Did Luther mean to start Protestantism?

Did Luther defy the pope’s orders and get excommunicated and intentionally start protestantism? Like did he really want to break off from the Church? I was thinking about this because my aunt mentioned that Luther even asked for a priest when he was on his deathbed for Last Rites, can anyone confirm this? Thanks

I always had the impression that he was left with little choice (in his mind). Ironically, the Catholicism he wanted was probably more orthodox than the modern Roman Catholic Church. The problem was there was a lot of corruption among the clergy at the time.

No, I think he had good intentions. He wanted reform in the Church, which in some ways it did at the time, but not in terms of doctrine, as some of Luther’s ideas posed. Luther wanted the Church to change to what he thought on doctrine, because he thought he knew better than the pope. When the Church would not accept it, he was excommunicated and started his own ecclesiastical body, and other followers later joined. And due to his perversion of thought, it bread other bodies of believers who followed their own interpretations. And then it just spread. The reason is people like the idea of control, so control over what you believe would fall under that.

Indeed he BEGAN wanting reform within the Church, he had no intention of breaking off to form his own body.

However it did happen, and he did nothing to prevent it, and taught heresy afterwards.

In his Letter to the Christians at Antwerp, he did express certain lamentations due to the Protestantism that was born of his break: *We believed, during the reign of the pope, that the spirits which make a noise and disturbance in the night, were those of the souls of men, who, after death, return and wander about in expiation of their sins. This error, thank God, has been discovered by the Gospel, and it is known at present, that they are not the souls of men, but nothing else than those malicious devils who used to deceive men by false answers. It is they that have brought so much idolatry into the world.

The devil seeing that this sort of disturbances could not last, has devised a new one; and begins to rage in his members, I mean in the ungodly, through whom he makes his way in all sorts of chimerial follies and extravagant doctrines. This won't have baptism, that denies the efficacy of the Lord's supper; a third puts a world between this and the last judgment; others teach that Jesus Christ is not God; some say this, others that; and **there are almost as many sects and beliefs as there are heads**.

I must cite one instance, by way of exemplification, for I have plenty to do with these sort of spirits. There is not one of them that does not think himself more learned than Luther; they all try to win their spurs against me; and would to heaven that they were all such as they think themselves, and that I were nothing! The one of whom I speak assured me, amongst other things, that he was sent to me by the God of heaven and earth, and talked most magnificently, but the clown peeped through all. At last, he ordered me to read the books of Moses. I asked for a sign in confirmation of this order, "It is," said he, "written in the gospel of St. John." By this time I had heard enough, and I told him to come again, for that we should not have time, just now, to read the books of Moses. . . .

I have plenty to do in the course of the year with these poor people: the devil could not have found a better pretext for tormenting me. As yet the world had been full of those clamorous spirits without bodies, who oppressed the souls of men; now they have bodies, and give themselves out for living angels. . . .

**When the pope reigned we heard nothing of these troubles**. The strong one (the devil) was in peace in his fortress; but now that a stronger one than he is come, and prevails against him and drives him out, as the Gospel says, he storms and comes forth with noise and fury.*

I don’t believe that Luther wanted to leave the Catholic Church, but as events unfolded it became less possible for him to remain within it. He was not without his faults, but it seems to me that the interaction between Luther and the Church hierarchy was confrontational from the start and theological issues were only part of the problem. It is well recognized that the sale of indulgences that Luther complained about was, in part, to pay off loans taken out by Albert of Brandenburg to purchase bishoprics – a clear case of simony.

The following, giving a brief description of what was going on – with commentary on the role of Pope Leo X, is from the Catholic Encyclopedia:

The most important occurrence of Leo’s pontificate and that of gravest consequence to the Church was the Reformation, which began in 1517. We cannot enter into a minute account of this movement, the remote cause of which lay in the religious, political, and social conditions of Germany. It is certain, however, that the seeds of discontent amid which Luther threw his firebrand had been germinating for centuries. The immediate cause was bound up with the odious greed for money displayed by the Roman Curia, and shows how far short all efforts at reform had hitherto fallen. Albert of Brandenburg, already Archbishop of Magdeburg, received in addition the Archbishopric of Mainz and the Bishopric of Hallerstadt, but in return was obliged to collect 10,000 ducats, which he was taxed over and above the usual confirmation fees. To indemnify hiim, and to make it possible to discharge these obligations Rome permitted him to have preached in his territory the plenary indulgence promised all those who contributed to the new St. Peter’s; he was allowed to keep one half the returns, a transaction which brought dishonour on all concerned in it. Added to this, abuses occurred during the preaching of the Indulgence. The money contributions, a mere accessory, were frequently the chief object, and the “Indulgences for the Dead” became a vehicle of inadmissible teachings. That Leo X, in the most serious of all the crises which threatened the Church, should fail to prove the proper guide for her, is clear enough from what has been related above. He recognized neither the gravity of the situation nor the underlying causes of the revolt. Vigorous measures of reform might have proved an efficacious antidote, but the pope was deeply entangled in political affairs and allowed the imperial election to overshadow the revolt of Luther; moreover, he gave himself up unrestrainedly to his pleasures and failed to grasp fully the duties of his high office.


The only possible verdict on the pontificate of Leo X is that it was unfortunate for the Church. Sigismondo Tizio, whose devotion to the Holy See is undoubted, writes truthfully: “In the general opinion it was injurious to the Church that her Head should delight in plays, music, the chase and nonsense, instead of paying serious attention to the needs of his flock and mourning over their misfortunes”. Von Reumont says pertinently—“Leo X is in great measure to blame for the fact that faith in the integrity and merit of the papacy, in its moral and regenerating powers, and even in its good intentions, should have sunk so low that men could declare extinct the old true spirit of the Church.”

Would it have been possible for Luther and the Church to go forward together? I think so, if his concerns about the indulgence question had been addressed in the beginning as they were at the Council of Trent – several years after his death.

With the hindsight of five centuries, it is easy for us to say “if Luther and the Church had just done such and so, the division could have been avoided.” Unfortunately, we can’t go back and give them the benefit of our wisdom. Where is “Back to the Future” when we need it?

The answer to the OP’s question, “did Luther mean to start Protestantism” is, I believe, a resounding “NO.” That his objection to the sale of indulgences would snowball into the Reformation is something that I don’t think he envisioned or intended. There were forces at work that a single Augustinian monk could not control.

I think as most of the other posters have stated that Luther started out and intended to reform the things wrong within the church at that time. Luther also had a number of deep personal issues that were likewise never handled properly by his superiors within his Augustinine order. He had a terrible abusive childhood which lead him having problems with authority and scrupiciocity. his own stubborness and bullheadedness along with how his case was handled by the authorities at that time lead to the split. His Catholic nemesis Johann Ecke was just as stubborn as Luther. It’s sad but if Luther had gotten proper help with his internal problems instead of them being ignored and overlooked, I wonder if the reformation would have actually happen.

Martin Luther if could be summed up in four words, it would be “God-obsessed, simple monk”

Luther never intended to start anything, he just wanted to be right with God in his view. On his deathbed he was asked “Reverend father, will you die steadfast in Christ and the doctrines you have preached?” Luther responded and quoted John 3:16 and Psalm 31:5. In his last prayer he said to God, “Yet I know as a certainty that I shall live with you eternally and that no one shall be able to pluck me out of your hands.”

Luther didn’t want a split, but the growing confrontation between him and the Church just simply led to it.

The link contains a letter by Luther written to Pope Leo X in 1518.



That’s a Catholic “urban legend” with no foundation I know of, though it’s often repeated.

Not only didn’t Luther want to break off from the Church, he never thought he had done so. He came to the conclusion, probably by the end of 1519, that the Roman See was “Antichrist” and hopelessly corrupt, not just in morals (Luther recognized, like any good Catholic, that the visible Church is always subject to moral corruption) but in doctrine. By that time he had also rejected the authority of Councils in favor of, in his terms, the authority of the Word of God (what we would now call “sola scriptura,” though he did not use that term). He thus came to define the Church as that body of Christians where the Word is preached and the sacraments are rightly administered. He did not believe that he had ever broken away from that Catholic Church–indeed, he thought that Rome had done so.


Yes, thankfully, it appears that this board is educated enough that no one is arguing that “urban legend”.

An intriguing letter. It does not appear Luther held strong to this closing comment from that letter: “Wherefore, most blessed Father, I cast myself at the feet of your Holiness, with all that I have and all that I am. Quicken, kill, call, recall, approve, reprove, as you will. In your voice I shall recognize the voice of Christ directing you and speaking in you.”

Can you imagine if Martin Luther would have withstood the storm…and how it could have changed the landscape of present-day Christendom? Something to think about… :hmmm:

Yes, and it’s not clear that he meant it even then. It was the sort of thing you were supposed to say to the Pope.


What was Luther’s attitude toward the Pope at this time? Was he more or less antagonistic towards him at this point in time?

Luther had problems with authority and while the Catholic Church did not have the very best Popes in that time period, Luther did focus his frustration, anger and blame on the Pope. The idea that the Pope was the antichrist or that the Catholic church was the Whore of Babylon was from Luther. While he tried to get rid of one Pope, he regretted later in his life that he made 100 more.
Luther became the angry authoritarian figure that he at first was trying to stand up to. I think it is easy to look at the Catholic Church during Luther’s time and just blame the Church and not look at what was going on inside Luther himself and his own anger and stubbornness and how that likewise contributed to the reformation.

Libraries of books have been written about Luther because the man is quite simply complex and his motivations sometimes mysterious. I’ve read only a smattering, but it looks to ME like the poor guy had a bad case of scrupulosity and an ego too big to get help for it from a proper spiritual director. He invented ‘Sola Fide’ as a means of soothing his tortured conscience, then later invented ‘Sola Scriptura’ when the hierarchy of the Church pushed back against his “Sola Fide” errors. Things spiraled far out of his control from there.

PLEASE realize that it is almost a crime to condense a subject like this into a five line forum post, so by all means do lots of reading on your own. But the bottom line is that the man desperately wanted to be reconciled to God and spent his whole life in that pursuit. In spite of what we catholics would consider his frightening errors, plenty of us ar probably personally worse in personal sanctity. The effect he had on Christendom as a whole had more to do with problems already present and ready to burst than any original motivations he provided. If it hadn’t been him, it likely would have been another.

I also think a lot of Luther’s break had to do with culture. From what i’ve studied, many Germans were not happy with the money they were giving to the church going to Rome, instead of staying in Germany (or more specifically, the German kingdoms, since there was no German nation at the time). So in a sense, Luther either wanted this, or played up the idea that his church would be a local German church, rather than having people send money to Rome.

Obviously it was one of MANY, issues though

Hard to be sure. The letter he sent two years later, when he was on the verge of excommunication, protests personal respect for Leo (again, in terms that may be stereotyped and exaggerated) but absolutely none for his office (indeed, this may have been Luther’s deliberate, ironic reversal of the Catholic view that the office should be respected even if the person isn’t worthy of respect).

Luther’s attitude to the Papacy seems to have crystallized after the Leipzig debate into the view that the institution (as it had become) was Antichrist. I certainly don’t think he thought this in 1518, but I doubt his real attitude was as obsequious as the language of the letter implies.

As benjammin has pointed out, Luther would have been a very unusual early modern German Catholic if he hadn’t had a good deal of suspicion of the Papacy (and of all Italians) even before he had any doctrinal quarrel with it. Indeed, his encounter with Cardinal Cajetan in 1518 was doomed by this anti-Italian prejudice–and in the 1520 letter he tries to blame Cajetan (among other intermediaries) for making the situation worse.

Protestants have told for centuries the story of Luther going to Rome as a good Catholic, expecting it to be holy, and being shocked to find that it was full of corruption. Luther did make that claim in later life, but I don’t believe it. It’s as probable as an American Catholic in 2012 being horrified to discover for the first time that there were cases in which priests had abused minors. And in fact Luther *always *insisted that his protest was against doctrine, not bad morals.


Still it is strange for Luther, a monk, I assume well aware of the history of the papacy…the good, the bad, and the ugly…(or did the ugly primarily happen in his time)…that he would condemn the papacy along with apostolic succession all because of the present pope he was dealing with…

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.