Luther's Beliefs

The Reformation was a time of incredible religious and political change in Europe. Traditions that were centuries old were being questioned and even discarded.

Luther's Background

Martin Luther (21 Kb): "16th Century Anabaptism," slide 2
Martin Luther after posting his 95 Theses

Although Martin Luther was the first leader to openly depart from the Roman Catholic church, he did not originally set out to start his own church. Rather, Luther was a committed church man who sought discussion and change in the church. As a monk, Luther struggled to understand his relationship to God, and felt unworthy of God's attention. His eventual conclusion was that he was not worthy of approaching God. Thus, any understanding and especially salvation was not deserved or earned in any way, but was purely a gift of grace from God.

Critiques of the Church

"... all that the Pope decrees and does I will receive on condition that I first test it by the Holy Scriptures."

Martin Luther (1520) in Snyder, p. 41

This led him to make several critiques of the Roman Catholic church, which included:

  • Luther emphasized the doctrine of justification by grace through faith. This emphasis on "faith alone" was a significant shift in perspective. In particular, it undercut the selling of "indulgences," artifacts sold by the church as symbols of religious devotion. By criticizing this practice Luther challenged an important source of revenue for the church.
  • Pushed by the church hierarchy and backed by some of the German nobility, Luther rejected the authority of the Pope. He suggested that the Bible alone should be the guide for Christian life, and that German Christians did not need to listen (or pay taxes!) to the Pope in Italy.   
  • Luther also disagreed with the idea that priests were needed to approach God on behalf of the people. Rather, he proposed a priesthood of all believers, saying that people could communicate with God directly.
  • Luther insisted that the church should use the common language of the people, and not Latin as was the practice in the Roman Catholic tradition. As a result, Luther led Mass in German and even translated the entire Bible into this European language.

As you can see, Luther's conclusions had profound religious, political, and economic implications. It is hardly surprising that the Pope and the Roman Catholic church responded as they did. These issues provide important background for the beliefs and difficulties of the early Anabaptists.

Created 1998 by Derek Suderman