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The German Reformation - by Dr. C. Matthew McMahon

The Magisterial Reformation - Post Tenebras Lux - Out of Darkness Light

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An overview of Schaff’s volume 7 surrounding the German Reformation and Martin Luther.

The Reformation of the sixteenth century is the greatest event in history next to the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ.[1] The German Reformation is the first formal component of the worldwide Reformation, and the confederacy of Germany was primed by providence to encapsulate the first wave of change in ecclesiastical matters of truth and faith. Though the Reformation had simultaneously begun in both Germany and Switzerland, the forceful character of Martin Luther overshadowed, at least primarily, the Reformers in Switzerland. The Reformation would extend from Germany into Switzerland, and vice versa though to a lesser extent until the time of Calvin, as well as affecting France, Holland, Scandinavia, Bohemia, Hungry, England, Scotland and later the Americas in the seventeenth century.[2]

Romanism, the enemy of biblical reformation, swept over the land engulfing its subjects in a superstitious mass of idolatry. Its structure was a dictatorship, and the pope replaced Christ on earth demanding of his subjects full allegiance to Catholic doctrine. The ignorance of the people in basic religion epitomized itself in partaking of the Latin mass for their salvation – the offering up of the Eucharist embodying the resacrificing of Christ on the Cross, His bodily presence in the wafer that gave life, and the infusing of His righteousness into the subject. This was administered by priests exemplifying the power to change the bread and wine of the Eucharist into the real body and blood of Christ that alone was the means of salvation in and through the Catholic Church.

The German Reformation was biblical and progressive in nature over the influence of the spiritual darkness and corruption of the Roman Catholic power that had suppressed the will of the people into superstitious bondage. Reform was the biblical reaction to the “dark ages” that hid the Gospel from a people who trusted the church to save them. This biblical progression over spiritual darkness emerged triumphantly in the doctrine by which the true church stands or falls: justification by faith alone. In examining the extent to which the doctrine moved over the world, the German Reformation can be divided up into four periods or phases in its influence: From 1517 to the Augsburg Diet and Augsburg Confession, 1530; From 1530 to the “Peace of Augsburg”, 1555; from 1555 to the published “Formula of Concord,” 1580; from 1580 to the conclusion of the Thirty Years War in 1648.[3]

Though John Wycliffe, Savanarola, and John Hus may be seen as precursors to the Reformation, the formal declaration began in Germany in the first phase in 1517 by a monk named Martin Luther. Luther had began his studies as a lawyer (attending the university of Erfurt), to the delight of his father’s influence. However, as a result of a friends death from a lightning strike, and through a “mystical” experience during a lightning storm two weeks later, he was so thoroughly changed in his disposition that he decided to enter the monastery and a life of servitude to Rome. He entered the Augustinian convent at Erfurt giving up his pursuit of law and pursued a life of piety.

Luther’s Augustinian “monkery” was as sincere as it could be. He submitted reverently to all ascetic “severities”, said 25 Paternosters with the Ave Maria at the seven appointed hours of prayer, was devoted wholly to the Virgin Mary (believing in her immaculate conception), regularly confessed his sins to the monks (often taking up hours on end to list each and every individual sin), and studied a Latin Bible at the command of Staupitz his Roman Catholic mentor.[4] Luther had written after his conversion, “If ever a monk got to heaven by monkery, I would have gotten there.”[5] Luther desired to attain heaven at whatever cost. He would do anything to appease the roaring conscience of sin that hovered over him, and the dreadful wrath of a God who sat in judgment of his every deed.

Johann von Staupitz was Luther’s best friend and wisest counsel while in the monastery. He was a Doctor of Divinity and Vicar-General of the Augustinian convents in Germany. He was thoroughly Catholic, but desired an eminent piety. He became Luther’s spiritual father and directed him to seek Christ instead of being so weighed down by the Law that plagued Luther’s mind. He encouraged him to enter the priesthood, study towards the Doctor of divinity, and preach.[6] Staupitz brought him to Wittenberg for such a purpose, where Luther succeeded in to a far greater extent than Staupitz could have imagined. However, in counseling Luther with his overbearing weight of sin, he “prophetically” assured him that God would soon overrule these trials and temptations and he would become useful to the church.[7]

In 1502 Frederick III (the Wise), Elector of Saxony, founded a new University in Wittenberg. He was a hearty Catholic who believed in indulgences and relics. He was a providential prince placed in the right place, at the right time, with the right gifts in order that Luther, God’s signet ring, would bring about Reformation under his protection and sympathies to Luther’s ability to debate and teach. Luther would remain at the Augustinian convent until 1508 where he would go to Wittenberg in hopes of becoming a lecturer for the University at the request of Staupitz. In 1509 he was called back to Erfurt for a time, sent to Rome by Staupitz in 1510, but went back to Wittenberg in 1511.

Luther’s conversion from Catholicism to Christ was gradual, but powerful. It ended when he began his studies of the epistle of Paul to the Romans. In 1:17 the Scriptures declare, “The just shall live by faith.” Luther pondered this day and night until the spark of divine light, the sovereign beam of divine glory, shined upon his mind illuminating the truth of it. Righteousness cannot be acquired by man, but is the sole work of God. Justification, then, is that judicial act of God whereby he acquits the sinner of guilt and clothes him with the righteousness of Christ on the sole condition of personal faith that apprehends and appropriates Christ, further living out this faith by good works.[8] This “new revelation” shed an elucidating light on all his knowledge of the Bible and demonstrated the great gulf fixed between the systems of Romanism and soon to be Protestantism: Rome taught that justification was a gradual process conditioned by faith and good works (synthetic), where Protestantism would teach, beginning with Luther at this time, that it is a single act of God (analytic), followed by sanctification. This was the sum and substance of the truth for Luther, and converted him from Romanism to the Biblical Gospel. Other reforms to Luther’s inbred Romanism would come later.

Indulgences at this time had become extreme. The word “indulgence” referred to the remission of temporal (not eternal) punishment of sin (not sin itself), on the condition of penance or payment. The practice itself grew out of customs associated with the Northern and Western barbarians to “substitute pecuniary compensation for punishment of an offense.”[9] The church favored this in replacement of bloodshed, but applied it sinfully to religious offenses in order to increase in capital gain. The first instances of this occurred in 690 A.D. under Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury. The practice continued steadfastly in order to fund the crusades for the popes fighting a holy war, and was ultimately justified theologically by men like Thomas Aquinas in close connection with the doctrines of penance and priestly absolution (e.g. Summa Theol. Part 3, Question 84). After the crusades the indulgence became a regular means of ecclesiastical wealth that transferred into the pope’s treasury. (Wycliffe and Hus had long before attempted to stamp out this mockery of grace prior to Luther coming on the scene; Carlstadt also had written on it previous to Luther, but not to any great outward reform, as did Erasmus but not with the resolve or harshness of Luther).

In the rebuilding of Saint Peter’s cathedral in Rome, Popes Julius II and Leo X issued papal bulls to continue selling indulgences to raise money for this project, as well as to subsidize their lavish lifestyles as the two most extravagant popes up until this time. Johann Tetzel was appointed by the Archbishop in order to expedite these capital gains through the use of his “sub-agents” in the selling of indulgences. He was received as a messenger from heaven as he traveled through Germany selling indulgences like a carnival sideshow of sorts. “As soon as the penny in the coffer rings, so another soul from purgatory springs,” seemed to be made popular rhyme. The people could buy an indulgence for themselves, or for their loved ones in purgatory, in order that they may have salvation from punishment in the form of a parchment that was stamped with the seal of the pope. Tetzel, however, made the mistake of coming to Wittenberg where Luther, at this time converted, had preached already on the misuse of indulgences and trusting in them rather than in Jesus Christ.[10]

On October 31, 1517, after serious self-debate, and without conferring with any of his colleagues, Luther resolved to nail his 95 Theses in Latin upon the door of the Wittenberg church in order to illicit debate on the topics listed. All Saints Day (a popular feast day surrounding relics) would have followed on November 1 where professors, students and commoners would have come to the church to worship in the Roman way and would have no doubt noticed the Theses posted – which was Luther’s intention. No one accepted the challenge, but the Theses itself was translated from Latin to German, and distributed throughout the land in both languages for all to read. It contained Luther’s newfound understanding of grace (though not explicitly exemplifying justification by faith alone) overthrowing the very foundation upon which indulgences were built. At first Pope Leo X did not trouble Luther about the Theses and dismissed it as thoughts of a drunken monk. However, he appointed a learned Dominican monk named Prierias to look into the matter. Prierias condemned Luther as an “ignorant and blasphemous arch-heretic” and wrote against him hoping to quickly crush him. Luther responded, then Prierias responded back, and then Luther commented that Pierias ought not to make “himself ridiculous anymore by the writing of any books.”[11] On August 7, 1518 the pope required Luther to recant in sixty days or less and ordered Frederick the Elector to hand Luther over. Frederick, though, did not want to give up the shining light of Luther (his University Doctor and chapel preacher) to the pope. Instead, Frederick arranged an interview at Augsburg in order to quietly deal with the issue.

Luther proceeded to Augsburg on promise of kind treatment and safe return. There Luther would meet with the Italian Cajetan, a Dominican monk who was well learned in Thomism and of moral integrity. They had three interviews and Cajetan, though cordial, demanded Luther’s recantation of his heresy and complete submission to the Pope. Luther refused and said he could not go against his conscience – something he will echo in Worms later. Cajetan would not see Luther again unless he recanted, and he admonished Staupitz to convert Luther back to Rome. Luther left under safe conduct and went back to Wittenberg.

Ten months after the publication of the Theses a highly gifted youth named Philip Melancthon arrived at Wittenberg who was a master of the Hebrew and Greek languages and a professor of philosophy and Greek Literature. He had graduated with a Masters of Arts from Tubingen in 1514 at the age of seventeen. He wrote and spoke Greek and Latin better than his native German.[12] Erasmus himself, the first scholar of the age, foresaw the potential and significance of Melancthon, and his future usefulness to the church. He was called by a number of schools because of his academia, but resolved to go to Wittenberg as a Greek teacher. He was never ordained, and never desired the pulpit as a priest. Rather, he saw his calling as a scholar and theologian. He was a master exegete, better than Luther, and of the caliber of theological study to rival Calvin, but not surpass him (though Calvin graciously commented on his extraordinary ability at language and theological learning as a scholar). Melancthon resolved to stand by Luther in everything, and loved Luther more dearly than himself (Melancthon said that he would rather die than be separated from Luther.) In their camaraderie Luther was the Reformer, but Melancthon was the Christian Scholar.

The Pope sent Karl von Miltitz, his chamberlain, to Frederick as an ambassador in order to ultimately speak with Luther. Miltitz met with Luther in the house of Spalatin (Luther’s friend) hoping to encourage him not to make a split in the church, and in a political demeanor placed much of the blame of indulgences and their abuse on Tetzel. Luther promised to ask the pardon of the Pope, and to warn his chapel against the sin of separating from the holy-mother church, something Luther never intended in the first place. Luther complied with these promises and wrote a letter to the Pope expressing deep personal humility, yet did not retract his convictions, and he preached to his congregation about the sin of separation.

Luther was still not persuaded to recant his convictions, so the eminent Dr. Johann Mair Eck (the champion of Romanism from Ingolstadt) was appointed to debate Luther and Carlstadt at Leipzig, under the protection of Duke George of Saxony, on the doctrines of papal primacy, free will, good works, purgatory and indulgences.[13] Eck was a master historian and a Latin expert (and the debate was in Latin). Luther, though, surpassed Eck in his knowledge of the bible, independent judgment, originality, and depth of thought.[14] The chief interest in the debate (which lasted three weeks) was the subject of the authority of the Pope and the infallibility of the Church. Carlstadt debated Eck for a time, aided by the scholar Philip Melancthon who went as a spectator. Luther took the debate to greater heights and outmatched Eck on the thoroughness of the arguments based on Scripture. Eck claimed victory, and was honored by Duke George and rewarded with favors. Luther claimed victory as well, but believed it was a waste of time. After this, Luther lost all hope of reformation within the Roman church.

Luther’s convictions caused him to write vehemently in books and letters that the Pope was the Antichrist set over and against the truth of God. His studies of the ancient fathers confirmed this all the more seeing that they erred in exegesis and in the confirmation of one another, often contradicting each other in dogma that the Catholic Church held in high esteem (like purgatory, papal infallibility, their views on prayers to the saints, and the like.) The Pope became the epitome of error and blasphemy in Luther’s mind. Such sentiments resounded in his work “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church.” In this work he attacked the mass, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and the sacrament of Baptism, as Rome understood them.

Luther sent one last letter to the Pope along with his little book “Christian Freedom” in hopes of converting the Vicar of Christ on earth to true Christianity. The Pope was not moved, and in turn sent a Bull of Excommunication to Luther on June 15, 1520. The bull of excommunication is the papal “counter-manifesto to Luther’s Theses and condemns him in the whole cause of the Reformation.”[15] Luther, upon reception of the bull, wrote against it, and then burned it before professors and students at the university along with the papal decretals, the canon law, and some of Eck’s writings. From this point forward Luther continually referred to the Pope as the Antichrist and seducer of the minds of men: the devil himself could be no worse.

In 1521 Luther was summoned to the Diet of Worms where Charles V presided, and the Pope was represented by two delegates (Marino Carracilio and Jerome Aleander) though he was personally not present. Dr. Johann von Eck (not of Ingolstadt), under the authority of the Emperor, put two questions to Luther before the mass of people: Are the books displayed on the table yours, and will you recant them? Luther acknowledged they were his, but asked for more time to think about the decision. They gave him one day respite. That night Luther was as resolved as ever, by the grace of God, to stand up to the court the next day. He made his answer before the Diet in both German and Latin. He explained that the books were of various kinds and would not recant them to deny basic Christian truths, or to allow a cloak of evil to cover the papacy’s errors in denying other works he wrote against such misuse of doctrine. He said, “Unless I am refuted and convicted by testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear arguments (since I believe neither the Pope nor the councils alone; it being evident that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am conquered by the Holy Scriptures quoted by me, and my conscience is bound captive to the Word of God: I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is unsafe and dangerous to do anything against the conscience. Here I stand, God help me! AMEN.”[16] Charles V allowed Luther, under the safe conduct promised, to return to Wittenberg.

Upon his way back to Wittenberg Elector Frederick had a team of armed horseman “arrest” Luther and rush him off to Wartburg. There he stayed in secret as Knight George and translated the Bible from Latin into German. Though Luther was not the first to do this, his version was the best translation. He was moderate in his understanding of Hebrew and Greek, and gained the help of Melancthon on hard texts. This Bible became the most powerful help to the Reformation.[17]

While Luther was translating the Bible, Wittenberg was undergoing two important enterprises. First, Melancthon was framing his systematic understanding of the Bible and his doctrine, and gave the Lutheran church the Loci, his dogmatic theological system of doctrine. Second, Carlstadt raised up a revolution of sorts. Luther returned to this revolution in Wittenberg, and on the Sunday following, preached against it and the errors of the aggressors: the Zwikau prophets (lead by Thomas Munzer) and Carlstadt. The revolution was overthrown, the prophets left, and Carlstadt was ultimately banished in 1524 from Saxony.

Desidarius Erasmus, Luther’s elder by 18 years, and a Romish scholar, stayed out of the Reformation battle formally with the exception of two important contributions: 1) his translation of the Greek New Testament which was excellent, and 2) his Diatribe against Luther’s conceptions of depravity. Erasmus could not keep silent on this issue writing his “Freedom of the Will,” which was countered by Luther’s “The Bondage of the Will” (the book that Luther said was his greatest work outside translating the Bible) a year later. Luther and Erasmus continued this “free-will” controversy from 1524-1527 (during which the Peasant’s War broke out and concluded). Luther finally abandoned Erasmus as “an enemy of true religion” for his humanistic views of man’s nature.

In 1525 Luther married Catherine Von Bora, and they lived happily together for 21 years in the old Augustinian convent that was empty. Luther had six children (three daughters and three sons) and a very happy home life, though two daughters died early.

The reforms of Luther extended into a complete reformation of public worship; this reconstruction included a change in the distribution of the wine for “all” who are to partake of it, the continuation of solid preaching, the catechetical instruction of the young (in which Luther wrote two helpful catechisms in 1529), and the beginning of Evangelical Hymnody. One larger impact was the reconstruction of church government: to retain the Episcopal hierarchy without the papacy, to substitute a lay episcopate for the clerical episcopate, to organize Presbyterian polity, and the organization of self-governing congregations in free association with each other.[18] This elevated a larger perception of the church than formerly taught by the Catholic conception, and Luther ordained elders and deacons returning to a biblical model of church government.

The Reformation continued to spread through all Germany by men of various gifts: Nurnberg (with Andreas Osiander), Strassburg (where Martin Bucer ministered along with Capito, Zell, Hedio and Calvin for a time), North Germany (with John Hess, Crato von Crafftheim, and Dr. Bugenhagen), Augsburg and South Germany (with Urbanus Rhegius), Middle Germany and Hess (with Landgrave and Francis Lambert).

Two controversies that stand out during the time the second phase: the Anabaptist controversy and the controversy around the Lord’s Supper. The Reformers stood readily against the Anabaptists and radicals. “All the Reformers retained the custom of infant baptism and opposed rebaptism as heresy.”[19]

The second controversy was over the Lord’s Supper. Here Luther disagreed with both Rome, who held to transubstantiation teaching that the bread and wine, by priestly power, turned into the actual body and blood of Christ (something Luther believed was from the devil) and Zwingli’s memorial view which denied any bodily presence at all (which Luther also believed was from the devil.). Luther believed that the bread and wine did not change, but that the real bodily presence was present in and around the wafer and wine. He likened it to a hot iron brand from the fire; that there is both readily present fire and iron. This is formally known as consubstantiation (con meaning “with”).

Luther desired to silence Zwingli with his forceful work “Confession on the Lord’s Supper.” It is divided into three parts: a refutation of Zwingli and Oecolampadius, an explanation of the passages which treat the Lord’s Supper, and a statement of all the articles of his faith against old and new heresies.[20] During disputes between the Reformers, Rome decided to take advantage of the situation by making a “treaty” of sorts at the Diet of Speier, something both Luther and Melancthon encouraged the electors and their friends not to align in since they perceived Rome’s intentions. The Landgrave offered the Reformers to come to Marburg by invitation after speaking with Melancthon personally and Zwingli by letter. The magistrate of Zurich was opposed to Zwingli going, but Zwingli wanted to settle this sacramental controversy and hoped for the best. Luther and Melancthon resisted the invitation, but the Elector did not want to displease the Landgrave, and so the Reformers went.

The meeting at Marburg began with preaching, and then Oecolampadius and Luther dialoged together in private, as did Zwingli and Melancthon. After hours of “catechistic” teaching to the Swiss that availed nothing but disunity on the issue, the private consultations turned to public debate to settle the matter. It was less heated but seemed to be an exercise in monotony. Luther continued to point to the chalk writing on the table he had made which read, “This is my body.” Zwingli denied the bodily presence in the Eucharist. Luther, pointing again to the word of the table: “This is our text: you have not driven us from it. We care for no other proof.” In the end both Luther and Zwingli begged each other’s pardon for harsh words. However, Luther always maintained that the bodily presence was a fundamental article of faith, and this Zwingli saw as a secondary issue. Luther remarked, “You do not belong to the communion of the Christian Church. We cannot acknowledge you as brethren.” The next day Luther drew up fifteen articles in which the Zwinglians consented to, and Luther added “as far as the conscience of each will permit” to the end of the document. The Lutherans and Zwinglians signed the document though they disagreed on one point.

Luther, for fear of death, was not able to attend the Diet of Augsburg where the Electors and princes of the province were summoned by the King to unify under the banner of the Catholic Church in order to fight an impending war with the Turks. He remained at Coburg and wrote to Melancthon to encourage him while at Augsburg. Melancthon attended this Diet and ultimately drew up the first Reformed Evangelical Confession, called the Augsburg Confession, where the dissenting Electors and Princes defied the King and signed the document as a statement of Christian unity rather than Romish expediency. Later, Melancthon, with the help of Luther, revised it, and it became the chief confession of the Lutheran church and the formal expression of their doctrine and dogma based on Holy Scripture.

Luther set off on his last trip on January 17, 1546, to his birthplace Eisleben. Although he was fatigued with illness, he went to settle a dispute between two brothers – the Mansfeld Counts. The negotiations ended successfully, but Luther did not have the strength to return to Wittenberg. He died on February 18, 1546 in Eisleben. On his deathbed he prayed, “Into your hands, I commend my spirit. You have saved me, Father, you faithful God.” After the coffin was displayed for two days in Eisleben, Luther’s body was transported through Bitterfeld back to Wittenberg.

[The third phase (exemplifying the Formula of Concord and summations of the bodily presence in the Eucharistic controversies) and the fourth phase are out of the scope of Schaff’s work on the German Reformation.]

1. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 7, The German Reformation, (Grand Rapids: WM. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1994) 1.

2. Ibid, 6.

3. Ibid, 86.

4. Ibid, 115

5. Ibid, 116

6. Ibid, 120

7. Ibid, 119.

8. Ibid, 122.

9. Ibid, 147.

10. Ibid, 154.

11. Ibid, 171.

12. Ibid, 186.

13. Ibid, 178.

14. Ibid, 179.

15. Ibid, 228.

16. Ibid, 304-305.

17. Ibid, 350.

18. Ibid, 516-518.

19. Ibid, 607.

20. Ibid, 628.

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