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Luther vs. the Church

The Church also never imagined that a simple document like Luther’s 95 Theses would spark a revolution, but Luther and the Church quickly found themselves in opposite corners—and once the dispute began, the fight was no longer between Luther and the Church but between the Church and half the continent.

Those who fell in line behind Luther did so for a variety of reasons. The issue of indulgences was just the beginning. At the heart of the disagreement were topics like the nature of the pope, the way salvation is achieved, the true number of sacraments, and the value of laypeople to the Church. After a while, the opposition was no longer just those who believed as Luther did but all sorts of Christians. On certain issues, many couldn’t have disagreed more with Luther, but they followed his lead and voiced their disapproval of and disagreements with the Church. For all the diversity and varied motivations of the “reformers” who followed Luther, the 95 Theses served as the catalyst for their actions.

Just the Beginning

Not long after Luther put forth his document, an archbishop reported him to Rome. The pope initially didn’t think much of it and basically ignored Luther. However, someone also reprinted the document in German and distributed it widely. The Germans who read it threw their support behind Luther. He had articulated their growing suspicions about and frustrations with the Church.

As the document circulated, scholars blasted Luther and one of the pope’s closest advisors called him a heretic. Horrified, Luther asked to answer the charges of heresy, and explained his point of view in a document titled Resolutions Concerning the Virtue of Indulgences in 1518. It didn’t make much of a stir—except for the part of the document in which he said that all humans were imperfect, thus even a pope could make a mistake. Oops!

Luther later wrote a letter to the pope to try to make peace and explain his side of the story. The pope summoned Luther to Rome, but Luther knew he might be tried and executed if he returned to the city he loathed so much. Some politicians pulled some strings and arranged for Luther to be heard in Augsburg, Germany, instead.

Would You Believe?

Luther could have written 24 hours a day, but without Gutenberg's printing press Luther's ideas could not and would not have spread so far and so quickly upon completion. Many of Luther's writings were printed and disseminated even without Luther's knowledge.

The hearing didn’t go so well, and Luther reached an impasse with the cardinal overseeing the proceedings. The deadlocked hearing led to another debate, this time between scholars in the city of Leipzig.

The debate took place in July of 1519 and covered a range of topics including purgatory, penance, free will, and, of course, indulgences. Luther offered his opinions and things heated up. By the end of the debate, the cardinal had likened Luther to the heretic Jan Hus, and Luther didn’t entirely object. The battle lines had been drawn and Luther was ready to roll up his sleeves and write.

The Worms Diet and Its Undesired Results

After arguing intensely with his former friend and colleague, John Eck, at the hearing in Augsburg, Luther decided to put his ideas in writing. His partner in crime was Phillip Melanchthon, a theologian and former professor who maintained that Luther criticized only practices and not Christianity itself. Over the next few months, Luther and Melanchthon worked on Luther’s ideas and tried to get them down on paper. Luther wrote pamphlets dealing with the Eucharist, or Lord’s Supper, the papacy, and the issue of good works. Even at this point, Luther advocated reform and change within the Church, not a new religion. However, the three watershed pamphlets Luther wrote became the foundation for what would become Lutheranism. Realistically, what Luther proposed could never have happened; it would have required the Church to turn its back on centuries of tradition.

Meanwhile, Pope Leo had had enough. He issued a papal bull, or an official decree, demanding that Luther recant or be excommunicated. Luther had 60 days to respond. Luther did respond: he took the bull and burned it, along with some pro-papacy books, in public in Wittenberg. When news of the bull spread across Germany, support for Luther grew. When news of Luther’s little bonfire spread across Germany, support for Luther swelled tremendously. Still at a loss for how to deal with the renegade monk, the Church summoned Luther to appear before the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at Worms, Germany, in a proceeding known as the Diet of Worms.

Define Your Terms

diet was a gathering of important political and religious leaders at which important issues were discussed.

Although Luther had been promised safe passage to Worms, he didn’t trust the Church. Scores of people accompanied him on his journey to Worms and he arrived safely; even more supporters met him in Worms and cheered him wildly. Once there, the officials accused Luther of heresy once again and demanded that he recant. Luther refused. He said he would if and only if someone could, using the scriptures, justify the disputed teachings of the Church and disprove his beliefs. The emperor realized that nothing was being accomplished and he allowed Luther to leave.

It is fair to say that the Diet of Worms marked the official end of Luther’s relationship with the Church. He went into hiding in Wartburg Castle after leaving Worms, spending his time translating the New Testament into German. In the infamous Edict of Worms, the emperor declared Luther an outlaw.

The Diet of Worms also marked the beginning of a new religious movement outside the confines of the Church, a new religious movement with plenty of new ideas.

Would You Believe?

Once again, a person intended to be the sacrificial lamb turned out to be a martyr of sorts and a hero of the people. The fact that Luther was made to be a criminal and a rebel appealed to the people, though authorities had hoped for exactly the opposite effect. The papal bull and the Diet of Worms actually fueled the Reformation fire that was about to consume Germany.

Protestant Thought vs. Catholic Dogma

So what was all the arguing about, anyway? Was there really enough difference between Luther and his supporters’ theology and that of the Church that people had no other option than to break away from the Catholic Church?

In a word, yes. The differences weren’t just theological. Some differences had to do with salvation and the nature of God, while others had to do with the pope and the clergy. Arguably, salvation was the most important issue dividing the two sides. The Catholic Church taught that salvation could be achieved only through a combination of God’s grace and good works. In other words, after works had been done to pay for sin, God’s grace allowed man to be saved. Luther disagreed and said that no amount of works could save man’s sinful soul. Only faith in God’s grace and Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was sufficient for salvation.

Define Your Terms

Those who protested the Catholic Church and broke away from the Church eventually became known as Protestants.

The beliefs about the relationship between God and man differed in the two camps. Catholicism held that man needed a mediator, or middle-man, to reach God. Luther argued that Christ alone was the bridge between man and God. The Church required man to go to a priest for confession and for intercession. According to Luther, every believer was his own priest. In other words, every believer could enter the presence of God, could pray directly to and have a relationship with God. This doctrine came to be called “the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer.”

Along the same line, Luther believed that believers didn’t need the Church to interpret the Bible for them. Christians were free to read and interpret the Bible for themselves. This flew in the face of the Church’s insistence that only the Church had the right and the authority to interpret scriptures.

Luther also disagreed with the Church about how man received grace. Church tradition determined that there were seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation, marriage, the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper, ordination, and last rites. Luther argued that the only sacraments were baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The other five, he said, were created by man.

Define Your Terms

Luther explained consubstantiation using an illustration. He said that Christ was in the bread and wine in the same way that fire was in a piece of iron that turned red after being in a fire.

Luther also disagreed on the nature of the Lord’s Supper. The Church taught the doctrine of transubstantiation, or that the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper actually changed into the flesh and blood of Christ.

Luther claimed that there was no physical change but that Christ was present in the bread and wine, a belief known as consubstantiation.

One of the most contentious arguments between Luther and the Church occurred over the importance of the Bible relative to Church tradition. The Church taught that Church tradition and the Bible, as well as decisions made by the pope, were of equal weight and importance. Luther vehemently disagreed and claimed that the Bible alone should be the source of authority for Christians. Taken a step further, if man-made institutions like the Church and the papacy weren’t in the Bible, Christians had no use for them.

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