Luther penned his third and final major letter in seclusion in November 1520. Hidden from Church arrest and trial by his friend Frederick the Elector of Saxony, Luther had already issued An Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, a letter invoking the German princes to step forward and oversee the reform of the Catholic Church. His second letter, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Catholic Church, outlined those Church entities and practices he believed to be unbiblical and thus to be pruned from the practice of the Church itself. [I will cite several examples below.] His final letter, entitled Christian Freedom, puts forth his doctrine of personal salvation and the rights of believers to seek redemption and forgiveness directly from God, without resort to human intervention. This radical teaching is the product of his intense study of St. Paul and his personal awakening to redemption.
There was some element of haste to Luther’s letters. The former monk, now dispensed from his Augustinian vows, had intended these letters as a formal response to the edict of excommunication issued by Pope Leo X, who had given Luther a limited amount of time to recant before the excommunication was finalized. Luther could have ignored the deadline for a response, but there were several compelling reasons to make his case. In the first instance, Luther never felt that he had received his “day in court,” so to speak. The debates prior to his seclusion with papal authorities in Germany had been little more than demands that he recant his errors; in one debate, his opponent succeeded in connecting Luther to the heretic Jan Hus of the 1400’s.
Second, excommunication once formalized would bring his friends into considerable danger. Harboring a heretic carried severe penalties. Pope Leo, if he chose, could have punished Frederick the Elector by placing all of Frederick’s subjects under the ban of interdict—i.e., withdrawal of all opportunities to receive the sacraments, including the deathbed sacraments for penitents deeply fearful of going to hell. Many a prince had lost his place due to the onus of interdict.
A third reason is Luther’s own fear of dying. He had resigned himself to martyrdom at the hands of the Church. This he could live with; what troubled him was the idea that his full vision of the reform of the Church and how it might come about would never be adequately, systematically, and forcefully laid out for his German countrymen. During Luther’s year in protective solitude, virtually no one knew where he was, and some citizens thought he had died. The worst outcome for Luther would have been his death—natural or otherwise—before he had the opportunity to lay out a full deposition of his theology of reform. Had he died in 1520, his organized thought unfinished, he would have simply taken his place as the most recent of a line of late medieval/early renaissance of famous if failed reformers such as John Wycliffe of the fourteenth century and Jan Hus of the fifteenth.
The Reformation historian Carlos M.N. Eire, whose 2016 assessment of the various stages of the Reformation is well worth a read of at least this lengthy review of his treatment, summarizes the major changes in the Church that Luther was advocating by the time his 1520 seclusion was drawing to a close:
 The creation of a German national church, proposing that all clerical appointments, including those of bishops, be taken away from Rome, and that the pope be stripped of the right to interfere in German church affairs.
 Clergy should be allowed to marry, on the grounds that all vows, including that of celibacy, were wrong and marriage was a natural right of every man and woman.
 Masses for the dead should be eliminated.
 The calendar should be stripped of all feast days; the only proper celebration was the Sunday Eucharist.
 All rural shrines and places of pilgrimage should be destroyed, along with the abolition and cult of the saints.
 University curricula should be reformed such that the study of the Bible would become central, and scholastic philosophy would be driven out. [Eire, Reformations, p. 171]
There can be no doubt that Luther avoided the fates of Wycliffe and Hus thanks to the new technology of the day, i.e., printing and publishing en masse. Luther was a prodigious author and sent drafts of his writing to his friends. It is known that Luther was aghast over the mass publications of many of his most radical ideas by his friends, who did so without the writer’s permission. Consequently, even with Luther out of the public view, Luther’s ideas were disseminated in the new institution of bookstores and in the time-honored custom of university debate, students and faculty alike.
The printing and publishing industry was utilized by the reformer to provide his country with “tools” for implementing Church reform, Along with his pastoral and theological treatises, Luther also published a German hymnal for use in worship, and to be expected, he translated the Bible itself into German with the expressed purpose that every baptized Christian might have direct access to the Word of God without interference of later Church invention.
It is often believed today that Luther’s ideas and writings were directed toward creating a new church separated from the existing Roman Catholic Church. After all, a new “Lutheran Church” did emerge from the actions that Lutheran set into motion. Perhaps the division and the “new church” [or, more correctly, “churches’] were inevitable. But even the radical nature of Luther’s reforms as Eire lists them above, are not a clear statement that Luther began his mission with the expressed idea of leaving the Catholic Church or even destroying it. From the distance of history, his ideas appear stark and foreign to the Catholic mind. One of my fellow parishioners told me recently that Luther did not believe in Real Presence of the Eucharist. I replied that Luther rejected the scholastic philosophy system used then [and now] to explain it, but he never denied that Christ was present in the reception of communion.
Looking back, a cataclysmic age of the Church was centuries in the making. Three centuries before Luther, a young Francis of Assisi received a vision from a crucifix telling him to “rebuild my house,” and against all odds, the powerful Pope Innocent III embraced the ideal of the simple Gospel life advocated by Francis. Innocent died prematurely, and the men who followed him were consumed by power more than poverty. It is a matter of great sadness that the Church could not reform itself until it had split into a number of fractured pieces.
Ironically, once the dam broke, the reformers themselves could not agree on the road to be taken, which is why Eire titled his book “Reformations.” Even the “Lutheran tradition” could not stay together. Future posts will continue to follow the struggles to redefine Christ’s Church, from the later Luther till the end of the bloody “religious wars” that extended for a century and a half.
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