Reading Luther and Drinking Beer is a Dangerous Thing

2 09 2013

This fall the Ridley Institute, the school of theology at St. Andrew’s, Mount Pleasant will be hosting “An Introduction to Reformation Anglicanism.”  This lecture series is pulling from some of the most well regarded Anglican church leaders and scholars in the world.  You can click here for details on the course.  By the way, all the lectures are live.  Below is an excerpt from the course text, prepared by yours truly.  Enjoy.

Undoubtedly the most significant name of the Protestant Reformation is that of Martin Luther.  Which is why it may surprise many that the course of Luther’s life changed not by picking up a Bible, but rather by praying to a saint.  Trapped in a field during a severe thunderstorm while travelling from Erfurt to Mansfield on June 30th, 1505, the young Luther cried out to St. Anne, “St. Anne Help me!  I will become a monk!”  Luther’s life was spared and he kept good on his promise.  He left the university where he was training to become a lawyer and enrolled in the strictest of the Erfurt monasteries, the Augustinian priory.  After enrolling in the monastery at Erfurt, Luther began to train as a novice; a period of a about a year where the person to be initiated is prepared before taking vows.  Each novice at the Augustinian priory was given a little, red leather Bible. When Luther received his Bible from Johann Staupitz, the Vicar General of the priory, it was the first time that Luther had ever even seen a Bible.  He cherished it, spending hours upon hours reading and memorizing the Biblical texts.  Years later, reflecting on his time reading and memorizing the Bible during his year as a novice he said:

If I had kept at it, I would have become exceedingly good at locating things in the Bible. At that time no other study pleased me so much as sacred literature. With great loathing I read physics [Aristotle’s Physics], and my heart was aglow when the time came to return to the Bible . . . I read the Bible diligently. Sometimes one statement occupied all my thoughts for a whole day.

Unfortunately for Luther, having completed his first year as a novice, the Bible was taken from him and he began to train for ordination in much the same way that his predecessors had been trained, namely by engaging the Latin works of the great medieval theologians such as Peter Lombard, William Ockham, Pierre d’Ailly, and Gabriel Biel.  Luther remarked that at that time it was possible to obtain a Doctor of Divinity without even owning a Bible, much less studying it, as his fellow professor Andreas Karlstadt had done.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Luther dedicated himself to the study of the Bible. His aptitude for reading the Bible and understanding the text marked him as the obvious choice for the Chair of Biblical Studies at the University of Wittenberg, which he took up immediately after earning his doctorate.  From 1513-1519 Luther lectured on the Psalms, Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews to the assembled students at Wittenberg.  By 1519 Luther wrote:  “I had then already read and taught the sacred Scriptures most diligently privately and publicly for seven years, so that I knew them nearly all by memory.”  The Biblical text was woven deep in his bones and eventually, something changed within him.

The date of Luther’s conversion to the Gospel is disputed, as is the mysterious tower (some think it is the bathroom!) that he refers to.  What happened however, is beyond dispute.  Luther turned away from the works righteousness of Medieval Christianity and embraced the Gospel of Grace in the New Testament.  While reading Romans, Luther struggled with the phrase “the righteousness of God.”  He had thought that God’s righteousness meant the justice by which God punished sinners.  Thus Luther was afraid of God, even in one instance saying that he “hated God.”  However, while reading Romans in the tower, Luther learned from Paul that God’s righteousness was a gift from God given to sinful people through Jesus Christ, to be received by faith.  He wrote the following words to describe what it was like for this Gospel truth to dawn upon him:

The words ‘righteous’ and righteousness of God struck my conscience like lightning.  When I heard them I was exceedingly terrified.  If God is righteous [I thought], he must punish.  But when by God’s grace I pondered, in the tower and heated room of this building, over the words, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live [Rom 1.17] and ‘the righteousness of God’  [Rom 3.21], I soon came to the conclusion that if we, as righteous men, ought to live from faith and if the righteousness of God should contribute to salvation of all who believe, then salvation won’t be our merit but God’s mercy.  My spirit was thereby cheered.  For it’s by the righeousness of God that we’re justified and saved through Christ.  These words [which had before terrified me] now became more pleasing to me.  The Holy Spirit unveiled the Scriptures for me in the tower.

It was not long after his “tower experience” that Luther posted his famous 95 Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, commonly referred to simply as the 95 Theses.  On the eve of All Saint’s Day, Oct. 31, 1517, Luther posted the theses on the Castle Church at Wittenberg.  The action was not nearly as dramatic as it sounds, for the door of the Castle Church functioned in much the same way as a bulletin board at a local school or coffee shop would today.  Nevertheless, the theses were quite controversial.  Luther was writing primarily against the sale of indulgences.  At the time, an indulgence was a written assurance that could be purchased from an agent of the papacy to remit a certain number of years off of purgatory.  The salesman of such indulgences in Luther’s region was Johann Tetzel, who announced upon entering a town “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs!”  The money collected by Tetzel and others was used to construct the now famous St. Peter’s Basilica.

Luther’s theses begin with an against the sacrament of penance.  Theses one through five read as follows:

  1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4.17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

  2. This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.

  3. Yet it does not mean solely inner repentance; such inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward mortification of the flesh.

  4. The penalty of sin remains as long as the hatred of self (that is, true inner repentance), namely till our entrance into the kingdom of heaven.

  5. The pope neither desires nor is able to remit any penalties except those imposed by his own authority or that of the canons.

First notice theses 1-3’s dependence upon Erasmus’ Greek New Testament.  Luther flatly rejects penance as a sacrament.  Now notice the connection between theses 4-5.  If penance is not a sacrament, then neither the pope nor his priests has the power to remit sins through penance or indulgences.  If neither priest nor pope can remit sins, where then does Luther say forgiveness of sins can be found?  One must remember the tower experience.  Righteousness, said the Apostle Paul, comes to us as a free gift to be received by faith (Rom 3.22-24).  So Luther declares:

62.  The true treasure of the church is the most holy Gospel of the glory of the grace of God.

This glory of the grace of God is had by any “true Christian” who through faith and repentance shares in “all the blessings of Christ and the church; and this is granted to him by God” (Thesis 37).  This blessing is given by faith alone, even without indulgences, penance, or even the Pope!  Indeed, in light of the Gospel, Christians should be “especially on guard against those who say that the Pope’s pardons are the inestimable gift of God by which man is reconciled to him.”  Only the Gospel, the “true treasure of the church” is the means by which we are reconciled to God.

By 1518 the Theses had been translated into most major European languages.  Over the course of the next three years, the Pope sent a steady stream of theologians and cardinals to debate and refute Luther.  By June 15th, 1520, the Pope had warned Luther in a letter, called a Papal Bull, that if he did not recant his beliefs he would be excommunicated.  Luther publicly burnt the bull at Wittenberg on Dec 10th, 1520.  Though Luther had been excommunicated, this did not stop his works from proliferating throughout Europe.  By the 1520’s, Luther was being read in secret at at pub in Cambridge called the White Horse Tavern.  The little group that had gathered at the pub to read Luther’s writings, along with Erasmus’ New Testament, dubbed themselves “little Germany.”

The group meeting at the White Horse was a fairly prestigious bunch.  Those who frequented the Tavern to discuss Luther and the New Testament were such Reformation luminaries as Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, William Tyndale, Miles Coverdale, Robert Barnes, and Thomas Bilney among others.  Just to put this list in perspective, you have two Bible translators (Tyndale and Coverdale) who have had a direct influence on every English translation of the Bible since the 16th century.  There are two bishops and one Archbishop.  The author of the Anglican prayer books, as well as the architect of the 39 Articles of Religion is in this list.  Of the seven men listed above, six were martyred for the Christian faith.  Reading Luther and the New Testament over ale is not as safe as it sounds.

In 1529, the cause of the Gospel in England suffered under the King’s Chancellor, Thomas More, who ordered that the books propagating the “Lutheran heresy” be burned.  Books were not the only thing More burned.  In 1531, Thomas Bilney, the man initially responsible for convening men to read Luther and the New Testament at the White Horse was lashed to the stake and condemned to die for believing “the Lutheran heresy.”  Foxe records his final moments:

Before he went to the stake he confessed his adherence to those opinions which Luther held; and, when at it, he smiled, and said, “I have had many storms in this world, but now my vessel will soon be on shore in heaven.”  He stood unmoved in the flames crying out, “Jesus, I believe;” and these were the last words he was heard to utter.

It is an easy thing to go to the bookstore and purchase a New Testament in English.  A simple and carefree thing to confess salvation through Christ alone.  But these things you and I take for granted were bought and paid for by the blood of men who, to borrow the words of Bishop J.C. Ryle, “were certain they had found out truth, and content to die for their opinions.”  Many of the men of “little Germany,” the men of the White Horse Tavern purchased the privileges of modern Christians with their very lives.

You can learn more about Luther and the English Reformation by attending the Ridley Institute’s Fall Course.  Click here to register, or talk to your Rector about the possibility of live streaming the entire course to your local church.


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11 09 2013
Was the Anglican Church Started Because the King Wanted a Divorce? | Awakening Grace

[…] the King wanted a divorce.”  As can be seen from the previous posts (Click here for Part I.  Click here for Part II) the Reformation was well underway before the King initiated the process that ended in his […]

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