Podium: Gerhard Rempel: A consummate theological politician

From a lecture by the professor of history at Western New England College, in Springfield, Massachusetts

THE CHURCH'S Reformers were guided by early Christian authority rather than pagan classics. They were less Greek and Roman than Hebrew. While humanists satirised the abuses of the Church, the Reformers denounced them. It was not simply that Renaissance popes had been derelict in their duty, or that they were political, materialistic, and often guilty of gross nepotism and flagrant immorality. What mattered was the abuse of the spiritual office of the Pope. And the abuse rested on claims that became the focus of the intellectual grievances of the Reformers. Behind this quest lay a deep soul-sickness in northern Europe, alongside the Renaissance.

Throughout the 15th century the north was preoccupied with death, judgement and hell fire, and an abiding pessimism about man's fate runs through its prose and poetry. A peculiarly macabre dance fashion cropped up, performed by men with skeletons. The dance was intended to remind watchers of their mortality and their equality before the relentless scythe of time. In art, morbid undertones took on a bizarre realism. Hieronymus Bosch's strange sermons in paint are inhabited by wild, nightmarish creatures. Even Durer, the realist, flanks his righteous Christian knight on his way to a "city on a hill" with a figure of death with an hourglass, and a monstrous devil - half wolf, half pig.

Martin Luther believed deeply in the reality and power of Satan and his demons. From the time of the Plague, through wars, famines and civil wars, there had been no guarantee against the onset of disaster. A high level of death-consciousness was fertile soil for the Reformation, and offers insight into Luther's persistent concern about salvation. For it was the terror of death that sent him into an Augustinian monastery.

In the monastery his earlier terror of death became a fearfulness and trembling before God. He underwent vigorous austerities to make himself holier, and could not find assurance. An errand to Rome shook him further.

He did not notice the glories of the Renaissance or the reminders of antiquity; instead, he saw the worldliness and levity of the clergy, both high and low. He climbed the Scala Sancta, 28 stairs, with a paternoster and a kiss on each, in order to release a soul from purgatory, and at the top he found his faith in the indulgence clouded by doubt. His doubt redoubled on his return.

Luther concentrated on the inner meaning and underlying unity of the Scriptures. The Reformation, we could say now, occurred because a brilliant professor was doing his job - preparing thoughtful and original lectures.

Luther's thoughts tumbled out of the classroom into the market-place in 1517, when plenary indulgences were being hawked by a Dominican, Johann Tetzel, near Wittenberg. For one-fourth of a florin, buyers were assured that "as soon as the coin the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs".

Faithful to academic custom, Luther nailed 95 propositions (or theses) in Latin on the door of the castle church as an open invitation to a debate on their merits.

They began with a popular attack on the venality of Rome, passed through doubts as to the Pope's right to remit punishment inflicted by God, and finished by asserting that nothing but contrition could remit spiritual guilt. Luther's doubts about the extent of the Pope's power to indulge were, indeed, legitimate, for the question had never been definitively settled. Beyond that, however, he had implied an unorthodox way to salvation, and had begun the Reformation.

The press quickly turned his appeal for a debate into an appeal to the people. And, as the debate over indulgences waxed, Luther grew progressively bolder and his criticisms of the Church became more and more fundamental. Finally - after he had been excommunicated - Luther declared that he could not recognise the authority of popes and councils because they had often contradicted each other. He staked his faith and, indeed, his life on scripture and reason. "Here stand I," he said at the Diet of Worms in 1521, "I can do no other. God help me. Amen."

Luther must be considered as a consummate theological politician. His concerns were inner, yet he had to take a political stand to protect the Reformation he desired.

His siding with princes was a frank recognition that it was only in their support that the Reformation had any chance of success. Man was such that he needed the civil sword to contain him in order and tranquillity. So Luther preached absolute, unconditional obedience. Lutheranism exchanged obedience to the Pope for abject obedience to the state.

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
    The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

    The haunting of Shirley Jackson

    Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
    Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

    Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

    These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
    Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen