Luther’s Separation Manifesto Analysed
When Luther nailed his ninety-five Theses to the door of the Castle Church, he was hoping to spark a debate and encourage reform within the Roman Church. In the years following 1517, it became increasingly apparent that reform from within was a mirage in the desert.
A key moment in Luther’s spiritual journey arrived in 1519 during the famous Leipzig debate with the theologian, John Ecke. It was a marathon affair lasting eighteen days, during which Luther was accused by Ecke of being a Hussite. The Hussites were followers of John Huss, who was condemned as a heretic in 1415 and subsequently burnt to death. This accusation caused Luther to carefully ponder what Huss actually believed, which resulted in him declaring after the debate:
“We are all Hussites without even knowing it.”
Luther was becoming less concerned as to whether the Church viewed him as a heretic. The key factor in his reasoning was, ‘Is my conscience captive to the Word of God?’ If John Huss taught the Gospel and stepped beyond the boundaries of the Roman Church, why should he not do likewise? God was moulding the thinking of the German monk, preparing him for the inevitable break with the Church.
The break finally came in 1521, when Pope Leo X served Luther with the Papal Bull, which effectively excommunicated the German theologian from the Church. With courage and fortitude, Luther was undaunted. Before the Bull arrived, knowing it was en route, Luther put pen to paper, publishing one of his most important works:
“The Babylonian Captivity of the Church”
In essence, this book was Luther’s defence of his new-found position beyond the boundaries of the Church. He now enjoyed greater freedoms because he was no longer subject to Popes and Prelates. He employed this freedom to devastating effect, articulating why the true Church can and must exist apart from the authority of the Papacy. This was revolutionary in the extreme. Never before in one thousand years had anyone dared to claim that it was legitimate for the true Church to operate outside Papal authority. Certainly, in these years, the Papacy had been challenged; but this logical and coherent defence of a separated movement was something new. This book illustrates the movement in Luther’s thought process, as the Holy Spirit guided him, and indicates that the mighty oak tree we call The Reformation was developing a strong root system, founded on the Word of God.
The title of Luther’s work is striking, pregnant with intent; “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church”. In ancient times, the Jews spent seventy years in captivity after Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian forces conquered Judah. The people of God were not merely deprived of their homeland; they were cut off from Jerusalem and the place of worship. The best that godly Daniel could muster was offering prayer with his body facing the general direction of Jerusalem. Yet the Jerusalem that the captive nation remembered was not the city that then was, because Solomon’s glorious temple, the focal point of worship for generations, was lying in rubble. The words of Psalm 137 express the dark pathos of those tragic years:
“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion”
Luther’s contention was that the true Church, the Body of Christ, was held captive in Babylon because true worship had been corrupted and the glorious Gospel had been denied. As the hour came when the Jews were called out of Babylon to make the return to Jerusalem under Zerubbabel, so Luther was about to lead tens of thousands of his fellow Germans out of bondage into the liberty of Christ.
At the commencement of his work, Luther cuts to the chase. With characteristic clarity, he explains how he arrived at his opinion that the Church is indeed held captive. It was indeed theologians such as Eck who convinced him because of the manner in “which they skilfully prop up their idol”. If the Papacy had indeed become a subject of idolatry, then Christ was usurped, making the Pope no better than Nebuchadnezzar, who paraded himself as God Almighty. Did Luther see the Papacy as a carry-over from imperialism and the emperors who demanded worship? I rather think he did, because he went back to beginnings of empire, the origins of Babylon itself:
“I now know of a certainty that the papacy is the kingdom of Babylon and the power of Nimrod the mighty hunter.”
Nimrod, described as a mighty hunter, was in effect a hunter of men, and the phrase “before the Lord” carries a spiritual connotation. He was an emperor who deceived the souls of men and women. Indeed when the sins of “great Babylon”, the Kingdom of Antichrist, are enumerated in The Apocalypse John records that part of her merchandise was the “souls of men” (Revelation 18:13). Luther’s primary concern was for the souls of his fellow Germans, being convinced that the trade in indulgences was making merchandise out of their eternal destinies.
“The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” however, majors upon the sacraments. It remains the case that one of the marks of the Church is the administration of the sacraments. Therefore, if the Church is in error where the sacraments are concerned, the Church indeed is in “captivity,” necessitating an exodus. Luther set out his stall, reducing the sacraments from seven to three: the Lord’s Supper, Baptism and Penance. While the Reformed Churches would reduce this still further, excluding Penance, because this is not an ordinance instituted by Christ and without sensible signs, we cannot but admire Luther’s boldness. I must add, however, that at the close of this work Luther admitted that “strictly speaking there are but two sacraments in the Church of God – baptism and bread”, making me wonder why he decided to add on Penance. Was it out of desire to emphasise a change of life on the part of believers? We cannot deny, however, that much of what he had learned as an Augustinian Monk, in the Church which had baptised him as a baby, he had now unlearned as he ploughed a separate furrow.
In a systematic manner, Luther works his way through the seven sacraments of Rome, showing the errors within what he considered to be the true sacraments, as practised by the Church, and outlining why the four (Confirmation, Marriage, Ordination, Extreme Unction or The Last Rites) were spurious.
Of the Lord’s Supper (or “The Sacrament of the Altar” as he called it), he was critical of the priests alone taking the cup, the doctrine of transubstantiation and the celebration of masses on special days for remuneration. While we disprove of Luther’s unique stance that the Lord was spiritually, not physically, present in this sacrament (known as consubstantiation), this section has much helpful material on the importance of the Communion Feast in the life of the believer. For example, when expounding the words of the Saviour, “This cup is the New Testament in my blood” he offers these comments:
“You see therefore that what we call the mass* is the promise of remission of sins made to us by God – the kind of promise that has been confirmed by the death of the Son of God. For the one difference between a promise and a testament is that a testament is a promise which implies the death of him who makes it…there are but two things in the mass – the promise of God, and the faith of man which takes that which the promise offers”
(*Luther continued to use the Romish word for the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper)
Progressing to Baptism, Luther rather characteristically stressed the value of faith in order for the sacrament to have value. Indeed, he went further by daring to claim that forgiveness would not be withheld from those who were not baptised if indeed they had faith:
“Christ says: He that believeth and is baptised shall be saved. He that does not believe shall be damned.’ Faith is so necessary a part of the sacrament that it can save even without the sacrament For which reason Christ did not see fit to say ‘He that does not believe and is not baptised shall be damned’…”
What Luther called the sacrament of penance was essentially what Reformed Theology would define as repentance. This we readily agree is necessary, although we deny that this is a sacrament. While Luther employed the word penance, we must be careful to distinguish his view from the practices of Rome. Some of his greatest and most intense criticisms of Rome in ‘The Babylonian Captivity of the Church’ are found in this section:
“…they torture poor consciences to death, and one runs to Rome…one scourges himself with rods, another ruins his body with fasts and vigils…For these monstrous things we are indebted to you, O Roman See, and thy murderous laws and ceremonies, with which you have corrupted mankind, so that they think by works to make satisfaction for sin to God, Who can be satisfied only by the faith of a contrite heart.”
While he certainly stressed the importance of confession and turning from sin, he was at pains to emphasise the priority of faith. Therefore, he issued this warning to his readers:
“Beware, then, of putting your trust, in your own contrition and of ascribing the forgiveness of sins to your own sorrow. God does not have respect to you because of that, but because of the faith by which you have believed his threatenings and promises, and which wrought such sorrow within you”.
The final pages of this important work are given over to the Romish Sacraments, which Luther rejected altogether and were keeping the Church in captivity.
Of Confirmation, he insisted there was one simple reason why this and the other false sacraments were indeed false:
“I do not say this because I condemn the seven sacraments but because I deny they can be proved from the Scriptures.”
From this comment and previous comments, we can readily discern the two principles that were guiding this man of God in his judgement were two of the famous Reformation Solas; Sola Fide and Sola Scriptura. That which undermined or bypassed faith was false, and anything that was in addition to Scripture was to be rejected.
As regards the claim by the Church that marriage is a sacrament, Luther wrote several pages about marriage as a metaphor of the union between Christ and his Church as well as laying down rules for marriage and divorce. He was unwavering in his denial that this institution is a sacrament, showing that as unbelievers and believers legitimately derive natural benefit from the institution of marriage, it is inconsistent to teach that marriage is therefore a means of grace. The word he employed was “farce”.
Turning to Ordination, he commenced with a basic yet profound statement:
“Of this sacrament the Church of Christ knows nothing; it is an invention of the Pope’s Church.”
His terminology here is interesting in that he differentiates between the true Church and the Pope’s Church. His articulation that the Church of Christ must exist outside of Papal authority is demonstrative. As he writes, the framework of what would become the Lutheran Church is taking shape in his mind, and the future course of European Christianity is assured.
Believing this phoney sacrament to be at the root of many of the Church’s evils, because it exalted man to an elevated place above his station, Luther wrote:
“…the sacrament of ordination has been and is a most approved device for the establishing of all the horrible things that have been wrought hitherto and will be wrought in the Church. Here Christian brotherhood has perished, here shepherds have been turned into wolves, servants into tyrants, churchmen into worse than worldlings.”
Luther used this section to teach “that we are all priests, as many of us as are Christians.” He could not bear to see a few select people being elevated, because in so doing they usurped the rights and privileges that belong to all of God’s dear children. He also carefully outlined what the priesthood ought to be; “nothing but a ministry”. Another great legacy of the Protestant Reformation is that the Minister of the Gospel is called to serve the people who are, through Christ, the true Priests of God.
Extreme Unction (commonly called The Last Rites) is based upon the words of James 5:14 where the sick individual is urged to call for the elders of the Church to receive an anointing with oil. Luther dismissed this sacrament and its alleged proof. With typical simplicity, he stated that James’ intention was to help those who were sick, that they would be healed, whereas Extreme Unction is the last sacrament dispensed prior to death.
With the Papacy raging against him, Luther therefore set forth his position, turning the attention of friend and foe to the Scriptures, which alone can be the arbiter of truth. With the break from Rome complete, a new order was emerging, yet even he could not have realised the extent to which God’s blessing was being poured out upon his efforts.
“…they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.” (Acts 17:11)