Essentials of Church History - Lesson 4


The influence of Catholicism expanded in the 15th and 16th centuries because of the exploration sponsored by Spain and Portugal. A central figure in the Reformation was Martin Luther. His theological ideas initiated and shaped the Reformation movement and are still influential today.

Gordon Isaac
Essentials of Church History
Lesson 4
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I. Expansion of Catholicism in 15th and 16th centuries

A. Columbus discovered the New World

B. Tension in Latin America between Spaniards and Indians

C. Portugal and the colonization of Africa

II. Call in Europe for Reformation

A. Martin Luther

1. Indulgences

2. 95 Theses

3. Luther's theology

a. The word of God

b. The knowledge of God

c. Law and gospel

d. Church and sacrament

  • Specific political and cultural events combined to form a setting when Jesus lived, which can be described as the "fullness of time." In the founding and development of the early church, Pentecost, the fall of Jerusalem in a.d. 70 and the persecution of Christians were significant.

  • Because of Palestine's central location in the Middle East, it was important to other countries militarily and economically. The apostles and other Christians were able to travel to spread the gospel throughout the world. Constantine's conversion and his support of Christianity had a greatly affected its growth and development. The ecumenical councils met to discuss and articulate a biblical view of God, as well as Christ's divine and human natures.

  • Individuals like Augustine helped shape the theology of the church. Charlemagne and Gregory the Great expanded the political influence of the church. The monastic movement, rise of Islam and the Crusades were significant during this period of time.

  • The influence of Catholicism expanded in the 15th and 16th centuries because of the exploration sponsored by Spain and Portugal. A central figure in the Reformation was Martin Luther. His theological ideas initiated and shaped the Reformation movement and are still influential today.

  • Zwingli and Calvin were influential leaders in the Protestant Reformation movement. The Anabaptists and Mennonites are movements that still have an influence on theology in the church today.

  • The political events in the 16th century had a great impact on the Reformation movement in England and Scotland.

  • The Catholic heritage of France made it difficult for Protestant groups to thrive. The Catholic reformation spawned the beginning of several movements that still exist today. The Council of Trent clearly delineated major differences between Catholic and Protestant theology. We still struggle with some of the same political and social implications of our beliefs with which the reformers wrestled.

  • A prevailing attitude during this time was that religious tolerance was a better policy than emphasizing doctrinal disagreements that led to wars. Why be concerned about details of doctrine that produced nothing but quarrels and prejudice when natural reason, something all people have in common, can answer the fundamental questions regarding God and human nature? Political and religious leaders in England and Europe contributed to the debate between Reformed theology and Rationalism. Subjects addressed are the Thirty Years War, Puritan revolution in England, Reformed Orthodoxy, Westminster Confession, Deism, Rationalist option in the wake of the confessionalization of Europe, George Fox and the Spiritualist option, Pietism with Zinzendorf, the Moravians, John Wesley and the Methodists.

  • Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield were well-known preachers in the Great Awakening in the American colonies in the early 18th century. Camp meetings were common in meetings during the 2nd Great Awakening. Preachers like Dwight Moody began a movement which resulted in urban revival. Mormonism and Jehovah witnesses were two religions that were founded. The fundamentalist vs. modernist controversy, as well as the geographic expansion of missions, still affect the world today.

  • Wesley's preaching and the holiness movement were major influences in beginning the modern Pentecostal movement. Charles Fox Parham was instrumental in the formation of the Pentecostal movement, sometimes referred to as the "first wave." The second and third waves of the Pentecostal movement, as well as the ecumenical movement, have had a significant impact on individuals and churches across the world during the twentieth century.

The people, events, and movements that shaped church history from the life of Jesus to the twentieth century. The class looks at the early church, Constantine, the church in the Middle Ages, the Reformation in Europe and Great Britain, and Protestantism in France. It then moves into more recent centuries and deals with the issues of doubt and dogma, and finally the Great Awakening with Edwards, Whitefield, and eventually Wesley. 


I. Expansion of Catholicism in the 15th and 16th Centuries

Interestingly within this time period there was a tremendous growth within Catholicism. We will include Spain and the New World along with Portugal and Africa in this lecture. We’ll also introduce developments in those parts of the world which today contain millions of Christians. And then we’ll move from there to talking about Martin Luther who is considered the father of the reformation. He was an incredible individual, a very interesting character with great strengths and indeed great weaknesses but who by the dent of his personality the strength of his scholarly activity and the prophetic power of his voice was able, along with many others, to initiate a powerful reformation move which began a renewal in the church. From there we’ll move to Ulrich Zwingli and the Swiss Reformation. We’ll talk a little bit about the Anabaptist movement out of which the Mennonites came. We will talk about John Calvin whose work in Geneva and his writing of The Institutes of the Christian Religion in the Protestant Christianity. We’ll move to the reformation in Great Britain and look at those developments within England and also Protestantism in France. In addition, there were a number of zealous Catholic’s who in their efforts to reform the Catholic Church made wonderful contributions.

Towards the end of the middle Ages and during the time of the Protestant Reformation, Spain and Portugal began a process of expansion that would have enormous consequences for the later history of the church. Protestant church historians preoccupied with the momentous events that were taking place in Europe at time often forget that it was precisely during this period that Catholicism enjoyed its most rapid expansion. The same is true of many Catholic historians, such an omission, which was perhaps defensible at an earlier time has become inexcusable in the 20th and 21st centuries. And as we become more and more aware of the worldwide Christian movement, it’s necessary for us to tell the story in that global context. Right now the majority of Christians live in the southern hemisphere and for us to tell the church historical story properly we need to recognize the origins and development of the Christian movements in the southern hemisphere.

A. Columbus and The New World

On October 12th 1492 Christopher Columbus and his companions set foot on the New World. Neither he nor anyone in Europe had the remotest idea of the significance of that event. Of course Columbus was attempting to find a path to the Far East. Instead he ran headlong into the New World. He, in making this discovery, opened up a vast land which the Spanish, the Portuguese and the Jesuit missions would make their foothold and become a source of great wealth for religious orders. In the New World there were hopes that the Spanish Conquistadores would not exploit the Indians and in fact Ferdinand and Isabella enacted laws to counteract that. These laws were repeatedly enacted in Spain but not obeyed in the New World. The net result was that the Indians were exploited and decimated while Spaniards on both sides of the ocean deliberated as to what was the best course to follow.

Religious policies in the new lands follow the patterns that had been established during the middle ages. In their wars against the Moors in Spain, Christians Spaniards had drawn on the ideals and principles of the crusades and now they applied the same principles to the conquest of the Indian infidels. Also, shortly before the discovery of the New World, Castillo had conquered the Canary Islands and Granada and the Popes had granted the crown extraordinary powers over the church in the newly conquered lands. These precedents were now applied in the New World in a series of bulls from 1493, 1510, Popes Alexander VI and Julius II gave enormous authority to the Spanish crown. The Kings of Spain were given the “right of royal patronage” over the church in the new lands. As this evolved, it meant that the kings had the right to nominate, and therefore to practically appoint bishops and other high ecclesiastical officers for the New World. With few exceptions the crown was also to administer tithes and offerings and to be responsible for all the expenses of the church. The result was that the church in Spanish America had very few direct dealings with Rome and became practically a national church under the leadership of the Spanish Kings and their appointees.Although some of the bishops selected by the crown were faithful pastors of their flocks, most of them, especially in later years were political appointees who had no understanding of nor concern for the plight of the masses in Spanish America.

B. Tension in Latin America between Spaniards and Indians

So, one of the things we find as the Spanish discover the New World and begin to colonize in Latin America, tension between the Spaniards and the Indians grew with protest against the exploitation of the Indians. There was a sermon that was preached in Santo Domingo in 1511 by the Dominican Antonio Montesinos. Local authorities tried to silence him, but his fellow Dominicans rallied to his support and eventually the dispute reached the Court in Spain. Among those who heard this sermon and became involved in the protests was one Bartolome de las Casas. He had settled in Santo Domingo almost ten years earlier and had at some point had been ordained a priest, probably the first ever to be ordained in the New World. But he was not overly troubled by the exploitation of the Indians. In fact, he himself had several of them in encomienda. The system of encomienda trusts was the main abuse against which the Dominicans protested. It was forbidden to enslave the Indians, but supposedly in order to civilize them and to teach them Christian doctrine, groups of them were entrusted to a settler. In exchange for the settler’s guidance the Indians were to work for him, the result was even worse than outright slavery. For those who held trusts had no investment in the unions and therefore had no reason to be concerned for their wellbeing. And so over the course of the next years Bartolome de la Casas fought for the rights of the Indians and wrote many pamphlets and books that fought against the exploitation of the Indians. So there were some voices raised in protest but to a large experience the church in Latin America was that of exploitation.

In Mexico, Cortez, was on his way to capture the empire destroying the idols of the various tribes he visited. He did not do this however in the case of one powerful tribe whose support he needed for conquest of the Aztec empire. Thus an odd combination of expediency and fanatical zeal set the tone for the Spanish religious policies in Mexico. Cortez asked for more priests to be sent instead of the original two and got twelve Franciscan Friars. As the bloodshed increased tension with the Indian population increased. Indians began to recognize that these white men were conquering their gods and this Christian God had conquered them; so there was a sense of subservience and many rushed to be baptized. Little by little those twelve original friars gained the respect and even the love of their Indian flock. There were times when the Indians rioted upon learning that their priest was being sent elsewhere and forced the authorities to change their plans. There were many conflicts and disputes in that early Mexican church. The friars baptized any who wished to receive the holy rite requesting only that they knew that there was only one God and that Jesus was their redeemer. They were required to recite the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary. In some cases even these minimal requirements were waived. There were reports of missionaries baptizing hundreds in a single day, sometimes merely sprinkling several of them at the same time.

The secular priests, that is, those who did not belong to monastic orders, had reason to be jealous of the Friars’ success, although most of them did little for the instruction of the Indians. In any case they accused the Friars of oversimplifying baptism, not of lowering the requirements as one might expect but of omitting certain elements in the administration of the rite itself. Eventually the dispute was settled by Pope Paul III who declared that there had been no sin in the previous simplified baptismal rites but that from that time on certain directives must be followed. But even after this papal intervention, there continued strife between the friars and the secular priests. This line of conflict and tension between secular priests and the Mendicant order continued on in the New World with many stories of the tension it created. So it is with a mixed blessing that the gospel reaches the New World. For there were many cases in which the Indians were not allowed the kind of education necessary for them to become priests, this created a great deal of resentment and tension.

The activity of the Jesuits continued in Brazil and other places around South America and the Christian enterprise continued to grow in the following centuries. But it had its own trajectory because of the fact that there was not a great deal of contact with Rome. And so the Roman Catholic experience in Latin America was different than Europe.

C. Portugal and Africa

Portugal completed the conquests of her lands from the Moors in the 13th century. Remember that the rise of Islam swept across North Africa passed through Spain and Portugal and was entering into France when in 732 Charles Martel stopped it. Eventually, Spain and Portugal regained control of their own countries and expelled the Moorish occupiers and so this was complete in the 13th century almost two hundred years before the Spaniards had completed the expulsion of the Moors from Spain. Since Portugal was hemmed in by Spain there was only one way for them to move and that was out on the ocean and so Prince Henry the Navigator encouraged the exploration of the west coast of Africa. This took place in the first half of the 15th century, under his auspices, and after fourteen unsuccessful attempts, Portuguese settlers weathered the cape and got down to Sierra Leon. There were several goals which inspired this exploration. One was the hope to reach the orient by sailing around Africa or by crossing the continent and thus to circumvent the Muslims who controlled the most direct land routes between Europe and the Far East. Also, vague rumors of the existence of Ethiopia had reached European courts and there was the hope of finding this Christian Kingdom and establishing an alliance with it, and thus launching a great crusade that would attack the Muslims from two different directions at the same time. Finally, the slave traffic soon became an important factor in the exploration and colonization of Africa.

In 1487 the first Portuguese explorer rounded the Cape of Good Hope, the southernmost point in Africa. And then ten years later Vasco de Gamma sailed along the east coast of Africa crossed the Indian Ocean and returned to Europe with proof that is was possible to establish commercial links with India while circumventing the Muslims.  This kind of exploration opened up Africa to the colonization by the Portuguese with contact being made with a number of different tribes. One in particular in the Congo, established an alliance the African King there. After Portuguese missionaries arrived in 1520 quite a number, in fact the country, after the King had converted to Christianity, the country followed him in that. There was a long connection between the Congolese and the Portuguese. Over the course of time this positive relationship turned sour because of military interventions. One of the things that we see in this part of the world is that Portuguese influence brought with it, Christianity. Now usually the Christian influence came to Africa not because they were attempting to evangelize the country but because there would be priests that would accompany the expeditions as chaplains and only in an ancillary way did the word of Jesus Christ filter into the population at large.The first Portuguese priests arrived in Mozambique in 1506 and in 1534 when the bishopric of Goa in India was founded the entire eastern coast of Africa was placed under his jurisdiction.

France’s Xavier, one of the early Jesuit’s made his voyage into Africa across the Indian Ocean and arrived at Goa, the center of Portuguese operations in the east, and there he was scandalized by the life of the Portuguese. He hit upon a method to get through to the parents and would walk along the streets with a bell. He would invite the children to church where he taught them the catechism and moral teachings of the church. Then he would send them home to share with their parents what they had learned. Little by little Xavier gained the respect of the adults who eventually flocked to hear him preach. Then there were instances of which large numbers of adults came to hear Xavier’s preaching. Xavier eventually moved on and went to Japan and did some missionary work there and finally he sailed for China. Before going he wrote to the King of Portugal, “What encourages us is that God had inspired this audience and we do not doubt that the power of God is infinitely superior to that of the King of China”. But in spite of such confidence Xavier was never able to enter China whose government was averse to any foreign influence. He died on an island at the fringes of the Chinese empire where he had settled in order to prepare for the day when that vast land would be open to him. There was another Jesuit, Mateo Ricci who lived from 1552 to 1610, who followed in the steps of Xavier and finally was allowed to enter China and he undertook missionary work there.

II. Call in Europe for Reformation

There was at this time a call for reformation in Europe. As the 15th century came to a close it was clear that the church was in need of profound reformation that many longed for. The decline and the corruption in the papacy was well known and after its residence in Avignon, where it had served as a tool of French interest. The Papacy had been further weakened by the great schism which divided Western Europe and its allegiance into two and even three posts. At times the various claimants to the Papacy seemed equally unworthy. Then, almost as soon as the schism was healed the Papacy fell into the hands of men who were more moved by the glories of the renaissance than by the message of the cross. Through war, intrigue, bribery and licentiousness these popes sought to restore and even outdo the glories of ancient Rome. As a result, while most people still believed in the supreme authority of the Roman Church, many found it difficult to reconcile their faith in the Papacy with their distrust for its actual occupants. And however was not limited to the leadership in Rome. The counciliar movement which had sought to end the great schism and to reform the morals of the entire church had succeeded in the first of these goals but failed in the second. Several of the bishops sitting in the councils were themselves among those who profited from the existing corruption. Thus while the hopeful counciliar reformers thundered anathemas against absenteeism (the practice of having the responsibility and receiving the pay of a particular parish but never showing up), pluralism and simony (the practice of buying and selling ecclesiastical positions). Many who sat on the councils were guilty of such practices and were not ready to give them up. So, it was this kind of corrupt leadership that’s set the tone creating a great deal of anticlerical feeling amongst the common people of this time.

It got to the point that these Popes were so scandalous in their actions that they became the butt of jokes against them. Julius II was one of these renaissance popes and was perhaps better at warfare than he was at praying. Erasmus, a very erudite Roman Catholic scholar wrote a book In Praise of Folly in which he lampoons Julius II, he says ‘Julius II upon his death went to the pearly gates and St Peter saw him there and said “I’m sorry there is no room for you”. Of course this kind of joke got great laughs amongst the laity but it did cause the leaders in the church to become rather angry at these reforming comments.

A. Martin Luther

He was a singular character, erudite, studious and had a particular ability to convey the Gospel in direct language. One Luther scholar called Luther “a language event” for his singular ability to convey the gospel. Luther grew up in a German home; his father was of peasant originally, but had actually made his way into the middle class. They were a religious family and so Luther had grown up in the church. In July 1505 at the age of 22, Luther joined the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt. Two weeks earlier in the midst of a thunder storm he felt overwhelmed by the fear of death and hell. He promised St. Ann that he’d become a monk. Lightening had actually struck near him and knocked him to the ground. In his great fear he had cried out to Saint Ann, the patron saint of miners as his father was a miner. He then made that vow that he would enter the religious life. Luther, during his first year of religious life as a novitiate was convinced that he had made a wise decision for he felt happy and at peace with God. His superiors promptly recognized his unusual abilities and decided to that he should become a priest. Later on in 1510 he was assigned the task of giving lectures at the newly founded University of Wittenberg of which he prepared on the Bible. In doing so, he began to see new meanings in the text. He made his way through the Psalter and of course as an Augustinian friar, they pray the Psalter in continuo. So over the course of some months Luther had the entire Psalter memorized as all Augustinian friars did. He then turned in his lectures at the University of Wittenberg to exposit those texts of scripture.

1. Indulgences

As the protestant reformation got under way one of issues that were foremost on his mind was the question of indulgences. Not only did he have responsibility for teaching in the University of Wittenberg but he also preached in the town church. He became aware of the fact that many of his parishioners were crossing over the river into the next ducal territory where there were indulgence preachers. A Dominican, John Tetzel, was an unscrupulous man, who was willing to make scandalous claims for his wares as long as such claims would help sales. You see, a twenty four year old Albert of Mainz had just purchased the bishopric in that city. And in order to pay the cost of that, he had to take out a loan from the Fugger’s.  He had received a papal approval to initiate a certain kind of indulgence preaching and so they offered to the people plenary remission of sins with the purchase of an indulgence. Indulgence was a paper that indicated this papal rite; this was thought of as a treasury of merits.

You see, not only did Jesus do good works, and not only do his merits gain for us salvation, but there are many saints including Peter and others who according to Roman Catholic dogma had done works over and above what was necessary for salvation. They call these acts of supererogation. Those works, the merit of those works was placed into this treasury of merits and the pope was said to have power over the treasury of merits. It was out of this treasury that the pope was granting remission of sins.

Now of course technically speaking Roman Catholic dogma did not say that the Pope had the right to do this. The pope had the right to give remission of churchly dispositions. So for example if you committed a sin and you went to the priest and said father forgive me for I have stolen a loaf of bread, then the priest would put his hand on you and say my son please, you need to say one hundred and fifty hail Mary’s, you need to go up the Santa Scalia on your knees in penance and once you have done that come back and then I will give you the word of absolution. Well in the case of a parishioner who had bad knees the remission of that requirement of penance could be waived, but that was the requirement of penance and not of the remission of sins proper. But the papacy had become so corrupt they were not careful about making those kinds of distinctions any longer, particularly when money was at hand. And so when the preachers of indulgences came to town they made all kinds of claims. They made the claim that the indulgence that they sold made the sinner cleaner than when coming out of baptism and cleaner than Adam before the fall, and that the cross of the seller of indulgences has as much power as the cross of Christ.

Those who wish to buy an indulgence for a loved one who had died were promised that as soon as a coin in the coffer rings the soul from purgatory springs. Well the common people found it very difficult to stay away from these kinds of promises and they crossed over the river to a little town by the name of Autaborg in order to purchase these indulgences. When Luther found that this was the case he became very angry. For his job as a curer of souls, his job as a pastor of his flock was to protect them from bad teaching and from sin and he was distraught at seeing some of his parishioners using their last florins in order to purchase these indulgences.

2. 95 Theses

So he wrote the 95 thesis which were focused primarily on the question of indulgences and their power. When he posted the ninety five theses there was a storm that ensued. These theses were written with a deep sense of righteous indignation. Basically what he was saying is the pope should give his money to the poor, from whom the seller of indulgences wring their last coins, and he ought to do this even if it were to require the selling  the basilica of St. Peter, that is theses 51. He was basically saying in academic words what the populace was saying. He was saying why does the pope need our money to build his basilica, that was the big project for the renaissance of the pope Leo X building Saint Peter’s basilica and Luther complained that he was doing it on the back of his sheep in Germany. When these 95 theses were posted there was a storm that erupted. The theses were taken by some students in the city, were translated from the original Latin into German and they became one of the first bestsellers. This is where the printing press really played an important role in the reformation. The ability to print these materials in a quick form allowed people to have the same thoughts at the same time. It is perhaps hard for us to imagine a time when there wasn’t a printing press, there wasn’t available information that was readily obtainable, but printing allowed the reformation and the news of the reformation to spread wide and quickly.

Well the Popes response was to ask the Augustinian order to deal with the matter because Luther was one of its members. The reformer was called to the next chapter meeting of the order and he had to face Cardinal Cajetan in Augsburg in 1518. The posting of the 95 Theses was on October 31, 1517 that is the date that we usually talk about when we talk about the start of the reformation. So then he had to meet with Cardinal Cajetan and that meeting did not go well. Luther showed himself to be a perfect match to the very learned Cardinal Cajetan. But Luther was not about to back down when it came to matters of biblical truth and so they parted company.

One of the great wonders of the reformation time is that the elector Frederick, the elector of Saxony really had protestant leanings and so he protected Luther and of course it was to his advantage because Luther was one of his star professors at University of Wittenberg, he wanted to see his university thrive. This set the stage for the escalating standoff between this newly minted movement of reformation and the decadent papacy headed by Leo X. A debate was set up for 1519; Luther goes to Leipzig and debates one of the leaders in the Roman Catholic Church Johannes Eck. They discussed a wide range of things including papal authority and it was quite clear that the countryside was with Luther when he traveled from Wittenberg down to Leipzig. He traveled by wagon cart and wherever he went there were great cheers that went up as he passed through town. But as things progressed Luther fell out of favor with the Pope and then Leo X finally issued a ban on his life. He excommunicated him and the papal bull that Luther received Luther promptly proceeded to burn in a fire along with canon law (the official regulations of the Roman Catholic Church).

Later, he was called to the Diet of Worms in 1521. Charles V needed to have a unified Holy Roman Empire because he was facing conflicts with the King of France and later on, he faced conflicts with the surging Turkish influx which in 1528 began to knock at the door of Vienna. So he had his hands full trying to keep the Holy Roman Empire together. And so with the distractions, that actually served as a way in which Luther was given free rein to continue his reforming projects.

3. Luther’s Theology

Now at this point in the life of Luther we must pause to consider his theology, the driving force that would determine the rest life. By 1521 when he appeared before the Diet of Worms Luther had come to the main theological conclusions that would characterize the whole of his thought. After that time he would primarily expand and elaborate on the main points that led him to his position at Worms. It really was quite an electric moment and actually many historians have marked that moment out as being one of the turning points that moves medieval life to the more modern period. He was brought before the Emperor at the Diet of Worms and there a table was set out that had several books, just piles of books and the prosecutor in the case turned to Luther and said, “Luther, are these your works?” Luther inspected the pile and said “Yes”. The emperor whispered to the one who was sitting next to him and said “I did not know that it was possible for one man to write so many books”. And then the prosecutor continued and he spoke to Luther “Do you recant or do you not?”, and to this Luther responded in German, therefore setting aside the Latin of traditional theological debate, “My conscience is a prisoner of God’s Word. I cannot and will not recant for to disobey ones conscience is neither just nor safe. God help me, Amen.”

In that moment, by making reference to biblical truth and conscience as those twin guiding stars Luther had set forward a new understanding which would develop into a greater degree of self awareness in the modern world.

a. The Word of God

Luther sought to make the Word of God the starting point and the final authority of his theology. As a professor, the Bible was for him of paramount importance and it was in it that he found the answer to his anguished quest for salvation. But this does not mean that he was a rigid Biblicist. For what he understood by the Word of God was more than the written of the Bible. In its primary sense the Word of God is nothing other than God. This is supported by the first verses of the Gospel of John where it is written that “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” The Bible itself declares that strictly speaking the Word of God is none other than God the Son, the second person of the trinity, the Word who was made flesh and dwelt among us, therefore when God speaks we are not simply given information. Also and above all God acts. This is what is meant in the Book of Genesis when the Word of God is a creating force, God said “let there be light and there was light.” When God speaks that which is uttered is also created. God’s Word besides telling us something does something in us and in all creation. That creative and powerful word was incarnate in Jesus who is both God’s greatest revelation and God’s greatest action.

In Jesus, God was revealed to us and also in Jesus God overcame the powers of evil that had us in subjection. God’s revelation is also Gods victory. So for Luther the Word of God is actually a spoken Word, it is first and foremost a spoken word. And when that word is spoken to us it enters our ears and it resides in our hearts and so for Luther the Gospel is primarily and in its first instance a spoken word. Luther loved to talk about the deus dixit “the God who speaks” for even as God spoke creation into being, so he speaks us into a renewed relationship with Himself. He puts the old to death and raises the new up to life and this is done and accomplished by the Word of God. Luther in his little treatise What to Look for and Expect in the Gospels says that the Gospel is primarily a spoken word and we only have the written Word because we might forget the spoken word. So the written Word is written down for us. So the Gospel in the first instance is the Living Word because in it Jesus the Word incarnate comes to us. Any who read the Bible and somehow does not find Jesus in it have not encountered the Word of God. And this is the reason why Luther while insisting on the final authority of scripture could make deprecating comments about parts of it. The Epistle James for example seemed to him “a right strange epistle” because he could not find the Gospel in it but only a series of rules of conduct. The Book of Revelation also caused him difficulty saying that it was not altogether revealing, its symbols seem to be really quite confusing. On the other hand later on in his in his preface to the Book of Revelation, he says very positive things about the Book of Revelation because as he was experiencing life and as he continued to delve into Scripture he began to see that he was living in the end times and so that word really came alive to him.

This allowed Luther to respond to the main objections Catholics raised to his doctrine scripture of the authority of scripture over the church. They argued that since it was the church that determined which books to be included in the canon of scripture it was clear that the church had authority over the Bible. Luther responded that it was the Gospel of Jesus Christ that had made both the Bible and the church. Final authority rests neither in the church nor in the Bible but in the Gospel, in the message of Jesus Christ who is the incarnate Word of God. Since Scripture gives a more trustworthy witness to that gospel than the Pope’s corrupt church or even the best in Christian tradition, the Bible has authority over church, Pope, and tradition. This is so even though in early centuries of Christianity it was the church that recognized the Gospel in certain books but not in others and thus determined the actual content of the Bible.

b. The Knowledge of God

This is another important rubric in Luther’s theology. Luther agreed with most traditional theology that it is possible to know something about God by purely natural or rational means. Such knowledge includes the fact that God exists and allows us to distinguish between good and evil. From pagan philosophers of antiquity it is clear from the laws of ancient Rome that they were able to distinguish between good and evil. Furthermore the philosophers were able to conclude that there is a single supreme being from which all things draw their existence. But all this is not the true knowledge of God as Luther would say, “One does not get to know God by speculation like one can get to the roof by climbing a ladder. All human efforts to climb to heaven to get to know God are thus futile. Such efforts are what Luther calls a theology of glory. This theology seeks to know the divine being in itself in its own glory while ignoring the enormous distance between God and humans. In the final analysis the theology of glory seeks God and those things that humans consider most valuable and praise worthy and that is why it is so concerned with the power of God, the Glory of God, and the Goodness of God. But this is little more than creating god after our own image and we deceive ourselves in believing that God is what we would like it to be.

The fact of the matter is that the God of revelation is very different from that of the god of glory. God’s highest self-disclosure takes place in the cross of Christ and therefore Luther proposes, instead of a theology of glory, a theology of the cross. Such theology seeks God, not where we choose, or as we would like God to be but in the divine revelation of the cross. There, God is seen in weakness, in suffering at as stumbling block. This means that God acts in a radically different way than we would expect. In the cross God destroys our preconceived notions of divine glory. When we know God in the cross we must set aside our previous knowledge of God that is all that we thought we knew by means of reason or the inner voice of conscience. What we now know of God is very different from that other assumed knowledge of a theology of glory. In his setting out a theology of the cross in this way there is a radical critique going on.

So the reformation was a radical critique not only of immorality but of what we might call super spirituality. I cannot attain to God by being a good person, by folding my hands and acting in a kind manner. No, our reconciliation with God must take place at the foot of the cross. And so even my good actions I must lay aside so that God might become all in all. As Paul liked to put it ‘let God be true and every man a liar’. And so the theology of the cross really is a radical critique of human immorality and human religion. And that’s one of the reasons why Luther was at such odds with the decadent Papal scheme and way of describing a religion.

c. Law and Gospel

Another rubric within Luther’s theology is what we call law and the Gospel. It’s in the divine revelation that God is truly known but in that revelation, God is made manifest in two ways, law and Gospel. This does not mean simply that the law is first and then the gospel, nor does it mean that the Old Testament is law and the New Testament is the Gospel, its meaning is much deeper. The contrast between law and the Gospel shows that Gods revelation is both the word of judgment and a word of grace. The two have always come together. One cannot hear of grace without also hearing of judgment. As Luther would put it there are two doctrines in scripture. There is the law which tells us what we are to do to be righteous but does not give us the power to do it and there is the gospel which is a doctrine that tells us what God has already done on our behalf to win us salvation and it is the power of God unto righteousness. These two doctrines must be preached together. For where one is lost, the other slips away. But where one is preached solidly it pulls the other one with it. The doctrine of justification by faith the message of God’s forgiveness does not imply that God is indifferent to sin. It is not simply that God forgives us because after all our sin is not a greater consequence. No, on the contrary God is Holy and sin is repugnant to divine holiness. When God speaks we are overwhelmed by the contrast between such holiness and our own sin. That’s what Luther means by the word of God being law.

But God also speaks a word of forgiveness, a forgiveness so tied up with divine holiness that sometimes the same word is both judgment and grace. That forgiveness is the Gospel made all the more joyful and overpowering because the judgment of the law is so crushing. This Gospel does not contradict or obliterate the law. God’s forgiveness does not deny the gravity of our sin; it is precisely that gravity that makes the Gospel such surprising good news. When we hear that word of pardon, the character of the law changes for us what earlier seemed an unbearable weight now becomes bearable and even sweet. Commenting on the Gospel of John, Luther declares, at an earlier time there was no pleasure in the law for me but now I find that the law is good and tasty that it has been given to me so that I might live and now I find my pleasure in it. Earlier it told me what I ought to do but now I begin to adopt myself to it and for this I worship, praise and serve God.

This constant dialectic between law and gospel characterizes the Christian life for Luther. For in so far as we are sinners we need to continue to hear the Word of the law for that Word drives us to Christ. It puts to death the old Adam and his desire to take the law up in his own hands and to use it for his own purposes thus keeping God off at arm’s length. The Gospel is that voice, we need to understand that for Luther that both law and Gospel sound as voices in the conscience. The law terrifies because we can’t live up to the law. The Word of the Gospel is the only voice which can put the accusation of the law to an end and so the Christian lives between law and Gospel. It’s a constant process by which we continue to move toward the triune God. We are in constant relationship with God because His Word puts us in that relationship. Because we are declared righteous in Christ we are as Luther would say, “simul Justus et peccator,” simultaneously saints-having the full righteousness of Christ and sinners-being entirely sinners in and of our own selves. But once we receive that forgiving Word that comes in the Gospel, we have the righteousness of Christ. Luther says that faith comes to us in the form of Christ. Christ is present in faith, it is not that faith is some product that is produced by our will and we attach ourselves to God through it, although that might be one way of describing faith. No, for Luther faith is actually the present of Christ, we have the forgiveness of sins but also Christ come to us as a gift. So as the apostle Paul says, it is not I who live but Christ living in me or again in the Book of Romans, he says I have died to the law so that I might live with Christ. So you see for Luther he understood that quite literally. That for him was a metaphysical reality that we are actually in Christ and Christ is in us. This word of law and Gospel is the manner in which we continue to be driven to Christ and move through life with an understanding of his righteousness and his forgiveness.

d. Church and Sacrament

Another rubric of Luther’s theology has to do with church and sacrament. Contrary to common belief Luther was neither an individualist nor a rationalist. For Luther there was no salvation to be found outside of the church. The church for Luther was the creature of the gospel, created by the Gospel and it is that place of the public proclamation of the saving message of Jesus Christ. This comes to us through preaching and it comes to us through the sacraments. Now Luther in his reforming zeal made powerful critique of the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Lords Supper, as the Roman Catholics would refer to it the Eucharist. He had three critiques and he wrote this out in his 1520 treatise entitled the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. His first critique was that in the sixteenth century Roman Catholic priests only gave the Eucharist in one kind to the laity. This means they only gave them the bread, only the wafer not the wine. Roman Catholicism believed that through transubstantiation the bread and the wine became the body and blood of Christ and they were unwilling to allow the laity to take the cup for fear that they might spill some of the blood of Christ on the floor of the church and thus desecrate his body. Luther said you must give the laity both bread and wine because that is how it happens in Scripture. There is no good reason for you to withhold the cup from the laity. So he made sharp critique of Roman Catholic practice at that point.

His second critique came at the point of transubstantiation. Transubstantiation is the doctrine that the bread retains its brownness but actually is transubstantiated; the substance is transformed into the very body of Christ. The wine retains its color and its smell of wine its accents remain but its substance is transformed into the blood of Christ. He says, you know if you want to believe in transubstantiation that is perfectly alright with me, but it has an unnecessary philosophical answering of the question of how is Christ is present. His third critique is that the Lords Supper was a sacrifice and a good work. According to the time it was believed that if you received the Eucharist you actually received merits by doing so. There were even groups, confraternities that shared in one another we can for example there might be ten of us in a confraternity and I might decide to go out on a Sunday morning and not attend mass but if one of my brothers from the confraternity attended mass he could grant me the merits of his taking the Eucharist and grant them to me. Well, this made participation in worship something of a business transaction and Luther loathed this. It was really a bad bit of corruption so he said no. It was not how it worked at all. The Lords Supper is really the granting of a promise, its Christ’s last will and testament. He is the testator saying I am going to give you this great gift and I will seal this with my death. And upon my death then my last will and testament will be open and read and you will receive its contents and this is what the last testament is. This is my body, this is my blood given for you for the forgiveness of sins.

So you see Luther critiqued the Roman Catholic understanding of merit and sacrifice of the mass saying no. No, it’s not our attempt to get close to God or to appease God or in the canon of the mass the priest actually said “please accept these gifts Oh Lord and may it assuage your anger”. No! The movement is not from the priest to God offering something to God. But rather the Eucharist as Luther prefers to call it: the Lords Supper is actually God’s gift to his people. Where he says this is my body, this is my blood given for you for the forgiveness of sins. If you receive the body, if you receive the bread and the wine and the words that are attached to it then you have that which it promises. So Luther’s critiques of the sacraments are really quite strong and Gospel oriented for his time. He helped to return the Gospel understanding to both preaching and the Lord’s Supper.

In Roman Catholicism of the 16th century it was not uncommon for the priests to make homilies and just talk about legends that they had just read about in a book, not unlike certain Unitarian churches in our own time where the pastor might stand up and give a book report from the pulpit. Not exactly a bible sermon is it? In like manner Luther also critiqued the Roman Catholic practice of the Lords Supper and returned it to the vernacular. He wanted his evangelical pastors to use the words of institution so that the people in the pews could understand what they were celebrating. And so Luther’s critique of the sacraments and his understanding of the nature of the church come back once again to his understanding of the Word of God as a living and spoken word, which conveys in and with it the power and very presence of the living Christ.

The reformation of the 16th century started in 1517 with the posting of the 95 theses but it continued to build and it was really built around a return to the Scriptures and a return to Biblical theology.

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