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Part V - The Reformation: Lesson No. 30 - The Triumph of Lutheranism

The years 1529-55 were marked by maneuverings on the part of Catholics to force Protestants back into the fold and maneuverings on the part of Protestants to resist such efforts and establish for themselves a permanent and protected place in the religious scene. Though both sides experienced gains and losses, this quarter-of-a-century struggle would eventually end in the triumph of Lutheranism.

When the German Reichstag in 1529 ordered a halt to further Lutheran advances and a restoration of Catholic privileges and authority, the Lutheran minority issued a formal protest, and hence became known as the "Protestant" party. In the midst of mounting hostility against the Lutheran cause, Philip of Hesse sought to form a defensive league of German and Swiss Protestant forces. To this end he persuaded Luther and Zwingli to meet in his castle in Marburg in an effort to resolve their differences, or at least put the best possible face on them. Full union and recognition proved impossible, primarily because of Luther's insistence that Christ's physical presence was in the Lord's Supper.

With other matters out of the way, Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, turned his attention to a termination of the Protestant movement. He called a Reichstag in 1530 and invited the Protestants to come and make a statement of their beliefs and offer their criticisms of Catholic practices This they did in what became known as the Augsburg Confession. This document was primarily the work of mild-mannered, conciliatory Philip Melanchthon, Luther's lieutenant. Melanchthon was moved not only by conciliation but also by a desire to demonstrate that Lutherans had not departed from Catholic belief and practice in any essential respect. Ancient heresies, as well as Zwinglian and Anabaptist positions, were repudiated in the Augsburg Confession. The sole authority of the Scriptures and the universal priesthood of believers were not asserted. The papacy was not condemned. Yet, justification by faith was commended, and invocation of saints, the mass, denial of the cup to the laity, monastic vows, and prescribed fasting were rejected. Despite the relative mildness of the Augsburg Confession, it proved to be unacceptable to Catholic theologians. The Catholic-controlled Reichstag gave the Lutherans until April 15, 1531 to conform and recommended that a general council be held to correct abuses in the Church.

The situation looked grim for the Protestant cause, but Charles V had great difficulty enforcing the decision of the Reichstag. His power was weakened by the jealousy of Catholic rulers toward him and one another. The Pope did not like the idea of a council. The Protestant cities formed a league for self-protection, and the Emperor had his hands full contending with the French and Turks. Consequently April 15, 1531 passed uneventfully. Protestantism now began to spread rapidly into new territories. Its spread was aided by a tragic episode known as the "Munster rebellion' which hurt the Anabaptists and distinguished them from the Lutherans. Anabaptist extremists made their way to the city of Munster, prophesying that that city had been chosen by God as the new Jerusalem and urging that God's new age be established by force. Polygamy and community of goods were introduced, and opponents were ruthlessly put down. Catholic and Lutheran troops besieged and captured the city in June, 1535 and executed the leaders of the rebellion. Lutheranism was thus freed of Anabaptist rivalry in Germany and was made to look more attractively conservative.

Charles V came to see that conciliation was not the means by which Protestants would be drawn back into the Catholic fold. He would weaken Protestantism by force and then have a general council grant such minor concessions as would be required to effect a reunion. He was aided in his efforts to weaken Protestantism by one of the oddest and most shameful affairs in Reformation history. Philip of Hesse, though strongly devoted to the Protestant cause, was a man of low moral caliber. Disaffected toward his wife, he was involved in constant adulteries. Yet, he was so troubled in conscience that he partook of the Lord's Supper only once in the years 1526-39. He was deeply concerned about his salvation but did not improve his conduct. His "solution" to the problem was to enter a second (bigamous) marriage. After the agreement of the parties personally involved was secured, Philip made an effort to persuade the Protestant leaders. Luther and Melanchthon gave their opinion in December, 1539. Polygamy was wrong because it violated the primal law of creation. However, Philip's case was a special one not requiring conformity to the general rule. If Philip could not remain continent, it was better for him to have a polygamous marriage then to live adulterously. However, the second marriage should be kept a secret. In March, 1540 Philip entered into a second marriage with a private, though hardly secret, ceremony. It was impossible to keep it a secret. Luther advised "a good strong lie," but Philip refused to lie. A scandal resulted, and Protestant rulers refused to support Philip.

Charles V won important concessions from Philip and in 1547 defeated him and Elector John Frederick of Saxony in battle. Politically, Protestantism appeared broken. However, one of Charles' subordinates conspired against him with Lutheran princes and defeated him in battle. Toleration of Protestantism seemed inevitable. When the Reichstag again met in Augsburg a compromise was reached between Catholics and Lutherans in 1555. It was decided that the prince of each territory would decide what faith would be professed in his respective territory. Equal rights were granted to both Catholics and Protestants. However, the common man who was dissatisfied with the faith of his territory had to emigrate to a territory with a religion to his liking. Thus, Lutheranism gained full legal status in Germany. The Scandinavian countries also it made good headway, though initially for political convenience on the part of the rulers. Slowly, the peoples of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden were brought into the Lutheran fold.

Exercises (Please click on "File" on your browser window, then "Print" to print out this page.)

(1) (T or F) A foremost desire to conform to the truth of God's Word was evident in the writing of the Augsburg Confession.

(2) (T or F) Lutherans practiced toward others the religious toleration they sought.

(3) (T or F) The "Munster rebellion" demonstrates the danger of false prophet.

(4) (T or F) The Scriptures require a community of goods (socialism) among God's people.

(5) What was Philip of Hesse's problem? What was his "solution"? Was it a Scriptural solution?


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