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Martin Luther

Break with the Church

As the break with Rome became inevitable, Luther broadened his position to include widespread reforms. In his Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation (1520) he supported the new nationalism by advocating German control of German ecclesiastical matters and appealed to the German princes to help effect the reformation in Germany. He attacked the claim of the papacy of authority over secular rulers and denied that the pope was the final interpreter of Scripture, enunciating the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. He assailed the corruption of the church and attacked usury and commercialism, recommending a return to a primitive agrarian society.

Catholic theologians were further aroused with the publication of The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, in which Luther, in an uncompromising attack on the papacy, denied the authority of the priesthood to mediate between the individual and God and rejected the sacraments except as aids to faith. He followed this work with a tract entitled The Freedom of a Christian Man. in which he reiterated his doctrine of justification by faith alone and presented a new ideal of piety—that of the Christian man, free in conscience by virtue of faith and charged with the duty of conducting himself properly in a Christian brotherhood.

By the time the papal bull Exsurge Domine, condemning his views and threatening excommunication, reached Germany, Luther's position was well understood and widely supported. In a dramatic renunciation of papal authority, Luther held a public burning of the bull and of the canon law. In 1521 formal excommunication was pronounced. In the same year Luther was given a safe-conduct and was summoned before the Diet of Worms (see Worms, Diet of). The opinions at the diet were divided, but when an edict of the diet called for Luther's seizure, his friends placed him for safekeeping in the Wartburg, the castle of Elector Frederick III of Saxony. There Luther translated the New Testament into German and began the translation of the entire Bible, a work not completed until 10 years later.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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