As I watch today’s politics and read about the Reformation on its 500th anniversary, I am struck by the modern similarities. The later day followers of Luther have sworn off politics. “Why did the Lutheran cross the road? To get to the middle.” --Garrison Keillor. But Luther used politics to survive. And he got lucky.
Oct. 31, 1517 is the day he posted 95 Theses on Wittenberg’s church door for scholarly debate in Latin. But students translated the list into German. It lit the country afire. And who were the students? Luther often drew about 400 to his classes in Wittenberg. Townspeople, travelers, visiting scholars, and students would come. There was no required attendance, so students chose to hear a popular, dynamic lecturer. And they formed a huge following along with the faculty of Wittenberg College. Theses attacked the sale of indulgences but it was a bigger issue. The Medieval church was a money machine. Pope Leo was building St. Peters in Rome and needed funds. Not only did the church sell indulgences that promised time out of purgatory, but they owned half the land in Germany. The Holy Roman Empire was Germany-Austria-Italy and lands left to the church became papal fiefs, baronies if you will, that Rome gave to newly named bishops—if the bishop could come up with the right price. In fact some bishops never set foot in Germany, but once ordained, just collected taxes from their lands. Then there were the priests, half of whom were married—but they couldn’t legally marry—so they paid a forgiveness price for their girlfriends. And any kids born had to be redeemed out of bastard staus to be made legal. The priesthood was impoverished. It didn’t take a theologian to realize the Italy was raking it in and Germany was seeing the wealth of the nation depart.
Luther didn’t realize the hornet’s nest he had stirred. He just thought he was making a point of true Christian belief. But Dominicans, a rival order to the Augustinians which Luther belonged, published fake news, a forged document attributed to Luther with disgusting quotes. Dominicans were the chief beneficiaries of Indulgences. And then the head papal theologian, Prierias, wrote a scathing attack. Luther had exposed their swamp of financial dealings. Cardinal Cajetan, a traditionalist who advocated the papacy be considered infallible, demanded a questioning of Luther. Luther agreed but played his politics carefully. First, he was best friends with Spalatin, the most influencial advisor of Prince Frederick the Wise whose territory Wittenberg was in. Spalatin, always with his ear to the ground, said don’t go until they guarantee safe passage. The Wittenberg faculty wrote a lengthy letter supporting Luther. Frederick realized the church needed reform and thought upon hearing Luther, he had the guy who could pull it off. And then Johann von Staupinz, the leader of the Augustinian order, was a personal mentor for Luther. He proofread Luther’s reply to Cajetan expressing humility, offering to repent of his teaching if he could be proven wrong. Cajetan was in over his head. Luther was a brilliant mind and Cajetan could offer no response when Luther asked him for scripture passages as proof of the papal position. Worse, Cajetan said some questionable things that refuted salvation by grace, the prime tenet of Christianity, and expressed a disdain for faith. Luther, stunned, knew hundreds of passages. The Cardinal could only demand Luther recant, got frustrated and ordered him out of his presence. Luther left town, fortunately, because Catejan’s papal orders to arrest him were leaked.
When Frederick got orders to hand over Luther, he formed an investigation, listened to Wittenberg’s faculty, local nobles, Staupinz and Spalatin, and then Miltitz, a nuncius (official speaker for the pope) sent from Rome. Miltitz was a conniver and Frederick immediately saw his game. The nuncius got nothing but a meeting with Luther and vague promises from Frederick. Now understand that many officials of the Roman Curia weren’t very godly people. Some bought their offices too. Miltitz got quite drunk, started telling stories about Leo’s real motives (women, money) and advised Luther to just shut up for awhile. In a modern sense, he was telling Luther to stop tweeting. Luther’s friends agreed. If ever a guy didn’t stop tweeting, it was Luther. Realizing that he was as good as dead, he started claiming air time, that is, he began writing books. In 36 months he wrote 30 books in two languages, eloquent Latin and German. He simply outpublished the church. Prints and reprints spread like a mania. In them he expounded on biblical humanism—as his Protestant ideas of the time were then called. But he also wrote To the Christian Nobility Concerning the Reform of the Church. In it, he recounted the abuses of the Roman Curia and said that just as they had sucked Italy dry, they had now come to Germany. The fire in Germany grew to a forest fire from the North Sea to Bavaria. Meanwhile the Emperor died. Maxmillian had wanted his son Charles to inherit the throne, but 7 electors selected emperors. One Elector was Frederick the Wise. And the Pope didn’t want Charles. So Frederick parlayed his alliance against Charles into a safe haven for Luther.
Instead of thinking about repeal and replace of their system, the Curia and especially the Dominicans, were seized with unreasonable hatred for Luther. They arranged a debate and drew Luther into it in a sly way. Eck, the Dominican debater, in some ways won the debate, but Luther won the crowd. The Romanists wrote scandalous letters against Luther that were all too plain to the reader that their insane hatred was the motivator. As a result, when Luther finally went to trial at the Diet that took place in Worms, Frederick had made plans to kidnap or spirit Luther away when he was condemned. Why didn’t the Emperor Charles seize Luther immediately and have him burned at the stake in Worms? 80,000 of Luther’s fans had invaded the small city and a rebellion would have resulted.
In the end, the thing that the Roman hierarchy didn’t understand was that Luther spoke to his followers simply and they couldn’t be dissuaded—they had an agenda Finally in 1530, with Turks ready to besiege Vienna, the Emperor was in a fix. He had ostracized half of Germany over religion, but needed help to fight the Turks. To his disbelief, the Lutheran princes showed up, handed him The Augsburg Confession, a statement of what they believed, but swore allegiance to his cause against the Ottomans. This good will delayed the Emperor’s vengeance for 17 years. Then in 1547, after Luther, Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France had died ( thus no international allies of the Lutheran princes remained) Charles began a successful campaign. But killing the princes and occupying the land didn’t work. The priests had all turned Lutheran and the people as well. Rather than a triumph, the Peace of Augsburg ended in a whimper with each prince allowed to keep the religion of his choice throughout the land. Finally, in 1563 the Catholic Church had their own Reformation.
You often see movements that won't die. It is often because the perpetrators of an ugly system don't realize their own problem.