Opening the Door to Luther: Martin Luther and
the Protestant Reformation
September, 2000, Rick Steves spent a week in
eastern Germany with a Lutheran video
production team making a new "Martin
Luther and the Reformation" teaching
video. This video was sent to all 11,000 ELCA
Lutheran churches for use in adult education
and new member classes. Here's the script:
POV: camera rushing through vineyard, pope's
"There's a wild boar in the
[Title page – Opening the Door to Luther:
Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation]
wild boar. This is how the pope, in 1520,
described Martin Luther. Luther was a German
monk who questioned the Church's practice of
I'm Rick Steves and today, we're travel
partners. The goal of our trip: to get to know
Martin Luther. We'll see how one monk sparked
the Reformation, which created the Protestant
movement and, eventually, the Lutheran Church.
Luther's time, Germany – which is about the
size of Montana – was a confusing collection
of over 300 little feudal states.
travel from Eisleben where Luther was born to
the university town of Wittenberg where he
taught and preached. After a pilgrimage south
to the Vatican in Rome, we'll follow the
tumultuous events of the Reformation at Worms,
Erfurt, Eisenach, Marburg and Augsburg.
Martin Luther was born, nearly all of Western
Europe looked to Rome as the head of the
Church. By Luther's death in 1546, Europe was
divided between Roman Christians and
protesting – or Protestant – Christians.
was born in medieval Europe but grew up in a
time of great change. Imagine medieval life.
Ninety percent of the people were poor,
illiterate peasants – ruled by kings, nobles
and bishops. Most children died before
adulthood. Thirty years was a long life.
Plague was a constant fear. People worked the
land, hoping only to survive the winter. Life
for most was a dreary preparation for heaven.
The Christian Church gave people hope for a
better life after death.
by Luther's time, the medieval Church –
administered from distant Rome – was losing
touch with people's needs. The Bible and
church services were in Latin, a dead language
spoken only by Europe's elite. Corrupt popes
and bishops, living in luxury while others
struggled, were tarnishing the Church's
worst of all, the Church hierarchy had become
entangled with politics. Popes waged war.
Bishops were princes. In much of Europe, there
was no real separation of church and state.
Sins were crimes, and tithes were collected
like taxes. Bishops were treated like royalty.
When one entered the room, you knelt and
kissed his ring.
Western Europe, the only acceptable way to be
Christian was as part of the Roman Catholic
Church – and that Church had begun paying
its bills by selling forgiveness.
one turbulent generation, the Reformation
changed all that. And Martin Luther – known
as the father of Protestantism – is counted
right up there with Gutenberg and Newton –
as one of the most influential people of the
changes were percolating around 1500: Columbus
sailed to America. Gutenberg's printing press
made books affordable.
Europe's class of 1500. Along with Martin
Luther, young Michelangelo was chipping his
early masterpieces, Macchiavelli studied
modern politics, and Copernicus was putting
the earth in it's place.
conservative Church – which defended the
notion that the world was flat and the center
of the universe – found itself at odds with
these new ideas. Magellan sailed around the
world. Renaissance thinkers embraced science.
And humanists saw life as more than just a
preparation for what happens after you die.
With all this, the Church's ability to control
the thinking of Europe took a big hit. The
Church couldn't stop these revolutionary ideas
or keep the printing press from churning them
Luther was born in this house here in Eisleben,
south of Berlin. His father was in the copper
here in Eisanach, young Luther developed his
appetite for learning, music, and the Bible.
was a hard-working guy, smart enough to get
into law school. His friends nicknamed him
"the philosopher." They also called
him things like the "king of hops"
for his love of beer.
Martin never became a lawyer. He had an
obsession which came first – finding
deliverance from an angry God. According to a
popular story, in 1505, returning to school
after a trip home, he was thrown from his
horse during a thunderstorm. Terrified, he
promised St. Anne – the patron saint of
miners and his family – that he'd become a
year old Martin checked into this Augustinian
monastery – famous for discipline and
scholarship – in Erfurt. As a monk, Luther
sought God's love with all his heart and soul
and mind. Ignoring his worldly needs, he did
everything he could to earn worthiness in
God's eyes. He'd spend up to six hours in the
confession booth – and still, he found no
learned Greek and Hebrew in order to read the
most ancient manuscripts of the Bible. By age
23 he was ordained a priest, said his first
Mass in this church, and was on the fast track
to become a professor of theology.
1510 Brother Martin was sent to Rome. He hiked
there... about 700 miles, through a severe
winter. He was enthusiastic about his trip to
the Vatican. When he first saw the city, he
dropped to his knees and said "Hail, holy
city of Rome!"
– so rich in relics – was a holy
supermarket of merits for pilgrims interested
in getting to heaven without a detour through
Christians believed they would go to heaven
only if they did more good than evil. And most
figured they'd fall short. So when they died,
God would need to purge them of their excess
sin. They called this process purgatory and
thought of it as thousands of years of misery.
To reduce time in purgatory, many tried to
pile up good works in this lifetime by
venerating relics and doing penance.
Rome, Luther did his Church business. Then,
like any earnest pilgrim – he spent his free
time visiting relics.
visited the reconstructed steps of Pontius
Pilate's palace – supposedly the very steps
Jesus climbed on the day he was condemned. As
Roman Catholic pilgrims still do today, he
climbed the holy steps on his knees, saying
the Lord's Prayer on each step. The pilgrim's
reward for this climb: nine years less time in
purgatory for each step.
Luther wrote that, reaching the top, he stood
up and thought "Who knows if it's
home, Luther was sent here, to the remote
outpost of Wittenberg to teach in Prince
Frederick the Wise's new university.
cheerful and devout, inside Martin Luther was
in crisis – tormented by feelings of his own
unworthiness. Even as he blessed the bread for
Mass, he silently hated God for demanding a
moral standard no mortal could ever achieve.
He devoured the Bible looking for an answer
and found it in Paul's letter to the Romans.
it was. Luther realized the "good
news" is that God makes sinners righteous
through their faith in Jesus Christ. Rather
than earning salvation by fasting or doing
good works...it's a free gift to anyone who
believes. As this concept of unearned grace
took hold, Luther said, "I felt myself to
have been born again."
Luther studied, debated and taught his
thoughts developed. As he preached here and
throughout Saxony, his controversial ideas
spiced his sermons. The pews were packed.
People traveled to hear Luther's message.
"In our Latin Bible, 'repent' has come
to mean 'to do penance.' But in the original
Greek it means 'to change one's mind' – and
that is what Jesus meant. Jesus didn't ask for
penance... works, deeds or rituals... he asks
for a simple change of heart. Salvation is not
earned by pilgrimages to Rome, veneration of
relics, or Masses attended. We need only Jesus
Christ. Jesus paid for our sins. Salvation is
a gift from God."
more Martin read the Bible, the more conflict
he found between salvation through faith and
the Church's salvation through rituals and
kept returning to Romans 3:28: "A man is
justified by faith"... for emphasis,
Martin added, "and faith alone."
as Luther struggled with these issues, the
pope kicked off a capital campaign to build a
grand new church in Rome.
thousand-year-ld St. Peters was condemned and
a glorious new church was planned. It would be
very expensive – and Germans would foot much
of the bill. To raise money, the papacy sold
church offices – one young prince bought a
bishopric for 10,000 ducats, based on 1000 per
commandment. And the Church sold indulgences.
were basically spiritual coupons relieving you
from penalties you owed because of your sins.
The Church got these merits from Jesus and the
saints whose virtuous lives earned a holy
warehouse of extra merits.
fund-raisers came out in full force. With a
fanfare of drummers and trumpeters, the super-salesmonk,
John Tetzel, came to Martin Luther's
neighborhood. He offered letters of indulgence
promising "full forgiveness for all sins
and absolution from all punishments."
These were fully-transferable and ideal for
bailing loved ones out of purgatory. Peasants
lined up to buy as Tetzel's men sang, "As
soon as the coin in the coffer rings, another
soul from purgatory springs."
countered, preaching "God's forgiveness
cannot be purchased like a sack of potatoes.
The pope needs more prayer than money."
a scholarly debate would lead to reform,
Luther posted his famous 95 theses here. This
is a copy of the original door. That date –
Oct 31, 1517 – marks the most important
religious event of the last thousand years. It
kicked off the Reformation, and October 31 is
still celebrated as Reformation day.
who had no thought of rebellion, began with a
"Out of love and zeal for truth and
the desire to bring it to light, the following
thesis will be publicly discussed at
ranged from giving alms to the scriptural
basis of purgatory. But for most, the key
issue was the sale of indulgences.
propositions – quickly printed and
circulated – were the talk of Germany. He
became famous almost overnight. People were
energized by Luther's ideas. The sale of
indulgences dropped dramatically. Tetzel had
to actually go into hiding from angry German
mobs who now sang "When the coin rings in
the pitcher, the pope becomes richer."
challenge was taken up. Nearby, at the
university of Leipzig, the famous scholar,
John Eck, debated Luther. Declaring himself
victorious, Eck headed for Rome and helped
write a papal bull – that's a decree issued
under the papal seal – threatening
excommunication. It gave Luther 60 days to
recant or be kicked out of the church.
"The Romans can overcome us only on the
grounds of reason and the Scriptures,"
Luther backed up his stand by publishing four
influential pamphlets. These struck much
deeper at church doctrine than his views on
the simple sale of indulgences.
argued that there were two church hierarchies:
a visible one based in Rome and a more
important spiritual one acknowledging only
called on local governments to legislate
reforms that the Roman Church refused to make.
rejected the idea that Christians must earn
salvation through good works.
he explained how a Christian is both lord of
all and servant of all.
war of words escalated. The pope ordered the
burning of Luther's books. Luther responded.
"If they damn my books, I'll burn the
entire canon law."
the pope's men burned Luther's books, Luther's
supporters burned books of Church laws. Really
heating things up, Luther tossed the papal
bull into the fire.
two most powerful people in Europe were the
pope and the Holy Roman Emperor. The pope was
furious. And the emperor – Charles V – was
a devout Catholic.
he was also the German king. The Holy Roman
Empire was a confederation of German states.
Since these states elected the emperor,
Charles' power required their continuing
support. He needed to deal with Luther.
further complicate things, the Turks were
threatening Europe from the east. Charles knew
he'd need German help to beat them. Knowing
Luther had powerful German friends, Charles
proceeded cautiously. He agreed to give Luther
a hearing and called him to the imperial diet
– that's like a congress – in the city of
Worms on the Rhine.
was thrilled with Martin Luther's challenge to
Rome. Traveling to Worms, he was greeted with
a hero's welcome at each stop. Pamphlets
showed him with a halo, accompanied by a dove
– symbol of the holy spirit.
one town, sixty horsemen escorted Luther to
the church – so filled with people eager to
hear him preach that the balcony groaned and
the showdown here at Worms: Papal
representatives, princes, Imperial troops –
all power-dressing... and Charles, sitting
high on his throne. In the center of the room:
Martin Luther stood beside a table stacked
with his trouble-causing books and pamphlets.
"Unless you can convince me by scripture
or by clear reasoning, I am bound by my
beliefs... I cannot and I will not recant. God
help me. Amen."
prosecutor, John Eck again, condemned Luther
as a heretic. Summing up his case, he asked,
"Who are you to go against 1,500 years of
left Worms an outlaw. Now "outside the
protection of the law," Luther could be
captured and killed by anyone. On his way
home, he was kidnapped.
thought Luther had been killed. The great
German painter Albrecht Durer wrote "O
God, if Luther is dead, who will teach us the
holy Gospel so clearly? All you pious
Christians, pray that God will send us another
Luther was alive, safely hidden in the
Wartburg Castle at Eisenach – courtesy of
Frederick the Wise.
1500, emerging nations were becoming bolder.
And many German princes – like Frederick –
saw the Roman Church as an obstacle to greater
power. After all: year after year local
fortunes went to Rome in the form of tithes.
The only people who could thumb their noses at
a prince's laws were pope-appointed Church
officials. And the biggest local landowner in
their realm was the Church.
often willed their land to monasteries and
convents in return for prayers to speed them
breaking with Rome could cause a war. While
Charles V – with the mighty Spanish army at
his disposal – wanted a German alliance
against the Turks, he was also ready to defend
the Church. The battle lines – if confused
– were drawn.
nearly a year, Luther hid out at Wartburg
was Luther's room. Restless, over-fed, and
lonely in the castle – he continued his
lifelong battle with Satan. It was here that
he employed his favorite weapon – the
that everyone should be able to read the word
of God, Luther began the huge task of
translating the New Testament from Greek to
told his colleagues, "Give us simple
words... not those of the court, for this book
should be famous for its simplicity."
protesting Christians read the new German
Bible and found no mention of indulgences,
purgatory, or even a pope, the fires of reform
Luther, disguised as a knight with a big
beard, left the castle and returned home.
Luther settled back into his monastery
dormitory, at Wittenburg – today called
was here that Luther wrote the Little
Catechism – used by centuries of Lutheran
parents to teach their children, and composed
many of his great hymns. With his inner
circle, he gave direction to the reformation.
This theological think tank was the birthplace
of the Lutheran church.
faculty colleague – the Greek scholar –
Philip Melancthon was the quintessential
emaciated intellectual. Melancthon became
Luther's lifelong ally and friend – and the
second most important figure in the Lutheran
Lutheran movement introduced two essential
changes: First, salvation is a gift from God
– we're saved by our faith – not by good
works or sacraments. Second, the Bible alone
is the word of God and the only source of
rejected five of the Roman Church's seven
sacraments – keeping only those actions
commanded by Jesus: Baptism and Communion.
helped make Christianity accessible. In his
"priesthood of all believers,"
whether a school teacher in front of a
blackboard or a farmer behind a plow, we're
all equally capable of understanding God's
word and can receive salvation without the
help of intermediaries.
taught that those who call themselves bishops,
popes, and priests are, in the scriptures,
called shepherds and servants...their task is
to care for the rest of us.
pastors were free to marry. There's nothing in
the Bible that says they can't. The former
monk Martin married a former nun, Katherine
and Katherine had six children and raised four
orphans. And Katie – who ran the huge and
busy Luther household – was a welcome
partner in Luther's circle.
"Marriage is a better school for the
character than any monastery for it's here
that your corners are rubbed off."
dining room table was a social and
intellectual jam session. It was where his
students, house guests and fellow reformers
gathered, drinking Katie's homebrewed beer and
eating the Luthers almost out of house and
home. They'd spend long hours discussing and
debating religious issues and applying their
faith concretely to everyday life. Luther's
followers hung on his every word. Over 6,000
entries – from silly to profound – were
collected by his students in an anthology
later called "Table Talk."
voice with soundbites in imaginary rowdy
dinner setting, laughter, clinking, etc mixed
in, with medieval table wear on rustic old
monks are the fleas on God Almighty's fur
lies there are about relics! How does it
happen that 18 apostles are buried in Germany
when Christ had only 12?"
would have died if I had been in the ark. It
was dark, three times the size of my house and
full of animals."
uses lust to impel men to marriage, ambition
to office, avarice to earning and fear to
from these notes we sort through Luther's
moral pluses and minuses. He was earthy and
certainly enjoyed his beer. He was intolerant
of Jews and everyone else who disagreed with
his theology. He was also vulnerable. When his
daughter died he was broken but found healing
in the scripture.
struggled with depression all his life. He
fought the devil during these times.
"Whenever the devil pesters you, at
once seek out the company of friends, drink
more, joke and jest, or engage in some form of
loved music which he figured the devil hated.
In perhaps his deepest depression he wrote one
of Christendom's greatest hymns, "A
Mighty Fortress." It declares that all
the power of the devil and all the evils of
the world cannot stand up to God.
opened a flood gate of reform. He trained an
entire generation of new pastors and church
leaders. Pastors led worship in German without
wearing the traditional robes. They purged
churches of relics and put a halt to the
lucrative enterprise of reciting Masses for
the dead. City councils kept charitable money
formerly sent to Rome for local needs.
by breaking Rome's hold on Christianity,
Luther opened a theological pandora's box.
Some new religious groups reformed way beyond
Luther's comfort zone: often tossing out all
remnants of traditional worship.
Roman Church warned that the Reformation would
bring a storm of conflicting interpretations
of the Bible. It did. And most protestant
leaders were not particularly open-minded. One
reformer wrote: "Individual
interpretation of the Bible allows each man to
carve his own path to hell."
Anabaptists – a group prominent in
Switzerland – believed in adult rather than
infant baptism and were strictly non-violent.
When Swiss authorities began executing
Anabaptists for their refusal to serve in the
local military, Luther supported the crackdown
because he was against civil disobedience.
1529 a group of states protesting the
emperor's attempt to force all of Europe to be
Roman Catholic, realized that to survive,
they'd need to hammer out a theological common
ground and make a political alliance. Now
called "Protestants," they met here
at Marburg castle – just north of Frankfurt.
meeting included Luther, the leading Swiss
reformer Ulrich Zwingli, and a number of other
reformers. They summarized their beliefs and
agreed on everything except one point: the
actual presence of Christ in the wine and
bread of Communion.
this issue, Luther – still listening only to
"logic backed by scripture" – was
inflexible. He said "God commands 'take,
eat, this IS my body.' This issue – how
Christ is present in the sacrament – still
divides many Christians today.
the results of Marburg, Luther wrote to Katie.
world away from all this theological debate,
the Turks were now actually threatening
Vienna. Emperor Charles V returned to Germany.
His mission: to settle these religious issues
once and for all and unite Europe against the
Turks. He reassembled the congress at
Protestant leaders drew up a list of ways they
differed with Rome. Luther – still
technically an outlaw – was sidelined for
his own safety at this castle in Coburg.
enthusiastically endorsed this document –
the Augsburg Confession – written and
presented by Melancthon. To this day, this
founding document defines the Lutheran church.
the Roman theologians and the Protestants were
unable to agree and the negotiations broke
off. This exasperated Luther and left him
believing the Roman Christians were hopeless.
It also left Charles without his German
German princes' break with Rome eventually led
to a hundred years of religious wars. Many
historians call this the first world war since
virtually every part of Europe was involved.
1648, with Europe dazed and a third of Germany
dead, a treaty was finally signed. The result:
not religious freedom. But now the leaders of
each country were free to decide if their
subjects would be Roman or Protestant
Christians. Much of Europe was divided between
a Catholic south and a Protestant north.
Augsburg, Luther returned to Wittenburg where
he preached, wrote, and taught. Productive
until his last days, he helped establish
public education for both boys and girls. He
was a valued arbitrator throughout the region.
And he enjoyed lots more table talk.
Luther died in 1546 in this house in Eisleben,
the town where he was born. The biggest
funeral procession in memory accompanied his
body to the castle church in Wittenberg where
he's buried. To this day pilgrims bring
most of the 500 years since the Reformation,
relations between Catholics and Protestants
have not been good. But in our lifetime, huge
strides have been made. Now, many of the
issues have been resolved, and Lutherans and
Catholics are working closer together as
children of God and followers of Jesus.
there are 350 million Protestant Christians.
And Christians around the world understand
what Martin Luther worked so hard to teach:
that we are saved by God's grace through
faith. And it's all in the Bible. Thanks for
joining us, I'm Rick Steves. God bless each of
you and... auf wiedersehen.