Reform, Yes! But What Sort?

I’ve long been a fan of Bernhard Lohse. His A Short History of Christian Doctrine, for instance, should be required reading for everyone. Yes, everyone. And I’ve read some of his Luther scholarship before as well. But only recently did I sit down to read through his Martin Luther: An Introduction to His Life and Work.


This book is incredibly well organized and reads in many ways like a digest of Luther research as it stood at the end of the 20th century. In other words, it is a wonderful resource.

One bit that I especially liked was Lohse’s description of the need for reform at the end of the Middle Ages. He situates this need especially within the German context, and that means he gives us more than hackneyed Protestant platitudes. He also include a very well-selected detail about Albert of Mainz to make his point.

So here is Lohse; italics are his and bold is mine.

At every diet of the German Empire the Gravamina nationis Germanicae—the list of abuses that the diet was asked to correct in the church in the German empire—was always presented. Although the term was first used in an official statement issued in Frankfurt in 1456, such a list had already been presented at the Council of Constance in 1417. Such demands that abuses be corrected were still presented to the imperial diets in the early years of the Reformation. Demands for secular and ecclesiastical reforms were merged in these lists. Basically, however, the papacy was seen as the real enemy—robbing the German nation of its wealth, its freedom, and its dignity.

The church clearly demonstrated that it was incompetent to respond adequately to such demands for reform. This was never more clear than at the Fifth Lateran Council (1512–17), which was convened just before the Reformation began. Although the council passed many resolutions intended to reform various abuses in ecclesiastical taxes and fees, it was completely unable to stop the selling of ecclesiastical offices or to prevent one individual from holding several offices. The censorship of printed religious material was planned but not put into effect.

The total inconsistency of the church’s attempts to reform itself is revealed by the fact that when the text of the papal bull on the reform of the church, read at the ninth session of the Fifth Lateran Council, was sent to Albert of Mainz, it was accompanied by a special offer forbidden by this very papal bull. The offer was: the pope would permit Albert to carry out his illegal plan to hold a number of ecclesiastical offices simultaneously in exchange for a fee of ten thousand ducats. To assist him in raising this money, he was authorized to sell indulgences. These very indulgences were the reason for the drafting of Luther’s Ninety-five Theses. (p. 10)

So, the need for reform was universally felt: reform, yes! But there were clearly very different ideas about what this meant. Lohse pithily sums this up a few pages later:

Even though the world seemed to most people to be ready for reform, the Reformation was not the kind of reform that many were looking for. (p. 16)

A final thought, given the line quoted above: Is it mere coincidence that this book was first published in 1980, and that Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope was released in that country in 1978?

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