Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation, 1483-1521

By Martin Brecht; James L. Schaaf | Go to book overview

VI

The Twofold Turning Point:
The Attack on Indulgences and
the Reformatory Discovery
(Fall 1517-Summer 1518)

With the indulgence controversy, Luther was lifted out of his quiet corner into the blaze of the limelight and for the first time he began to make history. Thereby he became involved in a web of events that extended far beyond Electoral Saxony, Erfurt, and Nuremberg, his sphere of activity until then, reaching throughout the entire Holy Roman Empire, even to all of Europe, to Rome, and to the universal church. It involved not only the order, the theologians, and scholars, but also the laity, in fact all of society. The conflict did not break out directly from the battle lines previously drawn against scholastic theology. Strictly speaking, it did not even have to do with a specific problem in the special field of the Bible professor, but with something that was nevertheless a vital question in the church's practice, namely the administration of the discipline of penance. It was as a Wittenberg preacher, not as a professor, that Luther ran into this, although surely it was as a theologian that he then reflected and worked on it. Luther's entire involvement in this matter, in which he then risked himself more and more, can certainly be understood only if one is aware how intensely he felt himself personally affected by his own struggle through the years with penance and thus with the proper relationship of man toward God. It was here that he strove in deep conscientiousness for solutions, and he sought and found them in the humble acceptance of himself as a sinner, who condemns himself and to whom God does not impute sins, because he surrenders himself before God. To love God and so to bear pain and remorse for his sins, that was the serious style of existence to which Luther's path had led. Rut here he encountered a practice of the church through which it was claimed that one could buy oneself out of this sole possible mode of existence, a practice which appeared to permit a person to bargain with God and dispense with sincerity, a practice that cheapened grace. That so contradicted his hard experiences and the insights he had gained with such difficulties that he could not be silent. Thus the conflict did not develop by chance when the

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