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Early Reformation Notes

History Notes > Luther and the German Reformation Notes

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! University of Wittenberg
! Great magnates of German states have more independence from the Holy Roman


Luther was in eastern Germany
Saxony -- electoral part and ducal part
Central and eastern Europe -- generally elected monarchy
Elector of Saxony is based in Wittenberg

! Wittenberg becomes a very important centre of Lutheranism

~ Founded in 1502 -- very new university
~ Not many old universities at this time -- oldest are Cologne and Leipzig
~ New university that has suddenly appeared

~ Luther is not well respected

~ Theses should not be expected to have much of a hearing
! Getting new ideas taken up depends on context

~ e.g. Kant in 18th century -- Russian context


! Luther comes from artisan/peasant stock






~ Not a well--to--do background
Does not embrace humanist values of manners
~ Sees this as paganism
Melanchthon influences Luther => learns Greek
~ Prior to then he used the normal Vulgate
Burnt pagan books e.g. Aristotle
~ Luther disconnected Aristotle from the Church
~ Melanchthon's influence => Aristotle returns
Only wants to keep the Bible -- very radical

! Conversion experience was very important
! Began as a totally devout monk


~ Has an existential crisis
~ Is desperate to be saved -- thought this was a small group
~ Had to do good works

~ Still convinced that he is sinful

! 1514--5 begins lecturing at Wittenberg
! During the lecture series he has a sudden realisation that whatever we do we can never
reconcile ourselves with God because we are fallen people

~ Even is we do things consistent with God's will we are still sinning -- we are being


~ Can't work just for the love of God

~ Different from the Renaissance -- most negative view of human beings

anyone has ever had
! Way out in the atonement of Christ

~ Our insufficiency can be accounted for

~ Have to have faith in the atoning powers of Christ
! Yet not everyone is saved -- have to accept it and hope

~ Faith is a gift given by God


! Reads Paul's Epistle to the Romans -- basis for sola fide

~ Jews could not fulfil laws

~ Christ offers human beings a way out -- releases them from the need to obey
these rules

~ Everything the Church is demanding of us is wrong

~ The Church has distorted the Christian message


! Tetzel in Ducal Saxony -- infuriates Luther

~ Clearest example of what is wrong with the Church
~ Tetzel was a Dominican -- Luther was a Augustinian

~ Hates him anyway => not unusual to be against him
! Different orders try to promote ideas at the expense of others
! Tetzel competes with the Elector of Saxony

~ Relics in Wittenberg -- Frederick collected them

~ The economy of Wittenberg is greatly dependent upon pilgrims -- Tetzel threatens


~ Luther is backed by the Elector -- common enemy


! Luther obtains the support of significant lay and religious figures

~ Sees him as just in attacking certain aspects of Catholicism e.g. Erasmus
From the beginning he works within an important context


The Reaction to Luther's Theology

The situation by 1521
! Luther has made his theology clear
! Brought his ideas together in Loci Communes (1521) -- written by Philip Melanchthon,
Luther's close supporter in Wittenberg

~ Sola scriptura

~ Sola fide

~ Rejection of the sacraments except the Eucharist and baptism

~ Rejection of transubstantiation


! 1520 -- Leo X condemned 41 of the 95 theses as heretical





~ Formalised in a Papal Bull -- Luther was openly defiant by putting it on a bonfire
1521 -- Luther was summoned to the Diet of Worms
~ Headed by Charles V -- Charles is only 21 and is inexperienced
~ Luther has protection -- Charles V guarantees him safe conduct
Decides to stick with his theology at the Diet => condemned as a heretic and an outlaw
Elector Frederick stages a kidnap of Luther => Wartburg Castle
~ Kept at the castle for a year to allow the issue to die down => becomes very
depressed and spends the time translating the Bible from Latin to German
A. G. Dickens -- 'The mass sale of the vernacular scriptures proved the most irrevocable
act of the Reformation'
At the time of this Bible's production, Cardinal Aleander said that 90% of Germany
supported Luther -- exaggeration but shows that he is gaining support


The German Reformation -- R. W. Scribner and C. Scott Dixon
(Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003)
pp. 1--88

Some Reformation Myths
! Teleological viewpoint -- Luther's ideals mean that the Reformation is is in existence =>
merely need to get people 'won over to it' (Bernd Moeller)

~ Popular support for the 'Reformation' -- yet it was a long term thing
! Search for beginnings of 'modernisation'
! Term 'Reformation' did not appear until the 17th century
! Latin word reformatio -- 3 uses

~ New legal code

~ Restructuring of a university study curriculum (used by Luther)

~ Religious -- internal reform of the church
! Popular belief -- reformatio would occur with a decisive intervention of God

~ Would be announced by a holy man or prophet sent by God -- Luther
! Polycentric religious reform


Religion and Reform
! What was the 'state of religion' before Luther?

~ Profound religious malaise -- 15th century critical literature, low church
attendance and lack of education

~ Strong sense of devotion to the church and a powerful revival of piety at least 2

generations before -- mysticism, asceticism, lay piety e.g. Devotio moderna, lay

confraternities and new religious cults such as those of St Anne or the Rosary

~ Issue of rural areas -- less relevant

~ Problem was not too little religion but too much -- spiritual burden

~ Luther

~ Hardly Christian at all -- low levels of practice and poor understanding of the
fundamentals of Christian belief

~ Thin veneer over pagan beliefs
! Johan Huizinga (1924) -- late medieval religion had a decayed sensibility => religious was
a matter of sense impressions and emotions
! 'Inadequate' religion -- not true inward piety


! Yet should look at different experiences without too many value judgements -- Natalie
Davis, Euan Cameron and William A. Christian
! Beliefs

~ Providence -- natural world reliant on God

~ Saints etc. -- could pass on powers to places and things

~ Church tried to claim a monopoly and condemned 'superstition'

~ Primary role of preparing people for 'salvation' => sacraments

~ Blessings instead of magic

~ Sacramentals were more important than sacraments -- more common in day

to day use => blessings and exorcisms
! Issue of clergy charging for sacred services
! Increased 'professionalisation' of clergy

! Injustice of having those in the 'religious life' being saved -- not seen to behave well
! Private and group devotions


! Luther -- central perception that salvation had been achieved once and for all by Christ's






death => was therefore unconditional
~ Freedom to religious belief
Scepticism about transubstantiation
~ Influenced by nominalism -- late medieval philosophy which denied the reality of
universals, emphasised mysteriousness of God and placed great weight on the
powers of human reason
Oberman -- nominalism employed a rational skepticism about the power of magic
~ Destroyed belief in sacramentals and even in the sacraments
Max Weber -- the 'disenchantment of the world'
~ Removal of all intermediate causes between God and the laws of nature
Luther and many of his followers still continued to believe in the Devil, demons and
angels, ghosts etc.

! Imminence of the Last Days or the 'great change'
! Shared popular belief in the Antichrist
! Paradox that God was so absolute that sacraments were useless and blasphemous yet
the Devil still seemed to have power of the world and magic still appeared possible
! Limited impact of Reformation ideas, especially in the countryside -- could be due to
magical perceptions of the world
! Luther was not the only such thinker -- Lutheranism can be said to have been very limited
in impact


The Reformation as an Evangelical Movement
! Religious enthusiasm -- Germany in early 1520s

~ Biblical revival

~ Religious revival -- work of the Holy Spirit
Drew on anticlericalism -- priests as 'enemies of the

~ Each Christian was free to find salvation
! Early capitalism and social conflict -- Bible was used as an ethical standard

~ Clergy caused social grievances -- economic privileges
Evangelical -- attack on state of church and society, new way to salvation and how to
improve life in this world
! Idealised image of the lay Christian -- the 'common man'

~ Karsthans, the 'evangelical peasant' -- no female ideals


! Speed -- work of God => printing



~ New reading public
Yet literacy was very low in 16th century Germany -- only 4--5%
~ No more than 400k in total population of ~ 16 million
1517--20 -- 300k copies of Luther's writings were published => every reader could own at
least one copy
Oral communication -- preaching revival even before Luther => lay--funded
Many from Franciscans and augustinians -- strong traditions of popular vernacular

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