Read Part 1.
“Since God has given us the papacy,” Pope Leo X stated dramatically, “let us enjoy it.”
There was one man standing in the way of such enjoyment, however. Leo had little regard for the priest in Wittenberg, Dr. Martin Luther, who he referred to as “a drunken German.”
“He will feel different when he is sober,” concluded the pope.
His ability to underestimate Luther could not have been more profound.
The movement that would become the Reformation had advanced greatly in 1518 and 1519. Luther’s encounters with church officials at the Heidelberg Disputation (in May of 1518), at the meeting at Augsburg (with Cardinal Cajetan in October of 1518) and at the Leipzig Debate (where he contended with Johann Eck in July of 1519) had forced him to evaluate the true source of authority. Ultimately, he would conclude that it had to be Scripture alone—Sola Scriptura, a term that would later be used to characterize the formal principle of the Reformation. His clash with the Holy Mother Church was quickly coming to a head.
But, in the providence of God, a web of complications kept the church, or even the Holy Roman Empire, from dealing as quickly or as forcefully with Luther as some thought necessary.
For one thing, the empire was without an emperor from the death of Maximilian I on Jan. 12, 1519, until the election of his grandson, Charles V, who began to reign on June 28, 1519.
In September of 2017, my wife Lynnette and I were privileged to visit the land of Germany and tour the sites of the Reformation in celebration of its 500th anniversary.
The trip was memorable—even life-changing—for a number of reasons.
First of all, the trip was given to us by our friends at Grace Bible Church, in Portage, Wis., where I had served as interim pastor for nearly two years. Suffice it to say that we will never forget all that that congregation did for us.
Secondly, the trip took place less than three months after my wife had brain surgery to remove a pituitary tumor. That period, in the late spring, summer and fall of 2017, was one that I would never want to redo—and yet I cannot imagine my life without it. It led directly into our determination to seek to serve in my position with The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry.
Thirdly, this was our first experience with international travel. That, in itself, was extremely significant for us.
Finally, this trip took my interest in, and passion for, the Reformation, to an entirely different level. Although I have been fascinated with the Reformation all of my life (being raised a confessional Lutheran) and have preached on it for nearly 30 years, this trip opened my eyes to so many new realities, and brought it all to living color in my mind.
This article originally ran in October 2017.
After Luther published his 95 theses, inviting debate on the abuse of indulgences, things began to move rapidly in Wittenberg. Phillip Schaff, the grand church historian, sums up the course of events during the following year:1
Pope Leo X. was disposed to ignore the Wittenberg movement as a contemptible monkish quarrel; but when it threatened to become dangerous, he tried to make the German monk harmless by the exercise of his power. He is reported to have said first, “Brother Martin is a man of fine genius, and this outbreak is a mere squabble of envious monks;” but afterwards, “It is a drunken German who wrote the Theses; when sober he will change his mind.”
Three months after the appearance of the Theses, he directed the vicar-general of the Augustinian Order to quiet down the restless monk. In March, 1518, he found it necessary to appoint a commission of inquiry under the direction of the learned Dominican Silvester Mazzolini, called from his birthplace Prierio or Prierias (also Prieras), who was master of the sacred palace and professor of theology.
Place for Truth: Many agreed on the need for church reform, but Luther gave the reform theological roots ... The cure is not that men do what they can, but that God does what men cannot. Hence salvation is by grace alone, through Christ alone, received by faith alone. That teaching led to Luther's greatest moral reforms.
Quite rightly, in view of the historical and spiritual importance of the Reformation, there have been a spate of books about Martin Luther; this year, and indeed last week, being the five hundredth anniversary of the event that sparked the movement into flame — the nailing of Luther’s 95 theses onto the church door at Wittenberg on October 31st, 1517.
The author of the present book, Herman Selderhuis, has distinguished himself with his work on John Calvin, including a study of Calvin’s Theology of the Psalms and The Calvin Handbook. He has also written a similar biography to this on John Calvin.
The first thing I want to say about this biography of Luther is that it is very well written. Selderhuis has a plain, pithy and subtly tongue-in-cheek style that really makes the material flow. The second thing I would say is that this is not biography lurching into hagiography. The book presents the Reformer as a very flawed but endlessly fascinating individual. Luther was, for example, proud (179) and stubborn (181).