Luther at the Diet of Worms, by Anton von Werner, 1877
Atheists point to the Inquisition as an example of religious abuse. (It absolutely was!) But they never seem to notice how the Inquisition was overcome. It wasn’t because atheists took a strong stand against their evil. No! It was because Bible-believing Christians opposed the false and blended teaching of the medieval Roman church. The penalty for their stand was often death in the flames, but love for Jesus and his PURE truth made them courageous.
Because of the influence of Greek philosophy on the Catholic Church, the concept of purgatory (which was based on Greek thought as found in Plato’s Republic) was abused by Catholic leaders. When Pope Leo X needed money to build St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, he sent out a Dominican monk named Tetzel to collect money through the selling of indulgences. This practice was based on the idea that there was an account of excess good deeds that had been performed by the saints which a person could purchase in order to get their loved ones out of purgatory where they were painfully paying for their sins. Tetzel’s motto was: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs!”
Tetzel may not have known it, but a young monk named Martin Luther was watching, and because he had read the Scriptures, Tetzel’s lie enraged him so much that he wrote up Ninety-Five Theses (ninety-five arguments) against the practice of indulgences and pounded it on the door of the Wittenberg Church. This courageous act of protest (“protest” is the root word for Protestant) caused an uproar—especially in a society living under the authority of the Inquisition—and because of the newly-invented printing press, Luther’s arguments could now spread like wildfire throughout Europe.
There were forerunners to Luther who also had conflicts with the doctrines of the Catholic Church. John Wycliffe, who is called the “Morning Star of the Reformation,” would be one of the first to oppose the corrupt Catholic religion of the medieval era. He was a priest and a scholar at Oxford University, so he was able to read the Scriptures. The main argument of Wycliffe was that the Bible was the only reliable guide to truth, and that Christians should rely on the Scriptures, rather than on a pope, as the ultimate authority in spiritual matters. Wycliffe had friends in high places, so he was protected from the Inquisition’s flames. His followers, the Lollards, on the other hand, were not spared.
John Huss, a dean at the University of Hague, was influenced by Wycliffe’s arguments. He stressed the importance of Scripture as the sole authority for the church and thought that popes or cardinals were wrong to create doctrine that was contrary to the Bible. He also made a statement about the condition of the Roman church by hanging pictures of the pope in all his rich clothing next to the image of the poverty-stricken Christ. As a result of his outspoken criticism of the Catholic Church he would be called before the Inquisition. Foxe described how Huss tried to answer a question that was put to him during his trial:
As he was about to open his mouth, all this mad herd began to cry out upon him, that he had not leisure to speak one only word. The noise and trouble was so great and so vehement, that a man might have called it a bruit of wild beasts, and not of men, much less was it to be judged a congregation of men gathered together to determine so grave and weighty matters. (1)
The crowd that was acting like beasts wasn’t an angry mob of commoners—it was the council of cardinals and bishops! Huss refused to recant on his views, so he was arrested and burned at the stake. It was in this atmosphere that Luther fearfully took his stand.
Luther was a priest; therefore, he had access to the Scriptures. It was on their authority that he stood when he was called before the Inquisition. He was commanded to denounce his writings and recant his position. He was sweating and trembling as he stood before the council, but his measured response would forever change the history of the world.
Unless I am convinced by scripture or by clear reason—for I do not trust the pope or church councils, since everyone knows they can make mistakes and contradict themselves—I am bound by the scriptures I have quoted. My conscience is held captive by the Word of God [emphasis added]. I cannot and will not recant anything, because it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. On this I take my stand. I can do no other. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. (2)
With these courageous words, the whole corrupt foundation of the Roman Catholic religious monopoly would begin to crumble and its powerful stronghold on the Western world would be broken. Luther’s movement, known as the Protestant Reformation, would split the church.
After many Catholics began converting to Protestantism, the Catholic Emperor Ferdinand II wanted to impose Catholicism on unwilling Protestant territories. The Thirty Years War that resulted was one of the worst religious wars ever fought. Over eight million people died. It was reported that even the land was ravaged by the war and could no longer produce a harvest.
Many decades of death and destruction finally culminated in a series of treaties called the Peace of Westphalia. It allowed for each territory to determine its own religion, and for any person who believed something different from each state’s official religion to be guaranteed a level of spiritual freedom, essentially crushing the power of the Catholic Inquisition.
The rallying cry of the Reformation was “sola scriptura!” (Scripture alone!) The blessings that resulted from the spread of the pure gospel are incalculable. It led to advances in education (so the Bible could be read), religious freedom and toleration (so that an Inquisition could never happen again), a newfound respect for honest work (since whatever a person did [not just religious activities] could be done for the glory of God), the destruction of the power of the priesthood (since each individual believer could gain access to God on his/her own), to political freedom (so that a church/state theocracy might not rule again), and to the growth of science (since the stronghold of Catholic/Aristotelian philosophy was no longer a source of scientific truth).
Luther, who had a radical conversion when he discovered that the grace of God came only through faith, and not through dead religious works, loved the precious Word which taught him that truth. So, when atheists say that Christians burned people at the stake, I want to encourage Christians to argue:
Yes, people who called themselves Christians burned people at the stake, but these “Christians” weren’t faithful to the Scriptures. They corrupted the teachings of Christ with philosophy and man-made traditions. They didn’t rightly divide the Word of truth. They disobeyed the Bible. And it wasn’t atheists or secularists who stopped the cruel flames and torture of the Inquisitors, it was men and women of God, courageously giving their lives in faithfulness to Jesus and his wonderful Word, who finally brought down the stronghold of the Inquisition.
- John Foxe, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (Pittsburgh, PA: Whitaker House, 1981), 110.
- Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1978), 141.