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The Truth about the Reformation: Luther’s Reformation

Second Session: Luther’s Reformation

April 14, 2015    7:00-8:30 p.m.    Auditorium


Martin Luther 95 thesesYou’ve heard the stories: Martin Luther, an honest monk, nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, rediscovered the authentic Bible, purified the Church, freed the downtrodden masses from the oppression of Throne and Altar, and established every person’s right to interpret Scripture according to his own private conscience.

It didn’t really happen that way.


Learn who Luther really was – what he was really like – and what he and his followers really did (and didn’t do). Along the way, learn the truth about Luther’s teachings, including “private interpretation”, “Scripture alone”, “grace alone”, “faith alone,” his shocking doctrine of “bondage of the will”, and his surprising devotion to the Virgin Mary.

Every Christian – Catholic or Protestant – needs to know these things. Questions, comments and arguments are welcome.

For more hints about what’s on tonight’s program, please read the Notes about Luther’s Reformation below. This session is part of the series The Truth About the Reformation. If you’re attending for the first time, read this introduction to the series.




Notes about Luther’s Reformation


Did Luther nail his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg?
Probably not. The story seems to have arisen after his death.

Luther’s most famous words were “Here I stand: God help me”. Did he ever say them?
No. They were added to printed versions of the speech he gave at the Diet of Worms.

Did Luther object to the “sale” of indulgences?
Only selectively. Luther’s patron, Frederick of Saxony, made money from the “sale” of bogus indulgences attached to bogus relics. Instead of objecting to that, Luther objected to a legitimate indulgence promulgated by the Pope-—as a way to challenge the authority of the Pope and the Church.

Did Luther rediscover the Bible?
No. It had never been lost.

Did Luther translate the Bible into a vernacular language (German) for the first time?
No. He adapted other translations (like the “Great German Bible”) which already existed.

Did Luther restore the authentic Bible?
No. Luther contradicted, censored and even rewrote the authentic Bible, to make Scripture seem to fit his own peculiar ideas.

Did Luther proclaim every person’s right to interpret Scripture according to each person’s private conscience?
No. Luther insisted that he himself could interpret Scripture according to his own private conscience. But he claimed that anyone, Catholic or Protestant, who disagreed with him about anything he thought essential to Christianity, was doomed to Hell.

Did Luther teach sola gratia (“grace alone”)?
Yes. But so did the Catholic Church-and it still does.

Did Luther teach that no one can “earn” his way to Heaven?
Yes. But so did the Catholic Church–and it still does.

Did Luther teach sola fide (“faith alone”)?
Yes. He had to contradict, censor and even rewrite Scripture to do it.

Did Luther admit free will?
No. His doctrine of “bondage of the will” anticipated the most extreme Calvinist predestination.

Did Luther have a revelation “in the tower”?
He said he did. You won’t believe where “in the tower” really was. I don’t dare write it here.

Was Luther like modern Protestants?
Not in some ways. For example, he never lost his devotion to the Virgin Mary.

Was Luther the true leader of the Reformation?
Luther was the Reformation’s instigator and chief propagandist. Other religious reformers and secular princes used Luther as “front man” for their own purposes. By the time of his death, Luther had become little more than a figurehead.

Was Luther a progressive thinker?
No. For example, he condemned Copernicus.

What was Luther’s personality?
Turbulent, to put it mildly. He was anxious and angry, unstable and erratic, obviously not in complete control of himself. He may have been manic-depressive. He had a furious energy which he poured into an astonishing output of writings.

What was Luther’s personal style?
Luther used exaggeration to emphasize a point. Some of his more extreme statements may not have been meant literally. He was also extraordinarily vulgar and abusive. St. Thomas More’s notorious descent into vulgarity was a deliberate response to Luther in Luther’s own style.

What was Luther’s private life like?
Disgraceful. He embarrassed fellow reformers like Philip Melanchthon.

How did Luther die?
Disgracefully. The exact circumstances of his death were covered up.

What difference does Luther’s personal conduct make?
Many Protestants say they don’t follow the Pope because some Popes were sinners. Why do they follow a man (Luther) whose conduct was worse than any Pope’s?

Is Luther damned?
I don’t know. I hope not. He was not entirely responsible for himself. But he has a lot to answer for.

Did Luther found Lutheranism?
Not exactly. Luther’s followers, like Philip Melanchthon, reduced Luther’s inconsistent outpourings to some sort of system.

Did the Reformation improve morality?
No. Luther himself admitted that his Reformation made moral practice worse than it had been under the Papists.

Did Luther help the German lower classes free themselves from oppression by Throne and Altar?
No. Luther wanted rebellious peasants slaughtered without mercy, and his Reformation encouraged secular power (“Throne”) and state-controlled church (“Altar”) to destroy the medieval social safety net whose financial basis was the wealth of the Catholic Church.

What did Luther’s Reformation do for Germany?
Tore it into Catholic and Protestant sections, brought on civil war that devastated the country, fatally weakened the Holy Roman Empire, and prepared the way for the rise of militant (and Protestant) Prussia.

Anything else?
Yes. Luther’s principle of “private interpretation” has devolved into modern relativism. Luther’s loose morals gave rise to modern amorality. That wasn’t Luther’s doing, but it was the result of Luther’s doings.

What’s the bottom line?
As a non-Catholic writer put it, “Luther represents a catastrophe in the history of Western civilization”–see Richard Marius, Martin Luther: the Christian Between God and Death (Harvard University Press, paperback, 2000), p. xii. As Marius points out, Luther did not create all the conditions for this “catastrophe” by himself. But he catalyzed the “catastrophe” itself.

This is just a summary. Come hear the details.

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