You’ve probably heard that October 31, 2017, marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s protest of abuses surrounding the Roman Catholic Church’s practice of selling indulgences.
Luther’s publication of his 95 theses on 10/31/1517, which included Luther’s public offer to debate the topic, is generally regarded as the start of the Reformation movement.
Today, every Christian today is familiar with the Reformation movement, right? Right???
Sadly, not really.
Between 2012 and 2016, I read Philip Schaff’s 8-volume series, History of the Christian Church, which covers the history of the visible church from Jesus’ birth through the life of Calvin and his successors.
After reading the series, I was shocked and embarrassed at how little I’d known about Luther and the Reformers, and how badly I’d mis-characterized them and their work.
Each of these men were flawed products of their age.
Who among us isn’t?
And I, by no means, fully agree with any of their views and teachings.
But with each of these men, the more I learned about their life, the better I understood them, the more I respected, empathized with and appreciated their intentions and contributions.
Through my study of the history of the visible church so far, I have become firmly convinced that:
- We have access to an absolute wealth of information in the history of Christians and believers past.
- It is a tragedy that so few people take the time to study and learn from the past.
- Christian leaders do others a great disservice by under-emphasizing the lessons of the past. Learning from the mistakes of the past is important to improving Christian unity.
Here are 5 facts about Martin Luther that I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t know. Perhaps you didn’t know them either.
Fact #1: The Reformation was brewing long before Luther
For well over a century before Luther, the cries against papal and leadership abuses within the Roman Catholic Church had increased. Others, such as Erasmus, had, in various ways, “set the table” for Luther.
As you read the events that transpired in Luther’s life, there is no question in my mind that GOD was actively involved.
Schaff aptly explained the scene before Luther this way:
The corruption and abuses of the Latin church had long been the complaint of the best men, and even of general councils. A reformation of the head and the members was the watchword at Pisa, Constance, and Basel, but remained a pium desiderium for a whole century. …
The papacy was secularized, and changed into a selfish tyranny whose yoke became more and more unbearable. The scandal of the papal schism had indeed been removed, but papal morals, after a temporary improvement, became worse than ever during the years 1492 to 1521. …
No wonder that many cardinals and priests followed the scandalous example of the popes, and weakened the respect of the laity for the clergy. The writings of contemporary scholars, preachers and satirists are full of complaints and exposures of the ignorance, vulgarity and immorality of priests and monks. Simony and nepotism were shamefully practiced. Celibacy was a foul fountain of unchastity and uncleanness. …
Theology was a maze of scholastic subtleties, Aristotelian dialectics and idle speculations, but ignored the great doctrines of the gospel. Carlstadt, the older colleague of Luther, confessed that he had been doctor of divinity before he had seen a complete copy of the Bible. Education was confined to priests and nobles. The mass of the laity could neither read nor write, and had no access to the word of God except the Scripture lessons from the pulpit. …
Remission of sin could be bought with money; a shameful traffic in indulgences was carried on under the Pope’s sanction for filthy lucre as well as for the building of St. Peter’s Dome, and caused that outburst of moral indignation which was the beginning of the Reformation and of the fearful judgment on the Church of Rome.
So, to summarize: The situation within the Roman Catholic Church was really corrupt before the Reformation.
Often, people seem to have the impression that Luther just suddenly burst on the scene and, somehow, suddenly and almost magically, overturned the monopoly that the pope and Roman Catholic Church had upon the minds of all believers at the time.Philip Schaff
But that wasn’t the case. Reality was far more complex and nuanced than this.
In truth, Luther probably shouldn’t be perceived as the starter of the Reformation, but rather the leading actor in a continuously-unfolding movement that had been in the works for over a century before his birth.
Furthermore, this should be a reminder to us that, while the public spotlight often shines brightly in one place, the real story is found in the shadows beyond popular attention.
This is true in the Scriptures, is it not? How often do we see that, while people focus on the major stories, such as the flood of Noah, the real story is how GOD destroyed the wickedness that had overtaken all living and, at the same time, preserved the few righteous.
The real stories are in between the ones that most people know and tend to focus on.
So it was with the Reformation.
Fact #2: Luther had an integral coworker named Melanchthon
Before I read Schaff’s work, I never recall hearing the name Philip Melanchthon.
Now that I better understand the role this man played, this fact really embarrasses me.
Perhaps you may be unfamiliar with Philip Melanchthon, as well.
Regarding Melanchthon’s partnership with Luther, Schaff made this interesting point:
In great creative epochs of the Church, God associates congenial leaders for mutual help and comfort. In the Reformation of the sixteenth century, we find Luther and Melanchthon in Germany, Zwingli and Oecolampadius, Farel and Viret, Calvin and Beza in Switzerland, Craniner, Latimer, and Ridley in England, Knox and Melville in Scotland, working together with different gifts, but in the same spirit and for the same end. The Methodist revival of the eighteenth century was carried on by the co-operation of the two Wesleys and Whitefield; and the Anglo-Catholic movement of the nineteenth, by the association of Pusey, Newman, and Keble.Philip Schaff
In their efforts, Luther and Melanchthon were the closest of brothers. Their relationship was founded upon their mutual respect and love for GOD and Scripture.
In temperament, they were polar opposites: Luther was loud, fiery and boisterous; Melanchthon, quiet, reserve and mild.
Regarding their relationship, Schaff wrote:
Luther regarded [Melanchthon] as his superior in learning, and was not ashamed to sit humbly at his feet. He attended his exegetical lectures, and published them, without the author’s wish and knowledge, for the benefit of the Church. Melanchthon declared in April, 1520, that “he would rather die than be separated from Luther;” and in November of the same year, “Martin’s welfare is dearer to me than my own life.”
Luther best understood and expressed the difference of temper and character; and it is one of his noble traits, that he did not allow it to interfere with the esteem and admiration for his younger friend and colleague. “I prefer the books of Master Philippus to my own,” he wrote in 1529. “I am rough, boisterous, stormy, and altogether warlike. I am born to fight against innumerable monsters and devils. I must remove stumps and stones, cut away thistles and thorns, and clear the wild forests; but Master Philippus comes along softly and gently, sowing and watering with joy, according to the gifts which God has abundantly bestowed upon him.”
Luther was incomparably the stronger man of the two, and differed from Melanchthon as the wild mountain torrent differs from the quiet stream of the meadow, or as the rushing tempest from the gentle breeze, or, to use a scriptural illustration, as the fiery Paul from the contemplative John. Luther was a man of war, Melanchthon a man of peace. Luther’s writings smell of powder; his words are battles; he overwhelms his opponents with a roaring cannonade of argument, eloquence, passion, and abuse. Melanchthon excels in moderation and amiability, and often exercised a happy restraint upon the unmeasured violence of his colleague.Philip Schaff
It was Melanchthon, not Luther, who led the effort to formalize the beliefs of the Lutheran Church in its beginning.
Luther was a creative genius, and pioneer of new paths; Melanchthon, a profound scholar of untiring industry. The one was emphatically the man for the people, abounding in strong and clear sense, popular eloquence, natural wit, genial humor, intrepid courage, and straightforward honesty. The other was a quiet, considerate, systematic thinker; a man of order, method, and taste, and gained the literary circles for the cause of the Reformation. He is the principal founder of a Protestant theology, and the author of the Augsburg Confession, the chief symbol of the Lutheran Church. He very properly represented the evangelical cause in all the theological conferences with the Roman-Catholic party at Augsburg, Speier, Worms, Frankfort, Ratisbon, where Luther’s presence would only have increased the heat of controversy, and widened the breach.Philip Schaff
Schaff believed that, without Melanchthon’s contributions, the Reformation would not have succeeded to the extent that it did:
The two Wittenberg Reformers were brought together by the hand of Providence, to supply and complete each other, and by their united talents and energies to carry forward the German Reformation, which would have assumed a very different character if it had been exclusively left in the hands of either of them.
Without Luther the Reformation would never have taken hold of the common people: without Melanchthon it would never have succeeded among the scholars of Germany. Without Luther, Melanchthon would have become a second Erasmus, though with a profounder interest in religion; and the Reformation would have resulted in a liberal theological school, instead of giving birth to a Church. However much the humble and unostentatious labors and merits of Melanchthon are overshadowed by the more striking and brilliant deeds of the heroic Luther, they were, in their own way, quite as useful and indispensable. The “still small voice” often made friends to Protestantism where the earthquake and thunder-storm produced only terror and convulsion.
Luther is greatest as a Reformer, Melanchthon as a Christian scholar. He represents in a rare degree the harmony of humanistic culture with biblical theology and piety. In this respect he surpassed all his contemporaries, even Erasmus and Reuchlin. He is, moreover, the connecting link between contending churches, and a forerunner of Christian union and catholicity which will ultimately heal the divisions and strifes of Christendom. To him applies the beatitude: “Blessed are the peacemakers; for they shall be called the children of God.”Philip Schaff
The more I learned about Melanchthon, the more impressed I was. It’s a shame this man has largely been forgotten by so many believers.
Fact #3: Luther’s 95 theses were not an opposition of the Pope
I always thought that Luther was opposed to the papal system from the get-go.
Luther’s 95 theses focused entirely upon the abuse of indulgences: the alleged granting of forgiveness of sins by church leaders as a result of having performed some physical deed(s).
The practice of indulgences had begun centuries earlier.
According to Schaff, the earliest known case of an indulgence being granted occurred in 1016, “when the archbishop of Arles gave an indulgence of a year to those participating in the erection of a church building.”
The use of indulgences soon spread to numerous other uses, including the funding of soldiers for the crusades.
Obviously, this was a gross departure from the Scriptures.
Regarding the scene at the time of the Reformation, Schaff wrote:
Remission of sin could be bought with money; a shameful traffic in indulgences was carried on under the Pope’s sanction for filthy lucre as well as for the building of St. Peter’s Dome, and caused that outburst of moral indignation which was the beginning of the Reformation and of the fearful judgment on the Church of Rome.Philip Schaff
Popes Julius II and Leo X used indulgences to fund the construction of St. Peter’s Dome in Rome.
Luther began to speak out publicly in opposition to the vices of indulgences. Expectantly, this brought Luther into conflict with Roman Catholic leadership there in Wittenberg, Germany.
Initially, Luther simply wanted to publicly debate the use of indulgences with Roman Catholic Church leadership. The theses outlined Luther’s position and included an invitation to debate the matter publicly.
Nobody accepted that invitation.
When you read the 95 theses, Luther’s tone throughout is submissive to the pope.
When the Theses were republished in [Luther’s] collected works (1545), he wrote in the preface: “I allow them to stand, that by them it may appear how weak I was, and in what a fluctuating state of mind, when I began this business. I was then a monk and a mad papist … and so submersed in the dogmas of the Pope that I would have readily murdered any person who denied obedience to the Pope.”Philip Schaff
Little did Luther know at the time, but this open challenge to Rome’s practice would bring him into fiery and life-threatening opposition with the pope in about a year.
Fact #4: Luther understood biblical faith (his “faith alone” view is misunderstood)
Like each of us, Martin Luther was a product of his age. He was born, baptized, trained and educated in the Roman Catholic Church. Catholicism was what he knew. And for all his efforts to return to the Bible, Luther still borrowed heavily from the Roman Church’s practices and traditions.
Luther is infamous for proclaiming and clinging to “salvation by faith alone” and for his “epistle of straw” comment in disdain of the letter of James.
(Did you know that Luther also rejected the book of Revelation?)
What fascinates me, though, is this: when I read Luther’s actual quotes about salvation by faith, Luther actually had an accurate perspective of what biblical faith means.
It was at this point while reading Schaff’s History of the Christian Church series that I most poignantly felt the truth that what really transpired is often deeper and more complicated than is reported later.
- In order to accurately understand the Reformation, we have to accurately perceive the situation at the time, as well as the background of the key actors involved.
- When we understand the background, we can grasp how conclusions were reached and why actions were taken, which, before may have seemed entirely illogical.
In my assessment, the root issue that has led to the differences in doctrines around baptism is the doctrine of Original Sin, which was formulated by Augustine in the fourth and fifth century. More specifically, it is the question: Are babies born innocent or immediately guilty of sin?
For centuries, the visible church had practiced infant baptism because popular belief was that all humans, regardless of age, inherited the sin of Adam and Eve, merely by possessing human nature.
According to Schaff, all the Reformers accepted the practice of infant baptism.
Yet, the long-understood issue that accepting Original Sin presents is:
- What happens to infants who die before being “baptized?”
- What good does baptism do for those who do not choose it for themselves?
While Luther claimed “salvation by faith alone,” he held to the doctrine of baptismal regeneration—the teaching that sins are forgiven at the point of baptism.
(Zwingli and Calvin, by contrast, dealt with the challenge presented by their acceptance of Original Sin by rejecting baptism being the point at which the sinner’s sins were forgiven.)
Regarding this, Schaff wrote:
Luther thanks God that this sacrament has been preserved uninjured, and kept from “the foul and impious monstrosities of avarice and superstition.” He agrees essentially with the Roman doctrine, and considers baptism as a means of regeneration; while Zwingli and Calvin regarded it merely as a sign and seal of preceding regeneration and church-membership. He even makes more of it than the Romanists, and opposes the prevailing view of St. Jerome, that penitence is a second plank of refuge after shipwreck. Instead of relying on priestly absolution, it is better to go back to the remission of sins secured in baptism. “When we rise out of our sins, and exercise penitence, we are simply reverting to the efficacy of baptism and to faith in it, whence we had fallen; and we return to the promise then made to us, but which we had abandoned through our sin. For the truth of the promise once made always abides, and is ready to stretch out the hand and receive us when we return.”Philip Schaff
Luther understood that biblical faith is belief that results in obedient action. Luther saw faith and obedience as inseparable.
For many who don’t understand the biblical definition of faith, they perceive inconsistency between the statements:
- We are saved by faith alone.
- Our sins are forgiven at the point of baptism.
Schaff tackles this perceived inconsistency in Luther’s words:
Luther’s view of baptismal regeneration seems to be inconsistent with his chief doctrine of justification by faith alone. He says, “It is not baptism which justifies any man, or is of any advantage; but faith in that word of promise to which baptism is added: for this justifies and fulfills the meaning of baptism. For faith is the submerging of the old man, and the emerging of the new man.”Philip Schaff
So, whereas I thought that Luther misunderstood biblical faith and undervalued good works, the reality is that he accurately understood both, yet (in my assessment) was unable to properly reconcile infant baptism due to his embracement of Original Sin.
Fact #5: Luther’s fiery resolve which fueled his break with Rome also started denominationalism
Have you ever wondered why there are so many Christian denominations today?
A big part of the reason is due to what transpired with Luther after his break with Rome.
In order to understand the magnitude of the situation, it’s important to recognize that Luther’s defiance of the pope, during that day and age in Germany, was life-threatening.
When I read the events that transpired and how Luther emerged successfully, I found it difficult to envision how such things could happen without divine intervention. It seems clear to me that GOD was actively protecting Luther in his fight with Rome.
Simultaneous to the events in Germany, another wing of reformation was underway in Switzerland under the leadership of Huldrych Zwingli.
Zwingli desired unity and fellowship with Luther.
The two Reformers held different views regarding the nature of Jesus’ presence in the Lord’s Supper elements.
Luther held to the Roman Catholic view that Jesus’ physical body and blood was somehow mystically contained within the bread and wine.
Zwingli held that Jesus used the bread and wine of the Supper as a symbol to remind the participant of His body and blood.
To Zwingli, this was a matter of lesser importance that the two could hold differing views upon and still be brethren.
Not so for Luther.
To Luther, refusal to believe in the literal presence of Jesus’ body and blood in the Lord’s Supper elements resulted in the partaker failing to receive the benefits of the Lord’s Supper. To Luther, this was what Paul meant when he wrote to the Corinthians that they ate and drank judgment to themselves.
After several written and in-person debates, realizing they were at an impasse, Zwingli extended the hand of fellowship to Luther. Sadly, Luther did not reciprocate.
To Luther, this was a matter of key doctrine about which there could be no compromise.
Luther’s steadfast resolve prevented him from reaching back.
Luther refused the hand of fellowship.
Thus, from the get-go, there would be two “branches” of Protestant believers: the Lutherans, under leadership of Luther and Melanchthon, and the Reformed, under the leadership of Zwingli and, subsequently, Calvin.
And the divisions were just getting started…
Despite my learnings over the past few years, I know so little about the Reformers and their work. I don’t pretend to be an expert about them.
Yet, through my readings so far, I realized that I had many misconceptions and misunderstandings. This seems to be a consistent theme in my studies so far:
The more I learn, the more I realize I was wrong about. I cringe thinking of how much I’m probably wrong about now.
Hopefully you benefitted from these observations about Martin Luther.
We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Luther and the other Reformers, even if they were wrong about some important doctrines.