The sixteenth century witnessed one of the greatest religious revolutions, which radically changed religious life. The Reformation overthrew the established views in Christianity and made possible the establishment of the Protestant churches. The significance of Reformation was strengthened by such no less important events in European history as the Renaissance, preceding the Reformation, and the French Revolution, following the religious revolution. All together, these key historical events marked the beginning of a new epoch in the history and the way of life of the medieval Europe was completely changed.
Though the Reformation is thought to begin in 1517 with the activity of Martin Luther, whose concepts and contribution to the Church will be considered in the paper, there were many conditions that prepared the ground for this revolutionary event.
The authority of the Roman Catholic Church had a particular approach to the Church itself. It considered it more than a group of Christians but as a divine community, led by the Pope, who had absolute authority, given him by God. Thus, the power of the Pope was indisputable and the Christians believed the Roman Catholic Church to be the only Christian Church. However, among the faithful there were those, who doubted some of the concepts preached by the Church. Watching rich and rather loose life of priests, feeling lack of their influence on the Church, common people were not satisfied with what was imposed by the Church.
The first protest against the existing Church was in the 1300s when John Wycliffe and his followers accepted English translations of the Bible better that its Latin variant. By the sixteenth century the dissatisfaction with the Church had increased and it resulted not only in the rejection of the Latin Bible in favor of the Bible translated into local languages but also in the denial of intercession of priests. It was Erasmus from Rotterdam, who supported these ideas.
Therefore, we can see that in the sixteenth century Europe, particularly its religious life, became an arena of debate. The Church experienced numerous attacks from the supporters of humanism. The examples of John Wycliffe, Erasmus and their followers stimulated people to express their opinion concerning the Church and papacy.
It was Martin Luther who managed to reach what others tried to he achieved the reformation of the church.Β Martin Luther was not determined to become a monk since his earliest years. Being brought up in the family of a copper mine owner, Martin Luther was getting an education of a lawyer, when suddenly his life changed. During a thunderstorm, he was so frightened by lightning, which stroke near him, that he swore to be a monk if he survived.
So, he entered the monastery and became a dedicated monk. Perhaps it is because Martin Luther was so diligent and persistent in his serving God, he came to his own concept of the authority in the Church and life of the believer. In 1507, Luther became a priest and started teaching theology at university. He made a successful career in theology.
His thorough work urged him to study the Scriptures attentively.
By that time, Luther was already 24; the whole scope of his studies and work, all his knowledge of theology led him to new understanding of what he was teaching. He saw that what the Church preached was not always right and true to the Bible. The very organization of the Church also seemed wrong to Martin as the more he read the Bible the more he realized that religion needed no intermediaries and that the main authority in the Church should be the Bible and not the Pope. He reviewed his understanding of such notions as penance and righteousness and made a conclusion that a person could get salvation only due his faith and to God’s grace. Being an Augustinian monk, Martin Luther adhered tenaciously to this theory. He worried much about his own salvation and therefore devoted much time to thorough reading of the Bible. So he was sure that all people should have done the same then they would be closer to God and to redemption. Such his reflections led him to the conclusion that the indulgences sold by the Church were unnecessary. Witnessing how poor people gave away the last money in order to buy indulgences, Luther realized the cupidity of the Church. He saw that priests had enrichment for an object and with the help of indulgences deceived laity. At the same time, Martin Luther saw the consequences of such deceit people did not understand the seriousness of religion, particularly of salvation. Repentance, confession, fasting did not mean much for them as they relied only on the indulgence.
Developing all these thoughts and searching for the proof of his righteousness, Martin Luther wrote 95 theses. In these theses, he called upon people to debate on the topic of necessity of indulgences. This can be considered the first step towards Reformation. Though in his theses Luther did not question the authority of the Pope, the papal reaction was very sharp. The Pope issued a bull, announcing Martin a heretic, and wrote a confutation of Luther’s theses.
However, 95 Theses had been already printed and spread all over Europe. They were read and discussed by millions of people and the process of reviewing the Church’s dogmas could not be stopped.
Martin Luther had almost nothing to lose, so he openly denied the authority of the Pope and claimed that the papacy was not an essential part of the Church, while the main aim of the Church is to unite the faithful. These ideas were an open expression of the thoughts that appeared several centuries earlier in people’s minds but never were formulated and addressed to the Pope.
It was the crucial point both in Martin Luther’s life and in the course of the Reformation, as at last a new concept of the authority in the Church was definitively formulated. All the Pope’s attempts to make Luther refuse from his ideas were futile. Neither the threat of ex-communication nor the peace talks could make Luther change his mind. In the course of the of debates in Leipzig, he denied the authority of the papacy, leaving the power only to the Church, which he understood as the congregation of faithful. He rejected the rule that only being the member of the western Catholic Church under the pope, the person could get salvation. What is interesting to mention, he did not deny the eastern Church, i.e. Orthodox Church.
Certainly, such Luther’s speech could not pass unnoticed and the Pope Leo X told Martin Luther to deny 41 points of his doctrine, otherwise Luther would be ex-communicated. Luther burned the papal bull in public and continued to demand the reform of the Church, insisting that only faith of a person can be the basis of the religion and the guide of al people, while the faith itself should be supported by the Bible. Therefore, as the Pope did not achieve his aim, he ex-communicated Luther in 1521.
In the context of all these events, Martin Luther became a real revolutionary who appealed to people to reject the authority of the papacy and to turn to the Bible. Drawing people’s attention to the privileges of priests, particularly their property, the irrelevance of sacraments, pilgrimages, intercession of saints and prayers for the dead, Martin Luther tried to convince people to join him and his followers. He preached that the life of a true believer should be devoted to faith and bereaved of such extra distracting thing as ceremonial worship. It does not give people anything; only faith and confidence that only God and no one else can save them would help people.
Luther’s doctrine attracted not only those, who really found such principles close, but also those who were oppressed by the Pope’s interference into politics and business. In Germany, burgers and princes adhered to Lutheranism because they saw advantages for themselves in future (McGrath, 126).
The reformist movement grew and certainly some German princes and Holy Roman emperor were worried about the situation in the society, the protests again the Church undermined the reputation of both the Pope and the Emperor.
The famous Diet of Worms took place in 1521. There the Emperor and German princes again tried to convince Martin Luther to deny his doctrine. Then the split of the society would be stopped as people would see that their leader refused his words. However, Luther was true to himself and replied: Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other my conscience is captive to the word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe (Brecht, 28).
Thus, he supported those who believed him, and Germany split into two parts those who adhered to Lutheranism and those who were loyal to the Church and the Pope. In 1525 the Peasants’ War began and though in ended in a year the split between Lutherans and Catholics increased. Thus, with time Martin Luther’s followers organized another trend in religion, particularly in Christianity, called Protestantism.
That was the greatest contribution of Martin Luther into the development of Christianity. He showed people that they had right on their own point of view. During many years the Pope was the authority. All the believers depended on him and considered him the intercessor between God and people, an essential person in the Church. Martin Luther proved that the true faithful does not need any intercessors because his support is his faith and his guide in religion is the Bible. Having started the Reformation, Martin Luther changed not only religious views but also the way people lived in Europe. The Reformation favored the progress of democratic society, the development of national languages and literature, as the Protestants insisted on the translation of religious literature into native languages. Common people started to understand the religion better; it was not a mysterious and meant only for the clergy field any more.
With the Reformation being the greatest Luther’s achievement, people do not often remember other his contributions into the development of European society, such as his translation of the Bible into German. He was the first person who made the Bible closer to common people as he translated into the dialect that was spoken by all the German. The number of books, written by him, is quite impressive. This was religious literature, which helped people to understand the Scriptures better, to be well up in religion.
To make a conclusion, Martin Luther was a prominent person and theologian. He developed his own concept of the authority in the Church and managed to convey this idea to people. Due to his firm character, steadfastness and faith, he stood all the difficulties and overcame obstacles. Being ex-communicated by the Pope and proclaimed an outlaw, he continued his struggle for his idea. His books were read by people despite the fact that he was in exile and all his works were banned. Thus, he attracted many followers and formed a movement called Lutheranism. The Lutherans believed that there should be no authority in the Church. The main power and basis for all the believers should be the Bible. Reading and studying it people can strengthen their faith, which is their main judge. The true life of a faithful should be deprived of all things that distract people from their faith. In Martin Luther’s opinion these were nearly all the sacraments, prayers for the dead, pilgrimage etc.
Europe was split into two parts those who supported Luther and those who protested against his views. Many of those who were tired of absolute power and control of the Pope found many attractive ideas in Luther’s speeches.
Finally, after many disputes and conflicts Protestants formed their own movement and proved their right to exist equally with the Roman Catholic Church.
The Reformation brought many changes not only to the religious life of Western Europe but to other spheres as well, such as politics, education, culture, etc. We may agree or disagree with Martin Luther’s doctrine, however we cannot deny that he was an outstanding person, who dared to oppose the Pope and managed to prove his point of view.