Martin Luther`s Objections.

The Humanists, such as Erasmus, and other satirical writers of the day  variously illustrated, commented upon and ridiculed the excesses of the Church of Rome. In their way they contributed to the Reformation, bringing the attention of the people generally to the practices and questioning why they were used. The challenge to the Church and the exposure of the folly , even stupidity, of the greater part of the teaching from the pulpit and University Chairs, informed the people about the superstitions which monks and friars professed (either through ignorance or for fraudulent purposes) ; and that the indulgences they sold were worthless.  A great favourite of the time was the lampoon in the form of a discussion between  peasants  who freely criticise their superiors, and confound with common sense the learned doctors of law and theology. There was a downside, however, because it gradually taught a disrespect for any law and authority and was reflected in the behaviour of the people themselves.

Religion generally had become an external matter, rather than internal of heart and conscience.  The performance of certain acts, attending services, going on pilgrimages, performance of penances, veneration of relics etc contributed to an air of paganism. The services appealed to eye and ear and at times were grossly irreverent. Pilgrimages became excuses for picnics accompanied by drunkenness and misbehaviour. Penances were often without reason and could be compounded by payment to the priests. Relics were sometimes of the most extreme and even impossible kind - such as straw from the manger in Bethlehem or a feather from an archangel`s wing. At Wittenberg ( the scene of Martin Luther`s protest) there were some 5005 relics including : pieces of the rods of Moses and Aaron, and ashes from the burning bush.  At Halle there were an incredible 8,933 relics , including alleged wine from the wedding feast at Cana, and some of the earth from which Adam was made. In ridicule of these examples Luther advertised " a piece of the left horn of Moses, three flames from the burning bush, and a lock of Beezlebub`s beard".

The ignorance of the clergy was pandemic, and worse, those responsible for correcting errors in teaching and behaviour - the bishops, cared little about the situation. The bishops seldom made visitations  and did not know or care what kind of priests were ministering to the people. In Saxony Luther himself visited several parishes and found villagers who did not know the Lord`s Prayer - it was allegedly too long to learn by heart. In one village not one person could repeat a prayer of any kind. In another an old priest who hardly knew the Lord`s Prayer but made a good living by `counteracting the spells of witches`.  Thus a priest might be ignorant and immoral, but he had been given unseen powers making his blessings worth having for one`s self, and his curses for confusing one`s enemies. It was a great boon for those living an immoral or salacious life who could get remission of sins for a small price. On the other hand, the people questioned why did God insist on the payment of a few pence to relieve a sinner from the pains of purgatory ?

Martin Luther was very aware of these issues and the practices which had arisen, particularly the matter of Indulgences. As a monk he had been regarded by colleagues as `saintly` and he was very strict with himself, whilst seeing his friends falling by the wayside. Until a short visit to Rome  (two weeks ca 1512 ) he had remained faithful to his Order and orthodox beliefs. It was seeing Rome in all its degeneracy and  hypocrisy that helped him realise what was wrong. Luther said of his visit that on three occasions he heard a voice telling him that "The just shall live by faith". The third time he heard the phrase was at the Lateran Church where he had gone to climb the Scala Sancta , the Holy Stairs, said to be those down which Christ descended after sentenced by Pontius Pilate. They had been brought from Jerusalem and installed in the Lateran Church. It was claimed that climbing them on ones knees gained a fifteen year indulgence for each ascent. It was here that he realised the folly of an indulgence that lasted  a few years when God offered a lifetime indulgence for free. From this time he took up the doctrine of justification by faith alone - in other words salvation by free grace. He believed that in no other way could the Church return to truth and liberty.

He made a Declaration which said

"I, Doctor Martin Luther, unworthy herald of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ confess this article, that faith alone without works, justifies before God; and I declare that it shall stand and remain for ever, in despite of the Emperor of the Romans, the Emperor of the Turks,  the Emperor of the Tartars, the Emperor of the Persians; in spite of the Pope and all the cardinals, with the bishops, priests , monks  and nuns; in spite of kings, princes and nobles; and in spite of all the world, and the the devils themselves ; and that if they endeavour to fight against this truth they will draw the fires of hell upon their own heads. This is the true and Holy Gospel and the declaration of me , Doctor Martin Luther, according to the teaching of the Holy Ghost. We hold fast to it in the name of God, Amen. "

[ quoted J A Wylie, History of Protestantism vol i p 255]:

Luther was not a great scholar as such, and never mastered Greek while his Latin was rough. But he was immeasurably the most influential of the Reformers. A man of intense convictions he went from strength to strength, beginning with rather mild, even genteel, criticism until he spoke out, often with strong and outspoken words, that raised the hackles of both some local rulers and Rome. In a letter to a friend in 1530 he wrote:

"My language untrained in rhetoric, yields a chaos of words, and has constantly  to fight with monsters. Of that fourfold spirit  of Elijah, I have the wind, the earthquake and the fire, but to you is allotted the refreshing zephyr. Yet I comfort myself with the thought that the heavenly Father needs an occasional servant who can be hard  to the hard and rude to the rude."

Yet had Rome, and the Curia of the Cardinals listened to the grievances instead of arrogantly dismissing them as the babblings of a heretic, they could have saved themselves, their Church, and probably turned the Protestant Reformation itself to defeat. Pope Leo X referred to the posting of the Theses as the squabble of envious monks " It is a tipsy German  that has written these Theses; he will think differently  when he is sober."  But he missed the entire point of the document itself which was to promote discussion. Luther had, as a Doctor of Theology at the University used his position, as was custom and practice across Europe, to propose matters for discussions and asked for nothing else. Sensible discussion then may well have put an entirely different slant on the subsequent relationship with Rome.

In the beginning Luther had merely protested about the sale of indulgences by disreputable persons, and did not denounce the whole system of indulgences.  He never disputed  that the Church of Rome  had power to remit  penalties it had imposed  in the form of penances. But this drew into question - where was the authority  for the doctrine to remit penalties which were in the nature of purgatory in the other world ?  If so, could the Pope  authorise anyone  to sell such remissions.?  As time passed so the arguments became more strident and  the stance of Rome more entrenched. It was only gradually that Luther reached the position that a man can be saved apart from the Pope. It was  in March 1521, several years after the nailing of his Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, that Luther wrote

" I am persuaded  that, unless man fight with all his power against the laws of the Pope and Bishops, he cannot be saved."

Luther nailing his Theses to the Schloss-Kirk door,
Wittenberg, 31 October 1517.

The onset of the Peasants War in Germany seriously impacted the Reformation, Luther had not considered it as a possibility yet it both hindered reform of religion, yet ironically emphasised the need for a wholesale Reformation. The oppression of the German peasantry had been growing for centuries. They had been stripped of all basic privileges and no longer able to live where they chose or hunt when food was needed. They were serfs, tied to their native acres, tilling the fields and spilling their blood for their master. What little earthly goods they acquired was soaked up by priests and friars threatening spiritual doom. Matters were further exacerbated by wide differences between town and country dwellers, and between the semi independent states that made up Germany at that time. Thus there was a writhing discontent at all levels which was soon hit upon by Thomas Munzer  who added a quasi religious aspect to the revolt. The Twelve Articles or demands of the peasants was presented to the rulers in January 1525. Luther, however, recognised the issues as largely political and wisely declined to support the revolt and counselled both lords and peasants to desist from confrontation. His counsel was rejected and the storm burst with a terrible ferocity and spilling of blood across the German states. Inevitably Luther`s enemies were quick to make comparisons and blame him for stirring up discontent with his attack on the Church of Rome. In the aftermath of the Peasants` War there was a quite rapid expansion of support for  the Anabaptists who had formed  themselves into the first  free church of modern times, at Zolliken , Switzerland, on 25 January 1525.

As Luther  developed his views on the form and structure of the nascent Lutheran Church, so did his opposition to all indulgences take a firmer shape. He denounced  abuses connected with auricular confession, penances and pilgrimages; questioned Canon Law and the authority of the Pope and Councils, and denied the necessity of an episcopal ordained ministry. His success was due to force of character that appealed to the common people, and all the more remarkable for not having used force of arms. Like the Scots, opportunism was a potent factor. In Scotland the drive of John Knox in the hiatus between the death of the Regent Mary of Guise, and the return of Mary Queen of Scots to reclaim her throne was critical. In Germany there was widespread discontent and the Peasants War during 1524-5. This was ruthlessly stamped out before the defining moment arrived with the Protest by the Lutheran lords at the Diet of Speyers in 1529. This cast a new dimension on European politics and relationships. Importantly it meant that Luther was no longer alone on the religious stage in Germany and gave new heart to the Reformation generally.

18/07/2011

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