Martin Luther & The Reformation: An Orthodox Perspective

“The truth lies with the Greeks (Orthodox),” it may surprise some to learn that Martin Luther confessed this about Orthodox Christianity in a debate with papal theologian Johann Eck during what is known as the Leipzig Debate. Eck asserted the Christian faith was lost to the Orthodox after the fall of Constantinople to which Luther made this rebuttal as the Eastern Church did not recognize papal supremacy. As previously mentioned in articles about John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli, the Reformation had rightful objections to Roman Catholicism but the solution ended up being just as grievous as what they were fighting against. So how did Martin Luther affirm truth with Orthodoxy yet end up at a different theological system? And how did this justified rebellion against the Catholic Church soon become a monster of it’s own?

Early Life of Luther

Martin Luther was born Eisleben in Saxony on November 10, 1483, he was educated at Erfurt University from 1501-1505 to which he had a near death experience during a lightning storm, he prayed to St. Anne if he was saved from this peril he would become a monk. To which he joined the monastery until his ordination as a Roman Catholic Priest in 1507. He was sent to Rome in 1511 to finish his doctorate in theology, the following is quoted from Father Josiah Trenham’s book Rock & Sand:

“Luther’s visit to Rome was a dream fulfilled and yet at the same time very disturbing. He wanted to say mass for his mother in St. John Lateran Church on a Saturday since this would bring her great relief in purgatory, but the line of priests was too long. He wanted to free his grandfather from purgatory so he scaled the Holy Staircase on his knees, with an “Our Father” on each step, but having reached the top was left wondering if the act really had helped his grandfather. He also heard in Rome, for the first time in his life, outrageous, grotesque, and public blasphemy out of the mouths of clerics. He was scandalized by the mockery of the saints and joking about the Eucharist by Roman Clergy.” (Trenham page 2, Oberman page 149).

St. Augustine was an immense influence on Martin Luther (as well as John Calvin), who would wrestle with the question whether he was among ‘the elect’ or predestined. The turning point for Luther would be indulgences, which Pope Sixtus IV first applied indulgences as a way to redeem lost souls in purgatory in 1476, specifically with indulgence preacher Fr. Johann Tetzel. For those unaware, indulgences are a way to reduce the amount of punishment one has to undergo for their sins according to the Catholic Church, this often was implemented by saying a set amount of prayers, doing a specific work, and later came to include money.

Johann Tetzel in particular made Luther rightfully indignant in saying, “your coin into the treasury jings, and a soul from purgatory springs.” Luther in the proceedings at Augsburg said, “For I once believed that the merits of Christ were actually given me through indulgences, and, proceeding in this foolish notion, I taught and preached to the people that, since indulgences were such valuable things, they should not fail to treasure them and not consider them cheap or contemptible.” In response to indulgences (and other issues), Martin Luther would nail his 95 Theses on the door of the Church in Wittenburg in what we know today as The Reformation.

The Reformation

It wasn’t the 95 Theses that had a revolutionary effect, in fact nailing things to the door of the church at Wittenberg was actually commonplace. Luther’s work “A Sermon on Indulgence and Grace” would become the first widely distributed work of the Reformation and his subsequent debates would bring widespread attention. Such as the Heidelburg Disputation, “At this disputation Luther articulated forty theses for his more elaborate theological positions, including: the law of God cannot help a man be sanctified but brings wrath and condemnation to everyone not in Christ; faith accomplishes everything by act of believing, free will exists in name only after the Fall… Luther also articulated what would become the three fundamental slogans of the Protestant Reformation: sola fidei (faith alone), sola gratia (grace alone), and sola scriptura (scripture alone).” – Father Josiah Trenham Rock & Sand page 6-7.

In his debate with Eck mentioned at the opening of this article, Luther denies the legitimacy of the ecumenical councils and general councils asserting that they can err, citing evidence the post-schism Latin councils and Popes contradict each other. This is agreed upon from an Orthodox perspective, however, Luther’s determination therefore that all councils are fallible is not an Orthodox perspective, it’s refuted by scripture itself in Acts 15. Orthodox hold that post-schism Latin councils are fallible because the Catholics lost infallibility when they fell away from the one true church.

Rather incongruously, while denying the infallibility of councils Luther appealed to the emperor to convene a council to solve the theological divisions being birthed. This is self refuting, for by his own admission the council would have no real weight in truth since all councils err.

The beginnings of Luther’s monstrosity would start to surface in John Wycliffe, one of the first to criticize the Eucharist and Jan Hus, follower of Wycliffe and one of the first in the protestant revolt to promote clerical laxity. Luther would be excommunicated by papal bull in 1521, and his response would become another commonplace opinion of many Protestants today in that the Pope is the antichrist. He would write more works from this point on that would later become centerpieces of modern day evangelical doctrines, but countless conflicts would also arise which still remain unresolved to this day due to the Protestant Reformation. Most famously the Marburg Colloquy which was intended to unite the Protestants sects that had already arisen but only divided them further.

Martin Luther would get into a heated exchange with Ulrich Zwingli about the real presence in the Eucharist, thus showing one example of those both holding to the ‘clear evident teaching of Scripture’ yet coming to vastly different results with this ‘clear and evident teaching of Scripture.’ A cycle that continues on today in the witness of thousands upon thousands of Protestant denominations. Luther was correct in the real presence of the Eucharist taught in John 6, and was the most tame of the reformers unlike Zwingli who most modern day Protestants probably have more in common with rather than Luther. However, Luther’s solution to his objections of the papacy only fueled the monster we see today to where many Western Christians unknowingly hold to heresies condemned in the early church and where the selective interpretation of the Bible has created a a vast delusion of subjective truth.

Controversies of Martin Luther

The most famous ironic controversy of Martin Luther is his proclamation of scripture-alone being infallible yet him removing 7 books of scripture and contesting an 8th book. Proponents of Luther will say he was only adopting the Jewish Masoretic canon of the Old Testament, but the fact remains the church for over a thousand years did not hold to a 66 book biblical canon but held to the Septuagint. But as previously stated, Luther believed councils can err so some today now wrongly believe the church was in err for the majority of it’s existence.

As for the 8th book, that would be the Book of James, while Luther didn’t formally propose for it to be removed from the Bible he was highly critical of it and did advocate for it to be thrown out of schools. Why was he opposed to James? Because it has the only verse in the bible (James 2:24) that mentions the words “faith alone” or “faith only” together, but the context is against faith alone which is the one of Luther’s theological bases. “We should throw the epistle of James out of this school, for it doesn’t amount to much. It contains not a syllable about Christ. Not once does it mention Christ, except at the beginning. I maintain that some Jew wrote it who probably heard about Christian people but never encountered any. Since he heard that Christians place great weight on faith in Christ, he thought, ‘Wait a moment! I’ll oppose them and urge works alone.’ This he did.” – Martin Luther, Word & Sacrament and cited by David Talley – Biola University.

Another controversy was his views on marriage and monasticism, stating that marriage is “one hundred times more spiritual than monasticism, in complete contradiction to Paul’s words (1 Corinthians Chapter 7) which says the opposite. (Source: The Small Catechism – Martin Luther). Luther also says it was “biologically necessary” for him to leave monasticism quoting from physicians of the day who claimed not passing reproductive fluids would cause illness. Going by Luther’s words alone what would he have to say about Jesus Christ who was celibate? Would this make Christ less than human if it was biologically necessary? This is a grave error.

He went further to teach parents who encouraged monasticism were leading their children to the devil, that sexual fasting should not be practiced but that even sex within the confines of marriage is still never without sin. Needless to say Luther is completely inconsistent and wrong in his views on marriage and monasticism. Additional controversies I will not delve into detail on are his encouragement of monastics to break their vows as well as Luther completely dissolving monasteries in Lutheran lands.

The Augsburg Confession was assembled by Emperor Charles V at the request of Luther and other reformers of the time, I plan to do a more in depth article on this at some point. It has 28 articles of faith, being one of the most important documents of the Protestant Reformation, as it sought to restore unity in the Roman Empire over the looming threat of Turkish invasions. Briefly, main contentions with the Augsburg Confession include the use of the filioque, the number of sacraments, the primacy of scripture over tradition and it’s separation from each other, man’s free will, predestination, and justification by faith alone.

Conclusion

The Reformation monster that has become so radicalized does not resemble Luther’s views in many things now, the following things he believed in that the vast majority of Protestants today reject or don’t follow: real presence in the Eucharist, infant baptism, perpetual virginity of Mary (the Theotokos), structured liturgy and written prayers, making the sign of the cross, rejecting the concept of a solely invisible church, rejecting anabaptists (modern day baptists), and highly criticizing iconoclasm.

Protestants today celebrate the Reformation without realizing they hold much less in common with Luther than they think, in reality they’re celebrating freedom to become their own Popes over scripture and it’s meaning. While Martin Luther is the most reasonable of all the reformers, his solution only brought forth more problems. He never intended to establish his own church nor have thousands spring from it either, but regardless this is what happened: instead of him returning to the true church, the original fighters of the Papacy, for as he said… “the truth lies with the Greeks.”

Sources:
Josiah Trenham – Rock & Sand 2015. Leipzig Debate. Heiko Oberman – Luther: Between God and the Devil 1990. Martin Luther – The Small Catechism and Word & Sacrament. Jaroslav Pelikan – Reformation of Church and Dogma 1984. David Talley – Biola University. Colloquy of Marburg 1529.

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