The Lutheran Difference: Historical Background

So last week, I introduced the latest series to grace my blog, namely a series about what it means to be a Lutheran Christian. What is it that we believe, teach, and confess? How do we differ from other Christians? I’m hoping this will be an interesting and enlightening experience for everyone.

But before we can delve into the theology, we have to talk about the man. This guy:

martin luther


Lutherans are one of the only Christian denominations that willingly name themselves after an individual. As a matter of fact, I couldn’t think of any others off the top of my head. (EDIT: A few of my friends have pointed out that this isn’t true. There are more than one church body that name themselves after an individual, one of whom I should have thought of on my own). So if we’re going to understand Lutherans, we have to understand the guy we’re named after.

Quick aside, though: while Lutherans may call ourselves that, this wasn’t something that Martin himself wanted. He’s famously on-record as saying this:

I ask that men make no reference to my name and call themselves, not Lutherans but Christians.  What is Luther?  After all, the doctrine is not mine, nor have I been crucified for anyone.  St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 3 would not allow Christians to call themselves Pauline or Petrine, but Christian.  How, then should I, a poor evil-smelling maggot sack have men give to the children of Christ my worthless name?  Not so, dear friends.  Let us cast out party names and be called Christians after Him whose doctrine we have.

Marty always did have a way with words, didn’t he?

As I was saying, understanding Lutherans starts with understanding Luther. And to truly understand Luther, we have to understand the world he lived in, especially the theological climate that produced him. So we need to talk about what the Roman Catholic church was teaching at the time.

Now by talking about this, I’m not trying to describe what’s currently being taught by the Roman Catholics. Nor am I trying to say that this is what any individual Catholic believes either. But this is how the theological climate was explained to me when I was in the seminary. By understanding this historic teaching, it helps us understand who Luther is and why he did what he did. And to help us understand this better, I’m going to break out some state-of-the-art teaching aids, namely poorly created MS-Paint graphics.

At the time of Luther, the Roman Catholic church taught what might be described as a two-path system. If we’re going to draw it out, it’d look something like this:

RCC Teaching 1

That blue path is the path that leads to heaven. The red path leads to…well, the other place.

At the time, Catholics taught that every person was born on the red path, destined for hell and damnation. Baptism changed that by moving a person from the path to hell to the path that led to heaven. Sort of like this:

RCC Teaching 2

But notice where our hypothetical new Christian is. They’re at the bottom of the path. The rest of the journey to heaven is up to him. By performing the right kind of holy deeds, he can move up that path until he makes it to heaven. Going to mass, doing penance, going on pilgrimages, all of it helped him inch closer and closer to his final goal. There were ways to move up that path faster. If you became a monk or a nun, you moved faster. If you became a priest, faster still.

RCC Teaching 3

The thing is, most Christians couldn’t make that journey in their lifetimes. If this person died before accumulating enough good works, he or she wasn’t completely out of luck. The newly deceased would be sent to purgatory, where they could “make up” the missing difference. Once they’re done there, they’re able to go to heaven.

RCC Teaching 4

This isn’t a complete picture of everything that Catholics taught all the time, and I’ve perhaps glossed over some of the subtleties, but this is a good general explanation.

And this is the theological atmosphere that produced Martin Luther. More specifically, this is the belief system that he emerged from. But we’ll talk about how and why next week.

Author @JohnWOtte reviews the historical background that led to Martin Luther's Reformation. Click To Tweet

One Comment:

  1. Great start to the series! A little historical background is always a good idea.

Leave a Reply