by Charles Fry /
A BRIEF LIFE OF MARTIN LUTHER: Part 5
Luther Completes His Most Important Work
After leaving Worms to return to Wittenberg, Luther was kidnapped under a ruse by his friends and taken to a German castle called the Wartburg.
Hidden away in the Wartburg, Luther could not be found by a Roman Church that was likely inclined to kill him for his very public and uncompromising stand on God’s Word. It also gave him an ideal opportunity to begin translating the Bible into German, something that had never before been done. Church historian Philip Schaff notes the importance of Luther’s translation:
The richest fruit of Luther’s leisure in the Wartburg, and the most important and useful work of his whole life, is the translation of the New Testament, by which he brought the teaching and example of Christ and the Apostles to the mind and heart of the Germans in life-like reproduction. It was a republication of the gospel. He made the Bible the people’s book in church, school, and house. If he had done nothing else, he would be one of the greatest benefactors of the German-speaking race.[i]
While Luther was in hiding, his colleague, Andreas Karlstadt, took it upon himself to direct the Reformation. He called for radical reforms, as well as the destruction of any icons or images used as objects of veneration, along with all things associated with the papacy. After Luther came out of hiding, he condemned Karlstadt for his leadership errors and brought stability to the work of the Reformation.
Much like our day, Luther soon realized the people of Germany had lived their entire lives ensconced in a merit-based religion loaded down with extra-biblical teaching which obscured the general teaching of God’s Word. He was shocked that a people with so much religious fervor could have little or no basic Bible knowledge. After visiting Saxony, he observed that professing German believers typically had no knowledge of God’s Word or basic doctrine, not even knowing the Lord’s Prayer or the Ten Commandments. Even their pastors lacked such knowledge and were therefore unable to teach biblical truth.
The Small Catechism
In response, Luther wrote what he considered to be one of his two most significant works, The Small Catechism (the other work being On the Bondage of the Will). Presented in short question-and-answer format, the Catechism set forth a summary of Christian truth even children could absorb. Completed in 1529, it covered the Ten Commandments, the Apostles Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, baptism, confession, the Lord’s Supper, and ways the head of a Christian family should lead his household.
As Robert Kolb observes, Luther was concerned about two things: telling the overarching story of Scripture (the gospel of God redeeming a people through Christ), and the change that would take place among believers through simple but biblical teaching and preaching. A mere two years after writing the Catechism, Luther reflected back on the power of the Word, and specifically the Word taught through the Catechism: “It has, praise God, come to this, that men and women, young and old, know the catechism and how to believe, live, pray, suffer, and die.”[ii]
For the remainder of his life, Luther encountered opposition from two distinct religious camps. One was the Roman Catholic Church with its religion of merit. The other was the Anabaptists. Although the Anabaptists rejected the Roman Catholic view of the authority of tradition, as well as the doctrines of purgatory, indulgences, and more, both Rome and the Anabaptists opposed the Reformation’s understanding of the nature and sufficiency of God’s holy Word, and thus both movements were enemies of Luther himself.
By this time it was perfectly clear to Luther that the heart of all his concerns came down to the sufficiency of Scripture: sola scriptura—that Scripture alone is the final authority over believers, councils, tradition, and the papacy. By contrast, the Catholic Church placed tradition on equal footing with the Scriptures. Luther realized that this ultimately moved tradition and the Church to a position of authority over the Scriptures. Thus, while Rome taught that the Church determined which books were Scripture, Luther taught that the Scriptures created the Church. With tradition and papal authority as supreme, Rome sought to add to the Scriptures and to the gospel of grace, particularly adding works to the doctrine of justification by faith.
On the Bondage of the Will
As he had done at Heidelberg, Luther also continued to confront the Church’s use of an Aristotelian approach to theology, which only further exalted man’s reason above the Scriptures. In his characteristically blunt and colorful language, Luther called such reason “the devil’s whore,” for it set man up as lord over Scripture, rather than allow man to humbly accept what the Scripture taught, regardless of how it may confront one’s thinking.
To address this error directly, Luther wrote On the Bondage of the Will, focusing especially on Diatribe, a book by a Dutch Catholic priest named Erasmus. Erasmus believed the Church’s hierarchy had authority over the truth; Luther contended that truth has authority over the Church. Erasmus argued that one should pursue peace in the Church more than truth; Luther taught that truth is lord over peace and often brings division. Erasmus taught that tradition had authority over the Scripture; Luther taught tradition must submit to Scripture.
Throughout Luther’s disputes with the Church, issues of political power were always part of the picture, but the real battle was over the sufficiency and authority of God’s Word. To the end of his life, Luther battled the Roman Church’s view of Scripture.
Part 7 of an extended series drawn from A World Upside Down: The Life and Theology of Martin Luther, by Charles E. Fry.
Chuck Fry holds degrees from Marshall University, Moody Bible Institute, and Christ College. He has been in discipleship ministry since 1989 and is on staff with The Navigators in Huntington, West Virginia. He and his wife, Lisa, organize and host the annual Majesty of God conference, held each April.
[i] Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, volume 7, The German Reformation (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1888, 2011), 341.
[ii] Robert Kolb, Luther and the Stories of God: Biblical Narratives as a Foundation for Christian Living (Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 2012), 9.