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1517 A.D. – 1st Christian Reformation

[Excerpts from the 1999 World Book Encyclopedia, Chicago]

Luther, Martin (1483-1546), was the leader of the Reformation, a religious movement that led to the birth of Protestantism. Luther, a German theologian, taught that the Bible should be the sole authority in the Church. He also taught that people are justified (made righteous in the eyes of God) solely through faith in Christ, apart from any works of their own. Although Luther did not intend to establish a new church, his theology led to beliefs and practices quite different from those of the Roman Catholicism of his day.

The Ninety-Five Theses. The first controversy in which Luther became involved concerned indulgences. The [Catholic] church had developed indulgences as a means of releasing sinners from part of the penalty for their sins. For example, individuals could be ordered to go on a pilgrimage in penalty for their sins. An indulgence permitted them to contribute a certain amount of money to a worthy cause instead. However, the practice of selling indulgences was sometimes abused as a means of raising money. [Editor’s note: Selling entrance tickets to Heaven was the primary abusive aspect.]

In 1515, Pope Leo X authorized Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz to sell indulgences, in part to raise money for the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Albrecht’s indulgence seller, Johann Tetzel, told potential buyers that an indulgence freed them from punishment for confessed sins and could even release souls from purgatory. In October 1517, Luther sent a letter to Albrecht denouncing Tetzel’s tactics. He enclosed with the letter a list, known as the Ninety-Five Theses (articles for academic debate), that criticized indulgences. According to tradition, on 31 October 1517, Luther also posted the Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Wittenberg (Germany) Castle Church, which acted as the university’s bulletin board.

Justification by faith. It was probably about the time of the indulgence controversy that Luther came to his new understanding of justification by faith. This understanding involved a response to the question: How do people find favor with God? According to Roman Catholic doctrine, people were justified partly through works done in a state of grace–that is, their divinely assisted moral goodness and faithfulness to duty.

Based on his reading of the Gospels and the Letters of Saint Paul, Luther came to believe that people are justified solely through faith in God’s promise that Christ died for their salvation. In this view, when sinful people trust the Scriptural message that Christ died for their sins, Christ takes their place before God’s judgment seat and God finds them “not guilty” for Christ’s sake. People cannot earn faith, however. God gives faith as a gift. Once justified by faith, believers are led by the Holy Spirit to be more loving toward God and their neighbor and to do good works. But these works are the result of justification, rather than the means by which people are justified.

The break with the Roman Catholic Church. By the summer of 1519, Luther had publicly criticized papal claims to authority. In a debate with Catholic professor and theologian Johann Eck in Leipzig in July 1519, Luther went one step further. He asserted that not only could popes be in error, but so could ecclesiastical councils–meetings of church authorities for the purpose of determining doctrine. Scripture had become, for Luther, the sole authority for religious truth.

The final break between Luther and the church came in 1520. In that year, Luther published three highly influential works–To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and The Freedom of a Christian. These works spelled out Luther’s understanding of Christianity and attacked the papacy and many traditional practices. Luther claimed that all baptized believers are spiritually equal in God’s eyes because all must depend on faith in Christ. As a result, he argued that monks and nuns were not special and that clergy should be subject to the same laws and taxes as other people. Luther also criticized pilgrimages, devotion to saints, and other practices that he claimed emphasized works rather than faith. In addition, he reduced the number of sacraments from seven eventually to two, baptism and the Lord’s Supper (see SACRAMENT). These new views were too radical for the papacy, and in January 1521, Luther was formally excommunicated (expelled from the [Catholic] church).

The Diet of Worms. In April 1521, Luther was given a hearing before Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at a diet (meeting) at Worms, Germany. Luther was urged to retract his teachings, but he refused. He made his famous statement:

“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 I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.”

The emperor declared Luther an outlaw. On his journey home from Worms, Luther was taken by supporters and hidden at Wartburg Castle. There, he translated the New Testament into German.

[Excerpts from the 1999 World Book Encyclopedia, Chicago]
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