Martin Luther

This essay is concerned with Martin Luther (1483-1546),and his concept of Christianity. Luther began hisecclesiastical career as an Augustinian Monk in the RomanCatholic Church. Consequently, Luther was initially loyal tothe papacy, and even after many theological conflicts, heattempted to bring about his reconciliation with the Church.But this was a paradox not to endure because in his lateryears, Luther waged a continual battle with the papacy. Lutherwas to become a professor of biblical exegesis at Wittenbergwhere, in 1957, he posted his critique of the Roman CatholicChurch’s teachings and practices. This is otherwise known asThe Ninety-Five Theses, which is usually considered to be theoriginal document of the Reformation. Basically, this documentwas an indictment of the venality of the Roman CatholicChurch, particularly the widespread practice of sellingindulgences in association with the sacrament of penance.Luther’s beliefs on the matter was that after confession,absolution relied upon the sinner’s faith and God’s DivineGrace rather than the intervention of a priest. At this point,Luther did not advocate an actual separation from the RomanCatholic Church. Instead, Luther felt his suggested reformsYork-3could be implemented within Catholicism. If this had takenplace, the Protestant Reformation would probably not of everseen the light of day–nor would it have been necessary. Butthe theological practices being what they were in the RomanChurch, there was little chance at that time for any greatvariations to occur within its folds. The Church of Rome wasthoroughly monolithic and set in its ways and was not about tomutate into something else. If a metamorphosis had occurredwithin the Roman Catholic Church, Luther would have had adifferent destiny. But Luther’s fate was sealed, and his jobwas cut out for him.Concerning Luther and the Reformation, Paul Tillichstates: “The turning point of the Reformation and of churchhistory in general is the experience of an Augustinian monk inhis monastic cell–Martin Luther. Martin Luther did not merelyteach different doctrines; others had done that also, such asWyclif. But none of the others who protested against the Romansystem were able to break through it. The only man who reallymade a breakthrough, and whose breakthrough has transformedthe surface of the earth, was Martin Luther. . . . He is oneof the few great prophets of the Christian Church, and hisgreatness is overwhelming, even if it was limited by some ofhis personal traits and his later development. He isresponsible for the fact that a purified Christianity, aChristianity of the Reformation, was able to establish itselfequal terms with the Roman tradition” (Tillich 227). Tillich’s York-4main emphasis, then, is not on Luther as the founder ofLutheranism, but as the person who broke through the system ofthe Church of Rome. Luther shattered the theologicalrestraints and distortions of the Roman Catholic religion.This accomplishment amounts to the establishment of anotherreligion known as Protestantism, a faith that was generatedfrom the Reformation, with its advocates such as MartinLuther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Knox. However,Luther stood out as one of the Reformation titans in a mostunique manner.Roland H. Bainton suggests the following concerningLuther’s reforms with regard to the Catholic sacraments; “ButLuther’s rejection of the five sacraments might even have beentolerated had it not been for the radical transformation whichhe effected in the two which he retained. From his view ofbaptism, he was not a second baptism, and no vow should everbe taken beyond the baptismal vow. Most serious of all wasLuther’s reduction of the mass to the Lord’s Supper. The massis central for the entire Roman Catholic system because themass is believed to be a repetition of the Incarnation and theCrucifixion. When the bread and wine are transubstantiated,God again becomes flesh and Christ again dies upon the altar.This wonder can be performed only by priests empowered throughordination. . . His first insistence was that the sacrament ofthe mass must be not magical but mystical. . . He, too, had nomind to subject it to human frailty and would not concede that York-5he had done so by positing the necessity of faith, since faithis itself a gift from God, but this faith is given by Godwhen, where, and to whom he will and even without thesacrament is efficacious; whereas the reverse is not true,that the sacrament is of efficacy without faith. ‘I may bewrong on indulgences,’ declared Luther, ‘but as to the needfor faith diminished the role of the priests who may placeawafer in the mouth but cannot engender faith in the heart”(Bainton 107). For Luther, the Holy Eucharist of Lord’s supperwas really a symbolic act rather than an actual instance oftransubstantiation in which the bread and wine actually becomethe body and blood of Christ. That was a magical aspect tothis sacrament which Luther could not accept. According to theRoman Church, the bread and wine may have the appearance ofsuch, but their inner substances have literally become theflesh and blood of Christ. All of this is a literal acceptanceof the words of Jesus at the Last Supper: “And as they wereeating, Jesus took the bread, and blessed it, and brake it,and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is mybody. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it tothem, saying, Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of thenew testament, which is shed for many for the remission ofsins” (Matthew 26: 26-28). Luther’s view of the communionsacrament was strictly symbolic as is the view of Protestantsto this day. However, this idea was heresy so far as the RomanCatholic Church was concerned. The sacramental power of itsYork-6priests was no longer necessary if this concept were toprevail. This is the type of change the Reformation and MartinLuther wrought. The power of the Roman clergy could not existif Luther’s concepts were to be accepted.Because the principal sacrament of the Roman CatholicChurch is the Holy Eucharist of Holy Communion, the fact thatLuther was tampering with it could not help but be looked uponby the Roman clergy with great dismay. Luther generated theProtestant belief that this sacrament is a commemorationthrough which clergy and communicants raise their spirits bysymbolic remembrance of Christ’s life and death. In contrast,according to the teachings of the Roman Church, Christ’s humanbody and blood are actually present in the consecrated breadand wine.As Bertrand Russell states: “Even more important in theMiddle Ages, was transubstantiation; only a priest couldperform the miracle of the mass. It was not until the eleventhcentury in 1079, that the doctrine of transubstantiationbecame an article of faith, though it had generally beenbelieved for a long time” (Russell 408). As Luther saw it, nosacrament is effective by itself without listening to the Wordassociated with the sacrament, and the faith that believes init. There is no magical element to any sacrament, includingthe doctrine of transubstantiation. Consequently, Luther’steachings on the sacraments took away the power of the priestsand the special nature of the Holy Eucharist. The RomanYork-7Catholic mass depends completely on these concepts in orderfor the Roman Church to sustain its efficacy as therepresentative of Christ on earth. Paul Tillich states: “Fromthis it followed that transubstantiation was destroyed,because this doctrine makes the bread and wine a piece ofdivine reality inside the shrine and put on the altar. Butsuch a thing does not occur. The presence of God is not apresence in the sense of an objective presence, at a specialplace, in a special form; it is a presence for the faithfulalone. There are two criteria for this: if it is only for thefaithful, then it is only an action. Then if you enter achurch and the sacrament is spread, you do not need to doanything, because it is pure bread. If becomes more than thisonly in action, that is when it is given to those who havefaith. For the theory of transubstantiation, it is there allthe time. When you enter an empty Roman church, you must bowdown before the shrine because God himself is present there,even though no one else is present besides you and thissacrament. Luther abolished this concept of presence. Hedenounced the character indelebilis as a human fiction”(Tillich 236-237).For Luther to take this position required considerablecourage on his part due to the fact he was facing anecclesiastical force of great strength and authority. Lutherdid what most kings would fear to do. Thus his reservationover transubstantiation was monumental, besides being a highly York-8important concern, to say the least. After all, as aAugustinian Monk, who was he to fight the doctrines of thepope or even attempt any reforms? However, this is the taskwhich Luther undertook against all odds. Luther’s courage andboldness can be seen in his “Open Letter to Pope Leo X” dated:Wittenberg, September 6, 1520: “I have, to be sure, sharplyattacked ungodly doctrines in general, and I have snapped atmy opponents, not because of their bad morals, but because oftheir ungodliness. Rather than repent this in the least, Ihave determined to persist in that fervent zeal and to despisethe judgment of men, following the example of Christ who inhis zeal called his opponents ‘a blood of vipers,’ ‘blindfools,’ ‘hypocrites’. . . I have truly despised your see, theRoman Curia, which, however, neither you nor anyone else candeny is more corrupt than any Babylon or Sodom ever was, andwhich, as far as I can see, is characterized by a completelydepraved, hopeless, and notorious godlessness” (Luther andDillenberger 44-45). It would seem statistics would favor theChurch of Rome; however, such was not the situation.As the central figure of a violent religious rebellion inGermany, Martin Luther brought forth his principal theologicaldoctrine about Christianity. According to Luther, mankind isjustified by faith alone, and not by works. On the concept ofthis belief in a personal faith instead of the power of theRoman Catholic Church, Luther favored the abolition of manyrituals and challenged the supreme authority of the pope. ForYork-9this, Luther paid the ultimate penalty the Roman CatholicChurch could inflict, he was excommunicated. Luther then wentbefore the Diet of Worms, where he took a firm standconcerning his beliefs and was placed under the ban of theHoly Roman Empire. All of this entails considerably moredetails concerning Luther’s concept of Christianity.Justification by faith, not by works is perhaps Luther’s mostimportant doctrinal contribution to the Reformation, and allit implies.According to Luther, salvation is a gift from God, and nohuman being can possibly do anything to merit this blessing.Thus good works are of no avail with regard to the salvationof one’s soul. Therefore, the most a Christian can do is tohave faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior. This is basicallywhat a Christian is. Because Christianity has only two realsacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), it is necessaryfor a person to partake of both in order to actually be aChristian. Certainly, a heathen or pagan can go around doinggood works, but this means nothing to God. Christ is theSecond Person of the Holy Trinity, with the father being theFirst Person of the Holy Trinity, and the Holy Spirit beingthe Third Person. However, a Christian should do good works;yet, this will not save one’s soul. God blesses certainChristian persons with His Divine Grace according to HisDivine Wisdom. Only God knows who will be saved. Nevertheless,all Christians must conduct their lives according to God’sYork-10teachings for the very reason that they are Christians. God,in His Infinite Mercy and Judgment knows his own. Only God iscapable of judging His people fairly and wisely. Paul Tillichstates: “I want to emphasize Luther’s doctrines of sin andfaith very much because they are points in which theReformation is far superior to what we find today in popularChristianity. For Luther sin is ‘Unbelief in the real sin.’‘Nothing justifies except faith, and nothing makes sinfulexcept unbelief.’ ‘Unbelief is sin altogether.’ ‘Therefore theword ’sin’ includes what we are living and doing besides thefaith in God.’ These statements presuppose a concept of faithwhich has nothing whatsoever to do with the acceptance ofdoctrines” (Tillich 245).Luther believed that mankind is totally depraved; butthis does not mean there is nothing good in humanity. Whatthis idea really means is that human beings are in continualconflict with themselves. Modern psychology would say the selfis frustrated and neurotic concerning itself. In order to dealwith this situation, Luther felt faith is something a trueChristian must embrace. This is the faith that Jesus Christ isthe Savior of mankind.Luther did not feel those persons having a professioninvolving violence are doomed to eternal damnation. Forinstance, Luther believed a Christian soldier could be savedeven if he killed other people known as the ‘enemy.’ Lutherprovides a soldier’s prayer is his essay “Whether Soldiers,York-11Too, Can Be Saved” (1526): “. . . But because I know and havelearned from your gracious word that none of our good workscan help us and that no one is saved as a soldier but only asa Christian, therefore, I will not in any way rely on myobedience and work, but place myself freely at the service ofyour will. I believe with all my heart that only the innocentblood of your dear son, my Lord Jesus Christ, redeems andsaves me, which he shed for me in obedience to your holy will.This is the basis on which I stand before you. In this faithI will live and die, fight, and do everything else. Dear LordGod the Father, preserve and strengthen this faith in me byyour Spirit. Amen” (Luther and Schultz 135-136). It should beunderstood, however, that Luther never sanctioned war, whichhe believed was a definite indication of mankind’s depravity.Yet, a Christian soldier may possibly be saved by God’s Gracejust as any other Christian may be so blessed.One of the most important differences between the RomanChurch and Luther’s conception of Christianity is thepersonal relationship between God and the Christian. InCatholicism, the Church is an intermediary between God and theindividual. However, no intermediary is needed at all inLuther’s theological approach. This is one of Protestantism’smost significant qualities.Another very important characteristic of Luther’s reformsis the final authority of the Bible with respect totheological matters. This is also completely different fromYork-12the Roman Catholic view, which holds that the Church is thefinal authority with regard to theological concerns. In fact,when speaking excathedra, the pope is considered byCatholicism to be infalliable concerning faith and morals.Luther could not accept a human being with Holy Orders as themeans through which a Christian reaches God. These are theteachings that caused Luther to be excommunicated by the RomanChurch and helped to create the Protestant form ofChristianity.When Luther appeared before the Diet of Worms, he wasasked by Eck, an official of the Archbishop of Trier: “I askyou, Martin–answer candidly and without horns– do you or doyou not repudiate your books and the errors which theycontain?” Luther replied, “Since then Your Majesty and yourlordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without hornsand without teeth. Unless I am convicted by Scripture andplain reason–I do not accept the authority of popes andcouncils, for they have contradicted each other–my conscienceis captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recantanything, for us to go against conscience is neither right norsafe. God help me. Amen” (Bainton 144). Essentially, Lutherprovided the Christian with a degree of freedom not at allpresent in Catholicism. Luther dared to defy the might andauthority of the Roman Catholic Church, and the Reformationwas born.York-13WORKS CITEDBainton, Roland H. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. NewYork: Mentor, 1950.Dillenberger, John. Martin Luther: Selection From HisWritings. New York: Anchor Books, 1962.Russell, Bertrand. A History of Western Philosophy. New York:Simon and Schuster, 1945.Schultz, Robert C. and Helmut T. Lehmann. Luther’s Works,Volume 46, The Christianity in Society, III.Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967.Tillich, Paul. A History of Christian Thought From Its Judaicand Hellenistic Origins to Existentialism. New York:Simon and Schuster, 1968.The Holy Bible. King James Version. New York: Thomas NelsonPublishers, 1972.MARTIN LUTHERJAY YORKRELIGION IN AMERICAN LIFE DR. JOSEPH HOWELLAPRIL 1, 1996