A Look at Martin Luther
FOR the past five years or more, talks have been in progress between Lutheran and Catholic theologians. The ultimate aim apparently is to bring Lutherans back into the Catholic church. Although some individual Lutherans may not relish this thought, others do.
In fact, even Luther would probably look upon such efforts with an approving eye, despite his polemics against the pope. He was a devout monk who had no desire to break with the Catholic church. Instead he wanted to see it institute reforms that would correct practices he sincerely believed to be unchristian.
According to Dr. Carl Braaten of Chicago’s Lutheran School of Theology, a reunion with the Catholic church would be in accord with Luther’s wishes. “The Reformation,” he said, “was always meant to be a temporary movement.”
When he began to challenge certain practices of the Catholic church, Martin Luther had no intention of founding the Lutheran church. However, it was a natural development when his break with Rome became irreconcilable and when he concluded that the church should be reformed wherever possible in Germany despite pope and emperor.
The name “Lutheran” was first applied to Luther’s followers by his enemies. Although it was meant as a derogatory term, they adopted it.
What led to Luther’s break with the Catholic church was the practice of selling letters of indulgence. It was the claim of the church that indulgences issued by the pope could shorten the stay of a person, or of a relative, in purgatory. Some even granted forgiveness of sins. Selling such indulgences was one of the avenues used by the church in Luther’s day to obtain money.
Since Pope Leo X was hard pressed for funds needed to complete St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, he entered into an agreement with Archbishop Albert of Brandenburg, Germany, that would help with the project. He accepted from Albert the sum of 10,000 ducats in return for the archbishopric of Mainz. That Albert might pay back the sum to the financial house of Fugger, from whom he borrowed it, the pope granted him the privilege of dispensing an indulgence in his territories for a period of eight years. Half of the money received would go to the pope and the other half to the house of Fugger as repayment on the loan.
The Dominican monk Tetzel was entrusted with the sale of these indulgences. He and his fellow vendors made extravagant claims in their sales pitch. Among other things they would say: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”
Luther was infuriated by such claims. He contended that the granting of indulgences without repentance was contrary to Christian doctrine. He argued: “Indulgences are most pernicious because they introduce complacency and thereby imperil salvation.” In one of his sermons in 1516 C.E. he said: “To assert that the pope can deliver souls from purgatory is audacious. If he can do so, then he is cruel not to release them all.”
On October 31, 1517, Luther nailed ninety-five theses regarding indulgences on the church door at Wittenberg, Germany. This was the practice in his day for publishing a challenge for a debate. No one accepted his challenge and no discussion of the subject with church officials ever occurred.
Thesis number five said: “The Pope has neither the will nor the power to remit any penalties, except those which he has imposed by his own authority, or by that of the canons.” Thesis number twenty-one stated: “Thus those preachers of indulgences are in error who say that, by the indulgences of the Pope, a man is loosed and saved from all punishment.”
By thus challenging the church’s practice of selling indulgences, Luther unwittingly launched himself on the road to separation from the Catholic church and struck the spark that ignited the Reformation. His theses were translated from Latin to German and printed by some of those who read them. They became a common topic of conversation throughout Germany.
Emphasis on Scriptures
The more carefully Luther studied the Scriptures the more he found things in them that were in conflict with the Catholic church. The Scriptural statement, for example, that a man is declared righteous or justified by faith made a deep impression on him. (Rom. 3:28) He could not reconcile it with the teaching of the church that a person can gain religious merit by venerating certain relics.
In his famous debate with the Catholic theologian Johann Eck, Luther stressed his respect for the Scriptures as a guiding authority by saying: “A simple layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or a council without it.”
When he discovered that no mention of purgatory occurs in the Scriptures, he ceased to maintain that doctrine. But he did retain the unscriptural doctrine of hell as being a place of eternal torment for immortal souls. Instead of teaching that the human soul is immortal, the Bible plainly states that it dies (Ezek. 18:4), and instead of saying that the wages sin pays is eternal torment in hell, it says that the “wages sin pays is death.”—Rom. 6:23.
The Hebrew and Greek words, sheol and hades, that have been translated as hell in some versions of the Bible mean the common grave of mankind. For example, faithful Job says, according to the Catholic Douay Version: “Who will grant me this, that thou mayst protect me in hell, and hide me until thy wrath pass, and appoint me a time when thou wilt remember me?” (Job 14:13) Obviously, Job is speaking about being hidden, not in a place of torment, but in the grave until the resurrection. There are Bible versions that use the word “grave” here instead of “hell.” Despite this Scriptural truth, Lutherans to this day hold to the Catholic doctrine of eternal torment in hell.
When Luther appeared before Emperor Charles V and the Diet at Worms, Germany, which was an assembly of princes and representatives from the free cities, no argument was presented to prove his views unscriptural. There was actually no discussion, but only a demand that he recant. In his reply he again appealed to the Scriptures as supreme authority by saying: “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 to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.”
On June 16, 1520, Pope Leo X issued a bull condemning Luther. It listed forty-one propositions from Luther’s writings that were declared to be false, dangerous or heretical. If he did not recant, the secular authorities were to seize him and deliver him to the pope. He then would no doubt have been treated as was the Bohemian John Huss, who was burned alive at a stake.
But the secular authorities where Luther was located were sympathetic to him and declined to take action. Their sense of justice was outraged because Luther was condemned without having been given a hearing and an opportunity to defend himself. The bull actually caused public indignation to burst forth against the arbitrary action of the pope.
In Rome and in some other places Luther’s books were publicly burned. In reprisal the faculty and student body at Wittenberg gathered outside the Elster gate of the city and burned the papal constitutions, the canon law and works of scholastic theology. Luther added the pope’s bull of excommunication to the burning pile.
Luther indicated a preference for baptism by immersion, because that is what is indicated by the Greek word for it. He said: “I could wish that the baptized should be totally immersed, according to the meaning of the word and the signification of the mystery.”
However, Luther also said about immersion that he did not think it is necessary. Thus he indicated that his thinking was influenced by the Catholic practice of sprinkling. This no doubt is the reason why sprinkling is an acceptable practice in Lutheran churches today.
Baptism by immersion, not sprinkling, is the Scriptural method. There is no evidence in the Scriptures that anyone who was baptized in apostolic times was sprinkled. Rather the Scriptures show that they were immersed.—Matt. 3:13-16; Acts 8:36, 38.
Not Far Enough
While some of Luther’s views that caused his break with the Catholic church moved him into closer alignment with the Scriptures, he did not go far enough. Many practices and beliefs of the church that are without Scriptural support were carried over into the Lutheran church.
The Catholic doctrine of the Trinity, for example, is still preached in Lutheran churches. This doctrine is in direct conflict with the testimony of the Scriptures and relies upon a twisting of the Scriptures. The claim that God is a trinity of three persons who are coequal and coeternal is nowhere taught in the Bible. Rather than Jesus Christ’s being coequal with his Father, we find him speaking of his Father as being greater and as being his God. (John 14:28; Matt. 27:46; John 20:17) After he returned to heaven he is spoken of as being subject to his Father and his Father as being his head. (1 Cor. 11:3; 15:28) The plain testimony of the Scriptures is that Jesus Christ is the Son of God rather than being God, as is wrongly claimed by the Trinity doctrine.
The Trinity doctrine is only one of many things that have been carried over from the Catholic church to the Lutheran church. The Lutheran clergy have continued to wear the old Mass vestments and carry on the old ceremonial forms of worship. The altar with its candles and crucifix were retained, although such things are without Scriptural support. The use of candles and the cross in worship is actually of pagan origin, as admitted by Cardinal Newman in his book Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.
Luther failed to perceive from the teachings of the Scriptures that Christians are to be neutral in the political affairs of the world and that they are not to participate in warfare. Jesus told his followers that they were “no part of the world.” (John 15:19) He also counseled them against the use of the sword when he said that “all those who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matt. 26:52) Furthermore, it is written at 2 Corinthians 10:4 that “the weapons of our warfare are not fleshly.”
Despite these and other scriptures on these points, as well as the historical record showing that the early Christians did not engage in military warfare, Luther did not disapprove of the use of the sword. He viewed a person who abstained from military service as worthy of a death sentence. When the peasants revolted, he urged the civil authorities to “stab, kill and strangle” them. Is that what Jesus Christ would have done?
Manifesting the same intolerant and violent spirit of the Catholic church, Luther and his followers approved the use of the sword against the peaceful Anabaptists because they held religious viewpoints different from theirs. Luther’s close associate, Melanchthon, argued that even the passive action of the Anabaptists in rejecting government, oaths, private property and marriage outside their faith was seditious and therefore punishable by death. Certainly the Christian Bible writers never advocated that Christians kill anyone who rejected an article of faith.
Since the days of Luther the Lutheran church has been closely allied with the political governments of the world. When these governments have become embroiled in a war, the members of this church have not hesitated to pick up the sword to kill those classed as political enemies by these powers, even when it meant killing fellow Lutherans. This was particularly evident during World War II when German Lutherans in support of the Nazis fought fellow Lutherans in other countries. How contrary this is to true Christianity and to Jesus’ statement, “By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love among yourselves”! (John 13:35) History makes it clear that Christ’s followers in the first century were pursuers of peace, not wielders of the sword.—1 Pet. 3:11.
There can be little doubt that Luther caused a severe shaking of the Catholic church. But the Lutheran church is in reality only an offshoot of the Catholic church, and resembles it in many ways. Although this offshoot instituted some reforms of Catholic teachings, it has not proved to be a restoration of the Christian organization that existed before the great apostasy that followed the death of the apostles. (Acts 20:29, 30) Thus discussions about reuniting the Lutheran church with the Catholic church need be no cause for surprise. There are natural ties between these two churches, and even Luther would doubtless approve their uniting.