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Luther and Erasmus —1516


In preparation for the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, we are
presenting a brief survey of the life of Martin Luther. The series will culminate
in next month’s issue with an account of his posting of the Ninety-Five Theses.

The European Renaissance (“rebirth”) was, in part, good for those who wanted to be faithful to God’s Word. During this period scholars, called humanists, studied the original Greek text of the New Testament rather than relying on Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, which had been produced during the late 4th century. Among these scholars was Desiderius Erasmus (portrait, page 2 top). A contemporary of Luther, Erasmus’s efforts led to a new edition of the Greek New Testament in 1516. This edition included text which at times contradicted the Vulgate, upsetting many theologians in the Catholic Church. Luther would later use Erasmus’s Greek edition of the New Testament in writing his own German translation of the Bible. Key to the spread of Reformation ideas in Germany was having a Bible translation in the vernacular—the language of the people.

Although Luther agreed with Erasmus on most of his translation work, the two later had a falling out over the relationship between salvation and good works. Luther contended that it was only through God’s grace that salvation came to the sinner. Erasmus argued that good deeds were necessary for salvation as well. When asked to speak on Luther’s behalf after the Diet of Worms, Erasmus neither said nor did anything.


The idea of indulgences was nothing new in the Catholic Church at the time of the Reformation. Since 1190 A.D., in connection with the Crusades, the church had used the idea of purchasing the right to not have to perform penance for certain sins. It was taught and believed that Jesus and “saints” had performed surplus good deeds (that is, more than those necessary for their own salvation), whose merit could be doled out by the pope. By purchasing indulgences, people were assured of having to spend less time in purgatory, and might even be prevented from going to hell. In 1515, Pope Leo X issued a papal edict expanding the list of sins covered by purchasing indulgences, including the ability to transfer credit to loved ones already deceased. The profits from the sales of indulgences were used in part to fund church building projects, including St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Luther was surely not the only critic of this church practice, but he would become the most vocal and well known.

Elector Frederick and Relics

Known as “Frederick the Wise,” Frederick III of Saxony founded the University of Wittenberg in 1502. Luther spent much of his professional life as a preacher and teacher there. Although Luther and Frederick may have never met in person, Frederick supported Luther’s work and often provided him safe haven during the Reformation’s infancy.

Frederick did, however, amass a large collection of relics. According to his 1518 inventory, the Castle Church in Wittenberg housed 17,443 items, including St. Anne’s thumb, milk from the Virgin Mary, hay from Jesus’ manger, and a twig from Moses’ burning bush. Frederick relied on pilgrims visiting these relics to support Saxony and the university. It was claimed that the viewing of relics, like the purchase of indulgences, would provide spiritual benefits. In fact, by visiting these relics on All Saints’ Day and leaving a gift at the church, people could supposedly remove nearly two million years from their stay in purgatory.

It was by God’s grace that Luther had the conviction and courage to speak out against the use of indulgences and the veneration of relics as a means to obtain God’s favor. Speaking out was fraught with danger, as we will see, but Luther was rightly more concerned about the salvation of souls than he was about the ire of his secular ruler. It wasn’t until 1522 that Frederick would cease displaying his relics.

Joe Lau is a professor at Immanuel Lutheran College in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.