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Martin Luther Protestant Reformation

Updated May 17, 2019

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.. received his priesthood. He was then sent to Wittenberg, where he held the professorship of moral philosophy for a year are so before returning to Efurt. Around 1512, Luther fell into a depression. He was plagued by the feeling that he was unable to fulfill God’s wishes.

But from this depression sprang illumination. Luther began to develop ideas which would eventually become the groundwork for Protestantism. He saw the theory of original sin and redemption for it as a selfish form of idolatry. He cited Paul’s Epistle to Rome as showing God to be a beneficent creator filled with love, not condemnation. The forgiveness of sin wasn’t a holy ritual which miraculously wiped away a person’s sins. He saw the rejection of sin as a spiritual and psychological miracle which took place inside of man.

This kind of personal communion with the Lord would awaken confidence in God’s other promises, producing a realization of man’s dependence on God or, as Luther saw it, faith. Luther began preaching this doctrine. Following hard upon this realization in 1517, a well-known indulgence preacher named John Tetzel appeared on the scene. Pope Julius II had decided upon his election in 1503 to immediately set about recreating the ancient glory of imperial Rome (Adams 256). Part of this plan was to tear down the old St.

Peter’s basilica, the center of all Christianity, and build a new one. The New St. Peter’s would eventually grow to become the largest church in history. In order to pay for all this work, the church increased the preaching and selling of indulgences across Europe. The area which Luther lived in had long since outlawed indulgences, but the news of the preachings of Tetzel on the northern border soon reached the monk. Luther wrote to the local archbishop condemning the selling of indulgences.

The idea that one could trade money for the absolution of their sins was a ridiculous notion to Luther. In the letter, he wrote These unhappy souls believe that if they buy a letter of pardon they are sure of their salvation; also that souls fly out of purgatory as soon as money is cast into the chest.. (qtd. in Dolan 235). On the same day he wrote that letter, October 31, 1517, he also posted his ninety-five theses on the door of the castle church at Wittenberg condemning indulgences and announced a debate on the issue.

One of Luther’s points was that the Pope can repeal punishment for ecclesiastical laws, but only God can give true forgiveness for sins. He also asked, in his eighty-second thesis, Why does not the Pope, if he has the power, out of Christian charity empty purgatory of the suffering souls all at once? At that heart of this issue was Luther’s idea of supreme good. He felt that devotion to God should be foremost in men’s hearts, not exemption from punishment. Life should not be lived avoiding the punishment of God, but rather fulfilling God’s Will. Luther’s ninety-five theses quickly spread over all of Europe, being either accepted or rejected with vehement passion by clergy everywhere.

The church struck back at Luther with criminal charges and demands of a trial, but the German clergy stood with the monk, many acknowledging that his views coincided with their own protests of the Roman church. Unable to silence Luther that way, the pope himself brought charges against Luther. Sadly, however, the general feeling of Rome was fear of lost profits, not a change in doctrine. Luther was eventually brought to trial and excommunicated from the church.

However, no further action could be taken against Luther in Germany because of his popularity with the people and the size of his movement had taken on. The church ordered all of Luther’s works burned, but few carried out this command with any enthusiasm. In 1520, he wrote a series of pamphlets entitled An Appeal to the Nobility of the German Nation, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church and On Christian Liberty, which together set forth a plan for reforming the church. These contained ideas so radical that it would be impossible, as Desiderius Erasmus the great humanist and historian said, to make peace with the papacy. The pamphlets called for a return to the Scriptures and Epistles as the sole belief system of the church, for a priesthood for the common man instead of an exclusive clergy, and a doctrine of justification by faith alone.

It must be asserted, though, that Luther and his followers still had no intention of removing themselves from the Catholic church. They wanted reform, not separation. But this reformation never happened. The leaders of different European countries swore allegiance to either one side or the other. Some governments followed the Protestant doctrine out of faith, others because it was a useful political tool in explaining their actions. In the Netherlands, for example, the Protestant Reform not only took the form of a religious upheaval but also of a political rebellion against the Spanish rulers.

Everywhere, Europe was split along religious lines. Luther was tossed from one place to another by this maelstrom, brought before councils and protected by supportive monarchs. Luther eventually died in 1546. In his final days, he had become a bitter and often disappointed man.

The Reformers who came to take his place seemed to him too fanatic and too proud. They had held back when he alone had faced the fury of the Pope, and now they had burst forth triumphantly now that the papacy had been broken. The Reformation continued outside of Germany, occurring mostly in the north and outside of England. Following Luther came Martin Bucer to lead the German Reform movement, Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland, and John Calvin in Geneva.

These men were keen observers of the winds of political change that ranged about them. They were more sophisticated than Luther and his earliest followers, and they planted the Reformation movement in large population centers and identified it with civic and social responsibilities. Holiness of life, not membership in a world-wide organizational design, was their criterion of the true Christian (Dolan 269). Each of them changed Luther’s original doctrine to suit their needs- mostly dealing with the Eucharist- but they kept the flame of the revolt alive. Following the lead of the Protestant Reformers on the continent, King Henry VIII of England rejected the authority of the pope and declared himself head of the Church of England in 1534. This rebellion was not, however, honest and sincere like that of the Protestant Reformers.

Henry broke with the church because he wanted a male heir to the throne, and he could not convince the pope to annul his marriage to Cathrine of Aragon- the first of his six wives. Following Henry, King Edward VI and Queen Elizabeth continued to mold this new church after the Protestant example. Elizabeth deliberately tried to keep the church a faith midway between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. Having lost much of its former glory, the Catholic church finally called together a council to take action against the Reformation which had so violently broken the church.

It had been over twenty years since any such council had met. The Council of Trent was convened at Trento in northern Italy from 1546 to 1564. The policies developed at the Council made up what was called the Counter- Reformation. In response to the humanistic views of the Reformation, the Catholic church zealously strengthened its own religious views. The council’s first action was, of course, to denounce Protestantism and reaffirm the Catholic doctrine.

It set into motion the improvement of the education of priests and reasserted the power and authority of the Pope across Europe. It also, to assure the pope’s power and to prevent future harm by rebels such as Luther, established the Inquisition whose duty it was to hunt out any threat to the church and remove it. So while the Reformation led to political dissension and increased rebellion, the Counter- Reformation resulted in intolerance, moralizing and a taste for exaggerated religiosity (Adams, 281). The final battle of the Protestant Reformation was fought nearly fifty years later: the Thirty Years’ War. An actual military war between the German princes which had banded together to form the Protestant Union and the Catholic League in the south and west. The war began with revolt in Bohemia, homeland of John Huss, and soon encompasses Denmark, Sweden and France as well.

The war finally ended in Germany in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia, but Europe would never again be the same. France and Spain continued to fight, and the Protestants and the Catholics continued to glare at each other from their respective sidelines. The explosion that had split the Catholic church had died away, but the fire it left behind continued to burn. Seen in perspective with the history of the times, the Reformation was inevitable.

It not only spoke out against the atrocities, selfishness and hypocrisy that the people of northern Europe protested against, but it also provided a form of religious expression that let men and women worship God in their own fashion. The lifestyles of northern and southern Europe were and still are vastly different. Italy at the time was far more crowded and urban than Germany and its neighbors. The people of the south were also of a different heritage. The Catholic church centered itself around the ruins of the Roman Empire and was made up of the descends of the Romans and Jews.

The people of the north came from the Germanic tribes like the Goths, tribes which had been instrumental in the fall of the Empire. The south was decadent, the north rural. It is hardly surprising that these two regions would eventually develop their own form of religious expression. Thus, Protestantism and its offshoots- Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist and such- are still popular in the world today, very often with people who have roots where the faiths originated. Roman Catholicism still thrives as well, but in a less corrupt state than during the Reformation. It now dominates much of Europe, while the Protestant religions have taken over America.

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