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Introduction to the Protestant Reformation: Martin Luther

Learn about the life of Martin Luther and his dispute with the Catholic church. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user tj
    what is a heresy?
    (13 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user rosamond98
      Heresy is a (usually religious) belief contrary to what is considered correct or aceptable at the time. A heretic is someone who has heretical beliefs. Heresy doesn't refer to one particular idea or denomination - during the Reformation, Catholics were considered heretics in Protestant areas, and Protestants were persecuted for heresy in Catholic areas.
      (6 votes)
  • female robot grace style avatar for user Aze Santos
    I just want to clarify.. At around , you said that Frederick the Wise secretly kidnapped Martin Luther and "hides him away". So does that mean the "kidnap" here is a good thing? As in he helped him avoid getting arrested? Thanks
    (10 votes)
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    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user UnrealDreamer989
      In this case, "kidnap" is a good thing because Frederick the Wise hides Martin Luther for his own protection. If Martin Luther was out and about, someone would have arrested him and burned him at the stake for being a heretic. By hiding, he was safe and was able to translate the Bible from Latin to German.
      (7 votes)
  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Shawn∞J
    What are indulgences? I don't get it??
    (3 votes)
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    • leaf blue style avatar for user Peterson
      An indulgence is a remission of punishment for previously committed sins. It was a practice of the Roman Catholic Church, and involved its members paying for ticket-like documents that showed they had been forgiven of certain sins. The money from the sales of the indulgences was used to fund activities and projects (normally construction of churches, palaces, and monuments) for the Church. It should be noted that the Catholic Church no longer sells indulgences, and the practice is now an occurrence of the past.
      (8 votes)
  • female robot amelia style avatar for user Juliette Pelletier-Gagné
    What is the difference between monks and priests?
    (5 votes)
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    • female robot grace style avatar for user Juliyahna
      In the Catholic religion there is a sacrament called Holy Orders which men receive when they become deacons, priests and bishops. They are ordained into the priesthood and so are now called to serve God and His church. They can perform certain sacraments that lay people (those who have not received the sacrament of Holy Orders) can't.

      A monk does not receive the sacrament of Holy Orders. Generally monks belong to a specific religious order and each religious order has different focus/goals. Some orders are contemplative (they focus on prayer and generally remain apart for society). Some orders are missionary where they travel to spread God's word. Some focus on education and work in schools and the like. So a monk has taken certain vows to the religious order to serve the goals of that order and one of those vows could be celibacy. The strictness depends on which religious order.

      Hope this helps ;)
      (4 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Areeya Bunchoo
    At what do they mean by " faith alone "?
    (4 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Natie Yan
    Why no mention of hussite rebellions from to ?
    (3 votes)
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  • starky tree style avatar for user endr
    Were indulgences written out by hand, or were they produced using the printing press?
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Fatemeh Hashemi
    Who translated 95 thesis from Latin to common language?
    (2 votes)
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    • female robot grace style avatar for user 00015651
      There is no specific person who translated the 95 thesis from Latin to common language. There were no complete languages like there are today then, whatever Luther spoke was not written it was vernacular of the place. Since the printing press had been becoming more popular any person within access could have translated but even then the audience/market to read it was not there because the majority of people were not literate (could not read or write) so in each individual town someone would take the initiative to read out the 95 thesis to the public.
      (3 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user MaiaCeline
    Did the Elector of Saxony kidnap Luther in a conscious attempt to continue the Reformation (to keep him safe while the animosity died down) or in an actual attempt to halt his progress? If it was an attempt to continue the Reformation, would the Elector be considered a Protestant? Also, how and why was Luther released when he was?
    (3 votes)
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    • leaf red style avatar for user p.m.
      The Elector of Saxony was trying to help Luther, and through him the Reformation. So in that sense, he wanted to continue the Reformation, but this doesn't necessarily mean that the Elector himself believed in Protestantism.
      Luther was released because enough time had passed that he would probably be safe from the Holy Roman Emperor.
      (1 vote)
  • duskpin tree style avatar for user Kathryn Boyle
    Why did people stop speaking Latin?
    (3 votes)
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Video transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So in the first video, we established that Martin Luther, this professor of theology in Wittenberg, this Augustinian monk, had posted his 95 Theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg-- at least, this is how the tradition tells the story-- that took issue with the way in which the Catholic Church thought about salvation, and it specifically took issue with the selling of indulgences. DR. BETH HARRIS: Luther was arguing against the sale of indulgences, and that kind of monetary transaction for getting into Heaven. Tetzel, who was selling indulgences, we quoted in the first video, but here's another quote, "Won't you part with even a farthing to buy this letter? It won't bring you money but rather a divine and immortal soul, whole and secure in the kingdom of heaven." DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: We have to understand that this exists within this larger scheme, and the church thought that the ultimate aim was a good one. But he sounds like a used car salesman. DR. BETH HARRIS: So Luther in one section of the 95 Theses, says you know people are going to ask questions that we can't really answer about what we're doing with these indulgences, such as, "Why does not the Pope empty Purgatory for the sake of holy love and the dire need of the souls that are there, if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to buy a church? The former reason would be most just, the latter is most trivial." See, what he's saying is, if the pope has the authority, the treasury of merit of all of the saints that he can distribute, why is he selling them to build the church? Why doesn't he just redeem the souls that are in Purgatory and send them up to Heaven, if he has the power to do that? And there was a perception that the church, at times, was a rather corrupt institution, that seemed to be more concerned with power, and political issues, and worldly issues, and not so concerned with the salvation of souls. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Well the previous pope, Julius II, certainly had that kind of reputation. DR. BETH HARRIS: Right. This is a hard thing for us to realize, I think, but at this time, the popes claimed not only spiritual power, like they do today, but also political power, and governed these very significant lands, known as the Papal States. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And so, in some ways, the pope functioned as the princes of territories in Italy. DR. BETH HARRIS: Right. Pope Julius II led armies into battles against other Christians to reclaim territories that were historically part of the Papal States. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So this notion of a, kind of, corruption in Rome is infusing this entire discussion, this entire argument. DR. BETH HARRIS: So there had been other reformers before Luther who were not successful. For example, we could look to John Wyclif in the 14th century. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So in the 1300s, this Englishman had set about to translate the Bible into the vernacular, into the common language, into English. DR. BETH HARRIS: He organized the translation of the Bible into English. He translated much of it himself. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Especially, much of the New Testament. DR. BETH HARRIS: It was important to him that the Bible be available to people in their common language-- that people could read it. If it's in Latin, essentially, only the priests could read it. This is important for us, because this idea of enabling the reading of the Bible was critical for Luther. And we'll get to that. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: OK. So let's just step back for a moment, and just remember that in Western Europe at this time, the vast majority of the population was illiterate. But those that could read, would be reading in the vernacular, not Latin. And by vernacular, I mean their common languages, whether it was English, or German, or French, or Italian, it wasn't Latin. And this was a means that the church could control the word of God. DR. BETH HARRIS: Well it meant that you heard the word of God through the priests-- you weren't able to read it yourself. Wyclif also attacked the abuses of the church, the worldliness of the church. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: After he died, he was declared a heretic. His body was exhumed, it was burned. His books were burned. He was punished after the fact. DR. BETH HARRIS: Another early reformer was John Hus. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Now he was from Bohemia, and he was ultimately burned at the stake. DR. BETH HARRIS: In 1415. So this is just a little bit more than 100 years before Luther. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Now those 95 Theses were posted in Latin, but people translated it, without his authorization, into German, and then used the new technology of the printing press, and distributed it widely. DR. BETH HARRIS: The printing press had been invented in the mid-15th century. Incredibly important invention for the spread of Protestant ideas. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Well, think about what's happening here. Instead of the distribution network of the church, you have people acting on their own, outside of that structure, in their own language. DR. BETH HARRIS: So Luther posts the 95 Theses in 1517, word gets to the pope, he's accused of heresy, but he's gaining support, widely. And in 1521, he's called to a large council. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So this event, we call the Diet of Worms, and it was under the auspices of the Holy Roman Emperor. DR. BETH HARRIS: So this is an unfortunate name. [LAUGHTER] DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Yes, it is. DR. BETH HARRIS: The Diet of Worms. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Nobody's eating worms. DR. BETH HARRIS: But a diet is a gathering, a council, and Worms or "vorms," is a city in Germany. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So the new Holy Roman Emperor, who's, by the way, only a teenager at this time, has summoned Luther. He's given him an authorization of safe passage, that is, he won't be arrested on his way. And he is to testify at this council. DR. BETH HARRIS: So Luther is asked if he authored the books. He's presented with his own books. Luther says, yes, I did. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And then he's asked, do you stand by the ideas in these books? DR. BETH HARRIS: And Luther says, give me a day to think about that. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And that request is granted. He comes back the next day, and by all accounts, gives an eloquent defense of the ideas in the books and does not renounce any of the ideas. DR. BETH HARRIS: It's pretty clear that the lines are drawn. And Luther leaves Worms. He's declared an unrepentant heretic, it's clear he's going to be arrested, possession of his writings is forbidden, and he leaves the city of Worms. Remember, he's been granted safe passage, so he's allowed to leave Worms. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Now here's the crucial moment. Will he end up like Hus that is burned at the stake? Arrested? Will that be the end of his efforts, or will something else happen? Well, something else does happen, and that's because of political issues. The new emperor of the Holy Roman Empire had gotten that job because of the vote of men in Germany-- princes, who are called Electors. And one of those Electors, the Elector of Saxony, secretly kidnaps Luther as he leaves the city of Worms, and hides him away in a castle. Where, by the way, Luther immediately gets down to work writing and translating the New Testament. And by the time Luther emerges and returns to public life, the Holy Roman Emperor is involved in other issues and doesn't pursue his arrest. So Luther is able to do something that Hus, that Wyclif was not able to do, which is to continue his campaign. DR. BETH HARRIS: In a way, the whole Reformation happens because of issues like this. That local rulers, whether they're monarchs or princes, are tired of seeding so much authority and political power to the pope, and use the opportunity of the Reformation to wrest back some control of their own lands, of their own people. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: If you think about the power structure in Europe at this time, especially in what will become Germany, you have the local princes, you have the authority of the pope in Rome on the other side of the Alps, but you also have the Holy Roman Emperor. So it was very complicated, and everybody was trying to enlarge their own stake. So Martin Luther is at the Diet of Worms, he's been confronted with his own writings, he's in a really dangerous situation. DR. BETH HARRIS: Luther was going against one of the central doctrines of the church. And that was that you were justified. That is, that you got to Heaven in two ways, according to the church. One, through God's forgiveness, through God's grace. The other, through things that you could do yourself, choices that you could make as a human being through what the church called good works. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So by good works we mean, for instance, helping to build Saint Peter's Basilica. DR. BETH HARRIS: Exactly. Or donating money to the church. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Or helping the poor, or any of the things that we think, in the modern world, of charitable work. DR. BETH HARRIS: Exactly. And Luther was deeply disturbed by this idea, because in his own conscience he felt so sinful that nothing he felt that he could do could help him get to Heaven. There was not enough good works to do in the world to remove the sin that he felt that he lived with, and that all human beings lived with. If you think about the medieval mind tallying up the sins they've committed, and sometimes sins can just be like jealousy or envy, and tallying those against the good works that they've done, you can imagine this constant tallying that must have gone on in the medieval conscience. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So this is a terrible responsibility on the individual. And so it must have been a tremendous relief when he read carefully the words of Saint Paul. DR. BETH HARRIS: Luther read Saint Paul, who said, "For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, 'The just shall live by faith.'" Those last words were critical for Luther. That meant to Luther that one is justified, one gets to Heaven, through faith alone, not through good works. Salvation with something freely granted by God, and not something that had to be earned by human beings. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So faith was a kind of gift that God gave you, and that faith was all you needed to get to Heaven. DR. BETH HARRIS: Through faith alone, is one of Luther's central ideas. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So all of this make sense in relationship to the 95 Theses, and to Luther's concern about indulgences, because the indulgence is this proposition that good works will hurry the soul to Heaven. And that's precisely what Luther is taking issue with. DR. BETH HARRIS: And with, really, the whole authority of the church to forgive, to remit sin and to allow a person into Heaven. Luther's feeling was that the only power to do that was with God. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So he looks at his books, and he does not renounce them. DR. BETH HARRIS: No. And he eventually returns to Wittenburg and founds the Lutheran church, and sparks many other types of Protestantism that we'll talk about in the next video. [MUSIC PLAYING]