Martin Luther (1483-1546) founded the Protestant faith in 1517. It started when he nailed his “Ninety-five Theses” on the door of a church in Germany, protesting the corruption of the Catholic Church. This led to a hundred years of off-and-on religious wars that divided first Germany and then Europe in half. Protestants are now the second largest branch of Christianity.
Luther founded the first Protestant church, the Lutherans. His ideas were later developed by Zwingli and Calvin in Switzerland. It is their sort of Christianity that became common in the English-speaking world.
Luther was an Augustinian monk who felt he was not going to heaven. No matter how often he confessed his sins and did all the things a good Catholic should, he was not at peace. A friend of his told him to study Scripture. So he did and found his answer in Romans 1:17:
For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.”
We are not saved by our good works, but by faith, a faith which God gives us by his grace – his free and unmerited gift.
Yet at this very time the Church was selling indulgences to lessen the punishments of purgatory in the afterlife. Not only had the practice become corrupt, it was completely against Luther’s new understanding of the faith.
So to protest against indulgences he nailed to a church door his list of 95 reasons why they and the Church were wrong.
In the following years Luther went further. He taught two things that became the root of all Protestant thinking:
- Sola fide: “faith alone” is all that you need to be saved. You do not get to heaven by good works, you get there by faith in Christ.
- Sola scriptura: “scripture alone” is all you need to reach the truth. You do not need popes or bishops to tell you what to think.
Luther was declared a heretic and brought to Worms before the emperor, his princes and a representative of the pope. They tried to get him to back off. He refused. So they condemned him.
Luther’s friends got him into hiding at the castle of Wartburg. There he translated the Bible into German.
Luther translated all the books of the Bible, but he said that some books were not sacred: they were good to read, but should not be used to argue doctrine. These became the books of the Apocrypha:
- Old Testament: Maccabees, Baruch, Wisdom, Tobit, Judith, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus)
- New Testament: James, Jude, Hebrews, Revelation
As it happens, Maccabees and James supported Catholic ideas of purgatory and good works.
Melanchthon, who came after Luther, restored the New Testament but kept Luther’s Apocrypha for the Old Testament.
Luther’s ideas divided Germany. It led to years of war with neither side able to win outright. Nine years after Luther’s death it was agreed that each German prince could choose the religion of his own subjects.