There is no better example of the pressures of his fears of going to hell than the celebration of his first Mass as an ordained priest in 1506. This Mass, celebrated in his monastery, included in the congregation Luther’s father; the two had not spoken for several years since Luther had spurned his father’s wishes to become a lawyer by entering the Augustinian Order instead. All of Luther’s biographers concur that the monk priest experienced some powerful emotion that immobilized him at the moment of consecration, when he uttered the words that changed the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. Given his overwhelming sense of his own unworthiness and his six-hour confessions, the realization of holding God in his own hands not surprisingly created a panic or dissociation, though with the help of his confessor, Staupitz, Luther was able to finish the Mass and enjoy the communal festivities of the day.
Luther was doing everything that he believed the Church required of him to save his soul, to the point of going beyond even the austere standard life of monks to extreme works of deprivation, discipline, and exhaustive examination of conscience over his profound sense of guilt and unworthiness. He was not alone in his suffering, for the late middle ages and the early Renaissance was a time of confusion, fear, and even cynicism over the issue of salvation. A very rough division of Luther’s world would look something like this: (1) Catholics who believed that the rites of the faith were sufficient for salvation by way of the Church’s own authority; (2) Catholics who despaired that any good works of faith could save them; and (3) a growing class of cynics and men of letters who questioned the entire structure of a “saving authority” based upon the creation of man.
For all his anguish, Luther dedicated himself to his monastic life of teaching and scholarship at his university in Erfurt and other assignments given to him by his order, including a visit to Rome in 1510 for administrative matters regarding his community. If you read anything of Luther in your lifetime, you will draw the conclusion that he was profoundly scandalized by life in the Eternal City and lost faith in the Church. It is true that Leo X, a Medici pope, was a very worldly man with little interests to addressing the need for reform that many Catholics, including Luther, and Leo’s excessive spending fueled the practice of sale of indulgences.
But Luther’s experience went further than scandal over corrupt clerics. He was still able to draw a distinction between a saving Church and the corrupt hierarchy who might be disgracing it at any point in history. In fact, the Augustinian monk engaged in several religious activities on behalf of himself and his family while in Rome. While I was in Rome in 2013 I visited the mother Church of Christendom in Luther’s day, St. John Lateran. Then as now, the central relics of the majestic Church remain the [reputed] heads of St. Peter and St. Paul. I must admit to significant doubt about the veracity of this claim, but my faith has never rested upon relics.
In Luther’s day, however, this Church of John the Apostle offered many blessings based upon such questionable traditions, particularly for priests. The legend arose that that a priest offering Mass under its roof could obtain his own mother’s salvation. Unfortunately, the church was so packed with tourists and pilgrims that it was impossible for him to do so. As Eric Metaxas writes, “The very idea of it must have been disturbing and confusing; that because of the gabbling crowds, Luther’s dear mother might suffer the horrors of purgatory, or worse. What sense did it all make? But the Church was full of such mysteries, and who was this Martin, a sinful monk, to question any of it?” (Martin Luther, 2017, p. 61)
Luther then progressed to the Scala Sancta or “Holy Stairs” where pilgrims might gain relief for suffering souls in Purgatory by climbing the stairs on their knees and offering the prescribed prayers. Luther found himself lamenting that such divine intervention could not be applied to his parents because they were not dead. Years later Luther would recall that at the top of the steps “he suddenly wondered whether all he had just done so obediently would have the effect that the church so authoritatively and specifically and confidently said it would.” (Metaxas, p. 61) It was a moment of truth for the struggling monk, who observed, too, that the clerical life in Rome was in serious decline; a typical Mass could be offered in twelve minutes, and in some churches as little as nine minutes.
Luther obviously had much to think about upon his return to Germany, and his position as a scholar gave him the opportunity to reflect upon the Church and the sources of its authority. Like any good humanist of the early Renaissance, he returned to earlier sources. Needless to say, he could find nothing in St. Augustine or any other Church father from the age of the great councils on matters such as indulgences, applications of merits, or the timespan of Masses. He did not deny the reality of the Church nor the need for it, but he came to understand that in its present form the Church was not capable of self-correction, given its unnuanced claim of authority. How did a believer live in a Church that was, in a sense, “overreaching?”
If this was true, then by what measure could the Church be reformed? And perhaps more importantly, how could an individual baptized believer reach an assurance of salvation, a realization that God heard his prayers? Where could a believer turn for the ultimate truths of salvation? In post 32 on this stream we will look at Luther’s pastoral and theological breakthrough that would alter the religious experience of the Christian world.