Martin Luther was a revolutionary in both a political and religious sense. One could argue that his movement to subvert the authority of the Holy See in Rome was as much for political purposes, however unintended, as religious. In the Middle Ages, (16th century) The Papacy was truly a political institution first, a religious institution second. All of the most prominent counties in Europe; England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, were led by monarchs who swore allegiance to Rome. The Pope had a strangle hold on these leaders, principally using his claim as God’s authority to maintain his position of power over them.

Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk, rejected Papal authority with two key “revolutionary” acts:

1) It had become common practice in those times for the Pope to send agents out to major cities in Europe to “sell” indulgences. One would pay a certain sum, in return his time in purgatory would be reduced according to the amount he paid. This practice went against everything Luther believed as a priest. In 1519, in response to this, Luther rejected the right of the Pope to do this, and posted his famous Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. He claimed, among other things, that salvation could only be achieved through belief in Jesus. This was a direct affront to the Pope, for which Luther was accused of heresy. By using the most modern communication techniques, the printing press, he was able to distribute his warnings about Rome to the ruling class in the various German states. Pope Leo X excommunicated him from the Roman Catholic Church.

2) At the Diet of Worms, Luther stood up to the Papacy in a way that no one had ever before. His refusal to admit heresy stands as one of the key moments in European history. He had, however inadvertently, become the figurehead of a revolution. As the word spread across Europe, so did the revolutionary spirit.

As both of these actions demonstrate, Luther understood that the Roman Catholic Religion, the Holy See in Rome, and the control that the Pope had over monarchs of the time was far more political than religious. He saw that Rome was using religion as a means of maintaining political control, thus insuring its continual supremacy in Europe.

In 1522 Luther was the first to translate the bible into a language other than Latin. The impact of this action was profound. For the first time the common person had access to the “Word”. Not only was this a positive thing religiously, but also from a sociological perspective it began a movement to breach the class divide that had existed in Europe for centuries. The aristocracy had historically been the only class with access to the knowledge in the Bible, which enable them to keep the commoner in his place of ignorance and subservience.

Like many revolutionaries, Luther initiated a movement that grew beyond his initial objectives. Word of his actions swept across Europe, and ultimately resulted in the fragmentation of religious/political control by Rome. For example, in 1518, King Henry VIII of England split with Rome over his marriage to Ann Bolin, and began the Church of England. Other fragmentation occurred over the following centuries, greatly reducing the political power of Rome.

Today, Luther is seen primarily as a religious leader and theologian who had a critical role in the development of the Protestant religions. Indeed, the very word protestant comes from the protest he began with his Ninety-Five Theses. We can also see that his influence as a political revolutionary was equally profound. Peasants saw him as someone in authority who understood their grievances, and would defend their right to demand a better position in society.

Doug Engelman

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ger/102/2012/winter/doug_engelman-_martin_luther.txt · Last modified: 2012/03/09 12:51 by djengelman
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