WelCom News
A newspaper for the Wellington and Palmerston North Catholic Dioceses

Luther and Rome: Pastor, Pamphleteer, Prophet: Part One

WelCom July 2017: Martin Luther has been given many titles, complimentary and otherwise. Among the positives, I’m drawn to ‘Visionary Reformer’, ‘The Accidental Revolutionary’ and ‘Resilient Reformer’. His opponents saw none of that, one of them describing Luther as a child of the devil. But both sides would have to agree that Martin Luther was a cleric of huge influence.

A 2014 digital mapping project sought to identify the most prominent people between 800BC and 1950CE. There were 518 in the category of religion and Martin Luther came in at number 5, after Abraham, Muhammad, Moses and Jesus (No 1) [Scott H Hendrix: Martin Luther Visionary Reformer, Yale University Press 2015, Preface].

Luther at the Diet of Worms, 1872, by Paul Thumann (1834-1908).

History paints Luther as the match that set alight the fire of reform that engulfed Western Christianity in a war against itself. Born in 1483 [d. Feb 18, 1546], this priest-theologian’s life of 63 years bridged two centuries in which Christianity found itself threatened, challenged and splintered, as never before.

If he could speak today he would probably repeat what he said 500 years ago: All I seek is to arouse and set to thinking those who have the ability and inclination to help the German nation become free and Christian again after the wretched, heathenish and unchristian rule of the Pope. [Kendrix 91]

He was scandalised by the excess wealth and ostentatious lifestyle of senior clerics, including the Pope, and saw papal domination as a corrosive influence on Christendom. But, while he may have understood this domination as affecting the Church generally, he confined his concern to that of Germany. He may well have sensed the potential his called-for reforms had for universal application, but that was not his initial desire.

So closely was the Christian faith allied to politics, Luther could not have expected to have much sway outside his own country. Even within Germany there were serious divisions, described by one writer as a ‘crazy quilt of territories nominally under the Holy Roman Emperor’ [NG 428]. Four princes and three archbishops formed an electoral college to choose the Emperor. Each held considerable power, politically and spiritually. Even the Pope needed to tread carefully among them; the protection of at least two of them gave Luther licence to teach and to preach which he would not otherwise have had.

Though excommunicated [1521] and outlawed, he was not burnt as a heretic (which had happened to others guilty of lesser crimes) and unhindered when he came out of hiding to preach again in Wittenberg’s Town Church. It was the mid-1520s and he was actually trying to prevent his followers from turning his reforms into total revolution. So quickly did his ideas spread, helped enormously by the invention of typesetting and the printing press, that Luther found himself propelled into the unenviable position where he was looked upon as the ‘Pope’ of the Reformation. It was a mantle he neither sought nor agreed to wear. His prime concern was that God’s people should have access to all that would nourish them in their faith:

  • God’s word in their own language (non-existent and disallowed in Church of 15‒16th centuries);
  • greater participation in the sacred liturgy; and
  • true pastoral leadership.

That lay people had no access to the bible seemed counter to the purpose of the Word of God to nourish and guide faith and encourage discipleship. The sale of indulgences seemed contrary to Christian ethics and the practice an aberration in leadership.

Luther craved for renewal; he did not seek innovation. He did not want to have a Church named after him; his desire was to be nothing but a faithful restorer of the Church he loved and had committed his life to serve. His sorrow was that ‘the Church of his day had lost sight of some fundamental themes of the Christian gospel’ [McGrath 58]. He wanted to give the blind new sight! His could be regarded as a prophetic stand.

This is the first part in a series of five presented by Fr James B Lyons. Fr Lyons delivered this presentation paper in May this year for the Lutheran Church in Wellington as part of their commemoration of Luther’s 500 year anniversary. The commemoration goes through to October. Part two of the serialisation will be in next month’s WelCom.

Fr James B Lyons