The first part of Martin Luther’s career as an enemy of the Roman Church is a well-known one. From his delivery of the 95 Theses to his iconic “Here I stand”, we know the man as an uncompromising reformer and rebel. Lesser known is his later shift to a more conservative and authoritarian Reformation.
This article will discuss Luther’s transition in the context of a holiness spiral resulting in the early years of the Reformation in Germany. Holiness spirals occur when competition between individuals for status results in condemnation based on perceived insufficient holiness with regards to in-group ideals; specifically, a spiral occurs when such competition intensifies and leads to purges and violent conflict. The details behind this transformation, driven by Luther’s reaction against the German Peasants’ War and its allies among more radical reformers, are a lesson in how holiness spirals can be effectively dealt with. His position as an initiator of the Reformation makes this especially interesting. Unlike Robespierre or Trotsky, Luther managed to stay in control of his revolution without being devoured by it. More radical reformers had to operate either outside Luther’s reach, or else wait until after his death to get their messages heard.
As an Augustinian monk, the young Luther reported being constantly plagued by doubts about his personal holiness and his ability to earn redemption. Although focus on personal merit is actually at odds with the Catholic teaching, he would later react against it with his doctrine of justification by faith alone. Despite all this, it wasn’t until he entered the dispute regarding indulgences that Luther would begin to be heard in the wider world. Officially, an indulgence granted by the Church is meant to be linked to sacramental confession and penitential works. While the sacrament of confession redeems one from the eternal punishment of sin, Catholic teaching holds that finite and purifying punishments are still undergone in Purgatory after death.
The indulgence is linked to the power of the Church to forgive sins and alleviate these temporal punishments. However, widespread abuse and corruption, as well as the simple understanding of uneducated believers, led to these indulgences being sold for profit. Additionally, they were being bought for not just the believer’s own spiritual benefit, but on behalf of others, as well. The corruption was bad enough that men like Duke George of Saxony and Cardinal Ximenes of Spain actually forbade them in their territories before Luther ever came on the scene. This occurred in 1517, when Luther is said to have followed university custom by nailing his list of objections to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg. He also sent off copies to several members of the Church hierarchy.
At this time, Luther’s 95 Theses were seen as taking the form of an academic challenge to the teachings and practices of the indulgences. They were treated as such by the Church, although as a challenge in error (and in fact, a challenge to the pocketbook of the Archbishop Luther had sent a copy to. Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz and Magdeburg had depended on indulgence revenue for his elevation, with Papal permission dependant on his sharing the proceeds with Rome). However, Pope Leo X’s initially diplomatic overtures against Luther’s position ended in the young monk’s radicalization.
In 1518, Luther found himself in Augsburg under question by papal legate Cardinal Cajetan, a renowned Thomist and scholar. On being called to recognize the Papal authority, he rejected any power of the Pope to authorize the sale of indulgences. He stated (not incorrectly even by Catholic beliefs) that the Pope could err, and cited his own sources in canon law and theology for his position. By 1519, in a public confrontation with the German scholastic Johann Eck, he denied the authority of either Pope or ecclesiastical councils to interpret scripture. In 1520, the Pope issued his famous Bull demanding that Luther recant or face excommunication. Luther responded by publicly burning the document. The next year, he was excommunicated, and declared an outlaw by the Diet of Worms. Thus we can see how rapidly Luther’s initial stance became more and more extreme. Within a period of just four years, he moved from critic to heretic.
Luther’s radicalization continued. He began targeting other customary devotions, such as pilgrimages, as being in vain for any spiritual benefit. Ultimately, he turned on some of the most fundamental teachings of the Church. The sacrament of confession was declared to be strictly voluntary, as opposed to a duty of the believer. This resulted in a large number of people abandoning the practice altogether, much to Luther’s dismay. Monks and nuns were encouraged to reject their vows as illegitimate and become married. Then there was the Mass. The historical teaching of both the Western and Eastern Church had been that the Mass was a bloodless sacrifice, whereby believers receive the body and blood of Christ. This central view of the liturgy was rejected by Luther in On the Abrogation of the Private Mass where he proclaimed that to view the Mass as sacrifice “change[s] the very substance of the sacrament and institution of Christ!”
But from the perspective of the princes, the Emperor, and Rome itself, his explicit and public denunciation of the Pope as the Antichrist likely weighed heaviest on their minds. In his writings, Luther grew to identify the Papacy with Babylon in the book of Revelation, and Rome’s spiritual state with the great harlot which the scripture names “the Mother of Prostitutes and Abominations of the Earth.” He also attributed apocalyptic depictions in the Book of Daniel about a great horned beast (Daniel 7) and an dark ruler who only a spiritual power can destroy (Daniel 8) as referring to the Popes. Many German princes and nobles supported Luther, and that he denounced an important religious and political check on their power cannot be any small motivating factor in this decision. However, the union of throne and altar was still an important basis for their political legitimacy. In supporting Luther, they would soon find themselves in a far more treacherous position than they had imagined.
The tension between the fiercely independent German nobles and states and the hallowed and respected Papacy was nothing new. The factional struggles between Guelph and Ghibelline in northern Italy pitted Papal interests against Imperial ones in northern Italian cities. Holy Roman Emperors were even known to take up arms against Papal opponents, and Popes responded in due kind by charging them with heresy and apostasy.
But Luther’s reformation went beyond political conflict. It brought the fight out from the castles of noblemen and into the churches of the common people. Yet once the principle was established that Papal and ecclesiastical power was illegitimate, it did not take long for some to wonder how far this principle might be extended. If the Pope himself might be a servant of the Devil, could the same be true of the princes?
Wittenberg was the centre of the action and also where more radical reformers began to assert themselves. Among these was Andreas Karlstadt, who wore peasant clothing, asked to be called Brother Andreas, and purged the liturgy of images and sacrificial language. The city council of Wittenberg allowed the iconoclastic factions to remove images and statues during this time. More extreme even than Karlstadt were the Zwickau Prophets. This group of men rejected even the authority of scripture and relied on personal revelations, and believed that the End Times were upon the believers. It should be noted that these individuals grew in prominence in Wittenberg during 1521: the same year Luther was excommunicated and only four years after the 95 Theses. This was the speed with which the Reformation gained ground in Germany, and the door was opened to doctrines unthinkable only years earlier.
Because of Luther’s authority, he was also able to delegitimize many of these newcomers to Wittenberg simply by speaking out against them. This being so, many of them would try to meet with Luther and gain his blessing. But a radical named Thomas Müntzer was of a more independent mind. Like the above prophets, Müntzer had been based in Zwickau for a time. Gaining authority because of his declared status as a follower of Luther, he was eventually dismissed from his post and exiled from the town due to his role in riots against Catholic priests. A brief sojourn in Prague ended the same way, when the local Hussite Church discovered the extent of his radicalism. Eventually Müntzer reached the German town of Allstedt, where he gained a hearing. A request from Luther to come to Wittenberg was ignored. His services were held in the German language and his popularity increased. When invited to give a sermon at the local castle, he made his demand for noble support:
“What a pretty spectacle we have before us now – all the eels and snakes coupling together immorally in one great heap. The priests and all the evil clerics are the snakes…and the secular lords and rulers are the eels… My revered rulers of Saxony…seek without delay the righteousness of God and take up the cause of the gospel boldly.”
Facing hard opposition from the princes and Luther himself, Müntzer fled to Mühlhausen, and later to Nuremberg. He arrived in time for the start of the German Peasants’ War. This series of uprisings and insurrections started around 1524 in the southwest and soon spread to other parts of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. The rebellions began when peasant groups agitated for the reduction of certain taxes and tithes, the expansion of hunting and land rights and the restoration of privileges which had been eroded, and other causes. For the radicals in the Reformation, this was an opportunity. Müntzer had travelled to the southwest and Switzerland during this time, right where the rebellions were beginning to flare up. He returned to Mühlhausen and used popular support to gain a pulpit. An enthusiastic participant in the uprising, he raised a militia called the Eternal League of God with apocalyptic fervour. Soon, the region was in a full scale revolt. 1525 would see the climax of the rebellions as the nobles cooperated in crushing the peasant armies and suppressing rabble-rousers. By the Autumn of that year, the war was more or less over. The peasants had achieved little and saw nearly a hundred thousand of their number killed. Müntzer was among those executed for treason.
The clash between Luther and Müntzer crystallizes the crisis of the Reformation during this period. Müntzer and other reformers such as Zwingli condemned Luther for not extending the Reformation from the religious order to the political and social one. Anti-Lutheran pamphlets were published on these grounds to delegitimize him as a leader. Müntzer wrote to a friend:
“…our most beloved Martin acts ignorantly because he does not want to offend the little ones… Dear brothers, leave your dallying, the time has come! Do not delay, summer is at the door. … Do not flatter your princes, otherwise you will live to see your undoing.”
The Reformation had entered a full blown holiness spiral, a mere eight years after Luther published his academic 95 Theses. Since status could be achieved on the basis of being a true Reformer, the incentive for those seeking prominence was to extend the Reformation to ever more radical ends. While Luther had some initial sympathies with the peasants, no small number of knights, minor nobles, and burghers were eager to take advantage of the conflict. Many aimed to both rid themselves of religious rivals and become wealthy through acquiring the property of the church and the higher nobility. Müntzer gave spiritual legitimacy to these economic interests:
“…does not Christ say, ‘I came not to send peace, but a sword’? What must you do with that sword? Only one thing if you wish to be the servants of God, and that is to drive out and destroy the evil ones who stand in the way of Gospel.”
Luther had disapproved of many of the radicals before the war began. During the uprising, he used his authority to firmly back the princes and their suppression of the rebellions. He condemned the uprisings in the harshest terms. In his work Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants, he accused the rebels of violating their oaths to legitimate authority, of reprehensible violence, and of blaspheming God by invoking the Gospel for their cause. The work is worth quoting at length:
“Since they are now deliberately and violently breaking this oath of obedience and setting themselves in opposition to their masters, they have forfeited body and soul…
For if a man is in open rebellion, everyone is both his judge and his executioner; just as when a fire starts, the first man who can put it out is the best man to do the job. For rebellion is not just simple murder; it is like a great fire, which attacks and devastates a whole land…
…they cloak this terrible and horrible sin with the gospel, call themselves “Christian brethren,”7 take oaths and submit to them, and compel people to go along with them in these abominations. Thus they become the worst blasphemers of God and slanderers of his holy name. Under the outward appearance of the gospel, they honor and serve the devil, thus deserving death in body and soul ten times over. I have never heard of a more hideous sin…
For baptism does not make men free in body and property, but in soul; and the gospel does not make goods common, except in the case of those who, of their own free will, do what the apostles and disciples did in Acts 4. They did not demand, as do our insane peasants in their raging, that the goods of others—of Pilate and Herod—should be common, but only their own goods. Our peasants, however, want to make the goods of other men common, and keep their own for themselves. Fine Christians they are!”
When it came to the military response, Luther was just as uncompromising. He declared that the rulers had a duty as sovereigns to suppress the rebels, and that “[t]his is the time of the sword, not the day of grace.” This even allowed Protestant rulers to ally with Catholics. As for those able to take up the sword, Luther promised that “anyone who is killed fighting on the side of the rulers may be a true martyr in the eyes of God.”
The results of Luther’s decision can be seen in the path the Reformation took in Germany in the decades following the conflict. Luther himself would indeed face condemnation from many peasant leaders and fellow Reformers for his “treason”, and he moderated his tone slightly by publishing an Open Letter on the Harsh Book Against the Peasants. Nevertheless, he never stopped upholding princely authority against the radicals. Luther understood that the spiral which the Reformation was taking could not be held back by attempting to compromise with Müntzer or the other radicals.
Instead he threw his weight without reserve behind the princes, even at the cost of limited cooperation with Catholics. Luther’s decision implies foresight that cooperation with the radicals would only intensify the war, possibly destroying the Reformation and ultimately leaving Germany broken and vulnerable to interference by foreign or Catholic powers. Europe would see such a conflict soon enough in the Thirty Years War, which would leave entire regions scarred and depopulated.
The Lutheran confession would grow under the auspices and protection of state power, not under the influence of whatever radical managed to gain a pulpit. In effect, this would be a check on holiness spirals. To become so holy as to denounce the prince was itself a sin, and this agreement had the backing of the founder of the German Reformation himself.
The lesson learned: the effective strategy for self-preservation during a holiness spiral is to unify behind an authority which can declare those who denounce it illegitimate, thus halting the spiral. The rapid descent of the Reformation to this stage shows us that radical movements with simple beginnings can quickly grow out of control. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine Luther being able to maintain his position as he did without his ironclad credentials as a founder of the Reformation…credentials which dated back only 8 years to an academic challenge against indulgences.