Fourth in a Series on the Protestant Reformation
Fr. Charles Coppens, S.J.
|Martin Luther, ca. 1545|
We have seen how Luther, under the pretense of attacking some abuses existing in his day, had gradually been emboldened by his success in arousing popular passions, and had proceeded so far as to proclaim an entirely new scheme of salvation, which, as he admitted, had never before been the doctrine of the Church. He claimed that he had been taught his Gospel directly by Heaven, and that he had been commissioned to preach to the people that his was the only means of salvation. How did he succeed in gaining millions of men to abandon their ancestral Catholic faith, and accept him as the reformer of the old religion? This we are now briefly to explain.
First, we must remember that he did not begin by preaching openly a novel creed. He claimed at first only to be the spokesman of many Catholics, clergy and laity, princes and people, who complained of some scandalous extortions of money for pretended holy purposes, which were said to enrich Rome and the Pope at the expense of Germany. This complaint stirred up passions the more violently because the preceding Pope, Julius II, had rescued Italy from German domination. The Germans nourished a grudge against the Popes.
Luther complained also of abuses which happened to be connected with the preaching of an indulgence; and he but gradually made bold to attack the doctrine itself. Many causes were conspiring at the time in Germany to alienate its people more and more entirely from the See of Rome.
There was first the Humanist movement. This had arisen from the influx of Grecian teachers of literature, who had come West in large numbers, especially when Constantinople was captured by the Muslims in 1454. The enthusiasm created by them for the study of the ancient classics had infatuated the educated generally with admiration for pagan ideals, and substituted the love of elegant language for the former appreciation of Christian truth. It had fostered a worldly spirit, even among the clergy, and had made the simplicity of former ages contemptible. Pride of intellect is most unfavorable to the spirit of faith and submission to Divine authority. It craves for independence of the judgment.
A large portion of the Humanists welcomed Luther as their champion in the cause of intellectual freedom. They wrote to him to express their approbation and to promise support for his attacks on Rome. Janssen says of them: "In their struggle against scholastic learning and ecclesiastical authority, the latter [the Humanists] welcomes this audacious reformer, and entered the lists for him." Quoting a reliable contemporary of Luther, the same author adds:
With their lips and their pens, the Humanists fought unweariedly for Luther, and disposed the hearts of the laity towards his cause. They attacked the prelates and theologians with all manner of abusive and derisive language, accused them of covetousness, pride, envy, ignorance, and coarseness, and said that they only persecuted the innocent Luther because he was more learned than themselves, and because he had sufficient candor to speak out the truth in opposition to the deceit and falsehood of hypocrites. As these Humanists, besides being shrewd and gifted men, could also use both spoken and written language with eloquence and skill, it was an easy matter for them to excite pity and regard for Luther among the laity, and to make out that, for the sake of truth and justice, he was persecuted by a set of envious, grasping, unlearned clergy, who, living themselves in idleness and debauchery, endeavored to get money out of the poor silly people by wokring on their superstitions (V. III. p. 101).
Unfortunately Erasmus, the greatest scholar of the day, though he never became a Protestant, wrote most enthusiastically in commendation of Luther till he found out the further purposes of the heresiarch. He and his fellow Humanists were like the Higher Critics of today, many of whom are Rationalists rather than Christians; some of them even questioned the immortality of the soul. It was such men who hailed Luther as the liberator of the human mind from the slavery of religious authority.
No period in history could have been more favorable to the rapid spread of novel views among the learned classes, and in the awakening minds of the common people, than was the first half of the sixteenth century. The recent invention of printing had created an extraordinary ferment of thought, and Luther eagerly seized upon the press to address the whole German nation. His style was powerful and most popular, unsparing in denunciation of wrong and of restraint on liberty of speech and thought. Janssen says:
The sale of Lutheran books was enormous, and side-by-side with them appeared thousands of leaflets, satires and pasquils, which struck at all existing institutions of Church and State. In no other period of German history did revolutionary journalism acquire such importance and such wide circulation as at that time. Crowds of adherents flocked round Luther, not from any preference for his religious opinions, but, as Melanchton explains, because they looked upon him as the restorer of liberty, under which name each one understood the removal of whatever stood in his own way, and the attainment of the particular form of happiness he individually wished for. Many of his supporters were actuated by no other motive than the love of destroying. By speech and by pen they labored for the destruction of social order, and undermined through all classes of society all respect for the inward restraints of religion and conscience, and the outward control of the law. (Ib. p. 104)
The party of Luther was immensely increased by the easy morality implied in his doctrine. If faith alone can save us, then there is no more need of confession, of fasting and penance to obtain pardon of sin, no need of sorrow and reform of life. No more good works were demanded, for all our acts, even the best, were only new sins. No more accountability for our actions, for we are not free in our choice; if God mounts the soul, Luther said, he rides it to Heaven; but if the devil bestrides it, he rides it to hell. Yet there is no fear of hell for anyone, if only he believes firmly that Christ has paid the full ransom for his individual sins, they are all covered by the cloak of His merits, and at death that man goes straight to Heaven. All this followed logically from his premises, and much of it is taught explicitly in his work On the Slave Will.
Another seduction was the free scope given to the human intellect, for each one was to read the Bible and judge for himself. It was like a general intoxication of passion and independence. And all this was declared to be, not only a safe way, but the only safe way to eternal happiness.
All that remained to be done in order to complete the total separation from Rome was the favor and cooperation of the temporal princes. To secure this, Luther offered them the seizure of all the churches and monasteries of their respective lands, with the gold and silver ornaments, and precious stones and rich vestments that the piety of many ages had bestowed upon the worship of God. Wheresoever Lutheranism was accepted by the rulers, all those treasures were eagerly seized by them to enrich them and their friends. And once possessed of the Church lands and other property of the kind, the princely robbers found it to be their interest to foster and maintain the new religion, lest they might have to restore their ill-gotten goods.
In a couple of years, the demoralization was complete. On March 28, 1523, Luther issued an appeal to the Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights, urging him with all the religious of that Order, to set aside their sacred vows, contract sacrilegious marriages, and divide the monastic lands and treasures among themselves. He added:
I have no doubt that many bishops also, and many abbots, and other ecclesiastical dignitaries would marry if they were not afraid of being the first.
Most of the Knights yielded to the temptation, and many priests, monks and nuns followed their bad example. Luther himself married a nun, Catherine Bora, both breaking their solemn vows, which they had taken at the sacred altars.
A torrent of impiety was poured forth over the land; the change made in his followers is well exemplified by what he admits had taken place in his own person. For he wrote that, while a Catholic, he had passed his life in austerities, in watchings, in fasts and praying, in poverty, chastity and obedience; but after his change of religion he declared that, as it did not depend upon him not to be a man, so neither did it depend upon him to without a woman, and that he could no longer forego the indulgence of the vilest natural propensities. Meanwhile he was ill at ease in his inmost heart. He wrote frequently to various friends. To one he says:
Many people think, because in the intervals I am cheerful in my outward bearing, that I live on a bed of roses, but God knows what my real life is.
He was incessantly at war with his own conscience, and, according to his own confession, he sought relief in those fits of despair which often frightened his friends, in incessant drinking, in card-playing and conviviality, or else in outbursts of vindictive fury against the Church, its teachings and institutions, especially against the Pope.
For the last fifteen years of his life, he usually passed the evenings at the Black Eagle tavern of Wittenberg, where he conversed over the ale jug with his boon companions, Melanchton, Armsdorf, Aurifaber, Justus, Jonas, Lange, Link, Staupiz and others. Two of these published select morsels of this Table Talk, Tischrede, which their vile tastes admired; but the book reveals in Luther a heart so coarse, so corrupt, so lustful, spiteful, proud, resentful, etc., as to revolt and horrify the reader. Happily the English language has so far refused to reproduce those profanities, except in brief extracts and expurgated editions. His language against the Supreme Pontiff is like the ravings of a maniac or the curses of an energumen. How much further he would have dragged down the standard of public morals if he had lived longer, we do not know, but certain it is that, in 1539, the year before his death, he allowed Philip, the Landgrave of Hesse, to marry a second wife while the first wife remained married with him. Here is an extract from the lengthy document he sent to Philip on that occasion:
As to what your highness says, that it is not possible to you to abstain from this impure life, we wish you were in a better state before God. [...] But, after all, if your highness is fully resolved to marry a second wife, we judge it ought to be done secretly. [...] Yout highness has, therefore, in this writing, the approbation of us all, in case of necessity, concerning what you desire.
The lengthy document is printed in full in an appendix to the History of the Reformation by Bishop Spalding. It is signed by Martin Luther, Melanchton, Bucer and five other leaders of the new religion.
Here are facts enough about the origin of Lutheranism to show that is author was not a man of God, and his work was not the work of God. Present members of the Lutheran religion are not guilty of their founder's sins, because they have been born three hundred years after his death. The majority of them do not even know these facts nor even the early tenets of their sect. But once they know better, they must return to the one Church of Christ if they wish for salvation; and it is not harshness but charity to tell them so.