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How the Protestant Reformation Started
You probably know at least one thing about Martin Luther: that he nailed the 95 theses to a church door and defied the Roman Catholic Church.
This was Luther’s declaration of independence from Rome.
The truth is, this is historically inaccurate.
Yes, October 31, 1517, would turn out to be the first hint that the Western world was about to be turned upside down. But Luther’s act on October 31, 1517 was not an act of rebellion.
It was, in fact, just the opposite. It was the act of a dutiful son of mother church.
Someone—no one knows who—took the Latin text of Luther’s 95 Theses, translated them into German, and sent them all over Germany. When the German people realized that Luther was standing up against abuses in the church, he became a hero throughout Germany.
The Reformation began.
But how did it start? To find out, we need to know what kind of man Luther was, and where he came from.
In this 20-minute video, Professor Frank James introduces you to the Reformation: how it started, how it unfolded, and what happened next. Take a look:
Who was Martin Luther?
Martin was born on November 10, 1483, in Eisleben, but grew up in Mansfeld. When Martin turned fourteen, he was sent to a preparatory school in Magdeburg and later in Eisenach. He attended the University of Erfurt, where he received his baccalaureate in 1502 and a master’s degree in January 1505.
Luther’s father decided that his son was to become a lawyer, so Martin went off to law school in Erfurt. But circumstances soon would place young Luther on a different path.
How Luther became a monk
Two experiences turned Luther’s attention from law to the monastery.
- First, Luther lost a close friend when the plague swept through Erfurt. This loss seems to have shaken the young Martin and turned his attention to deeper spiritual concerns.
- The second—and more famous—reason Luther became a monk was that, soon after beginning law school, he was returning to Erfurt from Mansfeld when he was overtaken by a sudden thunderstorm. A lightning bolt struck a tree close by. The young Luther, in a fit of fear, called upon St. Anne, the patron saint of distressed travelers, and vowed to become a monk if only she would spare his life. After the storm, Luther entered the monastery of the Augustinian Hermits.
While this event seems to have been the immediate cause for his entrance into the monastic life, we must recognize that the lightning bolt landed in a medieval world where the religious ideal was the life of a monk. Late medieval piety taught that the only way someone could be assured of salvation was to flee the temptations of the secular world and devote oneself to God. To this conventional wisdom, Luther bowed his head and entered the monastic life in July 1505.
Despite his anxieties, Luther was a successful monk. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1507 and later appointed as an instructor at the new University of Wittenberg. As a young professor, Luther lectured on books of the Bible. He was also a pastor and preacher in the parish church, regularly preaching three sermons a week.
How indulgences helped start the Reformation
Indulgences were pieces of paper with papal insignia that granted remission of temporal punishment for sin. It may seem odd to moderns that a piece of paper became the straw that broke the camel’s back in the sixteenth century. But that’s exactly what happened.
In 1460 Pope Sixtus IV decided that the buying of indulgences not only was good for the sinner in this life, but could be applied to deceased family members in purgatory as well. This had a profoundly powerful emotional appeal. Sinners were given the opportunity to reduce or even end the suffering, pain, and punishment of beloved family members.
During Luther’s generation these elaborations of the doctrine of indulgences were still relatively new.
In 1507, Pope Julius II permitted the sale of indulgences to raise money to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Pope Leo X renewed approval in 1513.
In fact, Pope Leo later made a deal with Albert of Brandenburg, archbishop of Mainz (Germany): If Archbishop Albert would agree to allow the sale of indulgences, Leo agreed to split the profits with him. The person hired to travel all over Germany to sell indulgences was Johan Tetzel.
There was something especially crass about Tetzel, whose sales pitch was, “Once a coin into the coffer clings, a soul from purgatory springs.” In fact, Frederick the Wise, a prince in the electorate of Saxony refused to let Tetzel into his territory. In response, Tetzel set up shop just over the border.
Frederick was concerned about the money leaving his territory, so, when Luther expressed outrage over the practice of indulgences, he found a friend in Frederick.
The stage was set for the Reformation.
Martin Luther’s 95 Theses
Luther was appalled that people were lured across the border into Saxony to be relieved of their money and persuaded to purchase indulgences.
Luther was concerned with Tetzel’s crass abuse of a papal indulgence. And he was also concerned about the economic exploitation. He explicitly mentions “money” or “wealth” in nine of the theses, which suggests that he was upset about Tetzel’s financial exploitation of Luther’s fellow Wittenbergers.
Luther was troubled by Tetzel’s actions and wrote up ninety-five assertions to be debated with his theological colleagues at the University of Wittenberg. The church door functioned as an academic bulletin board, so it was the appropriate place to notify fellow faculty members of a faculty meeting.
Luther also sent a copy to Archbishop Albert, following proper ecclesiastical protocol.
Within a relatively short period of time, Luther was perceived as a loyal German standing up to the Roman religious occupation of Germany, and Albert was seen as a collaborator with the enemy of the German people.
A groundswell of support for Luther emerged in late 1517 and early 1518.
Was Luther really revolting against the Roman Catholic Church?
Despite Luther’s boldness, and contrary to what most people think, there was nothing in the 95 Theses that rejected traditional Catholic doctrine. It was not in these theses that Luther developed his doctrine of justification. That would come later.
The posting of the theses was not an act of rebellion against the church. Instead, it was the work of a responsible church theologian who was seeking to address what he perceived to be distortions of Catholic teaching.
He did not reject papal authority, the sacrament of penance, or the concept of indulgences. He did, however, stand firmly against exploitation of his congregants.
How Rome responded
The Roman Catholic Church didn’t see it that way. Even though the 95 Theses were intended for discussion purposes of the theological faculty at Wittenberg, the papacy saw in them an implicit challenge to the authority of Rome.
Pope Leo X initially called Luther a “drunken monk” who would change his mind once he sobered up.
But three months went by and the “drunken monk” was still at it, so the pope asked Prierias (Silvester Mazzolini), the Master of the Sacred Palace and Dominican professor of theology, to investigate.
Prierias concluded that Luther had crossed the line into heresy, and he wrote a dialogue against him, thinking this would put an end to the German problem. The official response asserted that the deeper issue beneath Luther’s criticism of Tetzel was papal authority.
The repercussions of the theses reverberated even in Luther’s own cloister. Luther’s colleague at Wittenberg, Dr. Jerome Schurff, professor of canon law, cautioned, “Do you wish to write against the pope? . . . It won’t be tolerated.”
Emperor Maximilian in his letter to Pope Leo X (August 5, 1518) asserted that in the 95 Theses “the authority of the Pope is disregarded” and added that they appear to be “injurious and heretical.”
Tetzel himself (in 1518) characterized Luther’s challenge as an overt denial of the authority of the pope. From Tetzel’s perspective, the pope had authorized him to sell the indulgences, and therefore to challenge the sale of indulgences was in fact a challenge to papal authority.
What Luther intended to address as a matter of the abuse of indulgences quickly became a matter of the authority of the pope.
Luther’s Response to the Pope
Luther was bolder than anyone realized. He wrote a reply in early August 1518 calling Prierias’s dialogue “supercilious.” The two theologians exchanged writings again with no resolution or repentance. The effect of this brief exchange was to fan the flame of suspicion.
Pope Leo lost patience and on August 7 ordered Luther to appear in Rome within sixty days to recant his heresies. The pope also demanded that Elector Frederick should arrest and deliver this “child of the devil” to the papal legate. Frederick did not arrest Luther, but he did arrange a meeting with the papal legate — another Dominican, Cardinal Cajetan (Thomas de Vio) — at the upcoming Diet of Augsburg in October.
Cajetan initially took an avuncular approach to Luther, calling him “my dear son.” The monk and the cardinal met three times in Augsburg (October 12 – 14). The cardinal was courteous, but insisted on a retraction and submission to papal authority.
However, Luther stubbornly refused to recant his opinions. He asserted that Scripture has ultimate authority, to which Cajetan thundered in response, “The pope is above the council and also above the Holy Scripture. Recant!”
Luther concedes to Rome
There was one final papal attempt to persuade Luther to recant his views.
Pope Leo sent Karl von Miltitz, to meet with Luther. But at their meeting on January 6, 1519, Miltitz expressed sympathy toward Luther and laid blame for the indulgences controversy at the feet of Tetzel.
At the same time, he also implored Luther not to destroy the unity of the church. Miltitz agreed that the accusations against Luther should be settled in Germany by a German bishop and not in Rome. For his part, Luther agreed that he would seek the pardon of the pope and advocate unity.
In a letter of March 3, 1519, Luther humbly acknowledged the authority of the papacy and affirmed that he had never sought to undermine the Roman Church, although he still expressed concerns over the sale of indulgences.
How Martin Luther responded to the Roman Catholic Church
In response to the courtesy of Miltitz, Luther agreed to cease public hostilities. But as it turned out, this was the calm before the storm.
Dr. Johann Eck (Johann Maier of Eck), one of the leading theologians at the University of Ingolstadt, sought a public debate with Luther and published twelve (later thirteen) theses against Luther in December 1518.
Luther immediately replied with thirteen countertheses.
Sparks flew, so it was agreed that a disputation should be held in Leipzig between Eck and Luther and his senior colleague at the University of Wittenberg, Karlstadt (Andreas Rudolph Bodenstein von Karlstadt). The exchange was explosive.
The more Luther was provoked, the more defiant he became. On July 7 he argued that church councils could err. Eck seized on this as undeniable heresy: “If you believe that a council, legitimately called, has erred and can err, be then to me as a Gentile and a publican. I do not have to explain further what a heretic is.”
Martin Luther's final break from the Roman Catholic Church
In 1520 Luther boldly began to put his distinctive convictions to pen and paper. The result was the publication of several books, which marked Luther’s break from Rome.
One of the most significant works of Luther is On the Papacy of Rome, written in May 1520. In August he wrote The Address to the German Nobility. A third book was written in September and a fourth in November, titled On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church and The Freedom of the Christian Man respectively. All of these were either written or translated in the German vernacular, thus ensuring broad circulation.
Meanwhile, Johann Eck’s work was not finished after the Leipzig debate in 1519. He soon went to Rome and assisted papal jurists in preparing the papal bull titled Exsurge Domine, issued on June 15, 1520. Quoting from the opening words of Psalm 74:22, the opening sentence of the papal bull read, “Rise up, Oh Lord, and judge Thy cause. A wild boar has invaded Thy vineyard.”
The boar, of course, was referring to Martin Luther.
The papal bull cited forty-one alleged errors and gave Luther sixty days to recant or be excommunicated.
Luther didn’t recant.
On December 10, 1520, in front of the people of Wittenberg he burned the papal bull at a bonfire on the bank of the Elbe River. In response, the pope issued the bull of excommunication (Decet Romanum Pontificem) on January 3, 1521.
The Diet of Worms (April 1521)
Rome had rendered its ecclesiastical decision about Luther. Now it was the emperor’s turn to deal with Luther from the perspective of the state.
Once the pope excommunicated Luther, it then became the judicial responsibility of the Holy Roman Emperor to bring Luther to trial.
Ever since the Leipzig disputation, Frederick the Wise had pressed the young Charles V to allow Luther to appear at the next imperial diet (the formal assembly of all the princes of the Holy Roman Empire). Initially, the emperor hesitated, but the elector finally prevailed, and Luther was summoned to a hearing at the imperial Diet at Worms in April 1521.
The summons included a safe conduct and spoke only of a hearing. Luther was fully aware of the danger of traveling to and from the hearing, but he was equally determined to take his case to the emperor.
It took Luther two full weeks to travel from Wittenberg to Worms, and every mile along the way revealed immense popular support. Word of this triumphant procession created enormous anxiety among the imperial dignitaries in Worms. As his wagon neared the city on April 16, a hundred nobles rode out to accompany Luther, which made for a rather grand entrance to Worms.
The imperial marshal informed Luther that he was scheduled to appear before the Diet the next day (April 17) at 4 pm. He arrived promptly at the Bishop’s palace, but was not summoned until 6 pm.
As he entered the great hall of the Bishop’s palace, he found himself standing before more than two hundred of the most powerful men in Germany. Besides the young Emperor Charles V, there were six of the imperial electors, papal legates, archbishops, bishops, dukes, margraves, princes, counts, deputies, and various ambassadors from foreign courts. Several hundred Spanish soldiers ringed the hall, and thousands of spectators filled the streets.
What would Luther do?
As his eyes scanned the hall, Luther heard his name. The imperial prosecutor, Dr. Johann von der Eck (different from Johann Eck who debated Luther at Leipzig), called out to him with two questions.
First, pointing to a table with his writings, Dr. von der Eck asked Luther if they were his. Dr. Schurl, Luther’s advocate, asked that the titles be read, and they were. Luther acknowledged authorship of the books.
Second, the imperial prosecutor then asked if Luther would renounce them. This second question caught Luther off guard, for he had expected a hearing and not a summary condemnation.
Instead of answering the question, Luther asked for more time.
The young emperor gave Luther twenty-four hours.
Luther spent a sleepless night consulting with friends and regaining his composure. His resolve remained. In a letter he wrote that evening to a friend, he said, “I will not retract one iota, so Christ help me.” After waiting two hours again the next day at the Bishop’s palace, he was admitted to the diet. Because of the darkness, torches were lit and Luther could see the crowded room. Though somewhat timid the day before, on this day his voice was firm and resonant.
Luther explained, first in German and then in Latin, that his writings belonged to different categories.
First, some were devotional writings that were edifying for Christians, and even his opponents would not want him to renounce those.
Second, there were some writings against the corruptions of the papacy. To renounce those would be tantamount to affirming wickedness, and that he could not do.
Third, some of his works were directed against individuals who defended papal corruption. He confessed that he had at times used harsh words, but wickedness had to be dealt with, and therefore he would not retract them either. He then urged Charles V to begin his reign by upholding the Word of God.
The imperial princes felt Luther had evaded the question. They had asked for a simple yes or no, but he had offered qualifications and explanations. They again asked for an unequivocal statement. Luther then gave his famous reply in Latin:
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor wise to go against conscience.
Then he was reported to have concluded with these words in German: “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.”
How the princes responded to Luther’s stand
The immediate response was dramatic. Dr. von der Eck blasted Luther, saying, “Abandon your conscience, Martin, for your conscience errs.”
Luther began to reply, but the emperor quickly dismissed the proceedings amid shouting from the Spanish soldiers, who were chanting, “To the flames!”
Charles V was only twenty-one, but he kept his word and permitted Luther to walk out of the Bishop’s palace alive.
When Luther reached his rooms, he threw up his arms and exclaimed, “I made it through! I made it through!”
The following day, Charles called the diet back into session to discuss its response. Frederick the Wise defended Luther. Complicating the decision was the fact that the German people were solidly behind Luther. Popular support became evident that evening when a placard appeared, declaring that four hundred nobles and eight thousand soldiers were prepared to defend Luther against the emperor. The placard carried the dreaded word “Bundschuh” (that is, a tied shoe of the German peasants) — which was the ominous sign of rebel peasants. The last thing the new emperor needed was civil war in Germany.
In the immediate aftermath of the diet, a series of imperial and ecclesiastical emissaries met with Luther, desperately seeking some kind of compromise. Various concessions and modifications were offered if only Luther would recant.
Luther steadfastly rejected every proposal.
On April 26 Luther was finally permitted to leave Worms with only the emperor’s promise of protection for twenty-five days. The diet continued to discuss Luther’s fate for nearly a month. Finally, Elector Frederick left on May 23 before any decision was rendered. Two days later, the emperor made the inevitable decision and issued an imperial edict declaring Luther an outlaw of the empire.
What the Edict of Worms meant for Luther and the future of the Protestant Reformation
The Edict of Worms was severe. It not only proclaimed Luther a criminal, but also prohibited anyone from assisting him in any way on penalty of death. All his books were banned as well. For the rest of his life, Luther was declared a heretic of the church and an outlaw of the state.
Much to his surprise, Luther departed Worms alive. Danger was still in the air as Luther departed on April 26. As his wagon neared the small town of Moehra, on the evening of May 4, five soldiers intercepted the wagon and kidnapped Luther. When news reached the artist and Lutheran sympathizer Albrecht Dürer, he lamented, “O God, Luther is dead. Now who will preach the holy gospel to us so clearly?”
As it turned out, this kidnapping was part of an elaborate plan to save Luther’s life. Before Luther left Worms, a clandestine message from Elector Frederick was conveyed to Luther that his journey home would be interrupted and he would be taken to a secret location for his own safety. After running alongside the elector’s soldiers for a short distance, Luther mounted a waiting horse, which took him to the Wartburg Castle in the Thuringian forest. Elector Frederick’s bold act not only saved Luther’s life; it also saved the Reformation movement.
This post is adapted from material written by Frank James, found in What is the Protestant Reformation? What Happened and Why It Matters, an online course taught by Frank James, John Woodbridge, Gregg Allison, and Douglas Moo.
Learn more about the Reformation
The Protestant Reformation was one of the most transformative events in church history. But why did the Reformation happen when it did? Why Luther? What happened in the decades that followed? Why were such massive changes instigated by this single event? Learn more about the impact of the Reformation in What is the Protestant Reformation? What Happened and Why It Matters, a short online course containing readings and video from Professors Frank James, John Woodbridge, Gregg Allison, and Douglas Moo.
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- What events led to the Reformation
- How the Reformation unfolded, piece by piece
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