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The Reformation began in 1517 when Martin Luther, an Augustinian friar and professor of biblical studies at the relatively new university of Wittenberg in Electoral Saxony, posted a set of ninety-five theses inviting anyone to debate a number of propositions about the promulgation of indulgences by the Roman Catholic Church. Indulgences were documents that promised to give a remission of temporal punishments for anyone who genuinely regretted a sin he or she had committed. They were for sale and were vigorously promoted by a number of peddlers, of whom the most notorious was a Dominican friar named Johann Tetzel. Luther argued that the sale of these indulgences made people think they could buy eternal salvation. The publication of his theses provoked a tremendous uproar. That argument quickly developed into a broader one about the ways in which Christians could gain salvation. Luther argued that salvation had to be by faith alone, without any reliance on good works, like indulgences. The Catholic Church insisted that faith had to be supported by works before one could gain salvation. Luther further argued that the only authority that could resolve this dispute was the Bible, while the Catholic Church insisted that the Bible had to be supplemented by tradition, of which the church held custody. Luther also insisted on the priesthood of all believers, arguing that believers could gain salvation by themselves, rather than relying on priests as intermediaries. Luther was excommunicated by the Catholic Church, and new churches were quickly established that followed his leadership and refused to recognize the traditional authority of the pope and his appointees. Luther continued teaching in Wittenberg. He prepared a fresh translation into German of the Bible and wrote an enormous number of works, ranging from learned biblical commentaries to inflammatory polemical pamphlets, developing further his theology. He became one of the most popular published scholars of all time.

The churches Luther had inspired were supported by local governments within the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, the political entity controlling most of what we would call Germany and more. Some of these governments were run by princes, including the government of Electoral Saxony, where Luther lived, and the government of Hesse in western Germany. Many of them were run by city councils, within imperial free cities that had received charters from the imperial government to run their own affairs. Luther also gained support in neighboring kingdoms, particularly in Scandinavia.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Reason to RetrovirusReformation - Lutherans, The Reformed, Other Confessions, Confessionalism, Bibliography