I have noted a couple of times that I am watching a series of videos by Ryan Reeves. Having gone through the early church, I have recently been watching videos on Martin Luther and the Reformation. There are several videos on Luther, and given the significant impact that the Reformation had in the West, I feel it is worth spending some time on this.
First, something about Ryan Reeves: he was Associate Professor of Historical Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary; his PhD was from Cambridge University. Further, Gordon–Conwell Theological Seminary is one of the largest evangelical seminaries in North America in terms of total number of full-time students enrolled.
Now, if you are thinking “oh, great, the Reformation explained by a Protestant,” well, yes, I guess it is. I have found Reeves to be quite even-handed about all of this – having listened to his treatment of the Church during the medieval period. To summarize: to the extent he is discussing some events or periods of which I have knowledge, he seems to lay out the story fairly.
In any case, if you want to take it all with a grain of salt, that’s fine. Following are my notes on five of the videos; this is, inevitably, a long post. My intent is to focus on the history, not the theology; the events are historically as important as anything that has occurred in the West in 2,000 years. Each video is about 25 minutes, more or less, if you would rather invest your time this way.
In this first video, Reeves intends to offer some context and background. Luther’s initial aim was not a Church corruption, although as the years went by, he incorporated this. Initially, he was after the doctrinal issues of indulgences and justification by faith.
But this part of the story is yet to come. We first must deal with scholasticism – meaning: from the schools. It was a method, not a philosophy or body of doctrine: scholasticism was based on reasonable doubt, questioning, and dialectic.
Humanism and late medieval theology would start to cast doubt on scholasticism: too much reason, not enough rhetoric and color. Reeves offer the traditionally accepted narrative: Aquinas good, Ockham bad (or, I guess, the other way around, depending on your point of view). Reason and the mind are unnecessary or even bad for helping to understand Scripture; Ockham is accused of separating reason and faith – we cannot reason ourselves to theology (i.e. no natural theology).
Some scholars today say that Luther was reacting not against Aquinas, but to what Ockham had done with Aquinas. This has been my understanding, but apparently the scholarship on this has changed. Instead, Luther sounds more like Ockham – not going after Aquinas directly, but going after the influence of Aristotle in the Church.
What are the things that cause Luther’s crisis and breakthrough? Reeves offers: “the short answer is, I don’t know. And any historian who tells you that they know exactly what happens and when it happens is lying to you.”
Even Luther’s narrative is given after the fact. Is it a narrative that conforms to how events eventually played out, or is it the narrative that captures events as they were playing out? Having been excommunicated, it is easy to say “I felt this way all along.”
From the evidence that exists, he didn’t really feel the same throughout; his views developed – I can’t say evolved, but developed. There is little or no sign of any break through the mid of the second decade of the sixteenth century – say 1514 or so. There is no single event or doctrine that one can point to and sat “here is the moment of his break.”
Now for the details: Luther’s breakthrough is brought on by his anxieties: first, the concept of Penance as practiced at that time in the Church. The Church did not officially teach that Penance was a required work for salvation, but in practice it came across this way. The second is the concept of how one’s will or personal desire came into play – Luther is never convinced that he has the conviction necessary, and this lack of conviction fed on itself. Citing Luther:
“The more I sweated it out like this the less peace and tranquility I knew.”
Depression, doubt, anger, frustration…crisis. Anfechtungen. A sense of being lost. When is he falling into this? We don’t know. There is no sense from those around him. Scholars date Luther’s breakthrough anywhere from 1508 – 1519. The latter date is after the 95 Theses, which Reeves believes is too late. But I don’t know that it must be, given that Luther’s real animosity (I don’t have a better word; I know this isn’t the best choice) didn’t come until some time after the 95 Theses became public.
The first time it is recorded when Luther describes what was going on was in 1532 – perhaps 15 years or so after his breakthrough. Reeves then gives a long explanation of Luther’s break; I do not want to get into the details here, as it is, obviously, a doctrinal issue. It does focus on Luther’s understanding of the meaning of Romans 1:17.
What is the case: he had his breakthrough, but he was not initially intending to break away. Ultimately, it appears, what drove him away was the response he received. During this time, he becomes more certain of what he believes, and better able to articulate it. This is understandable to me: when one feels not listened to, one comes to conclude that there must be some reason that the counterparty is ducking – moving me to an ever-stronger position.
October 31, 1517: Luther (may or may not have) nailed the 95 Theses on the church door, representing issues he was willing to debate. Two topics will be addressed: first, the context; second, Luther’s intention.
The context: the buying and selling of indulgences. Reeves discusses what “indulgences” meant at the time. The issue wasn’t the buying and selling of indulgences. The issue was the corruption that would sometimes come along with this process. Tetzel is the key figure here; an example of his sales pitch:
“As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs.”
The other key point: the power behind Tetzel’s sale: The Pope was behind the sale of these indulgences, the proceeds of which would go to build St. Peter’s. Unbeknownst to Luther and others: two of the most powerful individuals in Christendom – the Pope and the archbishop of Mainz – were behind these actions.
There is little in the 95 Theses that would give rise to a break with the Church. It was quite common to post issues for debate, and it isn’t even necessarily so that the one doing the posting is completely certain of all points. It can be a desire to explore points. And it wasn’t that Luther was the only one concerned with Tetzel’s actions and motives: Frederick the Wise, Luther’s protector, had similar concerns.
Even one month before, Luther posted a different list: 97 Theses. These raised no similar outcry, yet raised many seemingly controversial points: the treatment of Augustine’s view on Grace, questioning man’s inclination to choose, the will is not free, man is unable to want God to be God, election and predestination is the best and infallible preparation for Grace, man has neither correct precept nor good will. One last: virtually the entire ethics of Aristotle is the worst enemy of Grace.
Many issues that directly go against accepted Catholic teaching and against the Scholastics. But no big controversy here. I had never even heard of these 97 Theses until this lecture, not that I am so well-read on the issue. Being in an Augustinian order, no one really went crazy about these points; even though some of these were stronger than what followed a month later: crickets.
Instead, the one big change from the 97 to the 95: indulgences, and who – unbeknownst to Luther – was behind these current campaigns. This stirred the hornet’s nest. Reeves believes that had Luther not gone after these indulgences at this time, little would have come of this event.
What of the 95? Some questioning of the authority that the Pope held to remit certain penalties – not that the Pope claimed this but that people came to believe this, some questions about purgatory but not denying the idea (hence, getting into the validity of how indulgences work and are sold). Luther’s point: how such things are preached by some is contrary to the teaching of the Church.
Also, not attacking the pope but those who suggest of the pope that he has the gift of pardoning that which only God can pardon; indulgences should be preached with caution (not outlawed, not abolished), less people think that these are preferable to other good works of love; love grows by works of love and man therefore becomes better – he does not become better through indulgences.
Luther presents himself not as attacking the pope, but as defending against those who seemingly put the pope in a bad light. His sharp language is aimed at these, not at the pope. His problem: Luther doesn’t realize that it is the pope behind these indulgence salesmen. It is this issue – and, therefore, the Church’s response to Luther – that causes crisis.
This comes after the 95 Theses but before Luther is put on trial. In January 1518, the Theses are translated from Latin to German, then sent around a good portion of Germany. It doesn’t seem that Luther is the one behind this, as he intended it to be part of the academic discussion. Further, Luther sends a summary defense of the Theses to Albert of Mainz – unbeknownst to Luther, one of those behind the same indulgences that Luther is questioning.
Albert, not being much of a scholar, has the Theses examined by someone else before forwarding these to the pope, Leo X. There follows no immediate crackdown; instead, indirect pressure is sent through Luther’s protector – Frederick the Wise. This method is typical for the time. Yet many others found Luther’ points compelling.
All this time, Luther is further developing his thoughts. In April 1518, he is invited to Heidelberg to give a disputation on the subject of indulgences and other points he raised. This is almost a normal event – a public setting to hash out and debate his ideas. One of the few eyewitness accounts comes from Martin Bucer, a Dominican who would become one of the more significant Reformers. Bucer would write:
Luther responds with magnificent grace and listens with insurmountable patience. He presents an argument with the insight of the apostle Paul.
Beginning, perhaps, with Heidelberg, Luther comes to realize that his issues extend beyond indulgences and the manner by which some come to represent the pope. He comes to understand that his fundamental issues on the will and ability of a Christian to perform good works and on the idea of Papal Authority – the authority of the papacy to rule on doctrine.
Leo’s indirect method isn’t working. Leo would then grow more direct, sending scholars to critique, in writing, Luther’s work. Around this time, the pope issues a bull, somewhat backing down on the extremes of indulgences. This has little effect on Luther, where the continuing issue is the pope’s authority. If Luther finds a significant deviation between Scripture and the pope, Scripture wins.
As the pressure increases on Luther regarding the authority of the pope, Luther’s back stiffens further. The battleground shifts to the university, with Leipzig taking on Luther and Johann Eck being the primary antagonist. This results in what is known as the Leipzig disputation, four sessions over 18 days held in July 1519. Luther is not to be the primary speaker, as he did not have the senior position in Wittenberg.
The primary issues are free will, Biblical interpretation, and Papal Authority. Eck, however, focusses on Papal Authority, which forces Luther to say that the pope can be wrong. It was something like this that got Jan Hus burned at the stake. So, in July 1519, Luther has firmly found his footing and understands what his theology implied. Luther doesn’t cave, he is heading quickly to being condemned a heretic.
June 15, 1520: Luther receives the notice of potential excommunication. While Luther is charged on forty-one points, the important points boil down to two: indulgences and papal authority. On these, Luther still feels that he has not been properly addressed – the response being little more than “the pope has authority.” (my paraphrase)
After this point, Luther dives deep – he begins to refer to the pope as the Antichrist. More than hyperbole, Luther believes this, at least according to many. From this point on, Luther’s writing turns increasingly more radical – not, perhaps, because his positions are more radical, but that he has better developed his positions and is better able to articulate and defend these.
I have suggested before: this is quite understandable. The more one feels not listened to, ridiculed, whatever, the more one will work to find substance behind his position. And it can always be found!
On December 15, 1520, Luther burns the papal bull threatening excommunication. He will not respond to the questions in the bull. On January 3, 1521, Luther is officially excommunicated. While the Church would excommunicate, it was the civil government that would then consider the execution. Luther is ordered by Emperor Charles V to appear for his trial. The emperor writes to Frederick, in order that Luther appears at his trial in Worms. Frederick secures for Luther a safe conduct pass.
The trial is in April and again he is facing Eck, who is handling the prosecution. The issue is not Luther’s views – these have already been tried. Eck asks – have you written these documents? Luther confirms, and Eck demands a full recantation. Luther asks for one night to think about it. Luther considers: is he willing to die for what he has written?
That night, he asks himself: Am I alone wise? After reading some of the key passages that led to his breakthrough, he returns the next morning. He confirms that those are his books; when asked to recant, he responds:
Unless I am convinced by proofs from the scriptures or by plain and clear reason and arguments, I can and will not retract, for it is neither safe nor wise to do anything against conscience. Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me. Amen.
He may or may not have said the “Here I stand” part, but there it is.
At this point, Charles V calls a halt to the proceedings. On May 25, it is decided Luther is a heretic; he is an outlaw, and once the safe conduct is expired, he is to be sent to execution. But Charles honors the safe conduct.
Luther leaves Worms, is kidnapped by some of Frederick’s men (Luther may or may not have been in on the plan). Frederick decided Luther wasn’t given a fair shake. They put Luther in hiding, following Frederick’s order not to tell him the location. This way Frederick could not respond to calls to produce Luther.
Luther hides in the Wartburg Castle. Given his situation, he spends his time galvanizing his views. And he grows a beard, unlike his condition when in the monastic order. He also translates the Bible into German.
Luther is now fully the Reformer.
Reeves continues with further videos on Luther and the development of the Reformation. It turns out that once authority for doctrinal interpretation is decentralized, Luther can’t re-centralize it under his interpretation. Of course, we know that Protestants quickly split into multiple camps, and this division continues to this day.
Paul VanderKlay, a Reformed pastor, was going through many of the various differences, disputes, controversies between and among the many Protestant denominations. I commented, as follows:
A great advertisement for the Catholic Church. And the leadership of the Catholic Church is a great advertisement for Protestantism. We really need God's help...and mercy.
PVK both “hearted” the comment and replied: “What a great way to phrase it. :)”
What am I getting at? I see Christendom (for lack of a better word) as the only institution capable of standing up to the corruption moving both the culture and the state toward tyranny. It would be helpful to have such an authority today.
Well, I can dream, can’t I?