My World Religions and Spirituality class has swept me up in fascination and curiosity. We have looked at oral religions and Judaism, and are now concluding our section on Christianity. Following is my essay on the Protestant Reformation, in which I chose to focus on the Augustinian monk Martin Luther. The minimum word requirement for the essay was 500 words; in my excitement, I rather blew that out of the water with this piece. Enjoy.
The image of Martin Luther nailing a list of criticisms to a church door in 1517 is indelibly burned into the Western Christian mind. The scene has been exhaustively described in books and film, including a 2003 German production starring Joseph Fiennes as Luther (IMDB). The film’s details are disputed, including an extensive list of “Historical Inaccuracies” on the film’s Wikipedia page, but the fact that this centuries-old story warranted a modern, big-budget film peopled with well-known actors speaks to our enduring interest in this pivotal historical character and the seismic changes he wrought in the history of Christianity and the world.
Although he was not alone in his views, or even the first to hold many of them (Tillich 228), Luther was the first person who was able to survive actively opposing the all-powerful Catholic Church. He viewed certain church practices as at best a distraction from faithful adherence to Christian principles and at worst a clear corruption of those principles (Molloy 384-5). Previous questioners of church practices, such as the author of the first English translation of the Bible, John Wycliff, had aired concerns similar to Luther, but their views were not widely disseminated (Tillich 203-4). The Catholic Church was unable to suppress the spread of Luther’s ideas and writings, however, thanks in no small part to the invention of the printing press (Shlain 324), and Luther was able to plant some of the first enduring seeds of what we know today as the Protestant movement.
As a highly educated, passionate Catholic priest, Luther was first and foremost a man utterly dedicated to seeking God (Bainton 22). As a result of a vow made during a lightning storm, in 1505 at the age of 21 he turned his back on the ambitious, lawyerly life his father had planned for him, and instead joined an Augustinian monastery (Bainton 21). In becoming a monk, Luther “…rebelled out of a more than ordinary devotion. To the monastery he went like others, and even more than others, in order to make his peace with God” (Bainton 36). Though at first Luther seems to have found some measure of peace in monastic life, it was not to last.
In 1510, Luther and another monk were selected to travel to Rome to seek a papal settlement in a dispute at the monastery. Luther considered himself privileged to make the trip. He spent a month taking in the unique opportunities available in the Holy City, visiting relics and shrines, attending masses and viewing catacombs, all while maintaining his duties as an Augustinian monk. Any thrall he may have felt in Rome, however, was soon disturbed. Luther became increasingly dismayed by the lack of proper religious comportment he perceived all around him. Upon confessing to a Roman priest, he judged his confessor woefully incompetent. The Italian clergy of Luther’s time lived a life of lush wealth and privilege in an era rich also with scandalous behavior, from the laity on up through the popes themselves. For a pious young man fresh from the strict, cloistered environment of the Augustinian monastery in the increasingly religiously rigorous north (Tarnas 233), the opulence and frivolity of Vatican life was an unpleasant shock. Upon completing a ritual of praying on hands and knees and kissing the stones of Pilate’s stairs in the supposed footsteps of Jesus himself, an endeavor prescribed to bring about the release of a soul trapped in purgatory, Luther found himself shaken by doubt of the veracity of such practices. Some of the seeds of his eventual protestations toward holy relics, rituals, and other Catholic principles were thus sown in the Holy City of Rome itself (Bainton 48-51).
Back at home in Germany, Luther was transferred from the monastery in Erfurt to Wittenberg, where he continued his scholarly pursuits and eventually earned a doctorate in theology. He was assigned a university professorship, which included teaching Bible classes with a focus on the epistles of Paul. Luther’s heart, however, was not at home. He was increasingly agitated, becoming overwhelmed with his sense of his own sinfulness and unable to find peace or release in any of the methods or advisements offered by the church or his mentors, painfully doubting even the just nature of God (Bainton 57-8).
In sending him to teach the Bible and thus wrestle for himself with its message, Luther’s advisors placed him on a path that allowed him to discover in Paul’s words what he saw as a key to the nature of right relationship with God. This insight, known as justification by faith, filled Luther with a newfound sense of love and understanding (Bainton 65). This and other insights were among the foundations of his thinking, but did not inspire him to oppose Catholicism as a whole. Rather, as a devout priest and teacher, he sought to improve the quality of Catholic teaching and practices (Bainton 68). It was another matter entirely that placed him on a collision course with the leaders of the Catholic Church.
Luther’s troubled but devout conscience would not allow him to rest easy with the practice of selling indulgences in order to raise money, which at the time was increasingly common—and increasingly fraudulent—as the church sought to finance ventures such as the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome (Molloy 385). Indulgences were remittances of punishment granted to an absolved sinner in return for prayer and good works to shorten their time in purgatory, the temporary state that prepared a soul for heaven. Luther objected to the practice, which in his view amounted to the sale of salvation, even though the proceeds were a source of support for his own institution (Bainton 73).
Luther’s objections to and criticisms of what he saw as corrupt and impious practices within the church grew into his “Ninety-Five Theses,” a document detailing his protestations and demands for reform, which he nailed to the door of the Wittenberg castle church. Luther had purposely thus made his objections quite public. During the resulting furor he staunchly refused to abandon his principles. His struggle with church authorities over the following years culminated in his excommunication. Had he not enjoyed the support of the local prince, who allowed him to live in hiding in his castle, Luther would likely have joined legions of preceding dissenters and been burned at the stake for his insubordination (Molloy 385).
Unlike so many before him who suffered death for opposing the mighty Catholic Church, Luther did survive. Under the protection of the prince, he continued to refine his ideas as well as author the first German translation of the Bible, which became a deeply influential part of German culture and literature (Molloy 386). Luther’s work took hold, hand-in-hand with the rapid spread of literacy and the increasing availability of printed Bibles and other materials. Luther’s writings, including his assertion that salvation is not gained through ritual or through the intercession of earthly representatives, but by each individual through “faith alone,” (Dunstan 9), were one of the most potent sparks in the growing opposition to the Catholic Church’s dominance. That spark joined with others in firing a new idea of man’s relationship to God, one that cherished the notion of man as a “free, autonomous person before his God. Protestantism insists that man’s dependence for his eternal welfare is on God Almighty alone; nothing can come between God and man…” (Dunstan 35).
The conflagration of opposition to the Catholic Church grew inexorably, including within Martin Luther himself. Although he did not initially set out to destroy the Catholic Church, nor found a new church (Kent 118), but rather reform and rehabilitate it, Luther eventually came to vehemently condemn it, equating the Catholic institution as the “seat of the Antichrist” (Tarnas 234). His work did ultimately help spur the formation of a new, vigorous third branch of Christianity, alongside the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. Complete acceptance of Luther’s ideas was not universal even within the Protestant movement, however, and as a result the new branch itself blossomed into the cornucopia of denominations that we see encompassed within Protestant Christianity today (Molloy 386).
Luther’s work led to much-needed reforms and helped free religious writing and scholarship from archaic language and behind locked church doors, where scripture was sometimes even chained up to prevent anyone unqualified from gaining access. However, while he thus helped the common man connect directly with Christian teachings, some of Luther’s thinking invites criticism by modern standards. He opposed the use of reason to counter his own arguments, which he had himself so carefully reasoned, saying, “Reason is the greatest enemy faith has” (Shlain 327). He spoke in a terribly disparaging manner toward women, as well, and banished devotion to Mary and her image holding the infant Jesus, in spite of the apparently warm and loving relationship he enjoyed with the young woman he married and had six children with after leaving the Catholic Church. Later in his life, Luther’s early pronouncements of respect and tolerance for diverse religious ideas changed to an extreme intolerance and bigotry (Shlain 328-9).
Nor were those who followed in Luther’s footsteps necessarily exemplary models of the loving message of compassion delivered by Jesus of Nazareth himself. John Calvin, for example, instituted an incredibly harsh regime in Geneva, Switzerland, in the 1520’s. Calvin’s control was absolute: simply to be found guilty of criticizing him was punishable by death. And there was much to criticize, in light of the bleak austerity he demanded and the long list of transgressions he deemed punishable by death, including idolatry, blasphemy, adultery, and heresy. An unmarried woman discovered to be pregnant would be drowned. Dissenters would be tortured till they confessed and then brutally executed (Shlain 335). Some of the severe attitudes seen in today’s culture regarding hard work, sexuality, austerity, and punishment echo the dour, humorless, deeply intolerant Calvin.
The Reformation, while not entirely a force for human dignity and well-being, did prove to be the lever required to break the centuries-old chokehold of the corruption-riddled Roman Catholic Church on Western religious thought and life in general. The rich tapestry of Protestant denominations that we see today encompasses a vast number of people, ideas, and practices that span the globe. The Protestant branch of the three-limbed Christian tree continues to sprout innovation and fresh inquiry into the nature of Christian faith. In this continuing quest, much is owed to Martin Luther—a passionate, flawed, and fascinating lynchpin of Christian history.
Bainton, Roland H. “Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther.” Internet Archive. 24 February 2012 <http://www.archive.org/details/hereistandalifeo005163mbp>.
Dunstan, J. Leslie. Protestantism. New York: George Brazillier, 1961.
IMDB. Luther (2003). 24 February 2012 <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0309820/>.
Kent, John. “The Protestant Reformation.” The Concise Encylopaedia of Living Faiths. Ed. Robert Charles Zaehner. Boston: Beacon Press, 1959.
Molloy, Michael. Experiencing the World’s Religions: Tradition, Challenge, and Change. Fifth Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010.
Shlain, Leonard. The Alphabet Versus the Goddess. New York: The Penguin Group, 1998.
Tarnas, Richard. The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View. New York: Ballantine Books, 1991.
Tillich, Paul. A History of Christan Thought. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968.
Wikipedia. “Luther (2003 film).” Wikipedia. 20 February 2012. 24 February 2012 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luther_%282003_film%29>.