About the Author
Rob Sorensen teaches world history and western civilization at The Bear Creek School in Redmond Washington. He has studied history and theology at Western Washington University, Abilene Christian University, and Salve Regina University.
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Martin Luther and the German Reformation
By Rob Sorensen
Wimbledon Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2016 Rob Sorensen
All rights reserved.
Today, some 500 years after he lived, Martin Luther is regularly considered by historians to be one of the most important figures of the last millennium. Life magazine, for instance, in its survey of the most important people and events of the last thousand years, listed Luther third, behind only Thomas Edison and Christopher Columbus. The Protestant Reformation, sparked by Luther's actions, was ranked by Life as the third-most-important event of the millennium. He is regularly studied by high school students in their history classes. He is the subject of countless books, and even of popular movies. Few would contest the fact that he is one of the most significant figures in European history.
However, few people in the late fifteenth century — the time of Luther's birth — would have expected young Martin to achieve anything near this kind of greatness. Luther himself, near the end of his career, looked back on his life and explained how his fame had taken him by surprise:
I am the son of a peasant. My great-grandfather, grandfather, and father were peasants ... I should have become a superintendent, a bailiff or the like in the village, a servant with authority over a few. that I [earned a good education], that I became a monk which brought shame upon me as it bitterly annoyed my father — that I and the Pope came to blows, that I married an apostate nun; who would have read this in the stars? Who would have prophesied it?
The baby boy born to Hans and Margaret Luther on a rainy November evening in 1483 certainly did not seem like a potential world leader. He was from a peasant family of modest income. He had no influential connections in imperial or local politics. He lived in the small town of Eisleben, in a relatively unimportant corner of eastern Germany. Nevertheless, Luther would come to be one of the most important religious thinkers of all time, and his actions and ideas would deeply influence the future of Europe and the world. This is the story of how this apparently insignificant baby became a world-changing figure. In order to understand Luther's journey, however, we must begin a bit before his birth and examine the world into which he was born.
1.1 The Late Medieval Church
The world into which Luther was born was a deeply religious one. Those of us who live in a largely secular age may find it hard to comprehend how thoroughly the Christian church influenced and governed the lives of medieval Europeans. For them, the church calendar organized their life experiences. Sundays, set aside for worship and rest, broke up the daily grind of work and church festivals, and saints' days provided an annual rhythm of work and play. The major events of a person's life were marked by the church ceremonies of baptism, marriage, and last rites. The church was the center of learning and education — often the local parish priest was the only person in a village who could read and write. People got their only news of the wider world from the pulpit, where royal decrees and other news were read. Physically the great cathedrals and other churches dominated the skylines of medieval cities. No area of life was outside the influence of the church.
The church was a truly international body; in many ways, churches were independent of secular governments. The head of the church was the pope, who generally resided in Rome, and who claimed to be the direct successor to the apostle Peter, to whom Jesus had entrusted the "keys to the kingdom. "The popes often claimed spectacular authority, but they were not always able to actually exercise the power that they claimed. Medieval history featured regular conflicts between the papacy and various kings and emperors regarding who possessed the higher power. The pope was the final arbiter of doctrine, and the ultimate authority in church governance.
In the late fifteenth century, the popes were particularly jealous of their authority. Part of the reason for this was the lingering influence of conciliarism, a movement that sought to limit the power of the pope. The conciliarists suggested that the ultimate authority in the church was not the pope, but rather a council made up of leading bishops and representing the church as a whole. This model developed a vision of the church as a kind of constitutional monarchy, in which the power of the pope was tempered by his responsibility to a church council. The popes had been battling the conciliarists for many years, but the conciliarists were losing ground fast during the later fifteenth century, and their movement was formally condemned at the Fifth Lateran Council, which ran from 1512 to 1517. It is significant that Luther — who also questioned whether the pope ought to have ultimate authority — was beginning to be prominent at just the same time as the conciliar movement was formally condemned. It may help to explain why Luther's opponents were so dogmatically committed to papal authority.
The popes ruled over a large and complex hierarchy of clergy. Directly below the pope were a group of officials called cardinals. These were appointed by the pope and were often styled "princes of the church." The cardinals served as papal ambassadors and assistants, and were the pope's closest advisors. When a pope died, the cardinals chose the new pope, usually out of their own number. Next in line in the church hierarchy were the archbishops and bishops who oversaw the church in specific geographical areas called dioceses. These bishops were charged with overseeing the clergy and property of the diocese, as well as administering certain important sacraments. Very often, bishops were wealthy men from important families who played significant roles in power politics. At the very bottom of the hierarchy were the parish priests, who performed the offices of the local pastor. The duties of the local priests included saying masses, administering most of the sacraments, comforting the sick and dying, hearing confessions, and generally functioning as spiritual caretaker for their congregations.
Alongside this administrative hierarchy was a second group of clergy — the monks and nuns. These were men and women who lived apart from the world, having taken vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Monks and nuns devoted themselves to worship, labor, and study in the hopes of gaining a closer relationship with God. It was from this part of the church that Luther was to draw his ideas, and from which he would challenge the pope himself.
The chief problem that this elaborate hierarchy was designed to solve was how the sinful individual could be made right with God. The key to this reconciliation, for the medieval church, was the system of sacraments. The church taught that in order to be saved, individuals needed grace, which was delivered through the sacraments. Because the sacraments were administered by the church, the sacramental system served to increase the power of the church hierarchy — because only the institutional church held the power to reconcile sinners with God. The most significant of the sacraments were Baptism, the Eucharist, and Penance.
Baptism was a ceremonial washing that was usually administered to infants. Since an unbaptized child could not enter heaven, in an age of high infant mortality, most parents had their babies baptized immediately after their birth. Baptism cleansed the soul from original sin and initiated the baptized into the church. Following Baptism, the most important sacrament was the Eucharist. This was a ceremonial meal of bread and wine, which were also mystically Christ's body and blood. The Eucharist was the central element of the mass, and would be performed during every church service. Most Europeans, however, did not personally participate in the Eucharist except on very special occasions. The third important sacrament was the practice of penance. This involved confessing one's sins to a priest. Upon hearing the confession, the priest would assign an act of penance, by means of which the sinner could atone for his sins.
Throughout the middle ages, there were numerous (and often ponderously complicated) disagreements among theologians about the precise nature and function of the sacraments. We need not explore these conflicts, however. To understand Luther, we need only observe that medieval Christians generally believed two very significant things about the sacraments. First, the sacraments were seen as absolutely necessary for salvation. Without the grace that was mediated to the sinner through the sacraments, there would be no hope of ascending to heaven. Second, medieval Christians believed that the sacraments were more than just symbols. Christ was truly, physically, tangibly present in the sacrament. The last was particularly true for the Eucharist, which did not merely represent Christ's body and blood, but actually became Christ's real body and real blood.
1.2 Crises of the Late Middle Ages
The powerful influence of the church was shaken (but not, ultimately, broken) in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries by a series of substantial crises. These crises caused many people to question their assumptions. The church was unable to resolve — or in some cases to even adequately explain — these crises. This contributed to a widespread demand for reform of the church. By 1483, when Luther was born, Europeans had a definite tendency to be disillusioned with the church.
1.2.1 Famine, plague and revolt
The fourteenth century opened with a series of poor harvests, which led to a severe food shortage throughout Europe. Without enough food to provide for a growing population, many died of starvation and malnutrition. The famine also weakened those who survived, making the population particularly susceptible to the devastating plague that swept through Europe between 1347 and 1351.
The Black Death, as this plague came to be known, killed more than a third of the population of Europe. Doctors were not able to cure the disease or slow its spread. The church could not explain the presence of a catastrophe of such an unprecedented scale, and many people saw the plague as God's judgment upon a sinful world. The plague would continue to break out periodically in various parts of Europe for the next two centuries.
As the plague was sweeping through Europe, peasant revolts were causing additional devastation. Because so many were killed by the plague, there was a shortage of agricultural workers. This meant that the surviving peasants saw their labor become more highly valued than it had been in the past, and they could hold out for higher wages. Many landowners found it increasingly difficult to find enough workers to bring in the harvest. This led to harsh measures on the part of the lords, who tried to force the remaining peasants to do more work. The peasants resented this treatment, which often violated traditional arrangements. Many took up arms in revolt. The authorities often crushed these revolts mercilessly, contributing to a simmering tension between peasants and their lords. This dynamic made its way into Luther's life in 1525, when he was involved in one of the most devastating of these peasant revolts — and one that Luther's teachings may have helped to spark.
1.2.2 Church schism
The loss of confidence that grew out of the devastation of the plague and revolt was exacerbated by a serious internal conflict within the church itself. The pope held the important office of Bishop of Rome, and was generally expected to reside in that city. But in 1309, the newly elected pope, Clement V, moved from Rome to Avignon, a city in southern France. Clement was widely seen as subservient to the French king, a fact which frustrated Christians who thought that the church ought to be above the fray of national politics. The next seven popes would rule from Avignon, where the papacy gained a reputation for worldliness and corruption. The respect in which the papacy had been held during the earlier middle ages declined steadily during the Avignon papacy. Many theologians called upon the popes to return to Rome and to abandon their worldly ways.
Pope Gregory VII ultimately moved the papacy back to Rome in 1377, but died within months. As the cardinals met to decide upon a new pope, crowds surrounded the papal palace demanding the election of an Italian as pope. The cardinals consented, and the new pope, Urban VI, was an Italian. But the cardinals, most of whom were accustomed to the relatively luxurious atmosphere of Avignon, clashed with Urban, an ascetic who tried to limit the power of money and bribery in the papal curia. Several months after Urban's election, a group of cardinals returned to Avignon, declared that the election of Urban was invalid because the cardinals had been under duress when they made their decision, and elected another pope, who took the name Clement VII.
This meant that there were now two rival popes: Clement in Avignon and Urban in Rome. For the next forty years, there would be two popes, competing with one another for the allegiances of kings and rulers. The rival popes excommunicated one another and each declared that they alone were the true pope. Before the schism was ended by the Council of Constance in 1415, much of Europe had lost respect for the papacy as an institution. The conciliar movement's skepticism of papal power has some roots in the dissatisfaction with the papacy that emerged out of the Avignon papacy and the papal schism.
1.2.3 Early reform movements
The crises of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were seen by many as an indication of God's judgment on a sinful society. The only way to remove this judgment was to thoroughly reform the church and society. Many saw the worldliness of the papacy as a further indication that reform was necessary. Reform of the church was a common theme in late medieval writings, and several important thinkers openly called for dramatic reforms.
The most significant of these early advocates of reform was John Wyclif, a professor at Oxford. Wyclif argued that the final authority in matters of doctrine and practice was not the pope, but the Bible. Because of this, he advocated translating the Bible — traditionally only available in the standard Latin version — into the vernacular languages so that individual Christians could read it. He also argued that the authority of any clergy was based on their moral example. Thus church leaders — including popes — who behaved in a worldly manner could not legitimately exercise any spiritual power. The church, he said, should not pursue worldly wealth, nor should clergy be involved in politics. All of these proposals bear striking similarities to the conclusions Luther would reach during the 1520s.
Wyclif's ideas spread to Bohemia, where they were picked up by a preacher and academic named Jan Hus. Wyclif, who worked in England some distance away from the centers of power, attracted little attention from the papacy during his lifetime. He was also protected to some degree by the English nobility, who saw his criticism of the church as a potential opportunity to increase their own power. Hus, on the other hand, lived in Prague, near the center of Europe, and had more limited support from his own government. When Hus began to preach ideas similar to Wyclif's in Prague, church authorities took instant notice. Hus was called before the Council of Constance in 1415, and when he refused to recant he was burned at the stake as a heretic. Like Hus, Luther would be asked by the church to recant — and you can be sure that the fate of Hus was on Luther's mind when he was defending his ideas before his ecclesiastical superiors.
1.2.4 The impact of humanism
Another element contributing to the instability of the late middle ages was the growth and spread of humanism. Humanism was a movement that sought to revive the culture and scholarship of ancient Greece and Rome. Humanists generally advocated a return to the original sources — rather than read medieval Latin translations of the Greek classics, the humanists learned Greek and read the original. This focus on the original sources led Christian humanists to focus their attention on the text of the Bible, rather than the commentaries and canon law that had developed during the middle ages. By contrasting their own age with what they saw as the ideal world of classical antiquity, humanists also gained a powerful tool with which to critique the shortcomings of the late medieval church and government.
Excerpted from Martin Luther and the German Reformation by Rob Sorensen. Copyright © 2016 Rob Sorensen. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents
Introduction; 1. Context; 2. Luther's Early Life; 3. The Accidental Reformer; 4. Conflict and Reform; 5. A New Way to Be a Christian; 6. The Final Years; 7. The World Luther Made