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Lutheranism History

There has been much written about Luther, and new scholarship is ever adding to our understanding of his thought and historical impact on western civilization in general, and the western church in particular, but a brief synopsis is offered here:

Martin Luther
Martin Luther
Martin Luther was born in 1483 in Eisleben, Germany. His father was part of the emerging merchant class and could afford to send Martin to school, where he excelled. Luther was very connected to the prevailing practice and theology of the time - that Christ ruled as judge, and penance, works of mercy, spiritual discipline and attending mass were all ways to be judged righteous. Young Luther was sent to study law at university, but after his life was threatened in a thunderstorm, he decided to join an Augustinian cloister and become a monk.

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It cannot be underestimated how troubled Luther was, as he sought a merciful God, but only knew God as a harsh taskmaster. He continued to seek solace in his life dedicated to prayer and service, but the more he did to try to appease God, the more troubled he became. His advisor, John Staupitz, sent him to Wittenberg to the new university for a teaching assignment. In a short time, Luther earned his doctorate and became part of the faculty. As he began teaching scripture - and especially as he read and studied Paul's letter to the Romans - Luther found that God is a judge, but has ruled Christ guilty on our account, that we may be free in faith to love and serve him without fear. This to Luther was, "the gospel" and it forever changed him.

Luther believed so firmly in the gospel, that he began to critique church practices. The most infamous practice was the selling of indulgences (a document that assured salvation, and could be purchased on account of others, even the deceased). Luther wrote ninety-five points or theses criticizing this practice and calling people to a life of repentance. Scholars debate whether he was more interested in a collegial debate or a wider conversation within the church, but through the new media outlet available in the printing press, the 95 Theses became widespread, and with it a backlash against Luther from church authorities.


Luther continued to write, composing in 1520 two of his classic works, "The Freedom of a Christian" (where he discussed the relationship between faith and works and the freedom found in Christ) and the "Babylonian Captivity of the Church" (where he attacks current practices in the mass as holding captive the promises of God and therefore holding God's people captive from the gospel). In short time Luther was excommunicated by Pope Leo X, and was summoned to the city of Worms, where he was put on trial and pressured to recant. He did not recant. Whether Luther did famously say, "Here I stand I can do no other," is debatable, but it certainly was what was remembered. Luther became a folk hero even as he was condemned as an outlaw.

Luther was kidnapped by friends on his return trip to Wittenberg, and hidden in the Wartburg Castle for his own safety. While there he translated the New Testament into German, believing that if people could engage the scriptures they too could understand the promises of the gospel. In time Luther returned to Wittenberg, and along with his colleagues, went about making reforms and leading an evangelical movement within the church, which he did the rest of his life. In that time his friendships grew, he wrote and preached regularly, he married a former nun, had a family life rich with children, and travelled to settle disputes and aid a new church order and society taking shape.

Luther was a Bible scholar, not a systematic theologian. His writings are functional, full of tensions and the intricacies of relationships, and at times emotional. His goal was to communicate the gospel. In 1529 he wrote both a Large and Small Catechism for people to learn the basics of the faith (10 Commandments, Apostles Creed, Lord's Prayer, explanations to Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, and Bible passages for everyday use - sometimes referred to as a "Table of Duties"). It is debated when Luther made the break from Rome (some say as early as the Diet of Worms in 1520) or if he still believed that reconciliation was possible into his later life. Some consider Luther's "Smalcald Articles" (1537) his last stand of where the reform movement could find a place within the universal church. Luther died in 1546.

Politically, the Emperor needed his princes' allegiance due to the constant threat of invasion of the capital city of Vienna. At the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, the matter of the religious controversy was to be settled so the empire could get about its business. The German princes presented what was to be called the Augsburg Confession, written in twenty eight articles by Luther's close friend and colleague, Phillip Melanchthon. In the Augsburg Confession the reformers presented an adherence to the historic faith of the church, and an explanation of their theological positions and practical reforms based on that historic faith. The Roman church authorities rejected it. The German princes subscribed to it. The break between Rome and the new Protestants was now certain. It was finalized by the Council of Trent and a series of wars that left central Europe in tatters.

Martin Luther's House
Luther's House in Eisenach
A new world order emerged. The authority of the Pope across Europe was limited, as Scandinavian countries became Lutheran, subscribing to the Augsburg Confession. Simultaneously reforms were happening elsewhere in Europe, most notably by John Calvin in Switzerland. King Henry VIII broke with Rome, and declared himself as the Defender of the Faith for the Church of England. Other groups also emerged, competed, and debated with the Lutherans - but they often differed, particularly on the sacraments, and so remained separated. Rome strengthened its position in Southern Europe and, through the Council of Trent, reasserted Papal authority. Eventually a common document of agreement, or concord, was arranged by the next generation of Lutheran leaders to articulate doctrine. The contents of the Book of Concord (as it came to be known) are: the three ecumenical creeds (Apostles, Nicene, Athanasian), the Augsburg Confession (1530), Apology (or further explanation) of the Augsburg Confession (1531), Smalcald Articles (1537), Melanchthon's Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope (1537), Luther's Small and Large Catechisms (1529), and the Formula of Concord (1577). With the fragmentation of the church in Europe and the new economic and political realities of the discovery of America and sea trade, Lutherans, along with other Protestants and Roman Catholics, participated in missionary movements and church plantings bringing Christianity into all corners of the globe.

Lutheran church bodies are confessional churches (meaning to confess or proclaim one's faith) more than institutional ones (meaning no particular church order is prescribed, though all churches have some form of institutional practice for the sake of order). While scripture is paramount, the Lutheran Confessions aid in the proclamation of the gospel. Today, almost all Lutheran church bodies subscribe to the Augsburg Confession. Many use the Book of Concord as well, but to various degrees, and with different understandings of its authority. Some are more prone to apply reformation principles and work with a wide variety of Christians, while others require a firmer view of doctrinal agreement as necessary for such cooperation. Like many other Christian groups, Lutherans are learning what it means to confess our faith in a new and changing global, digital, pluralistic, world.


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