The Reformation that Martin Luther unleashed in Germany in 1517 began as a loud call for freedom – freedom of the Church from the tyranny of the pope, freedom of the laity from the hegemony of the clergy, freedom of the conscience from the strictures of canon law. “Freedom of the Christian” was the rallying cry of the early Lutheran Reformation. It drove theologians and jurists, clergy and laity, princes and peasants alike to denounce Church authorities and legal structures with unprecedented alacrity. “One by one, the structures of the church were thrust into the glaring light of the Word of God and forced to show their true colors,” Jaroslav Pelikan writes. Few Church structures survived this scrutiny in the heady days of the 1520s. The Church's canon law books were burned. Church courts were closed. Monastic institutions were confiscated. Endowed benefices were dissolved. Church lands were seized. Clerical privileges were stripped. Mendicancy was banned. Mandatory celibacy was suspended. Indulgence trafficking was condemned. Annates to Rome were outlawed. Ties to the pope were severed. The German people were now to live by the pure light of the Bible and the simple law of the local community.
Though such attacks upon the Church's law and authority built on two centuries of reformist agitation in the West, it was especially Luther's radical theological teachings that ignited this movement in Germany. Salvation comes through faith in the Gospel, Luther taught, not through works of the Law.
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