Martin Luther and The Reformation

A lecture by Rev. Jayson S. Galler, for Susanne Hafner, 2002 November 5
German 361K, Survey of German Literature, Beginnings-Baroque

Pre-Lecture Music

“Four Settings of Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott”, from “Cramer & Resch at Kramer Chapel”
1. Helmut Walcha (1907-1991)
2. Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707)
3. Johann Nicolaus Hanff (1665-1712)
4. Jan Bender (1909-1995)


A. Personal Background

Born and raised Lutheran; TV news producer, practicing parish pastor, now graduate student

B. Overview of Lecture

Do not try to get all these points down now, but I just want to give you a sense of where we are going. After some brief introductory remarks, we will first survey Martin Luther’s early life and development leading up to the Reformation. Then we will consider the Reformation itself, including prior attempts at reform, the roots of the Reformation, the events of the Reformation, its message, and its legacy.

            I will take specific questions for clarification as they arise; but I would like to leave time for other questions and discussion at the end.

C. Context for the Reformation

In the early years of the 16th century, Europe, especially Germany, was a “churchly” land. Strong and fervent personal piety, focused on terror of Last Things, such as death, purgatorial pain, and universal judgment. Since the Roman Catholic (or “old”) Church taught one’s salvation depended on producing truly meritorious works, people were left wondering if they had indeed performed God-pleasing works and if so whether they had done enough. Where there had been false teaching and criticism of some aspects of the church and its hierarchy, the authority of the pope was greater in Germany than anywhere else, except for Italy itself. Yet, there was strong discontent and disaffection, especially over the selling of positions of authority, giving of positions to family members, absent leaders, and the taking of concubines. As more people became able to read and better educated these things were at least perceived as a greater problem.

I. Martin Luther

Into this context comes Martin Luther. It can be said correctly, that “the history of the world was profoundly altered by his work”. He was not an organizer or politician or self-declared revolutionary. Rather, people were moved by a profound religious faith that resulted in unshakable trust in God and in a personal relationship to God, which brought certainty of salvation. Where Roman Catholics for centuries attacked Luther, in our time, as a result of historical scholarship that is less emotional, they honor him as a genuine religious man and worthy partner in theological debate.

A. 1483 November 10, Eisleben

1. Birth and family life

Martin Luther was born November 10, 1483 (so Sunday is the 519th anniversary of his birth), in Eisleben, in Saxony, the second son and one of eight children. He was baptized the next day, the festival of St. Martin of Tours. His father, Hans, of peasant origins, worked as a copper miner, and his parents apparently practiced a simple, conventional piety. A few months after Martin’s birth, they moved to Mansfeld. There his father won civic respect and considerable prosperity, and he planned for Luther to be educated for a career in law.

2. Erik Erikson’s 20th century view

In speaking about Luther’s early life, it merits mentioning the view of a 20th century writer. Erik Erikson, in his 1958 book Young Man Luther, tried to connect Luther’s theology and the Reformation’s success to the experiences of a common oppressive childhood as opposed to a shared oppressive religious culture. He considered reported cases of discipline by Luther’s father and his own clinical studies of gifted young people. Erikson’s work is called “One of the most provocative books ever written in the field of Reformation studies”, but historians admit Erikson’s conclusions do not meet the standards of historical demonstration. They are skeptical of such psycho-history, and say Erikson is attributing the emotional make-up of a later age to an earlier age. Yet, at least one author claims that “There is not a more positive and admiring evaluation of the young Luther than that of Erikson.”

B. Mansfeld to Erfurt

1. His studies

Luther attended preparatory schools in Mansfeld, Magdeburg (1497), and Eisenach (1498) before entering the University of Erfurt in 1501. At that time it had an enrollment of about 2‑thousand. Among them he was known as an earnest, companionable, and music-loving student. He, like so many in that day, felt strongly the deep sense of sinfulness and anxiety. He got his bachelor’s in 1502, 13th in a class of 57.

2. Humanism

The University of Erfurt was in Luther’s time one of the most humanistically advanced of the German universities. Humanists envisioned a moral and spiritual renovation of Christendom, leading a drive ad fontes (“to the sources”), “reformation by restoration”. Luther came under its influence, and, while never a full-fledged “humanist”, he did share the movement’s enthusiasm for the study of ancient languages, especially Greek (in which the New Testament was written), and its criticism of Scholastic theology by means of the Bible and writings of the church fathers. (The terms scholastic or scholasticism refer to an intellectual approach of synthesizing theology, often with philosophy, that developed out of the schools of the 11th century.)

C. Law school to Monastery

1. The decision

Luther graduated with a master of arts in January 1505 at the age of 21, and entered the law school in May. The sudden death of a classmate and a close call with a lightning storm when returning to school from a visit home prompted him to make a vow to St. Anne, the patron saint of travelers in distress (or miners?), to become a monk. He broke off his legal studies and entered the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt on July 17, 1505. You can probably imagine his father’s reaction, but Luther was sure that monastic life was the surest path to his soul’s salvation.

2. Monastic life

You have heard from Dr. Donahue a little about monastic life, I am told. This monastery was under the supervision of Johannes von Staupitz, and it made much of preaching and Bible study. (To Staupitz Luther would later give credit for initiating the Reformation.) Luther studied St. Augustine, especially through the work of Gregory of Rimini, whom Luther thought to be only scholastic theologian free of Pelagianism. (Pelagianism refers to a 4th century heresy, which held that a human being had free choice and the ability to keep God’s will instead of being totally corrupted by original sin.)

D. Wittenberg to Erfurt to Rome and back again

Luther was ordained to the priesthood and conducted his first mass in 1507, and the following year he was in Wittenberg, lecturing at the new university there on the topic of the ethics of Aristotle (an ancient Greek philosopher (384-322 BC). Luther was preparing for a future professorship of that university, which had only been established in 1502 by the Saxon elector, Frederick III “the Wise”. It had an enrollment between 2-and-6-hundred. Luther graduated with his bachelor of theology in 1509, and he went back to Erfurt for additional study there. Over the winter of 1510-1511, he went to Rome on the business of his cloister, and then returned to Erfurt and then Wittenberg where he received his doctor of theology in 1512 and succeeded Staupitz as professor of Bible.

E. Professor of Bible

As professor of Bible, Luther lectured on the Psalms (1513-1518), Romans (1515-1516), Galatains (1516-1517), and Hebrews (1517-1518). He was familiar with the traditional interpretive methods as well as the new scholarship. He was a premier scholar and brilliant theologian, his abilities having been recognized with responsibilities for his own cloister and then other monasteries. He also was a remarkable preacher, again both within his own cloister and then in Wittenberg’s parish church.

F. Struggling believer

Despite all this, Luther could not find peace for his soul. Keenly aware of his own sin before a righteous and holy God, he found in the Roman Catholic practice of penance no comfort but only aggravation. Staupitz emphasized that true penitence began not with fearing a punishing God but with loving a merciful God.

G. Reformation or Gospel breakthrough

Over time and based on his study and spiritual direction, Luther became more and more convinced that salvation is a new relationship with God, not based on human work but on trust in God’s promise of forgiveness for Christ’s sake. God’s law with its command to live in holiness could not save, but the Gospel with its message of justification through faith apart from works raises up penitent sinners and reconciles them to God. The thus redeemed person will still be a sinner in this world (simul justus et peccator), but is freely forgiven and will be active in works of love, not because the person has to in order to merit his or her salvation, but out of gratitude for the salvation Christ merited and freely gave. (Romans 3:20-28, if you want a passage.)

            There is much scholarly debate as to exactly how or when this happened. The Reformation or Gospel breakthrough did not necessarily occur in one sudden flash of insight, however. Most likely it began in some form as early as 1513 and is quite well stated at the beginning of 1519. For his part, Luther said “that what he had ‘discovered’ was something that the best theologians of the church must have known all along.”

H. Anti-Scholastic

1. Wittenberg University curricular reform

a. 1502-1514

When the University at Wittenberg was founded, it had favored one particular school of theological thought, but the other leading school was occasionally represented on the faculty. Between its founding in 1502 and 1514, which is shortly after Luther arrived, there were reforms in the curriculum, such as a modern Latin grammar, better translations of Aristotle, and the teaching and publishing of Greek texts. Luther and a colleague by the name of Philip Melanchthon made even more extensive reforms in 1518 and the years following. The reforms centered on playing down Aristotle and stepping up an humanistic agenda such as studying of Hebrew and Greek.

b. Library evidence

It is interesting to note that while we are properly told not to write in library books, part of the evidence for Luther and Melanchthon’s knowledge of and reaction to different schools of thought comes from examining the library at Wittenberg. One scholar in particular has catalogued the library’s more than one-thousand volumes, circa 1536, taking note of which volumes Luther and Melanchthon were known to have read and even in some cases annotated.

2. Disputation against Scholastic Theology, 1517

In early September of 1517, Luther prepared 97 theses (statements for debate) presenting a radical attack on pretty much the whole of medieval Scholasticism.

a. Attack on Scholasticism and Aristotle’s moral philosophy

He condemned those who taught that God would infuse grace into those who did what good they could. He condemned those who taught that justified sinners cooperated in their salvation by works done in a state of grace. He also condemned Aristotle’s moral philosophy as the root of the Scholastic error. (It is worth noting here, however, that Luther did not oppose all theological use of Aristotle or other philosophers.)

b. Pre-cursor to the Reformation

It would be only about 14 months later that nearly as many theses for debate on a different topic would mark what is commonly thought of as the start of the Reformation, and we will talk more about that in a moment. Here, however, I want to mention that some scholars differ as to whether Luther had the Gospel breakthrough and then changed the curriculum and attacked Scholastic theology or whether the curriculum changes and thinking against Scholastic theology led to the breakthrough. You may be able to guess that, since I have joined those suggesting the breakthrough was a process, I also see the curricular changes, dispute against Scholastic theology, and the re-discovery of the Gospel to be inter-related and incapable of being precisely dated.

II. The Reformation

As a Lutheran, I will give the traditional narrative of the Reformation, while acknowledging there are other approaches to the topic, some of which deny Luther’s importance and minimize the role of faith and the power of theological ideas, while others do not. “The Reformation” as a term can be used to identify any number of movements in the religious history of the 16th century. Some people will speak or write of “The Protestant Reformation”, but that is not me, for reasons I will mention in a little bit. In general, then, when I mention “The Reformation”, I primarily mean “The Lutheran Reformation”, and that, a Reformation of the old or Roman Catholic (both capital letters) Church.

A. Previous Attempts

1. 15th century

Such reform of the—at that time essentially “only”—Church had been tried before. There was the attempt at conciliar reform (or reform through a church council) in the first half of the 15th century. There was hope of curial reform (that through the office of the pope himself). And, new orders such as the Dominicans and Franciscans had been established to make changes at a more basic level.

2. 16th century

In the 16th century, the humanist Desiderius Erasmus had put together a blueprint of sorts for reform. His idea centered on good scholarship producing good morals. So a first pattern was based on a “philosophy of Christ”. Another model later in the 16th century was proposed by Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin and carried out in the historic Reformed churches. Then there were also an English model, the radical reformation, that of the Anabaptists, and then that of the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation, which can be spoken of as a Reformation itself. There are divisions within these, as well. That is not even to mention here where we will focus our immediate attention: on the Lutheran Reformation.

B. Roots of the Reformation

We have already alluded to some factors such as humanism that may have played a role in the Reformation, but at its core the Reformation was a theological matter. Dr. John Stephenson, associate professor of historical theology at Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada—and thus one of my seminary professors—has identified five roots of the Lutheran Reformation, which I would like to detail briefly here.

1. Western Christendom as a giant keg of gunpowder

First, Stephenson points out that Pope Gregory the 7th’s 1075 issue of Dictatus papae had helped make the Western Christendom of the 16th century “a giant keg of gunpowder awaiting the lighting of a match”. The treatise had virtually deified the papal office, made him the actual emperor, hinted at his sinlessness, and claimed, among other things, that the Roman church had never erred and would never err.

2. Luther’s entering the Augustinian Order

Second, Stephenson suggests that Luther’s theological formation would not have been what it was if Luther had not entered the Augustinian Order and been schooled the way he was. While Luther followed the more modern teaching in contrast to the older Scholastics, he did not follow the modern way completely. For example, he rejected the notion that might be paraphrased: “If you do your very best, Almighty God will do the rest.”

3. Problems with the “Means of Grace”

Third, the problems with the media salutis in Luther’s day made him become a theologian of the means of grace, the very concrete ways in which the sinner receives forgiveness, such as Holy Baptism, Individual Absolution, and the Sacrament of the Altar. The Roman Catholic Church’s seven sacraments were essentially replaced with these three, with the goal of emphasizing the free salvation God gives through the pastoral office to the individual sinner in need of comfort and consolation.

4. Recovery of Cyrilline Christology

Fourth, Stephenson highlights Luther’s recovery of the Christology of Cyril of Alexandria. Without getting into too much detail, Christology has to do with what is believed, taught, and confessed about the Person of Christ, for example, His two natures as both human and divine. Cyril of Alexandria had become bishop of Alexandria in 412 and gave the teaching about Christ in that place a finished and definitive form. You may know it in the form of the Nicene Creed and what it says about Christ, for example: “being of one substance with the Father” and “who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary and became man”. For Cyril and for Luther, the personal union of the two natures cannot be separated, and that would be a crucial distinction in later controversies, yes, even today.

5. The Rule of Faith

Fifth and finally, Stephenson accents Luther’s emphasis on the Rule of Faith. This notion of a “canon of truth” goes back to the second century and can also be called “confession”, Latin confessio, and German Bekenntnis. It is the summary core of Christian truth derived from Holy Scripture and pattern according to which Scripture is properly interpreted. Luther did not abolish the rule of faith, rather he saw his role by virtue of his office defined by the rule of faith and his goal was to purify the Church according to it. There is really no innovation, rather restoration. Rule of faith is seamlessly integrated with Scripture and Office in the life of the Church, each harmonizing smoothly with the other.

C. Events of the Reformation

Having thus considered five important factors for the development of the Reformation, let us then turn to the events of the Lutheran Reformation itself, and briefly survey them.

1. 95 Theses against the Preachers of Indulgences, 1517

October 31, 1517: it was All Hallow’s Eve, what we know as Hallow-een. The next day people from all across Wittenberg would be attending the church service for All Saints’ Day, and instead of hearing the Gospel in its truth and purity, they would be invited to purchase a new indulgence. (An indulgence was commonly understood, if not actually intended, to wipe away all one’s former sins and restore one to a state of spiritual innocence.) Wrong in any form, indulgences had been around for a while and were getting worse. Luther had previously preached against them, and now he was going to do more. Consider a relatively obscure professor in a remote German university town proposing for debate 95 Theses on the sale of indulgences. He sent a copy to his archbishop and nailed a copy on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg (what would be like our posting them on a bulletin board today). His action produced what are called “Hammer blows heard round the world.” The theses were written in Latin, but very soon they were translated into German, 40-thousand copies were printed, and they were distributed across the length and breadth of the empire within weeks. While less inflammatory than the 1517 theses, these attacked a profitable source of church revenue and touched the issue of papal authority. Luther had assumed the hierarchy was unaware of how offensive the indulgences had become and hoped the pope would straighten out the matter. Luther was unaware of a back-room deal behind this particular new indulgence, which could be traced back to the papal office itself. Luther’s was not a deliberate act of revolt, but an attempt to tackle a sensitive matter of pastoral practice, albeit with some sharp rebukes of the churchly powers. He surely did not intend to start, as is thought, his own church. (Incidentally, last Thursday we just observed the 485th anniversary of the posting of the theses.)

2. Reaction to the theses and events following

Luther soon faced a friend-turned-opponent in the person of Johann Maier of Eck. Luther was formally charged with heresy by the beginning of 1518. In April, he was called to a meeting of the general chapter of the Augustinian order held in Heidelberg and there in his Heidelberg theses, among other things, outlined his view of the theology of the cross. By the summer Pope Leo X’s reply to Luther had been drafted, basically calling Luther a heretic and calling him to appear in Rome, a summons Luther received in early August. Political maneuvering kept Luther from having to go to Rome; instead, he was interviewed by a papal representative in January 1519. Later that year he was drawn into more controversy: a debate with Eck in Leipzig. Eck sought and secured a condemnation of Luther in a papal bull titled Exsurge domine (Rise up, O Lord), which was issued on June 15, 1520. Luther wrote three significant treatises: To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and The Freedom of a Christian, the last of which included an open letter to the pope, appealing for his intervention. Instead, a bull of excommunication, Decet pontificem was issued on January 3, 1521.

3. Diet of Worms, 1521

Luther was summoned to a meeting of the Reichstag at Worms in January 1521. He was shown his books and asked to recant. After a day of consideration, Luther admitted that in the heat of controversy he had expressed himself too strongly against people, but would stand by what he had written unless convinced of its wrongfulness “by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason”. Luther is said to have finished his statements at the Diet with the words “Here I stand. God help me, Amen.” Some 100-thousand reports of the Diet were “immediately” printed and distributed. Shortly thereafter, Luther was put under the imperial ban, and was to be seized and his books burned. Frederick the Wise secretly had Luther kidnapped and taken to the Wartburg castle, near Eisenach, where Luther lived secretly and began to translate the New Testament. That translation and his later Old Testament translation left a lasting mark on the world, and especially the German language.

4. Iconoclasm and return to Wittenberg, 1522

While Luther was secreted away, some of his colleagues back in Wittenberg began making changes in practice, many of which Luther supported, though he would not have made them so suddenly and so quickly. Among them was Andreas Karlstadt, who in 1522 was opposing the use of pictures, organs, and Gregorian chant. Some statues and icons (or images) in the churches were destroyed. Luther returned as requested that spring and quite quickly restored some order and reversed some of the changes. Soon “evangelical” churches were forming across Germany, (they were not “evangelical” in the same sense as modern churches call themselves “evangelical”, however).

5. Erasmus and De servo arbitrio, 1524

While anything new in the wake of Worms was called “Lutheran”, it was not one big like-minded group. In 1524, for example, the humanist Erasmus reluctantly challenged Luther’s denial of free will in salvation. A year later, Luther responded with a treatise “On the bondage of the will”, in which he followed Erasmus’ outline and refuted it section by section using the witness of the Bible. There were other challenges and issues as well, with some rejecting the physical presence of Christ’s Body and Blood in the Sacrament of the Altar based on a faulty Christology and others claiming direct revelation from God.

6. The Peasants’ Revolt, 1524-1525, and Its Aftermath

A peasants’ revolt, perhaps contributed to by Luther’s challenge to spiritual authority, also began in 1524 and grew and spread by the following spring. Luther found fault with both sides, and ultimately called on the rulers to crush the rebellion with force, which they did. From then on, the rulers more closely monitored the reform movement. Around that same time, June 13, 1525, to be precise, Luther, the former monk, married Katherine von Bora, a former nun; they had six children. In the years following the evangelical churches grew and established more of an administrative structure, emphasizing instruction, especially by way of Luther’s Small Catechism, written in 1529.

7. Speyer, 1529: “Protestants”

When the imperial diet met in Speyer in 1529, the Roman Catholic majority ordered that no more changes take place and that Roman Catholic worship, authority, and orders be restored, which would have meant the practical end of the Lutheran territorial churches. The Lutheran estates entered a formal protest, the Protestatio, which was in effect a defense of their position. The Protestatio leads to the designation “Protestant”, in which group many today lump Lutherans, though I do not, for there are significant differences between Lutherans and the majority of Protestants, differences which became quite clear later that same year of 1529.

8. The Marburg Colloquy, 1529

For the sake of defending the evangelical movement from a possible imperial attack, the political leaders wanted to settle differences among the Reformation’s groups. Luther and Melanchthon met with Ulrich Zwingli and Johannes Oecolampadius on October 1, 1529. At this Marburg Colloquy, they agreed on 14 of 15 articles of faith, the point of contention being the physical presence of Christ in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. The difference was significant.

9. Diet of Augsburg, 1530 and Following

In 1530, the Roman emperor convened a meeting in Augsburg, and the ruler of Saxony had Luther and other theologians write a document dealing with the matters that divided them from the other groups. At first they planned the document to treat only of the disputed articles. But since the Roman Catholics grouped Luther with other reformers and their false teachings, the purpose of the document changed to include as fully as possible the doctrinal articles that they held over against ancient and modern errant teachings falsely charged against them.

a. The Augsburg Confession

The Confession written primarily by Melanchthon and read at Augsburg on June 25, 1530, includes 21 articles restating the historic, catholic, and apostolic faith and seven articles dealing with serious abuses of the Roman church that the Lutherans had corrected. The former include such articles as God, Original Sin, the Son of God, Salvation, and the Preaching Office. The latter include such articles as Both Kinds in the Sacrament, the Marriage of Priests, and Private Confession. In both the former and the latter, the Lutherans state positively what truth is believed and negatively what error is condemned. (June 25, incidentally, more than October 31, is the real point of demarcation between the catholic [with a small “c”] church that survives in the Lutheran Church and the Roman Catholics on the one hand and the Zwinglians and the Anabaptists on the other hand.)

b. The Apology of the Augsburg Confession

The Roman Catholic party wrote and then re-wrote a response, called the Confutation, which was presented on August 3. The Reichstag deemed it to have confuted the Lutherans and gave them until April 15, 1531, to conform. The Lutherans responded through Melanchthon’s pen with an apology, or defense, of the Augsburg Confession, published in 1531, and that April 15 date came and went without the threatened result.

10. General Council and Schmalkalden, 1537

The emperor still hoped for a reconciliation between the sides and for a while it looked like a general council, like that which Luther had requested, would at last be held in Mantua, Italy, in May of 1537. The Lutheran leaders had Luther draft articles expressing their convictions. They were to be adopted at Schmalkalden in Feburary of that year. Though they were not discussed, they were subscribed, along with a tract concerning the power and primacy of the pope, authored by Melanchthon. A new war, however, kept the general council itself from meeting as scheduled.

11. Council of Trent, 1545-1563, and Counter Reformation

The general couuncil eventually did meet, however, on and off from December 1545 until 1563 in Trent. It was the main vehicle by which the Roman Catholic Church did enact some reforms and also by which they fought against the Reformation.

12. Luther’s death, 1546

As the council was just beginning, Luther, on February 18, 1546, died on a visit to Eisleben, the town where he was born. While the prospects for the spread of the Reformation looked dim and his health had been bad, he was comforted by a happy home life and by full confidence in the Gospel.

13. Ausburg Interim, 1547, and Peace of Augsburg, 1555

In the year after Luther’s death, there was a compromise called the Augsburg Interim, which was essentially a Roman Catholic position with some changes Luther had wanted. It was really not popular in any circle, and ultimately created even more controversy, especially over a proposed alternative called the Leipzig Interim of 1548. In 1555, the Peace of Augsburg was approved, which gave the Roman Catholic and Lutheran equal rights of a sort under the principle cuius regio, eius religio, meaning the leader of the territory chose which faith was professed in that area.

14. The Formula and Book of Concord, 1580

Inter-Lutheran controversies resulted in what one author calls “the last great Lutheran creed”: the Formula of Concord. It addressed a number of issues, including: the Rule and Norm of Teaching in the Church, original sin, free will, righteousness before God, good works, the distinction between law and Gospel, the uses of the law, the Holy Supper, the person of Christ, His descent into hell, church practices, and election. (Incidentally, your professorin and I recently translated the sermon of Luther’s that is behind the article on Christ’s descent into hell.) On the 50th anniversary of the presentation of the Augsburg Confession, June 25, 1580, the Formula of Concord (Epitome and Solid Declaration) was published in the Book of Concord together with the three ecumenical creeds, the Augsburg Confession and its Apology, the Schmalkald Articles and the tract on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, and Luther’s Small and Large Catechisms. The Book of Concord is to norm Lutheran teaching and practice even today.

D. Message of the Reformation

The overriding message of the Reformation is that Christ justifies (saves or forgives) a sinner by grace, through faith, according to Holy Scripture, which forgiveness is delivered through the means of Grace: preaching, Baptism, Absolution, and the Supper. The article of Justification (and thus of Christ Himself and touching on all His teaching) is the article on which the Church stands or falls. In the process of making this message clear and emphasizing it, other distinctions were made, such as between law and Gospel, the theology of the cross versus the theology of glory, and that between the kingdom of the right hand (the Church) and the kingdom of the left hand (the secular government). Like the broader message of the Reformation, however, these also were not Luther’s innovations but teachings that went back through church history to the New Testament and Christ Himself. There was a somewhat incidental repudiation (at least at first) of the pope and his authority, but only because he would not tolerate the Gospel.

E. Legacy of the Reformation

Very quickly after Luther’s death a “Second Reformation” was being promoted. Much of the Lutheran territory was lost and much of the teaching Luther fought so hard to make clear was in many places again clouded over. Today to my surprise, scholars quite readily call the Reformation a failure. Often, however, this is on the basis of the Reformation seen as a social movement, which it was in first principal not. (Of course, a reformation of religion could or should likely lead to reformation in the secular world.) Others, myself included, more appropriately see it as religious movement: an effort to return to the truth of the Good News of God’s salvation in the person of Jesus Christ freely given through the Means of Grace. In this regard, the Reformation was undoubtedly a success, even though the raw numbers or percentage of believers may not reflect it (just as they did not in Old Testament times, in the time of Christ Himself, nor are they expected to according to the prophecy of the New Testament).

1. Lutheran (Evangelical Christian) Church

Part of the legacy of the Lutheran Reformation is that we have something called a “Lutheran” church. Roman Catholic leaders were the first to use the term “Lutheran”, and they did so in a negative way. Luther and those supporting him did not want to be called Lutherans, but rather simply Christians or evangelisch, or Gospel-oriented. Yet, Luther also said that if one believes his doctrine is Christ’s and that the pope’s is not, then one cannot flatly disown Luther either.

2. Three “Solas”: gratia, fide, scriptura vs. solus Christus

There are three catch phrases, if you will, that are frequently used as a shorthand for the emphasis of the Reformation: sola gratia, sola fide, sola scripura (grace alone, faith alone, scripture alone). It is important to remember, however, that the Reformation was not waged as are modern public relations or political campaigns and that these were not three slogans put forth by Luther. In fact, there is some question whether their use to characterize the Reformation is even in keeping with Luther, though a search of the American Edition of Luther’s Works finds the expression “faith alone” some 336 times, “grace alone” some 65 times, and “scripture alone” some 22 times (this is including the editors’ uses of the phrase). One can argue that on the surface the three solas seem to leave out Christ, and that Luther would be far more likely to speak of “Christ alone” (solus Christus)—a phrase a search of the American Edition turns up 301 times. Yet, rightly understood, the three solas all center on Christ, the earner of grace, the object of faith, and the content of Scripture. Note also that Scripture “alone” means that Holy Scripture is the only ultimate authority, but it does not rule out the role of the Church in properly understanding Scripture or doctrine. Incidentally, among Protestants then and now, words such as “grace” and “faith” and to some extent even “Scripture” are not used with the same meaning.

3. Liturgy and Hymnody

a. Reform of the Mass

Another part of the legacy of the Lutheran Reformation is seen in the way people worship today. Luther used a Gospel-principle to reform the order of service, striking out any reference to the Mass as sacrifice and allowing people to receive both Christ’s Body and Blood. He put the service in the language of the people. He emphasized preaching on Biblical texts, and simplified musical forms for the people to sing again, not just the choir. It repeatedly strikes me how so many changes Luther proposed, not just came to be used in the Roman Catholic Church but, were formally adopted in the Second Vatican Council of the l960s.

b. Hymns

Luther authored a number of hymns and probably even composed a few hymn tunes. Examples of both are found in what is perhaps his best known hymn, Ein’ feste Burg. Maybe written for the Diet of Spires where the protestatio was entered, it is sometimes called the Battle hymn of the Reformation”, though it really is more of a victory hymn. One author says that this hymn is “the greatest hymn of the greatest man in the greatest period of German history”. No Christian hymn has been translated into more languages, but we will listen to a bit of the first verse sung auf Deutsch.

“Ein feste Burg is unser Gott”, from “Globet seist du Jesus Christ: Die Schönsten Choräle von Martin Luther”
Ein feste Burg is unser Gott,
ein gute Wehr und Waffen.
Er hilft uns frei aus aller Not,
die uns jetzt hat betroffen.
Der alt böse Feind, mit Ernst er’s jetzt meint;
groß Macht und viel List
sein grausam Rüstung ist,
auf Erd ist nicht seinsgleichen.

c. Luther and the Devil’s tunes

There is a story that goes round about Ein’ feste Burg, that it is based on a drinking song, but that is not true. To Luther is also attributed the question: “Why should the devil have all the good tunes?” This quotation has never been properly documented in an authoritative Luther source. There is a documented quotation of Luther’s where he asks “Why is it that for the secular phases of life we have so many fine poems and such fine songs while for spiritual matters we have such poor and cold stuff?” The source says Luther then went on to quote a popular song of his day, “Der Thurnier”, which was a drinking song commissioned from a poet and meistersinger by the name of Hans Lutz. Luther’s point of comparison, however, is not that that drinking song--or just any secular or modern music done in any old way--was appropriate for church, but that the church ought to concentrate on writing fine poems and suitable music for the church. Luther accorded to music the highest praise, second only to theology.

4. Remarriage after divorce

Lest you think I look at Luther and the Reformation only through rose-colored glasses, I want to mention what I regard as a negative aspect of the Reformation legacy. Scholars are generally agreed that Luther and the Reformation are the point at which remarriage after divorce became widely accepted and practiced. Such remarriage is clearly forbidden in Holy Scripture, however, and the witness of the early church supports the prohibition. Thus Luther in this case stepped out of the rule of faith, though arguably with good intentions. At least early in his career he interprets Scripture in such a way as to support at least the so-called “innocent party” remarrying after divorce, especially on a case-by-case basis. In his writings given authority by the Lutheran Confessions, however, Luther is clearly against divorce and remarriage, a more reasoned position he took in a number of places later in his life.

5. Denominations and Ecumenism: Forsaking the Faith

a. In History

The Reformation is often accused of fragmenting the Christian Church. This is presented as a negative aspect of the Reformation’s legacy, but I will deny that it is a per se part of its legacy at all. For, already back in Old Testament and New Testament times, those who departed from the teaching of the true Church were cut off from it. Later there were other schisms and heresies, but Christ’s Church continued to be united in the truth of His Word. Luther wanted to return the Roman Catholic Church of his day to the Truth, but it would not return. It separated itself from him. Thus, “the Lutheran Church which is faithful to its Confession is the true church of Jesus Christ [but] the church of Christ is not limited to the church of the Lutheran Confessions.” Genuine Lutherans are in fellowship with those other groups where the Gospel is preached in its purity and the sacraments are administered in keeping with the Gospel. Where that is not the case, Lutherans have condemned—and will continue to condemn—false teaching and its teachers, as Luther did and those before him.

b. Modern Application

Today in Europe Lutheranism for the most part has long since disappeared into what another of my professors calls the black hole of union with the Reformed, in some cases brought about for political purposes by force. In North America, on the other hand, much of what passes itself off as Lutheran has quite willingly joined hands with the Reformed or otherwise compromised their confession by joining with the Roman Catholics. (It is worth noting that a few years ago there was a much celebrated Joint Agreement between Roman Catholic and some Lutheran officials regarding the teaching about justification, but it was a false agreement where the parties used their words with different meanings.) Yet, all is not gloom and doom, for God has promised that a remnant will persevere.


What can I make clearer for you?

What one thing would you say you are “taking home” from the lecture today?

How can I determine what you have or have not understood?


Ultimately the use of both the law, which condemns all humankind as sinful, and the Gospel, which proclaims God’s free gift of salvation in Christ, are “in the scarred hands of Him who suffered for us.” Luther was one whom God used to boldly proclaim both for the building up of His Kingdom, and today He uses others. This proclamation and the Means of Grace are resistible, however, and in the end only as effective as the individual is willing to let them be. As with salvation, so with the numerical “success” or “failure” of the Reformation: the glory is God’s, the blame is the individual person’s.

            Closing graphic:
Luther’s Seal:

A cross on a heart, resting on the center of the Messianic Rose and surrounded by a circle to symbolize eternity, was adopted by Luther as his own Coat of Arms and as an expression of trust in God.

“First there is a black cross set in a heart of natural color
to remind me that faith in the Crucified One saves us . . .
This heart is mounted in the center of a white rose
to show that faith brings joy, comfort and peace . . .
The rose is set in a sky-colored field
to show that such joy of the spirit and faith is the beginning of the heavenly joy to come, present already in our joy now and embraced by hope, but not yet made manifest.”
Martin Luther

“The Christian’s heart is resting on roses
E’en while beneath the cross it reposes.”