Every now and then I take a streak and watch a few DVDs. I have been building a collection for myself, and I recently ordered a couple that I had not yet seen. I tend to like movies that have a message or have some aspect of history recounted in them. One of those was the 2003 movie, Luther, which depicts the life and struggles of Martin Luther. The movie stars Joseph Fiennes as Luther and an outstanding supporting cast.
Luther’s theology challenged the authority of the papacy by holding:
- that the Bible is the sole source of religious authority
- that all baptized Christians are a general priesthood
- that salvation was attainable only by faith in Jesus as the Messiah
- that faith alone and unmediated by the church was the way to salvation
One of Luther’s primary incentives to act against the Catholic church was the church’s use of an “indulgence” as a tool of mediation. Indulgences emerged in the 11th and 12th centuries when the idea of purgatory took widespread hold and when the popes became the activist leaders of the reforming church.
In Roman Catholic theology, an “indulgence” is the remission of punishment because a sin already committed has been forgiven. The indulgence is granted by the church when the sinner confesses and receives absolution. When an indulgence is given, the church is extending merit to a sinner from its Treasure House of Merit, an accumulation of merits it has collected based on the good deeds of the saints. These merits could be bought and sold.
Luther objected to a saying attributed to Johann Tetzel that “as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” Luther insisted that forgiveness was God’s alone to grant, and those who claimed that indulgences absolved buyers from all punishments and granted them salvation were in error.
Luther not only had interpretative disagreements with the Catholic church but also believed that the Bible should be translated into the German language so that all the people of the Holy Roman Empire’s German territory could have access to its teachings.
Luther’s translation of the Bible into the German language is known as the “Luther Bible.” His translation made it more accessible to ordinary people and had a tremendous impact on the church and on German culture. The translation also furthered the development of a standard version of the German language and added several principles to the art of translation.
The Luther Bible by reason of its widespread circulation facilitated the emergence of the modern German language by standardizing it for the peoples of the Holy Roman Empire, an empire embodying most of present day Germany. It is considered a landmark in German literature.
His hymns inspired the development of congregational singing within Christianity. His marriage to Katharina von Bora set a model for the practice of clerical marriage within Protestantism whereas the Catholic church from which he broke forbade marriage.
But just as men and women are seen as heroes and heroines, they also have their flaws. Luther’s main flaw was his attitude toward and treatment of Jews. As a Christian pastor and theologian, Luther was concerned that people have faith in Jesus as the messiah for salvation. In rejecting that view of Jesus, the Jews became a model of the opposition to the Christian view of God.
Initially, he advocated kindness toward the Jews, but only with the aim of converting them to Christianity. When his efforts at conversion failed, he became increasingly bitter toward them. Luther successfully campaigned against the Jews in Saxony, Brandenburg, and Silesia.
Luther’s work acquired the status of Scripture within Germany, and he became the most widely read author of his generation, in part because of the coarse and passionate nature of the writing. The prevailing view among historians is that his anti-Jewish rhetoric contributed significantly to the development of antisemitism in Germany, and in the 1930s and 1940s provided an ideal foundation for the National Socialist‘s attacks on Jews.
I found the movie fascinating; however, it did not delve deeply into Luther’s views and treatment of German Jews. The movie takes the viewer up to and through his marriage to Katharina von Bora and no further. But that was enough to pique my interest and to lead me to research the man who became the leader of the Protestant Reformation.
But Luther was not the only troublemaker for the Roman Catholic church – a King of England, Henry the Eighth, was on his way to making history at about the same time. Although England had adhered to the Roman Catholic church for nearly a thousand years, King Henry’s disagreement with the Vatican over his request to annul his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon led to a break with Rome in 1534. Henry the Eighth established himself as the Supreme Head of the Church of England, thus ensuring his annulment and subsequent freedom to marry Anne Boleyn.
And that will be my next movie to watch – A Man for All Seasons. I saw the movie many, many years ago, but now I own it, and I am again intrigued by its tale.