What were the foundations of Martin Luther's Reformation and what legacy did he leave Europe?

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Martin Luther, a German Augustinian monk, never intended to start a revolution or a rebellion, but he did both. He was a humble man who considered himself unworthy of God's love except through grace, and after intensive study of the scriptures he came to understand that justification (salvation) is achieved only by faith rather than by works or penance, which was the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. Though he made arguments against many of the practices of the Church, this single belief is the foundation of what is now known as the Protestant Reformation.

After Martin Luther studied and knew what he believed to be true was supported by scripture, he became convinced that the Church needed to change. He wrote his famous treatise, known as the 95 Theses, to point out the ways in which the Catholic Church was not adhering to the Bible. Even more, he accused the Church of doctrinal, financial, and religious abuse based again on Luther's intensive study of scripture. One of his prime targets was the Catholic Church's practice of selling indulgences: selling pardons from the Pope for the remission of future sins. This was in direct opposition to his belief that justification cannot be bought by works (such as buying pardons).

That document, listing ninety-five points on which the Church was not in alignment with the Bible, begins this way:

Out of love and concern for the truth, and with the object of eliciting it, the following heads will be the subject of a public discussion at Wittenberg under the presidency of the reverend father, Martin Luther, Augustinian, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology, and duly appointed Lecturer on these subjects in that place. He requests that whoever cannot be present personally to debate the matter orally will do so in absence in writing. 

Though he obviously meant to be confrontational with the Church, virtually calling them out to engage in a public debate, Luther did not intend for his own revelations and understandings to be the battle cry for anyone else. Others, like John Hus and John Wycliffe had been urging the same changes almost a century before; and William Tyndale and Erasmus of Rotterdam, two of Luther's like-minded contemporaries in other countries, were engaged in the same disagreements with the church. 

What was different about Luther's efforts is that they were given wings by Gutenberg's printing press in Germany. Luther's voice of reform was heard more loudly and in more places because of the dissemination of his 95 Thesis. Confrontations and conflicts began as thousands began to demand that the Church reform.

The two most powerful entities in the Europe during Luther's time were the Holy Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church, and anyone or anything that set itself up in opposition against these powerful entities was destined for a fight, and that is exactly what happened to Martin Luther and his adherents. In the end, Luther's efforts inspired a new approach to religion and God known as Protestantism, a religion in which the principle of justification by faith is the foundational belief.

Luther's powerful legacy is evident in the fact that he changed the foundation of religion for the entire Western world. More than five hundred new books and articles are written about him each year in nearly every major language in the world. His meticulous scholarship and passionate faith created a dramatic change in one of the most powerful institutions in the world--the Roman Catholic Church.

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CaitlynnReeves | Student, Grade 12 | (Level 1) Salutatorian

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The legacy of Martin Luther in Europe is almost immesureable. His reformations led to the division of Catholicism and the protestant denominations.

The differences in principles that he highlighted in his 95 Theses never went away, and remain a point of contention between the two divisions. Countless wars and skirmishes have been fought between Catholics and Protestants, including the on-going tension between Northern Ireland and Ireland.  

The colonization of the Americas was in many ways the result of Protestant/Catholic differences. Puritans from England felt that the church of England was harkening back to the Catholic Church of Luther's time, and hence set forth in search of religious freedom. Spain was a Roman Catholic country and gave Christopher Columbus funds to explore partly on the basis of spreading Christianity. It then became a race for colonization between the Catholic and Protestant European countries, as neither side wanted to see the new world dominated by the other faction of believers. 

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