When a little baby named Martin Luther was baptized in Eisleben, Saxony, on November 11, 1483, he became a member of an outward church structure that was deeply troubled and deeply in need of reformation. The medieval institution of the papacy had served as a focal point of ecclesiastical unity for the western church. But from 1378 to 1417, there were two and sometimes three competing claimants to the papal throne. This chaos was not settled until the Council of Constance when a new single pope was elected. But these years of schism had diminished the prestige of the papacy in the eyes of many. And while the various kings and bishops of Europe had been squabbling with each other over these papal pretensions and divisions, the deeper needs of the church went largely unmet. Bishops had become feudal lords, and many if not most of them were more concerned with material riches than souls. Few of them could preach. Many parish priests could barely read. Sexual immorality among the clergy of all ranks was rampant.
Copies of the original Hebrew and Greek Scriptures were extremely rare. For almost everyone, if the Bible was accessible at all, it was accessible only by means of the Latin Vulgate translation, which in some key places did not accurately convey the genuine meaning of the original. For example, where the Greek says that “the righteousness of God” is revealed in the Gospel (Romans 1:17), the Latin Vulgate says that “the justice of God” is revealed in the Gospel. That rendering would tend to elicit a fear of divine judgment rather than instilling the peace of divine forgiveness as the message of the Gospel is supposed to do. Many of the monasteries had become corrupt and lax, filled with gluttony and lechery. Some monasteries did seek to be more dutifully “observant” of their monastic discipline, but what this meant is that they had a renewed commitment to works righteousness and asceticism. Neither variety of monasticism was known for promoting a proper understanding of Christian vocation or the proper distinction between Law and Gospel.
The “Renaissance Humanist” movement, which was trying to bring about advances in education, was largely interested in the writings of the pre-Christian pagan philosophers and paid little attention to the need for more and better theological education in the church. Those relatively few church leaders who had been educated in the universities had been trained in scholasticism, which mingled much philosophy and rationalism into Christian theology. The doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation were faithfully preserved. But the doctrine of salvation was seriously distorted by the medieval penitential system, which emphasized works, merits, and satisfactions, and which muted the unconditional voice of God’s absolution in Christ for those who repent of their sins. Some “mystical” groups were trying to promote a deeper piety among Christians, but their impact was very limited. Those who advocated for more far-reaching changes were often executed for heresy. Among these were Girolamo Savonarola in 1498 and Jan Hus in 1415.
To be sure, the Christian church had not disappeared from the earth. Here and there, the promises of the true Gospel could still be heard even in the midst of much human error. Here and there, proper pastoral care was exercised even in the midst of much abuse. But on November 11, 1483–the day when little Martin was baptized–the church of western Europe was in desperate need of a reformation and of a reformer. And God, in his loving providence, gave the church the reformer it needed at that baptismal font in Eisleben.
Reverend David Jay Webber
Redeemer Lutheran Church
* Member, ELS Doctrine Committee