Luther and reform

The catalyst of the Protestant Reformation was the German Augustinian monk and university professor, Martin Luther (1483-1546). In the late medieval church, calls for renewal were loud and persistent and some reforms were enacted in monastic orders, in church life, and in popular movements associated with the names of John Wyclif (1384-1443) and John Hus (1369-1415). Compared with those strident voices, Martin Luther's invitation to an academic debate on the power of indulgences in 1517 was a subdued summons. True, Luther had already been preaching against the indulgence practice and clerical negligence, but to call the young professor of biblical studies a church reformer prior to his circulation of the Ninety-five Theses would be an exaggeration. In the famous theses of 1517, the last thing on Luther's mind was reform of the entire church.

Yet Luther has gone down in history as the first Protestant reformer because of the conflict with the Roman curia that was ignited by those theses. It was a quarrel that Luther did not seek but also one that he did not shun once it had begun. During the three years prior to his excommunication (1521), Luther forged the identity and self-awareness of a reformer and gained the collegial and political support that would make him a leader of the evangelical movement in Germany. Even then, however, Luther was not a reformer in the sense of implementing a preconceived plan to reshape the church. Once Luther and his followers were excommunicated, a process of restructuring Christianity in Europe did ensue, but neither Luther nor his colleagues were able to envision the outcome of that process. Luther's reforming agenda had another goal altogether.

Once Luther became engaged in reform, he worked for the renewal ofboth theology and piety. The reform of theology was pursued at the University of

Wittenberg, founded by the Saxon elector Frederick the Wise (1463-1525) and

only ten years old when Martin Luther joined the theological faculty in 1512. Nevertheless, the university had attracted capable scholars who represented the various schools of late medieval thought and the humanist critique of scholastic theology. Luther, called to the chair ofbiblical theology, sympathized with those colleagues who wanted to replace the study of Aristotle and the scholastics with concentration on the Bible and the church fathers.1 At the same time, he launched a critique of scholastic theology in lectures and in academic debates. Less than two months prior to the Ninety-five Theses, in another set of theses prepared for debate in September 1517, Luther delivered a harsh critique of the Nominalist theology in which he himself had been trained.2

Luther envisioned the reform of piety as a process of Christianization that he advocated in sermons, the Ninety-five Theses, and in German pamphlets that began to appear with regularity in 1519. Late medieval practices, like the offering of indulgence letters that would guarantee the remission of sins without contrition, were called by him not just improper but unchristian. 'Those who teach that contrition is not necessary on the part of those who intend to buy souls out of purgatory or to buy confessional privileges preach unchristian doctrine.'3 Defending the practice of giving both elements to the laity in the sacrament of communion, Luther demanded that people first become 'real Christians' through faith and love before they approached the altar: 'Heavens, if this idea were really put across, it would mean that where thousands come to the sacrament now, scarcely hundreds would come . . . and so we would at last become a group of real Christians, whereas at present we are almost completely pagan and only Christian in name.'4 The renewal of theology went hand-in-hand with the reform of practice and piety, and both kinds of reform were shaped by Luther's perception that late medieval religion should become more Christian than it had been. That perception had its roots in the intense religiosity of Luther's upbringing.

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