The Lutheran Difference: Augsburg and Beyond

This entry is part 7 of 34 in the series The Lutheran Difference.

Martin Luther probably would have been fine with just teaching and preaching God’s Word, continuing to explain the Gospel as he understood it, but he couldn’t really rest. And the reason why is because trouble was brewing for the Holy Roman Empire. A threat was looming on the horizon, and it took the form of a man named Suleiman the Magnificent. Suleiman was a Muslim Sultan from modern-day Turkey, and you know he didn’t earn his nickname for being a slouch. If you’re curious about what he was all about, a YouTube channel I watch recently did a series on him that was quite illuminating. If you feel like it, go ahead and check it out. I’ll wait:

All caught up? Good.

As you can imagine, with a guy like Suleiman pounding on the doors of Vienna, Emperor Charles V was more than a bit freaked out. He knew he would need the full might of his Empire to stave off this threat, but there was a problem: the German princes and most of their forces had turned their backs on the one true church and gone in for this “Lutheran” business. How could Charles trust them on the battlefield if they didn’t share his faith? So in 1530, Charles called for another Diet, this time in the city of Augsburg, and demanded that the German princes come and explain themselves.

Although Luther may have wanted to attend to help explain their beliefs, he couldn’t. He was still an outlaw under the Edict of Worms. So Luther once again found himself hiding out in a castle, this time the Coburg. While he stayed there, the princes went with Luther’s right-hand man, Phillip Melanchthon, to make their case and explain their new faith. And to do so, they drafted a document called the Augsburg Confession. In it, the Lutheran princes outlined what it was they believed. First, they started with the beliefs that Lutherans and Catholics would have in common and then moved on to the more controversial topics. Their position was basically this: we’re willing to fight at your side. You can trust us. Just don’t take away our newfound understanding of the Gospel.

Charles was unimpressed. He had a cadre of Catholic scholars present a Confutation of the Augsburg Confession, which prompted Melanchthon to eventually produce the Apology for the Augsburg Confession (remembering that “apology” in this sense isn’t saying sorry for something but is, instead, defending yourself). But because of the pressing threat of Suleiman, Charles realized he couldn’t really make an issue of this. He had to let the German princes get away with their heresy for the greater good of the Empire.

This bought Luther a measure of peace in some ways, but the rest of his life was still filled with controversy, because other people had taken what he started and ran with it to extremes. Some of the German peasantry took some of Luther’s teachings about the freedom of Christians to mean that they should overthrow their lords and masters, creating something called the Peasants’ War. Others took their spiritual liberty too far, attacking Christian beliefs and doctrines that Luther held dear. Luther wound up in numerous debates with these individuals, defending the continued practice of infant baptism or the Lutheran understanding of holy communion (more on those two in future weeks).

But eventually, like all people, Luther eventually came to the end of his life. He died in 1547, his last words a confession of the faith he had proclaimed so boldly.

Now normally, we would move on from the man to the doctrines that Lutherans hold so dear. But before we do that, we have to air out some skeletons in Luther’s closet. One big one, as a matter of fact, something that has left a very dark blot on his legacy due to what happened four hundred years after he died. Bet you can’t guess what it is.

Come back next week to see if you’re right.

Author @JohnWOtte touches on the Augsburg Confession and the end of Martin Luther's life. Click To Tweet
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2 Comments:

  1. Yay, Extra Credits! Their Early Christian Schisms series was fascinating, too! In one of those videos they showed that the Germans were originally Arian before they were ever Catholic, and in the comments some people speculated that there was significance to the Reformation in the fact that even at that early date the Germans didn’t obey the religious authority of Byzantium/Rome.

    • Huh. That’s an interesting thought about Arianism, but I’m not convinced. For example, I mentioned Jan Huss (I think) in one of my previous posts. Huss had been a reformer who tried to do much that Luther did about a hundred years earlier, only Huss was burned at the stake at a supposedly neutral church council. When Luther started agitating, people called him a Hussite, and Luther freaked out because, so far as he knew, Huss was a blazing heretic (pun intended?). But when Luther finally was given a copy of Huss’s teachings, he was quoted as saying something along the lines of, “I guess we are Hussites after all!” In other words, Luther and his followers were very concerned about being orthodox and would bristle at the thought of being called heretics or the descendants of heretics.

      Now I do think that the Germans’ history with Rome did play a significant role in the Reformation. The Germans knew that the Romans were never able to really conquer the German barbarians and they took great pride in that historical fact. I think that they saw the Reformation as an extension of that history, of the Germans sticking it to the Romans once again. But I don’t think heretical theology played a role in that. But maybe so. I’d need to do more research on it.

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