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How Catholic Luther began a religious revolution


By Canon Walter Lewis

This year marks the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation in Germany in 1517. The architect of the Reformation was Martin Luther, who was born in 1483 in Eisleben, in Saxony.

In 1501 he entered the University of Erfurt, where he received a Bachelor's degree, followed by a Master's degree in 1505, and later a Doctorate in Theology. Luther's father, a successful businessman, was keen that the young Martin should study for a secure career in law.

However, Luther set law aside in favour of theology and the religious, monastic life. Later, he was to say that, caught in a fearful storm, he fled into the arms of God and became an Augustinian friar in Wittenberg.

Some 46 years ago, I was part of a small delegation from the Irish Churches to visit East Germany and the places associated with Luther - Eisleben, where Luther was born, and where he died, aged 62; Erfurt, where he attended school and university; Wartburg, where he translated the Latin Bible into German; and Wittenberg, from where he pioneered the Reformation.

The Luther story is a major part of the Protestant Reformation in Europe. It is arguable that without Luther, there would have been no Reformation. Here in Northern Ireland, it is important to remind ourselves that Martin Luther was a Roman Catholic. Over the years, I have pointed out to people that Martin Luther did not mysteriously appear from outer space. He was very much a Roman Catholic in background and intent.

As he read and taught Holy Scripture in Wittenberg he sought to re-shape and reform the Roman Catholic Church. With the benefit of hindsight, many Roman Catholics - leaders and people - would have preferred that Luther's challenges should have been listened to at the time.

However, conflict and confrontation were part of the ecclesiastical culture of 16th century Europe, and as the Protestant Reformation took root and spread, the Church fragmented.

In this process, the contribution of Martin Luther, Roman Catholic priest and Professor of Theology, is impossible to underestimate. The key to Luther's contribution to reform was his discovery of two things. Firstly, as he studied and taught the Bible, he became utterly convinced of the centrality of Holy Scripture in the life of the Christian.

Secondly, as he reflected on his own relationship with God, he became utterly convinced of the centrality of faith in the life of the Christian.

As he read Scripture and reflected on his faith, Luther exposed the corrupt teaching that salvation could be a financial transaction. He could find no evidence in Scripture for the practice of the sale of 'Indulgences'. People were able to purchase from the Pope's emissaries certificates of forgiveness for sins committed. Luther nailed his 95 Theses of demands for reform to the door of his Wittenberg Castle Church. He challenged the Roman Catholic Church on this matter. At that point, everything began to change.

Luther was summoned to appear before the ecclesiastical court, the Diet of Worms. There, he was instructed to recant of his demands for reform. He refused, thereby disregarding the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.

"Here I stand. I can do no other. So help me God", he said. From that point, Luther was given sanctuary by Frederick the Wise, Duke of Saxony in the Wartburg Castle. There, in the course of a year, he translated the New Testament into German, the language of the people, putting the Word of God into the hands of the people.

And so, in this 500th year of Luther's Reformation, what do we remember?

Firstly, and most importantly, that Luther was a priest in the Roman Catholic Church, become Protestant reformer.

As he read Scripture and recalled God's love, forgiveness and grace, he was led to love God in return. From beginning to end, his relationship with God was a love story and the Bible's authority was supreme. This was the true and enduring radicalism of Protestantism - its readiness to question every human authority and tradition. Luther could shrug off every authority the Church could throw at him, while still submitting to the highest authority of all.

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