The Reformation

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Early Christianity


What role did Luther play in the Reformation and in the decisions about the Apocrypha that were made at that time?


When Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church at Wittenberg Castle on October 31, 1517, he probably had no idea of the firestorm that would ensue. He was merely protesting, in an academic way, the Church's practice of selling indulgences. The practice of indulgences had almost become a substitute for confession, essentially allowing people to buy their salvation. He was outraged by such behavior, believing that people could not "work" their way into heaven. The Catholic Church encouraged the practice because it was a lucrative source of income. In Luther's own town, a Dominican monk, John Tetzel, was arrogantly claiming that he could redeem the sins of the deceased – for the right price.

Luther's sheet of theses was an attempt to open up a discussion of such practices. Included were his thoughts on salvation by grace alone, on living a life of humility before God. So along with his posting, he also sent a copy to some friends as well as the Archbishop challenging him to end the sale of indulgences. Though some local landowners approved of his points, Luther's theses quickly made their way to Rome where they were seen as an attack against the papacy.

Within three years, Pope Leo III condemned Luther's views as being heretical. In April of 1521, Luther was given the opportunity to recant his views at the Diet of Worms. After a list of his "writings" was read to him, he was specifically asked whether he had changed his viewpoints. They told him to "sleep on it" before answering. All that night Luther prayed, but the next morning he stood before the assembly and supposedly uttered his famous phrase, "Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me." Within a month, Luther was declared an outlaw, meaning there would be no repercussions for anyone who killed him.

On the way back from Worms, Luther was "kidnapped" by a supportive German prince and safely hidden in Wartburg castle for about a year. During this time, he continued to think and write and translate. He published the New Testament in German by 1522. He continued to write and teach until the 30's. Luther was the first person to publish a Bible in the local vernacular. Legend has it that he walked around the marketplace listening to how people spoke. He translated his Bible from a Greek edition, which was later called the textus receptus. When he published the Old Testament in 1534, he only used texts found in the Hebrew Bible. The remaining books, the apocryphal books were "good to read" but not "inspired." He set them apart, though they were included in his Bible. (He also took some license with several New Testament books, namely Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation, by putting them at the end.) Martin Luther died of natural causes in 1546.

By this time, however, the voices of many were crying for reform, and the "Reformation" was in full swing. Ultimately, the Catholic Church had to respond to these Protestant "heresies." Their response is known as the "counter-reformation." Many Catholics also wanted to end the abuses that were so prevalent in the church. In order to address these matters, the Pope convened an ecumenical council in Trent in 1545 CE. It would last for a total of eighteen years, but actual work took place over three sessions. It was at this council that the decision about the Apocryphal books was ratified. Council members did not reexamine each of the books that were involved. Indeed, they simply took the books that had been there all along and declared them to have scriptural value. At this same council, they were able to address some of the abuses that had occurred, including the selling of indulgences. But it was all too little too late. The Protestant Reformation was here to stay.

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