One Bull-Necked German Priest
A lot of parchment has been devoted to explication and debate about theories of history: Vico, Hegel, Marx, to name but a few, certainly had their own ideas of what causes far-reaching social change. Put them aside here; in the case of the Protestant Reformation, it was the imprint of personality on ripe circumstances, pure and simple.
The ideas which Martin Luther (the leader of the Protestant Reformation, who was born on this day in 1483 in Eisleben, Germany) preached in his alternately lyrical and barbaric tongue -- principally the notion that individuals could earn salvation through faith in God, and that good works and a relationship with God through the Roman Catholic church were not necessarily prerequisites to eternal life -- had been percolating in the minds of many dutiful Catholics during the Middle Ages. Luther initially thought of himself as merely a reformer, bringing the Catholic hierarchy back to the principles of early Christianity; but the more resistance Luther got, the more he pushed back.
It might be said that the "revolution" which ensued was in large part a result of Luther's hotheadedness and self-righteous belief in his own ideas. He came to religious life as a matter of impulse: while studying law at the University of Erfurt in 1504, he was caught in a thunderstorm and nearly struck by lightning, leading to exclaim, "St. Anne, help me! I will become a monk!"
Shortly thereafter, to the disappointment of his social-climbing peasant parents, Luther joined an Augustinian order at Erfurt and devoted himself to scriptural study. There he encountered the philosophy of the Humanists (who shouted "Back to the source!" into his tucked-back hippopotamus ears), and found himself particularly inspired by a passage from St. Paul's Letter to the Romans: "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.'" (Romans 1:17).
He became a theology professor at Wittenberg in 1514, a time in which the Catholic church had stepped up its marketing of indulgences (a kind of medieval "get out of hell free" card which permitted people to skip confession and in effect buy their salvation from the church) due to Julius II's costly renovation of St. Peter's in the Vatican, among other projects. The young Catholic theologian, disgusted by the materialistic abstractness of the church's program and its willingness to prey upon the fears of the underclass in search of a few bucks for the building fund, composed a letter to a few bishops outlining 95 Theses for public debate on the issue of indulgences -- it is fairly well established that he did not, as legend would have it, nail his arguments to the door of the Wittenberg castle church, but that he merely intended to start a dialogue.
Within a couple of months, however, his Theses were printed, and his arguments began to take on a life of their own, with many German Catholics celebrating Luther's boldness in publicly questioning the systematic abuses of the church. At first, the church in Rome was disinterested in the hoopla; Leo X merely called Luther a "drunken German" and was convinced that he would recant when he sobered up. Instead of recanting, Luther pushed on, with support not only from the embittered peasantry but also from regional princes who saw Luther's critique as a way of diminishing the influence of the papacy in political affairs.
Luther appealed to the sensibilities of the princes with his Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, in which he called for the princes to use military force if necessary to engage Rome in the debate over faith. This time Leo X sat up and took notice: on June 15, 1520, he issued a papal bull ("Exurge Domine") in which he threatened Luther with excommunication if he did not recant. Feeling his power, Luther burned the bull publicly like it was a draft card, and on January 3, 1521, Leo X excommunicated Luther.
Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, was still caught between his princes and his sponsor, the pope, so he invited Luther to the unfortunately-styled Imperial Diet of Worms to get him to recant. Luther was defiant: "Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason -- I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other -- my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right not safe. God help me. Amen." Declared an outlaw by Charles V, Luther lived incognito at Wartburg castle as the guest of Frederick the Wise, assuming the identity of "Junker Jorge" ("Knight George"), writing sermons, working on a German translation of the New Testament (which he completed within 11 weeks) and writing hymns, such as "A Mighty Fortress is our God."
Outside Wartburg, the Lutheran movement was developing into a church, in part through the activities of Philipp Melanchthon. He returned triumphantly to Wittenberg in 1522 with the Lutheran movement firmly rooted. Now, however, the danger was that Luther's activities would open the floodgates to new protests: other reformers, such as Huldrych Zwingli, began to argue with Luther about the role of communion in the new church; other rebellious priests, using Luther's behavior as their model, began the Baptist movement; and throughout Germany, peasants were revolting against the princes, with Luther's liberation from Rome as their inspiration.
By 1525 (when he married Katharina von Bora, a former nun who later bore him 6 children), Luther was circling the wagons. He denounced the peasants' revolt against nobles who had been his sponsors, declaring that "nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful or devilish than a rebel." Luther had at one time expected support from the Jews, perceptively seeing early Christianity as an extension of Judaism, but naively expecting them to join his parade; when they did not, he turned on them with a vengeance, declaring 8 actions which should be taken against all Jews, including burning all the synagogues, destroying their homes, forbidding rabbis to teach on pain of death, and in case all that seemed insufficient, expelling them. Hitler followed much of Luther's program literally when on the 455th anniversary of Luther's birth the Nazis conducted their notorious Kristallnacht raid on German Jews.
By the end of Luther's life, although he was revered by the Lutheran faithful, the work of the Reformation had passed into other hands, who had only waited for one bull-necked German priest to draw the first sword. He died on February 18, 1546.
Labels: Christian History