6.2 Germany and Lutheranism

Lutheranism was a religious reform movement beginning in the early 16th century; it was initiated by Martin Luther in the Holy Roman Empire (Germany). Luther called in to question some basic Church teachings, e.g. the Church taught that during the rite of Communion the bread literally became the body of Christ and the wine the blood of Christ. Luther argued in favor of what he considered to be the more scripturally supportable view, i.e. the bread and wine were symbols of Jesus' body and blood. Lutheranism began simply enough as a call for simple reform; however, the reform movement quickly transformed in to full blown call for broadsweeping political and social change.

In the early 1500s Europe was experiencing a significant re-ordering of society and culture. The impact of the new Renaissance worldview, improvements to the printing press, and the dramatic loss of population due to the Black Death (see map below) created opportunities for the lower classes of society to improve their situation. The Black Death killed approximately 30 to 60% of Europe's population in the 1340s. The loss of so many serfs weakened feudalism because there were fewer people tied to the land. With fewer serfs to work the land, lords had to compete for workers; and because lords had to compete for serf-workers these workers were able to demand better wages and working conditions. This contributed to a growing sense of liberty which contributed to the popularity of Luther's reform movement. Therefore, people saw the potential for both religious and political freedom in Luther's challenge to the Catholic Church.

The spread of books and the increase in public literacy (because of the Renaissance) had important implications for the Protestant Reformation. Without having access to new ways of thinking about life as presented in books, long established traditions could not be successfully challenged. Specifically, if there were no alternatives to the way we were doing things in the present then there'd be no reason or pressure to change. The wide availability of books was not enough though. People had to ask questions; and no idea, no institution, no authority, no tradition, etc. could be immune from the questioning; it all had to be questioned or else change would be limited. In other words, the very existence of tradition was the greatest obstacle to progress.

During the previous unit, you were introduced to a number of different European thinkers who made contributions during the Renaissance; moreover, you learned how Italian scholars taught the public about the ancient Greeks and rationalism. Interestingly, the only reason these Italians could teach anyone about the Greeks is because of the Arabs. The early Catholic Church actually burnt the writings of ancient Greek rationalists like Democritus, Anaxagoras, and Anaximander. The Muslims preserved the writings of these thinkers eventually re-introducing them a thousand years later. Muslims not only read the Greeks; they also practiced rationalism. Rationalists are critical of accepting arguments from authority; they stress the importance of using reason and evidence in support of belief. Thus, when Italian scholars re-introduced rationalism to Europe (thanks to Muslim scholars) it had a profound effect on science, culture and theology.

For example, from 1510 to 1520, Martin Luther arrived at a different understanding than the Catholic Church on the word the idea of salvation. The Catholic Church taught salvation at some level was up to the individual; also, the Church taught salvation was attainable through a combination of faith and performing of good works. Luther, however, was convinced the Church had lost sight of several central truths of Christianity: firstly, God was the only one doing the saving; secondly, people were saved through God's grace alone (sola gracia); the only authority to follow was scripture (sola scriptura) and not the Church itself; and a person accepted that grace through faith alone (sola fide). In short, Luther insisted salvation was a gift of God's grace. You could not attain it through good works; it was only attainable through faith in Jesus and his sacrifice on the cross.

In 1516-17, Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar and papal commissioner for indulgences, was sent to Germany by the Roman Catholic Church to sell indulgences to raise money to rebuild St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

On 31 October 1517, Luther wrote to Albrecht, Archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg, protesting the sale of indulgences. Luther enclosed in his letter a copy of the Nintey-Five Theses. At this point Luther had zero intention of confronting the Church. Yet, Thesis 86 did present a challenge to Pope Leo X's authority. For example, Luther asked, "Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?"

Luther strongly objected to a saying attributed to Johann Tetzel that "as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs." Luther argued, completely consistent with scripture, that forgiveness was God's alone to grant. He further asserted that those who claimed that indulgences absolved buyers from all punishments and granted them salvation were in error. Indulgences, in a word, gave Christians false assurances. Luther nailed a copy of his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg that same day. Church doors acted as the bulletin boards of his time for public announcements. This simple act set off an intellectual, political and religious transformation of Europe called the Protestant Reformation. The Ninety-Five Theses were quickly translated from Latin into German, printed, and widely copied, making the "reform" controversy one of the first in history to be aided by the printing press. Within two weeks, the Ninety-Five Theses had spread throughout Germany; within two months throughout most of Europe.

The Papacy's response to Luther's challenge was slow. Cardinal Albrecht of Hohenzollern, Archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg, with the consent of Pope Leo X, was using part of the indulgence income to pay his bribery debts, and did not reply to Luther's letter; instead, he had the Ninety-Five Theses checked for heresy and forwarded to Rome. Leo responded over the next three years, "with great care as is proper," by sending a series of papal theologians and envoys against Luther. Perhaps he hoped the matter would die down of its own accord, because in 1518 he dismissed Luther as "a drunken German" who "when sober will change his mind." Luther's writings attracted students from all across Europe to hear him speak.

Luther's popularity compelled Pope Leo X to demand an explanation for the Theses. Luther responded by penning a letter to Leo. To his credit the Pope conceded there was merit to some of Luther's concerns; however, the leader of the Catholic Church did not like the challenge to his personal authority. He summoned the German monk to Rome to speak to him directly. This is when Friederick III, Elector of Saxony, stepped in. Martin Luther was Friederick's star professor at the University of Wittenberg. Frederick appreciated the danger Luther was faced with if traveling to Rome to be judged by the Catholic clergy; therefore, the Elector of Saxony used his influence with Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to arrange a compromise. (Charles V needed Friederick's support in order to remain emperor.) Martin Luther ended up going to Augsburg in October 1518 to talk to the Pope's representative, Cardinal Thomas Cajetan. The two men argued about various theological issues but nothing was resolved.

On 15 June 1520, the Pope warned Luther through a papal bull that the monk risked excommunication unless he recanted 41 sentences drawn from his collected writings (including the Ninety-Five Theses) within 60 days. Luther publicly set fire to the bull and Luther was summarily excommunicated.

Luther was ordered to appear before the Diet of Worms on April 18, 1521. The Diet was basically a general assembly (or parliament) for the Holy Roman Empire where imperial business was discussed. Emperor Charles V presided over the meeting. Frederick of Saxony again intervened on behalf of Luther getting the Emperor to promise the monk safe passage to and from the meeting.

During the meeting, a lawyer working for the Church presented Luther with copies of his writings laid out on a table. The lawyer asked the monk if the books were his and if he still stood by their contents. Luther confirmed he was the author, but requested time to think about the answer to the second question. He prayed, consulted friends, and gave his response the next day: "Unless I shall be convinced by the testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear reason ... I neither can nor will I make any retraction, since it is neither safe nor honourable to act against conscience." He is also famously said to have added: "Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen."

Over the next five days, private conferences were held to determine Luther's fate. The Emperor presented the final draft of the Edict of Worms on May 25, 1521, declaring Luther an outlaw, banning his literature, and requiring his arrest: "We want him to be apprehended and punished as a notorious heretic." It also made it a crime for anyone in Germany to give Luther food or shelter. It permitted anyone to kill Luther without legal consequence. The Edict was a divisive move and especially distressed Catholic moderates like Desiderius Erasmus.


Luther's return trip to Wittenberg was fraught with danger. Assassins working for the Church and secular authorities looked for the German monk; however, the hired killers didn't find him because men working for Freiderick III found him first. Masked horsemen escorted Luther to the security of Wartburg Castle at Eisenach. Luther lived secretly at the castle for almost a year pretending to be a knight. During his time at Wartburg (May of 1522), the monk translated the New Testament from Greek in to German. He also wrote books tackling certain doctrinal issues. For example, he disagreed with the Catholic teaching that believers had to see a priest to confess sin and receive absolution; he argued it was enough for a person to confess their sins directly to God; Luther's stance on confession dramatically reduced the importance and role of priests. Lutheranism seemed to imply the individual believer, and not some expert priest, could commune directly with God. In short Luther had ushered in an approach to faith which could be summed up as the "priesthood of all believers." In addition to writing on doctrinal matters, Luther used his pen to embarrass Archbishop Albrecht of Mainzeat in to stopping the sale of indulgences. In March of 1522 Luther returned to Wittenberg.

What started as a theological issue became a political conflict. Luther and his German allies were pitted against the Catholic kings of France and Spain, and of course, the Pope. Not too longer after Martin Luther's death in 1546, Europe erupted into a religious war. However, before these religious wars the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, attempted to stop the spread of Protestanism in Germany. From 1526 to 1530 Lutheran and Catholic princes in Germany co-existed in an uneasy peace. In 1530 German princes met at the Diet of Augsburg. At this meeting a group of Lutheran princes presented Charles V with a summary of Lutheran beliefs called the Augsburg Confession. These Lutheran princes allied to create the Schmalkaldic League in 1531. In 1546 Martin Luther died. The next year the Schmalkaldic War broke out between two Lutheran rulers. The war soon involved non-Lutheran princes. The war did not resolve anything and raged until the Peace of Augsburg was signed in 1555.