Luther was resolute in his defiance

Posted on November 30, 2017


What were the indulgences that so offended Martin Luther, who criticized them in the 95 Theses he posted on the church doors of Wittenberg on Oct. 31, 1517? That one act did more than any other to kick off the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, and revolutionized Christianity in the West.

On Monday, Oct. 30, I encourage you to attend a celebration of the life and times of Martin Luther. The program, at the University of Alabama’s Moody Music Building, begins with a reception and book exhibit at 5 p.m. and follows with a program at 6 p.m. on “The Protestant Reformation, 1517-2017, 500 Years of Faith, History, and the Arts.”

Brief lectures and musical performances by faculty will bring to life some of Luther’s profound contributions to the making of modern Christianity.

Indulgences were documents sold by the Church that guaranteed a loved one in purgatory would receive forgiveness for their sins. Purgatory was kind of a holding zone between heaven and hell. Luther considered the whole concept of indulgences as an illegitimate usurpation of power and authority by the Pope.

Who could forgive sins but God alone?

Selling the indulgences in Germany at the time was a short, dumpy Dominican friar named Johann Tetzel. Tetzel was a good salesman, popular with the people. He even coined a ditty, which may or may not be true, but, if true, the jingle helped popularize his job of selling indulgences. “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, a soul out of purgatory springs.”

Luther called for an academic debate on indulgences, and, by doing so, joined a growing reformist movement within the church. Reformers pushed to end concubinage among priests, and to strip the church of immense political and economic power and visible wealth, which undermined their true calling.

While Luther was not alone in calling for reforms, circumstances propelled him into the spotlight. The 95 Theses were soon translated from Latin into German and printed. Within two weeks of the printing, they spread across Germany, transforming them into the breaking news of the early 16th century.

Luther was now challenging the authority of the Church directly, and the Church responded in kind. The rebellious friar was called to Rome to stand trial but he refused to go. Not only did he fear for his life, but he was certain he would not be treated fairly by a church hierarchy he knew was wrong on some fundamentals of Christianity.

When the church demanded that Luther recant, or admit his errors, he resolutely refused.

He declared that he could do nothing against his conscience; that one must obey God rather than man [the Pope]; that he had Scripture on his side; that even Peter was once reproved by Paul for misconduct (Gal. 2:11), and that surely his successor — the Pope — was not infallible. The die is cast.
Like Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon to meet his destiny, Luther crossed the bridge to the other side. Only God knew where Luther’s decisions might lead him.

Luther recognized the value of the relatively new printing press — the Twitter, Facebook and YouTube of the time — and he switched from writing his earlier pieces in Latin to German, so that between 1500 and 1530, his writings were responsible for fully one-fifth of all works printed in Germany.

His attacks on the papacy and the church grew even more contentious and disruptive in 1520 and led to his excommunication in 1521 at a meeting of the religious and secular leaders (the Imperial Diet) of Germany at the city of Worms.

The Diet was called by the Emperor Charles V, a 21-year-old at the time, who had only recently been elected as Holy Roman Emperor.
When called upon to retract or be excommunicated at the Diet’s convocation, Luther refused.

“Here I stand,” he reportedly said. “May God help me. I can do no other.”

Condemned and convicted, Luther prepared to die as a martyr, probably burned at the stake. But German princes who sympathized with Luther helped him flee.
The reformation of the church that Luther kicked into action now moved beyond his control. By the time of Luther’s death in 1546, Christianity was divided beyond repair.

Luther’s personal card might have had the slogan, Sola scriptura, or Scripture alone, inscribed on it. He based his life on proclaiming the truth of God, only contained in Scripture and undefiled by man’s additions and accretions.

Published as “Luther was resolute in his defiance” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday, Oct. 29, 2017