Martin Luther-31st October 2016

Martin Luther –  October 31st 2016, and other Reformers of the Church

Martin Luther was at the centre of the tumultuous changes that shook the church in Europe in the sixteenth century and led eventually to the emergence of the broad stream of Protestantism. He was born at Eisleben in Germany in 1483. He studied law at Leipzig, but in 1505 joined the Augustinian Hermits in Erfurt, following a vow made during a terrifying thunderstorm. He was ordained in 1507. His order sent him to Wittenberg to teach Scripture and moral theology. In the wake of the Renaissance, the Scriptures were being studied anew.

During all this period, Luther had been searching for assurance of forgiveness of sin. The medieval age lived very much under a sense of divine judgement. While God’s mercy was not in doubt, that mercy could be assured only after due correction. The church’s system of sacraments and penances were important components in that assurance.

The church was deeply enmeshed in the political life of Europe. Ecclesiastical positions and the sacraments of the church became entangled with political and financial considerations. Indulgences were also part of that. Indulgences were the remission by the church’s authority of part of the temporal penalties expected to follow sins that had been forgiven. The whole system was wide open to abuse. Many wanted reform, but the structures of the church proved resistant to change. Luther was then teaching about Paul’s letter to the Romans. Reflection on Romans 1:17, “the just shall live by faith”, finally brought him peace when all external disciplines had failed. When therefore in 1517 a monk came to Wittenberg selling indulgences to raise money for the building of St Peter’s in Rome, Luther initiated a debate by putting up on the church door ninety-five propositions for discussion.

Debate there certainly was, and Luther, defending his propositions, hoped for support from the authorities of the church. When that was not forthcoming, Luther rested his case on Scripture. The church formally excommunicated him in 1520. Luther became the spokesperson and catalyst for many who sought reform in the church. The fact that Prince Frederick of Saxony protected Luther gave the reform movement a foothold, and many city-states and other groups pushed ahead with reforms in public worship, preaching and church structures. Luther advised on this and also devoted some of his energies to translating the Bible into German to make it more widely available.

Other reformers, notably Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), Martin Bucer (1491-1551), Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560), John Calvin (1509-1564), and Theodore Beza (1519-1605), took up the cause in the cities of Europe. Martin Luther continued to contribute to the debate, but he was no longer the real leader. So broad had the reform movement become, that agreement was no longer possible between all the various positions adopted by the leaders, though some significant common statements were issued. Martin Luther died in 1546.

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