Why Did Martin Luther See the Papacy As the Crucial Block to Any Meaningful Reform of the Church?
Martin Luther ushered in the Protestant Reformation by creating a schism with the papacy. He believed the Roman Catholic Church had become corrupt. Eventually Luther concluded that the pope would not accept reform, and it must come from outside the church. In particular, he disagreed with the "selling" of salvation in the form of indulgences given by Rome. Luther advocated that salvation is available to all through faith and God's grace, not from religious authority.
1 Martin Luther
Martin Luther (1483-1546) began his career as an Augustinian monk, and the Roman Catholic Church ordained him as a priest in 1508. He soon began to teach theology at the University of Wittenberg in Germany. At Wittenberg, Luther's doctrine became at odds with the church. To the papacy and the Roman Catholic Church, salvation belonged solely to members of the church, but Luther believed that salvation was open to all. His ideas quickly clashed with those of the pope and the church, and Luther soon viewed the papacy as an obstacle to reform.
2 Ninety-Five Theses
In the 16th century, the Roman Catholic church engaged in the practice of buying and selling indulgences, which granted shorter stays in purgatory and absolution of sins. Luther believed that salvation could only come from God, not through something sold by the papacy. The church commonly sold indulgences to pay for construction projects or fund wars. In Germany, Luther condemned the Dominican friar, Johan Tetzel, who sold indulgences to raise money for the new St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Luther's protests became formal in 1517, when he sent his Ninety-Five Theses to the Archbishop Albrecht. The papacy saw this a direct threat to its authority.
3 Universal Priesthood
Luther taught a form of sacerdotalism, in which he advocated that all who had faith and were baptized belonged to a universal priesthood. To Luther, the pope and the Roman Catholic priesthood formed obstacles that prevented the common people from learning Scripture. Luther came to believe that the pope was the Antichrist working to undermine the universal Catholic Church. In 1534, Luther published a German translation of the Bible, emphasizing that believers should be able to read and learn Scripture on their own. The German Bible worked to spread the Reformation throughout Europe. This "vernacular" Bible also opened up other scriptural interpretations at odds with both Luther and the Roman Catholic Church, an unintended consequence.
Upon receiving the Ninety-Five Theses, Pope Leo X (1475-1521) tried to quietly silence Luther. Failing that, he issued the Exsurge Domine, or papal bull, in 1520, ordering Luther to remove 41 points of his theses. Luther responded by burning the papal bull, and he became even more outspoken about what he saw as the corruption of the church and impediments to reform. Pope Leo X excommunicated Luther in 1521, and ordered him to appear before the Diet of Worms. Luther refused to recant, and the Edict of Worms declared him to be a heretic and ordered Luther's arrest. However, he escaped back to Germany and spent the remainder of his life battling the papacy and advocating open salvation for all who had faith.
- 1 British Broadcasting Corporation History: Martin Luther (1483-1546)
- 2 Public Broadcasting Service Frontline: Martin Luther
- 3 Project Canterbury: Sacerdotalism Explained
- 4 Marquette University Theological Studies: The Lay Priesthood: Real or Metaphorical?
- 5 UMKC School of Law: The Trial of Martin Luther: An Account