On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church
There are really three books that together mark the advent of the Protestant Reformation and usher in a profoundly new approach to religion, the state, and the individual in western thought. They are all Martin Luther, they were all published in 1520, and they all represent the moment of his excommunication from the Catholic Church and a massive schism within Christendom. To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation and On the Freedom of a Christian are books 1 and 3; the one we’ve chosen here to represent that moment, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, comes between the others, and reconsiders the Catholic Church’s 7 holy sacraments in the light of Luther’s own interpretation of scripture.
Baptism, confirmation, eucharist, penance, anointing of the sick, holy orders, and marriage – these are the moments of blessing or clerical intervention in the life of a believer, and constitute sacred rites within the Church. Luther takes’em all on, seriously re-interpreting if not outright rejecting the most holy of Catholic rituals and calling for the breaking of clerical authority. Luther had been critical and active in his reform for some time. But the Babylonian Captivity is where Luther gets angry. It’s where he makes the break to radicalism. It’s where he calls out the Pope as the Anti-Christ. It’s kinda important.
Martin Luther shook shit up. His works were read widely and quicky spread across Europe despite the laws of Church and state. He translated the Bible, allowing a significantly wider audience access to scripture. He set off a process of critique and resistance that was not only theological but profoundly political and forever changed a continent, a religion, a world. But, as is so often the case, he also lost control, and when folks inspired by him took up arms to overthrow the economic order, Luther was pretty quick to let them know they’d crossed the line. His Reformation, then, was one thing. Where that started to look more and more like a Revolution, though, Luther balked. In May 1525, the armed rebels who figured Luther’s call to freedom ought to mean more than just freedom of conscience were defeated when he turned on them. Rebellion gave way to institution-building. The Church is dead; long live the Church!