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HISTORY CORNER: Martin Luther and the Christian world

by SYD ALBRIGHT
| March 27, 2022 1:00 AM

Martin Luther was a German friar who lived in the late Middle Ages (1250-1500) — a turbulent time in the history of Western Civilization. Feudal Europe was changing in a broad spectrum of ways. Famines and the Black Plague (bubonic) raged, killing as many as 200 million — half the European and North African population.

There were peasant revolts across Europe and Britain, and the Hundred Year War between England and France seemed endless.

On the bright side, Gutenberg’s printing press created a big leap in making scholarship and the Bible available to the masses.

His press was not the first, but it was the first that became available to the public. Even though expensive — equivalent to the cost of a calf in those days — the Gutenberg Bible found ready buyers.

The burgeoning Ottoman Empire blocked many of the old trade routes, forcing a search for new ones opened by Christopher Columbus discovering the Americas and Vasco de Gama sailing to Africa and India. Other explorers and adventurers soon followed in the golden Age of Exploration.

It was also a time when the Christian world was beset with schisms — especially the Catholic Church with the Schism of 1378 when bishops in Rome and Avignon, France, both claimed to be the real pope.

Just five years later, Martin Luther was born in Eisleben, Germany (then called the Holy Roman Empire) and would bring even bigger troubles to the Church.

Luther’s father was a copper miner and wanted his son to have a good education — and helped him get one. Young Martin was always bright and earned a master of arts degree from the University of Erfurt at age 21.

Dad wanted him to become a lawyer, so young Martin began law studies.

Then one night on the way home to see his parents in Mansfeld — 56 miles north — he was drenched by a violent thunderstorm — making him fear for his life.

A bolt of lightning knocked him off his horse, and he was terrified the next bolt would kill him. Grasping a large boulder, he prayed to St. Anne, patron saint of miners and the only saint he knew about because his father was a miner, and vowed that if she saved his life, he’d become a monk.

The prayer was answered and much to his father’s disappointment, he quit law school, threw a party and gave away his law books and everything else and entered the Augustinian Order at Erfurt. He dived into his new studies with zeal and in less than a month, became an Augustinian friar.

In 1510, Luther and another monk walked 1000 miles to Rome on a Church assignment, staying at monasteries along the way. He was appalled at the luxurious living at some of them, the lack of morals and apparent disinterest in spiritual matters.

Nevertheless, he was fired up when he arrived in Rome. He completed his mission and then visited the graves of 46 popes and cemeteries containing the bones of 80,000 martyrs.

Like being on a pilgrimage, he reverently climbed the 28 white marble steps of Scala Sancta — which according to Roman Catholic tradition, were the steps leading up to Pontius Pilate’s praetorium in Jerusalem where Jesus walked on his way to trial and death sentence.

The stairs were said to have been brought to Rome by Emperor Constantine’s mother St. Helena in the 4th Century.

While climbing those steps, he heard a voice say “the just shall live by faith,” and it stuck in his mind.

In the years that followed, Luther rose in Church responsibilities, taught, wrote prodigiously on theological issues and debated with theologians.

He also concluded that the Church needed reform.

He wrote his concerns and tradition says he nailed his 95 Theses on the church (or chapel) door at Wittenberg Castle in 1517.

His 95 Theses propounded that the Bible is the central religious authority and that salvation can only be achieved through faith — not deeds.

The masses agreed with him — the Church did not.

That was the start of the Protestant Reformation.

Luther was summoned to Rome to explain and recant, but refused. He was rebuffed at the Diet assembly in Worms, and in a hearing before Emperor Charles V he again held his ground, and was in danger of imprisonment and execution.

He was rescued by a German nobleman who hid him in his castle at Wartburg for 11 months.

While there, Luther translated the New Testament into vernacular German. Years later he finished translating the entire Bible, and the newly invented printing press made them available for everyone.

As Luther’s angst about the Church continued, he earnestly investigated a number of issues that troubled him, including his belief about Purgatory — a concept that he eventually concluded was a fiction.

According to long-standing tradition, Purgatory was a “half-way house” between death and Heaven, where souls of the departed were sent to be “purified” by paying a penalty for sins that were not fully atoned for while they were alive. They couldn’t enter heaven until those debts were paid.

In Luther’s times, Catholics and other denominations believed that penalties suffered in Purgatory could be reduced through intercessory prayer for the deceased and also by buying indulgences from the Church.

That issue especially caught Luther’s attention when the pope sent Johann Tetzel, a German Dominican friar and preacher out to raise money for the building of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

One source says Tetzel “was preying on the ignorance of poverty-stricken and superstitious Germans, collecting money from them to buy the release of their relatives from the fires of Purgatory.”

He allegedly said, “As soon as the gold in the casket rings, the rescued soul to heaven springs.”

A contemporary Catholic source says the Church “does not now nor has it ever approved the sale of indulgences.”

Regarding Purgatory, Protestants accept Luther’s rejection of the concept. They believe all sins are forgiven immediately by sincere repentance and acceptance of Jesus Christ as their personal Saviour — being “born again.”

Luther began teaching theology at the University of Wittenberg, earning a doctorate in the subject in 1512. While lecturing on the Bible, he took renewed interest in the Book of the Romans, that poet Samuel Coleridge called “the most profound book in existence.”

Luther was particularly struck by verse 1:17 — “the just shall live by faith,” (mentioned four times in the Bible) meaning that faith in God was the only way to achieve righteousness — “not just by good works or paying indulgences,” according to Luther.

He interpreted the verse as meaning the only way to achieve eternal salvation was through God’s grace, which is freely given to those who believe in Christ Jesus — and can’t be attained through good deeds or indulgences.

That verse may have been the verse that changed history.

Martin Luther died on Feb. 18, 1546, in Eisleben, three days after his last sermon, breathing his last surrounded by his wife Katharina and friends.

Luther wanted the Reformation movement he started to succeed and advocated establishment of strong Christian schools, “to train children to be God-fearing citizens of both church and state,” says Frederick Nohl in his book Martin Luther, Hero of the Faith.

“Too many parents fail to teach their children, because parents don’t want to be bothered, don’t know how, or don’t have the time. He (Luther) observed that most children were idle and wasted hours at games.”

During the last 20 years of his life, Luther changed considerably physically and temperamentally. He was no longer the dynamic crusader facing powerful rulers and the powerful Church in Rome.

He became “Irascible, dogmatic and insecure,” according to Britannica. “His tone became strident and shrill, whether in comments about the Anabaptists, the pope, or the Jews.

“In each instance,” the report continued, “his pronouncements were virulent: the Anabaptists should be hanged as seditionists, the pope was the Antichrist, the Jews should be expelled and their synagogues burned.”

Despite his geriatric eccentricities, Martin Luther was by far the most dominant personality of his times.

The Reformation Luther spawned that changed the course of Western Civilization, and the birth of the Lutheran Church were mighty footprints to leave in world history.

The Catholic Church responded by Pope Pius IV ordering reforms in the Church.

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Contact Syd Albright at silverflix@roadrunner.com.

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Cultural change…

When Germany defeated Napoleon, it was as disastrous to culture as when Luther defeated the Church.

— Will Durant, American philosopher, historian

The Augustinian Order…

The Order of Saint Augustine was founded in 1244 in Italy when several communities of hermits united under the Rule of Saint Augustine governing chastity, poverty, obedience, detachment from the world, division of labor, charity, prayer, fasting abstinence, care of the sick, silence and reading during meals.

— Wikipedia

Luther’s core belief…

Martin Luther taught that salvation and eternal life are not earned by good deeds but are received only as the free gift of God’s grace through the believer’s faith in Jesus Christ as redeemer from sin.

Health issues…

In 1536, Martin Luther began to suffer from health problems: kidney and bladder stones, arthritis, ruptured ear drum and angina — eventually making him short-tempered and harsher in his writings and comments.

Luther’s ‘Filthy rags’…

I did exactly what the Church taught me to do. I latched onto every help that the Church had to offer: the monastery, works, sacraments, pilgrimages, indulgences — everything. It was only years later that I discovered that all my works of righteousness left me standing before God ashamed of my filthy rags. Walk with me down the foolish road of works.

Walk first with me into the monastery where I tried on the garment of the filthy rags of good works.

— Martin Luther

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WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

St. Augustine's Monastery in Erfurt, central Germany, is a former 13th century church and monastery and home of Martin Luther (1483-1546), father of the Reformation, who lived there as a friar from 1505 until 1511.

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THE FEDERALIST SOCIETY

Reports differ on whether Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church at Wittenberg Castle in 1517, or mailed them to his archbishop, Albrecht von Brandenburg, on Oct. 31, 1517.

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HERALDNET

Luther Room in Wartburg Castle is where Martin Luther spent 11 months translating the New Testament into German, finishing in 1522, with the entire Bible translated 12 years later.

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HARALD KRIEG IMG SACHSEN-ANHALT

Martin Luther translated the New Testament into German in 11 weeks, for the first time bringing a Bible to the German people that they could understand, at a time when the printing press was invented.

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GREAT COURSES DAILY

Martin Luther urged the Catholic Church to reform, and his advocacy changed the course of Western Civilization.

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FREESPEECHHISTORY

Painting by Anton von Werner (1877) Martin Luther stating his case of the 95 Theses when summoned before the Diet at Worms, Germany in 1521.

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DUCKDUCKGO IMAGES

Paul Thumann painting (1872) depicting Martin Luther burning the papal bull excommunicating him, issued by Pope Leo X in 1521.

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DUCKDUCKGO

The former friar Martin Luther and former nun Katarina von Bora were married in 1525, had six children, and later cared for six of his sister’s children as well before he died in 1546 at age 63.

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AP PHOTO

In a gesture of reconciliation between Catholics and Lutherans, Pope Francis visited Sweden in 2016 to apologize for “errors” by the Catholic Church 500 years earlier.

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JUST TRAVELOUS

Wittenberg Castle Chapel in Saxony, Germany, where Martin Luther is said to have posted his 95 Theses.

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BERGWELTEN

Wartburg Castle in Eisenach where Martin Lutheran spent 10 months in hiding after refusing to recant his 95 Theses before the Diet assembly in Worms, Germany, in 1521.

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