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What was Luther's message?

Edwards serves as President of St. Olaf College and has written many books and articles on Martin Luther.

(more about Edwards)

Luther had many messages. When Luther wrote, he wrote about specific issues or problems. But he had one over-arching message. And that one message, he put in his pamphlets, he put in his longer treatises, he put in his hymns. And that was: Christ died for you. If you can believe and have faith, you are saved. There's nothing that you can do on your own to be saved. In fact, even believing is a gift of the Holy Spirit. But if you believe, you are saved. And all the paraphernalia of the Catholic Church of the time, where you could help and cooperate in your salvation, made no sense any more. ...

martin luther

martin luther
Martin Luther's criticism of the Church initially was that the Church was sending the wrong message, that the Church was ... giving to people the sense that they could save themselves by using the various things the Church offered, including indulgences. And the proper message was: No, you couldn't do that. In order to be saved, you had to leave it to Christ, and you had to simply cling to what Christ had done for you. That was his original complaint with the Church. But when the Church did not listen, he came reluctantly to the conclusion that the Church, especially the office of the papacy, was the Antichrist, and that what it was doing was deliberate. It was the devil's attempt to subvert, to submerge the good news, the gospel. The devil was working within the Church. And once he was convinced that that was happening, the papal office was the office of the Antichrist, and he saw the end time near. ...

What were indulgences?

Indulgences were a means to spend less time in Purgatory. ... This was a time when the worry was not you're going to hell, but you're going to spend a long time in Purgatory. And so if you were able to purchase an indulgence, you could get out of Purgatory. [Indulgences] also were extraordinarily important for the papacy, because next to its own lands which it owned (and it was a large state), its major source of income was indulgences. ... The papacy during this time was building St. Peter's. ... Indulgences were used really for two things: major building projects, and to finance wars.

certificate of indulgence

certificate of indulgence
What did Martin Luther think of indulgences? What was his gripe?...

The issue of the indulgence raised the question: How was someone saved? Was someone saved by what they did, or what the Church did for them? Or were they saved because of what Christ had done (die on the cross)? And so that was the issue that was at stake. And for Luther, the most important thing was to realize that Christ had died for you and you were saved by that death, not by anything that you did or anything the Church did, but only by what Christ had done. And you had to accept that gift in faith.

So what did Luther set out to do?

Luther set out to reform the Church, to bring it back to what he saw as its proper mooring. The Church, as the institutional Church, saw him instead as a great threat to their income and a heretic teaching things that they had not taught, and which they saw undermined the Church, both in its spiritual form but also in its financial and political form.

Coincidentally at this time, the printing press comes into play. How?

The printing press is discovered and put into action in 1450. ... Luther would have just been one more reformer in a small area if it had not been for the printing press. But thanks to the printing press, Martin Luther became the bestseller throughout the empire. He out-published all of his Catholic opponents. ... He discovered the power of the press in ways that no one else had used it up to that point: everything from woodcuts being used in a polemical way, ditties and rhymes. He mastered this new medium; he used it to spread and turn what would have been a local affair into an international movement. ...

Martin Luther first published in Latin, which was the language of the learned. But then he began publishing in German. And he was extraordinarily successful. He found his own voice. And the voice was the voice of the people. He later talked about how he listened to the way the people spoke, so he could use their language and not the elevated language of princes. He deliberately picked a German that could be understood by more people than any other form of German. And he used this German in an extraordinarily effective way. ...

Why does Luther choose to translate the Bible into vernacular German?

Luther chose to translate the Bible into vernacular German because he believed the common people needed to hear the scripture. The watchword in the early Reformation, even more important to other Protestants to Luther himself, was "scripture alone." Scripture was the only source. It was not the Pope making up his mind. It was not a church council. It was the scripture. And individual believers needed to read the scripture and see what the truth was for themselves. ...

What was the effect for Luther of putting the Bible in people's hands?

When Luther translated the New Testament and ultimately the whole Bible into German, he wanted to make it available first to preachers and to those who could read, and then secondarily to everyone else. He thought that if the Bible was made available in the vernacular, with the assistance of his forwards and his marginal comments, everyone would read it the same way he did. The irony is, of course, they didn't. Within even a few months, people were reading it differently. Luther had released a genie. And once the genie was out of the bottle, Luther, try as he might, couldn't get the genie back in again. ...

Where did put the Book of Revelation in his Bible?

When Martin Luther first translated and published the New Testament, he thought that Revelation should not have the same status or authority as the gospels or the letters of Paul or Peter. And so he put it at the end, but he didn't number it. He didn't put a "saint" in front of [John's] name. He thought it was an edifying book, but not of the same status. But what's interesting, even though he felt that way, it's the one book that he illustrated, where he put woodcuts, because Revelation allowed him to make one of his central points, which was that the papacy was the Antichrist, and the end of the world was coming. And so there you see the only woodcuts in the New Testament. You see the whore of Babylon wearing a papal crown. You see the seven-headed beast wearing a papal crown. The message was clear. You didn't have to read (as most people didn't). You got the message. The papacy, the papal office--not the individual popes but the papal Church--was where Satan was working to undermine Christendom. And the fact that Satan was there meant the world was coming to an end soon. ...

Was Luther conflicted about Revelation? Was he uncomfortable with the book?

When Luther began, he was uncomfortable with the Book of Revelation. But as the Reformation went on and more and more opponents sprang up, he had difficulty, he became more and more interested in Revelation. And later in his life, he took it with the utmost seriousness, and even tried to figure out all the symbolism in it, to determine when the end of the world was going to come. ...

How much did Luther think he was living in the end times?

Luther thought he was living in the end times. And that belief, that conviction, was central to almost all that he did. Because his understanding of scripture and the way he preached from the pulpit and what he wrote was colored by the notion that the biblical story was also his story, and that what was happening to him could be used to understand the story in the Bible, but what was happening in the Bible could be used to explain what was going on in his own day. And Revelation was the key to this. It was the symbolic story that tells you how the whole thing is going to end. ...

What was Luther's attitude toward the Jews?

Martin Luther, when he put his whole world into the context of the biblical story, identified many different enemies. And one of the enemies were the Jews, the Jews of his own time. Now, the Jews of the Old Testament were heroes, but the Jews of his time were an example of a people who rejected the Messiah and therefore suffered under God's wrath. They too had a role to play, a very unhappy role to play. And Luther's apocalyptic vision and the vision of their role--it was broadly shared by both Catholics and Protestants--justified the mistreatment of Jews during this period. ...

How does Luther come to think of the pope as the Antichrist?

Luther came to think of the pope as the Antichrist because, first, of what the general tradition was about where to find the Antichrist. The Antichrist was someone subverting the Church from within. That was the expectation popularly. And when he saw the papal office and read the histories and saw it subverting the gospel as he understood it, he became convinced that that was the proof that the papal office was the office of the Antichrist, trying to destroy God's church from within.

The pope claimed to be Christ's representative on earth. Luther became convinced that the pope was the devil's representative on earth. And that took graphic form very early in the Reformation ... with one of the most effective pieces of propaganda in the early Reformation: a series of 26 woodcuts that juxtaposed some action in Christ's life with something in the papacy. Christ carrying his cross to be crucified; the pope being carried in his throne on the backs of people ... . Christ washing the feet of the disciples; the pope having his feet kissed. And over and over again, scenes from Christ's life juxtaposed with scenes from the papacy. ... Christ was always humble and serving; the papacy, the pope was always lordly and [lording] over others. Christ is Christ; the pope is Antichrist.

At the end of his life, Martin Luther decided he had to issue his final testament against all the enemies of the gospel. And he published treatises, he encouraged people, but words were not sufficient. He also had to use images. And so he asked his friend, the painter Lucas Cranach, to do a series of woodcuts, and Luther wrote the verses for them. And these woodcuts were designed to show as graphically as possible, to those who could read and those who couldn't, what Luther thought of the papacy. So for example, there's a woodcut which shows the pope on his throne and peasants with their tongues out, their trousers down, farting in the pope's face. Another one shows the pope riding an ass, holding a pile of dung in his hands, saying "The pope is offering a counsel." And another that shows the German emperor lying on the ground with the pope with his foot on the emperor's neck, which shows, once again graphically, Luther's belief that the papacy was trying to control secular authority throughout the world. These were all actions of the Antichrist, and Luther wanted to make it clear what he thought of the pope. ...

christ and antichrist

woodcuts comparing christ and antichrist

These were the pictures of a very angry man, who saw himself as a soldier in that final climactic battle at the end of the world. And he had to strike with every means at his disposal. If he pulled back at all, he was like a soldier in a battle between light and darkness, who withheld his punches. And so Luther did not hold back. He went with all that he had, attacking Satan and the Antichrist before he died. ...

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