Reflecting upon the World into Which Martin Luther Was Born

This past October 31st, we celebrated the four hundred ninety-fourth anniversary of the Reformation, the date on which Dr. Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.  This historic event simply marks the beginning of a very long period of religious reform throughout Europe and thus has been celebrated among Lutherans as “Reformation Day.”  As we look back almost five hundred years to the time of the Lutheran reformation, we see a world that is much different from that of our present time — a world which none of us would be able to recognize.  From its forms of civil government, its social structure, and its economic standard of living to its Renaissance of intellectual inquiry and its impact upon religious and spiritual understanding, this was a completely different world.  It is fitting then, as we celebrate his birth in 1483, to take a glance back through history and reflect upon the world into which Dr. Martin Luther was born and how the Lord, through His divine providence, ruled over this world and prepared it for the reformation of outward Christendom.

As history presents it, the secular world into which Dr. Martin Luther was born had been undergoing various political, economical and intellectual changes.  As the world moved out of the Dark Ages into the Renaissance, one of the most notable changes in the political life of Europe was the rise of strong, centralized governments.  In short, the feudal system of the Middle Ages had broken down.  Much of the political and military power held by the feudal lords and nobles had been consolidated by the monarchy, and royal power tended to be more absolute.  By the beginning of the sixteenth century, countries such as England, France and Spain had all developed strong, national governments.  While monarchical power was being consolidated in western European countries, in central Europe it remained divided among the great nobles of the Holy Roman Empire.  At this time, the geographical area we now identify as Germany had been divided into about three hundred virtually independent states.  These three hundred states formed a loose alliance under the Holy Roman Emperor.  In comparison to our country today, the alliance of these three hundred states of the Holy Roman Empire was much looser than that which binds our 50 states together in a “federal” government.  Germany stood out the most from the other great European nations because seven of its princes, known as Electors, had obtained the political authority to elect their emperor.  Maximilian I (1493–1519) was one of the greatest and most influential medieval emperors in the Austrian House of Hapsburg.  Through political alliances with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, he arranged for his grandson, Charles I of Spain, to be elected Emperor in 1519.  After having ascended the throne, Charles I of Spain became known as Emperor Charles V, the man who played a large role in trying to suppress the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century.

The divine providence of God in the division of political power in the Holy Roman Empire with respect to the Reformation became evident after Martin Luther had been placed under the ban of the empire in 1521.  By the time Luther made his stand at the Diet of Worms, some of the German nobles, such as Elector Frederick of Saxony, had been personally convinced of the teachings which Luther demonstrated from Holy Scripture and possessed the political and military power to protect him from his enemies.  Here we see the providential preservation of God concerning His Word and Truth as He, in His kingdom of power, worked all things to the good of His Church, the true believers (I Peter 1:25a; Matthew 16:18b; Ephesians 1:22; Romans 8:28).

In addition to reflecting upon the political climate of 16th century Europe, it is worthy to note the developments in its social and economic conditions as a result of the Renaissance.  From about the fifteenth century, there had been a revival of learning in Europe, marking the first notable break from the medieval world.  This Renaissance or “new birth” resulted in intellectual curiosity and, with it, scientific investigation, inventions of all kinds, and the exploration of distant lands.  It also quickly made its way into the economic system of Europe and advanced its methods of trade and technology.  Up until that time, land was the basis of wealth and gave strength to the feudalistic system.  But, with the revival of industry and commerce, the basis of wealth changed from land to capital.  This new capitalistic system gave rise to a new social class, which historians call the burghers or citizens.  Instead of remaining peasants or serfs —virtual servants to the lords who owned land— these burghers were able to pursue their various trades and crafts independently due to the revival of commerce.  For instance, inventors were able to secure loans from banks in order to create new machinery for increasing the efficiency of trade.  One of the most notable inventors of the Renaissance was Johannes Gutenberg, who invented the use of moveable type in a simple printing press in the year 1450.  This invention completely revolutionized the spread of ideas and literature when hundreds of pages of words, previously hand-written or hand-lettered, could be reproduced in a relatively short period of time.  Sixty-seven years later, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, they were immediately copied down and taken to the local print shop and, though not by Luther’s original intent, were mass produced for public consumption.

Moreover, as this burgher class continued to grow, it obtained certain privileges regarding education.  While today public education is common-place and citizens have a “right” to public education, in sixteen-century Europe this idea was completely foreign.  As these burghers eventually grew more affluent, they we able to purchase education for their children.  It was at this time that humanism was embraced as the central philosophy of this new learning.  Humanism embraced the value and dignity of the individual and focused on his intellectual and social development.  This new learning was soon taught in the universities of Vienna, Heidelberg, Erfurt, Tübingen, and Leipzig.  One aspect of learning that humanism fostered was the study of ancient history and classical literature, and from this emphasis focus was placed on the ancient Biblical languages of Greek and Hebrew.  By the end of the fifteenth century, northern leaders were turning to the original Greek and Hebrew texts for authority in religious matters.  This element of learning would play an important role in the Reformation, especially since Martin Luther translated his German Bible from the original languages.  Martin Luther once commented on the importance of the original languages saying, “As dear now as the Gospel is to us, so severely ought we to hold to the languages.”

In comparison to the secular world into which Dr. Martin Luther was born, the spiritual world experienced its own types of changes leading up to the Reformation.  The spiritual or religious world of Europe by the eve of the Renaissance was much different than that of today.  In our country today, in any given neighborhood, one might find dozens of different denominational church bodies.  In 15th century Europe, the one and only nominally Christian religion was Roman Catholicism.  There was only one Church, and that was under the control of the pope and regulated by Church Law.  One either consented to his rule and accepted these laws or was condemned as a heretic and most likely was executed in the name of God.

After the Crusades of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Church of Rome had reached the height of its power.  From the thirteenth century up to the time of the Reformation, popes continued to take full advantage of their temporal and spiritual power without considering the changing conditions in Europe.  As the Renaissance swept through Italy and the rest of southern Europe, northern countries stayed fairly stable.  The Renaissance of the south is often called by historians a “materialistic” Renaissance with its focus on this present life, while the Renaissance of the north has been called a “spiritual” Renaissance, focusing on the life to come.  There was an increase in anxiety to gain favor with God by way of work-righteousness.  People began to focus on the fate of their souls and their position before God because of their sins, and the Church continued emphasizing and advertising good deeds which people could perform in order that they might find themselves in God’s good graces.  These mechanical performances ranged from simple acts such as Confession and Alms-giving to larger, more trying tasks such as Pilgrimages and the dedication of one’s life to Monasticism.  While these meritorious acts were thought to gain some favor with their angry God, the people were kept aware that in spite of these acts they would still need to spend time in purgatory because of their sins.  The spiritual world of the time was filled with doubt, fear, and despair; and the average person had almost no knowledge of salvation as found in the Gospel.  The sad truth at the time was that the teaching of justification by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith, without the deeds of the Law (Romans 3:21-28) was practically unknown to the people of 15th century Europe and was deliberately hidden from them by a church system that relied upon their slavery to its legalistic tyranny.

As the ideals of the Renaissance made their way north, a new zeal for religious reform was kindled.  Many people had become disillusioned and unsettled by the blatant abuse of Church power and rampant corruption within the clergy.  Because of technological advancements such as the printing press, copies and translations of the Bible were gradually making their way into the hands of more people; and between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries several attempts were made at religious reformation.  Many people think that Martin Luther was really the first man to stand up openly against the teachings of Rome.  However, several “forerunners” of the Reformation predated Luther by almost three-hundred years.  We do not refer to these men as “reformers” in the proper sense of the term because of errors to which they held in opposition to Scripture, but their efforts to unmask the Papacy and to return the Church to Scripture are worthy of note.  Unfortunately, due to the religious climate of their time and the absolute power of the Church of Rome, their attempts at religious reform were quickly squelched.  One of the earlier efforts was launched by a learned Englishman named William of Occam (1280–1349 A.D.).  In his writings Occam stated that the pope was not infallible and urged the Church to hold strictly to the Holy Scriptures in matters of faith and conduct.  Later on, many of Occam’s writings are said to have had a strong influence on Martin Luther.  John Wyclif (1320–1384 A.D.) was also a strong influence in England.  He, too, stated that the pope was not infallible and that the bulls and decrees of the pope were only authoritative if they were based on clear Scripture.  It was because of Wyclif’s initiative that England received the first complete version of the Bible in English in the year 1380 A.D. —  approximately 142 years before Luther’s translation of the New Testament into German.  In addition, Wyclif was also one of the first to identify the pope as the very Antichrist of II Thessalonians 2.  But above all this, Wyclif and his colleagues began teaching the Scripture doctrine of justification by faith in the Redeemer of the world rather than by work-righteousness.  In order to control these deviations from papal dogma, heresy was made a capital offense in England in 1401; and Wyclifism was suppressed by force.  John Wyclif died on December 31, 1384.  G. E. Hageman, a church historian, made special note concerning the fate of John Wyclif:  “The Council of Constance took cognizance of Wyclif… decreed that his books be burned and his remains exhumed,” twelve years later to be burned and his ashes scattered on the waters of the Swift (G. E. Hageman, Sketches from the History of the Church, St. Louis: CPH, ca. 1920, p. 115).  A close follower of Wyclif, John Hus (1369–1415 A.D.), worked hard as the head of a reform movement in Bohemia.  For his “radical heresies” Hus was excommunicated by the Church of Rome and quickly burned at the stake.  In reaction to Hus’ murder, his followers, the Hussites, met the armies of the pope in open warfare at the battle of Prague (1434 A.D.) and were defeated.  Among the early reform movements in Europe, the Hussites stood out.  The Church of Rome suppressed this effort with such force that no other attempts were made in northern Europe until the time of Luther.  Even at the very beginning of the Lutheran Reformation, people began comparing Luther to John Hus, warning him that he would also meet a similar end.  By the grace of God, however, that was not the case.  The Lord preserved Luther and delivered him out of the hands of his enemies, both political and spiritual (Psalm 18:48).  G. E. Hageman properly summed up the role that Martin Luther played during this time of Reformation:  “It was God who through the instrumentality of His servant Luther brought about that change which every other human agent had failed to achieve” (Ibid., p. 127).

By the providence of Almighty God, the world into which Martin Luther was born on November 10, 1483, had been prepared by gradual changes in both the secular and spiritual spheres of Western Europe.  Hageman again states very pointedly: “Thus it was not Luther who made himself great by this Reformation, but the Lord who glorified Himself in Luther that the world might know and believe… ‘That Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’ Phil. 2:10.11” (Ibid., pp. 127–128).  As Europe slowly changed from the medieval world to the modern, the Lord had providentially set the stage for Luther, as His humble servant, 1) to return to outward Christendom the Holy Scriptures as the only source and norm of Christian doctrine, and 2) to restore again to the people the saving knowledge of the doctrine of justification by God’s grace alone, merited by Christ’s all-sufficient vicarious atonement, and received and apprehended by faith alone.  On these two “pillars,” or principles, Luther’s entire work of Reformation was grounded and has been blessed to this present day to the glory of God.

Daniel P. Mensing, Seminarian
(Submitted through his Pastor)