George Malcolm Stephenson.

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JAN 7 1922 ^^


^CAi ^

BR 325 .S73 1921
Stephenson, George Malcolm,

The conservative character

The Conservative
Character of
Martin Luther

/ Bv

JAN 7 192?







The purpose of this book is to set forth
within the compass of a few pages the more
permanent elements in the work of Martin
Luther. An effort has been made to single
out in a Ufe crowded with great events and
minor incidents the conservative thread run-
ning through it all. If the attempt has been
in a measure successful, the reader will find
here portrayed a man, who at every critical
moment, fixed his mind on the one purpose of
restoring the true faith without an abrupt
break with the past. The reader may form
his own conclusions as to the principles for
which the reformer contended; relative to
their conservative nature he must be bound
by the testimony of history.

It would be superfluous to list the many
works of research which have been consulted
by the author: they may be found in the ex-
cellent bibliographies published separately or
in the standard biographies and histories.
The author desires to record his gratitude to


his former teacher, Professor Ephraim Emer-
ton, whose well-balanced, scholarly lectures
have stimulated a deep interest in the history
of the Church and her great leaders. He also
acknowledges his indebtedness to the late
Doctor T. E. Schmauk and Doctor W. L.
Hunton for helpful suggestions and kindly

George M. Stephenson.

Minneapolis, Minnesota.


Chapter Page

I. Formative Years 9

II. The Catholic Reformer 22

III. The Break with Rome 43

IV. The Radicals at Wittenberg 64

V. The Peasants' Revolt 84

VI. The Marburg Colloquy 103

VII. The Augsburg Confession 125

The Conservative Character
of Martin Luther


Formative Years

^ Martin Luther was born into an age
which yearned for a reformation. The
Church of Christ, from an organization which
had Hfted Europe out of pagan darkness, had
become a monstrous theocracy, a great sal-
vation machine which befogged the minds of
men and obscured the way of salvation.
Great puritanical movements, such as the
Albigenses and the Waldenses, had been
crushed out with ruthless thoroughness; and
the prophets of a new age, John Wiclif in
England, John Huss in Bohemia, and Jerome
Savonarola in Italy, had thundered in vain
against corruption in high places.

The man who was destined to revolution-


ize society, to defy popes and emperors, and
to give to the world a new faith was born in
the little Saxon village of Eisleben on the
tenth day of November, 1483. In his veins
flowed the blood of stern, frugal, hardwork-
ing peasants, who brought up their son under
a strict discipline. He was taught to regard
his parents and his superiors with fearful and
superstitious reverence. He must pray to
the saints to intercede for him against the
righteous judgments of a terrible and cruel
God. Christ's vicar on earth, the pope, and
his lieutenants, the priests, must be regarded
with reverent awe. The doctrines of the
Church were so firmly impressed on his
young, plastic mind that never in his whole
life did he waver in his belief in the redeem-
ing influence of Christianity. In spite of a
restless mind and years filled with honors,
triumphs, trials, and discouragements, he
carried to the day of his death the influence
of his simple, pious parents.

Luther's father was a practical, hard-
headed man, whose education — such as it
was — had been acquired in the harsh school
of experience. Self-made man though he


was, he knew something of the value of an
academic training and wished to spare his
son the misfortune of going through life with
his own meagre learning and limited horizon.
No doubt the boy's mental alertness and in-
dustry confirmed him in his determination
to make the scholar's life possible for him.

If we may believe Luther's own words
spoken in after years, the years of study in
the village school were anything but pleas-
ant. His teachers were brutal and exacting,
and their methods crude and uninspiring.
Beset by harsh taskmasters at home and at
school, and surrounded by the superstition of
a primitive community, little wonder that
the ripe scholar declared that the schools of
his boyhood were "hell and purgatory."

When Luther left the home of his parents
at the age of thirteen to attend school at
Magdeburg, Eisenach, and the University of
Erfurt successively, he did not graduate from
Medieval influence. He was constantly re-
minded of the Church at these places by the
large number of convents and monasteries
that surrounded him. At the old and fam-
ous University of Erfurt, where he enrolled


at the age of seventeen, he came under the
influence of the Occamist, or Nominalist,
school of philosophy, which he absorbed so
thoroughly that, in spite of his repudiation of
its theology, he never entirely shook it off.
His practical and logical mind was not at-
tracted by the more speculative and theoret-
ical studies, but moved rather in the groove
of those subjects which sharpen the intellect
by logical analysis. His strong, clear intel-
lect was a force to be reckoned with, as his
opponents who entered the forensic lists with
him were some day to learn.

It was Luther's intention while a student
at the university to gratify the wish of his
father by entering the legal profession; and
for a few months after he had completed his
work for the degrees of bachelor of arts and
of master he studied law. The measure of
his success as a jurist can only be conjec-
tured, for his aptitude for theology and his
religious nature shunted him into another
sphere. At the age of twenty-two he de-
cided to become an Augustinian monk.

Of all the institutions of the Middle Ages
none is more characteristic than the monastic


system. The very fact that Luther entered
a monastery against the wishes of his father,
whatever the circumstances may have been,
shows the cast of his mind. With the pros-
pect of a career along juristic Hnes and the
constant encouragement of his father, cer-
tainly the young man was not driven to the
step for financial reasons. The Medieval
man in him urged him to follow in the foot-
steps of the saints. We may be certain that
the young student chose the religious life
with the solemn conviction which the theo-
logian terms the "inner call." Having once
made up his mind to surrender, he did so
without reservation. With the true spirit of
a monk he performed the harsh, menial tasks
assigned to him without a murmur. "If
ever a monk gained heaven by his monkery,"
he said, " I must have done so."

Although he confesses that he got little
spiritual consolation out of his three years'
stay in the Erfurt monastery, it was not
without important results: his studies were
not neglected. It was here that he made his
acquaintance with the Bible, although he
had scanned some of its pages in the univer-


sity library. Encouraged in the study of the
Sacred Book by John Staupitz, the vicar of
the German province of the Augustinians, it
is said that he became so familiar with its
contents that he was able to show his brother
friars the exact spot where every quotation
was to be found. It can scarcely be doubted
that even before he left the walls of the mon-
astery the conviction had dawned upon him
that the Scriptures had not played enough
part in the life of the people. Regarded in
the light of his later veneration of the Bible,
it must have been the only ray of hope in the
long hours when he wrestled with himself and
the doubts about the efficacy of the monastic
life to work salvation. It has been said that
Luther reformed Germany because he had to
reform himself; but twelve years of inward
strife and varied experience dragged along
before the master-key which he had found in
the monastery opened the gates of peace.

Luther's ability and achievements as a
scholar gained for him the confidence of the
vicar, who was also the dean of the faculty
of theology at the newly founded University
of Wittenberg. It was through Staupitz


that in the autumn of 1508 he began his work
as a teacher in that university. In a short
time he made a place for himself in the teach-
ing profession. Students flocked to his lec-
tures. His very presence was inspiring. The
brilHant deep-set eyes, ever ready to smile on
a friend and to flash fire at his opponents,
left an ineffable impression on those with
whom he came in contact. With prophetic
insight one of his colleagues remarked that
this monk would some day overthrow the
teaching at all the universities.

The succeeding ten years of Luther's life
present him in the combined role of monk,
priest, scholar, and teacher; and his career
bears all the earmarks of a sane, conserva-
tive, earnest young man, with a thirst for
knowledge and a desire to get right with the
world. In fact, as Professor Harnack says,
"in Luther's development down to the year
1517, there was an entire absence of all dra-
matic and romantic elements." He shows
himself to have been a man of poise and de-
liberation, who regarded with much thought
the consequences of his successive steps.

In the autumn of 1511, after his return


from the Erfurt monastery, where he had
been teaching for a time, he was commis-
sioned by the vicar to make a journey to
Rome in the interest of his order. Return-
ing to Wittenberg the following year to re-
sume his duties as teacher, he was in October
given the doctorate of philosophy by the uni-
versity. In addition to his other activities
in 1515 he burdened himself still further by
shouldering the duties attendant upon the
office of district vicar of the Augustinian or-
der, a field which greatly widened the scope
of his influence, added a vast amount of
practical experience, and brought him in con-
tact with all sorts and conditions of men.
His frequent absence from the university on
administrative business was a healthy cor-
rective to his academic life ; while growing in
mental stature, he increased in wisdom.

Several years before he fastened his ninety-
five theses upon the church door at Witten-
berg the cardinal doctrine of Luther's theol-
ogy began to take form: the seed of justifica-
tion by faith was in his heart, but as late as
the time of his journey to Rome it had not
begun to germinate. When he visited that


hotbed of iniquity he was a true son of
Rome. At the sight of the city he pros-
trated himself and cried: "Hail, holy Rome!"
In the spirit of the Medieval pilgrim he vis-
ited the shrines and sought to draw on the
heavenly treasury for the forgiveness of his
sins. But he returned to Wittenberg a dis-
illusioned man, although his faith in the
Church was not shaken. "I was a foolish
pilgrim," he says, "and believed all I was
told." The fact that Luther for the next
six years lived an active life without having
his conduct questioned, gaining the con-
fidence of his associates and that of the Saxon
government, speaks volumes for his self-re-
straint and conservatism. For he was pass-
ing through a terrible personal crisis, a strug-
gle which might well have caused the very
stones of Wittenberg to cry out. But he
kept his experiences to himself, and it was
not until self-respect allowed him to be silent
no longer that he publicly declared the solu-
tion of the awful problem of human sinful-

Luther was not an abstract theologian.
He was an eminently practical scholar, who


studied the Church fathers and the Bible
with a practical purpose. Finding little or
no relief for his restless soul in the mechanics
of salvation furnished by the Church, he
read and pondered with his mind fixed on sin
and redemption. He re-discovered the old
faith of Paul in the New Testament, the
faith that the Church confessed daily but
failed to comprehend.

The keynote of Paul's Gospel, and indeed
of the whole New Testament, is that all ex-
ternal observance of the law is worthless un-
less it is based upon the obedience of the
heart. The law is a schoolmaster to bring a
man unto Christ, that he might be justified.
Salvation comes by faith, which is a gift of
God, and not by works. It is God which
imparts freely and without price the will and
the strength to do his good pleasure. No
man is justified by the law in the sight of
God: for the just live by faith. Paul found
the explanation of sin within him in his
fleshly nature. "For the good which I would
I do not: but the evil which I would not,
that I practise. But if what I would not,
that I do, it is no more I that do it, but sin


which dwelleth in me. I find then the law
that, to me who would do good, evil is pres-
ent. For I delight in the law of God after
the inward man : but I see a different law in
my members, warring against the law of my
mind, and bringing me into captivity under
the law of sin which is in my members."
Now, since there is no way for the nature of
man of itself to overcome evil, how is Christ
to effect deliverance? The Apostle's answer
is that through faith whereby a man identi-
fies himself with Christ, he becomes a new
creature, so that it is no longer he that lives,
but Christ that lives in him. Or, as Luther
explained it in one of his treatises, " 'Good
works do not make a good man, but a good
man does good works; evil works do not
make a wicked man, but a wicked man does
evil works' ; so that it is always necessary
that the 'substance' or person itself be good
before there can be any good works, and
that good works follow and proceed from the
good person, as Christ also says, 'A corrupt
tree does not bring forth good fruit, a good
tree does not bring forth evil fruit. "...
Illustrations of the same truth can be seen in


all trades. A good or bad house does not
make a good or bad builder, but a good or
bad builder makes a bad or good house."

Next to the Bible Luther read the writings
of Augustine and John Tauler. Tauler was
a mystic who dwelt on the grace of God,
while Augustine was accepted by the Church
as the greatest of all Church writers. The
effect of Augustine's theology was to em-
phasize the evil side of man's nature and the
impossibility of human effort to overcome it.
He accepts substantially the Pauline solu-
tion of the problem, that through faith man
receives the grace of God, entirely apart from
works. The Church recognized both the
grace of God and the will of man as a means
of salvation, but it did not assert which of
the two was of greater importance.

As a result of his study of the Bible and
Augustine and his observations as a monk
and priest, it gradually dawned on Luther
that the Church had obscured the way of sal-
vation by building up a great engine of salva-
tion, which was a dangerous instrument in
the hands of unscrupulous and corrupt men.
Luther's great contribution to the welfare of


man was in his absolute doctrine of justifica-
tion by faith, and by faith alone. But he
would have resented with great indignation
the assertion that he had invented a new
means of salvation; quite the contrary, he
claimed that he was merely bringing back
the primitive teaching of the Church based
on the doctrine of St. Paul. It is apparent
that Luther was no propagandist. He lays
no claim to originality, but he does maintain
that he is restoring Christianity to its original
state after it had been led astray by the


The Catholic Reformer

How soon Luther would have announced
to Europe his new faith had not the preach-
ing of John Tetzel, a Dominican friar, driven
him to it is, of course, impossible to tell.
Even then it "was only after much hesita-
tion and deep distress of mind that he felt
compelled to interfere." His protest against
what was a recognized scandal was mild and
conciliatory, and not the spectacular appeal
of a man who was nursing a personal griev-
ance or possessed of an itch for notoriety.
Throughout his entire campaign against the
abuses and errors of the Middle Ages he
singled out the doctrines and practices which
sink down to the level of the common people
and did not waste ammunition on the fine-
spun theories of theologians, which the com-
mon man neither cared to understand nor
could understand. Luther's heart beat for
humanity, and he instinctively enlisted in its



behalf when he deemed the hour for action
had struck. But Luther was not the type of
"reformer" who conjures up grievances in
order to give vent to his wrath. He was
constructive and conservative. There was
violence in his writings and speeches, but
that was because his temperate utterances
met with violence. His fighting spirit once
aroused, he was liable to go too far and pur-
sue his opponents with spiteful and coarse

The turning-point in Luther's life came in
his thirty-fourth year; up to that time his
development was gradual and rational. The
event which brought Luther out was the
preaching of indulgences by John Tetzel,
whose name would most probably have been
lost to posterity but for the fame of his op-

Indulgences had come to be a part of the
sacramental system of the Church. The
sacrament of penance involved several steps.
The penitent man must be genuinely sorry
for his sins as a condition preliminary to his
confession before the priest, who as a minis-
ter of Jesus Christ is clothed with the au-


thority of the Church to absolve him from
his sins. As evidence of a contrite spirit the
penitent man ought to perform some peni-
tential act, as, for instance, a kindly deed or
a pilgrimage to the shrine of a saint. Essen-
tially the man makes a sacrifice. If at the
death of a man the measure of his sacrifice
is not full, his soul cannot enter into the
heavenly reward, but passes into an inter-
mediate state, where it must undergo a proc-
ess of purification. The soul remains in
purgatory until the unsatisfied sins have met
their proper punishment. According to the
doctrine of the Church, however, the Church
could remit the temporal punishment by
drawing upon the "heavenly treasury" con-
sisting of the merits of Christ and the saints.
This doctrine, so far as it affected the living,
became a part of canon law about the middle
of the fourteenth century. The popes on
their own authority had extended the doc-
trine to the souls in purgatory. In the
meantime the practice had grown up of sub-
stituting a money payment in lieu of the per-
formance of an act of charity or of a pilgrim-
age on the part of a penitent person. In


Other words, he is granted an indulgence.
The purchase of an indulgence costs him
something, just as almsgiving entails a pe-
cuniary sacrifice. The interpreters of canon
law were specific on the point that an indul-
gence was merely a remission of the temporal
punishment due to sin, but not of the actual
guilt of sin. It never became the doctrine
of the Church that the forgiveness of sins
accompanies the purchase of an indulgence.
Moreover, indulgences were applicable to
•the remission of temporal punishment in pur-
gatory, which appealed strongly to the in-
stinct of those whose dear ones had passed
away to avail themselves of the privilege to
effect their release from their pains.

Whatever may be said for the "theory" of
indulgences, it cannot be denied that they
opened the doors for misrepresentation and
corruption. In the hands of unscrupulous
preachers they were a great danger to a clear
understanding of the way of salvation: it
was so easy to place the emphasis on the
wrong step. It is also a well-established
fact that the uneducated and unregenerate
man, deliberately or unconsciously, turned


them to uses entirely contrary to their ori-
ginal purpose.

The indulgence which brought Tetzel in
proximity to Martin Luther's parish was
proclaimed by Pope Leo X in order to get
money for the building of the new Church of
St. Peter. The circumstances of the affair
were scandalous. There never was a more
bare-faced money-making scheme. In the
words of a scholarly Catholic historian, "it
was a transaction which certainly was un-
worthy of so sacred a cause as that of an

The circumstances were as follows: The
pope had entrusted the proclamation of the
indulgence in the dioceses of Mayence and
Magdeburg to Archbishop Albert of Brand-
enburg, a prince of the house of Hohenzol-
lern. This ambitious and worldly-minded
man had succeeded in having himself chosen
to three of the most important Church of-
fices in the empire, notwithstanding the fact
that a plurality of benefices was in violation
of canon law and that the youth of the prince
forbade him to hold even one of these posi-
tions. In order to secure the confirmation


of the pope to these offices, he was compelled
to make a very heavy payment to the Roman
court, a sum which he borrowed from the
banking house of the Fuggers in Augsburg.
When the pope declared the indulgence for
the benefit of St. Peter's Church, he made
over to the archbishop one-half of the total
proceeds of the indulgence in his dioceses,
with which he could liquidate his debt to the

The methods employed in the sale of the
indulgences may be explained in the words
of a Jesuit historian, Hartmann Grisar:
"Luther learned many discreditable particu-
lars concerning the arrangement arrived at
between Rome and Mayence for the preach-
ing of the Indulgence and the use to which
half of the spoils was to be applied. What
provoked Luther and many others was not
only the abuses which prevailed in the use of
Indulgences, about which there was much
grumbling, and the constantly recurring col-
lections which were a burden, both to the
rulers and their people, but also the tales
current regarding the behavior of the monk
acting as Indulgence-preacher. Tetzel did


not exactly shine as an example of virtue, al-
though the charges against his earlier life are
as baseless as the reproach of gross ignorance.
He was, as impartial historians have estab-
lished, forward and audacious and given to
exaggeration. In his sermons, mainly owing
to his popular style of address, he erred by
using expressions only to be styled as
strained and ill-considered. He even em-
ployed phrases of a repulsive nature in his
attempts to extol the power of the Indul-
gence preached by him. In addition to this,
in explaining how the Indulgence might be
applied to the departed, he made his own the
wrong, exaggerated and quite unauthorized
opinions of certain isolated theologians, put-
ting them on an equal footing with the real
teaching of the Church. Such private opin-
ions, it is true, had also found their way into
some of the official instructions on Indul-
gences. At any rate, Tetzel, with misplaced
zeal, mingled what was true with what was
false or uncertain. The great concourse of
people who gathered to hear the celebrated
preacher also led to many disorders, more
particularly when, as was the case at Anna-


berg, the occasion of the yearly fair was
turned to account in order to publish the

Although the elector of Saxony cherished
no heretical opinions on the subject of indul-
gences, he refused to allow Tetzel and his
followers to invade his dominions for the pur-
pose of raising money to pay the debts of the
archbishop. He could not forbid his sub-
jects, however, from journeying to Jiiterbog,
a small town across the border, not far from
Wittenberg, in order to avail themselves of
the opportunity to purchase indulgences
when Tetzel, in the spring of 1517, appeared
there. Although Luther, as we have seen,
was not ignorant of the character of Tetzel's
campaign, he refrained from attacking him
until the consequences affected him directly
as a Christian priest entrusted with the care

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Online LibraryGeorge Malcolm StephensonThe conservative character of Martin Luther → online text (page 1 of 7)