According to Luther scholar Bernhard Lohse, “Evidenced by this great treatise, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, in his doctrine of the sacraments as well Luther broke with the church of his day.” (Martin Luther’s Theology, 136) Luther’s treatise, published in 1520, wasn’t simply an apologetic for biblical sacramentalism; it embodied democratic principles that challenged the power structure of the Roman Catholic Church. And not simply in Rome. In the work, Luther reduced the traditional number of seven sacraments (codified in Peter Lombard’s Sentences) to two: baptism and the Lord’s Supper (insisting that penance ultimately lacked the sign that unconditionally accompanies a sacrament). A year later in England, King Henry XIII responded with a defense of the seven sacraments, calling Luther a poisonous serpent and an infernal wolf. In his reply, Against Henry the King of England, Luther called Henry the king of liars. Three years later, King Christian II of Denmark “told Luther that Henry VIII was ready to make England Protestant on the condition that Luther apologized for insulting Henry.” (Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer, 182). Luther recanted the insults…but not the content of The Babylonian Captivity of the Church.
In his famous treatise, Luther identified three “captivities” that enslaved the Roman church: (1) withholding the cup from the laity, (2) transubstantiation, (3) and the sacrifice of the mass. Luther stated frankly, “I now know for certain that the papacy is the kingdom of Babylon and the power of Nimrod, the mighty hunter [Gen. 10:8-9].” Appealing to Scripture and even to the church father Cyprian to advocate for the administering of both bread and wine to the people, Luther employed revolutionary rhetoric in order to bring down the tyranny for which he held such contempt. For Luther, a Lord’s Supper of one kind (bread only) was an incomplete sacrament that resulted in undue clerical authority: “The sacrament does not belong to the priests, but to all men. The priests are not lords, but servants in duty bound to administer both kinds to those who desire them, as often as they desire them. If they wrest this right from the laity and deny it to them by force, they are tyrants.” Luther’s language was nothing short of ecclesiastical and social upheaval.
In The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Luther acknowledges those who called him a “Wycliffite,” after the forerunner of the English Reformation John Wycliffe, the harshest medieval critic of the doctrine of transubstantiation. Luther reveled in the nickname. For the Wittenberg Reformer, the Roman Catholic doctrine was nothing short of “pseudo philosophy of Aristotle” at odds with Scripture and designed to scatter the people. Transubstantiation was “that Babel of a philosophy.” Luther’s attack upon the scholastic tradition was yet another populist assertion in a Latin work largely written for scholars. The mass, said Luther, was not itself a sacrifice or a work performed, but rather “nothing else than the divine promise or testament of Christ, sealed with the sacrament of his body and blood.” This redefinition of the mass, and Luther’s emphasis upon faith as “the lord and life of all works,” prompted a new definition of the role of the priesthood. According to Luther, “For in consecrating and administering, the priests are our servants.”
Perhaps Luther’s most revolutionary claim in The Babylonian Captivity of the Church is his definition of the church. Contrary to Roman Catholic theologians who defined the church in terms of the papacy and the created institutions, Luther made a distinction between the tyrannical papacy and the people themselves: “It was not the church which ordained these things, but the tyrants of the churches, without the consent of the church, which is the people of God.” For Luther, like Augustine, the church was the elect of God, and this had profound social implications for the sixteenth century world. Above all, however, it was not the authority of the people that became the arbiter of church doctrine. The authority of Scripture was the engine of Luther’s change: “Why do they flaunt the authority of the church and the power of the pope in my face? These do not annul the words of God and the testimony of the truth.” Luther’s social upheaval was nothing less than a call to return to the authority of the Bible.