35. The Protestant Reformation, Part 1 – How Luther was right and why he went wrong: a case study in what happens when you turn away from the Church’s Tradition

OK, so it’s going to be very hard to find any icons to include in this article!

This year Protestants celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. We Orthodox do not, of course, but may I be allowed to do a little analysis?

What caused the Reformation

Let’s start 2000 years ago. Saint Paul was a recovering legalist. Now every Jew knew that the heart of the Law was “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself”. Love. But Old Testament Law was humungous (read Leviticus), and by the first century A.D. strict Jews, of whom Paul was one, had fallen into legalism and were going crazy trying to keep every rule and regulation, and when they failed (as of course they did) they felt God would punish them somehow.

Paul had struggled with this. But then he was converted to Christianity and understood through Christ that God loved him and forgave him. It was an enormous release. He wrote in Galatians 2:16-20 that “man is not justified by the works of the Law, but by faith in Jesus Christ”. This is the usual translation among western Christians. It’s a mistranslation. (Thanks a lot, Saint Jerome.) We’ll come back to that later.

500 years ago Martin Luther was struggling with the same problem. Western Christianity had fallen into legalism. God was the Judge who if he was not obeyed would punish because justice required it. (Thanks a lot, Saint Anselm.) Over the centuries Roman Catholicism had accumulated a vast number of ecclesiastical laws, originally intended just to help guide people amid the disintegration of western society after the barbarian invasions. But by late medieval times, while there were certainly men and women of faith in the Roman Catholic Church, most popular religion had degenerated into obeying Church laws lest an angry God punish them. They saw God chiefly as Judge, ready to condemn them to eternal fire if they didn’t obey.

How could people read the Gospel and believe this? Of course God disciplines us in his love, as the Epistle to the Hebrews pointed out, but God’s Judgment at the end of time will be on whether we chose him, chose love, not on whether we kept a bunch of rules. Jesus did not teach us to pray “Our Judge who art in heaven”. In the Gospel God is our loving Father, the father of the prodigal son. He “is good and loves mankind”, as we hear at the end of most Orthodox services. No loving father would willingly condemn his children to eternal torture. Nevertheless that’s how things stood at the end of the middle ages.

The Roman Catholic solution to the problem was this: After you die you can pay the  legal penalty of your sins (even though the sins were already “forgiven”), through suffering in Purgatory. This grew out of the reasonable idea that, because at the end of our lives we’re not yet perfected, so after death we must continue to grow in love and holiness and so leave our sins behind. But “pay them off” by suffering in Purgatory? However, Roman Catholicism was caught in this terrifying legalistic trap.

So another way was invented for people to pay the penalty: Indulgences. Say certain prayers or do certain works of charity (good things in themselves), and you could get a certain amount of time off from Purgatory. How could one get “time” off in an afterlife that is beyond earthly time? This has never been explained. The Roman Catholic Church still retains this strange teaching. * Furthermore in Luther’s time, though this was never official teaching, in practice one could pay money to Rome and get time off. You could even pay to get the souls of your relatives out of Purgatory.

* Just for the record, here is what today’s Catholic Catechism teaches: “An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints. … To gain indulgences, whether plenary or partial, it is necessary that the faithful be in the state of grace at least at the time the indulgenced work is completed. … A plenary indulgence can be gained only once a day.”  One can see why the Orthodox Church has a few problems with this approach. 

By the late Middle Ages Roman Catholicism still retained the Church’s Tradition. But you can see that it was like a dirty icon. It was covered up with so many added doctrines and practices (including also their notion of immediate papal jurisdiction of everyone, everywhere) that it was scarcely recognizable. However the spirit of the Scriptures and of the Fathers was still hidden under there waiting to be recovered.

And that’s what Martin Luther wanted to do.

Martin Luther’s discovery of personal faith and God’s love

Luther was a good man, well intentioned, brilliant though impetuous, an Augustinian friar of Wittenberg, Germany. He had tried hard and just could not keep all the Church’s laws, and like Paul he felt guilty, and fear of Purgatory oppressed him. (As it did my dear loving Roman Catholic grandmother long years ago before her death, by the way.) Then one day he came  across a passage in Saint Paul’s letter to the Galatians which said something he had never really noticed before: “We are justified before God not by works of the Law but by faith in Jesus Christ.” (To repeat, this was a Latin mistranslation, but again let’s leave that till later.) It was an “ah ha” moment for Luther. What saves us, what sets us right before God is not keeping laws or suffering in Purgatory. Rather it’s “who” justifies us: Jesus Christ. Luther, living in a time which assumed a legal relationship with God, still retained the dreadful concept of a God who was prepared to send his children to eternal torture if the penalty of our sins was not paid. So he naturally concluded that we are to put faith in Christ who by his death has already “paid the price” of our sins. Thus we’re forgiven and free from the wrath of God. More on this later, too.

The Reformation

Now in October 1517 one Johann Tetzel set up near Wittenberg with a little band of singers. Luther went to see what was going on. They were raising money to build Saint Peter’s Basilica and were singing, in German, “When a coin in the kettle rings, a soul out of Purgatory springs”. This sent Luther right over the edge. He wrote a list of 95 theses, issues where he believed the Church needed reforming, including the astoundingly immoral behavior surrounding the papacy. (Consider Pope Sixtus IV, 1471-1484, who awarded bishoprics to men because of their sexual favors. Or Pope Julius II, 1503-1513, who had three “illegitimate” children while he was still Bishop of Lausanne – but at least not while he was Pope.) On October 31, 1517 Luther courageously posted his theses on the town bulletin board, the door of the Wittenberg Church. This caused quite a stir.  Because of the recent invention of the printing press his ideas could be distributed. The local prince and many other Germans also hated paying taxes to Rome. Luther gained a large following.

This became known as the Protestant Reformation. Luther’s intent had been positive. The word “protest”  in Latin meant “witness for”, but because Protestants came to be united chiefly in opposing Rome, it took on today’s negative connotation, “protest”. The  purpose had been to “reform” the Roman Catholic Church. However, Roman Catholicism was not open to reform, and before it was done Luther called the Pope the Anti-Christ and the Pope called Luther the Anti-Christ, and after that neither side was about to back down. (Does this sound like modern American politics?) In the end Luther confessed, “Here I stand. I can do no other.” In 1521 Pope Julius X excommunicated Luther and his followers who  suddenly found themselves permanently separated from the Roman Catholic Church. And so what we now call the Lutheran Church was born.

Next Week: How Luther went wrong (it was not all his fault)

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