Great Humanists, The: European Thought on the Eve of the Reformation

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Top Questions. Ninety-five Theses. Martin Luther. Start Your Free Trial Today. Learn More in these related Britannica articles:. Initially, the Protestant reformers maintained the hope that they could accomplish the reformation of the doctrine and life of the church from within, but this proved impossible because of the intransigence of the church, the polemic of the Protestant movements, or the political and….

Whereas they denounced the sins of churchmen, he was disillusioned by the whole scholastic scheme of redemption. The church taught that man could atone for his sins through confession and…. In a sense, the Reformation was a protest against the secular values of the Renaissance. No Italian despots better represented the profligacy, the materialism, and the intellectual hedonism that accompanied these values than did the three Renaissance popes, Alexander VI, Julius II,….

History at your fingertips. Sign up here to see what happened On This Day , every day in your inbox! By signing up, you agree to our Privacy Notice. Be on the lookout for your Britannica newsletter to get trusted stories delivered right to your inbox. The former monk wrote back defiance, in hot-blooded essays called On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church and On the Freedom of a Christian.

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A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all. Get into the fire. There Luther made the pronouncement of indomitable will and rectitude that became the watchword of Lutheranism:. I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.

I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me.

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Charles V, moved by personal faith and political necessity—his ambition of universal empire, never to be realized, rested on a unified Catholic Church—vehemently censured Luther and issued an imperial ban. He was now an outlaw, without legal protection from any of the powers arraying themselves against him. Oh God in heaven, that we should lose this man who has written more clearly than ever any other, to whom you have given such an evangelical spirit, we ask you, oh heavenly father, to give again your holy spirit to another who will again gather together your holy Christian church.

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If the Word needs a nudge here and there to get the point across, so be it: in Scripture alone as Luther understood it the truth resides, and he had his favorite books, Romans preeminent among them, and others that he rejected as unsound, such as the Epistle of James, which attributes an intolerable significance to justification by works. Luther attempted to have James along with the Epistles of Jude and Hebrews and the Book of Revelation removed from his canon, until cooler heads prevailed.

But in Luther saw Karlstadt as a usurper and the populace as spiritually unready for such innovations. So on returning to Wittenberg, Luther sided with the secular authorities to rein in Karlstadt, whom he accused of literal devilment, and to brake the momentum of change. Let whoever can stab, smite, slay. If you die in doing it, good for you!

A more blessed death can never be yours, for you die while obeying the divine word and commandment in Romans 13, and in loving service of your neighbor, whom you are rescuing from the bonds of hell and of the devil. Radical Protestants such as Anabaptists—believers in adult baptism—observed the distinction with consummate fervor, refusing to swear civic oaths or fight in armies: withdrawal from the kingdom of sin was the imperative of the kingdom of heaven.

As Ryrie writes, Luther asserted that the prince had a duty. It was simply the suppression of rebellion or the punishment of blasphemy, which was legitimate, he argued tendentiously, because openly defying God was a denial of natural justice. To defy Luther was to deny God. He was extremely protective of the integrity of his religious vision, and he was a very determined and violent hater.

But was this indeed the principal appeal that Luther had for the men and women of his time and that produced the Reformation? Craig Harline in A World Ablaze comes out and says what the other biographers carefully edge their way around: that it was not the theological insight of justification by faith that won the masses, but the promise of freedom from various hated oppressions. And Luther freed the clergy and religious from the burden of celibacy and poverty: the monasteries emptied as their sometime inmates were free to marry as Lutheran ministers, and Luther himself married and fathered six children by a nun who had left the convent.

There is another freedom as well, which Luther, like John Calvin after him, denies the true believer, and paradoxically liberates him from: free will, freedom of choice. In Erasmus and Luther fired off an exchange of disquisitions, the Catholic humanist writing his Diatribe Concerning Free Choice, the Protestant prophet retorting with a prolonged sneer in On the Bondage of the Will.

Humanism as the Foundation of the Reformation | Owlcation

Erasmus opens with an argument from common sense: the Lutheran doctrine of necessity and predestination seems not a spiritual liberation but a punishment. Luther would not want to have free will even if he could, he writes: that is too perilous for him, as he knows he cannot be good enough to save his soul. What he wants is an incontrovertible promise of salvation, which he finds only in passive righteousness, not in choosing virtue. In the end the philosophically insoluble question is of interest chiefly for the psychology of belief: most every human being knows the experience of free will, yet neither disputant begins with that, but rather from the attributes of the Christian God, which are ultimately a matter of faith, and both leap into the arms of Scripture.

Their reasoning has faith as its foundation. Luther was not guilty of murder, or adultery, or by his own account even lust in his heart; he was not an atheist or an idolater, a rogue or a liar, a bandit or a second-story man. His profuse upsurge of sinfulness in confession made his wise father-confessor scoff at the paltriness of it all. If Luther had been a normal, reasonable man, his peccadilloes would have proved inconsequential; instead, they moved the world.

And yet multitudes flocked to the new religion as though it were absolute truth. It did fulfill many needs and desires. In the stampede beauties were crushed. William F.

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Buckley, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Calls for the emperor to assume responsibility for the reform of the Church echoed throughout the period. Demands for a general council of the Church, or for a specifically German version, were loud and in the decades around humanists added their voices to the anti-Roman clamour.


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Others, for example the renowned Strasbourg preacher Johann Geiler von Kaysersberg, advocated a communal reformation to be carried out by every Christian. All these ideals proved illusory. No 15th-century reformer found a way of making the German church more attentive to the needs of its members or more pleasing to God. They cannot, however, explain the unprecedented success of his movement. In order to do this, we must return to Luther.

He is, as his biographer Lyndal Roper has recently shown so compellingly, a difficult hero. There is much to dislike about him, aspects that are deeply off-putting to modern, liberal sensibilities. He was a great hater and his hatred manifested itself most spectacularly, and most fatefully, in his antisemitism.


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  • Luther was also stubborn, authoritarian and, by the end of his life, deeply embittered. Yet it was, without doubt, his courage and conviction, his communication skills and his ability to create public interest that drove the Reformation forward. These qualities were apparent from the outset. In the course of these confrontations Luther developed and honed his ideas, defending the authority of scripture above that of the pope and the Church fathers and broadening his criticisms of the Church. Anything else is an exercise in presumption or despair.