George Malcolm Stephenson.

The conservative character of Martin Luther online

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of souls. Luther as a preacher minced no
words in condemning the sins of individuals
and the wickedness of his community; and
when he was confronted with worldly mem-
bers of his parish in the possession of Tetzel's
indulgences, his sense of decency was aroused.
He felt bound to accept the challenge. The


remarkable thing is that his fiery nature was
held in restraint so long, A less cautious
and conservative man would have rebelled
at once; while a man afraid to jeopardize
his future would have shrunk from any ac-
tion. On the thirty- first of October, 1517,
he spoke to the whole world, although his in-
tentions were far more modest. Instead of
thundering from the house-tops, he invited
theologians to discuss with him ninety-five
propositions, which he formulated in the
Latin language.

Although a number of the theses do strike
at the root of papal practices, the protest was
couched in conciliatory language, and there
were other theses designed to conciliate the
pope. While it is unquestionably true that
the document as a whole has an evangelical
tone and is a protest against a mathematical
reckoning of things spiritual, it is highly
significant that the word faith does not
appear, and that there is no appeal to the
authority of Scripture. In other words, the
theses, rather than enunciating a new doc-
trine, protest against putting the old doc-


trines in a false light, as was done by Tetzel
and his followers.

Repentance, says Luther, is the natural
attitude of a Christian man throughout his
whole life. Inward repentance, however,
shows itself outwardly in divers mortifica-
tions of the flesh ; that is, if there is true re-
pentance, it will reveal itself. Moreover,
true contrition seeks and loves penalties,
rather than liberal pardons which relax pen-
alties and cause them to be hated. Chris-
tians are to be taught that the buying of
pardons is not to be compared in any way to
works of mercy; that he who gives to the
poor or lends to the needy does a better work
than buying pardons; that love grows by
works of love; that he who sees a man in
need, and passes him by, and gives his money
for pardons, purchases the indignation of
God; that the pope's pardons are useful, if
they do not put their trust in them.

Luther does not expressly deny the doc-
trine of purgatory, but he would greatly re-
strict the power of the pope over souls in
purgatory. Preachers of indulgences are in
error who say that by the pope's indulgences


a man is freed from every penalty of sin, be-
cause if it is at all possible to grant to any
one the remission of all penalties, it is certain
that this remission can be granted only to
the most perfect, that is, to the very fewest.
Therefore, the pope can remit only those
penalties in purgatory which have been im-
posed by himself. Who knows, asks Luther,
whether all the souls in purgatory wish to be
bought out of it? Alluding to the exag-
gerated statements of Tetzel, the assertion
that, so soon as the penny jingles into the
money-box, the soul flies out of purgatory, is
condemned as unwarranted by the doctrine
of the Church. On the contrary, it is certain
that when the penny jingles into the money-
box, gain and avarice can be increased.
Every true Christian, whether living or dead,
has part in all the blessings of Christ and the
Church; and this is granted him by God,
even without letters of pardon, although
these are not to be despised.

If indulgences were preached according to
the true spirit of the doctrine of the Church,
the position of the pope would not be com-


promised nor would the laity propound such
embarrassing questions as the following:

"Why does not the pope empty purgatory,
for the sake of holy love and of the dire need
of souls that are there, if he redeems an in-
finite number of souls for the sake of miser-
able money with which to build a Church?"

"Why does not the pope, whose wealth is
to-day greater than the riches of the richest,
build just this one Church of St. Peter with
his own money, rather than with the money
of poor believers?"

"What greater blessing could come to the
Church than if the pope were to do a hundred
times a day what he now does once, and be-
stow on every believer these remissions and

"Since the pope, by his pardons, seeks the
salvation of souls rather than money, why
does he suspend the indulgences and pardons
granted heretofore, since these have equal

The ninetieth thesis is prophetic in view of
the reception accorded the theses and the
treatment of their author by the officials of
the Church. "To repress these arguments


and scruples of the laity by force alone, and
not to resolve them by giving reasons, is to
expose the Church and the pope to the ridi-
cule of their enemies, and to make Christians

Taking the theses in the large, there can be
no other conclusion than that Luther was
fully conscious that he was inviting the anger
of a powerful and influential element in the
Church, for he was threatening to dry up a
very fruitful source of revenue which flowed
into the coffers of the Church. But even
had he desired it, it is scarcely conceivable
that he or any one else could have antici-
pated their tremendously far-reaching conse-
quences, awakening as they did the latent
consciences of high and low, rich and poor,
learned and unlearned. His method was to
enter a modest dissent, calling on the en-
lightened opinion of the age to rally to the
defence of truth and decency. In spite of
the audience to which they were addressed,
the moral earnestness of the popular preacher
of righteousness crops out.

It would be difficult to account for Luth-
er's regret at the rapid spread of his theses


if he had not declared that he was not clear
in his own mind on certain points raised in
them. Not only that, but he repeatedly in-
sists that he is a loyal son of the Church and
of its head, the pope. He is attempting to
clear up a principle which he believes is a
part of true Catholic doctrine. If he can
prove that that principle has been perverted
to the detriment of mankind, he shall insist
on a return to its purity. In a letter to the
elector of Saxony he agrees to stop writing
and promises to confess humbly to the pope
that he has been too vehement and that he
did not intend to injure the Church. He will
go even further: he promises to issue a pam-
phlet exhorting the people to cleave to the
Roman Church and to be obedient and re-
spectful. To Pope Leo, a few weeks later,
he writes that he would not hesitate a mo-
ment to withdraw his theses, if by so doing
he could accomplish the end desired. " But,"
says he, "my writings have become far too
widely known, and taken root in too many
hearts — beyond my highest expectations —
now to be withdrawn summarily. Nay, our
German nation, with its cultured and learned


men, in the bloom of an intellectual re-awak-
ening, understands this question so thor-
oughly that, on this account, I must avoid
even the appearance of a recantation, much
as I honor and esteem the Roman Church in
other respects. For such a recantation
would only bring it into still worse repute,
and make every one speak against it. . . .
I also gladly promise to let the question of
indulgences drop and be silent, if my oppo-
nents restrain their boastful, empty talk."
In a letter to his friend Scheurl he rather re-
grets the spread of the theses, not that he is
unwilling to proclaim the truth, "but be-
cause this way of instructing the people is of
little avail." Had he foreseen all this he
would have left out some points and gone
into others more particularly.

Not even during the Leipsic disputation
did Luther, in spite of his humiliating treat-
ment by Eck, who insisted upon uncondi-
tional recantation, threaten to withdraw
from the old Church. He declared he would
enter the debate "with reservation of full
submission and obedience to the Holy See."
It was only when his distinguished oppo-


nents gave full vent to their wrath, and he
saw that there could be no reconciliation,
that he declared that henceforth he must
proceed in earnest "against the Roman pon-
tiff and Romish pride." Certainly in the
early years of the controversy Luther's words
and attitude are not those of a man nursing
a personal grievance and vaunting ambition.
He stands for reform, but reform effected
through calm and mature deliberation, not
by revolution. His agitation is for a return
to the original constitution of the Church,
the creed of the fathers. He could not fore-
see the social and political upheaval that was
destined to follow. His desire was to fore-
stall any such calamity by removing condi-
tions which might occasion an event of such
nature. If revision must come, it was better
to revise the dogma of the Church by its
friends than by its enemies, who would not
approach the task with proper reverence.
Do not misunderstand his position. It was
not the doctrines themselves that Luther
would revise, but the perverted practise of
them. As he later said, "We contend
against and reject the work of the pope, in


not abiding by those blessings which the
Christian Church has inherited from the

It certainly is not to the discredit of
Luther that his mind wavered at times, and
that he changed his opinions. His oppo-
nents unconsciously excited him to search
history for proofs of his assertions and to dis-
prove those of his adversaries. As his re-
search progressed it became clear to him that
Holy Scripture and the Nicene Creed were
more sacred than the decrees of Roman pon-

The next three years of Luther's life
brought him face to face with problems that
would have made the stoutest heart quail.
His efforts to purify the Church met with no
sympathy from the head of the Church. At
first the pope belittled him, but Luther could
not be jested out of his faith. The imme-
diate response which his theses awakened
throughout Germany made him a hero; he
understood that his cause was the people's
cause. This fact, together with the delicate
political situation in Germany, and the evi-
dent determination of the Elector Frederic of


Saxony to protect Luther, warned the pope
that the matter would have to be handled
gingerly. The action summoning Luther to
Rome to answer for his heretical opinions
was reconsidered. Upon the advice of the
papal legate in Germany, Cardinal Cajetan,
who was in a position to know the hold the
Wittenberg professor had on the people,
Luther was ordered to appear before that of-
ficial at Augsburg. Apparently Cajetan
wholly misunderstood the character of the
man with whom he was dealing, for he re-
sorted to browbeating and insisted on uncon-
ditional recantation. In spite of this treat-
ment, after the termination of the interview
Luther wrote a respectful letter to the cardi-
nal, begging pardon for ill-considered words
and promising to maintain silence, provided
the same rule was imposed on the men who
had led him into "this tragic business." He
insisted that he desired to remain obedient to
the Church, but feared that an unconditional
recantation might subject him to the re-
proach of not knowing either what he as-
serted or what he withdrew.

Upon the failure of Cajetan to break


Luther's will, the pope dispatched a special
envoy to Germany in the person of Charles
von Miltitz. Again Luther promised to
make what amends he could, agreeing to let
the matter of indulgences drop, provided his
opponents refrained from attacking him; to
write a humble letter to the pope; and to
circulate a paper admonishing the people
to follow the Roman Church. In spite of
strong provocation to the contrary, it is
plain that Luther is seeking to avoid a breach
with Rome.

The logic of events, however, decided
otherwise. The break came about by the
challenge of John Eck, a professor at the Uni-
versity of Ingolstadt in Bavaria, a scholar
and celebrated disputant. Considering him-
self absolved from his promise of silence by
the attacks of Eck, who called him a fanatic
Hussite, seditious, insolent, and rash, he ac-
cepted his invitation to a debate at Leipsic,
to be held in the early summer of 1519. The
debate, as is frequently the case, led the dis-
putants into a variety of subjects. Luther,
as we have seen, came to Leipsic without
questioning the papal supremacy, expecting


that the discussion would concern itself with
doctrine; but his opponent manoeuvered
him into a position where he had to commit
himself on the question of the possession of
authority. Luther made some rather strong
statements about the supremacy of the pope.
He did not deny the Roman pontiff a pre-
cedence of honor, but pointed to the Greek
Church and to the ancient fathers who were
not under his sway. He admitted that there
is one Church and one head, but that head is
Christ. The obvious retort was that this
was the doctrine of John Huss, who had been
condemned as a heretic by the Council of
Constance. Luther was obliged to admit
that the council had wrongly condemned
some articles taught by Paul, Augustine, and
even Christ himself. The opportunity was
too good for the adroit Eck to pass over.
With all the rhetoric at his command he
painted Luther a heretic of the deepest die.
When Eck forced Luther to admit pub-
licly in self-defense that he was a Hussite, he
shifted the point of controversy, and made
the man who was fighting to remain within
the Church in order to carry on his work of


renovation withdraw from its fold to seek
protection and reform elsewhere. To use a
Modern political phrase, Luther was readout
of the party. Eck in common with Cajetan
and Miltitz failed to convince Luther of his
errors; he did, however, open his eyes still
further to the magnitude of the obstacles
which one by one were rolled in the path of
reform. His attacks upon the Church were
step by step forced upon him by his oppo-
nents. Up to this time Luther's arguments
had been largely historical; hereafter they
were to become theological also.

The Break with Rome

In the year 1520 Luther crossed the Rubi-
con: thereafter there could be no turning
back. This memorable year saw the pub-
lication of "An Address to the Christian
Nobility of the German Nation," "The Baby-
lonian Captivity of the Church," and "A
Treatise on Christian Liberty" and the burn-
ing of the papal bull. The great reformer
appears to have made up his mind to clear
his conscience. The violence of the "Ad-
dress" may be explained by the necessity of
making a soul-stirring appeal to the people
of Germany, in whom now lay his only hope.

"The time to keep silence has passed and
the time to speak is come, as saith Eccle-
siastes," writes Luther. "I have followed
out our intention and brought together some
matters touching the reform of the Christian
Estate, to be laid before the Christian Nobil-
ity of the German Nation, in the hope that



God may deign to help his Church through
the efforts of the laity, since the clergy, to
whom this task more properly belongs, have
grown quite indifferent."

In this, the most important document
Luther ever wrote, he addresses himself,
neither to the pope nor to a council, but to
the lay princes of Germany. It is significant
that, while he goes over the heads of the
Church officials, he does not go to the ex-
treme of appealing to the common people,
but to the powers interested in the main-
tenance of order. Reform must come from
above. There is no effort to awaken the
mob spirit. He would make use of the estab-
lished institutions of society — government,
church, and school — rather than burn them
to the ground in order to rear an entirely new
system on the ashes of the old.

In his characteristically practical way
Luther puts his finger on the three great ob-
stacles to the reform of the Church.

'*The Romanists, with great adroitness,
have built three walls about them, behind
which they have hitherto defended them-
selves in such wise that no one has been able


to reform them ; and this has been the cause
of terrible corruption throughout all Christ-

"First, when pressed by the temporal
power, they have made decrees and said that
the temporal power has no jurisdiction over
them, but, on the other hand, that the spirit-
ual power is above the temporal power. Sec-
ond, when the attempt is made to reprove
them out of the Scriptures, they raise the ob-
jection that the interpretation of the Scrip-
tures belongs to no one except the pope.
Third, if threatened with a council, they an-
swer with the fable that no one can call a
council but the pope.

"In this wise they have slyly stolen from
us our three rods, that they may go unpun-
ished, and even have ensconced themselves
within the safe stronghold of these three
walls, that they may practise all the knavery
and wickedness which we now see. Even
when they have been compelled to hold a
council they have weakened its power in ad-
vance by previously binding the princes with
an oath to let them remain as they are.
Moreover, they have given the pope full au-


thority over the decisions of the council, so
that it is all one whether there are many
councils or no councils, — except that they
deceive us with puppet-shows and sham-
battles. So terribly do they fear for their
skin in a really free council!"

In opposition to the first contention, that
the papacy is above the temporal power,
Luther maintained that the only distinction
between the clergy and the laity is that of
function. There is no essential difference
between Christians. This is the doctrine of
the priesthood of the common man. Ordina-
tion means that the assembly representing
the Church chooses one to serve the congre-
gation, die Gemeine, as Luther's Bible trans-
lates it. To make his meaning still clearer,
Luther cites a practical example: " If a little
group of pious Christian laymen were taken
captive and set down in a wilderness, and
had among them no priest consecrated by a
bishop, and if there in the wilderness they
were to agree in choosing one of themselves,
married or unmarried, and were to charge
him with the office of baptizing, saying mass,
absolving and preaching, such a man would


be as truly a priest as though all the bishops
and popes had consecrated him."

Regarding the second claim, that only the
pope can interpret Scripture, Luther denies
the right of an ignorant and corrupt pope to
interpret the Bible to the detriment of intel-
ligent and pious men. This is an appeal to
the validity of Christian scholarship.

The third wall, that no one can call a coun-
cil but the pope, will fall of itself when the
other two are down. Scripture directs us to
correct an erring member. Therefore, when
necessity demands, the first man who is able
should use his influence to bring about a
truly free council. "Thus we read in Acts
XV that it was not St. Peter who called the
Apostolic Council, but the Apostles and eld-
ers. If, then, that right had belonged to St.
Peter alone, the council would not have
been a Christian council. . . . Even the
Council of Nicaea — the most famous of all — -
was neither called nor confirmed by the
Bishop of Rome, but by the Emperor Con-
stantine, and many other emperors after him
did the like, yet these councils were the most
Christian of all. But if the pope alone had


the right to call councils, then all these coun-
cils must have been heretical."

With brutal frankness the Address deals
with a vast number and variety of problems,
in the discussion of which the author reveals a
wide knowledge of history, politics, doctrine,
and contemporary conditions. Whether cit-
ing abuses or proposing reform, he constantly
invokes the authority of Scripture. " For all
its scathing quality," writes a Lutheran theo-
logian, "it is a sane arraignment of those
who ' under the holy name of Christ and St.
Peter' are responsible for the nation's woes,
and the remedies that are proposed are,
many of them, practicable as well as reason-

Having demolished the outer fortifica-
tions, Luther in the "Babylonian Captivity
of the Church" enters the very portals of the
Roman Church in order to release mankind
from the bondage of the sacramental system.
Discussing each of the seven sacraments, he
attempts to show how the meaning and ad-
ministration of certain sacraments have been
perverted, and how the whole system has as-
sumed an importance wholly unwarranted


by Scripture. Totally rejecting confirma-
tion, ordination, marriage, and extreme unc-
tion from the list of sacraments, he accepts
baptism, the Lord's Supper, and penance.
A further study of the Bible convinced
Luther that he erred in retaining penance be-
cause it had not been expressly instituted by
the Lord.

In attacking the most vital spot of Cathol-
icism the "Babylonian Captivity" marked a
radical doctrinal departure; but Luther was
not yet ready to embrace what ultimately
became the Lutheran position on the sacra-
ments. He was heartily in favor of private
confession, even though it could not be
proved from Scripture. Indulgences he
threw overboard. "Some two years ago I
wrote a little book on indulgences, which I
now deeply regret having published; for at
that time I was still sunk in a mighty super-
stitious veneration for the Roman tyranny
and held that indulgences should not be alto-
gether rejected, seeing they were approved
by the common consent of men. . . .
Since then, however, ... I have come to
see that they are nothing but an imposture of


the Roman sycophants by which they play
havoc with men's faith and fortunes. Would
to God I might prevail upon the book-sellers
and upon all my readers to burn up the whole
of my writings on indulgences and to substi-
tute for them this proposition: Indulgences
are a knavish trick of the Roman syco-

The last treatise is the most dignified and
calm of the three. "Nothing that Luther
has written," says Doctor Lindsay, "more
clearly manifests that combination of revolu-
tionary daring and wise conservatism which
was characteristic of the man." It is per-
haps the most beautiful work Luther ever
wrote. "A truly religious spirit breathes
in these pages," writes a French Catholic.
"Provoking polemic is almost entirely
avoided. Here one finds again the inspira-
tion of the great mystics of the Middle Ages.
. . . He is not a true Christian who
would venture to disapprove the passages in
which Luther speaks so eloquently of the
goodness of God, of the gratitude which it
should inspire in us, of the spontaneity which


should mark our obedience, of the desire of
imitating Christ which should inspire us."

With a charming simpHcity — almost para-
doxical of the lofty theme — he writes about
the Christian faith, which he sums up in two

"A Christian man is a perfectly free lord
of all, subject to none.

"A Christian man is a perfectly dutiful
servant of all, subject to all."

Laying it down without qualification that
a man is justified by faith alone, he makes a
plea for moderation and toleration in the
attitude toward the forms and ceremonies of
Rome. Such things are permissible, pro-
vided they do not obscure their purpose — to
bring man into closer relation to God. "Our
faith in Christ does not free us from works,
but from false opinions concerning works,
that is, from the foolish presumption that
justification is acquired by works. For
faith redeems, corrects and preserves our
consciences, so that we know that righteous-
ness does not consist in works, although
works neither can nor ought to be wanting;
first as we cannot do without food and drink


and all the works of this mortal body, yet
our righteousness is not in them, but in faith;
and yet those works of the body are not to be
despised or neglected on that account. . .

"Hence, the Christian must take a middle

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Online LibraryGeorge Malcolm StephensonThe conservative character of Martin Luther → online text (page 2 of 7)