|Notes on Martin Luther (from the PBS docudrama)
Driven to Defiance
“I would never have thought that such a storm would rise from Rome over one simple scrap of paper...” - Martin Luther
Few if any men have changed the course of history like Martin Luther. In less than ten years, this fevered German monk plunged a knife into the heart of an empire that had ruled for a thousand years, and set in motion a train of revolution, war and conflict that would reshape Western civilization, and lift it out of the Dark Ages.
Luther's is a drama that still resonates half a millennium on. It's an epic tale that stretches from the gilded corridors of the Vatican to the weathered church door of a small South German town; from the barbarous pyres of heretics to the technological triumph of printing. It is the story of the birth of the modern age, of the collapse of medieval feudalism, and the first shaping of ideals of freedom and liberty that lie at the heart of the 21st century.
But this is also an intensely human tale, a story that hurtles from the depths of despair to the heights of triumph and back again. This is the story of a man who ultimately found himself a lightning conductor of history, crackling with forces he could not quite comprehend or control.
For Luther, in a life full of irony, would find himself overwhelmed by his own achievements. As his followers sought to build a new and just Europe around him, he could only turn on them in frustration, declaring that his - and their - only goal should be Heaven.
Martin Luther stands as a hero, the man who built the bridge between the two halves of the last millennium, the Medieval and the Modern. His tragedy was that he would never find the courage to cross it himself.
Martin Luther was born into a world dominated by the Catholic Church, which holds spiritual dominion over all the nations of Europe. For the keenly spiritual Luther, the Church's promise of salvation is irresistible - caught in a thunderstorm, terrified by the possibility of imminent death, he vows to become a monk.
But after entering the monastery, Luther becomes increasingly doubtful that the Church can actually offer him salvation at all. His views crystallize even further with a trip to Rome, where he finds that the capital of Catholicism is swamped in corruption.
Wracked by despair, Luther finally finds release in the pages of the Bible, when he discovers that it is not the Church, but his own individual faith that will guarantee his salvation.
With this revelation, he turns on the Church, attacking its practice of selling Indulgences in the famous 95 Theses. The key points of Luther's theses were simple, but devastating: a criticism of the Pope's purpose in raising the money, “he is richer than Croesus, he would do better to sell St Peters and give the money to the poor people...”, and a straightforward concern for his flock, “indulgences are most pernicious because they induce complacency and thereby imperil salvation”.
Luther was not only a revolutionary thinker, he would also benefit from a revolutionary technology: the newly invented machinery of printing. A single pamphlet would be carried from one town to another, where it would be duplicated in a further print run of thousands. Within three months, all Europe was awash with copies of Luther's 95 Theses.
Martin Luther had inadvertently chosen unavoidable conflict with what was the most powerful institution of the day, the Catholic Church.
The Reluctant Revolutionary
“Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me, Amen...” - Martin Luther
When an obscure monk named Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses - 95 stinging rebukes - attacking the mighty Catholic Church, and its head, Pope Leo X to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral he unleashed a tornado.
It was a hurricane of violence and revolution that raged across Europe, and changed the face of a continent forever.
The Catholic Church brought all its considerable power to bear to try and muzzle Luther, including accusations of heresy and excommunication. But protected by his local ruler, Frederick the Wise, Luther continued to write ever more radical critiques of the Church, and to develop a whole new system of faith, one that puts the freedom of the individual believer above the rituals of the Church.
His ideas spread like wildfire, aided by the newly invented printing press. Finally he's called before the German imperial parliament, in the city of Worms, and told he must recant. Risking torture and execution, Luther nevertheless refused and proclaimed his inalienable right to believe what he wished.
Convinced he would not survive the trip to Worms but with absolute faith he declared, “I am not afraid, for God's Will will (sic) be done, and I rejoice to suffer in so noble a cause.”
His stand became a legend that then inspired a continent-wide revolution, overturning the thousand-year old domination of the Church. But as the reformation expanded into a movement for social freedom, Luther found himself overwhelmed by the pace of change. His theological reformation had become a social revolution.
The epicenter of reform now moved swiftly away from Germany to Switzerland and Holland where Calvin and Knox founded societies based on Luther's principles. To England, where it would take a bloody civil war before Cromwell could establish his Protestant democratic state and finally, to the newly discovered lands of America, where the Pilgrim Fathers would found their new nation on Luther's foundations of religious freedom.
But Luther never left his province in Germany again. Instead he married, an ex-nun named Katharine von Bora, whom he had helped to escape from her nunnery and they had a large family together, Luther was able to devote himself to the simpler pleasures of life, gardening, music and of course, writing.
Luther finally died in the year 1543, seized by a crippling heart attack but he held onto his righteousness and rage until the very end.
“When I die, I want to be a ghost...So I can continue to pester the bishops, priests and godless monks until that they have more trouble with a dead Luther than they could have had before with a thousand living ones.”
Summary of the 95 Theses
Establishes what true repentance is.
Establishes the limits of the Pope’s power and will, i.e., as vicar of Christ
Canons of Church apply only to the living, cannot extend into purgatory
Indulgences must not go beyond the right and just powers of the Pope, which is to declare what God has done, so that they deceive the people
The powers of clergy lie in intercession, which is ultimately dependent upon the will of God
The certainty of contrition or salvation lies outside of men themselves and with God alone
No man is better than another; all benefits of Christ are granted by God alone
The indulgent nature of indulgences most often renders them contrary to true repentance; i.e. dulls the conscience
Only a very few can rightly distinguish between indulgence(s) and true contrition
Service and mercy are above indulgences; works of love improve a man but indulgences promote manipulative behavior
A person’s money is better spent than on many indulgences
St. Peter’s, or money spent on the Church, is worth less than prayers for the Pope himself or the very flesh and bone of the people
Indulgences should not have too great an importance attached to them, especially compared to the Word and the Gospel.
Indulgences should not be a matter reserved merely for the clergy, but the people ought to be privy to the accounts as well.
The first shall be last, and the last, first
The gospel fishes for men, but indulgences fish for wealth
Indulgences have their rightful place; i.e., there is apostolic precedent to preaching pardon in Christ
To assert that the Pope has power to remit sin is to blaspheme the Pope himself
The Pope’s graces come from God via spiritual gifting
If grace is free to all, then it ought not be limited to those who purchase indulgences
Let’s not make money off of prayers for the dead – they’re past the point of intercession
Why doesn’t the Pope use his own wealth, which is substantial, to build St. Peter’s?
Remittance of sin by the Pope is redundant
These questions are serious and deserve the attention of and reply from the Pope.