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A Treatise on Christian Liberty is one of Martin Luther's major reforming treatises of 1520. It developed the concept that as fully forgiven children of God, Christians are no longer compelled to keep God's law; however, they freely and willingly serve God and their neighbors. Luther also further develops the concept of justification by faith. In the treatise, Luther stated, "A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all."
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During the latter part of the Middle Ages, the desire for reform of the Church was constant. It was strongest and most apparent among laymen, for a famous monastic writer of the fourteenth century testified that the laity led better lives than the clergy. To the bulk of ordinary Christians reform meant morality in the priesthood. It became intolerable to them to see the Sacrament administered habitually by sacrilegious hands, or to let their daughters go to confession to an unclean priest. The discontent was deepest where men were best. They felt that the organisation provided for the salvation of souls was serving for their destruction, and that the more people sought the means of grace in the manner provided, the greater risk they incurred of imbibing corruption. In the days when celibacy was imposed under Gregory VII, it was argued that the validity of orders depended on conduct; and that idea of forfeiture by sin, essentially fatal to the whole hierarchical system, was not yet extinct. People learnt to think of virtue apart from the institutions of the Church, and the way was paved for a change which should reduce the part of the clergy in men's lives, and give them families of their own. The hope that a stricter discipline would be enforced by authority from within died away. When Eugenius IV. directed Cesarini to dissolve the Council of Bâle, the Cardinal replied that if he obeyed they would be thought to be mocking God and men, and to have abandoned the notion of reform, and the laity would have some reason to believe that it was a good deed to destroy, or at least to plunder, the clergy.
The religious influence of the Church was brought low by its record of failure. The scheme for governing the world by the hierarchy, pursued for three centuries, had terminated in disaster. For a whole generation no man knew whether the Papacy was in Italy or in France. The attempt to effect improvement through the Councils had been abandoned after many experiments, and the failure to reconcile the Greeks had established the Ottoman Empire in Europe. With the decline of the Church the State rose in power and prerogative, and exercised rights which for centuries had been claimed by the hierarchy. All this did not suggest Lutheranism to Luther, but it prepared the world for it.
Amidst the abuses and excesses of that epoch of lax discipline and indistinct theology, the point of breaking was supplied by a practice of very recent growth. Indulgences had long existed, and after a time they were applied to souls in purgatory. When, at last, plenary indulgences, that is, total remissions of penalty, were transferred to the dead, it meant that they were straightway released from purgatory and received into heaven. Five churches in Rome enjoyed the privilege that a soul was released as often as mass was said at one of the altars, technically known as privileged altars, or as often as certain prayers were said by persons visiting them. There were privileged altars at St. Peter's, at St Prassede, at Santa Pudentiana, at the Scala Santa. At one, five masses were required; at another, thirty. In the crypt of St. Sebastian one visit was enough. A particular prayer repeated during forty days remitted one-seventh of the punishment, and on the fortieth day the dead man would appear to his benefactor, to thank him. All the benefits available to a pilgrim visiting Rome could be enjoyed at a distance by the purchase of an indulgence from the friars sent round to sell them. Such an indulgence, published by Julius II. for the construction of St. Peter's, was revived by Leo X. in 1517, half the proceeds to go to the Archbishop of Mintz, that he might pay back a loan to Fugger of Augsburg. The banker's agent went round with the appointed preacher and kept the strong box. Tetzel, a Dominican, preached the indulgence in Saxony, though not in the territory of the elector, and he employed to the utmost the arguments authorised by the custom of the day. Speaking of him and of his colleagues, Benedict XIV. said that they were the cause of all the trouble that followed.
Many people thought the indulgences, as then practised, a mischief, because people took them as equivalent to absolution; and the general of the Augustinians spoke of them as an encouragement to sin. But the extreme point was the theory that payment of a few pence would rescue a soul from purgatory. Therefore, when Luther raised a protest against such propositions, he said no more than what many other people were saying, and less than some. And he had no idea that he was not speaking in thorough harmony with the entire Church, or that the ground he occupied was new. The Dominicans stood by Tetzel and made his cause their own. They were able to say of him that he had only uttered current doctrine, though it had not the sanction of former ages. Three hundred of them were present when he received a degree at Frankfort on the Oder, and the Dominicans at Rome defended even the most extreme and grotesque of the sayings attributed to him.
Leo committed the whole business to Silvester Prierias, Master of the Sacred Palace and official theologian of the Holy See. Prierias was not a reputable defender of any religious cause. In one of his books he advises a judge that he may obtain a confession by a promise of mercy, meaning mercy to the community, and charges the notary to put down in what sense the words were spoken. Accordingly he made the worst possible defence. St. Thomas, discussing indulgences as they were in his time, urges that they may be accepted as they are given by authority. Prierias, an ardent Thornist, regards this as a valid argument for the practices that were now contested. The problem of right is settled by the evidence of fact. The questors, as they were called, acted as legitimate agents of the Holy See. To deny what authority tacitly approves, is to deny authority; and to appeal from the Pope to the Bible, is to appeal from a higher authority to a lower. This was to ignore the difficulty and to make reforms impossible. The reason for this compendious evasion was that Leo, prior to his election, had taken an oath to revoke the indulgence of Julius II., and to supply otherwise the money required for St. Peter's. The capitulation was in March 1513. The breach of the capitulation, in March 1515. It was not desirable to raise a controversy as to the broken oath, or to let Luther appear as the supporter of the cardinals against the Pope, or of the Pope expecting the tiara against the Pope in possession of it. The effect was to deprive Luther of the hope that he was at issue with a too eager subordinate in Saxony, and to transfer his attack to Rome. It was now officially declared that whatever is is right, and that no improvement or reform is wanted in high places.
A graver personage came upon the scene when it was agreed that Luther should appear before the Legate at Augsburg. Cardinal Cajetan was the weightiest divine of the Court of Rome, and a man of original mind, who was denounced in his order as a dangerous innovator, and whose writings could not be reprinted without large omissions. He is commemorated, in political literature, among the advocates of tyrannicide. He was more dexterous than Prierias, although he also refused a revision of current practices. By putting forward a decree of Clement VI., he drove Luther to declare that no papal decree was a sufficient security for him. So that, having assailed authority in that which it tolerated or ignored, he assailed it now in that which it directly affirmed, and was no longer a mere intruder, proffering unwelcome advice, but a barbarian thundering at the gates of Rome. Cajetan dismissed him ungraciously; and having been warned that a Dominican cardinal might be perilous company in the circumstances, he went off secretly and made his way home. He was already a popular figure in Germany, and the Diet of Augsburg had complained that the drain caused by indulgences left no supplies for the Turkish war.
When Luther returned to Wittenberg he was aware that his ideas extended much farther than he had supposed. Since the refusal to listen to his remonstrance, he knew that he was involved in a conflict in which Rome would be against him. He knew also that many of his countrymen would be on his side. The same discovery was unexpectedly made by the next papal emissary, Miltitz, a Saxon layman, who was sent to convey the Golden Rose to Luther's patron, the elector Frederic. It was well understood at Rome that Cajetan, in pushing Luther one step beyond his original Thesis, by transferring the question from the discretion of Tetzel to the authority under which he acted, had mismanaged the affair. Uncompromising rigour having failed, the opposite treatment was now applied. Miltitz, finding the majority of Germans favourable to Luther, deposited the Golden Rose at Nuremberg, and came into his own country with a resolution to be conciliatory. The friends whom he saw on his way informed Luther, and urged him to meet his countryman in the same spirit. Miltitz saw Tetzel and silenced him; and the inauspicious preacher did not long survive his disgrace. Having given this proof that he entertained no adverse prejudice, that on the immediate problem they were in sympathy, Miltitz had a conference with Luther at Altenburg.
Luther followed the advice of his friends at Nuremberg. The specific evil he had denounced was now admitted by the authorised representative of the Holy See. He obtained, through him, a reassuring glimpse of Roman opinion, and the certainty that there were men on the spot, unlike Prierias and Cajetan, whose convictions in regard to unreformed abuses were as clear as his own, and whose opportunities were better. They came to an understanding. Luther was to publish an explanation and then the subject was to drop. It did not mean that he was approved; but dubious points were not pressed, for the sake of those on which the force of his case was felt. He wrote to a friend that he would suppress much rather than offend, and the whole thing would die out of itself. The contrast between Miltitz and Cajetan was such that he had reason to be satisfied. Miltitz also considered that he had done well, and had extinguished a conflagration that might have become serious. He advised the Elector not to send the Wittenberg professor out of the country. More eager spirits were impatient of so tame a conclusion; for there were some to whom plenary indulgences for the living or the dead were a drop of water in an ocean of controversy, whilst others thought that authority had been outraged on one side and surrendered on the other. Before the dispute was reopened Luther wrote a letter to Leo X., saying the ecclesiastical authority must be upheld to the utmost. This saying, of little account in his theology, is significant in his entire system of thought. What he meant was that the papal supremacy in the government of the Church had endured so long that the divine sanction was upon it. He did not trace it much farther back than the twelfth century. But that, he considered, constituted a legitimate claim.
Luther, who was a profound conservative and a reluctant innovator, and who felt the fascination that belongs to lapse of time, employed in behalf of the Papacy an argument by which Dante had defended the Empire. Machiavelli derived right from success, and Luther from duration. In reality he held both doctrines, for he thought Zwingli's death in battle an evident judgment on his low sacramental theory. Promoted at the same time by the two most powerful writers in the world, the idea that heaven is responsible for results acquired immense prestige, and long influenced European thinking. The argument by which he justified the Papacy amounted, in fact, to a negation of its claim to divine institution; and at the time when he produced it, early in 1519, he had come to reject not only the excesses of Tetzel, but the entire scheme of indulgences. Although he held to the Papacy only by an ingenious sophism, beyond the Pope there was the Council; and he might still deem himself a Catholic after the manner of Gerson and the Gallican divines of Constance, who depreciated Rome. That was possible, if nothing in the sequence of his views came into collision with any decree of a General Council.
This was now the question of the day, the question for the summer of 1519. The man who brought it to an issue was John Eck, a theologian of Ingolstadt University, who came to Leipzig to dispute with Luther's colleague Carlstadt, and ended by a disputation with Luther himself. He imagined that Luther did not perceive the consequences. Because he defied the Popes, it did not follow that he would defy the Councils, especially a Council held in Germany, under the protection of a German Emperor a Council zealous for reform and honoured by Germans, as their avenger on the national enemy John Hus. Luther had no special preference for an assembly which burnt an obnoxious professor of theology, and no great interest in reforms which he deemed external, and not making for inward change. He said that there were points on which Hus was right, and the sentence that condemned him wrong. He admitted, in the end, that Councils as well as Popes might be against him, and that the authority by which he stood was the divine revelation. That is how "the Bible, and the Bible only," became the religion of Protestants.
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