Martin Luther was a Roman Catholic Monk. That is the first fact to get straight before going any farther. He worked hard studying the scripture – and at working hard – in order to be the best young monk he could possibly be. By nailing his 95 theses to the door of the church at Wittenberg he was hoping to begin Catholic Church reform. He was neither expecting nor prepared for what happened next.
By the end of the Middle Ages, it was no secret that the Catholic Church had some problems. Why was there a series of Crusades launched into the Mid East and Africa? Because the Church (read “high-ranking church officials”) were greedy to grab land and wealth. While all Europeans were Christian, none of them, save the priests and monks, could read. They blindly followed Pope Urban II and others into the Crusades, seeking the promised land, wealth, and eternal salvation. And why shouldn’t they? Only the Church leaders could read the words of scripture. They commanded the collective forces of all Europe, and you know the old saying: Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
There were others before Luther that claimed the Bible should be the highest source of authority, not the word of the Pope or Church traditions. John Wycliffe was excommunicated; Jan Hus was actually burned at the stake. What pushed Luther over the edge was the selling of indulgences. Tetzel was raising funds to build Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and the value of indulgences were being greatly exaggerated. He was in essence selling tickets to heaven. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church – a common practice for sharing news within the community at that time – and history was set in motion.
All of Luther’s ideas centered around 3 main points. First, salvation was brought by faith alone in God’s grace and mercy, and not achieved by good works as taught by the church. Secondly, all Church teachings should clearly be rooted in the Bible, not in the Pope or Church traditions. Finally, all people of faith are equal, and do not need Church officials to interpret the Bible for them. He was hoping the Church could address some of these issues. He was looking for reform within the Church, not a new life outside of it.
The Renaissance was bringing change to Europe, albeit well overdue. The ideas of Luther were printed on Gutenberg’s new printing press, then mass produced and distributed all over Germany. Pope Boniface VI was the last pontif to try to impose his will on a monarch; those days were over as well. A massive following of Luther meant that the Church would not be able to silence him. Protestantism was a movement, and it was bigger than just Martin Luther himself.
War was fought in Germany between Protestants and Catholics, which ended (?) in 1555 with the Peace of Augsburg. There were no winners and losers; think of it as agreeing to disagree. To the Protestants, it meant that the Catholic Church was no longer the only game in town. To the Catholics, all of those who defied the official teachings of the church were going to hell.
There was eventually a series of events known as the Catholic Reformation, but the changes didn’t amount to much. They culminated in the Council of Trent, which met in 1545 and 1563 to basically issue a list of statements about how the Church was right all along. They reaffirmed the necessity of works to bring salvation, and declared anyone providing their own interpretation of scripture a heretic. While the selling of false indulgences was banned, purchasing an indulgence was still to be considered a valid expression of faith.
This essay is an abbreviated account of these events. I wanted to stay under 1,000 words. PBS did a dramatized documentary on Martin Luther, which you can link to here. It’s in two parts, each about an hour in length. While there are a few “experts” out there who could straighten me out on a few things, this is more church history than many Christians will ever get anywhere else. Christians should know 1) what we believe and 2) why we believe it. Expect that post to come soon.