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Martin Luther’s Theological War with Henry VIII

July 3, 2010

Martin Luther

During the Reformation, there were many instances of rebellion where ‘commoners’ openly disputed with kings and called them either a “pig” or a “dolt” as Martin Luther had done in his essay, Contra Henricum Regem. This essay was in response to a piece that Henry VIII wrote in 1521 titled, Assertio, which defended the Catholic Church against ‘heretics’ like Luther. Yes, Henry VIII is the king that brought Protestantism to England, but until his divorce to Catherine of Aragon, he was a devout Catholic. Pope Leo X was so impressed with Henry’s defense of the Church, he gave him the title, Fidei Defensor (Defender of the Faith).

Luther was already writing voraciously about the Catholic Church for some time with such titles as, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and The Execrable Bull of Antichrist. Luther even wrote directly to German aristocrats in his work, To the German Nobility, and encouraged them to break with the Church of Rome, since the Pope had no legal or moral rights over them and their tax dollars were being wasted by the Church on elaborate robes and other nonessential items.

All of this started of course with Luther’s famous 95 Theses, which he nailed to the door of the Wittenberg Church, as was common in that time to challenge someone to a debate. Luther originally wrote it in Latin, so only fellow theologians could read and understand its meaning. Remember, Luther was a Catholic priest and a doctor of theology that taught as an instructor at the Wittenberg cloister. Basically, he was training future Catholic priests. Once Luther started to really read, study, and dissect the Bible, he noticed that scripture was different from many of the Catholic practices, like the Seven Sacraments (Luther believed there were only three). He realized that many of the sacraments and other practices of the Church were merely traditions that were created by men, such as Popes of the past, and were not founded on the teachings of Jesus. Luther proclaimed that he could dispute many practices of the Church (especially the selling of indulgences), by using scripture alone. That was the original purpose of the 95 Theses, only to debate internal Church practices. But, someone translated the work into German, and it became widespread throughout northern Europe and eventually translated into other languages. That started Luther’s career as a reformer of the Church.

A Young, Catholic Henry VIII

After Luther’s theological assaults on the Church, it was time for the young Henry VIII to take a stand and write in defense of the Church. Henry fancied himself as a warrior-philosopher, but he was entering a gladiatorial arena where both Luther and Henry were equals, the arena of ideals. As explained before, Henry’s Assertio was well received by those on his side, but this gave Luther ammunition to attack a monarch that supported the Catholic Church.

In Martin Luther’s essay Contra Henricum Regem, he states, “It is this book [The Bible] that I keep-upon it I rest-in it I make my boast-In it I triumph and exalt over Papists, Aquinases, Henrys, sophists, and all the swine of hell. The King of heaven is on my side-therefore I fear nothing, though even a thousand Augustines, a thousand Cyprians, and a thousand such churches, as that of which this Henry is defender, should rise up against me.”

Henry’s court was enraged of course, and Henry’s friend and confidant, Thomas More, defended his king by writing Responsio ad Lutherum. In this essay, More called Luther an “ape,” “drunkard,” and a “lousy little friar.” Also, John Fisher, the Bishop of Rochester wrote, “…we ought to lay hands on heretics before they grow big. Luther has become a larger fox, so old, so cunning, so mischievous, that it is very difficult to catch him…he [Luther] is a mad dog, a ravening wolf, a cruel she-bear; or rather, all these put together for the monster includes many beasts within.” Clearly this is meant as a threat on Luther’s life, and a warning to ‘heretics’ that were on the British Isles (like William Tyndale who was eventually strangled and burned at the stake) that would be within the reach of Henry and his men. Henry VIII found out that his rank did not protect him when he attempted to be a scholar. Through the efforts of men like Luther, the kings and queens of Europe were put on equal philosophical footing, which eventually led to the demise of the antiquated notions of ‘nobility’ or that some men were better than others, simply because they were born in one bed over another. Luther proclaimed that in the gospels, “All men are equal through Christ.” In Luther’s mind, Henry was nothing more than a lap dog for the Pope.

Ironically, the “Defender of the Faith,” changed his mind when he wanted a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and turned on his former defenders. Thomas More was sentenced to death for treason on order of Henry, and decapitated. The Bishop of Rochester, John Fisher, was also decapitated by King Henry VIII. Fisher sided with Catherine, and his execution was a bad public relations move for Henry. Many of the peasants made the comparison of John Fisher’s execution with the execution of John the Baptist by Herod. Both executions happened for the same reason…a woman. Eventually, Henry VIII sided with the views of Luther, and Protestantism ruled over England. Henry softened his views for two reasons: he could get divorced and get a male heir, and he could take all of the property of the Church and make himself very wealthy. The two former foes became theological allies in the end.

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