Catholicism was the major vehicle for Christianity and had gone largely unchallenged for nearly 1500 years. Over this time, false doctrine, paganism and perverted teachings had crept into its belief system. The fact that only a select few could read at the time (the majority of these being monks), poor teaching and perhaps inaccurate copying of the Bible also played its part in Christianity moving away from its origins.
Although the churches teachings had been unchallenged for this time, a couple of men had expressed concerns but they were quickly snuffed out for various reasons. John Wycliffe (1328 – 1384) had been the first and John Hus (1369? – 1415) the other, and it wasn’t until an Augustinian monk by the name of Martin Luther in 1517 actually began preaching against the church.
Amongst his beliefs, he felt that the Bible should be made available to all and translated into languages other than just Latin in order for the people to read for themselves, and most significantly he believed that the only way a man can be saved is through belief in Jesus Christ.
Through advances in technology via the printing press, his location in a country that was not united, the threat of invasion from the Ottoman Turks and the Renaissance in full swing, his beliefs and ideas were spread quickly and effectively throughout Europe. He raised important questions against the Catholic Church and these would ultimately change religion in Europe for good.
His beliefs led to his excommunication from the Church in 1521 at the Diet of the Worms, following his grievances and for the Ninety-five Theses that he had published and distributed four years earlier in 1517.
So what made Luther’s challenges successful where others before had failed? And what were the differences in belief between him and the Catholic Church?
It is important to firstly know what each side claims. So firstly, what does the Bible say about how sin came to be with mankind and how is man able to be saved?
Genesis chapter 3 tells of how mankind originally came to be under sin. Adam and Eve were told in Genesis 3:3, “But as for [eating] of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘YOU must not eat from it, no, YOU must not touch it that YOU do not die.” However, Eve was deceived by the serpent and consequently ate the fruit and gave some to Adam who also ate. God then proceeded to drive them from the Garden of Paradise in order to punish for their disobedience and to make sure that Adam did not eat of the tree again. Genesis 3:21 states “Here the man has become like one of us in knowing good and bad, and now in order that he may not put his hand out and actually take [fruit] also from the tree of life and eat and live to time indefinite,—”. Most significantly of all though, they would eventually die.
How mankind is to be saved is through the ransom sacrifice that Jesus Christ made many years later. Exodus 21:24 states “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,” This principle may also be applied to the ransom sacrifice. A perfect man in Adam had sinned, the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), therefore the logic is that a perfect man (Christ) must die in order to pay that price, to balance the books.
And so, it was Christ’s death that enabled mankind to have the chance of eternal life. To link in further, Christ has also been called ‘the tree of life’, which from Genesis 3:21 above, reinforces this belief.
That is salvation as taught by the Bible in a very simple form, and probably one of the most famous Biblical quotes is John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Therefore, the only way for a person to gain everlasting life is to believe in Jesus Christ.
This is not what was being taught in Luther’s time. The Catholic Church was teaching indulgencies. About indulgencies, the Encyclopedia Britannica states “The debt of forgiven sin could be reduced through the performance of good works in this life (pilgrimages, charitable acts, and the like) or through suffering in purgatory. Indulgences could be granted only by popes or, to a lesser extent, archbishops and bishops as ways of helping ordinary people measure and amortize their remaining debt. “Plenary,” or full, indulgences cancelled all the existing obligation, while “partial” indulgences remitted only a portion of it. People naturally wanted to know how much debt was forgiven (just as modern students want to know exactly what they need to study for examinations), so set periods of days, months, and years came gradually to be attached to different kinds of partial indulgences.”
This is clearly very much against what the Bible teaches in that to be saved, one simply has to believe in Christ.
In a sermon preached by Martin Luther in Erfurt, 1521 (written down by a member of the audience) we are given an excellent summary of the teachings in the Bible compared against the false teachings told by the Catholic Church.
The sermon describes how man came to be in sin and how this sin was paid by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. It was based on Biblical teachings and backed up with several scriptures. It is a very positive and freeing sermon, which no doubt captured many people’s attentions thus helping Reformation along its way (indeed, the person taking notes of this sermon, wrote it up and delivered it to a printers in order for copies to be made and distributed).
In contrast to what the Church was preaching, this message is one of good works being done by the person as a consequence of believing in Christ and being Christian, whereas the Church was effectively ordering persons do to works in order to gain salvation. There is a clear and distinct difference – one cannot earn salvation.
This sermon, and no doubt others like it, was the first stepping stones to the movement of the Reformation. To have something worthy of spreading, a quality source will always be the foundations of a successful campaign. And already, this sermon was quickly republished in order for others to hear about it.
The second way for the Reformation to be spread was in the form of hymn. Luther penned many hymns and the key element in it was for the congregation to sing them together. Not only did it help reinforce the message within people’s minds (remembering still many people were unable to read at this time), but outside the church, people would have been singing them as they did their daily chores and other people hearing them. And repetition is an important key to learning. Often in teaching, a teacher will state the same point several times over the course of a lecture or class in order that it may remain in the students heads thereafter.
‘Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Thy Word’ was such a hymn written by Luther around 1541. The first verse is a blatant attack and defense against the Pope and the Turk who were the threats. “Lord, keep us steadfast in thy Word, And curb the pope’s and Turk’s vile sword, Who seek to topple from the throne, Jesus Christ, thine only Son.”
Not only would these words have been taken in deeply by the followers of the Reformation, but Luther seems to show a great deal of lack of respect of the authority of the Pope in this verse. The word ‘Turk’s’, ‘Son and Lord all start with a capital letter, but the Pope, technically a pronoun does not have this. This again shows how much Luther questions the authority of the Pope and the Catholic faith as being truly Christian.
The hymn ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God’ written in 1527 is another hymn written by Luther and enforces that the Protestant Reformation is attempting to go back to the roots of Christianity. He really seems to claim God, as his own, the opening lines “A mighty fortress is our God, A sword and shield victorious; He breaks the cruel oppressor’s rod…” again show the movement away from Catholicism and towards what he sees as a truer Christianity. The Catholic Church is no doubt the target of the third line there.
In 1524, Paul Speratus wrote the hymn ‘Salvation unto Us Has Come’ and the entire message or theme of this hymn is one of salvation through Jesus Christ.
There were many other hymns sung throughout which have helped people understand and receive the message that Luther was trying to put across, these three highlight some of the things the people were singing about and thus another reason why the Reformation took off in the way it did and people’s movement from Catholicism to this new freer church.
The printing press was an extremely effective medium for the new message of Reformation to reach the people, even if perhaps most still couldn’t read. The next five sources are all pictorial and use images and pictures to get the message across. A little like early graphic design, and the old saying of a picture telling a thousand words comes to mind.
In a 1546 broadsheet, Matthias Gerung contrasts the two Christian religions, what he now deems the ‘false’ Christian religion at the bottom with the Pope two the right looking over what appears to be demon type figures handing out papers, no doubt the indulgencies. In contrast, the top shows a peaceful vision of a sermon under Protestant reform along with babies being baptized.
Another image by Gerung, once again split into two parts, shows the righteous being received into heaven by Christ at the top, and those rejected at the bottom being tortured and tormented amongst demons. Interestingly, both Protestant and Catholicism still believe that when a person dies, they will either go to heaven or a fiery hell despite the Bible not being very clear as to whether this is the case or not.
From a pamphlet in 1521, Lucas Cranach has produced four images with those on the left showing Biblical scenes, and those on the right, the equivalent Catholic misdemeanors. We have the image of Christ in the top left, humbling himself and washing the feet of his disciples. The contrasting image to the right is people worshiping the Pope, highlighting that the Pope does not have a humble attitude as Christ did. The bottom two pictures depict money within the temple or church. Bottom left, Christ throwing the men making money in the temple out, and the contrasting picture with the Pope receiving money for indulgencies.
An unknown artist in 1522 portrays the Pope and his followers as wolves and geese. These were symbolic as wolves seek prey and are dangerous, while geese are seen as foolish followers. Also, Matthew 7:15 warns followers of Christ to “Be on the watch for the false prophets that come to YOU in sheep’s covering, but inside they are ravenous wolves”, again linking scripture with what was happening in the day.
The final print, a rather comical image of defecation into the Pope’s hat from a pamphlet by Lucas Cranach in 1545, really underlines what the Reformed Church thinks of Catholicism.
From these various images, one can conclude a real war of propaganda against the Catholic Church which accelerated the new movement and gained many, many new converts.
Finally, in an anonymous German pamphlet from 1523, we are shown a dialogue between two friends. One is telling the other about a sermon he heard. This piece tells a lot about other aspects on how the Reformation spread. Not only were dialogue of this kind distributed in pamphlets, but they taught people not only about Biblical matters, but it showed them how to spread this news to others. This dialogue shows how excited Hans was about what he had heard and how he wants to speak out about it. It also shows how he reasoned with Claus (his friend) when asked about it. So not only is the Reformed church teaching (what they perceived as the truth in the Bible), but they were indirectly teaching the followers how to speak about it and spread the word further.
Through various mediums, such as sermons, pamphlets, images, posters, and word of mouth and, it is clear how the Reformation spread so quickly and widely. The printing press was certainly a major player in this, getting the same message spread throughout, as well as people’s educational skills improving and along with the oppression that the Catholic Church had imposed on everybody, it’s very understandable people were excited and wanted to talk more and more about it.
“In conclusion, then, every single person should reflect and remember that we cannot help ourselves, but only God, and also that our works are utterly worthless.” This piece of advice from Luther’s sermon makes for a fitting conclusion. And perhaps this was the most motivating feature of the entire spread of the Reformation across Europe, and a new fresh hope.
One can only imagine after many years of oppression by the Church, what hope through the Reformation must have given them. That they didn’t feel hopeless, that their lives need to be controlled by the Church, that they themselves would eventually have the opportunity to read and learn for themselves and to be finally in charge of their own destiny.