Martin Luther, a monk and theology professor in Wittenberg, Germany, began studying the Bible and came to believe that certain practices of the Roman Catholic church needed to be reformed.
Luther was especially critical of the Pope’s use of indulgences to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome in the early 1500s. Indulgences were official church documents that could be purchased to eliminate a person’s need to stay in purgatory after they died. The Catholic Church taught that purgatory was a place of cleansing where believers atoned for their sins before going on to heaven.
Luther distilled his criticism into the Ninety-Five Theses, a list of complaints he publicly nailed to the Castle Church door in Wittenburg, in 1517. He challenged the Catholic Church to debate his points.
Indulgences were an important source of revenue for the church, and Pope Leo X was not open to debating them. Luther appeared before a church council but refused to take back his statements, saying:
Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason−I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other–my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.
In 1521, Luther was excommunicated by the church. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V declared Luther a public outlaw. Eventually, a bounty would be put on Luther’s head.
While others had tried to reform the Roman Catholic Church before Luther, two unusual developments allowed his movement to survive and spread. First, Luther was a favorite of Frederick the Wise, Prince of Saxony. When the Pope’s soldiers tried to hunt Luther down, Frederick hid and protected him. During his time in seclusion, Luther kept busy by writing.
The second development that allowed the reformation to catch fire was the invention of the printing press. Luther translated the New Testament into German in 1522, making it accessible to common people for the first time. He followed that with the Pentateuch in 1523. During his lifetime, Martin Luther produced two catechisms, dozens of hymns, and a flood of writings that set forth his theology and explained key sections of the Bible.
By 1525, Luther had married a former nun, conducted the first Lutheran worship service, and ordained the first Lutheran minister. Luther did not want his name used for the new church; he proposed calling it Evangelical. Catholic authorities coined “Lutheran” as a derogatory term but Luther’s followers wore it as a badge of pride.
Even though Luther is called the Father of the Reformation, he has also been dubbed the Reluctant Reformer. His early objections to Catholicism focused on abuses: selling indulgences, buying and selling of high church offices, and the relentless politics involved with the papacy. He did not intend to split from the Catholic Church and start a new church.
However, as he was forced to defend his positions over the next several years, Luther eventually developed a theology that was at non-negotiable odds with Catholicism. His doctrine that salvation came by grace through faith in the atoning death of Jesus Christ, and not by works, became a pillar of several Protestant denominations. He rejected the papacy, all but two of the sacraments, any redemptive power for the Virgin Mary, praying to saints, purgatory, and celibacy for clergy.
Most importantly, Luther made the Bible – “sola scriptura” or Scripture alone – the only authority for what Christians are to believe, a model nearly all Protestants follow today. The Catholic Church, in contrast, holds that teachings of the Pope and the Church bear the same weight as Scripture.