The Emergence of Modern Europe, 1500-1700 / Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation / Background Essay

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The Emergence of Modern Europe, 1500-1700 / Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation / Background Essay

Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and professor of theology at the relatively new University of Wittenberg, Saxony, began a relatively mild critique of the Roman Catholic Church at the beginning of the 16th century that quickly turned into a complete call for the reformation of the church. The Reformation movement he initiated would find support especially in northern Europe and result in the formation of the Evangelical (Lutheran) Church based in Germany and Scandinavia that would in the subsequent century become a worldwide phenomenon.

Luther was born on November 10, 1483, in Eisenben, Germany. His father, though not of the nobility, was relatively well-to-do and his ambitions for his son included an education. As a youth, Luther was sent to schools in Mansfield, Magdeburg, and Eisenach, which prepared him for entrance to the University of Erfurt in 1501. He graduated four years later with an MA degree. At this point, his college career was diverted by a period of personal soul-searching occasioned by the death of a friend. Feeling his own finitude, he entered the Augustinian Order, within which he combined rumination on his personal spiritual situation with theological studies. He was ordained a priest in 1507. His superiors recognized his intellectual talents and selected him for advanced studies. He earned his bachelor's degree in theology at the University of Wittenberg in 1509.

After completing his doctorate (1512), Luther stayed at Wittenberg as a lecturer. He initially chose to focus his lectures on the biblical book of Psalms (1513–1515). His studies and lectures led to a belief that Christian salvation focused on a new relationship with God that was based in faith in Christ rather than deeds of merit done by the individual. He concluded that a Christian was also a sinner and hence undeserving of God's love. God nevertheless redeemed individuals and out of that new relationship started by God, the individual believer tried to conform his or her life to God's will. While sacraments and good deeds were still an important part of religious existence, they paled in comparison to the new relationship with God.

With this new insight, Luther turned his attention to Paul's letter to the Romans, out of which came his own personal experience of salvation. He came to feel that God had forgiven his sin and that he had received that salvation by faith and faith alone. Luther moved from his intense personal experiences into the middle of a very public controversy. Johann Tetzel (1466–1519), a Dominican monk, traveled through Germany to sell indulgences. Any funds he raised were forwarded to Rome to cover the cost of building St. Peter's Cathedral.

Luther saw indulgences, especially the commercialization of them by Tetzel, as a practice built on bad theology and a complete misunderstanding of grace, faith, and biblical salvation. He decided to challenge the practice and did so by proposing 95 points for debate. These points were written down and the list, reputedly, nailed to the door of the parish church at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. The sale of indulgences dropped dramatically. Tetzel attempted to recover by proposing a set of counterpoints. Luther and Tetzel's interaction led to a debate, though Tetzel would be replaced by theologian Johann Eck. The debate was held in 1519 in Leipzig. Luther built his defense by direct reference to the Bible, its text being cited to refute the rulings of popes and church councils. He claimed that both popes and councils had made mistakes. Luther was declared a heretic and excommunicated.

In response to the debate and subsequent excommunication, Luther made his case to a larger audience in three lengthy essays. The Appeal to the German Nobility (1520) centered on the idea of the priesthood of all believers. The effect of asserting that every person was a priest had in effect removed some authority from parish priests and recast it in terms of the personal relationship between God and the believer. The whole concept would unfortunately soon be taken in some quite radical (and even violent) ways, much to Luther's consternation. He took up the subject of the church's elaborate sacramental system in Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520) and concluded that only two of the church's sacraments, baptism and the Lord's Supper, met the criteria for continuation. On a lesser but not unimportant point, Luther argued that the cup of wine representing the blood of Christ should be given to the believers when the Lord's Supper was celebrated. Finally, Luther laid out a more systematic and complete understanding of faith in God, salvation, and the Christian life in The Freedom of the Christian Man (1520).

Access to one of the new printing presses invented in the previous century by Johannes Gutenberg allowed the relatively quick circulation of Luther's writings, and their broad circulation led the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire to summon Luther to the meeting of its governing body, the Diet, which met at Worms. In defending his writings, Luther appealed to the Bible and to reason. The Diet of Worms condemned him, but the secular ruler of the region, Frederick, the elector of Saxony (1463–1525), was both very protective of his university and its faculty and strongly opposed the draining of finances from his territory to Rome. In addition, by the time the Diet met, significant support for Luther had developed across northern Germany. Though condemned, Frederick arranged for Luther's disappearance. Luther took the time to produce additional materials supportive of the developing perspective. The major new items produced by Luther at this time were his translation of the New Testament in the German language (1522) and a volume of hymns that included some written by Luther himself (1524).

While the churches in Germany were instituting the changes called for by Luther, a similar movement was developing in German-speaking portions of Switzerland under Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531). The two Reformation efforts developed along a parallel course, but a significant disagreement emerged between the two leaders over the issue of the sacraments. Zwingli came to believe that baptism and the Lord's Supper were primarily ordinances that continued because they were commanded by Christ. The Lord's Supper was primarily a memorial meal remembering Christ's sacrificial death. In sharp contrast, Luther believed that Christ became present for the believer in the sacramental act. Since they held the great majority of Reformation principles in common, Zwingli met Luther at Marburg in 1529 and the two tried to reconcile their few differences. The Marburg Colloquy, however, was unable to resolve the conflicting views on the sacraments, and the two men went their separate ways.

Unable to reconcile with Zwingli, Luther renewed his attempt to reach an agreement with the Roman Catholics. Through a document largely written by his faculty colleague Philip Melanchthon (1497–1560), in 1530 Luther and his supporters presented a statement of their beliefs to the Lutheran princes of the Diet meeting at Augsburg in 1530. Though the Augsburg Confession was rejected, the Lutheran movement had reached a point of maturity and strength that largely assured its perpetuation.

During the remaining 16 years of his life, Luther spent much of his time writing, while his colleagues took the lead in the various battles with the Catholic forces. From 1533 to his death in 1546 he served as the dean of the theology faculty at Wittenberg. Meanwhile, on June 13, 1525, Luther had given up his monk's vows of celibacy and married Catherine von Bora (1499–1552). She bore six children, four of whom reached adulthood.

In the later years of his life, Luther completed the German translation of the whole Bible (1534), compiled the Lutheran confessional statement known as the Smalcald Articles (1537), and wrote the Short Confession Concerning the Lord's Supper (1544) and a final attack on Roman Catholic authority, Against the Papacy at Rome Founded by the Devil (1545). Now considered one of his ill-considered works, he wrote a harsh polemic against the Jewish community, Jews and their Lies, published in 1543. Many consider this work a prime example of the anti-Semitism of the era.

Luther's death occurred in the midst of a trip to Eisleben. While there, his health failed him and he was too ill to return to Wittenberg, He died on February 18, 1546.

The Lutheran Reformation destroyed the religious unity of Europe. The movement not only came to dominate much of northern Europe, it created a situation in which further dissent led to the creation of modern Anglicanism in England and the adherents of John Calvin's variant Reformation perspective came to control much of Switzerland, Holland, and Scotland. The whole Reformation would raise considerations of religious toleration and the status of minority dissenting religious groups, most notably the Mennonites and the Unitarians.


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Melton, J. Gordon. "Background Essay." World History: The Modern Era. ABC-CLIO, 2011. Web. 4 Oct. 2011.


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  1. Why did Luther believe indulgences were corrupt?

  2. Who tried to get Luther in trouble and why?

  3. Was Luther punished by the Church?

  4. How did Luther’s teachings change Europe?

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