Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Reformation: Henry & Luther

By Samantha Wilcoxson

Martin Luther and the 95 Theses
by Ferdinand Pauwels, 1872

On October 31, 1517, a monk named Martin Luther nailed his 'Disputation on the Power of Indulgences' to the door of Castle Church in the village of Wittenberg, Germany. He had no way of knowing that his desire to discuss and debate the Catholic Church practice would cause his name to go down in history. Five hundred years later, Luther's name is boldly emblazoned upon the facades of thousands of churches, and his call for discussion is better known as the 95 Theses.

Some historians have questioned whether Luther really posted his comments on the eve of All Saint's Day, wondering if the meaningful date is correct or whether it is a task that the professor of theology would have carried out himself. However, the events and changes that resulted from Luther's actions and writings cannot be denied, even if the theses nailing to the church door may be myth posing as history. Thanks to the boldness of one German monk and the innovation of the printing press, what it meant to be a Christian changed across Europe.

Because of the Gutenberg printing press, Luther's ideas did not remain quietly within the village of Wittenberg. They were translated from Latin into German, and eventually other languages, and spread like wildfire. Unlike reformers of the past, who were often limited by their own geography, Luther became a voice against the corruption of the Catholic Church far beyond his little corner of the world. By the following year, Luther was charged with heresy and had to return from his hearing in Augsburg under the protection of Friedrich III of Saxony.

Martin Luther's
On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church
In England, Luther's ideas were countered by the king himself. Henry VIII wrote his 'Defense of the Seven Sacraments' in response to Luther's treatise, 'On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church.' It was this work of Luther's more than the 95 Theses that outlined his grievances against the Catholic Church. (Some historians question whether the work in Henry's 'Defense' can be completely attributed to him, but we shall assume here that it can.) In 1521, Martin Luther was excommunicated while Henry was awarded by the Pope with the title of Defender of the Faith.

Excommunication did not slow Luther down. He translated the Bible into German (helping define and unite the common German language), attended the Diet of Worms where he made his famous 'I neither can nor will recant' statement, and got into a bit of an argument with the King of England.

The 'little monk,' as Henry had called him in his 'Defense' did not hesitate to respond to his detractor. Luther was perhaps the first to publicly question Henry's authorship of the treatise, claiming that it should not be taken seriously for the king did not even write it. Soon afterward, Luther apologized for the accusation and attacked Wolsey, 'the scourge of thy kingdom,' instead. This, of course, did not earn Henry's forgiveness, but only spurred him to defend the minister he depended upon so heavily at that time.
Henry VIII's
Defense of the Seven Sacraments
In typical Henry VIII style, the king used Luther's accusation later when he wished to dissolve his marriage with Katherine of Aragon. Claiming that it was Wolsey's hand behind his defense of the sacrament of marriage, Henry appealed for support. Luther, who in his booklet 'Against Henry, King of the English' had been open-handed with insults for the king, gave his support to the devoutly Catholic Katherine. Among other choice words, Luther accused the king of being 'a fool,' 'effeminately querulous,' and 'stupid.'

Henry began as a staunch supporter of the Catholic Church while Luther hoped to reform it. Despite their original intentions, it was Henry who broke with Rome while Protestants took up Luther's name to apply it to their own movement. These two men's motivations were completely different, although they led to the same result. Henry began the Church of England to exert his own authority over that of the pope, while Luther had not intended to start his own church but to correct the corruption in Rome.

Both men took their important places in Reformation history, though neither began with the goal of separating from Rome. With the benefit of 500 years of hindsight, we can see how each of these men helped lead the Protestant movement. Henry set the stage for reformation in England, despite the fact that his faith was Catholic in all tenets besides papal authority, with his 1534 Act of Supremacy. Once the break had been made, it was easy for his son, Edward VI, or advisors acting with his authority, to usher in full Protestantism.
Henry VIII and the Barber Surgeons
by Hans Holbein the Younger
Luther agreed with Henry that the Pope was not the highest or an infallible authority. However, while Henry wished to place himself above all others, Luther preached that the Bible alone - sola scriptura - could offer the authority of God. They would have also agreed upon the true presence of Jesus' body and blood in the sacramental bread and wine. Henry had subjects punished for denying transubstantiation, and it was a point that Luther refused to budge on despite the urging of other reformists. Christians today remain divided on the topic.
These two giants of the early 16th century died less than a year apart, Martin Luther on February 18, 1546, and Henry on January 28, 1547. One can only imagine what they would think of the impact that their ideas and actions continue to have on our society 500 years later.

Additional Reading
Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet by Lyndal Roper
Various writings of Henry VIII and Martin Luther

All images in the public domain through Wikimedia Commons

Samantha Wilcoxson is the author of the Plantagenet Embers series featuring women of the Wars of the Roses and Tudor England.

An incurable bibliophile and sufferer of wanderlust, Samantha lives in Michigan with her husband and three teenagers. You can connect with her on her blog or on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and Goodreads.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. I find this fascinating, that Luther did not reject the foundational beliefs of the Catholic church and was only trying to reform. Very interesting comparison between his goals and Henry's.

    1. Thanks! Luther's objectives changed, of course, when his ideas were not well-received, but initially he had no intention of splitting the church, let alone setting himself up as the head of it. On the other hand, Henry always believed himself the highest authority. ;-)


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