After several encounters with Church officials in multiple German settings in 1518 and 1519 led to his being declared a heretic by the pope on January 3, 1521, Luther was formally designated an enemy of the Holy Roman Empire and subject to seizure and remand to Rome for execution by fire. In practice, any European civilian prince or authority was empowered—indeed, obligated—to capture this traitor of the Faith for the good of the Church. However, the monk remained enormously popular in his home regions of Germany among both the peasantry and local princes, both populations fatigued with Roman taxes and costly indulgence crusades, among other complaints. Consequently, his influential friends arranged for Luther to take a “sabbatical” in a secret and isolated castle, Wartburg Castle at Eisenach, where he remained for about one year.
During this period of isolation necessitated by his fugitive status, Luther composed three works which provide us today with the theological nature of his break from Rome and the roots of what we would call today Protestantism in the historical sense. Many churchmen in future years would take Luther’s writings in different and much more radical directions than Luther intended; there is significant difference between Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Evangelical bodies today. But Luther’s writings provided justification for breaking free from Rome and new insights into the primacy of the Bible, the process of salvation, and ecclesiastical governance.
Eric Metaxas makes the point [p. 220] that Rome’s responses to his call for reform brought about something of an apocalyptic mood in Luther: none of the Church’s responses to his various concerns for reform mentioned a word of Scripture. For Luther, this was a very ominous sign that all power and all judgment in the Church was drawn from the raw human authority of the pope, and none from the Word of God. Taking this fear to its extreme, Luther saw a Church drifting from its lifeline, and thus the pressure for reform took on something of a lifesaving desperation. This outlook led him to pen To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation . As Wikipedia summarizes its contents, Luther “attacked what he regarded as the "three walls of the Romanists": (1) that secular authority has no jurisdiction over them; (2) that only the pope is able to explain Scripture; (3) that nobody but the Pope himself can call a general church council.
Put another way, the Letter to Christian Nobility of the German Nation is a call to the civic leaders of the region to assume responsibility for the reform of the Church. Metaxas and others refer to this letter as one of the most significant statements in Western Civilization, on a par with the Magna Carta, a paradigm shift in the ways that mankind thought of itself. Luther was introducing a type of equality within the Church, with laity enjoying the same rank as clergy by virtue of Baptism. Later reformers would take these concepts much further, for Luther’s Letter, for all its shock value, was not as radical as some make it out to be. In the first instance, Luther is not calling for a new church; he believed then—and to some degree for his entire life—that implied in Baptism is the reality of one family in a Scripture purified Church. As will subsequently be seen, Luther maintained hope for some years that the Roman Catholic Church, reformed in this manner, would remain the mother church of Christendom.
Second, Luther’s own conversion experience of some years past came directly through his reading of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans on justification by faith. Luther believed—correctly for his time—that the role of Scripture in the Church had been diminished to source texting for expansion of Church practices, at best, and in many cases, Scripture provided no support for such innovations as indulgences. Of particular concern was the gulf between the printed Word of Scripture and the judgments and operations of popes.
Luther was cutting new ground here, the idea that the bible was a living document piercing the heart of each believer and commanding an ultimate obedience in conscience. Our term “freedom of conscience” is not appropriate here, for Luther was not advocating a “do your own thing” in matters religious and moral. Rather, he argued that every baptized person was obedient to the Word of God and would be judged by this obedience, and not by what Luther saw as the human inventions of the Church. He believed that in the case of indulgences, for which he could find no Scriptural reference, the Church was wrong to extract belief in the practice.
Luther has been called “the disobedient monk” by his detractors, but in truth he advocated obedience to the Scriptures as the primary responsibility of a believer. It was his faith and allegiance to the Scripture that led him to put his life on the line when he rejected papal commands to recant his preaching and writing on the need for reform, beginning with the office of the papacy itself. In the 1500’s the idea that the formation of the New Testament collection was put together by the Church over four centuries after Christ was not known by Luther and his contemporaries. The sharp distinction he made between the Scripture and the Church would not stand up in the scholarship of most Christian denominations today, including Catholicism.
The Letter makes its case for civil or princely intervention in Church reform by undermining three “errors” identified by Luther in his present-day perception of the Church’s condition. [Specifically, he refers to the process as “breaking down three Roman walls.”] His first identified wall/error reads that “secular authority has no jurisdiction over them [the clerical state.]” Luther did not deny the need for priests and bishops, but he interpreted that need as a function, not as an elevated state. He goes further to argue that in religious matters all the baptized laity should have power of vote or input. In Luther’s theology Baptism is the primary sacrament of identity. By virtue of baptism the natural order of society—individually and collectively—has input on good Church order. Hence, the civil authority of princes has a vital and natural role to step in when internal Church abuse damaged the lives of the faithful.
The “second wall” is the contention that only the pope can explain Scripture. Luther’s attack upon this tenet reflects his belief that all believers have the right to study and find the directive word of God in their own circumstances. But Luther may also have had in mind the growing contention that some of the most cherished documents buttressing Roman authority and power, notably the Donation of Constantine, were found to be hoaxes. Possibly the most famous of these historical investigators was Lorenzo Valla [1407-1457], whose works were published, ironically, in 1517, the year that Luther came into prominence.
The third and final Roman wall is the contention that nobody but the Pope himself can call a general church council. By Luther’s day the papacy was very skittish about reform councils. It was a mere century earlier that the Council of Constance [1414-1418] had been summoned by the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund to depose three claimants to the papacy and end the Great Schism. This Council had mandated regular reform councils at specified periods in the future, but once a valid pope was restored to the Throne of Peter, he and his successors were able to achieve a good measure of previous power in governing exclusively.
Under civil and ecclesiastical pressure from France, Pope Julius II convoked the Council Lateran V [1512-1517], but its five-year run was marked by political jockeying between the major national powers of Europe and internal bickering and housekeeping. That this Council ended in the same year as Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses is evidence enough that Lateran V had done nothing of substance to address the concerns of many Catholics across Europe regarding a true spiritual reform of the Church in capite et membris, i.e., in head and members. Luther’s letter argues that kings and princes, exercising their baptismal priesthood, should step in and summon clerics to councils when popes fail to summon such meetings or do not push agendas of true reform.
Luther’s To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation is seen today as one of the first documents of the modern era to advocate what in practice is a break between church and state, though others would later make this more explicit. Luther, fixated on reform in this work, probably set in motion more radical thinking than he anticipated. And, separated from the world as he was in hiding from church agents, he could not gauge the impact—good and bad—of his text as thousands of copies were marketed throughout Europe. He would pen two more extraordinary letters in his seclusion, and when he began to speak openly on the German landscape after a year, he would discover reform and regrets.