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Martin Luther

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MARTIN LUTHER This essay is concerned with Martin Luther (1483-1546), and his concept of Christianity. Luther began his ecclesiastical career as an Augustinian Monk in the Roman Catholic Church. Consequently, Luther was initially loyal to the papacy, and even after many theological conflicts, he attempted to bring about his reconciliation with the Church. But this was a paradox not to endure because in his later years, Luther waged a continual battle with the papacy. Luther was to become a professor of biblical exegesis at Wittenberg where, in 1957, he posted his critique of the Roman Catholic Church's teachings and practices. This is otherwise known as The Ninety-Five Theses, which is usually considered to be the original document of the Reformation. Basically, this document was an indictment of the venality of the Roman Catholic Church, particularly the widespread practice of selling indulgences in association with the sacrament of penance. Luther's beliefs on the matter was that after confession, absolution relied upon the sinner's faith and God's Divine Grace rather than the intervention of a priest. At this point, Luther did not advocate an actual separation from the Roman Catholic Church. Instead, Luther felt his suggested reforms York-3 could be implemented within Catholicism. If this had taken place, the Protestant Reformation would probably not of ever seen the light of day--nor would it have been necessary. But the theological practices being what they were in the Roman Church, there was little chance at that time for any great variations to occur within its folds. The Church of Rome was thoroughly monolithic and set in its ways and was not about to mutate into something else. If a metamorphosis had occurred within the Roman Catholic Church, Luther would have had a different destiny. But Luther's fate was sealed, and his job was cut out for him. Concerning Luther and the Reformation, Paul Tillich states: "The turning point of the Reformation and of church history in general is the experience of an Augustinian monk in his monastic cell--Martin Luther. Martin Luther did not merely teach different doctrines; others had done that also, such as Wyclif. But none of the others who protested against the Roman system were able to break through it. The only man who really made a breakthrough, and whose breakthrough has transformed the surface of the earth, was Martin Luther. . . . He is one of the few great prophets of the Christian Church, and his greatness is overwhelming, even if it was limited by some of his personal traits and his later development. He is responsible for the fact that a purified Christianity, a Christianity of the Reformation, was able to establish itself equal terms with the Roman tradition" (Tillich 227). Tillich's York-4 main emphasis, then, is not on Luther as the founder of Lutheranism, but as the person who broke through the system of the Church of Rome. Luther shattered the theological restraints and distortions of the Roman Catholic religion. This accomplishment amounts to the establishment of another religion known as Protestantism, a faith that was generated from the Reformation, with its advocates such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Knox. However, Luther stood out as one of the Reformation titans in a most unique manner. Roland H. Bainton suggests the following concerning Luther's reforms with regard to the Catholic sacraments; "But Luther's rejection of the five sacraments might even have been tolerated had it not been for the radical transformation which he effected in the two which he retained. From his view of baptism, he was not a second baptism, and no vow should ever be taken beyond the baptismal vow. Most serious of all was Luther's reduction of the mass to the Lord's Supper. The mass is central for the entire Roman Catholic system because the mass is believed to be a repetition of the Incarnation and the Crucifixion. When the bread and wine are transubstantiated, God again becomes flesh and Christ again dies upon the altar. This wonder can be performed only by priests empowered through ordination. . . His first insistence was that the sacrament of the mass must be not magical but mystical. . . He, too, had no mind to subject it to human frailty and would not concede that York-5 he had done so by positing the necessity of faith, since faith is itself a gift from God, but this faith is given by God when, where, and to whom he will and even without the sacrament is efficacious; whereas the reverse is not true, that the sacrament is of efficacy without faith. 'I may be wrong on indulgences,' declared Luther, 'but as to the need for faith diminished the role of the priests who may place awafer in the mouth but cannot engender faith in the heart" (Bainton 107). For Luther, the Holy Eucharist of Lord's supper was really a symbolic act rather than an actual instance of transubstantiation in which the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ. That was a magical aspect to this sacrament which Luther could not accept. According to the Roman Church, the bread and wine may have the appearance of such, but their inner substances have literally become the flesh and blood of Christ. All of this is a literal acceptance of the words of Jesus at the Last Supper: "And as they were eating, Jesus took the bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins" (Matthew 26: 26-28). Luther's view of the communion sacrament was strictly symbolic as is the view of Protestants to this day. However, this idea was heresy so far as the Roman Catholic Church was concerned. The sacramental power of its York-6 priests was no longer necessary if this concept were to prevail. This is the type of change the Reformation and Martin Luther wrought. The power of the Roman clergy could not exist if Luther's concepts were to be accepted. Because the principal sacrament of the Roman Catholic Church is the Holy Eucharist of Holy Communion, the fact that Luther was tampering with it could not help but be looked upon by the Roman clergy with great dismay. Luther generated the Protestant belief that this sacrament is a commemoration through which clergy and communicants raise their spirits by symbolic remembrance of Christ's life and death. In contrast, according to the teachings of the Roman Church, Christ's human body and blood are actually present in the consecrated bread and wine. As Bertrand Russell states: "Even more important in the Middle Ages, was transubstantiation; only a priest could perform the miracle of the mass. It was not until the eleventh century in 1079, that

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