This essay is concerned with Martin Luther (1483-1546), and his concept of Christianity. Luther began his ecclesiastical career as an Augustinian Monk in the Roman Catholic Church. Consequently, Luther was initially loyal to the papacy, and even after many theological conflicts, he attempted to bring about his reconciliation with the Church. But this was a paradox not to endure because in his later years, Luther waged a continual battle with the papacy.
Luther was to become a professor of biblical exegesis at Wittenberg where, in 1957, he posted his critique of the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings and practices. This is otherwise known as The Ninety-Five Theses, which is usually considered to be the original document of the Reformation. Basically, this document was an indictment of the venality of the Roman Catholic Church, particularly the widespread practice of selling indulgences in association with the sacrament of penance.
Luther’s beliefs on the matter was that after confession, absolution relied upon the sinner’s faith and God’s Divine Grace rather than the intervention of a priest. At this point, Luther did not advocate an actual separation from the Roman Catholic Church. Instead, Luther felt his suggested reforms York-3 could be implemented within Catholicism. If this had taken place, the Protestant Reformation would probably not of ever seen the light of day–nor would it have been necessary. But the theological practices being what they were in the Roman Church, there was little chance at that time for any great variations to occur within its folds. The Church of Rome was thoroughly monolithic and set in its ways and was not about to mutate into something else. If a metamorphosis had occurred within the Roman Catholic Church, Luther would have had a different destiny.
But Luther’s fate was sealed, and his job was cut out for him. Concerning Luther and the Reformation, Paul Tillich states: “The turning point of the Reformation and of church history in general is the experience of an Augustinian monk in his monastic cell–Martin Luther. Martin Luther did not merely teach different doctrines; others had done that also, such as Wyclif.
But none of the others who protested against the Roman system were able to break through it. The only man who really made a breakthrough, and whose breakthrough has transformed the surface of the earth, was Martin Luther. .
. . He is one of the few great prophets of the Christian Church, and his greatness is overwhelming, even if it was limited by some of his personal traits and his later development.
He is responsible for the fact that a purified Christianity, a Christianity of the Reformation, was able to establish itself equal terms with the Roman tradition” (Tillich 227). Tillich’s York-4 main emphasis, then, is not on Luther as the founder of Lutheranism, but as the person who broke through the system of the Church of Rome. Luther shattered the theological restraints and distortions of the Roman Catholic religion. This accomplishment amounts to the establishment of another religion known as Protestantism, a faith that was generated from the Reformation, with its advocates such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Knox. However, Luther stood out as one of the Reformation titans in a most unique manner. Roland H. Bainton suggests the following concerning Luther’s reforms with regard to the Catholic sacraments; “But Luther’s rejection of the five sacraments might even have been tolerated had it not been for the radical transformation which he effected in the two which he retained. From his view of baptism, he was not a second baptism, and no vow should ever be taken beyond the baptismal vow.
Most serious of all was Luther’s reduction of the mass to the Lord’s Supper. The mass is central for the entire Roman Catholic system because the mass is believed to be a repetition of the Incarnation and the Crucifixion. When the bread and wine are transubstantiated, God again becomes flesh and Christ again dies upon the altar.
This wonder can be performed only by priests empowered through ordination. . . His first insistence was that the sacrament of the mass must be not magical but mystical. . .
He, too, had no mind to subject it to human frailty and would not concede that York-5 he had done so by positing the necessity of faith, since faith is itself a gift from God, but this faith is given by God when, where, and to whom he will and even without the sacrament is efficacious; whereas the reverse is not true, that the sacrament is of efficacy without faith. ‘I may be wrong on indulgences,’ declared Luther, ‘but as to the need for faith diminished the role of the priests who may place awafer in the mouth but cannot engender faith in the heart” (Bainton 107). For Luther, the Holy Eucharist of Lord’s supper was really a symbolic act rather than an actual instance of transubstantiation in which the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ. That was a magical aspect to this sacrament which Luther could not accept. According to the Roman Church, the bread and wine may have the appearance of such, but their inner substances have literally become the flesh and blood of Christ. All of this is a literal acceptance of the words of Jesus at the Last Supper: “And as they were eating, Jesus took the bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matthew 26: 26-28). Luther’s view of the communion sacrament was strictly symbolic as is the view of Protestants to this day.
However, this idea was heresy so far as the Roman Catholic Church was concerned. The sacramental power of its York-6 priests was no longer necessary if this concept were to prevail. This is the type of change the Reformation and Martin Luther wrought. The power of the Roman clergy could not exist if Luther’s concepts were to be accepted. Because the principal sacrament of the Roman Catholic Church is the Holy Eucharist of Holy Communion, the fact that Luther was tampering with it could not help but be looked upon by the Roman clergy with great dismay.
Luther generated the Protestant belief that this sacrament is a commemoration through which clergy and communicants raise their spirits by symbolic remembrance of Christ’s life and death. In contrast, according to the teachings of the Roman Church, Christ’s human body and blood are actually present in the consecrated bread and wine. As Bertrand Russell states: “Even more important in the Middle Ages, was transubstantiation; only a priest could perform the miracle of the mass. It was not until the eleventh century in 1079, that the doctrine of transubstantiation became an article of faith, though it had generally been believed for a long time” (Russell 408). As Luther saw it, no sacrament is effective by itself without listening to the Word associated with the sacrament, and the faith that believes in it. There is no magical element to any sacrament, including the doctrine of transubstantiation.
Consequently, Luther’s teachings on the sacraments took away the power of the priests and the special nature of the Holy Eucharist. The Roman York-7 Catholic mass depends completely on these concepts in order for the Roman Church to sustain its efficacy as the representative of Christ on earth. Paul Tillich states: “From this it followed that transubstantiation was destroyed, because this doctrine makes the bread and wine a piece of divine reality inside the shrine and put on the altar.
But such a thing does not occur. The presence of God is not a presence in the sense of an objective presence, at a special place, in a special form; it is a presence for the faithful alone. There are two criteria for this: if it is only for the faithful, then it is only an action. Then if you enter a church and the sacrament is spread, you do not need to do anything, because it is pure bread. If becomes more than this only in action, that is when it is given to those who have faith. For the theory of transubstantiation, it is there all the time. When you enter an empty Roman church, you must bow down before the shrine because God himself is present there, even though no one else is present besides you and this sacrament.
Luther abolished this concept of presence. He denounced the character indelebilis as a human fiction” (Tillich 236-237). For Luther to take this position required considerable courage on his part due to the fact he was facing an ecclesiastical force of great strength and authority. Luther did what most kings would fear to do. Thus his reservation over transubstantiation was monumental, besides being a highly York-8 important concern, to say the least. After all, as a Augustinian Monk, who was he to fight the doctrines of the pope or even attempt any reforms? However, this is the task which Luther undertook against all odds. Luther’s courage and boldness can be seen in his “Open Letter to Pope Leo X” dated: Wittenberg, September 6, 1520: “I have, to be sure, sharply attacked ungodly doctrines in general, and I have snapped at my opponents, not because of their bad morals, but because of their ungodliness. Rather than repent this in the least, I have determined to persist in that fervent zeal and to despise the judgment of men, following the example of Christ who in his zeal called his opponents ‘a blood of vipers,’ ‘blind fools,’ ‘hypocrites’.
. . I have truly despised your see, the Roman Curia, which, however, neither you nor anyone else can deny is more corrupt than any Babylon or Sodom ever was, and which, as far as I can see, is characterized by a completely depraved, hopeless, and notorious godlessness” (Luther and Dillenberger 44-45). It would seem statistics would favor the Church of Rome; however, such was not the situation.
As the central figure of a violent religious rebellion in Germany, Martin Luther brought forth his principal theological doctrine about Christianity. According to Luther, mankind is justified by faith alone, and not by works. On the concept of this belief in a personal faith instead of the power of the Roman Catholic Church, Luther favored the abolition of many rituals and challenged the supreme authority of the pope. For York-9 this, Luther paid the ultimate penalty the Roman Catholic Church could inflict, he was excommunicated. Luther then went before the Diet of Worms, where he took a firm stand concerning his beliefs and was placed under the ban of the Holy Roman Empire. All of this entails considerably more details concerning Luther’s concept of Christianity. Justification by faith, not by works is perhaps Luther’s most important doctrinal contribution to the Reformation, and all it implies.
According to Luther, salvation is a gift from God, and no human being can possibly do anything to merit this blessing. Thus good works are of no avail with regard to the salvation of one’s soul. Therefore, the most a Christian can do is to have faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior. This is basically what a Christian is. Because Christianity has only two real sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), it is necessary for a person to partake of both in order to actually be a Christian. Certainly, a heathen or pagan can go around doing good works, but this means nothing to God. Christ is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, with the father being the First Person of the Holy Trinity, and the Holy Spirit being the Third Person. However, a Christian should do good works; yet, this will not save one’s soul.
God blesses certain Christian persons with His Divine Grace according to His Divine Wisdom. Only God knows who will be saved. Nevertheless, all Christians must conduct their lives according to God’s York-10 teachings for the very reason that they are Christians. God, in His Infinite Mercy and Judgment knows his own. Only God is capable of judging His people fairly and wisely. Paul Tillich states: “I want to emphasize Luther’s doctrines of sin and faith very much because they are points in which the Reformation is far superior to what we find today in popular Christianity.
For Luther sin is ‘Unbelief in the real sin.’ ‘Nothing justifies except faith, and nothing makes sinful except unbelief.’ ‘Unbelief is sin altogether.’ ‘Therefore the word ‘sin’ includes what we are living and doing besides the faith in God.’ These statements presuppose a concept of faith which has nothing whatsoever to do with the acceptance of doctrines” (Tillich 245). Luther believed that mankind is totally depraved; but this does not mean there is nothing good in humanity. What this idea really means is that human beings are in continual conflict with themselves. Modern psychology would say the self is frustrated and neurotic concerning itself.
In order to deal with this situation, Luther felt faith is something a true Christian must embrace. This is the faith that Jesus Christ is the Savior of mankind. Luther did not feel those persons having a profession involving violence are doomed to eternal damnation. For instance, Luther believed a Christian soldier could be saved even if he killed other people known as the ‘enemy.
‘ Luther provides a soldier’s prayer is his essay “Whether Soldiers, York-11 Too, Can Be Saved” (1526): “. . . But because I know and have learned from your gracious word that none of our good works can help us and that no one is saved as a soldier but only as a Christian, therefore, I will not in any way rely on my obedience and work, but place myself freely at the service of your will. I believe with all my heart that only the innocent blood of your dear son, my Lord Jesus Christ, redeems and saves me, which he shed for me in obedience to your holy will.
This is the basis on which I stand before you. In this faith I will live and die, fight, and do everything else. Dear Lord God the Father, preserve and strengthen this faith in me by your Spirit.
Amen” (Luther and Schultz 135-136). It should be understood, however, that Luther never sanctioned war, which he believed was a definite indication of mankind’s depravity. Yet, a Christian soldier may possibly be saved by God’s Grace just as any other Christian may be so blessed. One of the most important differences between the Roman Church and Luther’s conception of Christianity is the personal relationship between God and the Christian. In Catholicism, the Church is an intermediary between God and the individual.
However, no intermediary is needed at all in Luther’s theological approach. This is one of Protestantism’s most significant qualities. Another very important characteristic of Luther’s reforms is the final authority of the Bible with respect to theological matters. This is also completely different from York-12 the Roman Catholic view, which holds that the Church is the final authority with regard to theological concerns. In fact, when speaking excathedra, the pope is considered by Catholicism to be infalliable concerning faith and morals.
Luther could not accept a human being with Holy Orders as the means through which a Christian reaches God. These are the teachings that caused Luther to be excommunicated by the Roman Church and helped to create the Protestant form of Christianity. When Luther appeared before the Diet of Worms, he was asked by Eck, an official of the Archbishop of Trier: “I ask you, Martin–answer candidly and without horns– do you or do you not repudiate your books and the errors which they contain?” Luther replied, “Since then Your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted 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 us to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.
God help me. Amen” (Bainton 144). Essentially, Luther provided the Christian with a degree of freedom not at all present in Catholicism.
Luther dared to defy the might and authority of the Roman Catholic Church, and the Reformation was born. York-13 WORKS CITED Bainton, Roland H. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. New York: Mentor, 1950. Dillenberger, John. Martin Luther: Selection From His Writings.
New York: Anchor Books, 1962. Russell, Bertrand. A History of Western Philosophy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1945. Schultz, Robert C. and Helmut T. Lehmann. Luther’s Works, Volume 46, The Christianity in Society, III.
Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967. Tillich, Paul. A History of Christian Thought From Its Judaic and Hellenistic Origins to Existentialism. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968.
The Holy Bible. King James Version. New York: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1972. MARTIN LUTHER JAY YORK RELIGION IN AMERICAN LIFE DR.
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