Between the death of the last apostle (probably John) and the beginning of the 16th century it would be difficult to find any one person who left such an impacting legacy as Martin Luther. There were definitely some Church Fathers that we’ll be studying and learning from for ages to come. But in terms of the lasting impact on the Christian faith, during that time period Martin Luther stands head and shoulders above all others. On October 31, 1517 Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Church in Wittenburg. By doing this he began stripping away the authority of the Pope and the power of the Church as an institution; and in the process of doing so he set off a firestorm that would formally last until 1648.
That having been said, when he first wrote these 95 objections to the sale of indulgences he wasn’t intending to start any sort of reformation movement. He was simply fed up with the unethical and immoral behavior of the Roman Catholic Church and it’s representatives – specifically as it related to his own parishioners being ripped off by these phony indulgences that were being used to build St. Peter’s Basilica (the same one that still stands today). Surprisingly, at this time he still had the utmost respect for the Pope and considered himself to be a faithful follower. However, this had all changed by 1521. During that year he called the Pope the anti-Christ, was excommunicated and had to go into hiding.
It’s difficult to determine with any certainty which part of his theology was the most important in terms of his lasting impact. It was a specific mixture of all of them that set him apart, angered many and created such an excitement that people were eager to follow. That being said, Luther’s legacy (i.e. importance) is not necessarily in what he believed and taught but how he taught and who he divided himself against. In other words, his most important doctrine (or success) was the one that created, not only the distinction, but more importantly the separation from the status quo. When Luther defied and broke away from the papacy he authorized what had been denied and legitimized all that had been repressed; that being the spiritual independence of each person from the institutional nature of the Catholic Church at its head. It was this contribution (which was grounded in theology) that was most impressive, most lasting and most important. Because of this, each person is able to stand alone, in terms of their ability to determine and practice their faith according to their interpretation of the Word of God, without having the Church looking over their shoulder. All the other significant contributions that Luther made through his theological understanding are grounded in this one.
This lasting contribution is huge and shouldn’t be downplayed. But it doesn’t mean that his ministry didn’t have any negative side-effects or that it wasn’t full of errors. There were actually three doctrines of the Church that he agreed with and continued to preach. 1) He maintained the union of Church and State. In other words, whoever controlled the Church would control the state. 2) He retained infant baptism. 3) While he didn’t teach transubstantiation in the Lord’s Supper. He did teach the step below that (consubstantiation), that the Lord’s Supper was literally the blood and body of Christ and not a memorial (which is what Zwingli ended up teaching). The last “failure” worth mentioning was his “personality.” He really wasn’t a very nice person. He was crude, rude, vulgar and really enjoyed his beer (he was a German).
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