In 1517, when Luther famously posted his 95 theses in response to the sale of indulgences, he did not intend to leave the Church nor to start another. His goal was simple enough: to engage Church authorities and the academic communities in what we would call a colloquy or a friendly debate over the practice of “selling salvation.” While it was true that Luther was outraged by the claims and tactics of the Dominican monk Tetzel [“when a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs”] Luther believed that the Church was open to a heartfelt appeal from one of its professed sons that it move away from the monetary bartering.
Unfortunately, Luther’s timing could not have been worse in terms of capturing the Church’s attention. The Church was in desperate need of money. While many Catholics may know that part of the proceeds of Tetzel’s indulgence campaign was allotted to the construction of St. Peter’s on the Vatican Hill, it is not as well appreciated that the Islamic Turks were making major inroads in Christian Eastern Europe, conquering Belgrade [Yugoslavia] in 1521, Hungary and Cyprus. Catholics of Luther’s time lived with apocalyptic fear that the Turks would take over the entire Christian West and talk of a new crusade was heavy in the air.
Luther’s defining conversion moment was his realization that humans needed a direct intervention from God to be saved, or to use his terminology, “justified.” Luther had studied the theology of St. Augustine from a millennium earlier; Augustine argued that the original sin of Adam had so wounded the human species that nothing a man could do would affect his forgiveness and grace. God would make the first move in a miraculous and generous outreach—and a man’s only response could be total faith in the revealed word of the Bible.
For all practical purposes, Luther cut the legs out from under the Church, which had always envisioned itself as the interpreter, guardian, and dispenser of saving grace. The indulgence controversy makes more sense in this light; Luther objected to indulgences not only because they were offensive, but more so that they were useless, unbiblical, and a usurpation of what belongs only to God, the power to save. Luther was not the first to drive daylight between the power of God and the practices of the Church, but he lived through a perfect storm of circumstances that his reforming predecessors had lacked.
To understand the historical meaning of the man, consider that every human in Western Christendom carried around the same “cosmic outlook,” a multidimensional mindset on reality which embraced God, creation, the Church, civil authorities, nature, and the human psyche. Much of the citizenry of Luther’s day at every level of society experienced life as this intertwined glue of reality. This conscious and subconscious mixture of reality existed for millennia before Luther; these various components of reality were sometimes at war with each other, but no one questioned the world order itself. Jesus referred to the corrupt King Herod as “that old fox” in Luke 13:32 but he also counseled “to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” Even the most original scientific minds of Luther’s day worked within this synthesis. In his The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve , Stephen Greenblatt observes that when Christopher Columbus landed in the New World and discovered peaceful, naked communities, he wondered out loud if he had discovered a part of the Garden of Eden untouched by sin.
Luther’s thesis—his deepest belief, actually—that justification or salvation originated directly from God and called for a personal faith in God’s love and power—effectively unraveled the synthesis by which nearly everyone lived. The idea of God’s direct relationship to each person ennobled Christians to live free of the fear of damnation at the hands of the Church and the state. Many authors hold that Luther was the gateway of the Modern Era and the Enlightenment. Philosophers began addressing reality from subjective experience. The “Father of Modern Philosophy,” Rene Descartes [1596-1650], proclaimed a century after Luther a new rule of defining reality: “I think, therefore I am.” For better and worse, Luther’s thinking—with the help of Pascal and many others--continues to impact Catholics even today who make a personal assessment of Catholic formal teaching based upon personal impact and impression before automatically giving assent to the teaching. Even our country’s approach to wearing Covid masks demonstrates the individualist strain of thought we live with today.
The Lutheran revolution, then and now, is interpreted in the popular mind as the ultimate freedom. Luther understood his teaching as a freedom from the Church-imposed laws and rituals, particularly those involving judgment. He believed his reforms in this direction would save the Church, not destroy it. His debates with noted Catholic representatives failed; Luther talked reform, while the Church talked authority. Several of Luther’s insights—the importance of Sacred Scripture for each member of the Church, for example—are part of Catholic Church life today. But Luther was an activist more so than a mystic, which meant that he was neither a self-critic nor a long-range visionary.
Luther was correct to articulate the need to return to the Bible and, in his case, to St. Paul’s teachings on justification by faith. But he erred in ignoring the warning of James 2: 14-26 that faith without good works is useless, and over time the question arose among his followers as to where one turns for the proper interpretation of the source of salvation, the Holy Bible. It would surprise no one that disputes—quite violent ones—would break out among reformers who took Luther’s teachings further than Luther had, and that fragmenting of reform bodies would take on new energy.
Perhaps more tragic is the fate of the poorer populations who saw Luther’s preaching as an invitation to overthrow the entire social order. Luther was traditional enough to disengage from the determined militias whose quest for a better economic life led to wholesale loss of life in Germany. In his famous Address to the German Nobility  Luther invited German princes to take the lead in reforming the Church given the papacy’s excommunication of Luther and his writing. But soon the European princes sympathetic to religious reform rather enjoyed their newfound powers. [Think England’s Henry VIII.] As the number of different “denominations” continued to proliferate through the sixteenth century, a new political-religious principle emerged, cuius regio, eius religio. Roughly translated, “whoever is king, that is the religion [of his territory].
The Reformation would spread throughout Europe in many different forms, and eventually there would be the plurality of churches we have today. But it is important to understand the roots of the major Christian Churches and some of the outstanding leaders whose contributions overlap denominational boundaries. In post 46 of the Reformation posts I will turn to one of the most familiar names alongside Luther’s, John Calvin. The receiving dock of The Catechist Café has informed me that John Calvin for a New Reformation  has just arrived, so our Reformation series will push on.
If you are interested in a full treatment of the Reformation, I have recommendations. My favorite is The Reformation: A History  by Diarmid MacCulloch, which, although detailed, reads very well. The second is Carlos M.N. Eire's Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650 , which sets the table of religious unrest quite well.