We are so accustomed to think of the young Luther as a melancholy monk preoccupied with his own salvation that we sometimes lose sight of the fact that he was the age's most brilliant theologian. He led the revolution against Rome and traditional religion not as a visionary spiritual reformer, but as a skilled doctor of theology (Ozment, 231).In many ways, Luther was uniquely qualified to be used by God as "the tip of the spear" of the Reformation. But as James noted in a comment below, Luther notes that at first, he was "inexperienced." "At first I was all alone and certainly very inept and unskilled in conducting such great affairs. For I got into these turmoils by accident and not by will or intention. I call upon God himself as witness." [LW 34: 327-328]."
In my earlier post I outlined the process by which Luther came to understand the great doctrines of the Reformation. Bernard Lohse, in his work "Martin Luther's Theology" (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press 1999) traces what he calls "Luther's Theology in its Historical Development."
There were many, many things going on in these years. The Church was still reeling from "the great schism," when there were two, and even three competing popes were anathematizing each other and their followers, for a period that lasted some 78 years. This council ended the schism and in the year 1417 a single pope was elected, but that doesn't mean, by any stretch, that things had righted themselves.
One of the reasons for my writing on the early papacy is to establish a context for the papacy that Luther did not understand. Some would portray the papacy as a legitimate institution that had fallen; my hope has been to portray it as a completely illegitimate institution from the beginning.
For example, in 1492, Pope Innocent VIII died.
The ensuing conclave saw Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia elected as Alexander VI (1492-1503), although he was the only non-Italian in an electorate of twenty-three cardinals, of whom eight were nephews of former popes. (Roger Collins, Keepers of the Keys of Heaven: A History of the Papacy, New York, NY: Basic Books 2009, pg 339)Such was the inbred power structure that really had ruled, in one form or another, for centuries.
Thirty five years as cardinal had provided him with much wealth, numerous offices and several palaces, all of which were offered to fellow members of the college in return for their votes in the conclave (ibid).Fortunately, bribery in papal elections was outlawed after this. Eamon Duffy notes, "at the time of his election [he] was already the father of eight children, by at least three women. That such a man should have seemed a fit successor to Peter speaks volumes about the degradation of the papacy.
[A Spaniard,] he held sixeen bishoprics in Spain alone, and his office of vice chancellor was the most lucrative post in the Curia.While pope, Alexander "continued to live openly with his mistresses and in producing nine illegitimate children during his years as cardinal and pope." Defenders of the papacy use the "Alias Smith and Jones" defense in holding his place in "the succession": "For all the trains and banks he robbed, he never taught anyone."
His pontificate has long been regarded as the most scandalous and dissolute of any pope, certainly since the tenth century. His conduct came in for criticism in his own lifetime, but this was as nothing to how it was regarded in the centuries that followed, he and members of his family were accused of murdering many who stood in their way, and the pope's death in August 1503 and the simultaneous illness of his son Cesare were quickly attributed to a botched attempt on their part to poison one of the cardinals (ibid).
J.N.D. Kelly ("Oxford History of the Popes") said, "his consuming passion, gold and women apart, was the aggrandizement of his relatives, especially Vannozza's children. (She was a Roman Aristocrat.) Thus he soon named Cesare, still only eighteen, bishop of several sees, including the wealthy one of Valencia, and a year later, along with Alessandro Farnese (brother of Giulia, his current mistress), a cardinal. Cesare's brother Juan, Duke of Gandia, he married to a Spanish princess, and in 1497 he enfeoffed him with the duchy of Benevento, which he carved out of the papal state. For Lucrezia he arranged one magnificant marriage after the other. [Serial annulments, no doubt. Not one of them genuinely a marriage.] In his absence from Rome he sometimes left her as virtual regent in charge of official business. In June 1497 he was momentarily shattered by the murder of Juan, his special favourite, with suspicion falling on Cesare. Grief-stricken, he vowed to devote himself henceforth to church reform ... But he lacked the resolution to abjure sensuality; he soon resumed his pleasures and family machinations, with Cesare now increasingly his evil genius." (253).
Still, it is said "he took seriously" his ecclesiastical duties, "with a love of show and magnificance." "In the later years of his pontificate, Alexander VI became more concerned with the inheritances of his children." In exchange for annulling the marriage of King Lois XII of France, Cesare was made "Duke of Valentinois" and was given a princess to marry.
Alexander and Cesare "envisaged the appropriation of the entire papal state and central Italy," and "this project, with the systematic crushing of the great Roman families, filled the rest of the reign. The enormous sums required for its realization were raised by assassinations, followed by seizures of property, and by the cynical creation of cardinals who had to pay dearly for their elevation (Kelly, 253-254).
This is the world in which Martin Luther became a young man. In 1501 Luther entered the University of Erfurt; by 1505 he had earned his master of arts degree and entered the monastery of the Hermits of St. Augustine at Erfurt.