Martin Luther, German monk/theologian, effectively argues for church reform and against the supremacy of the pope which he bases on the Scripture. Constantly using the Scriptures to support his claims, Luther systematically shatters everything he considers unjust and argues with such zeal that his works present themselves in a way that is most impressive. In his Three Treatises Luther writes for laity and clergy alike to reveal the abuses of the church in Rome and calls his audience to force Rome’s hand at major reconstruction. With his very organized style, the breadth of his articles, and the soundness of most of his proposals it is clear that Luther laid the groundwork for true change.
In his work “To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation” Luther not only discloses the “three walls” which the papacy hides behind and the abuses of the pope and Rome but also makes some very well informed proposals for making amends. After briefly stating that the church is basically run by oppressive demons, Luther begins by exposing the three ways that Rome has been able to do this while protecting themselves from reform. With the first wall he explains that the church claims precedence over the state and common people but this cannot be true. To Luther all believers are of the same estate and of the priestly order, therefore, in spiritual matters all true Christians are equal. While one person may be a stonemason and the other a minister, their faith makes both of them priests and they are identical in the eyes of God. One is not preferred to the other, one simply conducts the sacraments and the other does not, this being the only difference between them. The second wall Luther refutes is the Romanist belief that the pope alone has the power to interpret Scripture. Ironically, he first does this by interpreting the Scripture and then by questioning the pope’s ability in this matter! He then returns to the idea that all Christians are priests according to which the pope has no extra spiritual authority than anyone else so has no divine ability in regards to discernment. Under the same logic with which the first two walls fell, the third wall (only the pope has the right to call a council) also crumbles. Luther makes it especially clear that this rule oppresses the Christian people and should not be acknowledge when he writes “if the pope were to use his authority to prevent the calling of a free council, thereby preventing the improvement of the church, we should have regard neither for him nor for his authority,” (24). By giving the pope alone this right, not only do the Romanists go against the idea that all Christians are priests but also the pope has abused his power of infallibility. Luther makes clear that none of these walls can be supported by Scripture and are harmful to the Christian faith so should be regarded as invalid.
Luther then addresses the specific abuses committed by the church against the German people that need his immediate attention. These pressing issues include the abuse of papal authority, the number of cardinals in Germany, and the unjust taking of money and property from his country’s people. With regard to the charge made of papal authority, Luther seethes with anger and contempt yet his argument stays clear and remains solid. He explains that the pope’s humility should serve as an example to all Christians instead doing things like wearing a triple crown which he considers to be ultra vain considering even a monarch wears two less. Where as papal supporters assert that this is acceptable because the pope is a lord on earth Luther calls it a lie and uses Scripture to show the inaccuracy of their claim. Here Luther makes an excellent point when he writes “no vicar’s rule can go beyond that of his lord,” (27). By saying that Christ was the Lord of Heaven on earth when made flesh not a lord of the earth totally destroys the Romanist declaration of temporal authority. Since Christ’s kingdom is a kingdom not of this world but the next and since the pope should act only in place of Christ by sheer definition of the word “vicar” it can be logically deduced that the pope should have no administrative authority because Jesus did not have such authority. The next problem Luther attempts to shoot down is the large number of cardinals in their area who collect large sums of money from the Germans greatly depleting their assets. Luther’s reasoning on this topic is not nearly as strong and uses little Scripture or verifiable data in presenting his evidence. Nevertheless, it is dealt with quickly with harsh words that accuse them of being consumed by greed for money and more or less worthless in serving Christians. His solution is to either abolish their posts altogether or greatly reduce their number. Likewise, papal offices should suffer the same fate thus alleviating the third controversy. On this offence his discussion once again becomes more concrete as he claims these offices suck the Germans of all their wealth for what amounts to protection money and control too many benefices which deprive them of property and income. In the third part of the treatise he then segues into another set of specific reforms that comprise nearly half of the treatise. These 27 reforms hold some of his more interesting ideas some of which include no longer kissing the pope’s feet, the ability to confess sins to anyone, abolishing most pilgrimage places, and some temporal matters but will not be discussed at length here.
In Luther’s next treatise titled “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church” he once again wags a finger at the church in Rome this time focusing his work on the sacraments. To start, it should be observed that the title of this work alludes to the Babylonian forces of the Hebrew Bible who forced the Jewish people out of their promised land and forced them into captivity and servitude. In this instance, however, the title refers not to Babylon of the earlier Scripture but equates the church of his day with that nation because he sees Rome as similarly holding the Christian people captive. After opening with a short rant on indulgences, papal infallibility, and the some clergy members that oppose his views Luther illustrates the major theme of this work: the sacraments.
Throughout this treatise Luther goes into great detail on the seven sacraments of the church of which he ultimately rejects all but two as bonafide. The first sacrament discussed at length and one of the two he holds as true is the Lord’s Supper. Early in this discussion, Luther writes “no eating can give life except that which is by faith,” (133) which is vital to understanding his take on the sacrament. The sacrament itself is not as important to Luther because it requires faith and does not save in and of itself. Luther then explains that there are three major ways in which the church withholds the sacrament from the Christian. The first captivity lies in the fact that laity are deprived of the cup during this sacrament and given the bread alone. This is a grave injustice for Luther because he finds fault with the way the Scripture was interpreted/manipulated for which he explains is totally incorrect and determines that both cup and wine should be given. Second on his list of captivities one finds the doctrine of transubstantiation based on the Aristotelian idea which Luther absolutely loathes because the idea is not based on Scripture and it would seem because the theory was based on Aristotle. He attests that transubstantiation, which states that the essence of the sacrament is the flesh and blood while accidents are the bread and wine, is invalid because it is not supported by Scripture. Instead, Luther adopts his own view of how Christ is present at the sacrament commonly known as “real presence” which holds that Christ is everywhere and especially in the consecrated bread and wine. He attempts to validate this view scripturally which he does to some extent, however, his view is of course not considered definitive in most Christian circles. Luther then identifies the third captivity which deals with the mass which he considers “by far the most wicked of all,” (152). According to Luther, the church has turned the mass into a sacrifice for salvation. This, however, cannot be because faith and trust in God’s Word alone has the power to save not the works of man.
The other sacrament Luther does not reject is baptism, however, he finds fault in the church’s treatment of it. According to Luther, for the true believer “baptism is the divine promise” (180) to be “the foundation of all the others” (181) which can never be altered by sin. On the other hand, the church holds that sin can undo this sacrament so they tie it in with the sacrament of penance in order to resolve this problem of post-baptismal sin. In spite of this Luther asserts that there is no problem because one will ultimately sin but through faith he or she will always return to God’s grace. Another disagreement between his view of baptism and that of normative Christianity arises in the sign itself. For him too much emphasis is placed on the sign rather than the word or to faith and this is where the church errs. By highlighting the works and ceremonies of the church they impede faith because in doing this what is important is that it is done not the mindset of the person being baptized. The baptismal vow, the only vow that is needed, must be cherished because one is “saved through faith alone” (201) as Luther explains with Scripture. Of the other sacrament, originally he does not denounce penance as a sacrament because it does have basis in the Scripture, however, he does determine that it should not be considered as one because it has no physical sign. He reproves the status of the remaining four sacraments of confirmation, marriage, ordination, and extreme unction mostly on the grounds that they are not promised as signs of grace in the Scripture.
Upon reading “The Freedom of a Christian”, one immediately notices a major change of tone in Luther’s writing. In both this text and his letter to the pope that accompanied it, he no longer refers to him as the Antichrist or claims that Leo is in league with Satan; on the contrary, Luther goes to great lengths to explain that it is not the pope’s fault that the state of the church is so bad but the flatterers within the Roman See that are truly evil. However, this text seems to be written more for his supporters than an actual letter and treatise for the pope considering there is no record of Leo X receiving it, Luther’s advice and the way in which he addresses the pope can be regarded as patronizing, and he keeps the same systematic style as in his previous treatises. The only real difference in style is that he drops all the references to the pope being Satan.
Early in this treatise Luther quotes seemingly contradictory passages of Scripture that refer to Christians as both free and in bondage. Although it may seem impossible to be both a prison and free, Luther illustrates that this is not so because of the distinction between spiritual and fleshly natures. With respect to the “inner man” (278) the Christian is free from all wants and desires because this happy soul has all that it needs in abundance through faith in the Word of God. The spirit can desire nothing but trust in God’s Word so by trusting the Word one is liberated from this longing. Unworthy as one may be to receive such plentitude it is nonetheless given to the believer by God. No works offer such a gift, only faith justifies this reward. Faith alone which “justifies, frees, and saves” (282) bringing with it the benefits of possibility, righteousness, and unity with God. According to Luther, even though the laws are impossible to completely uphold this feat becomes possible, not by works but by faith.
While one may sin from time to time, faith alone can save, not obedience the rules. Luther does not mean that one is allowed to go out and commit multiple heinous crimes, on the contrary, Luther believes that if one truly has faith that this person would not intentionally offend God by sinning. In so many words, this is what Luther is anticipating when he writes things like “he who fulfills the First Commandment has no difficulty in fulfilling all the rest,” (288). However, the flesh being made weak and subject to desires of the flesh, the Christian is granted grace by a loving and merciful Christ. Through faith the believer also becomes obedient to God’s will where there resides an inherent level of trust in its acceptance. Faith also then leads to unity with Christ which Luther explains to be like the unity of marriage. Here the Christian inherits all the blessed things that Christ offers and Christ inherits and conquers the things that the soul has to offer (namely death, sin, and damnation). In this union one is infinitely well received. At this point, Luther again impresses upon the reader his firm belief in the priesthood of all Christians resulting from faith alone. As explained above, Luther holds that all those who have faith in Christ’s Word are truly priests in the eyes of God. This brother/sisterhood of priests makes all Christians equal even though not all will “publicly minister and teach,” (292).
While the soul may be free, the flesh remains in bondage to move toward the perfection that Luther believes the true Christian attains upon departing this transitory world. As Luther repeats hundreds of times through out these treatises and have been stated numerous times here as well these works do not save which is the ability of faith alone. In other words, these acts cannot be done in anticipation of future rewards which would actually make them wicked deeds; rather, they must be done freely in love.
Certainly one the most enjoyable Christian documents as a text, it is also the clear and illuminating, at least in my opinion. Luther’s intellect and style of discourse also made this a helpful and interesting read. One of the more surprising things about Luther though is his sense of humor. At times he is truly hilarious especially when he repeatedly calls the pope and other religious figures of his day Satan, the Devil, and the Antichrist. It is understood that many times these were not intentional on his part but it is hard not to laugh at this obsession considering he says someone is carrying out the work Satan on almost every page. At other times his humor almost has to be seen as intended specifically when he writes “as infant boys need beyond all else to be cherished in the bosoms and by the hands of maidens to keep them from perishing, yet when they are grown up their salvation is endangered if they associate with maidens,” (324) which is just silly.