Analysing Luther

10th December 2010

Scilicet. Cur Papa non evacuat purgatorium propter sanctissimam charitatem et summam animarum necessitatem ut causam omnium iustissimam, Si infinitas animas redimit propter pecuniam funestissimam ad structuram Basilice ut causam levissimam?
Why does not the pope empty purgatory, for the sake of holy love and of the dire need of the souls that are there, if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a Church? The former reasons would be most just; the latter is most trivial.
Luther, M., [1517] 1915, (No. 82)

The Protestant Reformation was a theological movement within a matrix of other movements, aspirations, and expectations. There was a nationalist spirit where nations were seeking to loosen the bindings installed by the pope, the emperor, or both. (Stearns, 2006, p.15) Scholasticism had started to decay; Christian scholarship became unsubstantiated, remote, and obscure. They had not only distanced themselves from the people but had intellectually collapsed before the humanists as well as the theological inquiry of the Reformers.

“The great Reformation had its roots in the simple evangelical piety which had never entirely disappeared in the medieval church. Luther’s teaching was recognized by thousands to be no startling novelty, but something which they had always at heart believed, though they might not have been able to formulate it”
(Lindsay T.M., 2006).

Luther began his work of reformation in 1517 as an attack on what was called an indulgence by Pope Leo X. Disgusted by the corruption and perversion of indulgence salesmen, Martin Luther penned 95 statements against the practice of selling indulgences. (Stearns, 2006, p.14) On October 31, he nailed these to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg . For the common people, indulgences meant that for the payment of a specific sum of money the purchasers could obtain spiritual privileges including the forgiveness of sin. Luther’s concern was that true penance and real forgiveness were obscured and that true peace was a gift of Christ to the forgiven heart. The Church, in providing these was doing a great disservice to Christ and the Gospel. If the Pope could release souls from purgatory for money, why could he not do it free? Luther wrote, this document, ‘Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences’ in Latin with an intended audience of his university colleagues. He could not have imagined the impact they would have on Christianity and on Europe.

While, Luther’s ideals caused division, they were also the catalyst inspiring reform and change for the Lutheran and Protestant traditions. This proved vital in European history, not simply because of the reforms made within the church but also because of the religious divisions and the wars that followed, and because of the role religious change played in inspiring new developments in areas as diverse as the economy and family life. (Stearns, 2006, p.14) In sixteenth-century Europe, the idea that God each person was assigned to a place in life by god was nothing new. The prevalent concept of society was hierarchical and conservative, overturning this did not concern Luther, simple social revolution was too trivial a matter to interest him. What mattered to Luther was the condition of his soul before God (Hunt, M., 2002), he had only one objective: the pursuit of enough personal holiness to be assured of his own salvation.

People in church vocations were, of course, not only on the right course, but they had the shortest route since all they did in their vocations was thought to be God-pleasing and obtained good for their souls. Other people in ordinary callings of daily life were taking the slow route. (Rosin, R, 2005)

When Luther rediscovered the Gospel of justification by grace through faith, the idea of a holy vocation was displaced. Although Monasticism promised, a shorter path to heaven, Luther believed that there was no advantage in a holy vocation since Christ does not save holy people rather he saves sinners. Therefore, there is no advantage in choosing one vocation over another because it is holier or more “spiritual.” According to Cherney, Luther felt that to do so was the same as to try to buy God off with good deeds. (Cherney, K.A., 2006).

As the ‘leader’ of the Reformation, Luther saw it not only as revolt against theocratical corruption but an appeal to the Pope to affirm the Gospel, and the doctrine of justification of faith by faith alone. Luther felt that the Roman Catholic Church had lost sight of the Gospel. It was not that God was far from man and that man must struggle and strive to win the favour of God, but rather, man is far from God, but God in His righteousness, mercy, and love had sought to remedy this by coming near to man in Christ. (Atkinson, C.J., 1964) Luther’s theology was The Theology, captured by the New Testament (particularly in John and Paul, however references to many of the books can be found through out his works), confirmed by the Creeds, and safeguarded by the Church Fathers. The Romanists, in the interests of the Church, he felt were guilty of innovation: an flawless Pope, the treasury of merits, the non-New Testament doctrine of the mass, the sanctification of the Virgin and the saints, and other novelties such as rosaries, purgatory, indulgences, and pilgrimages. (Luther, M., in Stearns, 2006, pp.15-18) Luther strongly felt that it was their theology that was wrong: a substandard, non-New Testament study of Christ.

Most importantly at this time, Luther raised the issue of authority, the authority of the Church, the authority of the Bible, and the authority of tradition. In what is called Luther’s most revolutionary work, An open letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate (1520), “Luther laid the ax to the whole complex of ideas upon which the social, political, legal, and religious thought of the Western world had been developing for a thousand years”, (Jacobs, C., 1915) Most of the letter is an inventory of the disgraceful state of Christendom explaining his many objections to the practices of the Roman Catholic Church as well as his growing opposition to the Pope. He also implied rather strongly, the need for major changes in church government, family life, leisure, and in the economy. (Stearns, 2006, p.14) According to Luther, the common people were ignorant even of basic Christianity and that there was no reason to expect the clergy to address these problems since the clergy were the problem (Cherney, K.A., 2006). Luther begins by describing the ways in which the Church had tried make itself immune to reform and accountability, and the many ways in which the Roman Catholic Church had wronged both Germany and all of Christendom. The Pope, he states, raises himself over monarchs as well as over the church, and lives in unholy luxury. (Luther, M., in Stearns, 2006, p.15, Luther, M., 1915, p.108) Rome is a moral sewer where licenses to live in debauchery can be bought and sold. (Luther, M., [1520] 1915 p.95) The Church has become a capitalistic machine, and having exhausted its options in Italy, now focused upon Germany. (Luther, M., 1915, pp.81, 82) Many devout priests keep secret wives, with bad conscience, because of their inability to live up to the dogmatic rule of celibacy. (Luther, M., in Stearns, 2006, p.16, Luther, M., 1915, p.96 p.119) The universities ignore the Bible and lecture on commentaries, or on commentaries of commentaries. (Luther, M., 1915, pp.150-153) Finally he urges the people of Germany to act and put Rome in her proper place.

If we wish to fight the Turk, let us begin here, where they are worst. If we justly hang thieves and behead robbers, why do we leave the greed of Rome so unpunished, that is the greatest thief and robber that has appeared or can appear on earth, and does all this in the holy name of Christ and St. Peter? (Luther, M., [1520] 1915, p.98)

Knowing that Luther was both a highly educated man and stoutly devoted to his beliefs and religion it is not surprising to find so many areas of his writing reinforced by the words of scripture . His writing was very contentious, and when passionate about a subject he would frequently insult his opponents. This may also indicate that the use of insults was considered acceptable during sixteenth-century social debate.

“an antichristian thing for a poor sinful man to let his feet be kisses by one who is a hundred times better than himself.” (Luther, M., in Stearns, 2006, p.15, Luther, M., 1915, p.111)

Also illustrated is Luther’s intolerance of others’ beliefs. His work contains a number of statements that modern readers would consider rather crude (and/or humorous).

“ It must have been some special plague of God that so many people of understanding have let themselves be talked into accepting such likes as these, which are so manifest and clumsy that I should think any drunken peasant could lie more adroitly and skillfully.” (Luther, M., in Stearns, 2006, p.15)

Interestingly the initial introduction found within the text introduces a document different to what is printed. The text that follows the introduction is snippets from “An Open Letter to The Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate”, not from the 95 theses, or “Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”, as could generally be believed from reading the opening sentences. Luther’s doctrine represented a complete break from the dominant concept of the Christian life at Luther’s time and while thoroughly Scriptural, Luther did not really discover it; rather it emerged paralleling Luther’s rediscovery of the Gospel and through his battles with monasticism. There is little doubt that Stearns’ opening comment, “This document is an important statement in the early Reformation in figuring out some of the wider implications of Protestantism” (Stearns, 2006, p.14) is true however, what we see reproduced in the text is only a small portion of what the full document has to offer, and a full reading of the text is more beneficial in trying to understand the message that Luther was trying to give. Luther’s Reformation sought to unity the church in the gospel and to reestablish the Church once more upon the foundation of the gospel.


Atkinson, C.J., 1964, The Significance of Martin Luther, Churchman 078/2 1964, [online]
[Accessed: 28 November 2010]

Cherney, K.A., 2006, Uncovering Our Calling: Luther’s Reformation Re-emphasis on Christian Vocation, Symposium on Vocation; Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary; September 18-19, 2006, Wisconsin, U.S.A. [online]     [Accessed: 28 November 2010]

Hunt, M., 2002, Martin Luther and the Reformation, Agape Bible Study, [online]
[Accessed: 26 November 2010]

Jacobs, C., “Translator’s Introduction,” An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Project Wittenberg online edition,
[Accessed: 25 November 2010].

Lindsay, T.M., 2006, A History of the Reformation: The Reformation in Germany from Its Beginning to the Religious Peace of Augsburg, Hesperides Press, U.S., p. ix

Luther, M, [1517] 1883, ‘D. Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesammtausgabe: Disputatio pro Declaratione Virtutis Indulgentiarum’, in Smith, R.E., Project Wittenberg, Hermann Boehlau, Weimar, pp. 233-238,
[Accessed: 25 November 2010]

Luther, M., [1520] 1915, ‘Works of Martin Luther, Volume II, An Open Letter to The Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate, 1520’, in Works of Martin Luther, Volume II. C. M. Jacobs (intro. & trans.), A. J. Holman Company: Philadelphia, pp. 57-164.

Luther, M., ([1517] 1915), ‘Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, in Works of Martin Luther’’, in Spaeth A., Reed, L.D., Jacobs, H.E., et Al., Trans. & Eds., Project Wittenberg, A. J. Holman Company, Philadelphia, Vol.1, pp. 29-38, [Accessed: 25 November 2010].

Medieval Sourcebook, (n.d.), The Donation of Constantine (c.750-800) (From Zeumer’s edition, published in Berlin in 1888, v. Brunner-Zeumer: “Die Constantinische Schenkungsurkunde”) translated in Ernest F. Henderson, Select Historical Documents of the Middle Ages, (London: George Bell, 1910), pp. 319-329,     [Accessed: 25 November 2010].

PBS, 2009. Empires, Martin Luther: Reluctant Revolutionary,     [Accessed 28 November 2010].

Rosin, R., (2005), Luther Discovers the Gospel: Coming to the Truth and Confessing the Truth, In: 21st Conference of the International Lutheran Council, August 27- September 2 2005, Berlin, Germany, p.7, [online]
[Accessed: 25 November 2010]

Stearns, P.N, Gosch, S.S, Grrieshaber, E.P. eds., 2006, Documents in World History, The Modern Centuries: From 1500 to Present, 4th Edition, Pearson Longman, New York, vol. 2, ch. 2 pp. 15-18.

The Holy Bible, (2000), King James Version,, American Bible Society, New York, [online]     [Accessed: 25 November 2010].

Wood, A.S., “Evangelicalism: a Historical Perspective,” TSF Bulletin 60 (Summer 1971) pp. 11-20, [online]     [Accessed: 25 Nov 2010]


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