Posts Tagged ‘Martin Luther’

Monday, August 15, 2010

By the time young Martin Luther dropped out of law school to become a theologian, the stage had been set over in England.  The seeds of reform were planted.  More than hundred years before Luther, The Lollards had their own Bible, in English.  It was published and then outlawed by the church, of all things.  Imagine.  Bible reading deemed a crime by the ecclesiastical hierachy.

Why would the church ban the publishing of the Bible?  In retrospect, one can see the problem.  The author of that English translation, John Wycliffe, who translated from the Latin Vulgate in 1382 (before Guttenberg’s invention of movable type), put handwritten copies of the Scriptures into many local churches, even private homes.  As eager students poured over the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles, they found a church that looked very different from the opulent, powerful, hierarchical institution that emanated from Rome’s tyrannical authority.  Wycliffe, by his early readings, was struck by the modesty of the early New Testament church.  The Gospel appealed to ordinary folks.  It taught them that their relationship with God transcended temporal authority.  Their meeting places were common, often in neighborhood homes; a far cry from the grand soaring cathedrals and spires that could be seen on the horizon for miles.

But there was more.  The New Testament said nothing of indulgences or Cathedrals or transubstantiation or Cathedrals or bishops or the Pope.  The church of Rome strayed far from the church of the Book of Acts.  Wycliffe found his answers in the text of Bible itself.

His followers, the Lollards, were so named for their quiet muttering in devotion and prayer.  Wycliffe and his Oxford colleagues not only translated the Bible for popular reading, he also published his sermons attacking Rome and its corruption.  The church responded quickly and harshly.  They burned Wycliffe’s Bibles.  They branded him a heretic.  They handed out harsh punishments to anyone found with a Wycliffe Bible.  Ultimately, the founder of the Lollard movement, John Wycliffe, was condemned by a church court proceeding and labeled a stiff necked heretic.  He never backed down.  He was 64 when a stroke took his life while attending church, his opus “Of Antichrist” still unfinished.  Some thirty years later, the Council of Constance declared that all his books be burned and that his remains be exhumed, burned and that his ashes be dumped in the River Swift for his “crimes” against the church.

But it was too late to stop the momentum.  It would take a hundred years, but all over Europe, the abuses of the church grated against mistreated congregants and local administrators.  It was the clear teaching of the Bible that gave reformers cause to rise up in rebellion.

When Henry VIII appealed to the Pope for an annulment (his first), and was denied.  He called for excommunication.  He would form his own church, Henry bellowed.

He called on Thomas Cranmer to make it happen.  Cranmer read his own copy of Wycliffe’s translation and found what he needed to declare the Church of England independent from a corrupt Rome.  While Cranmer supported independence, he became conflicted over the King’s strategy to circumvent providence (that string of wives who paid with their lives for failing to produce a male heir) and not only spurn the Pope but also the Holy Scriptures.  Cranmer survived Henry’s reign and thus became central to the establishment of the Church of England.  He wrote the Book of Common Prayer.

An Oxford colleague of Cranmer’s, William Tyndale, took up the translation where Wycliffe left off.  He polished up that translation of the English Bible, making it even more accessible to a mass audience of eager readers.  Tyndale’s conviction, stemming from his study of the Scriptures, caused him to write in stern opposition to King Henry’s escapades.  He argued not that Henry’s behavior was more than insubordination to Rome; it was disobedience to the Holy Scripture.  For this, Tyndale was burned at the stake.

Like few other figures in history, Cranmer was caught in a web of political and social intrigue.  Henry’s heir, Edward (a son finally arrived after six marriages), continued the reform and relied heavily on Cranmer’s biblical expertise and theological network, which included Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon in Germany.  When Edward died, his two daughters battled for the throne.   Mary, later known as “Bloody Mary,” edged out Jane and made it her legacy to reverse the reform and bring England back to Rome and the Pope’s Authority.  Many of England’s Bishops were caught, including Cranmer who by this time served as the revered Archbishop of Canterbury.  Under enormous pressure from Rome and the London, Cranmer acquiesced.  A human being, caught between the church’s power and the plain truth of Scripture, Cranmer issued a series of recantations to satisfy the Pope and the newly crowned Queen.  But Cranmer’s long association with reform and Mary’s feigned allegiance to Rome and determination to extinguish the damage done by her uncle Henry was too much.  Cranmer, in spite of his recantations, was convicted of treason by the high court and sentenced to death by fire.

It took two years.  Held in prison, forced to witness the brutal executions of his colleagues, Cranmer had time to weigh his conscience.  In a stunning reversal, during a forced public confession in which he would renounce the Reformation and the work of Luther and Melanchthon and Zwingli and Calvin, Cranmer gathered the courage of biblical conviction and openly renounced his own former recantations.  He vehemently denounced the Pope as the enemy of Christ.  Up until this moment, Mary fully believed she had silenced her greatest foe.  But she had not.  She ordered his execution.  As a bloodthirsty crowd watched in horror, like Tyndale before him and Wycliffe’s remains, Cranmer perished in the flames.

But his courage “under fire” galvanized a legion of reformers who followed.  Mary’s enforcement of England’s allegiance to Rome would be short lived.

Reformation continued.

And continues, to this day.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2010

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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Luther was born with a hypersensitive spirituality woven into his DNA.  He had a shepherd’s heart and a litigator’s mind.  His father considered ministry a folly.  Luther’s dad, a hardened businessman, pressed his young son hard to go after a prestigious career in law.  The idea that his son might pursue the priesthood filled him with angst.  The two debated vigorously and long; sharpening young Martin’s razor edged mind, deepening his conviction.

In a horrifying thunderstorm, Martin’s raw fear of the flashes of lightening bolts and pelting rain and rolling thunder transformed from terror into an irresistible sense of call.  He believed God had something much greater for him than a predictable, mundane life in an isolated courtroom.  Over his father’s vociferous objections, Martin Luther enrolled in the seminary.

Maybe those verbal battles at home deepened his resolve.  A new world opened up as the 1400s CE turned to 1500s CE.  The printing press made literature and texts available on a whole new scale.  Libraries filled up with ideas and history and the clash of worldviews.  Luther devoured the books.  He became a monk, living much of the day in isolation with his thoughts.  He battled the forces of evil in his own heart.  He felt unworthy.  His mastery of language and appetite for learning earned him a place in graduate school.  He earned a doctorate of divinity.

And along the way, he traveled to Rome on foot.  A pilgrimage.  He believed it would be the pinnacle of his monastic experience.  He followed orders.  He purchased an indulgence.  He climbed the steps on his knees.  He begged for God’s mercy.  But all he saw was sleazy corruption.  All around.  It was the deepest disappointment of his life.

He learned about the Pope’s concubines and illegitimate children and unlimited power.  He heard the pitch of the priests in the streets, eager young clerics peddling salvation.  He recognized it as a race to meet Leo X’s quotas to rush toward the completion of the staggering, outrageous dome crowned St. Peter’s Basilica.  With his own eyes, he saw the harried construction.  He calculated the outrageous cost.  He recognized it more as a conspicuous display of unbridled power and opulent wealth; not a sanctuary for ordinary folks to find grace.  Ordinary folks, on the contrary, were targets of illicit, shameful fundraising practices: promises of heaven and an escape from hell all for a few coins.  If you cared to negotiate, you could shorten the stay in purgatory for yourself and those loved ones who are already pining there eager for an escape.  All of this guaranteed and in writing; a take-home indulgence signed, sealed and delivered.  Young Martin, almost a lawyer, now an ordained priest, was appalled.

So when he went home, he sketched out some bullet points.  He did not set out to be a revolutionary, or even a reformer.  He believed in the office of the papacy, and he wanted to protect its reputation and true purpose; to restore its dignity.  He began writing.  Almost without taking a break, Martin Luther poured out ninety-five salient theological points.

Tradition has it that Luther walked into the town square and over to the heavy arched door of the All Saints Cathedral in Wittenberg where he pounded in a nail to post his 95 Theses.  Our guide felt the need to offer a qualifier.  Historians are not certain that the story (offered by Luther’s friend and confidant, Philip Melanchthon) is accurate, even though it was a common thing for students to post their ideas in public on that same door.  No matter.  No one disputes Luther’s authorship.  The list of grievances, targeting the sale of indulgences, made its way to the local printing press where thousands of copies were distributed all over Germany and beyond.

The Dominican Friar, Johann Tetzel, was a particularly odious offender and salesman.  Luther exposed him.  By this time, people all over Germany were looking for an excuse to free themselves from the oppressive grip of the Roman Church.  Luther’s incisive critique provided just that impetus.  Not even Luther could have anticipated the response.  The resentment of the populous was unleashed.  The Peasant War commenced.  It got ugly.  People died.  Property destroyed.

The Pope, after an interrogation of the young preacher in Worms, excommunicated Luther and ordered that all the works of the now deemed outlaw be destroyed.  There were book-burnings all over Europe.  Luther was whisked away into hiding at the imposing Castle at Wartburg.  There, while waiting for the violence to subside, he translated the New Testament from Greek into common, conversational German.  Soon, Germans were reading the Bible for themselves.  Rome would never recover.

It would be difficult to overstate the impact of this Reformation on the Western world.  Luther’s contribution profoundly, radically changed politics, theology, ministry and society in ways that linger into our new millennium.

But the famed reformer had his shortcomings.  I first learned about Luther’s blatant anti-Semitism while touring the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC some years ago.  The guide there seemed intent on shattering our protestant image of the great reformer by pointing to his tirades against the Germany’s Jewish population that emerged in print in his later years.  I was in denial, until I did some of my own research.  Sadly, the guide in DC was right.  He did not overstate the case.  In fact, hundreds of years later, long after Luther was buried, Adolph Hitler would justify his indefensible Arian policies by quoting Luther’s works, attempting to Christianize his “final solution.”  It is a sad addendum to an otherwise worthy career.

But as a young priest, with his words Luther broke the Roman chains that bound up nations and enslaved the masses to a corrupt version of religion.  He shifted the lines of authority from a depraved church, to the words of Scripture (sola scriptura) and defined salvation in biblical rather than ecclesiastical terms – salvation by faith alone (sola fide).

As I sat for a while in the same room at the Wartburg Castle where Luther wrote, I contemplated the power of the written word: Ninety-Five bullet points that changed the world.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2010

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