Luther, A True Reformer of the Church?

Source: FSSPX News

Luther posting his Theses on the door of All Saints' Church.

Exactly five hundred years ago, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of his convent. This was the first decisive act by the Augustinian monk, a professor of biblical sciences at the University of Wittenberg, and the beginning of what history would come to call the Protestant Reformation.

For this anniversary, the churches and communities that call themselves Protestant have been celebrating their hero whom they see as the author of a beneficial renewal for the entire Church.

On October 31, 2016, in Sweden, Pope Francis joined in these celebrations by signing a Joint Statement with the head of the Lutheran community. Both declared they are “thankful for the spiritual and theological gifts received through the Reformation.” Following his example, many initiatives throughout the world have sought to associate Catholics with this anniversary. To give but one example, the archbishop of Strasburg, Jean-Pierre Grallet, participated on December 6, 2016, in an ecumenical celebration with Protestant leaders and prayed as follows: “Holy Spirit, help us to rejoice in the gifts that have been given to the Church through the Reformation; teach us to repent for the walls of division that we and our predecessors have built.”

What exactly are these “spiritual and theological gifts” that the Church has received from the Lutheran Reformation? The refusal of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, sanctifying grace, and most of the sacraments? The revolt against the Catholic hierarchy and the negation of the visibility of the Church and in particular of the papacy? The questioning of the Magisterium and the hatred for religious vows and every form of cloistered religious life? Or the refusal of entire passages of Holy Scripture, sanctification by good works, and the intercession of the saints?

A Catholic cannot help but be skeptical and perplexed, and he has a right to wonder what gifts the Protestant Reformation has given the Church. But even more fundamentally, the real question is whether it is right to speak of a reformation of the Church, and whether Luther really deserves the title and the status of a true reformer. For after all, the Holy Church has never lacked holy reformers to renew her zeal and missionary ardor. Think of St. Pachomius or St. Anthony, St. Benedict, St. Bernard, St. Dominic or St. Francis of Assisi, or the Gregorian reformation, the work of St. Francis de Sales, St. Vincent de Paul, Monsieur Olier, Dom Guéranger…

Luther in His Time

Luther was born in Saxony, in the town of Eisleben, on the night of November 10-11, 1483. He was baptized in the church of St. Peter on the 11th, and given the name Martin. His family was pure German. Luther, or Luder, Lueder, from Lothar, means “the pure”, “the sincere.” Later on, he would sometimes put a Greek twist on his name, calling himself Eleutheros or Eleutherius, “the liberator.”

He entered the University of Erfurt in 1501 and studied philosophy at the Faculty of Arts before entering the novitiate of the Augustinian monks of Erfurt four years later to fulfill an impulsive vow. Ordained a priest in 1507, he became a doctor in philosophy in 1512 and began teaching. He began commenting on the Bible in 1515, turning his attention particularly to the Book of Psalms and St. Paul’s epistles to the Romans, the Galatians and the Hebrews.

Although an apparently stable professor, he was actually experiencing grave interior crises: temptations against the flesh, despair, anguished worry about his salvation. He wished he could be sure he would be saved, but he knew he was a sinner and fell often, and he did not see how he could escape the justice of God.

He believed he received enlightenment during the “Tower experience” (Turmerlebnis) that he recounts in his Table Talk. It happened a tower in the convent of Wittenberg, doubtless in the restroom. He understood that divine justice is the same thing as justification by the Faith, which is a gift of God. Sola fides: the Faith alone saves. For man is powerless in the face of sin; he is totally corrupt, even after Baptism. In fact, he is simul peccator et justus [in the same time sinner and just], a sinner in reality but a just man in hope, made so by God’s promise. Such are the first intuitions that turned Luther into a monk filled with distrust for any sort of security that can be bought too easily in this world by any meritorious works whatsoever.

The Indulgence Issue

These early intuitions came to a head with the indulgence issue. At the time, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome was under construction after Pope Julius II destroyed the Constantinian edifice in 1505. Beginning in 1507, indulgences were granted as a way of financing this colossal project that was too much for the Holy See’s finances. Leo X renewed them in 1514. They were preached in northern Germany in 1517. Indulgences, which remit the temporal debt due to sins that have been forgiven but not yet repaired, are granted for a work accomplished, in this case, alms or a monetary contribution, under the ordinary conditions, which are a good confession and a holy communion. They can be earned for the living and for the dead.

Luther first considered that “granting and earning indulgences is a very useful practice.” But he soon came to see it as a false form of security: “We must be careful to keep indulgences from becoming a source of security, laziness, or neglect of interior grace.” He was wrong. Going to confession and communion are not signs of laziness or neglect of grace. They are quite the opposite.

Finally, on October 31, 1517, he nailed to the door of his convent his 95 theses to denounce this practice on a tone of biting irony. He attacked the pope and the hierarchy’s power of jurisdiction over the treasure of the Church that is made up of the merits of Christ and the saints. As soon as they were translated – they were nailed up in Latin – these theses made Luther a sort of spokesman for the German aspirations, resentment and grievances against Rome.

The success with which he was met, the support from those who encouraged him, and his natural loquacity went to his head and this monk with his intense, fiery, stubborn, violent character, became so sure of himself that nothing could shake him. He had become a rebel, a faction leader.

Towards Rupture

Knowing he had the protection of the Prince-elector of Saxony, Luther disregarded his vow of obedience and refused to go to Rome where he was summoned to explain himself. The pope then sent the bishop of Gaeta, Cardinal Thomas de Vio, known as Cajetan. He met with the Augustinian monk in Augsburg in October of 1518. Luther refused to retract any of his theses. Better yet, he called for a council to judge the pope.

The following year, he rejected Tradition as a source of Revelation. Scripture is the only rule of the Faith: sola Scriptura. He also rejected the authority of the councils and of the Roman pontiff. He refused the infallibility of the Church. He was increasingly convinced that the pope was the Antichrist. Luther was now acting as the prophet of a new, invisible Church, with no hierarchy, no pope, and no priesthood. He came to attack most of the sacraments, that he denounced as impious inventions: confirmation, the Eucharist, Extreme Unction, marriage and above all Holy Orders. And yet he was a priest; he hated himself.

The year 1520 was the point of no return. His ideas and his teachings took on the structure of a doctrine in which heresies vied with a schismatic spirit. In the month of May, he published his treatise on the Roman papacy (Von dem Papsttum zu Rom). It was a clear refusal of its divine institution. The pope is nothing but a tyrant, just like the Turk! The true Church is invisible; it spiritually assembles all those who are united by Faith in Christ, the only source of justification and salvation. The power of the keys promised by Our Lord resides only in the community in which the cult is practiced, and not in the hierarchy instituted by Christ. Cajetan was right when he published in 1521 a short work on The Successor of Peter with for subtitle “the divine institution of the sovereign pontificate of the Bishop of Rome.”

In August of 1520, Luther published his most important treatise, addressed to the German nobility (An den Christlichen Adel deutscher Nation). He turned resolutely to the temporal princes to rally them to his theses and protect the new religion he intended to found. He told them that three walls needed to be overturned: 1) the distinction between clergy and laymen; 2) the pope’s right to interpret Scripture alone; 3) his universal jurisdiction and his power to convoke councils.

His reasoning was simple and terribly effective. Baptism suffices to confer universal priesthood upon all. Consequently, every Christian has the right to interpret Sacred Scripture as he pleases and to judge the Faith. The same with convoking a council: anyone can do it, “but none so well as those who wield the temporal sword”. This phrase is full of implications. In fact, it expresses the submission of the Church to the State. Luther was looking for support to reject the authority of the spiritual power, without being accused of destroying the social order and the natural nature of all authority.

To justify the boldness of his theories and his complete refusal of the ecclesiastical institution, Luther published a new and provocative treatise in October of 1520: De captivitate Babylonica Ecclesiae. In this treatise, he explicitly rejected the doctrine and the practice of the sacraments. He did however, keep Baptism, including the baptism of children, for which he was criticized by the Anabaptists, among whose numbers were some of his first supporters and even friends. He also kept the “Lord’s Supper,” but without the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass that he hated. He rejected transubstantiation and the sacrament of Holy Orders. The pastor who leads the cult is nothing more than the leader of the assembly. Luther also allowed the use of both bread and wine for communion and the use of the vernacular language.

Later that same month, Luther also published the treatise On Christian Liberty, in which he declared once again that Christians are justified by faith without works, which he rejects once and for all. The only true liberty that frees a man from all sin is justification by faith alone. This is the Esto peccator et pecca fortiter, sed forties fide et gaude in Christo qui victor est peccati, mortis et mundi theory: “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly. For he is victorious over sin, death, and the world.”

This is a development of the simul peccator et justus that the innovator had already exposed a few years earlier in his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans: attributing the promise of salvation to a man is enough to justify him, even though he is a sinner and bereft of sanctifying grace.

For Luther, the Church is reduced to slavery and deported to Babylon under the yoke of the pope, who for him is the Antichrist. “It is as if,” write the authors of L’histoire des conciles, “the reformer transferred to faith, and faith alone, the certitude and security that he reproached the Christians of his time with founding on good works and indulgences!” in order to do this, he had to refuse the passages from Scripture that proclaim that without works, faith is dead (see Jm. 2:26). Luther replaced the faith of the Church with his own intellectual construction, his opinion of the human will as not free but a slave, and enlightened by his own personal experience. By this means, he sought to justify his rebellion against his vows and his liberation from the anguish and scruples of his conscience. It would not be long before he undertook to impose his views upon all of Christianity with the arms of the lay lords.

Such was Luther’ reformation, a reformation began as ideological and dogmatic, and not as a reform of the behavior and discipline the Church was calling for. In a letter to Pope Leo X, he wrote, “I have indeed inveighed sharply against impious doctrines, and I have not been slack to censure my adversaries on account, not of their bad morals, but of their impiety.” A few months later, in February of 1521, his disciple Melanchthon summed up the heart of the Protestant endeavor: “Luther is waging war against perverse doctrines and impious dogmas and not against the private vices of the representatives of the priesthood.”

So those who pretend that Protestantism was a healthy reaction to the decadence of Catholicism and that it was inspired by the intention of reforming morals are entirely mistaken. It was a very different sort of endeavor: a refusal, a complete revolution against the Catholic Faith and the Church founded on Peter.

The bishop of Luçon understood this perfectly. One century after Luther nailed up his theses, the future Cardinal Richelieu presented the Reformation as a heresy that threatened religious and political institutions, “an upsurge of disorder based on a misappropriation of Scripture and lack of knowledge of Tradition.”

Luther and Melanchthon at the foot of the Cross (Vatican Post-Office Stamp).

From Heresy to Schism

Pope Leo X prohibited the Augustinian monk’s theories on June 15, 1520 (Exsurge Domine): 41 propositions were condemned and Luther was summoned to explain himself. Before the professors and students of Wittenberg, he publicly burned the “execrable bull of the Antichrist” on December 10 of the same year, along with the collections of papal decrees and several scholastic works. Rome decided to excommunicate the rebellious monk on January 3, 1521. Luther then took his revolt to the political level. Summoned to the Diet of Worms in April of 1521, the heresiarch appeared with a safe-conduct and refused to retract his errors. Emperor Charles V exiled him from the Empire as an excommunicated, obstinate schismatic and notorious heretic. But the Prince-elector Frederick of Saxony saved him: he had him kidnapped and taken to safety in the castle of Wartburg. There, Luther worked on his German translation of the Bible.

He soon distanced himself from his faithful disciple Thomas Müntzer, a visionary prophet who stirred up the peasants against the impious. Luther turned resolutely to the lords of Saxony, Hesse, Brandenburg, etc. The year 1525 marked the terrible repression of the Peasants’ War, while Luther married Katherine Bora, a former nun, on June 13, 1525.  After trampling on all his vows, Luther entrusted the princes with the care of imposing the reformation in the parishes and abbeys. He took advantage of the general disorder, the violently anti-Roman national German sentiment, and the greed of the lords. They received the power to apply the reform by imposing regulations on the cult and taking the goods of the Church for themselves. With this jus reformandi in hand, the lay powers took it upon themselves to secularize the monasteries and help themselves to the churches and their treasures. Violent riots, and scenes of vandalism and iconoclast destruction broke out everywhere. This relentless attack on relics, statues, tabernacles, pilgrimage sites and places of worship led to colossal destruction, especially when the faithful tried to stop it.

Luther died unrepentant in 1546, leaving behind him the memory of a bawdy and violent drunkard. He had indeed revolted against the dogmas of the Church, and not against the vices and abuses of the clergy.


The Lutheran Reformation is not so much a true reform as a revolution that overthrew dogma, religious practice, the liturgy, the sacraments and the divinely established authorities. It divided the Latin Church in two. On one side were the countries that remained faithful to Catholic doctrine and submitted to the jurisdiction of the Church, the bishop of Rome, on the other, the countries that embraced the new ideas and fell into the hands of the lords and of the State.

On this October 31, 2017, when ecumenical manifestations are being organized all over the place, the authorities of the Church today pretend to celebrate events that are quite sad… Luther, as we have shown, was one of the greatest heresiarchs of all time, responsible, like Arius, for the loss of innumerable souls.

Bishop Fellay, superior general of the Society of Saint Pius X, has already explained “why we cannot celebrate joyfully the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Quite the contrary, we lament this cruel division. Following Our Lord, we pray and work so that the lost sheep might find again the path that will lead them safely to salvation, the path of the Holy Roman Catholic Church.”

Fr. Christian Thouvenot, SSPX.

[1] Hartmann Grisar, Martin Luther, sa vie et son œuvre, Paris, Lethielleux, 1931, 402 pages.

[2] De la Brosse, Lecler, Holstein, Lefebvre, Les Conciles de Latran V et Trente, coll. Histoire des conciles œcuméniques, vol. X, Dumeige (dir.), Fayard, 2007, p. 117, sq.

[3] Summary of Histoire des conciles œcuméniques, vol X, Dumeige (dir.), op. cit.

[4] French edition by Fr. Jean-Michel Gleize, Courrier de Rome, 2004.

[5] “Sei ein Sünder und sündige kräftig, aber vertraue noch stärker und freue dich in Christus, welcher der Sieger ist über die Sünde, den Tod und die Welt”.

[6] Histoire des conciles œcuméniques, tome X, Dumeige (dir.), op. cit., p. 126.

[7] Quoted by Arnaud Teyssier, Richelieu, l’aigle et la colombe, Perrin, 2014, p. 129.

[8] A. Boulanger, Histoire générale de l’Eglise, tome III, vol. VI, Emmanuel Vitte, 1938, p. 22.

[9] Letter to Friends and Benefactors #87, April 26, 2017.