What exactly is “revolutionary”?

Politically, it is a momentous event that within a short space of time overthrows an established order. Put crudely, it is a major upheaval which usually has important short and long term impacts.

On first examination it would appear that Lutheranism fits this description perfectly. The established order (the Catholic Church) was removed in England, Scotland, Sweden, and northern Germany by a movement called “Protestantism” which started, though not deliberately, with Luther in 1517. The upheaval was so great that many military conflicts took place post-1517 and the religious break down in western Europe was one of the main causes of the Thirty Years War. Also what occurred took place in a relatively short space of time. The 95 Theses was written in 1517 and by 1521 Luther had developed these ideas and burned the Book of Canon Law and the Papal Bull Exsurge Dominie. Four years in the C20 would be considered relatively quick for the weakening of a mighty established order. The end of the Eastern Bloc did not happen overnight. In the C16 such an occurrence was all but unheard of.

However, on closer analysis, arguments against this approach can be forwarded.

Was Luther trying to return the Catholic Church back to its original purity by claiming that salvation could only be achieved through your own goodness and by being truly repentant for your sins?

Where in the Bible, on which Luther placed supreme trust, does it refer to a man leading the church living in magnificent splendour, wearing fine clothes etc? Luther may well have argued that it was the Catholic Church that had been revolutionary as it had moved so drastically away from the teachings of Christ and that he was being reactionary (trying to ‘turn the clock back’) by trying to re-find the purity of Christ as stated in the Bible. Luther’s claim that if it was not in the Bible you did not do it, was in direct contradiction to the belief that only the Catholic Church could control your destiny and salvation.

Another issue to examine is the 95 Theses. This was not the work of a revolutionary. It was written for a small group of academics to discuss possibly after work at Wittenburg University or during a seminar/discussion group. All these men would have been catholic and as it was written in Latin it could not have been understood by anyone other than an academic. The 95 Theses in its original state was simply a discussion document for academics – that was all. It was not directed towards those who would be needed if you were targeting over turning the system; the general public. How many revolutions have been won by a handful of academics? If the system is to be over thrown, you need numbers on your side. Quite clearly, Luther’s approach did not have this initially. One must doubt whether the document was ever intended to leave the confines of Wittenburg University. From the Catholic Church’s point of view it clearly was revolutionary (once thoroughly examined) as it undermined all that the church stood for then and especially would have seriously hampered their finances.

If Luther was revolutionary, why did it receive the support of so many north German princes who would have had a vested stake in keeping society stable ? There was no guarantee that Lutheranism, once it had spread, would keep society intact. In fact, during the revolt of 1525, Luther made plain his views on the place of the peasants in society: “This article (the 12 Articles of the Swabians) would make all men equal… and that is impossible.” This is hardly the writing of a revolutionary and Luther’s approach to the peasants drew him nearer to those who represented the status quo – the princes and state leaders.

Luther also commented that slaves can be Christian and he did not condemn slavery within society.

To the Catholic Church, Lutheranism was dangerous and revolutionary. To Luther the Church was dangerous as it had conned innocent people for years that they could buy their way into heaven when Luther clearly thought that they could not. Therefore you could maintain a certain lifestyle, buy an indulgence and believe that that was all that was required to get to heaven and then continue leading that lifestyle. Your own naiveté in the honesty of the Church would condemn you to Hell and you would never know any difference.

Was money the source of the Church’s move away from the purity of the Bible? If so, Luther’s stance on this issue is clear and it would have been viewed as revolutionary by the Catholic Church.

Finally, if Luther was deemed to be revolutionary, why was he only banned from the Empire after Worms? If he was so obviously a revolutionary, why was he not burned as a heretic?