Luther Sparks Reformation
The Reformation was ignited as a result of the sale of “indulgences,” the church’s practice of raising money by promising the forgiveness of sins.
In 1516-17, Johann Tetzel was commissioned by the pope to travel to Germany to sell “plenary indulgences” to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. These documents promised the release of souls from purgatory in exchange for hefty sums of money. Individuals could conveniently purchase these indulgences for the future release of their own souls or apply them to the souls of those already deceased.
Luther considered this an abuse and began preaching against what he thought were unbiblical practices. On October 31, 1517, Luther formally protested by posting a treatise titled “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” (later known as the 95 Theses) on the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church, which served as a bulletin board for the university community. Luther’s objections were initially intended to spur scholarly debate towards inappropriate church practices, not lead a movement of reform. But this is exactly what happened when friends of Luther translated the 95 Theses from Latin into German where they quickly dispersed throughout all of Europe.
Luther sent a letter with his protests to the Archbishop Albert of Mainz who did not reply, but instead forwarded it to Rome. Over the next three years, Pope Leo X sent a series of theologians to examine Luther’s theology for heresy. Luther was forced to debate his views at Heidelberg in the spring. This was followed by examination by Cardinal Cajetan in Augsburg who insisted Luther recant his views. Instead, Luther denounced the pope’s authority. No longer merely debating indulgences, he was now considered an enemy of the church and immediately went into hiding for fear of his life.
With external conflicts growing throughout the Holy Roman Empire, issues with Luther appeared to calm a bit. But peace would be short-lived as theologian Johann Eck was determined to expose Luther’s doctrine in a public forum. A public debate was staged in Leipzig; the tension was so high that an armed guard was necessary.
Luther’s boldest assertion in the debate was that Matthew 16:18 does not confer on the pope the exclusive right to interpret Scripture, and that neither the pope nor the church councils were infallible. He went so far as to say that lay people armed with the Scriptures were superior to a pope who chooses to ignore the Scriptures. After this debate, it was clear that Luther was now leading a revolution that challenged the authority of the church.
On June 15, 1520, the pope administered a papal bull warning Luther that he risked excommunication unless he recanted the 95 Theses and other statements from his writings. In response, Luther publicly set fire to the pope’s document in Wittenberg.