A Weak Flame in a Tinder Box

The popular concept of a reformer is usually of a person with sterling, dynamic personality who slashes right and left with the sword of truth in strong, accurate, purposeful stokes while astride the white charger of righteous indignation.  He thus brings absolute light to millions who had been existing in absolute darkness, and every innovation accomplished by this hero was a product of his most astute mind and existed there in dazzling brilliance and clarity from the moment of his first enlightenment.

Our own thinking has been so steeped in humanitarianism that we even think of Luther in this warped manner.  Such unmitigated hero worship also surrounded him during his own lifetime and he answered it thus:  “I began this business with great fear and trembling…no one can know into what despondence…I sunk…  At that time I was ignorant of many things which now, thank God, I know.”  Does that sound like a typical Reader’s Digest hero?

In order to view Luther as he preferred to be considered (as perhaps a small, weak flame of fire introduced into a combustible situation) it is necessary to understand his times.

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the various nations of Europe were beginning to experience the heady wine of nationalism.  As they began to exercise this new strength, they conflicted with the powerful Roman Catholic Church who claimed ecclesiastical, political, and secular rights.  The Romish Church maintained a surprising degree of control through threats of personal excommunication.  A large portion of the Romish Church‘s power was the result of the considerable flow of funds into her coffers as the result of the sale of indulgences.

These indulgences had originally been intended as a papal declaration that if the bearer died in battle during one of the Crusades against the Turks, he would obtain immediate heavenly bliss.  Since under Germanic law (as well as under our own) the payment of a fine can be substituted for penance or imprisonment, these indulgences soon became marketable property and were sold and bartered throughout Europe.  The church, with unlimited power to issue these indulgences, put herself in the “Salvation Certificate” business and authorized the Dominican monks to as a sales organization and travel through the various provinces.  This they did, and playing upon the ignorance and superstition of her parishioners, the Dominican monks increased the emphasis on these indulgences until they became a substitute for the clergy and thereby made pastoral work by the priest almost impossible.

There were small inklings of intelligence and discernment, however, even in the great writhing masses of fifteenth and sixteenth century ignorance, and these enlightened individuals were as flies in the sweet financial ointment of the Dominican Monks who promoted the sale of the indulgences.  One knight in what is now Germany, approached the master salesman of indulgences, Tetzel, and asked him if an indulgence would absolve a person of guilt even if he committed the sin intentionally.  “Certainly,” replied Tetzel in gleeful anticipation of another sale.  “Fine” continued the knight, “I wish to take a little revenge against an enemy of mine just short of taking his life, and I would like a letter freeing me of any quilt in this matter.”  After agreeing on the price, Tetzel filled out the letter properly and sold it to the knight.  Sometime later as he was traveling to the next town, Tetzel was attacked by this same knight and robbed of the money he had collected from the sale of indulgences.  When hailed into court by Tetzel, the knight admitted the action and then showed the court the letter of indulgence Tetzel had given him to cover his “little revenge.”  Upon reading the letter, the court found the knight not guilty of the crime as charged.

Another example of these tiny glimmerings of discernment occurred when a young university student dickered with a priest over the price he should have to pay for a letter of indulgence.  When he had the price down to six deniers (a very small sum) he told the sellers that they should give him one or they would have to account to God in the judgment day for having kept a soul from his salvation for only six deniers!

The uneducated masses, however, purchased the indulgences to use as substitutes for contrition of heart and penitence for sin.  It was this attitude towards indulgences that brought the entire matter to a boil in Wittenberg.

One of his duties, as priest to the church at the university, was to hear confessions.  After hearing their confessions, Luther would upon occasion, admonish the wayward members.  Upon this, they would simply show him the letters of indulgence they had purchased and tell him that as long as they had them, they saw no reason to change their way of living.  The indulgence assured them of a swift entry into heaven without strain or pain.

This interference in his pastoral work convinced Luther that this misuse of the indulgences must stop.  Since the official Catholic doctrine regarding salvation was “justification through a penitent and contrite heart” Luther was convinced that this malpractice was in opposition to the official doctrine.  With this in mind, he wrote the ninety-seven and later the ninety-five, theses which he nailed to the church door at Wittenberg, fully expecting the church from the Pope on down to support his contentions.

Theoretically he could expect this, for nowhere in his ninety-five theses did Luther attack or even question any official doctrine held then by the Romish Church.  He simply set himself to the task of defining the true character and use of the papal indulgences.  In fact, shortly after he had posted these theses, and the matter was brought to the attention of the theologians and jurists of the University of Mainz, they declared that they could find nothing wrong in any of the theses.

Luther, however, had not reckoned with the impact on Rome of the possible loss of revenue from the reduced sales of these indulgences, nor had he figured with the political animosity that would arise between the Dominican Monks (who were in charge of the sale of indulgences) and the Augustinian order of which Luther was member.  As events developed, various church officials declared there was no doctrinal heresy in Luther’s theses, yet the Dominicans (of considerable influence in Rome both because of their financial contribution to Rome’s wealth and because the current Pope was a Dominican) forced action against Luther, claiming that he had attacked the authority of the Pope and should be killed as an heretic.

The events that follow are involved, disgusting and smell of crooked church politics.  It’s only a short while and Luther finds himself excommunicated from his once beloved Romish Church.  The protest he had made against the indulgences in an attempt to bring about a reformation from within had become the spring-board of an ecclesiastical revolution without his ever having intended it to be so.

Of this fact Luther said, “This is all the more proof that this movement was not my doing, but the Lord’s.”

As can easily be imagined, Luther’s name was defamed by the Catholic Church at every opportunity and in a thousand different ways during the reformation and the years immediately following.  One comment about him was that he was the offspring of the union of his mother with the devil himself; that at his death the Devil appeared on the scene to carry him away to his home in hell.  This view of Luther continued well into the eighteenth century.  Other writers spoke of him as “the godless heretic, the stinking profligate, the filthy ragamuffin, and the ribald brawler, the obscene slanderous and execrable Luther.”

In spite of their attempts to defame Luther, the Catholic Church was brought to their sense by the Reformation and sometime later stopped the sale of indulgences.  This tardy recognition of Luther’s protest and doctrine brought with it a revolution in the Catholic Church’s opinion regarding Luther himself.  In the Age of Enlightenment the educated Catholic view of Luther comes very close to our own.  They have even referred to him as “a precious instrument of God,” the “greatest benefactor of humanity,” is a “great spreader of light.”  The current opinion of the Catholic Church is probably somewhere in between these extremes.

As stated by one Roman Catholic scholar recently interviewed during the preparation of this article:  “Martin Luther was right in every doctrinal point.  Our only objection is that he had no business protesting because by doing so he was placing himself against the authority of the Mother Church.”  In other words, Luther, as an individual, and even as a member of the clergy, had no right to question any action of the Roman Catholic Church according to their doctrines.

The Protestant concept that the divinely enlightened mind is the final authority regarding doctrinal matters over against the Roman Catholic’s doctrine that the final authority in doctrinal matters is the organized Roman Catholic Church, is to my mind the most important product of the Reformation.  For in the place of complacent lethargy, we many now exercise individual imitative in the study of scripture and approach God directly in prayer.  No longer are we bound (through the threat of condemnation) to any doctrine superimposed by a heretical or mistaken clergy.  Under the Protestant concept of the authority of the regenerated heart, we are free to select any church or clergy that preaches and practices the doctrines we consider most proper according to our own individual interpretation of scripture.

Luther himself did not recognize this most fundamental concept when he began his protest against the selling of indulgences.  In Thesis No. 38 he declared:  “Still we should not condemn the papal dispensation and pardon; for this pardon is a declaration of the pardon of God.”

From this it can be determined that he still respected and clung to the Romish concept of church authority when he wrote his thesis.

That the most significant fruit of the Reformation was not the result of human labor and striving, is another instance of the fact that God often works in very mysterious ways to perform His own good pleasure.