Our Church Fathers- Martin Luther

Martin Luther was a German monk who forever changed the course of Christianity, sparking the Protestant Reformation. As Diarmaid MacCulloch writes in A History Of Christianity: ‘An argument about a side alley of medieval soteriology (the study of salvation) escalated into the division of Europe.’
Luther called into question some of the basic tenets of Roman Catholicism, and his followers soon split from the Roman Catholic Church to begin the Protestant tradition. I thought about him when I was in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. A sobering thought, that so much grandeur was paid for by poor people, believing that they had to buy their salvation with the purchase of indulgences.
The Catholic Church’s definition of an indulgence is ‘a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven’. Where did they get the idea that this should be bought? One is tempted to ask: ‘were they not reading the same Bible?’
Luther was born on November 10, 1483, in Eisleben, Saxony. He was a diligent scholar, studying grammar, rhetoric and logic, but he later compared this experience to purgatory and hell. He duly received a degree, preparing to becoming a lawyer, but God had other plans. Caught in a terrific thunderstorm, Luther cried out to St. Anne, the patron saint of miners, ‘Save me, St. Anne, and I’ll become a monk!’ Driven by fears of hell and God’s wrath, he felt that monastic life would help him find salvation.
Years later, and after becoming a professor of theology at the university in Wittenberg, he finally understood the key to spiritual salvation was not to fear God or be enslaved by religious dogma but to believe that faith and belief in God’s grace alone would bring salvation. This period marked a major change in his life and set in motion the Reformation.
On October 31, 1517, Luther, angry with Pope Leo X’s new round of indulgences to help build St. Peter’s Basilica, nailed a sheet of paper with his 95 Theses on the University of Wittenberg’s chapel door. Although he intended these to be discussion points, they laid out a devastating critique of the sale of indulgences as corrupting people’s faith. Aided by the printing press, copies of the 95 Theses spread throughout Germany within two weeks and throughout Europe within two months.
Refusing to recant his 95 Theses unless Scripture proved him wrong, he was excommunicated from the Church. At the Edict of Worms, Luther’s writings were banned and he was declared a heretic, a condemned and wanted man. Friends helped him hide, and while in seclusion, he translated the New Testament into the German language, to give ordinary people the opportunity to read God’s word. This radically changed the relationship between church leaders and their followers.
Physical pain and emotional strain of being a fugitive might have been reflected in his writings, some works containing strident and offensive language against several segments of society, particularly Jews and, to a lesser degree, Muslims. Anti-Semitism was rife in Europe for centuries; Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock in ‘A Merchant of Venice’ gives you an idea of that society’s opinion of Jews. Luther’s work ‘The Lies of the Jews’ had dreadful repercussions centuries later, becoming rich pickings for the German Church in the Third Reich. As Archbishop Welby said, ‘many faith communities have acted badly in the past, and Christians have a pretty grim history’. (CT 11/9, p13)
The reflections this week have mostly covered positive portrayals of our Church fathers. Here it is helpful also to consider that the profound developments in the understanding our faith have been through imperfect human beings. Like us.

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