Martin Luther Inaugurates The Reformation

Feature, Middle Ages

The Split of Western Christendom

By the beginning of the sixteenth century, opposition to the Church was growing to the proportions of a widespread revolt. Only a spark was required to set the sensitive tinder aflame; and in the event, the spark was to be kindled by an obscure German monk who split the Christian world in two.

The Church had brought its troubles on its own head. For several centuries the general immorality of the priesthood had caused revulsion among laymen and among the more honest and Christian churchmen. From St Bernard at the beginning of the twelfth century to Bishop Fox, who founded Corpus Christi College at Oxford in 1516, every generation had produced distinguished men who had all advocated the most urgent reforms in terms that were unambiguous and could be at once fully understood.

The abuses were of all kinds: the acquisition of great wealth by corrupt means, the multiplication of holy days with their attendant orgies and riots, the sale of Indulgences by which a man might free himself from the responsibility of his sins by the payment of money, the immunity of the clergy from the secular laws, which made it possible for unscrupulous priests to commit crimes without fear of punishment; the list is a long one.

But of all the immorality that was indulged, it was by their sexual behaviour that the churchmen gave the greatest offence. Priests forsook their vows of chastity and celibacy and lived in concubinage, fathering families with secular prodigality, while many monks and nuns turned their monasteries and convents into private brothels.

Though it was principally in the sphere of ethics that the most serious grounds for complaint against the Church lay, there were other important aspects of the Church’s role which gave grave cause for dissatisfaction, though even here the authority which the Church should have had and could have had was undermined and dissipated by the sexual immorality. How this operated can be seen in the field of doctrine; where the clergy should have been able to speak without fear of opposition, men were loth to accept the views of those whose sexual behaviour broke every rule of Christian ethics.

From the twelfth century onwards there were extensive, though somewhat disorganized, heretical movements, which rejected one or other of the major doctrinal concepts. For example, round about A.D. 1200, certain Paris teachers adopted the teaching of Averroes, the most outstanding of Arabic philosophers at this time, which denied the personality of God, the Creation and the immortality of the soul.

The Church met all heretical movements with great ferocity. Crusades were organized for their extermination, while the Inquisition dealt out torture and death to individuals with the avowed intention of saving their souls from eternal damnation, while at the same time it confiscated for the Church’s use all the possessions of its victims.

In the fourteenth century, doctrinal conflicts sprang up within the Church itself; and from these conflicts came first the removal of the Popes from Rome to Avignon from 1309 to 1378, and second, the Great Schism.

The latter grew out of the former. The Popes had moved to Avignon for political reasons, but when these reasons no longer operated and the Pope of the time, Gregory XI, returned to Rome, upon his death, which followed shortly upon his arrival in Rome, two Popes were elected, one in Rome and the other in Avignon.

For the next thirty-nine years there were two Popes, at times, even three, all claiming to be the true head of the Church. During all this time the Church continued to lose authority. It was certainly the Great Schism which gave force to the heresy of John Wycliffe.

Wycliffe, Master of Balliol College, Oxford, was acknowledged by his contemporaries to be the supreme exponent of philosophical disputation in the University and his lectures were always crowded. It was Wycliffe’s view of property which first brought him into conflict with the Church.

He held that since Christ and the Apostles had no property, property is the result of sin. From this he argued that the Church has no concern with temporal matters, and as it is sinful for the clergy to hold property, it is lawful for statesmen who are God’s stewards in temporal matters to take away the goods of the clergy.

Since the Church in England, as everywhere else, was among the most extensive owners of property in the country, these views did not appeal to it at all, and Wycliffe was summoned before the Bishop of London to answer the charge that he was following the heretical error of Marsilius of Padua, who had, a little time before, put forward similar views.

The support of certain powerful secular leaders saved Wycliffe from punishment, but when the Great Schism occurred he turned his hostility towards the Pope. He did not object to there being a human head of the Church so long as this head was a truly righteous man. From this he extended his attacks to the whole organization of the Church and many of its doctrines.

He gathered together a number of preachers and sent them throughout the country to preach his views, and he translated the Bible into English. By these means he removed much of the mystery of religion and made it possible for the simple people to understand the uncomplicated teaching of the Gospel.

At the same time, in learned Latin treatises, Wycliffe attacked the doctrine of Transubstantiation. While he did not, indeed could not, deny the presence of Christ in the Bread and Wine of the Sacrament of Communion, what “he dares not affirm is that the Bread after consecration is essentially, substantially, corporeally and identically the Body of Christ”.

This was a major heresy, and even his most ardent lay supporters, when he had been attacking the corruption of the Church, could not support him in this. The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 widened the rift between Wycliffe and his highly placed patrons because the communistic social reformers who played their part in this uprising claimed that their cause was based upon Wycliffe’s teaching. In fact, they were merely adapting his teaching for their own ends, and though Wycliffe himself repudiated much of their programme, he and his followers, the Lollards, came to be regarded as political anarchists rather than as reformers of clerical abuses.

Nevertheless when the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Courtenay, resolved to stamp out Wycliffe’s heresy and called him before a court of Bishops, his University friends gave him such powerful support that though the court decided against Wycliffe, he was not molested, and in the brief interval until his death, of a stroke in 1384, he continued to inveigh against Church doctrine.

The Wycliffe episode was but one of a number of similar attacks on the Church by men of courage all over Europe, like John Huss in Prague, for example, but the effect they had on the Church’s behaviour was negligible. They caused anger and a little confusion for a time, but such was the power of Rome that they were destined to fade out for lack of powerful secular support.

So the situation remained until the beginning of the sixteenth century. Always an inflammatory one, the spark of just the right quality had not yet been struck to touch off the conflagration that could not be put out. But this event was not far off.

On 31 October, 1517, an Augustinian friar from the Black Monastery at Wittenberg, in Germany, pinned to the door of the Castle church in Wittenberg what has since become known as The 95 Theses against the Abuse of Indulgences.

The friar, Martin Luther, had been born to free peasant parents on 10 November, 1483. Later the family moved to Mansfeld, where the father became an iron-ore miner.

Luther later complained of the harshness of his upbringing by his parents, from which it would appear that they were strict disciplinarians. They saw to it that their son was reared in current religious beliefs and popular superstitions.

At the age of seven, Luther was sent to the Latin school in Mansfeld, and proved so apt a pupil that when he was fourteen he was sent to Magdeburg to continue his education. This was followed by entry to the University of Erfurt, where he took his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1502, and at the age of twenty-two, in 1505, his Master’s degree.
Having acquired the senior qualification, on his father’s insistence he embarked on the study of the law. Two months later, however, he suddenly renounced the world and entered the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt.

At the end of a year’s novitiate, Luther took the vows of obedience, poverty and chastity, and at the close of a further year he was ordained into the priesthood. After three years as a lecturer, he was appointed Sub-Prior of the monastery at Wittenberg in 1511. The year before, he had visited Rome on monastery business, and had been painfully impressed by the low moral standards of the Holy City.

He had been Sub-Prior of the Black Monastery at Wittenberg about a year, when, as he was meditating on a passage in St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, there came into his mind the first thoughts which were eventually to lead him to formulate his own version of the doctrine of * justification by faith”.

His progress towards the acceptance of this doctrine involved him in a long personal struggle, for despite the strictest observance of the Augustinian Rule, and the most rigorous asceticism, he had (ailed to find peace of conscience. In his search for a gracious God, it was in his temperament, in the lofty religious and moral standards he set himself, and in the religious, practical and theological teaching of the medieval Church that the root of his struggle lay.

In his lectures on the Epistle to the Romans, Luther had already shown that given the cause he might turn into a reformer. In this connexion, it must be pointed out that the Germany of his time was thoroughly prepared for a revolt against the Church. There were many flourishing cities, the printing press had been in action for a long time, several vernacular versions of the Bible were in circulation, the Inquisition scarcely operated for various reasons, and the comparative weakness of the central government made it possible for any reformer to be effectively protected by local princes, who might shelter him until his movement had taken a strong root.

The direct action which may be said to have sparked off the Reformation was Luther’s act of nailing his 95 Theses against the Abuse of Indulgences to the church door.

This act had been motivated by the activities of the scandalous Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz, who was already Bishop of Magdeburg and of Halberstadt when he bribed the Pope to allow him to acquire the Archbishopric. To pay the Pope, Albrecht had borrowed 10,000 ducats (a vast sum) from a banking house, and to pay off this debt the Pope had given him permission to offer Indulgences for sale, on the pretext that the money thus collected was to be devoted to the rebuilding of St Peter’s in Rome.

Luther came to hear, as indeed he could not fail to do, of the success of the Archbishop’s agents and of the lying prospectus for the Indulgences, and he decided to make these events the opportunity for attacking the abuse of Indulgences in general. His ninety-five reasons for banning the sale of Indulgences included attacks on the whole manner of the Church acquiring wealth.

Besides nailing his Theses to the church door, Luther sent a copy with a strongly worded letter to the Archbishop. Recognizing the threat to his plans, the Archbishop was unwilling to attract attention to it by taking desperate action and Luther was invited to defend his Theses in disputation. This did not take place, but defence and attack upon the Theses were published, with the result that Luther was charged with heresy, and summoned to appear at Rome within sixty days.

The Elector of Saxony now intervened, and for political reasons the Pope consented to refer the case to a legate empowered to receive Luther’s submission. The legate insisted on unconditional retraction of his heresy, but Luther refused to retract unless “he was found to be in error by the Scriptures”.

A long-drawn-out controversy ensued, until in 1521 the Pope issued a Bull of Excommunication against Luther and called upon the Emperor Charles V to execute it. Again the Elector of Saxony intervened, and Charles summoned Luther to appear for examination before the Diet of Worms, offering him safe conduct and sanctuary while within the city boundaries.

Before the Diet Luther again defended himself stoutly and refused to retract, and in the face of this intransigence Charles ordered him to leave Worms. As he and his companions were travelling through the Thuringian forest Luther was met by a party of the Elector’s horsemen who hurried them to the secret safety of Wartburg castle. At the end of ten months, however, opposition from the Elector on political grounds led Luther to leave Wartburg and resume his public activity in Wittenberg.

By this time Luther’s courage in resisting all authority spread throughout all Germany and beyond Germany, while the reforms which he was advocating found wide support from the people and many of the princes. (Among those who opposed Luther’s teaching was the English King Henry VIII, who published an attack on it for which he received from the Pope the title of Defender of the Faith, which, paradoxically, the sovereigns of Protestant England, from Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II, have continued to hold.)

A Diet summoned at Speyer in 1524 began to lay plans for the setting up of a Church council which would have separated from Rome, and formed a national Church. Any measures it might have taken, however, were disastrously affected by the outbreak of the German Peasants’ Revolt in June the same year. The excesses subsequently committed by the peasants shocked Luther, though he had at first sympathized, and he was compelled openly to disown them.

By this time the supporters of Luther had adopted the name of Protestants. The struggle between Protestantism and Catholicism from the final stages of the Peasants’ Revolt became subordinated to party politics, but another Diet at Speyer in 1526 procured the decision that “each prince shall act in matters of faith so as to be able to answer for his conduct to God and the Emperor”. In June, 1530, at a Diet held at Augsburg, another of the principal reformers, Melancthon, drew up a confession which minimized the differences between the Lutherans and the Catholics.

Since the Empire was at this time being threatened by a Turkish invasion, the Emperor, for the sake of national unity, by the Peace of Nuremberg (1532), guaranteed the Protestants freedom from molestation. This was the beginning of the end of the struggle, though the Church was to strive to bring the Protestants to heel for another twenty years, until finally the Peace of Augsburg, by which Protestantism was actually legalized, affected half the population of Germany.

In Switzerland and France, in the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden, Luther’s teachings had given rise to Protestant movements whose history followed courses not dissimilar from that which Luther’s personal struggle took. Only the English were different.

The quarrel between King and Pope over the King’s divorce had already separated the Church in England from the authority of Rome. Having declared himself to be Head of the Church, Henry then decided to put that Church’s house in order. He moved without haste, however, but in the reign of his successor, Edward VI, reforms were introduced more rapidly. A return to Catholicism in the reign of Mary was the dying flame of Roman Catholicism here. Elizabeth I recognized that Protestantism had come to stay, and under her reasonably tolerant guidance the Reformation became firmly established until by the end of her reign England had become the leader of Protestant Europe.

The movement which Martin Luther set in motion on that last day of October, 1517, had consequences for the Christian religion as strongly felt four and a half centuries later as they were in its immediate future. Twentieth-century churchmen have now set themselves upon a course designed to heal some of the many breaches which Luther inflicted on the Church’s defences. The gaps may be partially filled, but it is doubtful whether there will ever again be one universal Christian Church.