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The Bible and Suicide

Martin Luther
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Lutheran Church
• Reformation


Martin Luther (1483-1547) is the person who is widely regarded as having really got the Protestant Reformation started, although his ideas were already anticipated by earlier thinkers. Luther studied at an Augustinian seminary and was ordained a priest in 1507. He was later made a Doctor of Theology at Erfurt, a position he held for the rest of his life.

On a personal level, Luther was deeply troubled by a strong sense of sin and guilt, something which seems to have key to his development of the idea that a person cannot be justified before God though works but instead solely through faith. Luther believed that salvation is basically a divine gift, something which cannot be earned but which is nevertheless given because of God's infinite love and mercy.

The development of this line of thought is often described as his having "discovered the Gospel" because it is characterized as Luther realizing that the God's actions and love could not be understood through the Law, as in the Old Testament, but rather in the Gospel ("good news"), as recounted in the stories about Jesus in the New Testament. Because of Luther's belief that salvation must come through faith rather than works, he began to object to the variety of ways in which the Church encouraged people to view works as a means to salvation.

One of the most famous - or perhaps infamous - of these means was the sale of indulgence. An indulgence is basically a "get out of sin" card - but not for free because you have to pay for it with cash. Indulgences could be purchased either for oneself or on behalf of others, especially the deceased. Many believed that souls caught in purgatory could get to heave quicker if indulgences were purchased, and this placed a great deal of pressure on people. This belief was encouraged by the church and the Dominican Johann Tetzel (1465-1519) was an important promoter of their effectiveness. He was sent to German by Leo X and became know for his catchy slogan "as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs."

The Church benefited greatly from indulgences because the money allowed for the building of ever larger and more opulent churches and cathedrals. The pope at this time, Leo X (1475-1521) is regarded by many as one of the most corrupt of the age. He was obsessed with acquiring vast sums of money, in particular so that he could complete construction on the massive Satin Peter's Basilica in Rome, a building which is even today an important tourist attraction.

This ran counter to Luther's new understanding of salvation, which was that it is a free gift of God, not something which could be earned through good works, much less purchased with money. Luther began his public efforts at reforming the Catholic Church when he posted his "95 theses" on a church door in Wittenberg On October 31, 1517. This date has come to be traditionally regarded as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

Luther's statements objected to what he regarded as a number of corruptions of the Church which had accumulated over the centuries. Insofar as Luther was at all original in his criticisms, it lay in his ability to attack defective doctrines from an educated and theological position. Luther's ideas also struck a nerve with Germans and the growing sense of German nationalism - this was exploited by those who owned one of the new printing presses. It was through the mass replication of his writings that Luther's ideas were spread so far, so fast - an important factor in the development and power of the Reformation.

Over the following years, Luther debated a variety of clerics who sought to defend the traditional Catholic faith. At the same time, he wrote a number of important books - primarily in German as part of an effort to appeal to the average person rather than academics and theologians. Some, like the Dominicans and various theological schools, opposed him - but the common assumption that he was opposed by the entire Catholic hierarchy is mistaken.

Luther was supported by the Augustinians, by the universities at Wittenberg and Paris, and by others in the Church. During these early years. Luther apparently believed that the pope was unaware of the excesses and would halt them as soon as they were revealed For example, it was completely unknown to Luther was the fact that Leo made a deal with bankers in Germany to sell indulgences and split the profits. Luther was not looking to break with the Catholic Church at this time, but rather just force a few necessary corrections.

All of this began to change in 1519 when he debated Johann Eck (1486-1543). Eck managed to get Luther to defend some of the teachings of the heretic Hus and disagree with the council that condemned him - thus, Eck was able to label Luther a heretic as well. This, then, allowed Leo X to move openly against Luther. In 1520 the first papal bull, Exsurge Domine, ("Lord, Cast Out") condemning him and his teachings was issued. A few months later, Decet Romanum Pontificem excommunicated Luther. This was accompanied by an order to burn all of Luther's books - but when Luther received a copy of Exsurge Domine, he responded by burning it and other Catholic works.

Another important event occurred On April 17, 1521 when Luther was called to accountability before both secular and religious authorities at the famous Diet of Worms. Here he was told to recant the heretical teachings he had been spreading, but he refused and said that he would only recant if he could be proven wrong either through evidence in the Bible or through reason. The famous statement attributed to him at this point is "I can not do otherwise, here I stand, so help me God!" The emperor refused to engage in such a debate and Luther was allowed to leave.

Unhappy with this outcome, Luther's enemies were able to get the infamous Edict of Worms passed, which declared Luther to be an outlaw. Today, the term "outlaw" is simply a synonym for "criminal," but at the time it was a form of secular excommunication. A person so labeled as declared to be literally "outside the law" and, hence, anyone could rob or kill them without fearing any legal penalties.

Fortunately Luther was protected by Frederick "the Wise", but this Edict impaired his movements thereafter. He continued to write producing a great deal more works which promoted the basic ideals of Protestantism. One of them was his own German translation of the Bible, a work which would have a tremendous effect on the development of the German language and, because of his word choices, on the development of religion in Germany.

Throughout the rest of his life, he was continually caught between defenders of orthodox Catholicism on the one side and even more radical reformers on the other. First he would debate and argue against one, then he would do the same with the other. He was expected to shoulder so many burdens because he was, after all, the chief figure of the Reformation at this time. All of this work and responsibility took a heavy toll on his health, but he was given a great deal of support at home by Catharine von Bora, a former nun whom he married in 1525.

In 1530, he and Philipp Melanchthon issued the Augsburg Confession, a moderate statement of basic Protestant beliefs and ideas. This document was prepared for the Diet of Augsburg called by Charles V in an effort to get the various religious groups to reach some sort of settlement with each other. At the time, there was still the expectation that a land be all one religion - the concept of religious pluralism was still generally unknown and, if it had been, would have been generally rejected.

Nothing was accomplished at the Diet of Augsburg except, perhaps, a hardening of existing positions. Charles V decided for the Catholics and ordered all Protestants to submit to his decision by April 1531. Princes who were either convinced that the Protestant position was religious correct or who simply saw Protestantism as a means to more power and independence formed the Schmalkald League for the purpose of mutual defense and support.

When Martin Luther died in 1547, the League was weakened and soon thereafter, one of the leaders betrayed the League, allowing imperial armies to defeat them and establish Catholic control over all German lands. Despite this, Catholic leaders found it very difficult to actually exercise political and religious control over people how had grown accustomed to Protestantism over nearly two decades.

Rebellions were common and finally, in 1555, both sides agreed to disagree in the Peace of Augsburg. This allowed a ruler to decide on the religion of any particular territory and people who found themselves in a region ruled by the "wrong" religion could leave. This peace was only established between the Catholic Church and followers of Martin Luther - those who belonged to the Reformed Tradition or even more radical groups like the Anabaptists were out of luck.

Select Quotes:

Reason is the Devil's greatest whore; by nature and manner of being she is a noxious whore; she is a prostitute, the Devil's appointed whore; whore eaten by scab and leprosy who ought to be trodden under foot and destroyed, she and her wisdom ... Throw dung in her face to make her ugly. She is and she ought to be drowned in baptism... She would deserve, the wretch, to be banished to the filthiest place in the house, to the closets. [Erlangen Edition v. 16, pp. 142-148]

There is on earth among all dangers no more dangerous thing than a richly endowed and adroit reason...Reason must be deluded, blinded, and destroyed. [quoted from Walter Kaufmann, The Faith of a Heretic, p. 75]

...eject them forever from this country. For, as we have heard, God's anger with them is so intense that gentle mercy will only tend to make them worse and worse, while sharp mercy will reform them but little. Therefore, in any case, away with them! [On the Jews and Their Lies, 1543]

But what will happen even if we do burn down the Jews' synagogues and forbid them publicly to praise God, to pray, to teach, to utter God's name? They will still keep doing it in secret. If we know that they are doing this in secret, it is the same as if they were doing it publicly. for our knowledge of their secret doings and our toleration of them implies that they are not secret after all and thus our conscience is encumbered with it before God. [On the Jews and Their Lies, 1543]

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