This is the seventh part of a 13-part German documentary mini-series covering the history of Christianity from its beginnings to the modern day. Although the series is a German production, the narration is in English. It was filmed at many different holy and historic sites. In this episode, the locations used are mostly throughout Europe, which gives a good frame of reference for those of us who haven’t been able to visit this part of the world.
By Faith Alone deals with the split in the church, between the Roman Catholic Church and what would later be known as Protestants. At this point in history the dissention with Rome had grown too great to silence all of the critics. The Papacy has distorted the message of Jesus.. and critics wanted to return to the “true belief”. John Huss, a 15th century reformer paid with his life for his beliefs. This killing occurred before he was able to present his criticisms of the church at a council where his safety had been guaranteed.
However, the silence against the Papacy was only temporary. Martin Luther came along almost one hundred years later, posting his thesis on the church at Wittenberg. A good portion of By Faith Alone is spent on Luther, although I think a more in-depth look at his story can be had in a more recent production about him, simply titled Luther. There’s a good overview here, though, of what brought him so devoutly to the church as well as what motivated him to choose the path he did.
Purgatory was what made the masses fear the church, and the sale of indulgences, not just for those still living but also for those long dead tried to assuage those fears. The sale of these indulgences combined with what Luther had seen when he made a pilgrimage to Rome were the factors which led him to take a stand. That, combined with the invention of the printing press, allowed the message to get out to the masses beyond the limits of the town of Wittenberg. Perhaps the first “political cartoons” were directed at the Pope by those who disagreed with him.
Luther didn’t intend to cause the furor he did, but to prompt the theologians of the time to begin discussing the practices which concerned him so.
Other reformers and scholars visited Wittenberg, such as John Calvin and Zwingli. They all had one common belief, that churches had one mission only: to proclaim the grace of God. At the same time, they had disputes among themselves on matters such as Holy Communion and the issue of transubstantiation.
The fact that even pious intentions like the ones that motivated Martin Luther can lead to bloody wars is one of the most painful experiences in church history. The symbolism is there at Valmes in 1521 as what the “truth” is was debated. For Luther’s own safety, he was secreted away in the Wartburg. While he was there, he began his translation of the New Testament into German.
Churches became less lavish and the focus began to be on the Word. The peasant uprising grew out of this movement, although it never had a chance. Led by Thomas Muntzer, he believed their uprising was divinely righteous and there would be divine intervention. Luther felt as if the blood of the peasants was on his hands.
His marriage set a new example of what a church and parish house would be like, with visitors who held discussions around the dinner table and women playing important roles.
Just following Luther’s death came a conflict between the Protestants and Roman Catholics. The Protestant League at Schmalkalden formed to bring together Protestant forces in Germany.
While I found much of what was contained in By Faith Alone to be very interesting, the majority of it I had heard before, being a Lutheran. However, for those who don’t know the history of the church’s Reformation, it does provide key information as to what happened and why.
Much of the events are told using re-enactments filmed at the very sites where the events took place. It’s an effective tool to make the setting seem all the more real and give a perspective of what this time in history was like. These re-enactments aren’t overdone by the actors, which is remarkable when you consider that they are acting out their roles while narration tells the story. No actor speaks in their role, just pantomimes and the overall effect is very good.
Seeing the historic buildings where Luther stayed are also something very meaningful to me since I don’t know if I will ever get to Germany to see them. It’s really something to contrast the magnificent churches Rome was trying to build as well as what individual bishops were trying to have built in order to elevate their status, with the simplicity of life at the time. It was ripe for the uprising in faith as well as economically.
I think that so much time devoted to this one point in the history of Christianity was a good move on the part of the makers of the documentary. More than almost any other event, save Christ’s crucifixion, it changed the scope of Christianity forever and truly made it so that there were many paths to God. I was surprised that just about the entire episode was devoted to Luther, but the historical implication was shown overall in the series by their doing this. It also makes it clear that Luther probably succeeded where others had tried and failed because of the timely development of the printing press, allowing his message to go a lot further than before. Instead of people having to travel to him to hear the message, he was able to send his message out to others, many of whom he probably already had an idea felt the same way he did about what was happening in the Church at the time.
The entire series is just touching on the place Christianity has had in the history of the world, hopefully encouraging the viewer to delve into points that interest them more on their own. There’s a Book List included on the DVD to help with that. The length of the DVD – just about 40 minutes – would make it good for Bible Classes, allowing for discussion afterward. Since the Roman Catholic Church has admitted that the sale of Indulgences was wrong, there’s no real controversy about the faith involved.
I highly recommend this series to get an overview of the place of Christianity in history. It’s by no means comprehensive, but it’s something people should know about and possibly learn from.
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