Was the Protestant movement a sincere attempt to restore New Testament Christianity? Do the “fruits” show that it was motivated and guided by the Spirit of God? Read the startling TRUTH in this fourth installment of Dr. Roderick C. Meredith’s series of articles drawing back the curtain on the Protestant Reformation!
The Reformation Grows
We have already discussed the great apostasy which swept over the professing Christian Church after the days of the Apostles. Paganism—its ceremonies, traditions, and philosophies—was quickly introduced into the early Catholic Church.
The documented story of utter corruption and debauchery in professing “Christendom” presents a startling contrast to the beliefs, customs, and way of life of the true Church in Apostolic days. We found that men like Huss and Savonarola were martyred in trying to purge this wickedness from the Catholic Church.
Millions of common people cried out for relief from the political and financial tyranny of Rome. In the previous installment, we discussed Luther’s unique identification with these fervent hopes of the masses.
We have presented the documented evidence that Luther was oppressed with a sense of guilt in being unable to obey what he thought was God’s will. This led him to the point of adding a word to Romans 1:17 and teaching: “The just shall live by faith alone.”
Besides revolting against the Catholic doctrine of indulgences, Luther rebelled against the need of any definite obedience to the commands of God—relying now on “faith alone” for salvation. And in his rebellion against Rome, he made a political appeal to the German nobles for their backing, writing: “We were born to be masters… It is time the glorious Teutonic people should cease to be the puppet of the Roman pontiff” (Henry Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, p. 278).
After his final break with Rome, Luther began to cultivate a number of the leading nobles and princes to support his cause. Without proper protection, he was a dead man—under the ban of the emperor and the pope.
During his disputes with John Eck, and in his preaching, writing, and other reformatory labors, Luther had won the respect of a number of young humanists of Germany. Among these were Ulrich von Hutten and Francis von Sickingen. Von Hutten seconded Luther’s religious appeals by writing caustic pamphlets against the pope and higher clergy. And his friend, von Sickingen, offered his castle to Luther as a place of refuge in case of emergency.
Two other men aided Luther’s work and were associated with him at the University of Wittenberg. The first was Andrew Carlstadt, Luther’s senior in the divinity school, who had conferred on him the doctor’s degree. Carlstadt was an able theologian for those times, but lacked Luther’s personality and popular eloquence. He was regarded as somewhat impetuous and often wished to bring about a more complete reformation than did Luther. To Luther’s dismay, he sometimes put into practice what Luther merely talked about.
The other man who became absorbed in Luther’s teaching was Philip Melanchthon, the professor of Greek in the university. He was only twenty-one years old at the time, but was scholarly, sensitive, and brilliant—already possessing a wide reputation for his ability. His conversion to Luther’s teaching was not because of any travail of spirit, but as a result of his enthusiastic agreement with Luther’s interpretation of the writings of Paul.
These humanists, these theologians, the elector, Frederick the Wise, and many other princes, nobles, and scholars—all began to ally themselves with Luther and his teachings. To most of the princes and nobility, the motives were purely political and financial. They were tired of the domination and intrusion of the Italian papacy. Luther had become a concrete symbol of this long-felt rebellion. Under his leadership, they were united in a common bond of hatred against the material power of the Roman Catholic Church (Johannes Baptist Alzog, Manual of Universal Church History, Vol. III, p. 202).
To the humanists, Luther became a champion who expressed in popular eloquence what they had written about in witty, erudite books and pamphlets, which were above the understanding of the average man. And his religious appeal gave depth and a positive meaning to the attacks on the hierarchy, which their satirical writings had lacked. Though many did not understand his doctrine of grace, his spirit of rebellion against Rome quickly spread.
Thus, Luther became overnight a champion of all Germany in their various grievances against the papacy. A real movement had now begun, and the pope and new emperor, Charles the Fifth, were to find that it was to grow into a conflagration with which they could not fully cope.
Luther’s treatise entitled, “To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation,” issued in 1520, had made him very popular with the German nobility, local authorities, and peasantry. His practical proposals in it are briefly summarized by Walker: “Papal misgovernment, appointments, and taxation are to be curbed; burdensome offices abolished; German ecclesiastical interests should be placed under a ‘Primate of Germany’; clerical marriage permitted; the far-too-numerous holy days reduced in the interest of industry and sobriety; beggary, including that of the mendicant orders, forbidden; brothels closed; luxury curbed; and theological education in the universities reformed. No wonder the effect of Luther’s work was profound. He had voiced what earnest men had long been thinking” (Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church, p. 345).
Later the same year, in his “Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” Luther attacked the sacramental practices of the Roman Church. He denied the doctrine of transubstantiation, and said there are only two real sacraments—baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. He denied the scriptural validity of the other Roman sacraments—confirmation, matrimony, orders, and extreme unction, though he did say that penance has a certain sacramental value as a return to the purity of baptism.
It is remarkable that in rejecting transubstantiation, Luther declares the absolute authority of Scripture in matters of faith and practice. He states: “For that which is asserted without the authority of Scripture or of proven revelation may be held as an opinion, but there is no obligation to believe it… Transubstantiation… must be considered as an invention of human reason, since it is based neither on Scripture nor sound reasoning…” (Bettenson, Documents, p. 280).
If Luther had only applied this type of scriptural test to all of his doctrines, the world today might be a different type of place! For when he was charged with inserting the word “sola” (alone) into Romans 3:28, he haughtily replied, “Should your Pope give himself any useless annoyance about the word sola, you may promptly reply: It is the will of Dr. Martin Luther that it should be so” (Alzog, p. 199). And, we may add on good authority, no other reason for such unscriptural changes as these was ever given. When it came to Luther’s own personal doctrinal convictions, Martin Luther was truly a self-willed man.
The essence of the Gospel to Luther was forgiveness of sins through a personal, transforming faith in Jesus Christ. He regarded this as the sole type of true religion (Walker, p. 346).
But Luther totally neglected the Bible teaching on the kind of absolute repentance that must precede any forgiveness of sins. And his mind continued to rebel against the necessity of obedience to any kind of authority or law after one was forgiven by faith in Christ. He wrote: “As many as believe in Christ, be they as numerous and wicked as may be, will be neither responsible for their works nor condemned on account of them.” And again: “Unbelief is the only sin man can be guilty of; whenever the name is applied to other acts, it is a misnomer…” (Alzog, p 199).
His third tractate of 1520, “On Christian Liberty,” asserts that a Christian man is spiritually subject to no man nor to any law. He contended that since we are justified by faith alone, we are no longer under obligation to keep the law of God.
Here we see that Luther continued to stress this personal, emotional, and psychological experience of free forgiveness as the central tenet of all his teaching. He had himself felt so oppressed by a sense of guilt while in the Roman church that he now felt compelled to cast aside all sense of law and a need for obedience. We will compare this teaching with Scripture in another place.
Thus, Luther’s doctrine was now complete in its main outlines. Although he would later clarify himself on many smaller points, the basic principles of Luther’s theological system had now been established (Walker, p. 346).
In 1521, Luther was summoned to appear before the Diet of Worms, and his friends warned him of his mortal danger. But the emperor had given him a promise of safe conduct, and he was determined to go even “if there were as many devils in that city as there were tiles on its houses.”
Appearing before the Diet, Luther was immediately confronted with a row of his books and asked whether he would recant them or not. After a recess for consideration, he admitted that he might have spoken too strongly against persons, but would not recant any of the substance of what he had written, unless it could be disproved by Scripture, or reason. He is reported to have closed with the words: “Here I stand; I can do naught else. God help me. Amen” (Jesse Lyman Hurlbut, The Story of the Christian Church, p. 153).
Returning home from Worms, Luther was seized by friendly hands and taken to Wartburg Castle, near Eisenach, where he was to remain in hiding for nearly a year. He had been put under the ban of the empire, and had Germany been ruled by a strong central authority, Luther’s career would have soon ended in martyrdom. But his vigorous and friendly territorial ruler, Frederick the Wise, time and again proved to be Luther’s salvation. From his secret retreat at the Wartburg, Luther made his continuing activity felt by writing many letters and pamphlets in favor of his cause, which were sent all over Germany. But the most lasting fruit of the period was his translation of the New Testament. This translation from the Greek text of Erasmus into German was a work of high literary value, and is regarded as the foundation of the German written language (Ludwig Hausser, The Period of the Reformation, pp. 60–61).
“Few services greater than this translation have ever been rendered to the development of the religious life of a nation. Nor, with all his deference to the Word of God, was Luther without his own canons of criticism. These were the relative clearness with which his interpretation of the work of Christ and the method of salvation by faith is taught. Judged by these standards, he felt that Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation were of inferior worth. Even in Scripture itself there were differences in value” (Walker, p. 349).
Thus we find that although Luther taught that all true doctrine should be based on Scripture, when it came to interpreting Scripture he had his own pet theories even as to the relative worth of entire books of the Bible! And, as we shall see, he violently denounced those who did not agree with his doctrinal theories.
While Luther remained in seclusion at Wartburg, several of his associates continued the ecclesiastical revolution in Wittenberg. In many cases they carried out the very reforms that Luther had talked about—but had not yet acted on.
By October 1521, Luther’s fellow monk, Gabriel Zwilling, was denouncing the mass and urging the abandonment of clerical vows. Many of the inmates of the Augustinian monastery of Wittenberg soon renounced their profession, and Zwilling was soon attacking the use of images.
At Christmas, 1521, Carlstadt summoned the city to a celebration of the Lord’s Supper after the new fashion. He officiated in plain clothes, omitted all reference to sacrifice in the liturgy, offered both the bread and wine to the laity, and used the German language in conducting the sacrament (Roland Bainton, The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, p. 64).
The hearing of confession and the fasts were soon abandoned. Carlstadt taught that all ministers should marry and later, in 1522, took to himself a wife.
The general excitement was increased by the arrival, in December of 1521, of several radical “prophets” from Zwickau. They claimed immediate divine inspiration, taught against infant baptism, and prophesied the speedy end of the world (Walker, p. 350). Melanchthon was upset by all these events, and was too unsure of himself to affirm or deny these new teachings.
Carlstadt, however, was only trying to follow through on Luther’s appeal to return to Scriptural practices. It is, perhaps, unfortunate that the arrival of the Zwickau “prophets” tainted the movement with radicalism for a time. These incidents were highly displeasing to the elector, Frederick the Wise, and drew forth warning protests from other German princes. It is important to realize that Luther had to walk a narrow line to keep the pleasure of these German princes who gave political, military, and financial backing.
And so, partly to avoid any further censure for radicalism from the German princes, and partly because of an evident jealousy of Carlstadt (G. H. Orchard, A Concise History of Foreign Baptists, p. 339), Luther was determined to return to Wittenberg and again take charge of the reformatory movement.
But let us first notice some of the changes Carlstadt was bringing about:
Carlstadt renounced all clerical garb and, though a minister, dressed in a great gray cloak as a peasant. A second principle re-enforced this position, namely social equalitarianism. The doctrine of the priesthood of all believers was taken so seriously that Carlstadt would not be called Doctor but only “Brother Andreas.” The desire, which also actuated Luther to restore the pattern of early Christianity, was carried farther to include many Old Testament practices. The destruction of images was based on the Mosaic injunction, as was also the introduction of a strict sabbatarianism. The entire program was alien to the spirit of Luther, who believed that the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, and any portion may be used in the interests of religion (Bainton, pp. 65–66).
Upon hearing of this new program, Luther immediately returned to Wittenberg, gained the favor of the Elector and the town council, and banished Carlstadt from the city.
The startling fact is here disclosed that Carlstadt, although he misunderstood some points, was attempting to reinstate many of the practices of Christ and the Apostles. Luther would have none of this. He would sometimes talk about returning to Biblical Christianity, but he always rejected any real attempt to actually do so.
After Luther’s return from Wittenberg, he showed a decidedly conservative attitude in all things and regained his influence with the German princes. He was forced to play politics much of the time because the success of the Lutheran movement was wholly dependent on their favor.
The emperor was now kept busy by a great war with France for the control of Italy. Pope Leo X had died in December 1521, and his successor was not yet influential enough to curb Luther’s activities. Under these favorable circumstances, it looked as if the Reformation might win the entire German nation to its cause (Hausser, p. 68–69).
Many Lutheran congregations were now forming in various regions of Germany, and the problem of church organization and government was presented. Without consulting the Bible to find out what type of church government Christ had instituted in His Church, Luther thought out a system of his own. “Luther now was convinced that such associations of believers had full power to appoint and depose their pastors. He held, also, however, that the temporal rulers, as in the positions of chief power and responsibility in the Christian community, had a prime duty to further the Gospel. The experiences of the immediate future, and the necessities of actual church organization within extensive territories, were to turn Luther from whatever sympathy he now had with this free-churchism to a strict dependence on the state” (Walker, p. 351).
Because of this very type of man-devised church government, we find that the Lutheran Church has been politically controlled and almost wholly dependent on the state down to recent times. But Luther’s efforts to keep the favor of the German princes—and his tendency to retain countless ideas and customs brought over from the pagan Roman church—all caused him to be considered very “conservative.” In fact, he did not depart from the Roman Catholic traditions in many ways.
Luther decided that great freedom was permissible in the details of worship, as long as the “Word of God” was kept central. The different Lutheran congregations soon developed a wide variety of usages in their services. Instead of Latin, the German language was increasingly used. Luther retained much of the Catholic form of the Mass, and issued one in German in 1526. He also retained the Catholic practice of confession, though not as obligatory. “Judged by the development of the Reformation elsewhere, Luther’s attitude in manners of worship was strongly conservative, his principle being that ‘what is not contrary to Scripture is for Scripture and Scripture for it.’ He therefore retained much of Roman usage, such as the use of candles, the crucifix, and the illustrative employment of pictures” (Walker, p. 352).
At this time, the first serious rifts among Luther’s followers began to appear. The first disaffection arose among the humanists, whose leader, Erasmus, had very little sympathy with Luther’s doctrine of “justification by faith alone.” He feared the results of a teaching that practically denied the moral responsibility of man. And the stormy writings of Luther, coupled with tumultuous outbreaks in several places, made him increasingly alarmed.
In the autumn of 1524, he began to challenge Luther’s denial of free will. This doctrine, which we will discuss more fully in a later section, asserted that in the fall of Adam, man’s nature had become so radically corrupted that he was incapable of obeying God or of doing any truly good thing.
Realizing the gross error of this doctrine and others held by Luther, and fearful of the increasing decline of interest in education and in public morals, which seemed to accompany Luther’s teaching, Erasmus formally broke with Luther (Alzog, p. 226–227).
Another rift in the movement occurred because of the dissatisfaction of some with the halfway measures Luther was taking as a reformer. Many sincerely wanted to get back to the pattern of New Testament Christianity. But Luther now seemed determined to preserve as many of the Romish practices and doctrines as he could, without overthrowing his basic doctrines of justification by faith alone and rejection of the papal hierarchy and sacramental system. He, no doubt, felt he must do this to keep the political backing of the German princes.
It is true that the leaders of some of these movements became radicals. An example is Thomas Munzer, who attacked Romanists and Lutherans alike for their doctrines, claiming himself to be directly inspired, and leading his followers in ransacking and destroying monasteries and breaking all images in the churches (Walker, p. 353).
Yet it seems certain that if Luther had been willing to trust in God alone for his protection, instead of courting the favor of the human princes, he could have led the people to a complete break with the pagan Catholic system, doctrines, and customs. He would have found many thousands of sincere men and women in Germany alone who would have gladly followed. For the masses were already fed up with the Roman and feudal system and were ripe for a change.
Here was a grand opportunity to effect a genuine restoration of Apostolic Christianity. If Luther and his associates had surrendered their wills completely to God, asked His guidance in every phase of this restoration, and honestly followed the plain literal word of the teachings and practices instituted by Christ and His Apostles, much of Germany would probably have followed.
But such was not to be the case. Luther’s refusal to carry through a complete reformation left many sincere, but uneducated, peasants and townsmen to be the prey of unbalanced leaders, who in many cases restored some of the true Apostolic practices Luther had willingly ignored—but who, all too often, mingled these with strange excesses of their own devising.
The situation just described brought on the now infamous revolt of the German peasants. The way Luther blundered in handling this situation caused by far the most serious separation from his movement.
The German peasantry had been oppressed for generations, and their state was one of increasing misery. The preaching and religious excitement of Luther’s reform movement acted as a spark to goad them into the long-delayed action of rising against their masters.
“In March 1525, the peasants put forth twelve articles, demanding the right of each community to choose and depose its pastor, that the great tithes (or grain) be used for the support of the pastor and other community expenses, and the small tithes abolished that serfdom be done away, reservations for hunting restricted, the use of the forests allowed to the poor, forced labor be regulated and duly paid, just rents fixed, new laws no longer enacted, common lands restored to communities from which they had been taken, and payments for inheritance to their masters abolished. To modern thinking these were moderate and reasonable requests. To that age they seemed revolutionary” (Walker, p. 354).
Although many Protestant historians maintain that Luther had no part in the peasant uprising, it is a perversion of truth to deny the fact that the peasants were simply putting into practice some of the principles of freedom contained in Luther’s own writings. And there is no denying the fact that if Luther had not turned against them in their hour of need, countless thousands of lives would have been spared—and the economic slavery of the German peasantry would not have been prolonged (Hausser, p. 102).
But Luther was suspicious of the uneducated peasant class—in spite of the fact that his own family had belonged to it. And, more important, Luther had put his trust in the backing of the princes, and was ever careful not to offend them—although he did send them a tempered warning and a reminder of their responsibility in the expected outbreak (Hausser, p. 103).
Because Luther had long advocated the counsel of love and restraint and knew well Christ’s injunction to “love your enemies,” his about-face in the matter of the peasant revolt is nothing less than astonishing. Furthermore, the situation did not call for such violence as he advocated—even had such a course been consistent with Christian principles.
Unquestionably, there were faults on both sides. But Luther’s ranting appeal to the princes to mercilessly destroy the peasants reveals a spirit as far remote from the Spirit that directed Jesus Christ as it would seem possible to imagine.
Henry C. Vedder paints an accurate picture of the ugly situation:
Though the peasants had a good cause, they had not always adopted good methods. Most of them were ignorant, all were exasperated, and some were maddened by their wrongs. In their uprising some outrages were committed; castles had been burned and plundered and ruthless oppressors had been slain. These deeds were now made the pretext for a retaliation whose cruelty has rarely been surpassed in history. It is computed by historians, who have no motive to exaggerate, that fully a hundred thousand were killed before the fury of the princes and the knights was appeased.
Foremost among those who urged them on was Luther. It would seem that he had become alarmed by the persistence of those who had sought to make him and his teachings responsible for the peasant war. His hope was in the protection and patronage of the princes, to whom the plain words he had spoken must have given deep offense. So in the midst of the uproar he sent to the press a second pamphlet, in which he turned completely about, and denounced the peasants as violently as he had before rebuked the princes.
“They cause uproar, outrageously rob and pillage monasteries and castles not belonging to them. For this alone, as public highwaymen and murderers, they deserve a twofold death of body and soul. It is right and lawful to slay at the first opportunity a rebellious person, known as such, already under God and the emperor’s ban. For a public rebel, every man is both judge and executioner. Just as, when a fire starts, he who can extinguish it first is the best fellow. Rebellion is not a vile murder, but like a great fire that kindles and devastates a country; hence uproar carries with it a land full of murder, bloodshed, makes widows and orphans, and destroys everything, like the greatest calamity. Therefore whosoever can should smite, strangle, and stab, secretly or publicly, and should remember that there is nothing more poisonous, pernicious, and devilish than a rebellious man. Just as when one must slay a mad dog; fight him not and he will fight you, and a whole country with you.
“Let the civil power press on confidently and strike as long as it can move a muscle. For here is the advantage: the peasants have bad consciences and unlawful goods, and whenever a peasant is killed therefore he has lost body and soul, and goes forever to the devil. Civil authority, however, has a clean conscience and lawful goods, and can say to God with all security of heart: ‘Behold, my God, thou hast appointed me prince or lord, of that I cannot doubt, and has entrusted me with the sword against evil doers (Rom. 13:1-4)… Therefore I will punish and smite as long as I can move a muscle; thou wilt judge and approve.’… Such wonderful times are these that a prince can more easily win heaven by shedding blood than others with prayer” (Vedder, A Short History of the Baptists, p. 173–174).
Well may we ask ourselves, “If these are the words of a reformer sent from God, then what is the measure of true religion?” Are these the words of a man directed by the Holy Spirit of God? Was the risen Christ using this man to purify His “little flock”?
By this cruel act of turning so bitterly against the peasants, Luther had gained greater esteem with the protecting princes. But, even humanly speaking, the cost was great. From this time forth, popular sympathy for his cause among the peasants of southern Germany was alienated.
Erasmus rebuked Luther for his hypocritical conduct in this sordid affair. He wrote: “We are now gathering the fruits of your teaching. You say indeed that the Word of God should, of its nature, bear very different fruit. Well, in my opinion that greatly depends on the manner in which it is preached. You disclaim any connection with the insurgents, while they regard you as their parent, and the author and expounder of their principles” (Alzog, p, 223).
After this, it is easy to understand the peasants’ lack of sympathy for the man who urged the princes to “smite, strangle, and stab” them and their loved ones.
The bloody suppression of the peasant uprising now left the princes and the cities in complete control of Germany. Political alliances were now formed for or against the Reformation. A league of Catholics was organized by Duke George of Saxony and other Catholic princes, who met at Dessau in July 1525. An opposing Lutheran league was formed at Torgau. A renewal of the emperor’s struggles—this time against an alliance of the pope and the French king—kept Charles V too occupied to interfere with the religious struggles in Germany (Walker, p. 356).
At the Diet of Spires, in 1526, a decree was made giving each German prince the right to handle religious matters in his own territory—for the time being—as he felt responsible to God. This act gave the Lutheran movement its first legal existence, and was regarded as a triumph for the German reformers. However, from this time forth Luther was tied to the apron strings of his princely protectors. As we shall see, he was forced to employ compromise and deceit in order to continue in their good graces. Because of his own system, he was not allowed to preach the Word of God “without fear or favor.” He and the Protestant cause were inextricably bound up with the politics of this world.
But the emperor was soon victorious over all his enemies, and the princes were summoned to the Diet of Spires in 1529. The Catholic party was now in the majority, and issued an edict which forbade the progress of the Reformation in the states which had not accepted it, and granted full liberties in the reformed territories to all who remained Catholics.
To this unequal ruling the Elector of Saxony and several other princes made a formal protest. From that time the term Protestant was applied to the Lutheran party and to their doctrines (Fisher, The History of the Christian Church, p. 304).
From this time the development of territorial churches became an established policy. Germany was to be divided between the Catholic territories in the south, and the Protestants in the north.
Now where a man lived often determined his religion. And the spread of Lutheranism depended more on politics than on prophets.
In the next installment, we will discuss the outcome—the “fruit”—of this religio-political movement. Then we will proceed with the exciting events in other phases of the Reformation. To keep our perspective, we must always bear in mind these questions: Was this movement motivated and guided by God’s Holy Spirit? Was it a genuine return to the “faith once delivered to the saints”?
For more of the answers, don’t miss next issue’s gripping installment in this important series!
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To read the next installment: "Part 5: Martin Luther Unleashed"