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Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation

Martin Luther: 1483-1546

Martin Luther was born in Eisleben (in Electoral Saxony) to Hans and
Margarita Luther. At the time, in Electoral Saxony, the youngest son inherited, who
wasnt Hans, which didnt suit him, so he moved (with everybody else) from
Eisleben to Mansfeld (still in Electoral Saxony) to seek his fortune, which he found:
he found great success as a copper smelter (the Luthers were a mining family, so
the leap was perfectly logical), quickly moving up to owner of several copper
smelters. So the Luthers are well off enough to educate Martin (the smart son). In
1501, he matriculates at the university at Erfurt; he gets his bachelors in 1502 and
his masters in 1505. The plan was for him to read the law and become a notary, to
improve his life and the lives of his (someday) kids.
July 2, 1505: Luthers out for a stroll by the German village of Stotternheim,
when he gets hit by a thunderstorm. He fears for his safety, so he appeals to Saint
Anne (patron saint of Miners: the Church has a patron saint for EVERYTHING.
Including prostitutes.), saying Saint Anne, help me, I will become a monk! This
(beseeching saints for help) is a fairly common practice for this era, but most people
dont promise to become a member of the clergy (which tells us that hes been
giving it some thought: it could be that hes using this moment to throw off his
familys expectations). So, he lives and joins the Augustinian Cloister in Erfurt. His
parents are pissed, but theres no getting people back from the Monks. He says his
first mass on May 2, 1507 (meaning hes been ordained as a priest, making him one
of the best and brightest of the monks). So, yeah, rising star.
1510: The papacy finally notices a dispute brewing in the Augustinian order
(and the German-speaking lands in general). The Pope decides to bring some
representatives from the Augustinian Cloisters to Rome to sort everything out.
Luthers cloister sends two people, and Luther is one (again, hes a big deal). Luther
is stoked: hes never left Electoral Saxony before, and how hes going to Rome,
where he can reap all the spiritual benefits (shrines, famous churches, etc). Upon
arrival, he gets put in a Roman monastery. Luthars kinda provincial: Hes never left
Saxony, and takes his vows (Chastity, Poverty, Obedience) seriously; He also likes to
give Mass, which means he needs to have a confessor, so he gets a new one at the
place hes staying. And his confessors ignorance alarms him (said ignorance may
not have been THAT extraordinary considering Luthers intelligence). So he goes to
a local Cathedral to get the gear to say Mass (which isnt much; the cathedrals even
have side altars for stuff like that), which he does pretty much every day.
Sometimes, theres another priest (being a cathedral priest, hes called a Canon)
saying Mass on the next alter over. More specifically, hes saying Endowed Masses
(paid-for masses said for a dead guy). And hes speed-rapping the Mass, which
Luther finds incredibly insincere. And hes leaving out stuff (Luther can tell because
its in Latin), and putting stuff in (like Latin jokes). Luther is, of course, appalled. So

now hes wondering whats up here. Meanwhile, hes visiting all the Spiritual
Benefits (shrines, catacombs, etc). He does this for days, and notices a lot of clergy
drifting in and out of Romes red light district. He concludes that theyre going there
to attempt to violate their vows of chastity, which further bothers him. As his trip
concludes, he decides to pay a visit to Pilates Stairs: legend is that if you go up on
your knees and say an our father on each stair, you can get a soul out of
purgatory. Luther decides to get his Grandpa out of Purgatory (since both his
parents are alive). So he says to himself Who knows if it is so, so thats a serious
expression of doubt in the faith of the Church (which isnt terribly surprising: hes
walked in on the most corrupt incantation of the Christian Church EVER: Pope Leo II,
who would eventually excommunicate Luther, had, for his coronation parade, naked
girls painted gold on every street corner). So, the Church out of sync with Luthers
vision + Luthers obsessive personality (hes looking for a personal path to
salvation: aka a way to get gods Grace) = trouble.
William of Occampessimistic view of
relationship b.t man and god. Influenced
Gabriel Bielinfluenced Luther

Johan Von StaupitzChristian mystic

thinker, Luthers confessor, vicar general
of augustinians
Wittenberguniversity founded by
Frederik the Wise
Scholasticismtradition Luther was
Tischredentable talk in German. Two of
educated in
the volumes of Luthers work are called
this. Sitting around with Luther drinking
Late-Medieval nominalism
When the Reformation was
underway, Luther got an empty
monastery to live in. He got married, and
his wife rented out rooms to students.
Hed sit around drinking beer with the
student tenants, and theyd write down
everything he said
Fredreic the wise, Elector of Saxony
Luthers prince
Luther himself was not raised in the Humanist tradition (it started Italy and
took a while to reach the rest of Europe): he himself was raised in the Scholastic
tradition, especially influenced by the nominialists (especially William of Occam and
Gabriel Biel). Occam said there was an unbridgeable gap b/t man and god, which
confused Luther (whose focus, remember, was finding salvation for himself), though
his view of humanity is also pretty dim. At this point, Christian teaching focused on
the idea that works (monks vows, pilgrimages, fasting, sacraments) merit grace,
but Luther disagrees (due to his dim view of humanity: how can flawed works merit
grace?). So Luther has some problems: For one, hes spent too time reading the old
testament (so I guess modern American? Protestantisms over-focus on the Old
Testament goes all the way back), so hes focused on the vengeful god paradigm,
which he has trouble relating to. For another problem, Jesus doesnt really seem to
click with him (did he even READ the New Testament?): hes locked on to a common

medieval woodcutting of Christ consigning the souls of the damned to hell, so he

perceives Christ as a judge (DAMMIT LUTHER), rather than a Pretty Hip Guy.
Biel was another nominalist who influenced Luther. Unlike Occam (a standard
flighty philosopher), Biel was a pastoral priest, with an actual congregation and
everything! So he understood that Occams message was a really lousy pastoral
message to give a congregation (and doesnt really mesh with the Gospels as
written), so he comes up with a better one: Facienti quod in seest Deus non
denegat gratiam: If we do what is in us, God will not deny us grace; Basically a
contingency b/t man and god (an idea that also shows up in Islamic and Jewish
theology, as well as nature and contract law). Luther, of course, also has a problem
with this, both because of his view of human nature and because of his dislike of
contingencies. So his retort is if we do what is in us, we sin; he also points a lot of
stuff in scripture where God doesnt play by the rules (meaning that hes not bound
by human contingencies).
So now Luthers broken with both Occam and Biel, but has no explanation of
his own of how you get to heaven (which is pretty bad for a priest). So Luther would
go to Johan von Staupitz to confess for HOURS, minutely examining his conscience
for the slightest tendency of sin (so hed spend hours ruminating on the possibility
that he might sin). Von Staupitz tries to get Luther to chill a bit (probably at least in
part to get the confessions to stop), but hes stuck in a rut until fate intervenes.
Frederick the Wises university at Wittenberg is having growth problems, so
he decides to add more faculty. So he asks the Augustinians and Franciscans to
each send him three monks. Von Staupitz makes sure Luther gets sent: Luthers
perfect for the job, and getting his Doctorate (mandatory for faculty) will distract
Luther from his obsessions (and von Stapitz wont have to listen to him anymore,
since hell be in Wittenberg). It takes Professor Luther a year to earn his PHD.
So now hes lecturing on Psalms, Romans, and Galatians. Sometime before
1315-1316 he has an epiphany on the whole salvation issue (for a long time
German scholars viewed this as a lightbulb moment, but it was probably slower): He
picks up on Romans 1:16-17 he who through faith is righteous shall live, which
Luther comes to understand that humans are justified not by their works, but by
their faith in Christs redemptive sacrifice. This idea, Justification by faith becomes
(and remains) the central tenant of Protestantism. He doesnt really articulate it
until later (and its not what gets him in trouble with the Catholics anyway: thats
the 95 Thesis he writes against indulgences). Luthers stubbornness + Fredericks
support is what fuels the fires and keeps Luther out of the Churchs hands.
Traditional church vs Luther teachings
Traditional: Righteousness Works = Grace
Luther: Faith Grace = righteousness

These are PRETTY obviously not in sync. The traditional position assumes (for
some reason; it doesnt really mesh with the Churchs pessimism) that humankind
has innate righteousness, causing them to perform works that merit grace. Luther,
on the other hand, assumes that you get grace through faith, and that the grace
makes you righteous. This is a really big deal in theology-land. (BTW: Protestants
get their name because thats what the Catholics called em).

1517: Luther Gets In Trouble: the 95 Theses (Disputation on the Power and
Efficacy of Indulgences). [Indulgencethe remission of/for the temporal
punishment for sin, granted by the Church and effective before God]. Indulgences
came as the result of Pope Urban II (First Crusade Guy)s actions in the 12 th century:
He offered an indulgence for any knight who joined his crusade (basically, it was
an indulgence that would forgive them, a priori, for any atrocities they committed
during the Crusade). The problem with that was that Urban II had no theological
basis for doing that, which left the Church scrambling to figure out how the Pope
had that power. They figured it out in the 14 th Century: Pope Clement II announced
that he had a basis: the Church is in possession of a reservoir of good works
because of (1)all the good works done by the saints were so plentiful that they
rolled over to the Church AND (2) one drop of Christs blood was enough to redeem
all of mankind, but he shed MORE; the reservoir is Extra Jesus Blood that the Church
can use to dispense indulgences. This is BAAAAAD theology.
ConfessionContrition absolution: (eternal penalty temporal
History bit: before going to Communion, Catholics have to go to Confession. In
Luthers time (and subsequently), you go into a confessional (a booth with a screen
b/t you and a priest and a kneeling rail), kneel down, and say bless me father, for I
have sinned, then confess their sins. After that, the priest asks them to make an
Act of Contrition (a formulaic prayer of sorry-ness for having offended God by
sinning). After that the priest grants absolution, which transforms the enteral
penalty of Sin into a temporal penalty, which is then fulfilled by acts of penance
(which are proportionate to the sins). Indulgences cut off the process at the
temporal part, meaning that people with indulgences dont need to commit acts of
penance. So its basically a free pass. And then the Church decides that it can sell
indulgences. And THEN the Church decided you could buy indulgences for dead
people, getting them out of Purgatory. Those things lead to Indulgence Preachers,
who preached (sold) indulgences. Johan Tetsel, a Dominican Indulgence Preacher
who Luther hated, said when the coin hits the box, the soul springs out of
purgatory (it rhymes in German).
Pope Julius II (the one Erasmus said was going to hell, Michelangelos patron)
announced a plenary (aka: anybody could buy it) indulgence. Pope Leo X (the naked

gold girls pope) renewed it (1505-1521): it was basically a license to sell

indulgences in western Europe to finance the restoration of St. Peters Basilica.
These were getting sold all over, including in the Margrave of Brandenburg (capital,
Berlin), a region bordering Electoral Saxony (where Luther is, serving as a Pastoral
Priest for the Castle AND a professor). Luther notices his congregation crossing the
border to buy Indulgences. So he writes the 95 theses, which he nails to the Church
door (which, at the time, were basically a kiosk: if you had an announcement, it
went on the door of the Church, making it the perfect place to invite other
academics to debate); hes basically inviting people to an academic disputation.
Nobody actually takes him up. THIS is what gets him in trouble in Rome. The
Theses have three main lines of argument:
(1) The first is about the ostensible intent to spend the money on St peters basilica:
The revenues of all Christendom, are being sucked into this insatiable basilica. The
pope would do better to appoint one priest than to a parish than to sell indulgences
to all of them. Before long, all the churches, walls, bridges, and roads of Rome will
be built out of our [Germans, who, ATM are fed up with the church] money. [the
Pope] would do better to sell St Peters and give the money to the poor who are
being fleeced by these hawkers of Indulgences. So he knows his audience
(Germans who are fed up with the Catholic Church, due to things like Italian Bishops
and Priests who get assigned to Germany and get paid, but never show up for
(2) Luther denies the power of the Pope over purgatory (for the remission of Sin or
Penalty). Thats denying the Plenitude of Papal Power. That will ALWAYS get you
noticed, and hes doing stuff on top of that. Hes like absolution exists and its
FREE, and THATS what youre supposed to do. Papal indulgences do not remove
guilt. Beware of those who say that indulgences affect reconciliation with god. So,
yeah, he skewers the Bad Theology underpinning indulgences.
(3) Beyond arguing that indulgences dont remit sin, he argues that they impede
salvation by [preventing] charity and granting a false sense of security. So, hes
basically arguing that people who THINK theyre cleared by indulgences are going to
go to hell because they didnt clear their sins. The line reduces to people who buy
indulgences THINK theyre buying a stairway to heaven, but theyre actually
buying a highway to hell. That was the professors joke, not mine.
So Luther gets excommunicated (thus making him an Outlaw, who should be
turned over to the Church) by Leo X in 1520 (it takes effect in 1521), by Papal Bull
(decree): Decet romanem pontificitem Thus Speaks the Roman Pontiff. Luther is
typically defiant: as for me, the die is cast. He gets summoned to appear before
the Diet of Worms (and the Holy Roman Emperor) in 1521 to recant his writings and
teachings. He refuses (causing a huge uproar). The Holy Roman Emperor at the time
(Charles V) refuses to act against Luther, since the Pope opposed his candidacy for
Emperor. Everything devolves into chaos, and Charles V, not really understanding

whats going on, walks out. So Luther, who thought he was doomed to a Jan Husstyle burning at the stake, gets on his horse and leaves and gets kidnapped on
the road By goons of Frederic the Wise, who hides him in one of his castles to
keep him out of the hands of the Church. Why? While Frederic the Wise lived and
died Catholic, he had two reasons to keep Luther safe: Firstly, he didnt think
Luthers teachings were in error. His second reason is more political: hes a German
prince, and therefore jealous of his power over Electoral Saxony (the German
princes have been at odds with the Emperor and Church as long as theres been a
Holy Roman Empire), so he keeps him around since hes trouble for both the
Emperor and the Church, thusly keeping them out of his business. So he makes
DAMN sure nobody gets their hands on Luther; which, ironically, means he
facilitated the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in Germany: since the
Church couldnt get to Luther, they couldnt shut him up. So the Reformation gets
its start here (and in Sweden, with Zwingli, Luthers civic reformer contemporary (2
months younger than Luther)). So, yeah, this kicks off 100 years of religious war,
ending with the devastation of the Thirty Years War. To put that war in perspective, a
German magazine took a poll in the 60s asking what the most devastating war in
the history of Germany was. They said the Thirty Years War. Yeah.