A fire lit by a scrupulous friar

Salvador Ryan examines the origins of the Lutheran Reformation

Salvador Ryan 

Last week, Pope Francis was in Lund, Sweden, as part of a joint commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation which will take place about a year from now on 31 October 2017. In more recent times we have come to take events such as these for granted, but this is surely to miss the extraordinary progress that has been made over the past 50 years of ecumenical dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation. 

While this dialogue is, necessarily, ongoing, there can be few who could have possibly predicted that in 2013 the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity could issue a document entitled From Conflict to Communion: Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017. The joint document, from the outset, set out to examine how the anniversary could be commemorated anew in an ecumenical age (this would, in fact, be the first opportunity to do so). 

It also took account of new historical perspectives on Luther in the more recent, less confessional past, noting how both Lutherans and Roman Catholics have many reasons to “retell their history in new ways”. Recent research on the Middle Ages, for instance, has questioned the Protestant caricature of a time of darkness no less than it has critiqued a traditional Catholic hearkening back to an Age of Faith. 

Indeed, the document notes that some 20th-Century Catholic research on Luther acknowledged that “Luther overcame within himself a Catholicism that was not fully Catholic”, moving away from adversarial portrayals of his motivations and highlighting that his intention was never to divide the Church but to reform it. 

All in all, preparations for the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation have been a world away from a scene on November 1, 1527 in which Luther sat down for a drink in Wittenberg with an old friend and fellow pastor, Justus Jonas, to toast the past “10 years after indulgences were trodden underfoot”. Thankfully, for most people today, both the language and sentiment of that informal 10-year commemoration would seem quite alien in what has become a warmer ecumenical climate which, at its best, seeks to understand rather than to condemn. 

Fateful year

And so, in order to better understand what happened in 1517 and why, let’s look afresh at what were, indeed, multiple factors which contributed to the unfolding of events in that fateful year and beyond. And, in order to do that, we need to begin with Luther himself. 

Born Martin Luder in Eisleben, Saxony, on November 10, 1483 to Hans Luder and Margarethe Lindemann, the family moved the following year to Mansfeld. Luther’s father was part of the local elite of smelter-masters who ran the mines and he would later become mayor of Mansfeld. Needless to say, he had high hopes for his son; having secured a good education for Martin, including a spell boarding with the Brethren of the Common Life at the cathedral school of Magdeburg, he encouraged him to study law at Erfurt after which he hoped he would marry into one of the influential families of Mansfeld. 

When, in 1505, having narrowly escaped being struck by lightning, he made a vow to become “a monk”, Luther threw his father’s plans for him into disarray. Luther chose his religious order carefully. Not one to do things by halves, he set himself the challenge of becoming the most perfect of religious, opting to join the Augustinian hermits of the reformed German congregation, one of the strictest order of friars he could find. 

Here, already, we see Luther as reform-minded at heart. Not for him one of the more lax monasteries or friaries of the later Middle Ages; rather, Luther identified himself more closely with the spirit of the Observant reform movement which had swept through many of the mendicant orders in the 15th Century. 

Religious vow

This, however, was no consolation to his father who was horrified at Luther’s abandonment of a legal career and the investment that had been made in his education: in short, he considered it a direct affront to his family and even on the occasion of Luther’s first Mass, his father wondered aloud whether the religious vow his son had made had, in fact, been a result of diabolical temptation, something which cut Luther to the bone. 

Luther applied himself assiduously to religious life, with extremes of fasting and long hours of prayer, not to mention recourse to the Sacrament of Confession, often several times a day, in an effort to assuage himself of the guilt which accompanied his acute awareness of sin and made him incredibly anxious and uncertain of God’s love or of the possibility of him ever being saved. 

This was Luther’s experience of what he called anfechtungen – assaults or temptations – and it brought him to the brink of despair. These assaults also manifested themselves physically in the form of headaches, earaches, fainting and digestive problems. 

At the time, Luther was working out of a late medieval notion called the “merit of congruity”, that is, the idea that a person has to merit the first gift of grace from God; a person, by an act of the will, has to work at obtaining that first gift of grace either by prayer, fasting, vigils, penance, etc. When you make an effort to love God above all things, when you “do the good that is in you” then God will bestow grace upon you, that grace will sanctify you and you will be pleasing to God and justified in his sight. 

However, the severity of Luther’s preoccupation with his own sinfulness and the prospect of damnation despite all his efforts at strictly living a religious life made this a terrifying experience for the young friar. How could he be certain that he was actually loving God above all things? 

The more he expended effort at loving God, the greater his sense of falling short became. This, in turn, led him to resent and even hate God for imposing upon him such a heavy burden. 

Besides, all of these “works” that he was performing in order to justify himself before God arose from ever more selfish motivations: he found that his motivation for loving God was only for the sake of being saved and avoiding damnation. In Luther’s words, the will had become “curved in on itself”. 

Famously, the breakthrough in this impasse came about when Luther, a biblical professor at the new University of Wittenberg at this stage, read the Pauline passage in Romans 1:17 with new eyes – “for in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written ‘the one who is righteous will live by faith’”. 

Something clicked with Luther; it was one of those ‘Aha!’ moments which made him realise that the key to his dilemma was faith. Luther would come to appreciate that faith did not mean a dispassionate assent to creedal formulas or doctrinal decrees; rather, it was best understood by the Greek word pistis meaning ‘trust’; trust in God’s promise, not in the efficacy of one’s own good works. 

Having previously considered the precondition for justification as a human work, something which had to be performed (and, of course, there was always the terror which accompanied the realisation that one could never do this perfectly) Luther now interpreted God’s righteousness not as something which punishes the sinner who can never measure up, but as something which is gifted to the sinner because it could never be earned in the first place. Luther experienced this insight as profoundly liberating. 

Indeed, from about 1517, Luther began to sign his letters as ‘Eleutherius’, the freed one, from which the new version of his surname (“Luther” as opposed to “Luder”) is derived. In a sense, it was a way of indicating that he had experienced a new birth. 

This realisation also had an effect on Luther’s views on free will. Luther would come to abhor the notion of free will. After all, it was the notion that he had free will in the first place (to love God above all things) that had terrified him when he was striving to justify himself. Once Luther accepted that there was nothing he could do to earn his salvation, he concluded that it was ludicrous to attempt to save himself by his own free will. This entailed relying on his own strength which could only lead to disaster. 

Once he removed free will from the equation, this led sinners, he saw, to throw themselves back, not on their own works and their supposed merits, but on Christ alone and his merits. For Luther, sola fide, faith alone, involves simply trusting in Christ’s promise to the exclusion of everything else, including one’s own good works which have no part to play in one’s salvation. 

Luther’s traumatic experience of anfechtungen as a friar had convinced him that human sin had left people utterly unable to freely fulfil the demands of God’s law. Relying on oneself, the law was simply a source of terror. The only hope was to rely on the Gospel and Christ’s promise. If people did possess “free will”, the only “freedom” in that “free” will was the freedom to sin. 

Luther’s conclusions regarding this are usefully illustrated in the story of a pastor and layman in the Alpine region who were discussing this very topic when the layman tossed some salt from a pot on the table onto the floor and challenged the pastor to prove that he had not been “free” to throw the salt. 

The pastor agreed that the man had, in fact, been perfectly ‘free’ to throw the salt onto the floor but asked whether he was also perfectly ‘free’ to gather up every grain of the salt into the pot again? Freedom, for Luther, therefore, was simply a freedom to sin. Better, then, to dispense with relying on one’s own will and simply cling to the Gospel. 

Given Luther’s traumatic experiences as a young friar anxious to justify himself before God and his subsequent realisation that such striving to acquire grace and merit was all in vain when, in fact, Christ provides everything necessary for justification so that all the sinner needs to do is to receive it, it is little wonder that the business of indulgences so provoked his ire. 

Although indulgences had been issued to the living since the late 11th Century for significant ventures such as embarking on a crusade, it was only since 1476 that these could be obtained on behalf of the dead to speed their release from Purgatory. 

However, the context of the selling of indulgences in Ducal Saxony in Luther’s day was as follows. In 1514 Albrecht of Brandenburg became Archbishop of Mainz and Primate of the German Empire at age 24, but for this he had to take out a massive loan from the Fugger banking family, a loan that would need repaying. 

In 1507 Pope Julius II had issued a Jubilee Indulgence which was aimed at raising money for the rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica. This was renewed in 1513 and 1515 and Albrecht obtained permission to sell the indulgence in his own lands, with the understanding that he could retain a large proportion of the funds raised (and so be able to repay the bank). And so he embarked upon an aggressive campaign of indulgence-selling, spearheaded by the infamous Dominican friar, Johann Tetzel. 

Although not for sale in Luther’s Wittenberg (Luther’s ruler, Elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony, had his own indulgence industry available to those visiting his large relic collection), Luther certainly encountered many people who had purchased these indulgences and were assured of pardon from sin on foot of a commercial exchange. (Some peddlers of indulgences even guaranteed pardon for sins that the purchaser had not yet committed!)

For someone who had come to the realisation of the free gift of Christ’s grace to the sinner, Luther was horrified that those who bought indulgences were being offered assurances on simple letters of pardon and that these needed to be purchased. It should be noted, though, that the 95 theses which Luther drew up (in Latin as propositions for an academic debate, not in German for public controversy) were not intended as an attack on the Pope; rather, they sought to clarify what the Pope’s intentions regarding the granting of indulgences actually were – and how far the present reality had strayed from these intentions. 

In fact, in setting these out, Luther expected papal support for his position. 

In this he would be disappointed. Both Albrecht and Rome had much to lose if indulgences were to come under a theological spotlight. 

What’s more, the ensuing debates soon moved from the issue of indulgences to far weightier matters: issues of authority and also of theology, most specifically the issue of justification and the workings of God’s grace. Meanwhile, Luther’s theses, originally meant for academic discussion, came more into the public domain, a German translation appearing without Luther’s permission, and were widely circulated thanks to the new technology of printing. This made Luther into a much more public figure. 

Furthermore, as Luther was called to account for his views, and as the authority of the papacy in Rome was increasingly emphasised, Luther found himself becoming bolder in his assertions. 

What didn’t help either was the intervention of an Italian Dominican named Silvester Prierias who, in 1518, responded to Luther’s 95 theses by setting out some extreme views of papal infallibility, arguing that anyone who disagrees with the Pope is a heretic and, in 1519, appealing to canon law to argue that Popes cannot be deposed, even if they lead multitudes to hell. This helped convince Luther that the papacy was none other than antichrist.  

Spiritual struggles

Of course papal authority had suffered greatly in the previous two centuries with a papacy that was for some 70 years beholden to the French monarch while at Avignon (1309-77), and thereafter a period in which there were two and then three rival Popes, until the matter was dealt with by a Church council at Constance in 1415. There followed a period in which many believed Church councils to have greater authority than Popes and, by the early 16th Century, Popes had become rather prickly about demonstrating otherwise. 

What had begun as the personal spiritual struggles of a scrupulous young friar in a small university town was set to engulf the whole of Europe in a religious revolution. 

Salvador Ryan is Professor of Ecclesiastical History at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth. His Remembering the Reformation: Martin Luther and Catholic Theology (co-edited with Declan Marmion and Gesa Thiessen) will be published by Fortress Press in early 2017.