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Essay/Term paper: Martin luther

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Religion

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This essay is concerned with Martin

Luther (1483-1546), and his concept of Christianity. Luther

began his ecclesiastical career as an Augustinian Monk in the

Roman Catholic Church. Consequently, Luther was initially

loyal to the papacy, and even after many theological

conflicts, he attempted to bring about his reconciliation with

the Church. But this was a paradox not to endure because in

his later years, Luther waged a continual battle with the

papacy. Luther was to become a professor of biblical

exegesis at Wittenberg where, in 1957, he posted his

critique of the Roman Catholic Church's teachings and

practices. This is otherwise known as The Ninety-Five

Theses, which is usually considered to be the original

document of the Reformation. Basically, this document was

an indictment of the venality of the Roman Catholic Church,

particularly the widespread practice of selling indulgences in

association with the sacrament of penance. Luther's beliefs

on the matter was that after confession, absolution relied

upon the sinner's faith and God's Divine Grace rather than

the intervention of a priest. At this point, Luther did not

advocate an actual separation from the Roman Catholic

Church. Instead, Luther felt his suggested reforms York-3

could be implemented within Catholicism. If this had taken

place, the Protestant Reformation would probably not of

ever seen the light of day--nor would it have been necessary.

But the theological practices being what they were in the

Roman Church, there was little chance at that time for any

great variations to occur within its folds. The Church of

Rome was thoroughly monolithic and set in its ways and was

not about to mutate into something else. If a metamorphosis

had occurred within the Roman Catholic Church, Luther

would have had a different destiny. But Luther's fate was

sealed, and his job was cut out for him. Concerning Luther

and the Reformation, Paul Tillich states: "The turning point of

the Reformation and of church history in general is the

experience of an Augustinian monk in his monastic

cell--Martin Luther. Martin Luther did not merely teach

different doctrines; others had done that also, such as

Wyclif. But none of the others who protested against the

Roman system were able to break through it. The only man

who really made a breakthrough, and whose breakthrough

has transformed the surface of the earth, was Martin Luther.

. . . He is one of the few great prophets of the Christian

Church, and his greatness is overwhelming, even if it was

limited by some of his personal traits and his later

development. He is responsible for the fact that a purified

Christianity, a Christianity of the Reformation, was able to

establish itself equal terms with the Roman tradition" (Tillich

227). Tillich's York-4 main emphasis, then, is not on Luther

as the founder of Lutheranism, but as the person who broke

through the system of the Church of Rome. Luther shattered

the theological restraints and distortions of the Roman

Catholic religion. This accomplishment amounts to the

establishment of another religion known as Protestantism, a

faith that was generated from the Reformation, with its

advocates such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich

Zwingli, and John Knox. However, Luther stood out as one

of the Reformation titans in a most unique manner. Roland

H. Bainton suggests the following concerning Luther's

reforms with regard to the Catholic sacraments; "But

Luther's rejection of the five sacraments might even have

been tolerated had it not been for the radical transformation

which he effected in the two which he retained. From his

view of baptism, he was not a second baptism, and no vow

should ever be taken beyond the baptismal vow. Most

serious of all was Luther's reduction of the mass to the

Lord's Supper. The mass is central for the entire Roman

Catholic system because the mass is believed to be a

repetition of the Incarnation and the Crucifixion. When the

bread and wine are transubstantiated, God again becomes

flesh and Christ again dies upon the altar. This wonder can

be performed only by priests empowered through

ordination. . . His first insistence was that the sacrament of

the mass must be not magical but mystical. . . He, too, had

no mind to subject it to human frailty and would not concede

that York-5 he had done so by positing the necessity of

faith, since faith is itself a gift from God, but this faith is given

by God when, where, and to whom he will and even without

the sacrament is efficacious; whereas the reverse is not true,

that the sacrament is of efficacy without faith. 'I may be

wrong on indulgences,' declared Luther, 'but as to the need

for faith diminished the role of the priests who may place

awafer in the mouth but cannot engender faith in the heart"

(Bainton 107). For Luther, the Holy Eucharist of Lord's

supper was really a symbolic act rather than an actual

instance of transubstantiation in which the bread and wine

actually become the body and blood of Christ. That was a

magical aspect to this sacrament which Luther could not

accept. According to the Roman Church, the bread and

wine may have the appearance of such, but their inner

substances have literally become the flesh and blood of

Christ. All of this is a literal acceptance of the words of Jesus

at the Last Supper: "And as they were eating, Jesus took the

bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the

disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. And he took

the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink

ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament, which

is shed for many for the remission of sins" (Matthew 26:

26-28). Luther's view of the communion sacrament was

strictly symbolic as is the view of Protestants to this day.

However, this idea was heresy so far as the Roman Catholic

Church was concerned. The sacramental power of its

York-6 priests was no longer necessary if this concept were

to prevail. This is the type of change the Reformation and

Martin Luther wrought. The power of the Roman clergy

could not exist if Luther's concepts were to be accepted.

Because the principal sacrament of the Roman Catholic

Church is the Holy Eucharist of Holy Communion, the fact

that Luther was tampering with it could not help but be

looked upon by the Roman clergy with great dismay. Luther

generated the Protestant belief that this sacrament is a

commemoration through which clergy and communicants

raise their spirits by symbolic remembrance of Christ's life

and death. In contrast, according to the teachings of the

Roman Church, Christ's human body and blood are actually

present in the consecrated bread and wine. As Bertrand

Russell states: "Even more important in the Middle Ages,

was transubstantiation; only a priest could perform the

miracle of the mass. It was not until the eleventh century in

1079, that the doctrine of transubstantiation became an

article of faith, though it had generally been believed for a

long time" (Russell 408). As Luther saw it, no sacrament is

effective by itself without listening to the Word associated

with the sacrament, and the faith that believes in it. There is

no magical element to any sacrament, including the doctrine

of transubstantiation. Consequently, Luther's teachings on

the sacraments took away the power of the priests and the

special nature of the Holy Eucharist. The Roman York-7

Catholic mass depends completely on these concepts in

order for the Roman Church to sustain its efficacy as the

representative of Christ on earth. Paul Tillich states: "From

this it followed that transubstantiation was destroyed,

because this doctrine makes the bread and wine a piece of

divine reality inside the shrine and put on the altar. But such a

thing does not occur. The presence of God is not a presence

in the sense of an objective presence, at a special place, in a

special form; it is a presence for the faithful alone. There are

two criteria for this: if it is only for the faithful, then it is only

an action. Then if you enter a church and the sacrament is

spread, you do not need to do anything, because it is pure

bread. If becomes more than this only in action, that is when

it is given to those who have faith. For the theory of

transubstantiation, it is there all the time. When you enter an

empty Roman church, you must bow down before the shrine

because God himself is present there, even though no one

else is present besides you and this sacrament. Luther

abolished this concept of presence. He denounced the

character indelebilis as a human fiction" (Tillich 236-237).

For Luther to take this position required considerable

courage on his part due to the fact he was facing an

ecclesiastical force of great strength and authority. Luther did

what most kings would fear to do. Thus his reservation over

transubstantiation was monumental, besides being a highly

York-8 important concern, to say the least. After all, as a

Augustinian Monk, who was he to fight the doctrines of the

pope or even attempt any reforms? However, this is the task

which Luther undertook against all odds. Luther's courage

and boldness can be seen in his "Open Letter to Pope Leo

X" dated: Wittenberg, September 6, 1520: "I have, to be

sure, sharply attacked ungodly doctrines in general, and I

have snapped at my opponents, not because of their bad

morals, but because of their ungodliness. Rather than repent

this in the least, I have determined to persist in that fervent

zeal and to despise the judgment of men, following the

example of Christ who in his zeal called his opponents 'a

blood of vipers,' 'blind fools,' 'hypocrites'. . . I have truly

despised your see, the Roman Curia, which, however,

neither you nor anyone else can deny is more corrupt than

any Babylon or Sodom ever was, and which, as far as I can

see, is characterized by a completely depraved, hopeless,

and notorious godlessness" (Luther and Dillenberger 44-45).

It would seem statistics would favor the Church of Rome;

however, such was not the situation. As the central figure of

a violent religious rebellion in Germany, Martin Luther

brought forth his principal theological doctrine about

Christianity. According to Luther, mankind is justified by

faith alone, and not by works. On the concept of this belief

in a personal faith instead of the power of the Roman

Catholic Church, Luther favored the abolition of many rituals

and challenged the supreme authority of the pope. For

York-9 this, Luther paid the ultimate penalty the Roman

Catholic Church could inflict, he was excommunicated.

Luther then went before the Diet of Worms, where he took

a firm stand concerning his beliefs and was placed under the

ban of the Holy Roman Empire. All of this entails

considerably more details concerning Luther's concept of

Christianity. Justification by faith, not by works is perhaps

Luther's most important doctrinal contribution to the

Reformation, and all it implies. According to Luther,

salvation is a gift from God, and no human being can

possibly do anything to merit this blessing. Thus good works

are of no avail with regard to the salvation of one's soul.

Therefore, the most a Christian can do is to have faith in

Jesus Christ as their Savior. This is basically what a Christian

is. Because Christianity has only two real sacraments

(baptism and the Lord's Supper), it is necessary for a person

to partake of both in order to actually be a Christian.

Certainly, a heathen or pagan can go around doing good

works, but this means nothing to God. Christ is the Second

Person of the Holy Trinity, with the father being the First

Person of the Holy Trinity, and the Holy Spirit being the

Third Person. However, a Christian should do good works;

yet, this will not save one's soul. God blesses certain

Christian persons with His Divine Grace according to His

Divine Wisdom. Only God knows who will be saved.

Nevertheless, all Christians must conduct their lives

according to God's York-10 teachings for the very reason

that they are Christians. God, in His Infinite Mercy and

Judgment knows his own. Only God is capable of judging

His people fairly and wisely. Paul Tillich states: "I want to

emphasize Luther's doctrines of sin and faith very much

because they are points in which the Reformation is far

superior to what we find today in popular Christianity. For

Luther sin is 'Unbelief in the real sin.' 'Nothing justifies except

faith, and nothing makes sinful except unbelief.' 'Unbelief is

sin altogether.' 'Therefore the word 'sin' includes what we

are living and doing besides the faith in God.' These

statements presuppose a concept of faith which has nothing

whatsoever to do with the acceptance of doctrines" (Tillich

245). Luther believed that mankind is totally depraved; but

this does not mean there is nothing good in humanity. What

this idea really means is that human beings are in continual

conflict with themselves. Modern psychology would say the

self is frustrated and neurotic concerning itself. In order to

deal with this situation, Luther felt faith is something a true

Christian must embrace. This is the faith that Jesus Christ is

the Savior of mankind. Luther did not feel those persons

having a profession involving violence are doomed to eternal

damnation. For instance, Luther believed a Christian soldier

could be saved even if he killed other people known as the

'enemy.' Luther provides a soldier's prayer is his essay

"Whether Soldiers, York-11 Too, Can Be Saved" (1526): ".

. . But because I know and have learned from your gracious

word that none of our good works can help us and that no

one is saved as a soldier but only as a Christian, therefore, I

will not in any way rely on my obedience and work, but

place myself freely at the service of your will. I believe with

all my heart that only the innocent blood of your dear son,

my Lord Jesus Christ, redeems and saves me, which he shed

for me in obedience to your holy will. This is the basis on

which I stand before you. In this faith I will live and die, fight,

and do everything else. Dear Lord God the Father, preserve

and strengthen this faith in me by your Spirit. Amen" (Luther

and Schultz 135-136). It should be understood, however,

that Luther never sanctioned war, which he believed was a

definite indication of mankind's depravity. Yet, a Christian

soldier may possibly be saved by God's Grace just as any

other Christian may be so blessed. One of the most

important differences between the Roman Church and

Luther's conception of Christianity is the personal

relationship between God and the Christian. In Catholicism,

the Church is an intermediary between God and the

individual. However, no intermediary is needed at all in

Luther's theological approach. This is one of Protestantism's

most significant qualities. Another very important

characteristic of Luther's reforms is the final authority of the

Bible with respect to theological matters. This is also

completely different from York-12 the Roman Catholic

view, which holds that the Church is the final authority with

regard to theological concerns. In fact, when speaking

excathedra, the pope is considered by Catholicism to be

infalliable concerning faith and morals. Luther could not

accept a human being with Holy Orders as the means

through which a Christian reaches God. These are the

teachings that caused Luther to be excommunicated by the

Roman Church and helped to create the Protestant form of

Christianity. When Luther appeared before the Diet of

Worms, he was asked by Eck, an official of the Archbishop

of Trier: "I ask you, Martin--answer candidly and without

horns-- do you or do you not repudiate your books and the

errors which they contain?" Luther replied, "Since then Your

Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will

answer without horns and without teeth. 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 I will not recant anything, for us to go against

conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen"

(Bainton 144). Essentially, Luther provided the Christian

with a degree of freedom not at all present in Catholicism.

Luther dared to defy the might and authority of the Roman

Catholic Church, and the Reformation was born. York-13

WORKS CITED Bainton, Roland H. Here I Stand: A Life

of Martin Luther. New York: Mentor, 1950. Dillenberger,

John. Martin Luther: Selection From His Writings. New

York: Anchor Books, 1962. Russell, Bertrand. A History of

Western Philosophy. New York: Simon and Schuster,

1945. Schultz, Robert C. and Helmut T. Lehmann. Luther's

Works, Volume 46, The Christianity in Society, III.

Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967. Tillich, Paul. A History

of Christian Thought From Its Judaic and Hellenistic Origins

to Existentialism. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968.

The Holy Bible. King James Version. New York: Thomas

Nelson Publishers, 1972. MARTIN LUTHER JAY YORK

RELIGION IN AMERICAN LIFE DR. JOSEPH

HOWELL APRIL 1, 1996 

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