Did the Protestant reformers bring about a return to pure New Testament Christianity? Were the reformers led by God's Holy Spirit? The TRUTH contained in this series is astonishing.
PART VI SHOCKING and sobering truths have come to light in this series. We have learned that "Christendom" has undergone some radical changes since the time of Jesus and His apostles.
From authentic history, we have seen that pagan ceremonies and traditions were introduced into the professing Christian church soon after the death of the original apostles. We found spiritual corruption, power politics and worldliness dominating in the ruling Catholic Church during the "Dark" Ages.
In recent installments, the real FACTS about Luther's early life and frustrations — his rebellion against authority and the need for obedience — have been discussed. We have seen that nationalism and politics were the guiding forces in the Lutheran reformation. Last month, we discussed the painful episode of Luther's hypocritical involvement in the German peasant war and his ranting appeal to the princes to "smite, strangle and stab" them in the name of God.
Now we will discuss the continued growth of Lutheranism, and his continued reliance on princes and politics.
The Growth of Lutheranism Divisions and scandals plagued the Protestant camp during Luther's later years. The armies of princes and political power might guarantee that the reformed religion would be outwardly maintained in certain territories. But they had no power to cleanse the faith and morals of subjects, nor were they able to make of one spirit the waning factions that rose within the Protestant movement.
During these years, began a controversy between the German and Swiss reformers concerning the true meaning of Christ's institution of the Lord's Supper, as it was now called. This contest caused a lasting breach between the Lutheran and Reformed Churches, which we will consider more fully in a later section.
Meanwhile, in January 1530, the emperor sent a call to the German princes for a Diet to meet in Augsburg. He proposed that the friendly adjustment of religious differences should be the primary object of its meetings.
The Protestants therefore prepared a comprehensive statement of their beliefs and of their criticisms of the Roman Catholic doctrine and practice. It was chiefly drawn up by Luther and Melanchthon, the latter doing most of the actual construction.
The "Augsburg Confession," as it was called, is very important to understand. It is the official statement of the position of the Lutheran Church, and has remained the basis of their doctrines to this day.
Let us notice a scholarly summary of the Lutheran position as set forth by Melanchthon (with Luther's advice) in this creed: "His purpose was to show that the Lutherans had departed in no vital and essential respect from the Catholic Church, or even from the Roman Church, as revealed in its earlier writers. That agreement is expressly affirmed, and many ancient heresies are carefully repudiated by name. On the other hand, Zwinglian and Anabaptist positions are energetically rejected. The sole authority of Scripture is nowhere expressly asserted. The papacy is nowhere categorically condemned. The universal priesthood of believers is not mentioned. Yet Melanchthon gave a thoroughly Protestant tone to the confession as a whole. Justification by faith is admirably defined, the Protestant notes of the church made evident; invocation of saints, the mass, denial of the cup, monastic vows, and prescribed fasting rejected" (Walker, p. 372).
Protestants Acknowledge Their Unity with Roman System Notice first of all that this Confession affirms the unity of the Lutherans with the Roman Catholic Church. Stress is given to the fact that Protestant and Catholic are essentially one church — one system of belief.
Reference to the sole authority of the Scriptures is by this time omitted. The Protestant doctrines of justification by faith alone and rejection of the Catholic sacramental system are the only real points of difference.
Instead of advocating a return to the belief and faith and practice of Jesus Christ and the true Apostolic Church founded by Him, the reformers now stress the unity of Protestantism with the pagan philosophies, beliefs, and practices of the corrupted Roman Catholic system.
As we have seen, the Romish church had now strayed as far from the teachings and practices of Christ and the Apostles as would seem possible. Yet, time and again, we will see the Protestants stressing their "unity" with this reprobate system.
In spite of the conciliatory tone of this Confession, it was rejected by Charles V, and the Catholic-dominated Diet. They ordered the complete restoration of the Catholic faith pending a general council within a year (Hausser, p. 123).
Luther Now Urges War Fearing punitive measures and the loss of church property which they had seized, eleven cities united with eight Protestant princes in forming the Schmalkaldic League as a defense against the emperor (Alzog's Universal History, p. 240-241). It is interesting to note at this juncture that Luther once again changed his policy for the sake of expediency.
He had formerly held, with Scripture (Romans 13), that it was a sin to oppose the emperor or any legally constituted authority (Walker, p. 375).
But now he urged them to employ violence to defend his doctrines. "The Protestant princes, together with certain imperial cities of South Germany, united in the League of Smalcald to resist the arbitrary proceedings of the emperor in his efforts to crush out the new opinions. Luther, who had hitherto opposed a resort to arms, now declared that Christians were bound to defend their princes when unlawfully assaulted. The league strengthened itself by an alliance with France, Denmark, and the Dukes of Bavaria. The territories of the emperor were again threatened by an irruption of the Turks under Soliman. Under these circumstances, it was impossible to carry out the measures of repression which had been resolved upon at Augsburg. Accordingly, the peace of Nuremberg was concluded in 1532, which provided that religious affairs should be left as they were until they could be arranged by a new diet or a general council" (Fisher, The History of the Christian Church, p. 305-306).
From the peace of Nuremberg, the situation of the Protestant territories remained substantially the same for several years. But many enlightening events took place within Luther's camp as the "fruits" of his teaching became more apparent. And in many cases, Luther's resort to an immoral act as being "expedient" to his cause is to be observed.
Luther Condones Bigamy Perhaps the most outstanding example of Luther's willingness to alter his standards in order to accommodate his princely protectors is the well-known case of the Landgrave of Hesse. His constant adulteries made him anxious as to his salvation, and he began to reason that perhaps a second marriage to a more attractive wife would be the solution to his problems. He appealed to the Old Testament example of this. His reasoning was strengthened by his acquaintance with an attractive seventeen-year-old daughter of a lady in his sister's court.
It will be helpful at this point to include extracts from a complete account of this matter by Michelet. In it, we find quoted the direct answer of Luther and his associates to the Landgrave's application:
"The most warlike amongst the Protestant chiefs, the impetuous and choleric Landgrave of Hesse, caused it to be represented to Luther, that the state of his health required him to cohabit with more than one wife. The instructions given to Bucerus for negotiating this matter with the theologians of Wittemberg offer a curious mixture of sensuality, or religious apprehensions, and of daring frankness.
"The application of the Landgrave of Hesse occasioned extreme embarrassment to Luther. The whole of the theologians at Wittemberg assembled on the occasion, to frame a reply, in which they determined upon effecting a compromise with the prince. They acceded to his request for permission to take a second wife, but upon condition that she should not be publicly recognized. 'Your highness,' they state in their answer, 'will, of your own accord, readily suggest to yourself the difference which exists between laying down a law to be universally promulgated, and one to serve a private and urgent exigency. We cannot publicly introduce or give our sanction, as by a law, to a permission for marrying a plurality of wives. We implore your highness to reflect upon the danger in which that man would be placed who should be convicted of having introduced into Germany a law such as this, whereby divisions would be instantly created amongst families, and a series of eternal lawsuits arise. Your highness is of a frail constitution; you sleep little, and it is requisite to adopt very great precautions in your case. The great Scanderbeg frequently exhorted his soldiers to observe chastity, telling them that nothing was so detrimental to their pursuit as the pleasures of love. May it please your highness to examine seriously the various considerations involved in this matter; the scandal, the labours, the cares, the grief, and weakness, which, as has been shown to you, are involved in it. If, however, your highness is utterly determined upon marrying a second wife, we are of opinion that it ought to be done secretly. Signed and sealed at Wittemberg, after the feast of Saint Nicholas, in the year 1539' — Martin Luther, Philip Melancthon, Martin Bucer, Antony Corvin, Adam John Lening, Lustin Wintfert, Dyonisius Melanther' " (Michelet, The Life of Luther, p. 251, 253).
Luther's counsel to make a "secret sin" of this matter was to go unheeded. His responsibility for advising the Landgrave to break God's law was now to exact its penalty. When the news began to leak out, Luther now advised the Landgrave to break another of God's commandments!
Now Luther Counsels a Lie "Though an attempt was made to keep the affair private, that soon proved impossible. Luther could only advise 'a good strong lie', but Philip was manly enough to declare: 'I will not lie'," (Walker, p. 378).
The scandal resulting from this episode did great damage to the Protestant cause. Thoughtful men were beginning to wonder where Luther's doctrine of "grace alone" might lead.
But the main point to remember is that Martin Luther — professing to be a servant of God — had knowingly and deliberately advocated that a man should break two of God's commandments.
In the meantime, the deterioration of morals continued through all classes of Protestant society. "The Protestants had already begun to relax in the severity of their demeanor and practice. They reopened the houses where debaucheries were wont to be carried on. 'Better,' observed Luther, 'would it have been that the devil had never been banished, than that he should return in sevenfold strength' (13 September, 1540)" (Michelet, p. 255).
Luther's Death The course of Protestantism was now firmly in the hands of the Lutheran princes, and, with constant threats from the Catholic League, they continued to hold on to the ground gained thus far.
The Catholic Council of Trent opened in 1545. With various interruptions for war, it was to continue to meet in irregular sessions until 1563. Its purpose was mainly to investigate and clear up some of the abuses, which had led to the Reformation. The result was a conservative reformation within the Catholic Church, but along strictly Roman lines, of course.
Soon after this Council began its sessions, and at a time when the emperor had made peace with the Turks and his other enemies, and now seemed ready for a fresh assault against the Protestant princes, Luther made a trip to Eisleben, his birthplace.
In view of the subsequent history of Germany, it will be well to note that Luther's final sermon was a railing attack against the Jewish people. He seems to have been possessed with the same vicious hatred and jealousy of the Jews as later characterized the rule of Adolph Hitler.
Alzog describes this tendency: "Ascending the pulpit of St. Andrew's Church, in Eisleben, for the last time, Luther once more called down the vengeance of heaven upon the Jews, a race of people whom he had so unjustly and virulently assailed in his earlier writings, that his followers after his death were confused at the very mention of his malignant denunciations. In his first pamphlet against them, he called upon Christians to take the Bible from them, to burn their books and synagogues with pitch and brimstone, and to forbid their worship under penalty of death; and in his second, entitled 'Of Shem Hamphoras,' he describes them at the very outset as 'young devils doomed to hell,' who should be driven out of the country" (Universal History, p. 271).
Thus, when we read of the atrocities committed against the Jews by Hitler's Third Reich, we may be reminded that this has been a tendency among many German zealots and was remarkably displayed in the founder of German Protestantism.
Luther himself was unhappy and wretched during his last months. Disturbed by the terrible state of morality to which his doctrine of faith alone had brought the inhabitants of Wittenberg, he wrote his wife in July, 1545, "Let us go out from this Sodom" (Alzog, p. 270).
"It was while prospects were thus darkening that Luther died on a visit to Eisleben, the town in which he was born, on February 18, 1546, in consequence of an attack of heart-disease or apoplexy. His last years had been far from happy. His health had long been wretched. The quarrels of the reformers, to which he had contributed his full share, distressed him. Above all, the failure of the pure preaching of justification by faith alone greatly to transform the social, civic, and political life about him grieved him" (Walker, p. 379).
Thus it was even apparent to Luther that his doctrines had in large measure failed to cause men to lead lives more consistent with spiritual principles. He often had periods of despondency, in his last years, when he seriously wondered if he were not dragging many souls with him to eternal condemnation (Plummer, The Continental Reformation, p. 132).
After Luther's death, the Protestant princes suffered a military defeat at the battle of Muhlberg, in 1547. The emperor granted an interim, which was essentially a victory for the Catholics, until another session of the Council of Trent could be called.
The Reformation Settlement But in 1554, the Lutheran prince Maurice of Saxony united with Henry II of France to inflict a crushing defeat on Charles V. The Lutherans now demanded full religious freedom and the right to keep all ecclesiastical property seized thus far (Alzog, p. 279-280).
A compromise was finally reached, called the Peace of Augsburg, in September 1555. It permitted each prince to determine whether Catholicism or Lutheranism should be professed in his territory. No choice was given his subjects.
All ecclesiastical properties seized before 1552 were to be retained by the Lutherans; all seizures since that time were to be returned.
Only Catholicism and Lutheranism (as defined in the Augsburg Confession) were permitted in Germany. All other deviationists were to continue to be punished as "heretics" (Walker, p. 382).
Therefore, in 1555, the division of Germany between Catholic and Lutheran was made permanent. In after years, the most serious challenge to this state of things was made in the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648). In the course of this terrible war, between the princes of the Catholic League and those of the Protestant Union, nearly half the population of Germany is said to have perished by the sword, famine, or the plague. But, by the Peace of Westphalia, it finally ended in relatively the same religious division of Germany as had been decided upon in the "Peace of Augsburg."
Thus, religious hatred, political division, and unceasing war continued to follow in the wake of the Lutheran reform. The decline in public morals was also a noticeable factor, which we shall consider later.
The political and religious alliance of Luther with the German princes placed the destiny of his cause in their hands from the first. And this religious patriotism, in turn, prepared the way for the strong national state in Germany — a state which has since bathed much of the world in blood under Kaiser Wilhelm II and Adolph Hitler.
Before analyzing the doctrines and practices of the Lutheran movement and the ultimate result of this religious upheaval, we will first recount the course of the Reformation in other lands.
Since all authorities agree that the "prime mover" in the Protestant camp was Luther himself, and that the Reformation as a whole was activated more from this source than any other, we will only outline its course in Switzerland, France, England, and other lands.
Lest we lose our perspective in the maze of historical events, places, and personalities, let us again ask ourselves: Was the Protestant Reformation a movement activated of Apostolic Christianity? Were its "fruits" the result of the Holy Spirit's operation?
Bearing these points in mind, the historical answers should be abundantly clear.
Don't miss next months installment about the dramatic events which began the Reformation in Switzerland.