Imagine that we are all transported back to the city of Worms in the year 1530. Here, you find yourself involved in the trial of the German monk, Martin Luther, who has given himself up to the authority of the Catholic Church to address the charges that he is a heretical revolutionary.
Count 1. Development and preaching of heretical teachings.
Count 2. Inciting members of the Catholic Church to rebel against the authority and established doctrines of the universal Church.
Count 3. Willful denial of the authority of the Pope and the Catholic Church.
Major Differences between Catholics and Protestants
According to the Protestant reformers who shaped the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church had over the centuries incorporated many practices that were not in the Bible. They also argued that these “pagan” practices had been officially accepted in a number of Church councils held over the centuries. The reformers alleged that in the Creed adopted at the Council of Nicaea in 325 the Church first accepted such unscriptural ideas as praying for the dead, the veneration of angels and saints, the use of images, and the celebration of the daily mass.
These inclusions of non-scriptural practices continued through the Council of Ephesus in 431, where referring to Mary as the “Mother of God” became official Church doctrine. The
Protestants also disputed the supremacy of the pope and argued that nine years after the Council of Ephesus, in 440, Leo, Bishop of Rome, was the first to call himself the successor of St. Peter and lay claim to the role of Universal Bishop, a forerunner of papal authority.
The Protestant reformers also argued that over the following four hundred years many more new beliefs were added to the Church: The doctrine of Purgatory (593), prayers to the Virgin, Queen of Heaven (600), the supremacy of the pope (440), the ritual kissing of the pope’s foot (709), temporal power granted to the pope (750), worship of the crucifix, and images and relics (786). Other changes included holy water mixed with a pinch of salt and blessed by a priest (850), the worship of St. Joseph (890), canonization of dead saints (995), the establishment of the College of Cardinals to elect the popes (927), the baptism of bells (965), the canonization of dead saints (995), prescribed fasts on Fridays and during Lent (998), and mass declared to be the sacrifice of Christ (1050).
The Reformers alleged that the Roman Catholic Church had continued to add even more doctrines that were not taken from the Bible. For example, in 1079, Pope Gregory VII declared that all priests must observe complete celibacy. In 1090, Peter the Hermit introduced praying with rosary beads. A few other beliefs and practices authorized by the Church were the inquisition of alleged heretics (1184), the sale of indulgences (1190), the doctrine of transubstantiation (1215), the confession of sins to a priest instead of to God (1215), adoration of the wafer (1220), the forbidding of Bible-reading by laity (1229), the forbidding of sharing the communion cup with laity (1414), and the establishment of purgatory as an irrefutable dogma (1439).
Martin Luther and the Reformation
At the end of the fifteenth century, the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches were the two main institutions representing Christianity. But in the sixteenth century, a wave of European reformers ushered in a series of events that would radically challenge Christian theology and practice. A Catholic monk and professor of theology named Martin Luther became convinced that the Bible was the only true authority in spiritual matters and that the Bible taught that salvation was granted only by God’s grace and by faith. With these new insights, Luther sought to reform the Church and to expose its errant teachings.
Luther, who was born in Eisleben in1483, first studied law, but in 1505 he studied theology with the Augustinian Hermits in Erfurt. Ordained in 1507, he became the professor of biblical studies at the University of Wittenberg in 1512.
After studying the Scriptures for many years, Luther came to reject the theology based heavily on Church traditions and rulings. He affirmed instead a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through faith. He believed that God chose to forgive the sinner by His sovereign grace. As
Luther said, “We are justified not by our deeds, but by faith alone.” In 1520 Luther wrote a letter
(treatise) to Pope Leo X in which he stated: “The word of God cannot be received and cherished by any works whatever, but only by faith.”
Luther strongly opposed the sale of indulgences. People bought special indulgences that they believed could shorten the time of their departed relatives and friends in Purgatory, a place where the soul was purged so it could enter Heaven. Luther found no foundation in Scripture, reason, or tradition for the sale of indulgences. Instead, it caused people to look to man (priests) instead of to God for forgiveness and the absolution of sins.
In October 1517, this earnest university professor posted ninety-five theses on a church door in Wittenberg stating that salvation is achieved through faith alone. Expecting only to initiate a discussion about the theology of indulgences, Luther was emboldened after his allegations spread throughout Europe.
Confronted with opposition from the archbishop of Mainz, who complained to Rome, Luther refused to honor a summons to Rome and fled town. In 1519, he denied the supremacy of the Pope and the infallibility of Church councils. In 1520, the Pope proclaimed his excommunication, and in 1521 the German Emperor Charles V outlawed him. In this dangerous atmosphere, Frederick of Saxony, a German Prince, took him to Wartburg Castle and protected him from arrest. While there, he translated the New Testament into German so that everyone might have access to the Bible.
Eight months later, in 1522, Luther returned to Wittenberg and introduced his reforms and a new form of worship. Over the next twenty-five years, he published many books in German, written for the common people so that they could judge for themselves his teachings and disputes with
Rome. After this time, many princes, sensing the opportunity to break from the emperor’s power and attracted by Luther’s theology, became his followers.
In 1529, Charles V tried forcefully to smother Luther’s movement, but some of the selfgoverning German princes fought back. Because of their protest, his followers became known as “Protestants.” What had started as an internal reform of Catholicism became a full-scale Protestant reformation, leading to the founding of a number of new Christian sects. In spite of his peace-seeking, non-controversial attempt to explain his views in 1530, the division between the Catholics and Protestants became more distinct.
Issues Separating Luther and Protestantism from the Roman Catholic Tradition
Roman Catholics believe that the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, is vested in the pope. The Protestant reformers insisted that the Scripture is the sole source of knowledge about the truth of God and Jesus’ message and that every reader has the right to study, analyze, and reach his or her own conclusions on the meaning of Scripture.
Justification by Faith
The major issue that led to the Reformation was the issue of “justification.” Justification can be defined as “the free and unmerited assistance or favor or energy or saving presence of God in his dealings with humans.” A person is “justified” when she or he is “brought into right standing and into a right relationship with God.” Protestants believe that humans do not have to work for justification. It comes to Christians as a free gift. One can grow in holiness but one cannot improve or add to his or her justification. That comes from faith alone. The Roman Catholic Church stated that an individual must work for justification: it depends upon one’s effort, one’s obedience, and one’s goodness.
According to the canon law of the Roman Catholic Church, “The supreme or full power of jurisdiction over the universal Church both in matters of faith and morals and in matters of discipline and government belongs to the pope.” Jurisdiction means the power to make laws and to compel obedience. The Church maintains that the pope’s authority is absolute and immediate in all matters of faith and morals, and in matters of discipline and government. The Protestant reformers reject the pope’s authority and insist that the Scriptures are the sole basis for all questions of faith, salvation, and other aspects of belief.
The Mass and Transubstantiation
For Roman Catholics, the celebration of the mass is a dramatic re-enactment of the sacrifice of
Christ on Calvary. Catholics believe that when the priest pronounces the words, “This is my body”, and “This is my blood,” the bread and the wine before him on the altar become the actual body and blood of Christ in everything but taste, color, and texture. This is the miracle of transubstantiation. Protestants observe the act of communion (sharing the wine or grape juice and bread) as a symbolic reenactment of the Last Supper Jesus shared with his disciples. They do not believe there is any transubstantiation of the elements.
The sacrament of penance is one of the principal means of grace in the Roman Catholic Church.
Catholics must confess their sins to a priest. Penance is a sacrament whereby sins, whether mortal or venial, which one has committed after baptism, are forgiven and all must go to the priest to have sins forgiven.
The Roman Catholic catechism states that purgatory is “the place where souls suffer for a time after death on account of their sins.” The Protestant Reformers argued that since Purgatory is not mentioned in the Scriptures, it has no validity in Christian teachings.
Many Catholics pray to Mary as a way to Christ. The Rosary, which is the most common prayer ritual of Roman Catholics, has ten prayers to Mary. Protestants value Mary as the mother of
Jesus Christ but do not regard her as an intermediary between individuals and God.
Use of Images
After 786, Catholics were officially encouraged to use images as vehicles to help them reach
God, especially images of Mary and the Crucified Jesus on the Cross. Protestants avoid the use
of images, citing the commandment not to make graven images.
Luther’s Basic Positions
Indulgences were granted by the pope. They forgave individual sinners not their sins, but the temporal punishment applied to those sins. These indulgences had become big business in much the same way pledge drives have become big business for public television in modern America. Luther’s Theses, which outlined his theological argument against the use of indulgences, were based on the notion that Christianity is fundamentally a phenomenon of the inner world of human beings and had little or nothing to do with the outer world, such as temporal punishments. It is this fundamental argument, not the controversy of the indulgences themselves, that most people in the Church disapproved of and that led to Luther’s being hauled into court in 1518 to defend his arguments against the cardinal Cajetan. When the interview focused on the spiritual value of “good works,” that is, the actions that people do in this world to benefit others and to pay off the debts they have incurred against God by sinning, Cajetan lost his temper and demanded that Luther recant. Luther ran, and his steady scission from the Church was set in motion. The Northern Humanists, however, embraced Luther and his ideas.
Faith, not good works
Luther’s first writing was The Sermon on Good Works, in which he argued that good works do not benefit the soul; only faith could do that.
“I, Martin Luther, an unworthy preacher of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, thus profess and
thus believe; that this article, that faith alone, without works, can justify before God, shall never
be overthrown ... This is the true Gospel … This is the doctrine I shall teach; and this the Holy
Spirit and the Church of the faithful has delivered. In this will I abide. Amen.” (Qtd. in Logos
Resource Page, David L. Brown and Malcolm Watts, “5 Pillars of Reformation Truth,”
Things took a turn for the worse: Pope Leo declared 41 articles of Luther’s teachings as heretical, and Luther’s books were publicly burned in Rome. Luther became more passionate in his effort to reform the Church. In 1521, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, demanded that Luther appear before the diet of the Holy Roman Empire at Worms. Luther was asked to explain his views and Charles ordered him to recant. Luther refused and he was placed under an imperial ban as an outlaw. He managed to escape, however, and he was hidden away in a castle in Wartburg where he continued to develop his new Church.
The confessions—the Augsburg Confession of 1530 and Luther’s Small Catechism, along with five other supporting documents—are like the Magna Charta or the Declaration of Independence. They are not legislative, like constitutions. Rather, they are just what the name says, confessions of the freedom of the gospel in Jesus Christ that seek to orient further confessing by the people of God. At the same time, they are safeguards of the Church’s freedom, protecting against the kind of abuses of power that occasioned the Lutheran reformation. For these reasons, Lutherans have given the confessions a prior status in the life of the Church. They come after the Scripture but before other authorities, like the constitution or Church-wide and synodical officers.
Talking Points for Participants in the Trial of Martin
The Old and New Testaments are the only sources of Christian teaching.
Sources of teaching include:
• Old Testament
• New Testament
• Catholic Church tradition
• Catholic interpretation of the Bible
• Certain papal declarations
• Bishops in conjunction with the pope
We are justified (saved) by faith alone, not by good works. Good works will result in greater
rewards in the afterlife but have no effect on getting saved.