Luther: Heretic or Hero?


A university professor of Wittenberg, Germany, was anxious to debate with his academic peers certain issues confronting the church. Martin Luther, Professor of Sacred Philosophy, used the quaint procedure in practice at the time (1514) - placing one's points for disputation on the church door and awaiting a fellow academic to take up the challenge. Luther nailed 95 theses for debate to the door of the castle church.


The expected debate never happened. Instead, within a month, copies of the theses circu­lated throughout Germany and Switzerland.


Luther himself was shocked at the populist response. Despite their academic prose and pur­pose, the theses were a probing challenge to the central authority of the Roman papacy. Luther's pastoral concern and uninhibited temperament made the theses much more than he intended.

The issue that stimulated Luther's pastoral ire was the church's selling of indulgences.


In medieval Catholic theology, though hell was feared, a person had merely to show contrition, make confession and receive absolution of sins from a priest to escape. But it was a different matter when it came to purgatory


According to prevailing theology, to be fitted for heaven one had also to be cleansed in purgatory. That's where the Christian (not the unbeliever) made restitution for the less serious or venial sins. The duration of the stay in purgatory was so lengthy that most felt it amounted to eternity. Ingen­iously, having imposed this severity on the saints, the church then devised indulgences to lessen the punishment. For instance, a visit to the relics housed in the castle church (where Luther posted his theses) was reputed to reduce a person's stay in purgatory by 1,902,202 years and 270 days.


A deluxe indulgence—the ple­nary—delivered the recipient from a stay in purgatory altogeth­er. Indeed, the sellers of the indulgences weren't fussy about theological niceties and assured purchasers (repentant or other­wise) of an immediate guarantee to heaven.


In 1514 young Prince Albert of the House of Hohenzolleren was Bishop oi Halberstadt and Magdeburg and was offered the Archbishopric of Mainz and the Primacy of all Germany. Since holding the bishop's office for multiple sees breached ecclesias­tical law, he was compelled to pay the enormous compensation of 10,000 ducats to the pope and a vestment fee of 21,000. Bankers, the House of Fuggars, financed this cost.


To pay off his debt. Prince Albert agreed to allow the sale of plenary indulgences throughout his territories, with half the pro­ceeds going to the Fuggars and half to the building of St Peters in Rome. This super indulgence promised to keep the purchaser from purgatory and to deliver the deceased from it.


The appointed vendor of these indulgence letters, Tetzel, played on people's emotions, as is evi­dent in one of his sermons:


"The dead cry, 'Pity us! Pity us! We are in dire torment from which you can redeem us for a pittance. . . . Will you leave us here in flames?'" he told his lis­teners. "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purga­tory springs."


Since Elector Frederick derived income from his own collection of relics, he refused Tetzel access to Saxony. Members of Luther's con­gregation simply crossed the nearby border into Prince Albert's domain to make their purchases from Tetzel. It was to this situa­tion that Luther reacted with his 95 theses.


The theses chided the pope for doing for money what he should, if he had the power, do for free: empty purgatory.


In a 1519 debate with John Eck, Luther went further, suggesting that the Church Council may have erred in condemning an ear­lier Reformer, John Huss. Luther's assertion that a Church Council could err, shocked those in atten­dance, prompting one. Duke George, to curse.


By the time Luther wrote the Babylonian Captivity (1520), his convictions concerning the papacy's errors had firmed. He denounced the Catholic Church for holding the people of God captive through erroneous sacra­mental claims to power. This was the nub of Luther's conflict with Rome. The issue was not simply one of faith versus works, but of faith in Christ as a direct experi­ence of God's grace and salvation against that of salvation mediated to the sinner through an eccle­siastical penitential system.


Luther's teachings crystallised around his understanding of the phrase "righteousness by faith" in the New Testament book of Romans. Vainly he sought to find peace with God through all the means provided by the medieval church: fastings, prayers, the vir­gin Mary, the merits of the saints, penance, the confessional and mysticism, to no avail.


Luther's breakthrough came as he lectured on the Psalms (1513-14) and on Romans (1515-16), although some historians credit it to a second delivery of lectures on the Psalms in early 1519.


The Catholic tradition taught that the righteousness of God (Romans 1:17) was His punitive righteousness. Luther would have read this text with such an under­standing, making the text say that the punitive righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel. This greatly disturbed him. The year before he died Luther wrote of the exciting resolution of this quandary. He said:


"For my case was this: however irre­proachable my life as a monk, I felt myself in the presence of God to be a sinner with a most unqui­et conscience, nor could I believe Him to be appeased by the satis­faction I could offer. I did not love—nay, I hated this just God who punishes sinners. . . .


I began to understand that the righteousness of God is the right­eousness in which a just man lives by the gift of God, in other words by faith, and that what Paul means is this: the righteous­ness of God revealed in the Gospel is passive, that is, the righteousness whereby we are justified by the mercy of God through faith [in Christ]" (E G Rupp and Benjamin Drewery, Documents of Modem History: Martin Luther).


Luther felt as if he had been born afresh, entering through the open gates into paradise itself. He insisted that righteousness by faith was a righteousness exter­nal to, and inherent in the believ­er. This became the great divide between himself and the Catholic Church.


Not that Luther denied the real­ity or the necessity of a righteous­ness within the believer or "beginning righteousness" as he called it. What he did deny was that this inner righteousness was the basis of God's justification of the sinner, or that it was ever per­fected in this life. The Christian's acceptance and assurance by God, for Luther, was always based on the external righteous­ness of Christ. Catholicism affirmed the oppo­site. This is the essence of the dif­ference between the two views of the gospel.


Luther was a vehement man and not always temperate in his reactions or language. His out­burst against the peasants was especially regrettable, as was his condemnation of the Jews. In attempting to shock us into grasping that God's grace is greater than our sin, he some­times resorted to language that was indefensibly careless. But for all his shortcomings he remains a spiritual colossus.


When, on December 10, 1520, he burned the Papal Bull condemn­ing him, few thought he'd live to tell his children. Luther approached his final days convinced that the world was on the brink of its own end-The human resistance to the gospel, the advance of the Muslims, the state of government and society, the spiritual lethargy of the church, and the immorality of the Wittenbergers, convinced him that the return of his Lord was near


A very sick Luther was called to Eisleben, the town of his birth, to help reconcile a dispute between two counts. While there his life pilgrimage came to an end. As he was dying the chaplain asked him whether he still stood by Christ and the doctrines he had preached. "Yes," was his whis­pered reply. His sons and several friends present then listened to him quietly recite John 3:16 to him­self; then he died. It was February 18. 1546 - 450 years ago.


Luther's friend Melanchthon was lecturing in Wittenberg when he learned of his death. "Alas," he cried, "the chariot of Israel and the horsemen thereof." Too stricken to carry on, he left the class.


They buried Luther in the church where nearly 29 years pre­viously it had all begun, when he posted his 95 theses on the church's door. A small event, but one with momentous conse­quences.