The Historical Context and Nature of Luther’s Protest

Martin Luther statue, Berlin. Source: author’s personal collection.

In the spring of 2017,  I was invited to give a lecture about the historical context and nature of Luther’s protest. The video of my  “Taste of Reformation” lecture from April 3, 2017, can be seen here. This printed version includes the images adds a little more detail on the Cranach painting “The Vineyard of the Lord.”

A Taste of Reformation: The Historical Context and Nature of Luther’s Protest

By Kyle Jantzen, Ambrose University

As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, it is fitting that we look back on the event—both to understand something of what happened back in 1517, and to reflect on what it might mean for Christians and churches today. That is the purpose of tonight’s lecture and discussion. In that spirit, I’d like to start things off with a few thoughts about the historical context in which the Reformation took place. After that, I’ll describe the process by which various late medieval grievances expressed by Luther and many others evolved into a fundamental ecclesiastical break between Luther and his followers and the Church of Rome. Finally, I’d like to identify some of the key themes in the early phase of the Reformation.

In the person of Martin Luther (1483-1546), we have ourselves a neat and clean beginning of the Reformation. Many of you will know the date October 31, 1517, when Luther posted his 95 Theses on the Wittenberg Castle Church door (so it is said) as an invitation to scholarly debate about papal indulgences. In reality, we all know that revolutions—and the Reformation was surely a revolution—don’t begin so abruptly. There’s always a context we have to consider.

By way of background, I’d like to begin by making the point that the Reformation unfolded in a time and place very different from our own. As the accomplished reformation historian Steven Ozment put it, it was an unfair, autocratic, hierarchical age—an intolerant and prejudice-filled period—violent too—in which Jews, peasants, women, and foreigners were disdained, dishonoured, and discriminated against. We see in the Reformation era, as Ozment wrote, an age more primitive than our modern world, ” a society in which order and security [held] priority over equality and fairness.” [1]

Bearded Grapes in Prague (1560)
Source: Steven Ozment, Protestants: The Birth of a Revolution (New York: Doubleday, 1992), p. 199.

This pre-modern world was also spiritual and superstitious to an extent that would baffle us. People understood “the struggle against sin, death, and the devil [to be] as basic as [the struggle] for bread, land, and [political representation].”[2] Simply put, the spiritual realm was alive and important: kings consulted horoscopes, while the masses made pilgrimages to holy sites and holy relics. People believed God interacted directly with and through the natural world, blessing, warning, and punishing in ways that even the most devout in our day rarely do. To give you just one example, let me tell you about some bearded grapes. In 1560, some bearded grapes were found growing in a vineyard near a monastery in Prague. Part of the strange beard on the grapes was yellow-gray, and part was thick and red. Strange, yes, but not to worry. The local monks knew just what this aberration of nature meant: the red-bearded grapes were a sign of God’s wrath on account of rampant alcoholism, which was marked by the yellow-gray bearded grapes, which looked just like the beard of an old, degenerate drunk. The monks publicized their finding, calling for penance in order to avert the coming judgment.[3]

Now, that might seem a little humorous to us, but if you know something of Martin Luther’s story, you might be thinking of his famous 1505 turning point, when as a young law student he was caught in a lightning storm, and in a panic cried out, “Help me, St. Anne! I will become a monk!” because he thought that this was his best hope for surviving the storm. This testifies to the kind of direct encounters that late medieval Europeans believed they had with God, the devil, saints, spirits, and demons, all of whom interacted directly with humans and were ever active within nature.

Holy Roman Empire, c. 1519. Source: Cambridge Modern History Atlas, 1912.

The Reformation also unfolded in a very different place. Looking at a map of sixteenth-century Europe, kingdoms like France, England, and Spain look much like their modern counterparts, but Central Europe is simply a cartographic dog’s breakfast. The Holy Roman Empire (which, as the joke ran, was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire) must have been one of the most complex political entities ever invented. It was a multi-ethnic, multi-state feudal empire in which the seven leading princes (electors) elected the emperor for life. Somewhat larger in size than the province of Alberta, the Holy Roman Empire contained over 300 territories ruled by electors, dukes, margraves, bishops, abbots, counts, city councils, and imperial knights, all of whom swore allegiance to the emperor as their lord, but who were were basically independent within their own territories.

Detail of the Holy Roman Empire, c. 1519. Source: Cambridge Modern History Atlas, 1912.

A close-up of the 450 km of territory between Luther’s home in Wittenberg and the city of Worms, which hosted the Imperial Diet of 1521 where Luther defended himself, includes a myriad of states, including two Saxonies, Brandenburg, the Bishopric of Magdeburg, Hesse, Nassau, the Archbishopric of Trier, and the Electorate of the Palatinate, to name only a few of the more important territories.

Over the course of the 1400s, many of the larger states within the empire began to aggressively consolidate, centralize, and expand their territory, swallowing up smaller states and stripping traditional rights from peasants and townspeople. Peasants complained of the loss of common woods, streams, and fields for gathering firewood, hunting, fishing, and grazing their livestock. Townspeople complained of excessive tolls for transporting goods across the empire’s many internal borders.

As a result, during the late Middle Ages, a lively protest literature emerged, full of complaints about political, social, economic, and ecclesiastical abuses—all of which were closely intertwined. One of the more famous of these grievances was The Reformation of the Emperor Sigismund, printed anonymously in South Germany in 1438. Here is part of the opening section:

Almighty God, Creator of heaven and earth, lend you strength and grace to our endeavor, grant us the wisdom to know and accomplish a true ordering of our spiritual and secular state so that your sacred name and divinity will again be professed everywhere. Your anger is upon us; your wrath has seized us; we are as sheep without a shepherd; without asking your leave we have strayed into the pasture.

Obedience is dead.

Justice is grievously abused.

Nothing stands in its proper order.

Therefore, God has withdrawn His grace from us. We ignore His commandments. What He has ordered we do only if it pleases us. We practice obedience without righteousness.

But we ought to realize: matters cannot continue like this. We must undertake a proper ordering of spiritual and secular affairs. … Let all princes and lords be admonished, therefore, also all knights and all the imperial cities, to proceed to a right ordering of their affairs. [4]

These crises provoked passionate responses. In the early 1500s, there were numerous peasant (“Bundshuh”) rebellions, and between 1524 and 1525 perhaps 200,000 commoners lost their lives in the Peasants’ War—a revolt inspired substantially by Luther’s teachings about spiritual freedom and equality. Around the same time, in 1523, the 2000 remaining imperial knights, who were reduced to poverty by the loss of their land and political representation, rose up in another hopeless revolt against the rising power of the territorial princes within the empire.

Within the Roman Catholic Church—which was the Christian church in medieval Europe—there were also frustrations with and protests against the growing worldliness of the papacy and higher clergy, and the institutionalism of a thousand years of administrative practice. Most histories of the Protestant Reformation point to a series of issues and events considered to be part of the context of the Reformation. These include:

  • The general state of worldliness and dysfunction in the papacy as seen in the Babylonian Captivity (the exile of the papacy in Avignon, France) and the Great Schism (a conflict between rival French and Italian popes, both claiming legitimacy), not to mention the sorry spiritual and moral state of the Renaissance papacy, which was often more interested in building Rome or ruling Italy than caring for the Christian Church.
  • The development of a complex papal bureaucracy and an avaricious papal taxation system, which collected money from the faithful through instruments like the spolia (income from church land), annates (income from church offices), dispensations (fees for bypassing church regulations), or reservations (fees paid in anticipation of future church appointments).
  • The Waldensian and Albigensian “heresies” which valued Scripture and Spirit and shunned the institutional church with its rituals and traditions. Even within the fold of the Roman Church, the rise of the Fransiscan Order, advocating simplicity, humility, and service to the poor was an implicit critique of the worldliness of medieval Catholicism.
  • The Conciliar Movement of the 1400s, which attempted, without much success, to reform the Roman Church “in head and members” through general councils, gatherings of bishops and archbishops which would exercise authority and enact change.
  • The emergence of John Wycliffe and the Lollard movement in England, appealing to Scripture as the primary source of authority in the church, and thus rejecting various Roman teachings and practices, including the doctrine of transubstantiation and the excesses of luxury among higher clergy.
  • Jan Hus, the reformer from Bohemia, who followed Wycliffe’s teaching on the Eucharist, denounced the moral failings of clergy, and championed the place of lay people in the church. His challenge to papal authority led to his excommunication and burning at the stake at the Council of Constance in 1415, a century before Luther’s Reformation.
  • The rise of university education and printing, which was an important contributor to the development and articulation of the grievances relating to society and church. Wycliffe and Hus were both university professors, part of a growing educational movement in late medieval Europe. (Between 1300 and 1500, the number of universities in Europe grew from twenty to seventy, and well over one hundred residential colleges were built in France, England, Italy, and the Holy Roman Empire, to house the growing student population.) Along with universities came the printing press. Beginning with Johannes Gutenberg’s shop in Mainz in 1450, by 1500 there were printing presses in over sixty German and two hundred European cities and towns. These presses were a significant factor in the success of the Reformation, with Protestant authors churning out 10,000 titles and millions of copies of books and pamphlets by 1550—thus the saying, “No books, no Reformation.”[5]
  • The Brethren of the Common Life, founded by the Dutchman Gerhard Groote, which was a pietistic religious community in which laypeople and clergy might live devoutly together. A product of the Devotio Moderna (“Modern Devotion”) and its emphasis on personal relationship with God, members of the Brethren of the Common Life preached moral reform and founded many excellent schools, educating future scholars like Erasmus of Rotterdam and Thomas a Kempis, author of The Imitation of Christ. Later, Martin Luther also attended a Brethren school for a time in Magdeburg.
  • The emergence of Renaissance Humanism, an intellectual movement which revived classical Roman and Greek learning and championed education. In Northern Europe, humanists published manuscripts of the Church Fathers and developed critical editions of the Bible in its original languages. Scholars like Erasmus of Rotterdam, Thomas More of England, and many others emphasized the authority of these ancient texts and thus criticized what they deemed useless rituals, ceremonies, and teachings not established in Scripture. The moral and educational improvement of the clergy and the cultivation of simple piety were at the heart of this humanist reform movement, which eagerly supported Luther in his early days, spreading news of his 95 Theses all over the Holy Roman Empire. As was said in those days, “Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched.”

Now we come to Martin Luther. The son of a prosperous miner, Luther was well educated, studying liberal arts and then law at the University of Erfurt at the beginning of the 1500s. His disenchantment with law and interest in religion were cemented by that famous lightning storm and vow to become a monk. Luther was a strict monk, lived the ascetic life and rose quickly. Ordained a priest in 1507, by 1508 he was teaching philosophy at the University of Wittenberg. By 1512, he was a doctor of theology and professor. By 1514, he had become a preacher in the local convent and in the Wittenberg Town Church. By 1515, he was supervising eleven monastic houses.

The fame Luther would soon achieve was the result of his opposition to letters of indulgence, one of the ecclesiastical abuses which most troubled pious critics of the sixteenth-century church. Indulgences were documents issued by the church, declaring that the person to whom the indulgence was made out had been released from the penalties of his or her sin. These might be the penalties of penance—acts of contrition performed as part of confession—or, in the case of plenary indulgences, the penalties of penance to be performed in Purgatory, where Christian souls would go after death to endure a painful purification in preparation for heaven—sometimes for tens of thousands of years. During the crusades, indulgences had been granted to crusaders who died or fought valiantly, but indulgences could also be earned other ways, through pilgrimages or (more and more commonly in the sixteenth century) by donating money to the church—this deteriorated, however, to the point where indulgences were essentially sold by the church to whomever would buy them. The underlying idea, that one had to have asked for forgiveness and to have exercised faith in God, was very often forgotten or ignored altogether.

Luther’s 95 Theses, posted on October 31, 1517, was his response to the indulgence controversy. In this work, he argued that repentance was the key to forgiveness, that God was the one who granted forgiveness, and that popes did not have authority over what happens after death. He criticized charging money for indulgences, urging money to be given to the poor instead. The theses close with the assertion that “Christians should be exhorted to be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, death and hell. And thus be confident of entering into heaven through many tribulations rather than through the false security of peace (Acts 14:22).”[6]

Over time, Luther and other reformers rejected the Roman Catholic doctrine of Purgatory as cynical and unbiblical, and condemned popular practices like indulgences and Masses for the dead, which were both purported to reduce the number of years the departed would be required to spend in Purgatory. Protestants argued these measures preyed on the fear of death and undermined trust in the promise of salvation in Christ. They coined the term “Totenfresserei,” or “feeding on the dead,” to describe this abuse.

Totenfresserei (“feeding on the dead”). Source: Steven Ozment, Protestants: The Birth of a Revolution (New York: Doubleday, 1992), p. 14-15.

In this woodcut, likely from the 1520s, a female devil sits on a massive indulgence letter. She holds an alms box in her right hand, eager to collect money, while her left foot rests in a chalice of holy water. A demon carries a newly deceased pope through the air (the pope is holding the Key of St. Peter, in the centre of the left-hand side of the image) to a feast set on a table inside the devil’s mouth, where various monks await him. They feast on the bodies of ordinary Christian lay people, who are being dismembered, cured, and cooked by other demons, all over a raging fire on top of the devil’s head. So the message is clear and sharp: the clergy feast on the lay people, while the devil feasts on the clergy.[7]

By 1518, a conflict between Luther and Rome was emerging. A process against Luther was initiated, which included charges of heresy. That fall, Luther met with a papal envoy, Cardinal Cajetan, at the Imperial Diet (or parliament) of Augsburg. Luther presented his theological critique, rooted in his growing conviction of the authority of Scripture, which Cajetan countered by the simple assertion of papal authority over scriptural interpretation and theology. Luther appealed to a general council, and then fled from Augsburg back to the safety of Wittenberg.

The following year, in 1519, there was an academic debate about Luther’s theology in Leipzig, between the traditionalist Johann Eck and the innovator Andreas Karlstadt, one of Luther’s colleagues. Eck invited Luther into the debate too, as it turned towards the subjects of Purgatory, indulgences, penance, and papal authority. Luther declared that Scripture alone was to be the basis of Christian belief, and he challenged papal supremacy, arguing instead for the higher authority of church councils. In response, Eck brought up the question of Jan Hus and his condemnation and execution at the Council of Constance, forcing Luther to choose between conciliar authority and Hus’ theology. Luther replied that the Council of Constance has erred in its condemnation of Hus.

In one fell swoop, then, Luther had rejected both papal and conciliar authority—the two most widely recognized centres of authority in late medieval Christianity. From an ecclesiastical perspective, what Luther was saying was seditious. (It was akin to religious anarchy in the eyes of his contemporaries.) It was in this that Luther moved from critiquing individual church abuses to challenging the fundamentals of the theology and authority of the Catholic Church, replacing it with his own theology rooted in the authority of Scripture. But all of that took some years to unfold.

During this same time, alongside his concerns over the sale of indulgences and other church practices, Luther faced a growing spiritual crisis of his own, which is captured in the German term Anfechtung (a feeling of anxiety, guilt, distress, doubt, and temptation, all rolled up together). Luther was troubled with the question of how he could be made just before the holy, perfect, and judging God. In response to his anxiety, Luther tried the customary medieval answers to the question of guilt: monastic vows, rigorous observance, frequent confession, and so forth. None of these appeased his conscience, however. Over time, in large part through his study of Scripture, Luther came to the conclusion that the moral purity which would appease the judgment of God could only be attained if it were granted as a gift from God, through faith, by grace, based on the atoning death of Jesus Christ, according to Scripture. Though we Protestants today take these ideas for granted, it took Luther years to fully flesh them out.

Later in his life, Luther reflected back on his “tower experience,” the culmination of the process by which he came to his understanding of the gospel and his experience of salvation. He wrote:

Meanwhile in that same year, 1519, I had begun interpreting the Psalms once again. I felt confident that I was now more experienced, since I had dealt in university courses with St. Paul’s Letters to the Romans, to the Galatians, and the Letter to the Hebrews. I had conceived a burning desire to understand what Paul meant in his Letter to the Romans, but thus far there had stood in my way, not the cold blood around my heart, but that one word which is in chapter one: “The justice of God is revealed in it.” I hated that word, “justice of God,” which, by the use and custom of all my teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically as referring to formal or active justice, as they call it, i.e., that justice by which God is just and by which he punishes sinners and the unjust.

But I, blameless monk that I was, felt that before God I was a sinner with an extremely troubled conscience. I couldn’t be sure that God was appeased by my satisfaction. I did not love, no, rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners. In silence, if I did not blaspheme, then certainly I grumbled vehemently and got angry at God. I said, “Isn’t it enough that we miserable sinners, lost for all eternity because of original sin, are oppressed by every kind of calamity through the Ten Commandments? Why does God heap sorrow upon sorrow through the Gospel and through the Gospel threaten us with his justice and his wrath?” This was how I was raging with wild and disturbed conscience. I constantly badgered St. Paul about that spot in Romans 1 and anxiously wanted to know what he meant.

I meditated night and day on those words until at last, by the mercy of God, I paid attention to their context: “The justice of God is revealed in it, as it is written: ‘The just person lives by faith.'” I began to understand that in this verse the justice of God is that by which the just person lives by a gift of God, that is by faith. I began to understand that this verse means that the justice of God is revealed through the Gospel, but it is a passive justice, i.e. that by which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: “The just person lives by faith.” All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates. Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light. I ran through the Scriptures from memory and found that other terms had analogous meanings, e.g., the work of God, that is, what God works in us; the power of God, by which he makes us powerful; the wisdom of God, by which he makes us wise; the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.

I exalted this sweetest word of mine, “the justice of God,” with as much love as before I had hated it with hate. This phrase of Paul was for me the very gate of paradise. Afterward I read Augustine’s “On the Spirit and the Letter,” in which I found what I had not dared hope for. I discovered that he too interpreted “the justice of God” in a similar way, namely, as that with which God clothes us when he justifies us. Although Augustine had said it imperfectly and did not explain in detail how God imputes justice to us, still it pleased me that he taught the justice of God by which we are justified.[8]

In 1520, Luther began to develop his new theology, based on his recognition of the unique authority of the Bible (sola scriptura). Chief among his reforms were the concepts of sola gratia (salvation by grace alone, and not works), sola fide (salvation by faith alone), the principle of the priesthood of all believers (a rejection of clergy as a separate and higher spiritual caste within church and society), the reduction of the number of sacraments down to two or three (baptism, communion, and maybe penance) and the simplification of other church ceremonies so that they conformed with the teachings and practice of Scripture. These were captured in three important writings of 1520:

  1. The Address to the German Nobility, a German publication appealing to the German princes to reform a Roman church unwilling or incapable to reform itself.
  2. Concerning Christian Liberty, in which Luther asserts salvation by faith and grace, and describes good works as the fruit of salvation.
  3. The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, a Latin writing for theologians, in which Luther attacked the Catholic doctrine of the sacraments, the belief that the Mass was a sacrifice (as if Christ were crucified each time), and transubstantiation (the belief that the universals of the bread and wine change into the body and blood of Christ during communion).

Pope Leo X responded to this growing problem of Luther and his ideas by issuing the Papal Bull Exsurge Domine (“Rise up, Oh God”) in 1520. Though there was little support for this bull (Luther was already very popular), it stipulated that Luther’s works were to be burned, and that he had sixty days in which to recant his heretical ideas or face excommunication. Luther responded on December 10, 1520, by burning a copy of the papal bull and the entire canon law in a ceremony on the outskirts of Wittenberg. That was, for him, the definite break with the Roman Church, and meant that he would surely stand trial in a church court, be excommunicated, and executed. Surprisingly and unusually, that did not happen.

The German princes supported Luther to the extent that they required a hearing in which due cause would be shown, before any imperial ban could be handed down against Luther and before he would be handed over to Rome. Thus, because of the political tensions related to the complicated accession of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1519, Luther ended up appearing before the Imperial Council rather than a Roman Catholic ecclesiastical court—a legal innovation unpopular with both Catholic and imperial authorities.

So Luther was given an invitation to attend the Imperial Diet at Worms in April 1521. Emperor Charles V gave Luther a guarantee of safe passage to Worms, which may or may not have been reassuring, since Jan Hus had received the same guarantee a century earlier, which had not prevented his execution at the Council of Constance! At the formal hearing before emperor and princes, Luther’s imperial accuser, not wanting to open a theological debate, simply asked Luther two questions: Were the books set before him his own writings? (Yes) And would he recant them? (No) In his famous defense of the faith at Worms, Luther appealed to the authority of Scripture and his conscience, and declared that he would be the first to throw his books into the fire if he were proven wrong by reason and the Bible. This was when he uttered the famous words: “Here I stand. I can do no other.”

Luther left Worms to return to Saxony. Charles V honoured his guarantee of safe passage, but within days pronounced the imperial ban on Luther, known as the Edict of Worms. This outlawed Luther—stripping him of all rights—and meant anyone could do anything to him without fear of punishment—even kill him. It was the political counterpart to the excommunication of Luther pronounced by the Roman Church. So as Luther made his way back to Saxony, his ruler, Elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony, had him captured (this was pre-planned) and hidden in the abandoned Wartburg Castle for 10 months, in order to preserve Luther from the danger of the moment.

While Luther was in the Wartburg, his colleagues and followers in Wittenberg began introducing changes in religious practice there. Led by Andreas Karlstadt, they simplified the Mass, offered communion in both kinds to the laity, used German instead of Latin in church, abandoned priestly robes, and kept tithe money for local uses such as the care of the poor. Moreover, monks and nuns left their cloisters and began to marry, as did parish priests, and there were some iconoclastic acts too (that is the destruction of religious images, now seen as idols). Luther returned to Wittenberg in 1522 to take control of this rapidly unfolding reform, guiding its transition towards the conservative Lutheran church of the early modern era.

One way we can understand Luther’s break with Rome is to consider his depiction of the Roman papacy as the Antichrist, as this simple woodcut shows us. The Antichrist was the eschatological enemy of Christ, and thus the strongest language with which Luther could possibly express his repudiation of the legitimacy and authority of the popes. The biblical accounts of the Antichrist emphasize his opposition to the gospel, his blasphemy, his arrogance, and his persecution of Christians. For Luther, this fit his image of the papacy and its actions.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, The Passion of the Christ and Antichrist (1521). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

This particular image is from the 1521 Passion of the Christ and Antichrist, by Lucas Cranach the Elder. Cranach often created images to reflect Luther’s writings, and here the simplicity and humility of Jesus was compared to the luxury and arrogance of the papacy. In one of the twelve sets of contrasting images, Christ was depicted kissing the feet of the disciples as he washed them (John 13), while the pope sat on his regal throne, accompanied by his clerical entourage, as his subjects paraded by and kissed his feet. This illustrates how, for Luther, the errors of the Roman Church and the papacy were no longer incidental, but fundamental and irreparable.[9] A total reformation was required.

Let me show you another image that reflects these ideas. Throughout the Lutheran Reformation, Protestants claimed to represent the true church, emphasizing their fidelity to Christ, to the ancient teaching of the Church Fathers, and especially (again) to Scripture, in contrast to the illegitimate teachings and practices of the Catholics. This is a 1569 painting by Lucas Cranach the Younger—an epitaph to Paul Eber, who was a colleague of Luther’s, a professor in Wittenberg and the pastor of the Wittenberg Town Church (St. Mary’s). Cranach did numerous epitaphs, often choosing a biblical story or image with some link to the life of the deceased. In the case of “The Vineyard of the Lord,” the references are to the Reformation conflict surrounding the 1520 papal bull Exsurge Domine, based on the Psalm 80 passage about foxes and a wild boar ruining the vineyard of the Lord. Since the name “Eber” meant “wild boar” in German, Cranach’s painting turns out to be deeply ironic. Eber, one of Luther’s colleagues and successors in Wittenberg, was indeed a wild boar, from the Roman perspective. Yet Cranach’s painting inverts the metaphor, presenting the pope and Roman clergy as the ones destroying the vineyard of the Lord, while Luther, Eber, and their colleagues tend conscientiously to the vines in their part of the vineyard.

Lucas Cranach the Younger, The Vineyard of the Lord (1569). Source: Albrecht Steinwachs, The Vineyard of the Lord: Epitaph for Paul Eber by Lucas Cranach “the Younger,” 1569 at St. Mary’s, the Parish Church in Wittenberg Town of Luther (Spröda: Edition Akanthus, 2001), p. 37.

In this busy painting, we see monks, nuns, bishops, cardinals, and the pope pulling up vines, destroying protective fences, and collecting stones to throw down the well (rendering it useless) in the vineyard of the Lord. They throw stakes and vines into fires, and otherwise quarrel, drink, and sleep. (One monk is shown with a pack of cards falling out of the hood of his habit.)

Cranach, The Vineyard of the Lord (1569) (detail). Source: Steinwachs, The Vineyard of the Lord, p. 12.

On the right side of the vineyard (it is still one vineyard, one church), the Reformers are digging, hoeing, raking, and watering. They erect stakes to support the vines, gather stones and throw them away from the vines. The protective fences are strong, the vines are healthy, having been watered and fertilized, and a good harvest is to be expected. Luther is raking away weeds, undergrowth, and rocks, in keeping with his role as one sweeping away errors to prepare for the true gospel. As he wrote in 1529, “I have to remove logs and trunks, hew away thorns and hedges, and fill in puddles; I am the rough forest-[w]right, who must break and direct the path.” Luther stands in the middle of the painting, as one dividing the church for and against the Reformation. Luther’s colleague Philipp Melanchthon is at the well, drawing water. This is a reference to his training in classical languages, his role as educator, and his Renaissance humanist drive to return ad fontes—back to the original source of Scripture. Also beside the well, Johannes Forster waters the ground, a reference to his knowledge of Hebrew in translating the Scripture, the source of Christianity. Above him, Johannes Bugenhagen, longtime pastor of the Town Church, wearing the coat of a church superintendent-general, works with a hoe, to root out weeds, keep everything in order, and enable the vines to flourish—a reference to his pastoral vocation. Other reformers join in various tasks, including Paul Eber himself, who is shown carefully pruning the vines—a fitting role, since he served as professor and pastor in Wittenberg, preserving and supporting the work of Luther.[10]

Cranach, The Vineyard of the Lord (1569) (detail). Source: Steinwachs, The Vineyard of the Lord, p. 19.

And now I want to leave you with a final image and document from the early days of the Reformation. It’s a letter, written by a Bavarian noblewoman named Argula von Grumbach. It’s one of my favourite Reformation sources, because it illustrates so compellingly the powerful rediscovery of the authority and force of Scripture.

Argula von Grumbach, “Letter to the University of Ingolstadt” (1524). Source: Heiligen Lexicon,

Grumbach’s letter was written in response to the expulsion of a man named Arsacius Seehofer from the University of Ingolstadt on account of his Lutheran beliefs. Most importantly, she wrote it in 1523, only one year after Luther had translated the Bible into an everyday form of German accessible to virtually everyone across the Holy Roman Empire who could read, no matter which of the many German dialects they spoke. No doubt she had learned from earlier German versions of the Bible as well, for in the four-page excerpt of her letter that I have, she quotes the Bible almost sixty times, weaving together texts from many chapters in the books of John, Matthew, Ezekiel, Acts, Jeremiah, Hosea, Isaiah, Psalms, 1 Timothy, 1 Corinthians, Deuteronomy, Proverbs, 2 Corinthians, Luke, and Joel.[11] Let me read to you the opening section:

THE LORD SAYS, JOHN 12, ‘I am the light that has come into the world, that none who believe in me should abide in darkness.’ It is my heartfelt wish that this light should dwell in all of us and shine upon all callous and blinded hearts. Amen.

I find there is a text in Matthew 10 which runs: ‘Whoever confesses me before another I too will confess before my heavenly Father.’ And Luke 9: ‘Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, I too will be ashamed of when I come in my majesty’, etc. Words like these, coming from the very mouth of God, are always before my eyes. For they exclude neither woman nor man.

And this is why I am compelled as a Christian to write to you. For Ezekiel 33 says: ‘If you see your brother sin, reprove him, or I will require his blood at your hands.’ In Matthew 12, the Lord says: ‘All sins will be forgiven; but the sin against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven, neither here nor in eternity.’ And in John 6 the Lord says: ‘My words are spirit and life …’.

How in God’s name can you and your university expect to prevail, when you deploy such foolish violence against the word of God; when you force someone to hold the holy Gospel in their hands for the very purpose of denying it, as you did in the case of Arsacius Seehofer? When you confront him with an oath and declaration such as this, and use imprisonment and even the threat of the stake to force him to deny Christ and his word? Yes, when I reflect on this my heart and all my limbs tremble. What do Luther or Melanchthon teach you but the word of God? You condemn them without having refuted them. Did Christ teach you so, or his apostles, prophets, or evangelists? Show me where this is written! You lofty experts, nowhere in the Bible do I find that Christ, or his apostles, or his prophets put people in prison, burnt or murdered them, or sent them into exile…. Don’t you know that the Lord says in Matthew 10? ‘Have no fear of him who can take your body but then his power is at an end. But fear him who has power to despatch soul and body into the depths of hell.’

One knows very well the importance of one’s duty to obey the authorities. But where the word of God is concerned neither Pope, Emperor nor princes – as Acts 4 and 5 make so clear – have any jurisdiction. For my part, I have to confess, in the name of God and by my soul’s salvation, that if I were to deny Luther and Melanchthon’s writing I would be denying God and his word, which may God forfend for ever. Amen.

And then the close of the letter:

And even if it came to pass – which God forfend – that Luther were to revoke his views, that would not worry me. I do not build on his, mine, or any person’s understanding, but on the true rock, Christ himself, which the builders have rejected. But he has been made the foundation stone, and the head of the corner, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3: ‘No other base can be laid, than that which is laid, which is Christ’.

I have no Latin; but you have German, being born and brought up in this tongue. What I have written to you is no woman’s chit-chat, but the word of God; and (I write) as a member of the Christian Church, against which the gates of Hell cannot prevail. Against the Roman, however, they do prevail. Just look at that church! How is it to prevail against the gates of Hell? God give us his grace, that we all may be saved, and may (God) rule us according to his will. Now may his grace carry the day. Amen.

This letter thrills me every time I read from it, because in it I see the tremendous power of the Word of God, rediscovered by Luther and embraced by his followers, who used it to revive Christianity and transform the church around the world. And we, five hundred years later, can celebrate that Reformation.


[1] Steven Ozment, Protestants: The Birth of a Revolution (New York: Doubleday, 1992), p. 3.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., p. 198-199.

[4] Gerald Strauss, Manifestations of Discontent in Germany on the Eve of the Reformation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971), p. 4.

[5] Ozment, Protestants, p. 46.

[6] Martin Luther, The 95 Theses, 1997, (accessed April 1, 2017).

[7] Ozment, Protestants, p. 14-15.

[8] Martin Luther, “The Tower Experience,” Modern History Sourcebook, 1998, (accessed April 1, 2017).

[9] Lucas Cranach the Elder, “Passion of Christ and Antichrist,” Wikimedia Commons, 11 April 2014, (accessed March 31, 2017); Hans J. Hillerbrand, “The Antichrist in the Early German Reformation: Reflections on Theology and Propaganda,” in Andrew C. Fix and Susan C. Karant-Nunn (eds.), Germania Illustrated: Essays on Early Modern Germany Presented to Gerald Strauss, Sixteenth-Century Essays & Studies, Vol. XVIII (Kirksville, MO: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1992), p. 3-18.

[10] Albrecht Steinwachs, The Vineyard of the Lord: Epitaph for Paul Eber by Lucas Cranach “the Younger,” 1569 at St. Mary’s, the Parish Church in Wittenberg Town of Luther (Spröda: Edition Akanthus, 2001).

[11] P. Matheson, Argula von Grumbach A Woman’s Voice in the Reformation (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995).


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