Why do seemingly insignificant events have the capacity to spark firestorms? History is laden with seemingly minor incidents that escalated with astonishing rapidity, leading to outcomes that seemed out of proportion to the original event. Why did the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo in June 1914 set off the horror known as the "Great War"? How could the death of a relatively insignificant individual in an obscure part of Europe ignite such a disastrous conflict? Or, going back to an earlier age, how did Helen of Troy come to be the "face that launched a thousand ships" (Christopher Marlowe)?
The answer, as might be expected, lies not so much in the event itself, but in the greater context within which it is set. Fragilities and tensions build up, bringing events to a point at which a relatively small stimulus may trigger an explosion. Events cascade, accumulating momentum that exceeds that of any of their individual components. While historical hindsight enables us to understand how an individual event proved to be the tipping point for a seismic social shift, it is generally impossible to predict such a cause in advance. The historian is a retro-dictor rather than a predictor, always put in the position of trying to explain what happened and knowing that it might not have been this
way at all. As the scientist Stephen Jay Gould commented, with the process of biological evolution in mind, such is the historical power of contingency that if we were to rewind and replay the tape of history, it would reveal a different story each time.
If the origins of the Reformation in Germany are interwoven with its distinctive cultural dynamics at that time, this does not mean that this increased appreciation of the importance of social history denies a pivotal role to individuals, either as causes or catalysts of events.1 During the 1980s, some German social historians pointedly excluded any reference to Martin Luther from their accounts of the origins of the Reformation, holding that he was essentially irrelevant to the broader forces at work. Such a view has now been happily abandoned as unworkable. Social historians have done much in recent years to illuminate how people at this time made sense of their world, adapted to existence within it, and understood their relation with the sacred and supernatural.2 Yet understanding a broader context does not negate the possibility of individual action within it—nor the importance of ideas in shaping the way people understand their world and act within it.
In beginning to consider the complex web of ideas, events, personalities, and social forces that constituted the crucible within which Protestantism was forged, we must turn to consider the critical role played by Martin Luther (1483-1546) in bringing the movement into existence and shaping its contours. Luther's demands for reform rested on a religious idea, which rapidly became the watchword of reforming movements in the region.3 To understand Luther, we must grasp the power of the intellectual vision that drove him. We must therefore turn to consider the distinctive religious idea that lay behind Luther's reforming agenda—the doctrine of justification by faith.4
THE INTELLECTUAL POWERHOUSE: JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH
Martin Luther was born on November 10, 1483, in the German town of Eisleben, the first son of Hans and Margarette Luder (as the name was spelled at this stage; it was later Latinized to the more familiar "Luther").5 He was named after Saint Martin of Tours, whose festival fell on the following day, when Luther was baptized. Anxious to improve his employment prospects, Hans moved the following year to the neighboring town of Mansfeld, where he established a small copper mining business. By 1500 the family had become wealthy by the standards of the region. Having himself risen from the ranks of the German peasantry, Hans was determined to see his son rise still further and bring both status and income to the family. He began to plan his son's future. He would become a lawyer—then, as now, a career with excellent financial prospects.
In 1501 Luther began his studies at the prestigious University of Erfurt, founded as Germany's third university in 1392, after Heidelberg and Cologne. Erfurt followed the traditional medieval pattern of studies based on a "lower" faculty of arts and three "higher" faculties of law, medicine, and theology. By 1505 Luther had completed the initial arts course and was in a position to move on to study law. He was clearly academically competent, being placed second in that year's class of seventeen students.
After a mere six weeks, in a dramatic reversal, Luther abandoned the study of law. As Luther himself later told the story, at some point in June 1505 he was returning to Erfurt from a visit to Mansfeld. As he drew near to the village of Storterheim, a severe thunderstorm developed. Suddenly, a bolt of lightning struck the ground next to him, throwing him off his horse. Terrified, Luther cried out, "Saint Anne, help me! I will become a monk!"
This turning point in Luther's life brought to the surface many of the personal demons that would play such an important role in his subsequent career. Lying behind Luther's cry was a mental world shaped by a number of fixed landmarks that have since crumbled over the centuries. One was a fear of death and hell, coupled with more popular beliefs about fiends and devils lurking in woods and dark places, awaiting their opportunity to snatch unwary souls and take them straight to hell.
Luther kept his word. On July 17, 1505, he entered the most rigorous of the seven major monasteries at Erfurt—the Augustinian priory. Luther's father was outraged at the decision and remained alienated from his son for some considerable time. The priory was an austere place—yet, on the basis of the theology of the day, it seemed to Luther to guarantee his place in heaven. Was not becoming a monk the surest way to avoid hell? Were there not stories about monks who had abandoned their monastic habit and been turned away from the gates of paradise because they were not properly dressed for the occasion? Luther wanted to know—and know for certain—that he would escape hell and arrive safely in paradise. What other option did he have?6
Luther's early career as a monk was marked by intellectual excellence, on the one hand, and a spirituality of exaggerated fastidiousness, on the other. As he later recalled, if any monk ever got into heaven by his scrupulous observance of monastic discipline, he would be that monk. A deep sense of personal unworthiness is easily discerned in Luther's attitudes and actions around this time, and some worried about his mental stability.7 His superior, Johann von Staupitz, gently steered him away from such personal introversion, recommending the study of theology as an antidote to morbid introspection.
So Luther began the formal study of theology at Erfurt, sitting at the feet of some of the greatest German theologians of his age. By this stage, the via moderna—the "modern way"—had come to dominate philosophy and theology in many German universities, including Erfurt. At the theological level, this was often expressed in an understanding of salvation based upon a gracious divine response to a moral human initiative. This principle was generally expressed in the Latin slogan facientibus quod in se est Deus non denegat gratiam, which can be roughly translated as "God will not deny grace to those who do their best."8 This theological principle resonated with Luther's basic psychological instincts. It seemed entirely reasonable to him at that stage that God would not reward people unless they did something to merit that action. It was certainly the academic consensus at Erfurt. It was not, however, the official teaching of the Catholic church.
During the late Middle Ages, confusion had set in over what was the private teaching of individual theologians or theological schools and what was the authorized teaching of the church. The fifteenth century is seen by some as marking a magnificent period of religious anarchy in which competing theologies vied for attention, with little official interest in adjudicating between them. The young Luther took the view that the church taught that salvation was dependent on personal austerity, discipline, and denial. If there were alternatives, they do not seem to have been known to Luther.
In 1512 Luther left Erfurt to take up a lectureship in biblical studies at the newly established University of Wittenberg, founded in 1502 by Frederick the Wise with the intention of rivaling other universities in the region. Frederick's dreams came to nothing; by the time of Luther's arrival, Wittenberg had dropped off the radar screen of prospective students and was experiencing significant recruitment problems. Its brash aspirations were not matched by its feeble academic resources. In due course, Luther would raise the university's profile enormously, although for reasons that would not entirely have pleased Frederick.9 It was during this time that Luther developed a "wonderful new definition of God's righteousness" that would change his own spiritual world—and become a platform for renewal and reform within the church.
Enormous scholarly attention has been devoted to clarifying how Luther's reforming theology emerged during his time at Wittenberg. In what ways did he change his mind about things? When did this transition take place? And what were its implications? While there remains some uncertainty over some aspects of these questions, the broad outlines now seem reasonably well understood.10
The central changes in Luther's thought centered, in the first place, on how Christian theology arrives at its core ideas and, in the second, on how humanity secures salvation. By about 1516, Luther was clear that the primary source of Christian theology was not the scholastic tradition, still less the philosophy of Aristotle. It was the Bible, especially as interpreted through the writings of the early Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo (354-430). Luther increasingly came to speak of "the Bible and Augustine" as the sources of his ideas. Although the importance of the Bible had always been recognized in Christian theology, Luther began to accentuate it in a manner that would ultimately lead into dangerous new theological territory.
Yet even more dangerous was the idea that Luther developed over the period 1513 to 1516 as he wrestled with the text of the Bible, anxiously trying to discern what it really says about salvation. There are few ideas with the capacity to dismantle great institutions and invert the judgments of previous generations. For Luther, the great question of life was simple and profound: how could he find a gracious God? As a younger man, terrified of hell and convinced of his own sinfulness, Luther gave an answer that was widespread in German theological circles, as it was in popular Christian culture: if he wanted to get in with God, he had to make himself into a good person. Like other Christians of the time, he believed that humanity has the capacity to make itself righteous, that when this happens God endorses this transformation and accepts the transformed person into a relationship with him, and that this only happens through the institution of the church, which provides the God-given structures that lead securely and inevitably to salvation. By developing his doctrine of justification by faith, however, Luther would dismantle such ideas and offer a radical, alluring alternative.
Luther found at least part of this alternative idea, which he began to develop around 1516, in earlier writers of the Christian tradition, such as Augustine of Hippo. When Paul speaks of the "righteousness of God" being revealed in the gospel, he does not mean that we are told what standards of righteousness we must meet in order to be saved. Rather, we are confronted with the stunning, disarming, overwhelming decla ration that God himself provides the righteousness required for salvation as a free, unmerited gift. God's love is not conditional upon transformation; rather, personal transformation follows divine acceptance and affirmation.
More radically still, Luther insisted that the believer is "at one and the same time a righteous person and a sinner (simul iustus etpeccator)." While Luther admired Augustine for his emphasis on the unconditional love of God in justification, he suggested that Augustine had become muddled in relation to the location of the gift of righteousness. Augustine located this gift within humanity, as a transforming reality; Luther argued that it is located outside us, being "reckoned" or "imputed" to humanity, not imparted.
Perhaps the chief beneficiary of this insight was Luther himself. Convinced of his sinfulness and frustrated by his own impotence to free himself from the power of his sinful nature, Luther set out a theology of divine acceptance (Luther generally used the Pauline image of "justification") of sinners that made personal transformation and renewal the consequence, not the precondition, of God's love. Humanity, in this conception, is like a patient who is under the care of a wise physician and on the way to recovery. The decision to treat does not presuppose the desired outcome but rather brings it about.
Perhaps the most radical aspect of Luther's doctrine of justification is its conceptualization of the relationship between humanity and God. How does humanity find God and enter into a relationship with him— a relationship that delivers humanity once and for all from fear of death, hell, or damnation? Luther is adamant: this relationship is made possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and is appropriated through faith. For Luther, faith is fundamentally an attitude of trust in God that enables the believer to receive and benefit from the promises of God. But where does the institution of the church come into this?
The most radical element of Luther's doctrine of justification is its conception of salvation as a matter affecting God and the individual. The individual's relationship with God is direct, determined by faith in God's promises and the salvation procured by Christ's death and resurrection. There is no longer any need for intermediaries—for the intercession of Mary or the saints. There is no necessary role for the church, its sacraments, or its priests in the dynamic of salvation. More than that: if justification is about the reckoning of Christ's righteousness to believers, what is the point of purgatory? Does not the very idea of being accepted by God on account of Christ's perfect sacrifice on the cross lead directly to the redundancy of the intermediate state?
This was a radical idea, and once accepted, it would change everything. We are all limited and shaped by the assumptions of our culture, which are held to be self-evidently true and become absorbed as essential pieces of furniture in the mental worlds we inhabit. Yet Luther's radical new ideas would prove these seemingly unshakeable assumptions to be vulnerable. If Luther was right about justification—and his critics insisted that he was not—then the conceptual glue binding the church's rites, ceremonies, institutions, and ideas was fatally weakened. He had shown that the complex edifice of salvation, largely constructed during the Middle Ages, lacked a solid foundation.
The evidence suggests that Luther took some time to think through the implications of this idea and was even at times reluctant to accept the inner logic of his own thinking. Thus, Luther did not seem ready to abolish the institution of the church or its ministry. Yet the church would now play a subsidiary role in the dispensation of salvation, subordinate to the direct encounter between the individual human being and God. The Luther who registered his protest against the sale of indulgences— to which we shall turn in a moment—was still perfectly prepared to believe in purgatory, even if he objected most vigorously to the suggestion of Johann Tetzel (one such salesman) that divine acceptance could be purchased, as if God could be bribed, or paid for some professional service.
Others, however, were quick to see the more radical implications of Luther's core idea of justification by faith and had no hesitation in pressing those implications to their limits. Simon Fish's anticlerical tract A Supplication for the Beggars (1529) and similar polemical works draw upon just about every form of irony and invective to depict purgatory as a recent invention by predatory monks and friars bent on filling their coffers and satisfying their corrupt desires. Luther was reluctant to draw such conclusions; others were not. If Luther's doctrine was right, then the church's teaching and practices had been devised by clergy determined to give themselves a necessary and privileged place in the dispensation of salvation and to exploit that monopoly in every way they could. This demanded a reformation that went far deeper than mere tinkering with externals. This was a demand for reconstruction of the church from ground zero.11
For Luther's doctrine of justification undermined the credibility of the medieval worldview and put in its place something quite different—a way of thinking that placed the relationship between an individual and his or her God at the center of all things. This was an idea that made a powerful appeal in an increasingly individualist culture. While many in the earlier Middle Ages were content to see and define themselves in terms of their relationship to the church, the Renaissance catalyzed a new awareness of the importance of individual human existence. No longer were human beings simply to be thought of as parts of a greater whole—for example, as members of a great family, trade guild, nation, or church. They were to be valued and treated for what they were in themselves.
It was a message that was warmly received throughout much of western Europe. Those whose intellectual appetites had been whetted by Erasmus found that Luther spoke to their condition and increased their longing for reform and renewal. Yet at this stage Luther had merely changed the way he thought. What was it that would trigger Luther's reforming program? How did Luther's dangerous ideas begin to express themselves in concrete demands and proposals for the reform of the church?
THE TRIGGER FOR LUTHER'S REFORM: THE INDULGENCE CONTROVERSY
The event that is traditionally held to mark the beginning of the European Reformation, and hence the birth of Protestantism, took place at about midday on October 31, 1517, on the eve of All Souls' Day. Martin Luther, a lecturer in biblical studies at the recently founded University of Wittenberg, nailed a piece of paper to the main north door of the castle church of that city. The paper fluttered in the wind alongside various other academic and civic notices, probably attracting little attention at first.
Luther's notice was a request to debate a series of theological propositions about the practice of indulgences. Such debates were a regular part of the academic life of the day and rarely attracted attention beyond the limited confines of the universities. There is no evidence that his attempt to arrange a routine debate attracted any interest within the University of Wittenberg, or any attention from a wider public. It was only when Luther circulated his demands more widely that controversy began to develop.
So what was the issue at stake? The immediate cause was the visit of Johann Tetzel to Luther's hometown of Wittenberg to sell indulgences, partly in order to raise capital for the rebuilding of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Occupying something of a theological gray area, indulgences were popular without being entirely theoretically respectable. If there was a theological foundation to the notion, it lay in the idea that through their exemplary actions, Jesus Christ and the saints of the church had built up a "treasury of merit" on which pious Christians could draw, as and when necessary.
Over a period of time, the church had developed a complex theology of purgatory—an intermediate state in which the souls of believers were purged of their remaining sin in order to enter into the presence of God without stain or defect of any kind. This idea of an "intermediate state" could be traced back to the sixth century, although its elaboration is particularly linked with the later Middle Ages. By the early sixteenth century, a popular theology of purgatory had emerged that emphasized both the extended nature and the horrors of this refinement in purgatory—and at the same time offered a number of fast tracks through the process.12
One such accelerated pathway was based on prayer for the dead by the living. Throughout Europe, a whole system of intercessory foundations was created to offer prayers for souls in purgatory, including tren-tals (cycles of thirty requiem masses) and obits (a yearly memorial service). Chantries were established in order to ensure regular prayer for those who had died.13 The expenses attending such cults of the dead were considerable, a fact reflected in the rise of religious fraternities dedicated to the provision of the appropriate rites of passage for their members. In times of economic hardship, at least some degree of anticlerical sentiment was thus an inevitability: the clergy could be seen as profiting from the anxiety of the impoverished living concerning their dead kinsfolk.
It was, however, a second fast track through purgatory that aroused Luther's ire. Although the theological foundations of the practice were highly questionable (it was abolished by Pope Pius V in 1567), the church began to finance military campaigns and the construction of cathedrals through the sale of "indulgences," which reduced the amount of time spent in the torment of purgatory. Johann Tetzel was a shrewd marketer and knew how to sell his product. He had crafted a catchy slogan, making the merits of his product clear even to the simplest of people:
As soon as the coin in the coffer rings,
The soul from purgatory springs!
The canny spiritual investor could thus ensure that both he and his relatives (assuming, of course, that his budget stretched that far) could miss out on the pains of purgation. Aware of the wide appeal of his product, Tetzel had developed an additional crafty marketing technique. The cost of an indulgence was tailored to individuals' ability to pay as much as to the spiritual benefits they hoped to secure.
Most people rather liked this idea, seeing it as a clever way of enjoying sin without having to worry too much about its alleged eternal consequences. Any extended experience of purgatory was strictly for those who failed to plan for the future. Yet Luther was appalled by the practice. Forgiveness was meant to be the free gift of God! For Luther, the indulgence controversy was a worrying symptom of a much deeper malaise—a loss of the foundational vision that lay at the heart of the gospel. How could the church claim to be Christian when it seemed, at least to Luther, to have lost sight of the most important of all Christian insights—that God offers salvation as a free gift? The sale of indulgences seemed to deny the essence of the Christian gospel, as Luther now understood it. And if the church denied the gospel, was it really a Christian church at all?
Armed with his doctrine of justification by faith, Luther argued that the peddling of indulgences distorted the Christian gospel into some kind of commodity. In his "Ninety-five Theses," Luther set out a series of objections to the selling of indulgences that can be reduced to two broad principles. First, they were financially exploitative of the German nation. If the pope had realized the severe poverty of the German people, he would have preferred that St. Peter's Basilica remain in ruins than that it should be rebuilt out of the "skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep." Second, Luther argued that the pope had no authority over purgatory and therefore was in no position to influence how long anyone spent there. In the highly unlikely event that he did have any such authority, surely he ought to empty the place free of charge?
These were unquestionably dangerous, subversive ideas that posed a challenge to the finances of the church as much as to its theology. Yet the reader of these theses is more likely to notice their fundamental continuity with traditional Catholicism than their explosive potential. Purgatory itself is not called into question; Luther's challenge concerned the means by which one gets out of it as quickly as possible.
The political context played an important role in fanning the flames of the ensuing controversy. A surge in German nationalism played no small role in propelling Luther's protest into the forefront of popular debate and discussion.14 As the German ecclesiastical grievance literature of this period makes clear, intense indignation was directed against the pope, reflecting popular irritation at the manner in which ecclesiastical revenues (including the proceeds of indulgence sales) were destined for Rome and the maintenance of the somewhat extravagant lifestyles, building programs, and political adventures of the Renaissance popes. The ruling classes of Germany resented the manner in which their local political authority was compromised through papal interference in ecclesiastical and political affairs. In its appeal to nationalism and antipapalism, Luther's reforming program allowed the Reformation to ride on the crest of a wave of popular antipapal sentiment.
Luther was soon in serious trouble. Perhaps unwisely, he brashly forwarded his criticisms of the indulgence traffic to Albert, the newly installed Archbishop of Mainz. Was Luther aware, one wonders, that Tetzel's ambitious and highly inflated claims for his product were encouraged by none other than this same Albert, who would retain some of the proceeds from indulgence sales to cover the costs of securing his archbishopric? Albert would have had little time for Luther's theological critique of the idea of indulgences, seeing it as little more than pedantic intellectual sophistry that could easily be dismissed as an irrelevance. But if anyone took Luther's critique seriously, it would affect Albert's cash flow at a critical time. And he had further ecclesiastical ambitions that needed to be funded.
Albert forwarded Luther's criticism of indulgences to Rome, certain that Pope Leo X would deal with the matter. After all, Leo had authorized their sale in 1514 and would hardly be likely to overlook the financial threat posed by the upstart German theologian. In fact, however, Leo dithered. He had many other pressing matters to worry about. He was engaged in delicate political maneuvering to ensure that his preferred candidate was elected as the next Holy Roman Emperor. Three serious candidates were in the running: Henry VIII of England, Francis I of France, and Charles I of Spain. Each was a strong leader who might prove difficult to influence from Rome. Leo hoped to influence the electoral college to choose a relatively weak candidate whom he could control, and he had decided on Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony. Yet Frederick was sympathetic to Luther. Leo decided not to press the matter at such a sensitive moment.
He need not have bothered. On June 28, 1519, Charles was elected Holy Roman Emperor. It was no longer necessary for Leo to hold back. A year later, on June 15, 1520, Leo issued the bull Exsurge Domine ("Arise, O Lord"), which condemned Luther as a heretic. Luther famously burned this bull in public. An oak tree was later planted at the site of this dramatic event, which can be seen as a landmark. Sadly, the tree met its end during the Napoleonic wars: during a serious fuel shortage, its practical utility for heating took priority over its symbolic value. It was replanted in 1830.
Luther's public act of defiance of papal authority dramatically raised the stakes in a conflict that seemed to be escalating out of control. Undaunted, Luther began to put his ideas into action, setting out manifestos for reform. His reformation would be more than a protest against the pope; it would be a positive and constructive renewal of the church.
1520: A MANIFESTO FOR REFORM
At the time of the indulgence controversy (1517), Martin Luther was on the faculty of theology at the University of Wittenberg. It is hard to avoid retrojecting Luther's later fame into this earlier situation. Contemporary accounts make it clear that Wittenberg's best-known theologian was Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt, whom Luther appears to have won over to his new theology around this time. Together, the two concentrated on reforming the theological curriculum at Wittenberg. Scholastic theology and Aristotle were on their way out, displaced by a new emphasis on the Bible and Augustine.
Yet Luther realized that making changes to the theological curriculum at one of Europe's most insignificant universities was hardly likely to change the face of the church. His radical new ideas on justification needed to be proclaimed to the church at large. Luther initially had hopes that a public dispute with a leading Catholic might draw wider attention to his reforming agenda. Karlstadt and Luther duly debated the Ingolstadt theologian Johann Eck on a variety of issues in July 1519 in what is known as the "Leipzig Disputation."
Things began badly for the Wittenberg reformers. Karlstadt's ponderous and turgid performance bored the audience. The debate between Eck and Luther, however, created a buzz. Eck, a skilled debater, managed to maneuver Luther into casting doubt on the authority of the Council of Constance (1414-18) and defending some of the teachings of Jan Hus, a Bohemian reformer who had been declared a heretic at Constance. There was a long local history of hostility toward Bohemia at Leipzig, and Eck's skillful manipulation of the debate lost Luther the support of the audience. It was a profoundly uncomfortable experience for Luther, and it raised questions about whether he could advance a reforming agenda in an academic context. Yet Luther's performance at Leipzig impressed many in positions of influence. German humanists began to lionize Luther, seeing in him an articulate proponent of precisely the program of reform that they advocated. Even the great Erasmus of Rotterdam began to take an interest in this hitherto unknown figure. Luther's stock was rising.
Luther had learned from Erasmus the importance of the printing press in projecting intellectual influence within society. In 1520 he began to advance the cause of his reformation by appealing directly to the German people, over the heads of clerics and academics, through the medium of print. It was a tactic that would be imitated throughout Europe as the power of the pamphlet became obvious to all.15 Luther now began to have the popular impact that he knew was essential if he was to change the shape of the church rather than tinker with academic niceties. And Luther would use the vernacular.
Why was this so important? The language of the academy, the church, and the state in western Europe throughout the Middle Ages was Latin. There was an obvious need for a common language to allow communication across this vast and diverse region of the world. Latin was the language of the great Roman poets, rhetoricians, politicians, philosophers, and highly influential Christian theologians such as Augustine of Hippo, Ambrose of Milan, and Tertullian. Luther knew that anything he wrote in Latin would be understood by the educated elite across Europe.
Yet Luther wanted to reach beyond an academic readership and touch the hearts and minds of ordinary people. Luther's decision to publish in German was iconic, in that it made a statement about the inclusive nature of the reformation he proposed to pursue. To publish in Latin was to exclude the ordinary people. To publish in German was to democratize the debate about the future of the church by including those who were traditionally marginalized by the use of the ancient scholarly language. From that moment onward, one of the hallmarks of Protestantism would be its use of the vernacular at every level. Most importantly of all, the Bible would also be translated into the language of the people.
Luther published three popular works in quick succession in 1520. The Appeal to the Nobility of the German Nation, widely regarded as the most important of these works, set out the case for reform of the church and argued that German nobles had every right to demand change. The Babylonian Captivity of the Church criticized the church's teaching on sacraments. The Freedom of a Christian explained Luther's views on justification in easily accessible terms.
Luther's fundamental argument in the Appeal to the Nobility of the German Nation was that the church had shielded itself from criticism and demands for reform by erecting defensive walls around itself. In the first place, the church drew a fundamental distinction between the "temporal" and "spiritual" orders—the laity and the clergy—and declared the government of the church to be a matter for the clergy, not the laity, whom it saw as subordinate in matters of faith. Second, it denied the laity the right to interpret the Bible, a right that ultimately rested, it said, with the pope. Third, only a pope could convene a reforming council.
Like the walls of Jericho, Luther declared, these defenses needed to be brought to the ground. The metaphorical trumpet blasts that Luther directed against these walls encapsulated some of the fundamental themes of the Reformation, which set a pattern that would gradually become normative for much of Protestantism.
Luther began his critique of the church by setting out one of the greatest themes of the Reformation—the democratization of faith. He used the German term Gemeinde ("community") to refer to the church so as to emphasize that the church is fundamentally a gathering of believers, not a divinely ordained institution with sacred powers and authority vested exclusively in its clergy. All believers, men and women, by virtue of their baptism, are priests. Luther noted an important corollary of this doctrine: the clergy should be free to marry, like all other Christians. This right to clerical marriage rapidly became a defining characteristic of Protestantism.
Luther grounded his doctrine of the "priesthood of all believers" in the New Testament's concept of the church as a corporate "royal priesthood."16 There was no basis, Luther argued, for asserting that the clergy are superior to the laity, as if they are some kind of spiritual elite or their ordination confers upon them some special "indelible character." The clergy are merely laity who have been recognized by other laity within the community of the church as having special gifts and who are authorized by their colleagues to exercise a pastoral or teaching ministry among them. The authority to make such decisions thus rests with all Christians, not with an autocratic elite or putative spiritual aristocracy.
Luther developed this point with a civil analogy that is as accessible today as it was five hundred years ago. The clergy are "officeholders" who are elected by the laity as their representatives, teachers, and leaders. There is no fundamental difference between clergy and laity in terms of their status; the difference lies entirely in the former being elected to the "office" of a priest. All believers already have this status on account of their baptism. This election to office is reversible; those who are thus chosen can be de-selected if the occasion demands it.
On the basis of this doctrine of the universal priesthood of believers, Luther insisted that every Christian has the right to interpret the Bible and to raise concerns about any aspect of the church's teaching or practice that appears to be inconsistent with the Bible. There is no "spiritual" authority, distinct from or superior to ordinary Christians, who can impose certain readings of the Bible upon the church. The right to read and interpret the Bible is the birthright of all Christians. At this stage, Luther clearly believed that the Bible was sufficiently clear for ordinary Christians to be able to read and understand it. Following through on his democratizing agenda, Luther insisted that all believers have the right to read the Bible in a language they can understand and to interpret its meaning for themselves. The church is thus held accountable to its members for its interpretation of its sacred text and is open to challenge at every point.
The significance of Luther's point can hardly be overlooked. By insisting that it had a divinely ordained monopoly on biblical interpretation, the medieval church had declared itself to be above criticism on biblical grounds. No external critic had the authority to interpret scripture and thus to apply it to criticize the church's doctrines or practices. Luther's response was to empower the laity as interpreters of the Bible and to hold the church accountable to its people for what it taught. And if they were not satisfied with the outcome, they, as laity, had the right to demand that a reforming council be convened to address their concerns.
This final point was perhaps the most dangerous of all, as Luther seemed to have an important historical precedent on his side. Tongue placed firmly in his cheek, Luther reminded his readers that it was the Roman emperor Constantine who was responsible for summoning the Council of Nicea in 325, one of the most important councils of Christian history. If a lay ruler could summon such a council back then, why should not the German princes do the same twelve hundred years later?
In The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Luther set out a series of criticisms of existing church practices and the theology on which they were based. These focused on the mass—the central rite of the medieval Catholic church, its most visible and tangible point of contact with the world of ordinary people. The changes that Luther demanded— and proposed—were nothing less than revolutionary.17
For a start, Luther insisted that the laity should be allowed to receive both the bread and the wine at mass. There had been a long-standing tradition, whose origins are somewhat obscure, which held that only priests should be allowed to receive both elements; the laity were only allowed bread. (Some historians speculate that early medieval problems with an enthusiastic but intoxicated laity may lie behind the practice.) Luther was adamant: the bread and wine were both signs of God's grace and love. To deny the laity access to both sacramental signs was to imply that they were also denied access to the divine realities they signified. The practice of "communion in both kinds" would henceforth be characteristic of the Reformation.
Luther also argued for other changes in practice. For example, he was critical of the practice of saying requiem masses, often carried out by mercenary "mass priests." No masses should be said for the dead by a priest alone without communicants, Luther argued, because the rite involved fellowship not only with Christ but also with believers.
Yet Luther's most radical criticism did not concern existing church practices, but the theories on which they rested. Luther denied the doctrine of transubstantiation, which held that the bread and wine of the mass were transformed into the body and blood of Christ.18 At the moment of consecration by a priest, according to this theory, the elements of bread and wine, though retaining their accidents (that is, their outward appearance to the senses), underwent a radical change in their substance (that is, their innermost identity). The bread continued to look, taste, smell, and feel like bread; at the deepest of levels, however, it had become something utterly different—as had the wine, which now became the blood of Christ, despite a complete absence of any visible or sensible change.
Luther ridiculed this doctrine as resting on Aristotle's outmoded and invalid distinction between "substance" and "accidents." In its place, Luther proposed a doctrine now known as "consubstantiation," which asserted that Christ's body and blood were somehow received alongside the bread and wine in the communion service.
These demands for reform were not well received by the church establishment, which saw all too clearly the danger they posed for its status and power. No aristocracy, political or spiritual, feels particularly enthusiastic about demands for democracy. Summoned to appear before the Diet of Worms in 1521, Luther refused to recant his ideas or promise to conform. Luther's refusal to retract his words resounded throughout the emerging reforming movement:
Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.19
At this stage, Luther had no intention of breaking away from the church. Nothing, he commented, could be achieved through schism. His hope was to reform the church from within. It was by far the best option. Yet his excommunication by Leo X in 1520 and his open condemnation by the Edict of Worms the following year seemed to rule out any such possibility.
But there was an alternative—a dangerous, radical, and groundbreaking possibility that was open to Luther only on account of the political circumstances of Germany at the time and the cautious support of his local prince. He could create a new church and start all over again. It was indeed a dangerous thought. The rules of the game had changed, and it would never be the same again.
Luther quietly slipped away from Worms before any action could be taken against him. In a piece of superb melodrama, he was kidnapped by a group of bandits and held in captivity in Wartburg Castle from May 1521 to February 1522. The "kidnapping" had been arranged by Frederick the Wise so that Luther could be protected without Frederick laying himself open to the charge of harboring a heretic. Luther used his time in the Wartburg well: he began his landmark translation of the New Testament into German, implementing his own demand that the word of God should be accessible to all. The famous legend that Luther scared off the devil at the Wartburg by throwing an inkwell at him is probably based on his statement that he had "driven the devil away with ink"—a reference to his translation of the New Testament. However, tourists who visited the Wartburg during the nineteenth century were regularly shown an ink stain on the wall and told that it marked the spot at which Satan was chased off. (What they were not told, of course, was that this stain was regularly touched up to preserve its fresh appearance!)
While Luther was thus engaged, events moved rapidly apace at Wittenberg. The reforms Luther had urged began to take place, without central organization or direction. Clergy began to marry. Services began to be held in German. When Luther returned to Wittenberg, no longer under the ban, he was able to resume direction of a nascent reforming movement with the potential to travel throughout Germany—and beyond.
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