The World Luther Faced
During the 14th-16th centuries, the Papal States struggled with corruption and questionable activities. As a result, on Halloween day, in 1517, Martin Luther publicly questioned the actions of the church in his hometown of Wittenburg, leading to the Protestant Reformation. His Ninety-five Theses or Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences initiated a European dialogue which brought into question the legitimacy of Papal authority and the long accepted customs of the Roman Catholic Church. Luther’s theses grasped the attention of European citizens and monarchs alike. Pope Leo X and papal supporters denounced Luther, and criticized his interpretation of scriptures. Thomas More and Desiderius Erasmus were in the ranks of Luther’s critics. (Read more information about events leading to the Protestant Reformation in the first part of this series, The Catholic Low-Point).
Desiderius Erasmus was born in 1466. He lived during the reigns of several corrupt popes (Popes Alexander VI and Julius II) and experienced the reformations of Martin Luther. Thomas More was another humanist who lived in the time of the Protestant Reformations. They both criticized aspects about the Catholic Church, but when a divide between Protestant and Catholic occurred, both Erasmus and More defended the Roman Catholic Church against Martin Luther and his followers. (Read more about Erasmus and More in the second part of the series, The Defenders of Catholicism).
Martin Luther was a devout Christian with a god-fearing mind, who was never satisfied with his spiritual state. He came from a family of average wealth, but his father, Hans Luther, earned enough money from his occupation as a smeltermaster to allow Martin Luther to receive an in-depth education. Like Erasmus, Luther gained from the teachings of the Brethren of the Common Life a respect for Greek and Roman Classics. Under the orders of his father, Martin Luther attended the University of Erfurt, in which he achieved a Bachelor of Arts and Master’s Degree.
There are conflicting theories as to what influenced Luther to pursue a monastic life, but a lightning storm or the death an acquaintance are the most popular stories among scholars. Whatever the case, Luther joined the Black Cloister of the Observant Augustinians in 1505. Luther’s uncertainty of his own salvation haunted him even in the monastery. His perceived sins tormented him into repeated acts of penance. Carter Lindberg, in The European Reformations, quoted Luther’s own thoughts on the matter: “I tortured myself with prayers, fasting, vigils, and freezing: the frost alone might have killed me” (source 3). One of the duties Martin Luther was required to perform as a monk was to attend regular confessions, and the man Luther confessed to, Johann von Staupitz, eventually encouraged Luther to study theology. Martin Luther first started teaching at the Augustinian university in Wittenberg around 1513 or 1514. Teaching at the university allowed Luther to sharpen his theological ideas. The university provided Luther with access to theological writings, including various translations and differing opinions of the Bible, among which was a version of the New Testament translated by Erasmus.
In his studies, Luther received an epiphany that perhaps God’s righteousness was not directed against sinners, but given to the sinners in forgiveness. Luther received his epiphany from the verses “Romans 1:17 ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live’” and ‘“Romans 3:25 ‘HE FORGIVES SIN”’ (source 5). Luther concluded that sinners had to have faith that they were saved. He was able to alleviate his own intense fear that his fasts, vigils and prayers were not enough to ensure his own salvation. He published his ideas in his ninety-five theses, but he was calling for a simple academic debate. Luther describes his life before his theses: “I was once a monk and a most enthusiastic papist,” and he goes on to say, “I humbly conceded to the pope in my earlier writings” (source 6).
It was not Luther’s writing itself which attracted the most popularity, but it was the Papacy’s reaction to Luther, and Luther’s ability to defend against the Papists in debates. Luther told his students and friends, later in life, that he would “enter the fray after careful reflection and in a sufficiently hostile frame of mind” (Check out our quote picture). Luther rapidly gained public support for his defense against the experienced Papal debaters, Cajetan (in 1518) and Eck (in 1519), followed by Luther’s refusal to recant his beliefs in 1521 while present at the court of Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and King of Spain. Luther’s ideas were translated and spread using the power of the printing press, giving commoners and nobility alike the possibility to find assurance of their own salvation.
The image and respect of the papacy was also at a low point because the reign of the corrupt Popes, Alexander VI and Julius II, was a fresh memory. Men like Erasmus and More were fervent defenders of the Catholic faith, but even they had complaints of the church. Luther’s ideas arrived when the papacy had recently been plagued by corruption, humanists begged for Christians to not blindly follow ritual, and the common man frantically sought a sense of assurance concerning his salvation. All of this coincided with the election of Charles V as emperor, which meant Frederick “the wise,” Luther’s protector, had a great amount of political clout because of his electoral vote and was able to keep Luther safe. Luther’s timing could hardly have been any better.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
(Part one—The Catholic Low-Point)
(Part Two—The Defenders of Catholicism)
- Carter Lindberg. The European Reformations (Second Edition). Massachusetts: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Pg 55.
- Carter Lindberg. The European Reformations (Second Edition). Massachusetts: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Pg 61.
- Carter Lindberg. The European Reformations (Second Edition). Massachusetts: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Pg 62.
- Carter Lindberg. The European Reformations (Second Edition). Massachusetts: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Pg 63.
- Carter Lindberg. The European Reformations (Second Edition). Massachusetts: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Pg 66.
- A Reformation Reader: Primary Texts with Introductions, edited by Denis R. Janz. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008. Pg. 78.