I am coming to the end of the biography of Martin Luther, one of the Protestant Reformers who 500 years ago in 2017 publishes his 95 theses on Church reform.
Luther was a doctor of Canon Law, a monk of the Augustinian Order in the Catholic Church. His Reforms were aimed at correcting errors which according to him had been created by Popes and Bishops since the 4th Century A. D. creating a situation of fear and ignorance in a world dominate by the Roman Catholic Church and the Popes who were the only one capable of interpreting God’s Will and teachings.
For many years Luther tried to come to an agreement with the Pope on what was necessary to have a more faithful understanding of the teachings of Christ and a relinquishing of Papal authority. In the end that proved impossible for reasons mainly of European politics and the power of Princes and the Pope, authority which at the times could never be questioned.
In this biography Luther is shown unvarnished, he is an anti-semite, misogynist, a racist, he dislikes anyone who is not German, cruel, fixated on his bowel movements which he describes in great analytical terms. Though he wishes painful deaths on anyone who disagrees with him, roasted dissenters alive seemed to be a favourite of his, he was also very concerned with his own salvation.
Though some of his 95 theses address directly the excess of Papal authority on Salvation and remittance of sins others were changed and modified many times depending on what other Reformers like Zwigli and Calvin advocated. Luther always the clever politician, never angering the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (a Catholic) and always making sure he was in the good grace of his Protector the Prince of Saxony,(a Protestant).
The whole reform movement also came at a time of rising Nationalism in the German Principalities and in Switzerland, followed by England with Henry VIII, though Luther did not consider him a Prince bent on Reforming the Church but more doing what he wanted as King. This national fervour rejected the authority of the Pope in Rome and was also in opposition to Emperor Charles V, a Spanish Habsbourg, who ruled over the New World, Spain and most of Europe and defender of the Pope’s authority. As Holy Roman Emperor, most European Princes owed their power to him.
This is why when Luther was summoned to the Imperial Diet in Worms in 1521 to defend his 95 Theses in front of the Emperor, the Papal Ambassador and the Princes, it required a lot of courage and determination, knowing that he could easily be arrested and condemned to die by torture and fire, Luther had a martyr’s wish, though he died in his own bed, fat and rich in 1546. He was very opinionated and did not hesitate to berate and abuse his own colleagues and friends.
In the end what I retain of Luther and the Reformation movement is that any person can take Scripture and interpret them in his own way, coming to a personal understanding of what is the Word of God. Luther lived at a time when the World was changing, politically and socially and he was part of that change. After him came the Wars of Religion and the Thirty years War which decimated the population of Europe.