How did the German Reformation begin?

The German Reformation was sparked by Martin Luther, a renegade Catholic priest. The catalyst for the reformation was the sale of indulgences throughout Germany by John Tetzel under the authority of Pope Leo X but in reality, the reformation had been germinating in Luther’s heart well before that.

On three separate occasions he had been impressed that the rigorous efforts he put himself through in an attempt to merit salvation were not necessary or biblical and Romans 1:17 was brought to him again and again like a bell tolling in his mind “the just shall live by faith”. These instances led Luther to search the scriptures for himself and to come to the realization that salvation was indeed by grace alone, through faith alone and in Christ alone. He began to preach these truths as chair of Divinity at the University of Wittenberg and also at the Castle church at Wittenberg causing many of his students and parishioners to eagerly embrace the truth.

Thus, when Tetzel came sailing through Wittenberg, calling for the clink in his money casks, Luther was appalled and objected vehemently to the idea of selling salvation for profit. He wrote directly to Albert, Archbishop of Mainz, complaining of Tetzel’s scandalous course of action, little realizing that it was Albert himself who had commissioned Tetzel to sell the indulgences at the request of none other than the Pope. The Archbishop sent a copy to Leo X in Rome alerting him to a divergent monk who had gone rogue and who was refusing to honor the indulgences in his confessional. When Luther saw that his complaint fell on deaf ears he took the matter into his own hands and pounded out a statement of 95 theses regarding the evils of the sale of indulgences which he then nailed to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg on All Saints day.  He also denied the Pope’s authority and ability to do such a thing which was taken as a direct attack on Papal power to rule the church.

The fundamental premise of the German Reformation was that of salvation by grace alone apart from the meritorious works of man. This meant that an individual did not need to perform any works in order to gain merit towards Salvation but rather that Salvation was the free gift of God’s grace. In addition, Luther challenged the infallibility of the Pope, placing the Word of God above Papal and ecclesiastical authority.

The Leipzig Disputation

After Luther had nailed the 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg he was summoned to Augsburg to appear before Aleander, the Papal Legate, who tried and failed to extract a recantation from him. He then went head to head with the famous Catholic theologian Dr. Eck in Leipzig in 1519 and it was this disputation that first brought him and his ideas to the attention of the German nation at large. During the debate Eck pressed Luther regarding his beliefs in Papal infallibility, a topic Luther had not come prepared to discuss, as he had assumed the debate would revolve around his belief in Salvation by faith alone. However, when Eck continued to press him for an answer Luther finally admitted that he did 

not believe that the Pope was infallible nor that his authority was above that of Scripture. The Leipzig disputation made Luther a well known public figure in Germany with his views becoming popular knowledge throughout the country.

Worms and Wartburg

After Leipzig Luther continued to produce literature that directly opposed many of the fundamental beliefs of the church. Incensed, the Pope issued a Bull of excommunication against Luther and by imperial law he was branded a heretic in Germany, entitled to a court hearing, which he was granted at the Diet of Worms in 1521. In Worms Luther successfully defended his position and refused to recant his beliefs throwing the whole of Christendom into a frenzy. While he was allowed to leave Worms safely Charles V issued the Edict of Worms shortly after his departure, proscribing Luther as a heretic and forbidding the preaching of the gospel throughout the Empire. After Worms, Luther went into hiding at Wartburg and during this time many of his followers, led by Andreas Karlstadt began to attack priests and commit attack of vandalism against church property. Luther returned to Wittenberg and worked to get the situation back under control which he managed to do. However, he realized that while he had wanted to preach directly to the people, it seemed that the people were unable to grasp his ideas which led to terrible misunderstandings.

The German Peasant Revolts

Lutheranism soon began to be used as a convenient scapegoat for the various revolts that sprang up around this time. The German economy was struggling during the 1520s, peasants were under severe economic stress and the knights, nobles who controlled smaller states than the Princes or Dukes, were struggling to make ends meet as well. In desperation, many of the knights turned to highway robbery and theft in order to sustain their failing wealth and declining land holdings. In 1523 a group of knights led by Franz von Sickingen formed an army and attacked the lands of the Archbishop of Trier. They did this under the banner of the Reformation but in fact, their real reason was to seize Catholic lands and assets which they so desperately needed in order to keep their own holdings afloat.

This was followed by the peasant revolt of 1525 which was, in reality, a social revolution mounted under growing economic and social strain. German peasants were under the laws of Serfdom, a medieval institution that legally bound peasants to the land they worked on and took away many of their freedoms. By the 1520s peasants were faced with rising costs of food, rising taxes and the harsh impositions of serfdom which spanned finances, work conditions, and basic freedoms. All of these elements came together to cause the explosion of the Peasant Revolt of 1525. The peasants tried to legitimize their cause by placing it under the banner of the Reformation but the truth is, like the revolt of the Knights before them, they were using the Reformation as a convenient excuse. Luther was appalled by the peasant revolts and became fully convinced that it was not the wisest course of action to carry on the work of Reformation

 by preaching directly to the people, given that they were prone to not only misunderstanding his ideas but using them as fuel to advance their own ends.   

The Magisterial Reformation

He turned his attention to converting the German Princes who would then be able to gradually work towards converting the people within their jurisdictions. This process became known as the Magisterial Reformation which was a significant point in the German Reformation turning it from a popular grassroots movement into a political movement, making the new Protestant churches, state churches, controlled by their respective rulers. Some of the Princes converted Lutheranism out of sincere belief in what he was teaching while others saw that Lutheranism was the perfect opportunity to seize control of the churches in their territories and broaden their power base. The new system of Lutheran churches became a loosely grouped collective of churches organized independently with their territorial leaders acting as their head. The Magisterial Reformation, though undertaken with the best of intentions to stamp out the evil of the peasant revolts, gave rise to a more lasting evil, that of inextricably linking religion and politics in Germany and throughout the whole of Christendom for centuries to come. Perhaps it was the prevailing influence exerted by the Catholic church of using the arm of the state to enforce religious convictions that normalized the move, Luther was, after all a former son of the church.  Whatever the reasons were that prompted the move, it left a trail of war and bloodshed throughout 16th century Europe.  

 The Diet of Speyer to The Diet of Nuremberg

After the peasant revolts of 1525, the Holy Roman Empire was embroiled in war after war and each of these conflicts had a significant impact on the progress of the Reformation throughout the Empire. In 1526 the combined forces of the Pope and the French king Francis I attacked Northern Italy, which was under the jurisdiction of the Empire. Charles V needed the support of the German princes to fend off the invasion and he appealed to the Diet of Speyer in 1526 for help which he received but only after he had agreed to repeal the Edict of Worms and grant the Reformation the legal right to be spread throughout the Empire.

After Charles defeated the Pope and Francis I, he turned his attention once more to crush out Lutheranism from the Empire and so convened the second Diet at Speyer in 1529 in the hopes of repealing the Edict issued in 1526. The Catholic princes in confederacy with Papal delegates rushed a motion designed to halt and retard the progress of the Reformation to the floor and it was passed by the majority. However, the Lutheran princes walked out of the Diet in protest and later drafted a formal protest of the decision refusing to acquiesce to its terms.

This was another turning point the story of the Reformation because it was a moment in time when the heads of state chose to make a stand against the encroachment of Papal power and to stand for the cause of truth regardless of the potential conflicts that stand might induce. 

It was this protest that gained the movement the name “Protestant”. Charles seeming victory over the Reformation was short-lived, however, with the appearance of the Ottoman Turks at the gates of Vienna in 1529. This led him to go back to the German princes for help at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530 and he tried to broker a religious compromise with the Protestant princes but they would not yield. This left Charles and his Imperial armies to face the Turks on their own. But though he managed to defeat them they were back again in 1531 and after trying to push them back Charles again sought the assistance of the Princes at the Diet of Nuremberg in 1532, this time agreeing to repeal the Edict of 1529 and fully re-establish the Edict of 1526. The Lutheran Princes agreed to join forces with Charles and he was able to defeat the Turks with their aid.

The progress of the Reformation would have been greatly hindered had it not been for the continuous conflict that the Emperor faced. As things stood he was unable to actively stem the tide of the Reformation because the constant invasions across his vast Empire kept him too distracted.

The power of the German Reformation was that it freed people from the restraints of a power-mongering church system and placed them in a direct relationship with God and his Word, the only infallible sources of authority in the human experience. And even though the movement suffered many setbacks, and was embroiled in near-constant political machination, it fulfilled the purpose for which God had raised it and brought the truth one step further in its forward march through History.