Law and Protestantism: The Legal Teachings of the Lutheran Reformation

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In theory, indulgences were granted by the church on the condition that the recipient carried out some kind of good work or other specified acts of contrition. In practice, indulgences could be bought. The practice was abused by the church, which began relying upon their sale as a way of raising money, especially to pay for costly building projects. Rome in the early s was under the spell of the artistic projects of the Renaissance.

Around , Pope Leo X published a new indulgence in a bid to fund the reconstruction of the Basilica of St. Enraged, Luther took a stand against the papal actions. He argued that the practice of relying on indulgences drew believers away from the one true source of salvation: faith in Christ. God alone had the power to pardon the repentant faithful. The pontifical council ordered him to retract his claims immediately, but Luther refused.

Wittenberg was part of Saxony, a state of the Holy Roman Empire, a patchwork of territories in central Europe with roots deep in the medieval past. The Holy Roman Emperor was appointed by the heads of its main states, influential rulers known as electors. At the time that Luther wrote his theses, the elector of Saxony was Frederick the Wise. A humanist and a scholar, Frederick had founded the new university at Wittenberg that Luther attended.

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He never stopped being a Catholic, but he decided from the outset to protect the rebel friar both from the fury of the church and the Holy Roman Emperor. When in Luther was summoned to Rome, Frederick intervened on his behalf, ensuring that he would be questioned in Germany, a much safer place for him than Rome. Safe under the wing of Frederick, Luther began to engage in regular public debate on religious reforms. He broadened his arguments, declaring that any church council or even a single believer had the right to challenge the pope, so long as they based their arguments on the Bible.

He even dared to argue that the church did not rest on papal foundations but rather on faith in Christ. Luther must have realized early on that his reform movement had a political dimension. This declaration was revolutionary for the ecclesiastic hierarchy of the time. In January a papal decree was published under which Luther was declared a heretic and excommunicated. Under normal circumstances, this sentence would have meant a trial and, most likely, execution. But these were no ordinary times.

Both Frederick and widespread German public opinion demanded that Luther be given a proper hearing.

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The newly elected Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, finally acquiesced and called Luther to come before the Imperial Diet assembly to be held that spring in the ancient Rhineland city of Worms. On his journey to Worms Luther was acclaimed almost as a messiah by the citizens of the towns he passed through. On his arrival in Worms in April , crowds gathered to see the man who embodied the struggle against the seemingly all-powerful Catholic Church.

Once inside the episcopal palace, Luther was met by young Charles V, princes, imperial electors, and other dignitaries. When charged, Luther said that he stood by every one of his published claims. Your email address will not be published. Notify me of follow-up comments by email. Notify me of new posts by email. This site brings together serious debate, commentary, essays, book reviews, interviews, and educational material in a commitment to the first principles of law in a free society.

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The Protestant Revolution in Theology, Law, and Community

John Witte Jr. Recent Popular Posts Popular. Along with Theodor Kliefoth and August Friedrich Christian Vilmar , he promoted agreement with the Roman Catholic Church with regard to the authority of the institutional church , ex opere operato effectiveness of the sacraments, and the divine authority of clergy. Unlike Catholics, however, they also urged complete agreement with the Book of Concord.

The Neo-Lutheran movement managed to slow secularism and counter atheistic Marxism , but it did not fully succeed in Europe. The Neo-Lutheran call to renewal failed to achieve widespread popular acceptance because it both began and continued with a lofty, idealistic Romanticism that did not connect with an increasingly industrialized and secularized Europe. The Repristination school and Old Lutherans tended towards Kantianism, while the Erlangen school promoted a conservative Hegelian perspective.

How Martin Luther Started a Religious Revolution Years Ago

By , Manfried Kober complained that "unbelief is rampant" even within German Lutheran parishes. Traditionally, Lutherans hold the Bible of the Old and New Testaments to be the only divinely inspired book, the only source of divinely revealed knowledge, and the only norm for Christian teaching.

The Protestant Reformation

The authority of the Scriptures has been challenged during the history of Lutheranism. Martin Luther taught that the Bible was the written Word of God, and the only reliable guide for faith and practice. He held that every passage of Scripture has one straightforward meaning, the literal sense as interpreted by other Scripture. Today, Lutherans disagree about the inspiration and authority of the Bible. Theological conservatives use the historical-grammatical method of Biblical interpretation, while theological liberals use the higher critical method.

The U. Although many Lutherans today hold less specific views of inspiration , historically, Lutherans affirm that the Bible does not merely contain the Word of God, but every word of it is, because of plenary, verbal inspiration, the direct, immediate word of God. A correct translation of their writings is God's Word because it has the same meaning as the original Hebrew and Greek.

Historically, Lutherans understand the Bible to present all doctrines and commands of the Christian faith clearly.


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Lutherans confess that Scripture is united with the power of the Holy Spirit and with it, not only demands, but also creates the acceptance of its teaching. Holy Scripture is not a dead letter, but rather, the power of the Holy Spirit is inherent in it.


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Lutherans are confident that the Bible contains everything that one needs to know in order to obtain salvation and to live a Christian life. Lutherans understand the Bible as containing two distinct types of content, termed Law and Gospel or Law and Promises. The Book of Concord , published in , contains ten documents which some Lutherans believe are faithful and authoritative explanations of Holy Scripture.

Besides the three Ecumenical Creeds , which date to Roman times , the Book of Concord contains seven credal documents articulating Lutheran theology in the Reformation era. The doctrinal positions of Lutheran churches are not uniform because the Book of Concord does not hold the same position in all Lutheran churches. For example, the state churches in Scandinavia consider only the Augsburg Confession as a "summary of the faith" in addition to the three ecumenical Creeds.

Some Lutheran church bodies require this pledge to be unconditional because they believe the confessions correctly state what the Bible teaches. Others allow their congregations to do so "insofar as" the Confessions are in agreement with the Bible.

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In addition, Lutherans accept the teachings of the first seven ecumenical councils of the Christian Church. The key doctrine, or material principle , of Lutheranism is the doctrine of justification. Lutherans believe that humans are saved from their sins by God's grace alone Sola Gratia , through faith alone Sola Fide , on the basis of Scripture alone Sola Scriptura. Orthodox Lutheran theology holds that God made the world, including humanity, perfect, holy and sinless. However, Adam and Eve chose to disobey God, trusting in their own strength, knowledge, and wisdom. Lutherans teach that sinners, while capable of doing works that are outwardly "good", are not capable of doing works that satisfy God's justice.

To this end, "God sent his Son Jesus Christ, our Lord, into the world to redeem and deliver us from the power of the devil, and to bring us to Himself, and to govern us as a King of righteousness, life, and salvation against sin, death, and an evil conscience," as Luther's Large Catechism explains. Thereby he covered all our disobedience, which is embedded in our nature and in its thoughts, words, and deeds, so that this disobedience is not reckoned to us as condemnation but is pardoned and forgiven by sheer grace, because of Christ alone. Lutherans believe that individuals receive this gift of salvation through faith alone.

Since the term grace has been defined differently by other Christian church bodies e. Roman Catholicism [93] it is important to note that Lutheranism defines grace as entirely limited to God's gifts to us.

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Justification comes as a pure gift, not something we merit by changed behavior or in which we cooperate. Grace is not about our response to God's gifts, but only His gifts. Lutherans are Trinitarian. Lutherans reject the idea that the Father and God the Son are merely faces of the same person, stating that both the Old Testament and the New Testament show them to be two distinct persons. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost is all one: the glory equal, the majesty coeternal. Lutherans believe Jesus is the Christ , the savior promised in the Old Testament.

They believe he is both by nature God and by nature man in one person , as they confess in Luther's Small Catechism that he is "true God begotten of the Father from eternity and also true man born of the Virgin Mary". The Augsburg Confession explains: [98]. Lutherans hold that sacraments are sacred acts of divine institution. Lutherans are not dogmatic about the number of the sacraments. Rather, it is expected before receiving the Eucharist for the first time. Lutherans hold that Baptism is a saving work of God, [] mandated and instituted by Jesus Christ.

Even though baptized infants cannot articulate that faith, Lutherans believe that it is present all the same. It is faith alone that receives these divine gifts, so Lutherans confess that baptism "works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.

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