Martin Luther Essay, Research Paper
Martin Luther was born in Eisleben, Germany, the son of Hans Luther, who worked in the copper mines, and his wife Margarethe. He went to school at Magdeburg and Eisenach, and entered the University of Erfurt in 1501, graduating with a BA in 1502 and an MA in 1505. His father wished him to be a lawyer, but Luther was drawn to the study of the Scriptures, and spent three years in the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt. In 1507 he was ordained a priest, and went to the University of Wittenberg, where he lectured on philosophy and the Scriptures, becoming a powerful and influential preacher.
Luther began his career as an Augustinian Monk in the Roman Catholic Church. Consequently, Luther was initially loyal to the papacy, and even after many theological conflicts, he attempted to bring about his reconciliation with the Church. But this didn’t last long because Luther waged battle with the papacy. On a mission to Rome in 1510–11 he was appalled by the corruption he found there. Money was greatly needed at the time for the rebuilding of St Peter’s, and papal emissaries sought everywhere to raise funds by the sale of indulgences. The system was grossly abused, and Luther’s indignation at the shameless traffic, carried on in particular by the Dominican Johann Tetzel, became irrepressible.
As professor of biblical exegesis at Wittenberg (1512–46), he began to preach the doctrine of salvation by faith rather than works; and on 31 October 1517 drew up a list of 95 theses on indulgences denying the pope any right to forgive sins, and nailed them on the church door at Wittenberg. Tetzel retreated from Saxony to Frankfurt-an-der-Oder, where he published a set of counter-theses and burnt Luther’s. It is usually considered to be the original document of the Reformation. Basically, this document exposed all the wrongs of the Catholic Church from indulgences to immoral behavior of priests. The Wittenberg students retaliated by burning Tetzel’s, and in 1518 Luther was joined in his views by Melanchthon. Luther’s ideas and reforms on Christianity were in direct conflict with the Catholic Church. These ideas, reforms, and thoughts on faith was the spark plug that started the Protestant Reformation.
The principal sacrament of the Roman Catholic Church is the Holy Eucharist of Communion. The fact that Luther was messing with this sacrament proved to be a significant problem to the Catholic Church. Luther generated the Protestant belief that this sacrament is a ritual through which they raise their spirits in remembrance of Christ’s life and death. According to the teachings of the Roman Church, Christ’s human body and blood are actually present in the consecrated bread and wine. As Luther saw it, no sacrament is effective by itself without listening to the Word associated with the sacrament, and the faith that believes in it. There is no magical element to any sacrament, including the doctrine of change. Luther’s teachings on the sacraments took away the power of the priests and the special nature of the Holy Eucharist. The Catholic mass depended completely on these concepts in order for the Roman Church to maintain its effectiveness as the representation of Christ. For Luther to take this position-required courage because he was taking on a force of great strength and authority. Luther did what most kings would fear to do. Luther’s courage and boldness can be seen in his “Open Letter to Pope Leo X,” “I have, to be sure, sharply attacked ungodly doctrines in general, and I have snapped at my opponents, not because of their bad morals, but because of their ungodliness. Rather than repent this in the least, I have determined to persist in that fervent zeal and to despise the judgment of men, following the example of Christ who in his zeal called his opponents ‘a blood of vipers,’ ‘blind fools,’ ‘hypocrites’. . . I have truly despised your see, the Roman Curia, which, however, neither you nor anyone else can deny is more corrupt than any Babylon or Sodom ever was, and which, as far as I can see, is characterized by a completely depraved, hopeless, and notorious godlessness” (Luther and Dillenberger 44-45).
Luther’s believed that absolution relied upon the sinner’s faith and God’s Grace rather than the intervention of a priest. Luther did not want an actual separation from the Roman Catholic Church. Instead, Luther felt his suggested reforms could be implemented within Catholicism. If the Catholic Church had attempted to consider Luther’s reforms, the Protestant Reformation would probably not have seen the light of day. But the religious practices being what they were in the Roman Church, there was little chance at that time for any great change. The Church of Rome, set in its ways, was not about to change into something else. If a change had occurred within the Roman Catholic Church, Luther would have had a different destiny. Luther’s fate was sealed, however his job was cut out for him. Luther broke the religious restraints of the Roman Catholic religion. This accomplishment amounts to the establishment of another religion known as Protestantism, a faith that was generated from the Reformation. Luther stood out as one of the Reformation’s major influences. Luther’s reforms regarded to the Catholic sacraments. For Luther, the Holy Eucharist of Lord’s supper was really a symbolic act rather than an actual instance of change in which the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ. That was an aspect to this sacrament, which Luther could not accept. According to the Roman Church, the bread and wine may have the appearance of such, but their substances have literally become the flesh and blood of Christ. All of this is a literal acceptance of the words of Jesus at the Last Supper: “And as they were eating, Jesus took the bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matthew 26: 26-28). Luther’s view of the communion sacrament was strictly symbolic. However, this idea was heresy so far as the Roman Catholic Church was concerned. The sacramental power of its priests was no longer necessary if this concept were to prevail. This is the type of change the Reformation and Martin Luther thought of. The power of the Roman clergy was in jeopardy if the people accepted Luther’s ideas were accepted.
It would seem the people would be in favor of the Catholic Church during this time of Reformation. As the central figure of religious rebellion in Germany, Martin Luther brought his ideas about Christianity. According to Luther, mankind is justified by faith alone, and not by works. On the concept of this belief in a personal faith, Luther felt that many rituals and authority of the pope should be challenged. Luther paid the ultimate penalty the Roman Catholic Church could offer. He was excommunicated. Luther then went before the Diet of Worms, where he took a stand concerning his beliefs and was placed under the ban of the Holy Roman Empire. Justification by faith, not by works is perhaps Luther’s most important contribution to the Reformation. According to Luther, salvation is a gift from God, and no human being can possibly do anything to value this blessing. Good works are of no help with regard to the salvation of one’s soul. Therefore, the most a Christian can do is to have faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior. This is basically what a Christian is. Because Christianity has only two real sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), it is necessary for a person to partake in both to be a Christian. Anyone can go around doing good works, but this means nothing to God. However, a Christian should do good works; yet, this will not save one’s soul. Only God knows who will be saved. Christians must conduct their lives according to God’s teachings. Only God is capable of judging His people fairly and wisely according to Luther. “I want to emphasize Luther’s doctrines of sin and faith very much because they are points in which the Reformation is far superior to what we find today in popular Christianity. For Luther sin is ‘Unbelief in the real sin.’ ‘Nothing justifies except faith, and nothing makes sinful except unbelief.’ ‘Unbelief is sin altogether.’ ‘Therefore the word ’sin’ includes what we are living and doing besides the faith in God.’ These statements presuppose a concept of faith which has nothing whatsoever to do with the acceptance of doctrines” (Tillich 245). Luther believed that mankind is totally lost. This idea really means that human beings are in continual conflict with themselves. In order to deal with this situation, Luther felt faith is something Christian must have. This is the faith that Jesus Christ is the Savior of mankind. Luther did not feel those who committed violent sins were doomed to damnation. Luther believed a Christian soldier could be saved even if he killed other people known as the “enemy.” It should be understood, however, that Luther never approved of war, which he believed, was a definite indication of mankind’s continual conflict with in themselves. Yet, God’s forgiveness may possibly save a Christian soldier just as any other Christian may be so blessed.
Concerning Luther and the Reformation, Paul Tillich states: “The turning point of the Reformation and of church history in general is the experience of an Augustinian monk in his monastic cell-Martin Luther. Martin Luther did not merely teach different doctrines; others had done that also, such as Wyclif. But none of the others who protested against the Roman system were able to break through it. The only man who really made a breakthrough, and whose breakthrough has transformed the surface of the earth, was Martin Luther. . . . He is one of the few great prophets of the Christian Church, and his greatness is overwhelming, even if it was limited by some of his personal traits and his later development. He is responsible for the fact that a purified Christianity, a Christianity of the Reformation, was able to establish itself equal terms with the Roman tradition” (Tillich 227). Tillich’s York-4 main emphasis, then, is not on Luther as the founder of Lutheranism, but as the person who broke through the system of the Church of Rome. Luther shattered the theological restraints and distortions of the Roman Catholic religion.
This accomplishment amounts to the establishment of another religion known as Protestantism, a faith that was generated from the Reformation, with its advocates such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Knox. However, Luther stood out as one of the Reformation titans in a most unique manner.
Roland H. Bainton suggests the following concerning Luther’s reforms with regard to the Catholic sacraments; “But Luther’s rejection of the five sacraments might even have been tolerated had it not been for the radical transformation which he effected in the two which he retained. From his view of baptism, he was not a second baptism, and no vow should ever be taken beyond the baptismal vow. Most serious of all was Luther’s reduction of the mass to the Lord’s Supper. The mass is central for the entire Roman Catholic system because the mass is believed to be a repetition of the Incarnation and the Crucifixion. When the bread and wine are transubstantiated, God again becomes flesh and Christ again dies upon the altar.
This wonder can be performed only by priests empowered through ordination. . . His first insistence was that the sacrament of the mass must be not magical but mystical. . . He, too, had no mind to subject it to human frailty and would not concede that York-5 he had done so by positing the necessity of faith, since faith is itself a gift from God, but this faith is given by God when, where, and to whom he will and even without the sacrament is efficacious; whereas the reverse is not true, that the sacrament is of efficacy without faith. ‘I may be wrong on indulgences,’ declared Luther, ‘but as to the need for faith diminished the role of the priests who may place awafer in the mouth but cannot engender faith in the heart” (Bainton 107). For Luther, the Holy Eucharist of Lord’s supper was really a symbolic act rather than an actual instance of transubstantiation in which the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ. That was a magical aspect to this sacrament which Luther could not accept. According to the Roman Church, the bread and wine may have the appearance of such, but their inner substances have literally become the flesh and blood of Christ. All of this is a literal acceptance of the words of Jesus at the Last Supper: “And as they were eating, Jesus took the bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matthew 26: 26-28). Luther’s view of the communion sacrament was strictly symbolic as is the view of Protestants to this day. However, this idea was heresy so far as the Roman Catholic Church was concerned. The sacramental power of its York-6 priests was no longer necessary if this concept were to prevail. This is the type of change the Reformation and Martin Luther wrought. The power of the Roman clergy could not exist if Luther’s concepts were to be accepted.
One of the most important differences between the Roman Church and Luther’s conception of Christianity is the personal relationship between God and the Christian. In Catholicism, the Church is a messenger between God and the individual. However, Luther feels there is no need for any messenger between Christians and their relationship with God. This is one of Protestantism’s most significant qualities. Another very important characteristic of Luther’s reforms is that the Bible holds all authority when it comes to theological matters. This is completely different from the Roman Catholic view, which believes that the Church is the final authority with regard to theological concerns. In Catholicism the pope is the finial say so in faith and morals under God. Luther could not accept a human being with Holy Orders as the means through which a Christian reaches God. These are the teachings that caused Luther to be excommunicated by the Roman Church and helped to create the Protestant Reformation. When Luther appeared before the Diet of Worms, he was asked by Eck, an official of the Archbishop of Trier: “I ask you, Martin–answer candidly and without horns– do you or do you not repudiate your books and the errors which they contain?” Luther replied, “Since then Your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason–I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other–my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for us to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen” (Bainton 144).
As the central figure of a violent religious rebellion in Germany, Martin Luther brought forth his principal theological doctrine about Christianity. According to Luther, mankind is justified by faith alone, and not by works. On the concept of this belief in a personal faith instead of the power of the Roman Catholic Church, Luther favored the abolition of many rituals and challenged the supreme authority of the pope. For York-9 this, Luther paid the ultimate penalty the Roman Catholic Church could inflict, he was excommunicated. Luther then went before the Diet of Worms, where he took a firm stand concerning his beliefs and was placed under the ban of the Holy Roman Empire. All of this entails considerably more details concerning Luther’s concept of Christianity.
Justification by faith, not by works is perhaps Luther’s most important doctrinal contribution to the Reformation, and all it implies. According to Luther, salvation is a gift from God, and no human being can possibly do anything to merit this blessing.
Luther died in Eisleben, and was buried at Wittenberg. Endowed with broad human sympathies, massive energy, manly and affectionate simplicity, and a rich, if sometimes coarse, humour, he was undoubtedly a spiritual genius. His intuitions of divine truth were bold, vivid, and penetrating, if not necessarily philosophical and comprehensive; and he possessed the power of kindling other souls with the fire of his own convictions. His voluminous works include “Von den guten Wercken” (1520, Of Good Works), and “Widder die hymelischen Propheten von den Bildern und Sacrament”. Luther provided Christianity with a degree of freedom not found in Catholicism. Luther dared to defy the mighty and authoritative Roman Catholic Church. From this the Protestant Reformation was born.
(1) Bainton, Roland H. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. New York: Mentor, 1950.
(2) Dillenberger, John. Martin Luther: Selection From His Writings. New York: Anchor Books, 1962.