A few weeks back I described Martin Luther’s year in seclusion, as the formal bull of excommunication by Leo X was issued on June 15, 1520. Typically, a public censure of excommunication rendered the accused subject to immediate arrest, trial, and probable excommunication if the accused heretic did not recant. Moreover, the capture of a heretic was considered the responsibility of church and civil authorities; the idea of separation of the two entities of Church and State was not yet firmly crystalized, and it was Luther’s first letter in seclusion, Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, that helped to nudge the separation along. Simply put, he was calling upon German nobility to take up what he saw as its Christian duty to reform the Church, by protecting those like himself to speak out against a tyranny of Church tradition divorced from the teaching of Sacred Scripture.
One can easily imagine the discomfort of these princes, particularly the Elector Frederick of Saxony who, as much as anyone, saved Luther’s life at the time of his excommunication. Frederick is one of the most interesting characters in the saga of Luther, and his own dilemma provides enlightenment on what the times were like. Frederick respected Luther, though not quite for the reasons one might expect. Frederick had issue with the indulgence crusades pouring forth from Rome—the very issue which led Luther to post his 95 theses in 1517—but Frederick’s ire was aroused because these Roman forays were cutting into Frederick’s relic business. Books differ on precise numbers, but the Elector was said to possess about 15,000 relics, which he displayed for veneration and curiosity for an admission fee.
But beyond that, Frederick shared a resentment with other German nobility over Roman Church taxation in the structure of the Holy Roman Empire. [Two centuries later, the French philosopher Voltaire would say that “the Holy Roman Empire is neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire.”] Frederick was immensely proud of the University of Wittenberg which he had founded, a school under his protection where Luther had lectured with distinction and enjoyed great popularity. In the city square students routinely burned Church documents condemning Luther’s teachings and writings. Frederick died in 1524, during a bloody peasants’ uprising inspired in part by Luther’s reform crusade, and his funeral was conducted without much Roman trapping in the Cathedral of Wittenberg. For interested students of the Reformation, Frederick the Wise  is available in several formats, including Kindle.
It was to men such as Frederick that Luther addressed the first of his three letters during his year’s sabbatical-in-hiding [1520-1521]. The first letter [the previous Thursday Reformation post] devotes considerable attention to the princes’ right and duty to step in and enforce Church reform. But what kind of reforms did Luther specifically hope to effect, and were they compatible with the sixteen-century body traced to Christ and the Apostles? For starters, Luther traced all sound Church belief and practice to the Sacred Scripture, and those he could not find in Scripture—or at least in his analysis of Scripture—he considered the product of mere men, even popes.
In the post of Tuesday, September 24, I discussed at some length how the composition and selection of books of the New Testament Canon was a long and complex work of the Church extending several centuries after the death of Christ. [The Jewish Canon or Old Testament was produced in something of the same fashion.] While it is true that Scripture is the sourcebook of the Church, it is also true that Scripture is the product of the Church, which enjoys the Holy Spirit’s guidance in defining its books and guaranteeing that the Church would never err to the degree that it loses its Apostolic identity. The technical theological term is Magisterium [teacher]. The Wikipedia discussion of Magisterium is surprisingly good as an overview. A full treatment can be found in By What Authority: Foundations for Understanding Authority in the Church [2018, second edition] by Richard Gaillardetz.
Luther seemed to opt for a fundamental reading of Scripture fully dependent upon text alone. If a Church practice could not be found in Scripture, or directly instituted by Christ, such a practice was considered man-made and a baggage placed unnecessarily upon the lives of Christians, distracting them from the freedom of God’s justification and mercy outlined in St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Scripture was the final forum of authority. What he denies here is the power of the Church to interpret Scripture over the progression of time, the idea that the Spirit has a dynamic life within the ecclesial community.
There is something to remember in deciphering Luther’s thought. The first is that Luther, to 1520, had spent his adult life as something of a “super-monk,” living an austere and stressful life to receive forgiveness for his sins. Biographers agree that he carried a strain of scrupulosity; I have treated patients in my lifetime with severe scruples, and it is a grim cross to carry. It should not come as a surprise, then, that having found relief in the text of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, he would develop an ecclesiology in which the Gospel was preached directly and with a limit to human invention.
Consequently, Luther’s second letter is On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church  in which he addresses the sacramental/worship structure of the Catholic Church. He determined that only three sacraments could be traced to scripture—Baptism, Eucharist, and Penance. Later he dropped Penance, perhaps not surprisingly given his own quest for forgiveness which came with his reading of Romans. Luther argued that the proper way to receive the Eucharist was under the form of bread and cup. He was not wrong on this point, but for the next four centuries Catholicism would associate receiving under both kinds with “Protestantism.” Vatican II restored the ancient practice with the new rite of the Mass in 1970.
I need to add here that reception from the cup became something of a political and social issue in Luther’s Germany. The denial of the chalice came to be a sign of societal caste, i.e., that only a special privileged few were admitted to the cup while the peasants and working class were excluded.
Luther believed that medieval academics had substituted philosophy for faith. He came to deny the language of Transubstantiation, i.e., the essential change of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, because the language had been derived from a philosophical system known as scholasticism, not from Scripture. However, he did maintain belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
This letter is sometimes regarded as the “breaking point” for Luther and the Church. Pope Leo X was penning his bull of excommunication while Luther was addressing the office of the papacy as the Antichrist. Certainly, this letter cost Luther one of his closest Catholic friends, the esteemed man of letters Erasmus. The Dutch scholar shared Luther’s passion for reform, but he could not embrace The Babylonian Captivity.