One of the most influential and iconic leaders, as well as the starter, of the Protestant Reformation, was a german-born preist, and later a professor of theology, named Martin Luther. Although many people, both commoners and elites, individually challenged the Church for various reasons, nothing significant had been done to spark change. Instead, people decided against speaking out against the Church for fear of punishment, keeping their objections to themselves. Luther’s actions were the first significant challenges made to the Church’s practices and general principles.
Roman Catholic theology taught that faith alone does not provide justification for man; a life time of good work and charity were required. It was also taught that one could receive the benefits of good work through the donation of money to the Church. This idea, the selling of indulgences, was what sparked Martin Luther to take action. In 1517, Luther wrote to his bishop, Albert of Meinz, protesting the sale of indulgences. In his letter, he included a copy of what would come to be known as “The Ninety-Five Theses’. Hans Hillerbrand, a professor of religion at Duke University, noted that Luther’s original intentions were not confrontational, rather he was simply speaking his objections to the practices of the Church; remarking that the tone of the writing was “searching, rather than doctrinaire”. One of Luthers fundamental arguments was that because forgiveness of sin and entrance to heaven was God’s, and God’s alone, to bestow upon man, the Church was in error for the claim that the donation of money to the Church absolved individuals from sin and punishment. The legend remains that Luther nailed, in a sense of devout fury, the Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany. Though many historians have stated that even though the legend is one of both great meaning and importance, has little basis of truth or actuality. Whether or not the Ninety-Five Theses were in fact posted on the door ofthe church in Germany, the challenging message sent by Luther was still understood.
In January of 1518, Luther’s efforts to reform the theology and practice of the church launched the beginning of the Protestant Reformation when his Ninety-Five Theses, among other writings, were first translated from Latin to German, and taking full advantage of the new technology of the printing press, was printed and copied. Luther’s writings disseminated, spreading the ideas of the reformation beyond the ability of the government and church authorities to hinder it. In a matter of weeks, his writings had made it to all corners of Germany. Within months after that it had spread through the whole of Europe. Originally, the term “Lutheran” was a derogatory term used against Luther by Johann Eck during the Leipzig Debate in 1519. The title was then spread by Roman Catholics to all of the followers of Luther, stating that an act of heresy should be named after the its chief leader. Luther, resenting this title, instead promoted the term “evangelical’ as the denomination of the reform movement. Luther reasoned that this title fit better because evangelical is derived the Greek word, euangelion, meaning ‘good news’, i.e. ‘gospel’.
One of the most influential events of the Protestant Reformation, was Luther’s translation of the Bible from the original, to the vernacular of his followers; German. His translation of the New Testament was published in 1522, and the New Testament in 1534. However Luther continued to refine and improve his translations for the remainder of his life. Many criticized his somewhat abnormal translations, citing his non-literal translation of Latin to German as well as other discrepancies between the two versions. He described his process of translation in this way, “[the translator] must see to it – once he understands the Hebrew author – the he concentrates on the sense of the text; asking himself, “Pray tell, what do the Germans say in such a situation?” Once he has the German words to serve the purpose, let him drop the Hebrew words and express the meaning freely in the best German he knows”(LW 35:213-14). In a sense, what is the point of translating if your read will not be able to comprehend what is translated? For Luther, translating the Bible was for the purpose of communicating God’s Word and that, in his opinion, required clear, natural German. The mass publication of the Bible translation made a major contribution to the evolution of German language and literature, as well as sparking a substantial rise in literacy among the German people. Together, the German Bible and the other works of Luther played the lead role in the spread of Luther’s doctrine throughout Germany and beyond.
In Martin Luther’s letter to George Spalatin, Luther discusses the case of Johannes Reuchlin, which had involved papal condemnation of Reuchlin. This letter was written before the acclaimed date of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in 1517, being believed to be sent to Wittenburg in the early months of 1514.
The full document can be found in the Modern History Sourcebook of Fordham University; http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1514luther.asp
In the beginning of the letter, a major point of Luther’s arises, he says, “John Lang has just asked me what I think of the innocent and learned John Reuchlin and his prosecutors at Cologne, and whether he is in danger…I will give my opinion, namely that in all his writings there appears to be absolutely nothing dangerous” (Luther, Letter to George Spalatin). He states clearly his belief that this man, Reuchlin, is being prosecuted without reasonable cause. Luther goes on to talk further about the matter, “Reuchlin himself has often protested his innocence, and solemnly asserts he is only proposing questions for debate, not laying down articles of faith, which alone, in my opinion absolves him, so that had he the dregs of all known heresies in his memorial, I should believe him sound and pure of faith. For if such protests and expressions of opinion are not free from danger, we must needs fear that these inquisitors, who strain at gnats though they swallow camels, should at their own pleasure pronounce the orthodox heretics, no matter how much the accused protested their innocence”(Luther). Taking a more direct approach in this statement, Luther explicitly points out that Reuchlin is being incriminated for something that he did not actually do. Throughout the reform movement, a major point of Luther’s is that the Church consistently disregards reason, and asserts their personal opinions as absolute law; without allowing interjection or objection from others. In this case, Reuchlin’s intentions, according to Luther, were strictly to propose questions for debate, not to insult, challenge, or rebuke the principles of the Church as the charge of heresy suggests. Later in his life, when Luther presented his Ninety-Five Theses, the same accusation of heresy was placed on him from the Church. His refusal to retract all of his writings at the demand of Pope Leo X in 1520 and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms in 1521, resulted in his excommunication by the pope and condemnation as an outlaw by the Emperor. The Church’s actions in dealing with both Reuchlin and Luther seemed to be justified by personal opinions based on the motives of self-preservation and infatuation as opposed to reasoning defined by the Holy Scriptures, which Luther proclaims to be the sole source of divine knowledge and the written Word of God. Going further in the letter, Luther writes, “I often regret and deplore that we Christians have begun to be wise abroad an fools at home. A hundred times worse blasphemies than [Reuchlin’s] exist in the very streets of Jerusalem, and the high places are filled with spiritual idols. We ought to show our excessive zeal in removing these offences which are our real, intestine enemies. Instead of which we abandon all that is really urgent and turn to foreign and external affairs, under the inspiration of the devil who intends that we should neglect our own business without helping that of others…Has unhappy cologne no waste places nor turbulence in her own church, to which she could devote her knowledge, zeal and charity, that she must needs search out such cases as this in remote parts?”(Luther). In this statement, Luther pronounces the need to turn the focus of the Church away from small, insignificant, and remote problems, and onto actual, and much larger blasphemies that are happening. Using Reuchlin as an example, Luther reasons that Cologne is to preoccupied with cases such as this one to fulfill her devout duty. Adding to his point, Luther states, “But trust God to be true, even if a million men of Cologne sweat to hake him false. Conversion of the Jews will be the work of God alone operating from within, and not of man working-or rather playing- from without. It these offences be taken away, worse will follow. For they are thus given over bu the wrath of God to reprobation, they they may be incorrigible, as Ecclesiastes says, for every one who is incorrigible is rendered worse rather than better by correction”(Luther). Here Luther explains a fundamental doctrine of the Lutheran faith, that ultimately it is solely the work of God that will determine everything and anything. And that by attempting to change that that cannot be changed, one only succeeds in making the situation worse, rather than trusting God to be true and just. This letter, though it was written before the start of the reformation, emphasizes many points that are at the foundation of the Lutheran principles and theology. Most importantly, that faith alone in God is the single way in which a man is to absolve himself.
The Protestant Reformation had a substantial influence on both Germany as well as the whole of Europe. At the heart of the reform movement, alongside other prominent figures such as John Calvin in France, were the teachings of Martin Luther. In the beginning, he was no more than another Catholic priest expressing his discontent with the state of the Church; however his ideas and writings rapidly spread like brushfire. Soon, his movement was backed by the support of countless people who, like him, wished to ‘fix’ the Church into what they, as a collective group with Luther at the lead, believed to be the correct way of living their lives under the power of God.
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“Martin Luther’s to George Spalatin,” from Luthers Correspondence and Other Contemporan, Letters, trans. by P. Smith (1913), Vol. 1, pp. 28-29.
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