Martin Luther

and other Reformers of the Church

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Martin Luther King Jnr
Martin Luther
and other Reformers of the Church

Picture courtesy of Smithsonian Magazine

Martin Luther was at the centre of the tumultuous changes that shook the church in Europe in the 16th century and led eventually to the emergence of the broad stream of Protestantism. 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 politics and money. Indulgences were also part of that. The Church offered forgiveness in advance of a sin for money or a service done for the Church and called it “Indulgences” It is a corruption. Jesus doesn’t work like that.

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 a notice on the Church door with 95 points for discussion.

Debate there certainly was, and Luther, defending his propositions, hoped for support from the authorities of the church. When that didn’t happen, 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 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.

BORN:10 November 1483, Eisleben, Germany

DIED: 18 February 1546, Eisleben, Germany