his excommunication, Luther was put into the position of practical reformer, not his by personal inclination and education. He was trained as a scholar and teacher. His doctrine of justification, over which he had struggled for many years before 1517, especially in connection with his lectures on Romans and the Psalms, had unintentionally put him in opposition to the church’s understanding of itself as the only dispenser of salvation. The church’s hold on society from the humblest peasant to the emperor rested on this claim.
This claim on Christians was exercised not only by indulgences but by the sale of masses for souls in purgatory, pilgrimages, prayers to the saints, and the maintenance of monasteries. Luther’s opponents, as the documents show, were not as concerned about his views on justification as about their negative effect on church structures. In a sense they led him to see the implications of his own teaching. This personal awareness turned Luther from a scholar with a solution to a theological problem into a great reformer of church and society.
Many portraits and statues of Luther picture him holding the Bible in his hand as he is preaching. Recognizing the Bible as the sole authority in church life and making it available to the people in their language were some of the first reforms.
Luther, like his contemporaries, recognized the Bible as God’s Word. However, they saw the Bible and teachings of the church, that were collected in tradition, constituting one authority, with the pope serving as the final arbiter.
In a debate with John Eck in Leipzig in July 1519, Luther realized that popes, church councils, and accepted church teachings often flatly contradicted each other. Eck, wanting to show Luther that he was not a loyal son the church, led him in the process to the conviction that the Bible was the final authority.
Luther also insisted on the Bible’s literal interpretation. Through the complex method of allegory, the priest exercised effective control over the people. Now the people–without the priests–could understand God’s will for themselves. This led later to Luther’s translation of the New Testament (1522) and the Old Testament (1534). Translation of the Bible into modern language began and has never stopped.
A people free to read the Bible, now required a liturgy and hymns in which they could join for worship. These reforms have even been instituted in the Roman Catholic Church recently. A sermon with Gospel proclamation would soon take the most prominent position in the church services. Luther set the tune for nearly all Christian worship.
Luther went on to other reforms. He disputed the biblical support for seven sacraments and insisted on only two–Baptism, which included Penance as the daily sorrow over sins, and the Lord’s Supper, whose comforting purpose had been overshadowed by abuses.
This sacrament of forgiveness had become a repetition of Christ’s sacrifice for sins, a work that could be bought by money. He opposed the private masses and endorsed the giving of the cup to the laity, since this sacrament and its blessings were for all Christians and not only for one privileged group. He objected to the teaching of transubstantiation, the view that there was an organic change in the sacramental elements, but found any spiritualizing of Christ’s presence even more unacceptable.
He called for a transformation of the monasteries into schools of learning and for marriage of priests. The parsonage, so common in Europe and America, has its roots in Luther’s reformation.
Unlike the Anabaptists, Luther did not call for the overthrow of government and unlike Zwingli, Calvin, and Knox, Luther did not set out on reform by providing a blueprint for the perfect society. The Bible was never for him a constitution for reforming the world, but the vehicle in which the message of justification was preserved for all time.
The pope’s threat to excommunicate nations of disobedient sovereigns was greatly curtailed. The Holy Roman Empire would survive several more centuries, but the emperor as the pope’s military arm gradually developed into a figurehead, a medieval fiction that had outlived its time. In the place of the empire, the modern European nations began to emerge and the pope lost his place as the secular ruler. Luther had called for all these changes.
Equally striking were the changes among the common people, especially in the area of education. Luther’s biblical principles required a clergy that could read the original Greek and Hebrew and a laity that could read the Bible in their own language. The universities had to be geared up for a highly trained clergy. Universal education had to be set up not only for boys, but also for girls–a revolutionary thought then.
An ecclesiastical outlaw, Luther was restricted to Saxony, chiefly to the university post and pastoral responsibilities at Wittenberg. From 1521 to his death in 1546, he shaped the practical reform by writing on nearly all aspects of life at that time, from marriage to good government, from the Lord’s Supper to prayer. His pastoral and university associates at Wittenberg carried out his ideas throughout Europe by advising princes, reorganizing church governments and universities, retraining the clergy, preparing hymns and liturgies, and any other services asked of them.
Luther was the catalyst through which the feudal world was transformed into the modern one. No one more deserves the title of reformer. Behind his worldwide greatness was his firm conviction that God justifies sinners on account of Christ through faith. Everything else, including his role as reformer, was only as an expression of that.
Excerpts from His Writings: Luther on the Reformation
“The pope doesn’t want reformation in his council, but it’s said that in Rome the word ‘reformation’ is hated more than the thunder in the heavens or the last judgment…. We Lutherans won’t be satisfied even if they should concede the Eucharist in both kinds and the marriage of priests. We also wish to have a pure doctrine of faith and justification which banishes all idolatry. When idolatry is expelled the foundation of the papacy will collapse. The pope feels and fears a reformation.”
“Hitherto I have done nothing from criminal, reckless, disordered motives, for the sake of worldly honor and profit; all I have written and taught has been according to my conscience and sworn duty as a humble teacher of the Holy Scripture, for the praise of God, for the benefit and salvation of all Christendom, and for the good of the entire German nation.”
“The church needs a reformation which is not the work of one man, namely, the pope, or of many men, namely the cardinals, both of which the most recent council has demonstrated, but it is the work of the whole world, indeed it is the work of God alone. However, only God who has created time knows the time for this reformation.”
“Wherefore if the Pope will grant us, that God alone by his mere grace through Christ doth justify sinners, we will not only carry him in our hands, we will also kiss his feet. But since we cannot obtain this, we again in God are proud against him above measure, and will give no place, no, not one hair’s breadth, to all the angels in heaven, not to Peter, not to Paul, not to a hundred emperors, nor to a thousand popes, nor to the whole world.”
Dr. David P. Scaer is the holder of the David P. Scaer Chair of Biblical and Systematic Theology at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Ind. At the seminary since 1966, he serves as editor of the Concordia Theological Quarterly. This story appeared originally in the October 1983 Lutheran Witness. LCMS congregations may reprint this article for parish use. All other rights reserved. Text copyright © 1983 by David P. Scaer.