German Reformer; b. Eisleben, village in Thuringia, Nov. 10, 1483; d. there, Feb. 18, 1546. His parents, Hans Luder and Margaret Ziegler, had recently emigrated from the farming community of Möhra, where the Luder family had lived for many generations. As was the practice of the time, the child was baptized the following day by the pastor, Bartholomew Rennebecher; and since it was the feast of St. Martin of Tours, he was named after the sainted Roman soldier.
Early Years. Within a year after his birth the family moved to Mansfield, where the father was employed as a laborer in the copper mines. Luther's father was a strict disciplinarian and in his early childhood the family was beset by poverty. There is little evidence to argue, as Erik Erikson once did, that the atmosphere of the household was abnormal. By the turn of the 16th century his father's financial situation had improved, and in 1511 he became owner in a number of mines and foundries in the area. He had been elected to the city council in 1491. Young Martin was enrolled in the local Latin day school in 1488 and there began the traditional study of Latin grammar. In 1496 he was sent to Magdeburg, where he remained until Easter of the following year at a school conducted by the brethren of the common life. The next semester he transferred to Eisenach because he had relatives there.
Student at Erfurt. In April 1501 Luther matriculated at the University of Erfurt and enrolled in the bursa of St. George. Two of his professors, Jodocus Trutvetter and Bartholomew Arnold von Usingen, were followers of the via moderna. Whether Luther was deeply influenced by nominalism is still disputed. The picture drawn by Heinrich denifle, OP, that portrays Luther as an ossified Ockhamite is no longer tenable. Although Luther, in his later life, remarked that he belonged to the school of William of Ockham, he did not, on other occasions, hesitate to refer to the nominalists as"hoggish theologians." Nor was Luther, as his Dominican biographer contends, a "crass ignoramus." He received his baccalaureate in 1502 and immediately began the required studies for a master's degree. In January 1505 he passed the examinations after the shortest period of study possible, standing second in his class. Although the young Luther had but a slight knowledge of Greek, he was well acquainted with the classical Latin authors. Ovid, Vergil, Plautus, and Horace were well known to him. He was also fairly well acquainted with humanism. The humanist Hieronymus emser had lectured at Erfurt during the summer of 1504; and Luther was familiar with the Eclogues of the Latin humanist Baptista Mantuanus. Grotius Rubeanus, a close friend of young Luther, was painfully shocked at his decision to enter the monastery.
The Call to Religion. In the summer of 1505 Luther, influenced no doubt by his father, began the study of law. Sometime in July of the same year, while returning to Erfurt from a visit to Mansfield, he encountered a severe thunderstorm near the village of Stotternheim; as a lightning bolt threw him to the ground, he vowed to St. Anne in a sudden panic that he would become a monk. To assume that the decision to enter the monastery was as impromptu as it is often depicted does Luther an injustice. His strict religious upbringing, his natural bent toward piety, and above all the experiences of the last few years at the university were unquestionably factors of his move. In 1503 he had severely wounded himself by accidentally cutting the artery in his thigh and had spent many weeks in meditative recuperation. In the same year one of his closest friends, a fellow student, had died suddenly. The plague that struck the city of Erfurt in 1505 made him keenly aware of the preeminence of death. All of this indicates that a call to religion was something that had been in his thoughts for a long period.
Nor is it without significance that he chose to enter the monastery of the Hermits of St. Augustine. The city of Erfurt boasted a Dominican, a Franciscan, and a Servite monastery in addition to the Black Cloister, a member of the Observant, or stricter Augustinian, congregation of Saxony, which was by far the most severe religious house in the city. On July 16, 1505, much to the chagrin of his parents, who were already selecting a bride for the student of law, Luther entered the novitiate. Soon after his profession, the exact date of which is not known, he was told to prepare himself for the reception of Holy Orders. He was ordained a deacon by the suffragan bishop, Johann von Laasphe of Erfurt, on Feb. 27, 1507; he received the priesthood in the Erfurt cathedral on the following April 4th.
Professor at Wittenberg. Soon after ordination, Luther was sent to wittenberg, where the order held two professorships at the Elector Frederick's newly founded university. Johann von staupitz, vicar-general of the Saxon congregation of the Augustinians, held the chair of scriptural theology; Luther was given the chair of moral philosophy in the arts faculty. In addition to lecturing on the Nicomachean Ethics, Luther was also obliged to continue his theological studies. He received his baccalaureate in theology in the spring of 1509. The following autumn he returned again to Erfurt, where he continued with his study of the Sentences of Peter of Lombard and lectured on philosophy to the Augustinian students there. Luther's studies were interrupted in 1510, when he was chosen to accompany Staupitz to Rome. The vicargeneral had for years been identified with the reform group in the order who sought to unite both the observant, or stricter, group in the order with the more numerous conventuals. Luther probably spent a month in Rome, visiting its shrines and churches. He was not edified with the horde of unlettered clergy whom he encountered there, many of whom were unable to hear confessions. He later observed that the priests said Mass in such an irreverent fashion that it reminded him of a juggling act. Yet there is little evidence that the scandals of Rome had any bearing on the gradual religious transformation that was taking place in his mind.
After his return to Erfurt he was again sent to Wittenberg in the late summer of 1511. In October of 1512 he received the doctorate in theology and was assigned to the theological faculty succeeding Staupitz as professor of Scripture. The next five years were of vital importance in the development of Luther's theological ideas. During this period he lectured on the Psalms (1513–15), on the Epistle to the Romans (1515–16), the Epistle to the Galatians, and the Epistle to the Hebrews (1517–18). One gains some idea of the competence of the man in considering that in addition to following a monastic and academic schedule, he also preached at the castle church and held the office of Augustinian vicar of the district of Meissen and Thuringia.
Inner Conflict. If Luther had sought peace of mind in entering religion, he found it illusory. He gradually grew aware of the vast abyss between what he felt himself to be in his innermost self and the demands of God. He was increasingly conscious of the power of sin, and repeated confession brought him no peace. Further, the complacency that he felt at doing good seemed, as he said, "to poison his soul as the frost nips flowers in the bud." There were times when he felt on the brink of hell and the verge of despair. He tells us that while contemplating the righteousness of God in the monastery tower, probably in 1512, a new concept, a new illumination came to him, and "the gates of paradise were opened."
The study of the Epistle of Paul to the Romans had convinced him that the justice of God before which he trembled is not exacting, does not condemn, but is wholly beneficent. It is a justice that reinstates the sinner qua sinner in the eyes of God, in virtue of Christ's redemption. In explaining how this phenomenon is produced, Luther logically rejected the traditional teaching of the Church. For justification, no longer an objective transformation, is produced by the word of God, the Gospel. It is in, with, and through the Gospel that God works upon the soul through His Spirit. The soul remains passive and receptive. Thus Luther made an extremely personal experience the center of a new theory of salvation that was no longer in harmony with the one traditionally taught by the Church. These ideas were only gradually formed, but a study of the glosses and the notes kept by Luther's students during the years 1513 to 1518 leaves no doubt that they had formed the basis of his religious thought. They would probably have remained within the depths of his own inner spiritual struggle and never spread beyond the confines of the classroom where he lectured were it not for a series of events that brought the focus of all Christendom on the Wittenberg monk and changed the course of history.
The St. Peter's Indulgence. albrecht of brandenburg, brother of the elector Joachim, at the age of 23 was elected archbishop of Magdeburg and was, at the same time, given the administration of the diocese of Halberstadt. Both his age and the accumulation of two bishoprics were in direct violation of Canon Law; nor was his personal life beyond reproach. The Holy See condoned the appointment and a year later the same pluralist was elected archbishop of Mainz, a position that automatically made him prince elector, Reich-chancellor, and primate of all Germany. The move was undeniably inspired by political aspirations since it gave the Hohenzollerns two votes in the electoral college. Yet the price was incredibly high. For the dispensation to hold benefices in three dioceses Albrecht had to pay the Curia a sum of 10,000 golden ducats. Another 14,000 was demanded to pay up the arrears in pallium taxes for the See of Mainz. An agreement was made with the Curia whereby, for allowing the Peter's Indulgence to be preached in his episcopal territories, the bishop would receive one half of the income and the other half would go toward the construction of St. Peter's.
As principal agent for this sordid simoniacal act, the Fuggers chose the well-known indulgence preacher Dominican Johann tetzel. Of the indulgence agreement between the House of fugger, the Curia, and the archbishop of Mainz, Luther knew nothing. It was only when Tetzel began to preach the indulgence in the towns of Jüterbog and Zerbst on the northern boundary of Saxon territory that Luther felt it his duty to admonish his electoral highness, the archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg, regarding the difficulties Tetzel was causing. He wrote him on October 31, 1517: "Papal indulgences for the building of St. Peter's are hawked about under your illustrious sanction. I am not denouncing the sermons of the preachers who advertise them, for I have not seen them, but I regret that the faithful have conceived some erroneous notions about them. These unhappy souls believe that if they buy a letter of pardon they are sure of their salvation; also that souls fly out of purgatory as soon as money is cast into the chest, in short, that the grace conferred is so great that there is no sin whatever which cannot be absolved thereby, even if, as they say, taking an impossible example, a man should violate the mother of God. They also believe that indulgences free them from all guilt of sin."
The Ninety-five Theses. At the same time as Luther approached Tetzel with his criticisms he also wrote and circulated his attack upon indulgences, the so-called 95 theses, and announced his intention to hold a debate on their value. What had been for years a question in the mind of Luther, a matter of theology, now became a matter of reform. Most of the theses were not opposed to traditional Catholic doctrine.
Tetzel, who was in Berlin at the time the theses were published, was supported by the members of his order, and to confirm their confidence in his theological competence they later gave him an honorary degree in theology from their Roman college. Luther's own attitude toward his antagonist was anything but hostile. Later, when he heard that Tetzel was stricken with a fatal illness, he wrote him a consoling letter stating that the unfortunate affair was in no way the Dominican's responsibility. The roots of the controversy lay much deeper.
In early February 1518, Luther presented the bishop of Brandenburg with a series of Resolutiones on the theses, requesting that the bishop strike out whatever he found displeasing. He wrote, "I know that Christ does not need me. He will show His Church what is good for her without me. Nothing is so difficult to state as the true teaching of the Church, especially when one is a serious sinner as I am." He ended his letter of explanation by urging reform of the Church and pointing out that, as recent events proved, namely, the Lateran Council, the reform is the concern not of the pope alone or of the Cardinals but of the entire Christian world. The bishop answered Luther, informing him that he found no error in the Resolutiones and that in fact he thoroughly objected to the manner in which indulgences were being sold.
Denunciation from Rome. Rome had already been alerted to the dangers contained in Luther's novel doctrine by the archbishop of Mainz. In view of the recent negotiations between Albrecht and the Curia, it is understandable that his protest was interpreted in terms of declining revenues rather than threatened dogma. However, with the powerful Dominican Order now denouncing the Wittenberg professor, Rome had no alternative but to act. Following an established pattern, the Roman authorities, having failed to silence Luther through his own order, instigated a formal canonical process against him. The provincial of the Saxon province of the Dominicans, Herman Rab, induced the fiscal procurator, Marius de Perusco, to have the pope instigate charges against Luther. At the procurator's request, an auditor of the Curia, Girolamo Ghinucci, was entrusted with the preliminary investigation, and a Dominican, Sylvestro Prierias, Master of the Sacred Palace and censor librorum of Rome, was commissioned to draw up a theological opinion on Luther's doctrinal writings.
A thorough Thomist, Prierias handled Luther's writings as if he were conducting a scholastic disputation. His Dialogus was nothing more than a polemic tagging the various theses as erroneous, false, presumptuous, or heretical. A citation, which reached Luther on August 7, 1518, was drawn up demanding that he appear personally in Rome within 60 days to defend himself. The citation and the dialogue were dispatched to the general of the Dominican Order, Tommaso de Vio, commonly known as cajetan, probably the outstanding theologian of the century.
The Meeting with Cajetan. During the same month, the pope, now informed of Emperor Maximilian's willingness to prosecute Luther, instructed Cajetan, whom he had appointed as his legate to the Diet of Augsburg, to cite the accused to appear before him. An order of extradition was also sent to Frederick the Wise, Luther's territorial sovereign, and also to his provincial, Gerhard Hecker, who was commanded to arrest him. Upon receipt of the citation, Luther immediately moved to forestall his appearance before what he considered anything but an impartial tribunal. Supported by Frederick the Wise, he demanded that his case be tried in Germany and by a group of competent scholars. Frederick managed to obtain a promise from Cajetan of a fair hearing and pledged safe-conduct to the young monk. On October 12, Luther appeared before the Dominican cardinal and his entourage of Italian jurists. It was Cajetan's hope to obtain recantation by paternal exhortations, but Luther obstinately refused to make an act of revocation, maintaining that he would not do so as long as he was not convinced of his errors on a basis of scriptural proof. He flatly denied the validity of Pope Clement VI's decretal on indulgences, Unigenitus. When Luther suggested that the decretal be submitted to the opinion of a Council, Catejan accused him of being a Gersonist. (see gerson, jean; conciliarism, history of.)
On October 16, Luther informed the cardinal of his willingness to stop commenting on indulgences and his readiness to listen to the Church. He apologized for his violent outbursts against the pope. Yet there was not a word of recantation. To his brethren at Wittenberg he wrote: "The Cardinal may be an able Thomist, but he is not a clear Christian thinker, and so he is about as fit to deal with this matter as an ass is to play the harp." Cajetan, thwarted in his attempt to reconcile Luther, demanded that the Elector Frederick extradite Luther and send him to Rome for trial. On November 28, Luther appealed to a general council. The appeal was actually a legal device intended to stay the civil effects of the excommunication that was now imminent.
Rome and the Impending Imperial Election. The delay of the excommunication of Luther was not a result so much of this legal maneuver as it was of a developing political situation that involved the papacy once again in the affairs of Germany. The Emperor Maximilian had since 1513 been planning the election of his grandson, Charles, Duke of Burgundy and King of Castile and Aragon, as Holy roman emperor. The election of Charles would have constituted a threat to the territorial independence of the pope because of the latter's sovereignty over Naples. Hence the Curia, favoring an election of either Francis I of France or, preferably, Frederick, Luther's sovereign, made efforts to delay any move that would antagonize the elector. To win the support of Frederick, Karl von miltitz, a swaggering, alcoholic Saxon, holding the office of papal notary in the Rome court, was sent to the elector with a plan to have Luther tried in a German ecclesiastical court, preferably in Trier. In addition he was to present the elector with the Golden Rose, as well as a letter of legitimization for Frederick's two children. None of the supporters of Luther were, however, deceived by the boastful Saxon. In fact, his presence in Germany supported their conviction that politics, not theology, was behind Rome's denunciation of Luther.
Leo X's Bull of Excommunication. A bull of excommunication, Exsurge Domine, was issued in Rome on June 15, 1520, and Johann eck, Luther's opponent in his debates with karlstadt at Leipzig in July 1519, was commissioned to promulgate it throughout the empire. In September he published the bull in the diocese of Brandenburg and in the diocese of Saxony. Before the 60-day time limit, within which he had to submit, Luther again appealed to a general council. The appeal did not delay, however, the final bull of excommunication, Decet Romanum Pontificem, which pronounced sentence on Luther on January 3, 1521. In April of that year he appeared before the Diet in Worms; and although protected by a writ of safe-conduct, he was declared henceforth a criminal in the Empire.
It is one of the strange turns of history that Luther was never officially prosecuted in his own country, although excommunication, by labeling him a heretic, made him liable to the death penalty in the Empire. A number of circumstances combined to render the ecclesiastical and civil penalties ineffective. In the first place there was strong public reaction that rebelled at the prospect of condemning a man who had become the outright spokesman for their own grievances against corruption in the Church. The conviction that until a council had actually pronounced against him, he and his followers were not definitely cut off from the Catholic Church was widespread. Finally, the majority of the German bishops, still influenced by conciliarism, were hardly inclined to stand in the way of a man whose attacks on papal claims to ecclesiastical supremacy expressed their own opposition to Romanism.
Almost everywhere the publication of the bull met with strong opposition. In Luther's home diocese of Brandenburg, the local ordinary, Hieronymus Schulz, did not dare to publish it. The University of Wittenberg brushed it aside as a further example of Eck's skullduggery. There, on Dec. 10, 1520, before an assembly of students, Luther had consigned the bull to the flames together with a copy of Canon Law. In Erfurt the document was cast into the river, and in Leipzig a riot of the students at the University forced the executor to flee the city.
Writings of 1520. During the summer and fall of 1520, Luther wrote what many consider, after the translation of the Bible, to be the most important of his works. In a series of pamphlets, An Appeal to the Nobility of the German Nation, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and the Liberty of a Christian Man, he outlined what he felt would be a program for reforming and revitalizing the Church. The first edition (some 4,000 copies) of the Appeal to the Nobility was sold out between August 18 and 23. In this work he pointed out the three walls the Romanists have built about themselves that constitute the main obstacles to true reform and are responsible for the decline of Christianity: the claim that civil government has no rights over them, the superiority of papal decrees over Scripture, and, finally, the superiority of the pope over a council.
In early October Luther penned his second famous work, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. While the first had been an attack on the century-old abuses of the Church and contained little that was novel, this next work openly struck a blow at the sacramental system and the Sacrifice of the Mass. Written in Latin, it was intended for theologians and scholars and opened the eyes of many, for the first time, to the radical elements in his new doctrines. Erasmus declared that it precluded all possibility of peace with the papacy. The third great work of this period, On Christian Liberty, continued to strike out at the roots of papal Christianity by emphasizing the primacy of Scripture, the priesthood of the laity, and the doctrine of justification by faith alone. In emphasizing Christian liberty, Luther stresses the freedom expressed in obedience to God and service to one's neighbor. He traces the religious implications of justification by faith and impugns the idea that good works are the mechanical performance of ecclesiastical laws. Rather, they are the fruit of faith from which they flow. Although these three writings in a certain sense epitomize the salient features of the early Lutheran movement, it would be unjust to say that they are the very heart and soul of Luther's doctrine. Neither would it be correct to assert that Luther or his followers felt that they had in any way separated themselves from the Catholic Church by condemning the abuses within it. But the three treatises of 1520, widely circulated in the next decade, did win large numbers of converts for the evangelical movement.
Progress of the Lutheran Reform. While returning from Worms Luther was kidnapped by the agents of Frederick the Wise and placed in hiding at Wartburg, where he continued to pour forth his scriptural and reformatory writings. The years between 1521 and 1525 were the most decisive period in the growth of Lutheranism. Since neither the bull of excommunication nor the Edict of Worms were actually put into effect in the empire, the reform movement continued to flourish. A number of events, however, caused a loss in its original momentum. As a popular uprising it was thwarted by the very forces that Luther had originally hoped to liberate. For several generations the peasants in the south and west of Germany had threatened local governments with grievances arising out of the economic and sociological changes of this transitional period. The doctrines of Luther, particularly his teaching on Christian liberty, were quickly transformed into demands for social reform. Eventually, peasant uprisings broke out in the Black Forest region in June 1524 and spread throughout Swabia, Franconia, Thuringia, and parts of the Rhineland. Luther firmly opposed the revolt, asserting that rebellion would stir up more ills than it would cure. The subsequent failure of the revolt and the urging of Luther that the civil authorities step in to stop the political anarchy that was threatening large areas of the Empire gave a definite impetus to the formation of territorial or state churches. see peasants' war (1524–25).
In the fall of 1526 philip of hesse summoned a synod in Homberg. There, under the direction of former Franciscan Franz Lambert of Avignon, a new church ordinance was imposed on the territory of Hesse. Monasteries and other ecclesiastical properties were confiscated, Catholic pastors were removed, and the Lutheran adaptation of the Mass was introduced. The following year in Saxony a commission of lawyers and theologians, after a series of visitations to the parishes in the area, published regulations governing divine service and the establishment of schools to instruct the faithful in the new gospel teaching.
To implement the new state church regulations Luther wrote his Large Catechism—a manual of instruction for pastors—and his Small Catechism—both a devotional work and an instruction for the faithful in the fundamentals of the Christian religion.
A loss of humanist support inflicted on the cause of Lutheranism a blow even more severe than that incurred with the disaffection of the peasants. Luther's De Servo Arbitrio, an attack upon free will, heightened the difference between his own position and that of his earlier humanist sympathizers. In denying freedom of the will it must not be assumed that Luther intended to deny individual responsibility. Throughout his life, beginning with the theses, his appeal to the Church had been one of repentance. A denial of responsibility would have completely nullified this call.
The Confessio Augustana. The break with humanism and the growing interference of German political leaders turned the attention of the reformer to the more practical implementations of his design. The controversy on the Eucharist that arose at the same time that Luther wrote his De Servo Arbitrio made it obvious that some strong clarification of doctrinal position was necessary if the movement was not to dissolve into warring parties. Doctrinal divisions within the reform movement accentuated by the Eucharistic controversy at Marburg in 1529 had their counterpart in the political sphere. Between 1524 and 1529 the political leadership of the Lutheran movement gradually passed from the Saxon electors to the Landgrave Philip of Hesse. At the Diet of Speyer (1526) it was already apparent that a division between the Catholic and the Lutheran princes within the empire was taking shape. In 1530 at Augsburg, Luther's closest associate at Wittenberg, Melanchthon, who had already attempted to systematize Luther's teachings in his Loci communes in 1521, drew up the Confessio Augustana, the final embodiment of the basic Lutheran, or reformed, doctrine. An examination of the document gives some insight into the perplexities of the religious situation as it stood after almost 12 years of religious controversy. It also demonstrated the ambivalence that invested the expression "reform" long after the Edict of Worms. Melanchthon maintained the conviction that he had not departed from the teaching of the Catholic Church in a single dogma, and Elector John of Saxony strongly rejected the accusation that the signers of the Confession had separated themselves from the Church. The Confession addressed to the emperor laid down the fundamental points of the new doctrine and repudiated all rival doctrines.
After the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, which Luther was not permitted to attend (being refused safe-conduct by the emperor), he tended to remain more and more aloof from the political developments that continued to detract from the religious aspect of the reform movement. The Augustinian monastery in Wittenberg had become secularized and was finally deeded to Luther in 1532. With few interruptions Luther continued to teach at the university until his death.
Luther's Marriage and Later Years. In 1525 Luther married Katherina von Bora, some 16 years his junior. She came from the town of Lippendorf, near Leipzig, and at the age of five she had been sent to the Benedictine nuns near Brehana. Four years later she transferred to a Cistercian cloister near Grimma, where her aunt was abbess and an older sister, a nun. She took her vows here in 1515 but during the generally troubled times in 1523 joined in the exodus from her convent. Wittenberg had become a refuge for hundreds of monks and nuns who left their monasteries during these years, and it was there that she met Luther. Their marriage caused a great stir in Europe. erasmus, in correspondence with Luther at that time on the Diatribe, attributed the failure of Luther to answer his letters to his marriage, He wittily remarked that in comedies troubles are wont to end in marriage with peace to all. He added that he felt the marriage was timely as he heard that a child was born ten days afterward. It was his hope that Luther would be milder in his attacks on the Church since even the fiercest beasts can be tamed by their female mates. Later on he apologized for his inference about the child, remarking that he had always been skeptical about the old legend that the antichrist would be born of a monk and a nun. Were this true, there would have been too many antichrists in the world already. The Luther household became a gathering place for needy priests, poor relatives, and indigent students. In addition to his own six children, four of whom survived their parents, Luther brought up eleven orphaned children. Luther's almost reckless hospitality and generosity to friends necessitated income greater than his professor's salary provided. He constantly refused the honorarium demanded of students in the German universities and turned down frequent offers for the sale of his manuscripts.
During these years Luther continued his commentaries on the New Testament and revised many of his earlier writings. During his lifetime he published more than 400 works, which fill more than 100 volumes. With the possible exception of Goethe, no single writer influenced the development of German literature as did Luther.
Luther's support of Philip of Hesse in the celebrated case of bigamy did little to enhance the reformer's cause. He had approved the marriage on March 4, 1540, of the duke to Margaret von der Saal, even though Philip was married to Christina, daughter of Duke George of Saxony. Luther's recommendations to Philip of Hesse were virtually the same as those he had made to Henry VIII of England: he should take a mistress rather than divorce. They were also consonant with the arguments he had made about marriage as early as The Babylonian Captivity of the Church in 1520. There he had argued that divorce and annulment were contrary to divine law, but that the problems of a barren marriage might be resolved in the manner of the Old Testament Patriarchs, that is, through the employment of a concubine. In so arguing he was not entirely at variance with many contemporary Catholic theologians, including Cajetan. The convocation of the Council of Trent gave him little hope that any reconciliation between Protestants and Catholics would result. In one of his final works against the papacy he refers to the Council as a juggling contest. Luther died of a stroke on the morning of Feb. 16, 1546, at Eisleben, where he had been attempting to arbitrate a disagreement between the courts of Mansfield.
Evaluation. It is an exaggeration to identify the Reformation solely with the person of Luther and to equate all of Protestantism with his doctrines. Nevertheless, one must admit the enormous influence that he exercised upon the movement. The survival of Luther's own brand of evangelicalism was greatly aided by the rise of numerous reformers elsewhere in Northern Europe, that is, by the rise of figures like Zwingli, Bucer, Calvin, and a host of others. Lutheranism's success as a protest against the Church's dominant teachings concerning salvation, and its later growth as a church independent of Rome, is also in part attributable to Luther's long and productive life. He continued to exert his stamp upon the evangelical cause for a quarter century after the movements birth. And upon his death in 1546, he had trained large numbers of pastors and theologian who were prepared to carry on his legacy.
Bibliography: His writings are found in several large collections. Wittenberg ed., 19 v. (12 v. in German, 7 v. in Latin; 1539–59); j. g. walch ed., 24 v. (Halle 1740–53); Erlangen ed., 105 v. (67 v. in German, 38 v. in Latin; 1826–86); Weimar ed. by j. k. f. knaake et al. (1883–); Luthers Werke in Auswahl, ed. o. clemen et al. (5th ed. Berlin 1959–); an Engish ed. by j. pelikan and h. p. lehmann (St. Louis-Philadelphia 1955–). Career of the Reformer, v.31, ed. h. j. grimm, v.32, ed. g. forell, arranges his writings about his life in chronological order. k. aland et al., Hilfsbuch zum Lutherstudium (Gütersloh 1957), an analytical listing of all Luther's writings. Literature. k. scottenloher, Bibliographie zur deutschen Geschichte im Zeitalter der Glaubensspaltung, 1517–85, 6 v. (Leipzig 1933–40) 1:458–629. h. jedin, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 1957–65); suppl., Das Zweite Vatikanische Konzil: Dokumente und kommentare, ed. h. s. brechter et al., pt. 1 (1966) 6:1223–30, bibliog. h. bornkamm and h. volz, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 1957–65) 480–495, 520–523, bibliog. j. pacquier, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant, 15 v. (Paris 1903–50; Tables générales 1951–) 9.1:1146–1335, bibliog. g. ritter, Luther, Gestalt und Tat (Munich 1959). k. a. meissinger, Der katholische Luther (Munich 1952). e.g. rupp, The Righteousness of God: Luther Studies (New York 1954). h. bÖhmer, Road to Reformation, tr. j. w. doberstein and t. g. tappert (Philadelphia 1946). h. s. denifle, Luther und Luthertum, 2 v. (Mainz 1904–09), Eng. Luther and Lutherdom, tr. r. volz (Somerset, Ohio 1917–), a polemical, unsympathetic view. h. grisar, Martin Luther: His Life and Work, ed. f. j. eble and a. preuss (2d ed. St. Louis 1935; repr. Westminster, MD 1950), a psychological study. p. j. reiter, Martin Luthers Umwelt, Charakter und Psychose, 2 v. (Copenhagen 1937–41). r. h. fife, The Revolt of Martin Luther (New York 1957). e. h. erikson, Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History (New York 1959). e. w. zeeden, Martin Luther und die Reformation im Urteil des deutschen Luthertums, 2 v. (Freiburg 1950–52) v.1 tr. r. m. bethell, The Legacy of Luther (Westminster, Md. 1954). a. herte, Das katholische Lutherbild im Bann der Lutherkommentare des Cochläus, 3 v. (Münster 1943). j. lortz, Die Reformation in Deutschland, 2 v. (Freiburg 1949). r. bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York 1950). j. m. todd, Martin Luther (London 1964). j. p. dolan, History of the Reformation (New York 1965). m. brecht, Martin Luther, j. l. schaaf, trans. (Philadelphia 1985). g. ebeling, Luther, r. a. wilson, trans. (London 1970). h.a. oberman, Luther, e. walliser-schwarzbart, Trans. (New Haven 1989). d. steinmetz, Luther and Staupitz (Durham, NC 1980). d. steinmetz, Luther in Context (Bloomington, IN 1986).
[j. p. dolan/eds.]
Luther, Martin (1483–1546)
LUTHER, MARTIN (1483–1546)
LUTHER, MARTIN (1483–1546), German theologian and author. Martin Luther came to be easily the most well-known public figure—and the most published author—of his time. He was born on 10 November 1483 to Hans and Margarethe Luther in the town of Eisleben and went to school in Mansfeld and Magdeburg and then in Eisenach. His father was in the copper mining business, and wanted Martin to become a lawyer. He entered the University of Erfurt in 1501 and completed the studies necessary for a master's degree four years later. By that time, however, he was suffering from doubts about the meaning of his life and from fears of death, and in the summer of 1505, against his father's wishes, he became a friar of the Observant Augustinians at Erfurt; he took monastic vows in 1506 and was ordained a priest in 1507. On a trip to Rome for the order in 1510–1511, he was disturbed by the corruption he found there, typified by the sale of indulgences to raise money for the rebuilding of St. Peter's. He returned to Saxony, earned his doctorate in 1512, and became professor of biblical exegesis at the University of Wittenberg, a post he held until 1546; he was also the preacher at the church in Wittenberg.
In his lectures on the Psalms and on Paul's Epistles, Luther began to preach the doctrine of salvation by faith rather than by works. Meanwhile, the popular Dominican preacher and papal fundraiser Johann Tetzel appeared in the area to proclaim that the pope had authorized the sale of St. Peter's indulgences; Luther was infuriated to the point of composing a letter of protest to the archbishop of Mainz and posting his Ninety-Five Theses on the Sale of Indulgences on the church door at Wittenberg on 31 October 1517. By the end of the year, the theses had been printed and, a short while later, translated into German and spread throughout the Holy Roman Empire. The archbishop sent the theses to Pope Leo X, who summoned Luther to Rome to answer charges of heresy in 1518. Frederick III (Frederick the Wise; ruled 1486–1525) of Saxony intervened and arranged for Luther to have a formal hearing at Augsburg before the papal legate Cajetan rather than being sent to Rome. Luther refused to retract the views expressed in his theses, maintaining that there was no biblical justification for indulgences, and appealed to a papal council. There followed in 1519 a widely publicized debate at Leipzig between Luther and Johann Eck, a professor from Ingolstadt, on the subject of church authority. Luther's publication of three treatises in 1520 that called for revolutionary changes in late medieval German political, social, and religious life led to a papal bull excommunicating him in 1521; Luther publicly burnt the bull along with a copy of canon law and was called to the Diet of Worms for the purpose of recanting his teachings. He refused and was placed under the ban of the empire, which designated him an "outlaw" whom anyone could kill without legally committing murder.
His protector Frederick III of Saxony sent his soldiers to take Luther to the castle at Wartburg, where he spent a year writing pamphlets, preparing sermons on the Epistles and the Gospels, and translating the New Testament from Greek into German. He returned to Wittenberg in 1522 and resumed teaching and preaching. He urged the establishment of schools for all children (including girls), opposed the German Peasants' War, began the organization of the Saxon church, wrote hymns, a Small Catechism, and a Large Catechism, as well as numerous commentaries and treatises.
In 1525 Luther married Katharina von Bora, a former Cistercian nun who had fled her convent two years earlier under the influence of the Reformation. The couple moved into the former Augustinian monastery where Luther had lived as a monk; they had six children, three boys and three girls, and they also took in the six children of Luther's sister after her death; visitors reported that their home was always filled with students, guests, and boarders. Luther died at Eisleben on 18 February 1546 and was buried in the castle church at Wittenberg. In his funeral oration to faculty and students at Wittenberg, his long-time colleague and friend Philipp Melanchthon observed that in Luther "God gave this last age a sharp physician on account of its great sickness."
Luther was in his own time and remains now an object of passionate approval and disapproval, whom even supposedly scholarly accounts praised (and praise) for whatever their authors find praiseworthy in their own time while condemning him for all that they might judge as repugnant in their worlds. On the other hand, praising and condemning the reformer for all the "right" reasons and in just the "right" measures according to one's own time and culture amounts to thin porridge. The truest story is far more profound: Luther was at the same time quintessentially medieval and the single person who did most to put in motion the events that moved the clock of Western civilization into early modern times.
The notion that Luther was "medieval" refers to his motivating concerns rather than to any religious views that are no longer fashionable in polite circles, such as taking the figure of Satan or the Antichrist literally. Instead, Luther's life displays a consistent, driven search for assurance that he and those he taught and to whom he preached should be assured of their salvation both in the here and now and in the world to come. His fundamental concern was for the "care of souls," first his own and then the souls of those he served. In and of itself, this single-minded focus marks him as a pre-modern religious figure.
By the same token, the essential consequences of Luther's life and career are that, willy-nilly, the content of his personal spiritual quest, and the one he taught his students, changed dramatically. This change was so fundamental that, in combination with the circumstances of the early sixteenth century, it affected both the internal and public lives of many others. They too, unintentionally and perhaps even unconsciously, found themselves leaving the Middle Ages and moving into the early modern period.
The special indulgence sale of 1517, to which Luther objected in the Theses, has generally made indulgences the best known of the religious practices of the time. In fact, for the average believer, the sacrament of confession and penance was a far more common encounter with the medieval confrontation of sin, death, guilt, and wounded consciences. Above all, ever since the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) the faithful were obligated to go to confession at least annually, and most commonly during Lent or in preparation for partaking of Holy Communion at Easter. By contrast, going on a pilgrimage, venerating relics, and the like were all further and optional ways of strengthening and demonstrating one's faith.
For his part, Luther confessed his sins to another person and frequently on a more than daily basis. It remains impossible, of course, to learn exactly what happened within the confines of the confessional. The late medieval manuals suggest a certain rigor. Frequently enough, for example, someone would come and be unable to think of any particular sin that he or she had committed. At this point, the confessor had recourse to a printed list of questions that might be asked, such as, "Have you ever had sexual relations with your spouse for reasons other than procreation?" "Did you or your spouse enjoy the encounter?" Answering yes to either of both questions produced two sins for which penance must be done. Being first a novice and then a friar of the Observant Augustinians in Erfurt, the questions that Luther was asked and was taught to ask himself naturally turned to the internal status of his soul and in particular to the strength and commitment of his personal faith. From the posting of the theses forward, he never ceased in fact to inveigh against this practice of "inquiring about secret sins."
In the preface to the Latin works, which he completed in 1545, one year before his death, Luther eloquently and accurately described the changes that overcame his thinking, indeed his personal faith. There, he detailed rejecting the theology he had been taught, that the righteousness of God was a divine quality with which God judged humanity, and how he realized that it was rather the gift that God bestowed for Christ's sake on unrighteous people, and to which they cleaved in this life by faith alone. The basics of his more developed position appeared publicly in the Theses for the Heidelberg Disputation (spring 1518), in his lecture hall at the University of Wittenberg (1515–1519), and definitively in Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen (1520; On the freedom of a Christian). They lay beneath his insistence at Leipzig (1519) that "a simple layman armed with the Scriptures is mightier than pope and councils without them." Their consequences for Christianity and for Christendom became undeniable in An den christlichen Adel deutscher Nation (Address to the Christian nobility) and De captivitate Babylonica ecclesiae praeludium (On the Babylonian captivity of the church), both of 1520.
Each struck fundamental and telling blows against the medieval ideal of Latin Christendom. Each had politically, institutionally, and religiously revolutionary consequences. Many at the time regarded the Address as a call to arms against everything Roman, a call that—to the likes of Ulrich von Hutten, for example—included the political arrangements of the Holy Roman Empire. Luther cast his treatise as an appeal to the "Christian nobility" (or "ruling class" as some prefer to translate), the Christlichen Adel, to proceed with the reforms that the papacy refused to consider. The problem he faced was that common opinion held overwhelmingly that actually reforming the church was far beyond the competence of secular rulers, no matter how very Christian and upstanding they might be. Only those who had been ordained as priests, at a minimum, had the right to intervene in the affairs of the church in favor of or against any of its practices. There were many places in which local practice decreed that, if there were a property dispute between a clerical and a civil foundation, the case would be heard in an ecclesiastical court, and its outcome would be in little doubt.
This public and sanctioned conviction Luther called "the first wall" behind which papal prerogative protected itself. It was also the first one that he attacked. He did it with his famous teaching on the "priesthood of all believers," which grew directly from the proclamation that all Christians lived by the same grace through faith in the same Christ without distinctions between them. The only differences turned on the principal office or calling that a particular person had, regardless of whether he or she served in the temporal or spiritual spheres. Any baptized Christian was eligible to be called by the believers to preach, to baptize, and to administer the sacrament of the Lord's Supper on either a short- or long-term basis. With one stroke, Luther at least theoretically destroyed the very social class that helped constitute the social and political—as well as religious—reality of late medieval Christendom.
Luther's treatise The Babylonian Captivity of the Church performed much the same function with respect to specifically religious activities. Erasmus thought this the most radical of his treatises, for in a few pages, published initially in Latin, Luther attacked the medieval sacramental system at its core, reducing the number of sacraments from seven to first three and then (on the final pages) two. Two consequences followed. In the first place, if one accepted Luther's argument, then the Church of Rome no longer had anything to offer the laity that was essential to salvation. As then constituted, its raison d'être had ceased to exist. From pope to priest, they were all useless.
But there was an even more important aspect to what Luther had wrought. As he was working his way through one sacrament after another, he developed a consistent standard for what constituted a sacrament. It required biblical evidence that Christ had founded the practice and that it consisted of a promise added to a physical object. Thus, the central sacrament—confession and penance—disappeared and with it went any semblance of religious authority that the clergy might hold over the laity as a matter of principle.
Yet, Luther should not be called a "reformer" without qualification. He made no effort to replace what he tore down with a "better" edifice. Instead, he and his colleagues proceeded to construct a new institution chiefly through ad hoc measures such as visitations that had the sole objective of securing the preaching of the Word of forgiveness through Christ and in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper. All else they relegated to the world in which Christians carried out their vocations. Thus, to understand Luther requires grasping the contradictory theses with which he began On the Freedom of a Christian, published in 1520: "A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all." As time passed and the cause fell to less perceptive figures, this distinction metamorphosed into what became the dichotomy between church and state. In this regard and with these changes, the transition from the medieval world of Latin Christendom into early modern Europe was complete, whereas by contrast the old tensions, polarities, and rivalries persisted in France, Italy, Spain, and Catholic portions of the Holy Roman Empire until the French Revolution.
See also Bible: Translations and Editions ; German Literature and Language ; Lutheranism ; Melanchthon, Philipp ; Peasants' War, German ; Reformation, Protestant ; Saxony .
Luther, Martin. D. Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe. Weimar, 1883–. The standard critical edition, the unsurpassed work of generations of scholars, which now consists of more than 100 volumes. Comprises Luther's published works, correspondence, the German Bible, and table talks. Commonly referred to as "the Weimar edition" or simply "WA."
——. Luther's Works. Translated and edited by Jaroslav Pelikan, Helmut Lehmann, et al. 55 vols. St. Louis and Philadelphia, 1955–1986. The standard English translation, which is not completely reliable for a number of reasons.
Brecht, Martin. Martin Luther. Translated by James Schaaf. 3 vols. Philadelphia and Minneapolis, 1985–1993. With three large volumes, thorough attention to detail, and the German apparatus by and large intact, these are the volumes for the serious beginner.
Edwards, Mark U. Printing, Propaganda, and Martin Luther. Berkeley, 1994.
Kittelson, James M. Luther the Reformer: The Story of the Man and His Career. Minneapolis, 1986.
Kolb, Robert. Martin Luther as Prophet, Teacher, Hero: Images of the Reformer, 1520–1620. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1999.
McGrath, Alister E. Luther's Theology of the Cross: Martin Luther's Theological Breakthrough. Oxford, 1985.
Oberman, Heiko. Luther: Man between God and the Devil. Translated by Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart. New Haven, 1989.
James M. Kittelson
Luther, Martin (1483–1546)
Martin Luther, the German theologian and leader of the Protestant Reformation, was born at Eisleben, Saxony. His father came of peasant stock, but established himself during Luther's boyhood as a successful copper miner in Mansfeld. From 1501 to 1505 Luther attended the University of Erfurt, and then, at his father's wish, he began the study of law; but a spiritual crisis, occasioned by a violent thunderstorm, induced him to enter the Erfurt monastery of the Augustinian Friars. Despite conscientious and even overscrupulous attention to his monastic duties, Luther was obsessed by dread of God's anger, and his superior tried to direct the young man's energies and undoubted ability into a scholar's calling. From 1512 he was biblical professor at the new University of Wittenberg, a position he held, despite interruptions, until his death.
Three stages may be distinguished in Luther's theological development. Between 1512 and 1517, and probably (in the judgment of most scholars) not later than 1515, his biblical studies led to a theological reorientation, at the center of which was an interpretation of the justice of God in Romans 1:17, not as a divine attribute expressed in punishment and reward, but as the activity by which God makes men just ("justifies" them). This justice of God is identical with His grace: It is not conditional upon human merit, but is received by faith alone (faith itself being a work of God in man). The working out of this basic insight made Luther increasingly critical of late scholastic theology and of ecclesiastical abuses. The appearance of the Ninety-five Theses on indulgences (1517), although they were not intended as "un-Catholic," was interpreted by Luther's opponents as ecclesiastically disloyal and subversive. Luther had, indeed, touched on the heart of medieval piety, the sacramental system, since indulgences belonged to the sacrament of penance.
The second period of Luther's development, from 1517 to 1521, was marked by his struggle with the Roman authorities, during which he abandoned the theory of papal, and even ecclesiastical, infallibility. In his Babylonian Captivity (1520), he made a systematic attack on the sacramental system, reinterpreting a sacrament as, like preaching, a form of the divine Word, by which God offers man His justice and creates the response of faith. The "church" is defined, not in terms of hierarchical authority, but as the communion of those whom Christ rules with His Word, all of whom are priests. Luther's basic insight into the character of Christian justice (or righteousness) was sharpened during this same period by greater precision in the distinction (already made before 1517) between Law and Gospel. The Law of God can only demand and condemn; it cannot be used by man as a means of self-salvation through strict obedience. The security of man before God lies solely in the Gospel, with its word of free forgiveness.
During the third period, after 1521, Luther's attention was turned to rival reformers who departed from him on particular points, or who demanded a more radical transformation of the church than he was prepared to countenance. Many of the radicals sought to establish communities in which the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount should be the sole rule of social conduct. Against them, Luther again argued for the distinction between Law and Gospel. Just as it is wrong to place Law between God and the conscience, so it is wrong to regulate society by the Gospel. The conscience needs the gospel of forgiveness, but society can only be founded upon the law of retributive justice (though Law should always be the agency of love). The two "realms," or "kingdoms," of Heaven and Earth—that is, the two ways in which God rules over the world of men—are not to be confused.
In his controversy with the humanist leader Desiderius Erasmus, which also belongs within the third stage of his development, Luther again believed himself to be fighting for the gospel of forgiveness. He acknowledged that Erasmus's selection of the theme to be debated—namely, the freedom of the will—came closer to the decisive issue than did the questions of the papacy, purgatory, and indulgences. Luther was not, of course, interested in the psychology of human action as such but in preserving his original insight into the agency of divine grace. He acknowledged a measure of human freedom in matters that do not concern salvation, but refused to make salvation depend at any point on the inherent possibilities of human nature. He therefore located the power of man's decision for God in the Gospel itself, and in the secret influence of the Holy Spirit. For Luther, this did not mean that God acts coercively, thereby doing violence to man's will, but that God is sovereign over the will and can direct it to His ends. Man acts voluntarily (that is, as he wills) even in those matters that concern his salvation. But the will itself is controlled by God. It cannot change itself from an evil to a good will: It must be changed under the influence of the Spirit.
Luther was not, of course, a philosopher. He was primarily a theologian, obliged by circumstances to become a rebel and a reformer. Indeed, it is often supposed that he was an implacable enemy of philosophy, and to this problem the remainder of this article will be devoted. It will appear how closely Luther's views on reason and philosophy are related to the central theological concerns (Christian justice and the two realms of Heaven and Earth) that have been sketched above.
Attitude toward Philosophy
It is not hard to document from Luther's own writings the common accusation that he was an antiintellectualist. His description of reason as "the Devil's Whore" is well known, and he recommended that the faithful sacrifice reason, or slay it, as the enemy of God. Many have seen in this apparent antirationalism evidence of Luther's Ockhamist heritage, but this is an oversimplification of an intricate historical problem. Luther did not invariably decry reason. In his celebrated appearance before the Diet of Worms (1521) he seemed to appeal to a double norm—Scripture and reason. (He refused to recant unless convinced by "the testimonies of Scripture or by evident reason.") And sometimes he showered extravagant praise upon reason as the greatest of God's gifts, as the "inventress and mistress of all the arts, of medicine and law, of whatever wisdom, power, virtue and glory men possess in this life."
Luther accepted the traditional view that reason set man apart from the brute beasts and gave him dominion over the world. Clearly, the problem is to explain, not an extreme one-sidedness, but a strange ambivalence. And the appeal to Luther's alleged Ockhamist heritage cannot help to explain his attitude until the Ockhamist understanding of reason is itself clarified and the extent of Luther's overall dependence upon nominalism is carefully assessed. The persistent image of nominalist theology as antirational and un-Catholic requires reconsideration in the light of recent studies, and verbal echoes of nominalism in Luther's writing may prove of no great significance. In any case, the primary historical task is to examine Luther's actual utterances on reason and philosophy and to view them in relation to the inner structure of his thought.
the concept of reason
The apparent ambiguities in Luther's utterances on reason can be explained, in part, by his fundamental distinction between the two realms of human existence. At one and the same time, man lives toward God in the Heavenly Kingdom and toward his natural and social environments in the Earthly Kingdom. Luther judges human reason to be an adequate instrument for dealing with earthly affairs, that is, the maintaining of physical subsistence (oeconomia ) and the regulation of life in society (politia ). In this realm, reason is legitimately exercised and affords the only light man needs. But in spiritual affairs the situation is quite different. Reason has no understanding of what it is that commends a man to God. Therefore God has given His Word (in the Scriptures), and reliance upon reason could, in this realm, only be perverse and presumptuous. The way of salvation could never have been thought out by rational enquiry, for all God's works and words transcend reason. The Word of God is apprehended, not by reason, but by faith.
This does not mean that, for Luther, reason must be totally excluded from theology. He allowed for the possibility of taming reason's presumptuousness. It then becomes the handmaid of faith. Luther spoke of reason as illumined by faith, regenerated, or born anew. Sometimes the notion of regenerate reason tended to coalesce with the notion of faith itself. But generally, Luther seemed to think of regenerate reason as the human capacity for orderly thought being exercised upon material provided by the Word. Perhaps this is what he meant by the correlation of Scripture and reason in his answer before the Diet of Worms: He was willing to be persuaded either by direct biblical citations or by plain inferences from them. He certainly did not mean to set reason beside Scripture as an independent and supplementary source of theological knowledge.
The doctrine of the two realms provides, then, the framework for a threefold distinction by means of which Luther's various utterances on reason may, for the most part, be harmonized. We have to distinguish between natural reason, ruling within its own domain (the Earthly Kingdom); presumptuous reason, encroaching on the domain of faith (the Heavenly Kingdom); and regenerate reason, serving faith in subjection to the Word of God. Luther does not represent an anti-intellectualist dismissal of disciplined thought; he tries to formulate a theological critique of reason, in which the boundary lines of reason's competence are sharply drawn. Only in the second of these three contexts does reason appear as "the Devil's Whore." In the first it is the greatest of God's gifts; in the third, an excellent instrument of godliness.
It is necessary, however, to carry the analysis further and to show that Luther's invective against reason is focused upon a quite specific blunder that reason makes when it trespasses, unregenerate, upon the domain of faith. It then appears that the sacrificium intellectus for which he calls cannot be understood simply as an epistemological doctrine, but rests upon a more strictly theological (or soteriological) concern. For in many passages from his writings, what Luther meant to express by his colorful invective against reason, was his constant astonishment at the heart of his own gospel: the unconditioned character of God's grace. Reason must be "put to death" because it cannot comprehend the miracle of divine forgiveness, and therefore stands in the way of man's receiving the justice of God. Reason became identified in Luther's mind with the religious attitude of the natural (that is, unregenerate) man, who can conceive only of a strictly legalistic relationship to God. Ratio became virtually synonymous with a definite opinio, and it is by no means accidental that the two words can be found side by side in several passages. Nor, of course, was this usage wholly eccentric, since Lewis and Short's Latin-English dictionary gives as one of the meanings of ratio a "view or opinion resting upon reasonable grounds." And Luther fully acknowledged a certain reasonableness about the assumption that a just God must require "good works" as the precondition of communion with Him.
Consequently, the proclamation of an unconditioned grace—which demands nothing, save the acceptance of faith—can be greeted by reason only with incredulity. What needs to be "sacrificed," therefore, is not human rationality, without qualification, but rather the legalistic mentality of the natural man. As Luther put it, grace must "take us out of ourselves," and we must learn to "rise above reason." In short, Luther's concept of reason (at least, when his remarks about it are pejorative) is not formal, but material. Ratio is a concrete attitude rather than the faculty or structure of reasoning. When the natural man turns his thoughts to religion, he carries over into the Heavenly Kingdom presuppositions that, however appropriate in dealing with his social existence in the Earthly Kingdom, no longer apply. For the Kingdom of Christ is a realm, not of law, but of grace (das Reich der Gnaden ).
the concept of philosophy
Because Luther's views on reason are set in a theological context, they are not always directly relevant to the problem of faith and reason as the philosopher normally understands it. But Luther's standpoint certainly had consequences for the philosophy of religion, and more particularly for the problem of a natural theology. For Luther there could be no question of treating the truths of reason as a kind of foundation for the truths of revelation. The continuity between nature and grace, as presented in the classical scholastic scheme, is broken. There is no rational preamble to faith, because reason is not a neutral instrument for the discovery of objective truths; it is misled by its own bias and even corrupted by sin—that is, by the egocentricity of the unredeemed man. For man in sin actually prefers a God of law, upon whom he can establish a claim. Revelation does not confirm or supplement reason: It stands in contradiction to reason, until the natural man is "born anew." The religion of reason is not merely insufficient or imperfect, but perverted and erroneous. Luther does not deny that a limited knowledge of God is available to reason; but the egocentricity of man in sin is a fatal defect, productive of idolatry and superstition. Reason makes God as it wills Him to be, and turns this natural knowledge into idolatry. The god of reason is a false God.
In general, Luther's direct statements about philosophy closely parallel his judgment on reason. As early as the Lectures on Romans (1515–1516) he had come to see his mission as a protest against philosophy, and his writings are interspersed with abusive descriptions of Aristotle ("the stinking philosopher," "the clown of the High Schools," "the blind pagan," etc.). Thomas Aquinas, who symbolized the attempt to synthesize Aristotle and the Christian faith, is treated with similar disrespect. Nevertheless, Luther could on occasion speak deferentially of philosophy and even of Aristotle. He approved of much that the Greek philosopher had written on social ethics and ranked Cicero's ethics even higher. He freely acknowledged that the Christian had much to learn from philosophy in this area.
The key to Luther's ambivalence lies, as with his concept of reason, in the distinction between the two realms. The boundaries are carefully drawn. Philosophy is an excellent thing in its own place, but if philosophical categories are transferred into theology, the result can only be confusion. Luther saw philosophy as tied to the empirical world (the Earthly Kingdom), whereas theology is concerned with things unseen (the Heavenly Kingdom). He was not, strictly speaking, hostile to Aristotle, but to the theological application of Aristotelianism by the Schoolmen. Of course, some of the Greek philosopher's doctrines already had a theological bearing (for example, on the immortality of the soul and on divine Providence). These Luther dismissed. But he approved Aristotle's treatises on the sermonic arts (logic and rhetoric) and, with qualifications, those on moral philosophy.
Perhaps the most important illustration of Luther's attitude toward Aristotle is afforded by his discussions of moral "habit" (Latin, habitus ; Greek, hexis ). In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle taught that "we become just by performing just acts." Luther's opponents apparently gave this doctrine a theological application: That is, it was used to support the claim that good works must precede justification. In assailing the concept of habit, Luther is not offering a philosophical critique of Aristotle, but rejecting the theological application of Aristotelian doctrines. A philosophical theory belongs within the Earthly Kingdom. The Schoolmen mix the kingdoms.
comparison with nominalism
Luther's distinction between two spheres of knowledge (philosophy and theology) and between two organs of knowing (reason and faith) certainly invites comparison with late medieval Scholasticism. There is perhaps a prima facie probability that Luther's views on reason and philosophy were under the influence of the nominalists. His main instructors at Erfurt were nominalists, and it is noteworthy that Luther could speak of William of Ockham with apparent respect, even calling him "my dear master." He adopted the nominalist view of universals, and he explicitly owned a debt to the nominalist Pierre d'Ailly in the doctrine of the Real Presence. Other possible debts have been argued with more or less plausibility, although it can hardly be denied that Luther left nothing unchanged that he borrowed from others. At least the possibility is open that at the outset the sharp distinction between faith and reason may have been suggested to him by his familiarity with the Ockhamist school.
It may be that the separation of theology and philosophy in Luther is to be explained partly by his acceptance, along with the nominalists, of a strict Aristotelian concept of science. Against Thomas, Luther agreed with the nominalists that since theology rests upon assertions of faith, it cannot be classed as a science. Philosophy (which is the sum total of rational knowledge and embraces the various sciences) deals with the visible world, which is accessible to reason. Theology deals with an invisible world, accessible only to faith. Such points of agreement between Luther and the Ockhamists cannot, however, conceal the sharp differences between them. Quite apart from the fact that Luther developed a divergent concept of faith, his standpoint represents a different basic concern. The interest of the Ockhamists in the problem of faith and reason was primarily epistemological. Hence they devoted considerable thought to relating the cognition of reason to the cognition of faith, and sought in various ways to bridge the gap that they had apparently cut between the two. Nominalist theologians tried to comprehend both faith and reason within a single epistemological scheme. They regarded theological propositions (once established) as subject to rational scrutiny, believed that merely probable arguments could lead to faith when the will cooperates, and argued that revelation was given precisely to those who made maximum use of their rational capacities. Luther, on the other hand, was not interested in narrowing the epistemological gap. On the contrary, the problem for him was graver, because he allowed for the corruption of reason by human sinfulness. Hence his restrictions on reason, even if they were built on a nominalist view of science, go beyond it in what is primarily a theological, rather than philosophical, concern.
the theory of "double truth."
The nominalist distinction between the spheres of faith and of reason has commonly been interpreted as though there were a disharmony, or even a contradiction, between them. Indeed, the doctrine of a "double truth"—that is, that a proposition may be true in theology, but false in philosophy—has been attributed to the nominalist theologian Robert Holkot. Properly speaking, double truth seems never to have been a consciously adopted "doctrine" in the Middle Ages, but rather an accusation leveled against theological opponents. There does not seem to be adequate reason to attribute it to any of the nominalists. True, they admitted some apparent conflicts, for instance, that the Christian belief in the Trinity, when formulated according to the rules of Aristotelian logic, contained real contradictions. But this simply prompted the quest for a higher logic, which could embrace both the traditional Aristotelian rules and also the rules appropriate to the peculiarities of theological truth.
A doctrine of double truth could, however, be attributed to Luther with some plausibility, since he explicitly said that "the same thing is not true in different disciplines" (Disputation on the Proposition, "The Word became flesh," 1539). But Luther himself did not use the expression "double truth," and a close inspection of his argument suggests that, despite appearances, he really had a rather different thesis in mind. What he was trying to defend might better be called a "theory of multiple meaning." Neither "twofold" nor "truth" quite pinpoints Luther's thesis, and perhaps even "manifold truth" (Bengt Hägglund's phrase) is still misleading. If we may paraphrase the drift of Luther's argument, he seems to be saying that homo loquens reflects and communicates, not by means of a single, universally valid language, but by means of several languages, which are relative to particular disciplines or areas of experience. Hence the meaning of a term or proposition is determined by the area of discourse: If transferred from one area of discourse to another, a term may acquire a different meaning, or have no meaning at all. To use Luther's own examples, it makes no sense to ask the weight of a line or the length of a pound.
Whether correct or not, this argument bears a close resemblance to ideas that played an important role in twentieth-century linguistic philosophy, and is therefore not likely to be dismissed as obscurantism or anti-intellectualism. Unfortunately, Luther's argument is not developed with adequate precision, either in this Disputation or elsewhere. But it is not an isolated argument. The basic thesis—that the same form of words may have different meanings in different disciplines—underlies many of his remarks about the relation of ethics and theology. For example, the proposition that fallen man can do no good is fundamental to Luther's teaching on justification. But Luther admits that this is true only in a theological, not in an ethical, context, for in each context the word good means something different. This is, perhaps, a statement of double truth, but only because it rests on a theory of multiple meaning. Thus interpreted, "double truth" does not imply contradiction, but excludes it, since real contradiction is possible only within a single realm of discourse. As Luther put it in the first thesis of the Disputation : "Although we must hold to the saying, 'One truth agrees with another,' nevertheless the same thing is not true in different disciplines."
works by luther
The definitive German edition of Luther's writings in Latin and German is D. Martin Luthers Werke. Kritische Gesamtausgabe (Weimar, 1883–). The most comprehensive English version is Luther's Works: American Edition, edited by Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann (St. Louis: Concordia, 1955–1986, 55 vols.).
works on luther
Three twentieth-century books dealing with Luther's views on reason and philosophy are Bengt Hägglund, Theologie und Philosophie bei Luther und in der occamistischen Tradition. Luthers Stellung zur Theorie von der doppelten Wahrheit (Lund: Gleerup, 1955); Bernhard Lohse, Ratio und Fides. Eine Untersuchung über die Ratio in der Theologie Luthers (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1958); and B. A. Gerrish, Grace and Reason: A Study in the Theology of Luther (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962). One of the most adequate treatments of Luther's intellectual background is still Otto Scheel, Martin Luther, Vom Katholizismus zur Reformation, Vol. I, 1st ed. (Tübingen: n.p., 1916); Vol. II, 3rd and 4th eds. (Tübingen, 1930).
Luther and Nominalism
The literature dealing with the general question of Luther's relation to nominalism is sketched in Leif Grane, Contra Gabrielem. Luthers Auseinandersetzung mit Gabriel Biel in der Disputatio contra scholasticam theologiam 1517 (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1962). Grane's own discussion is focused on the theological rather than on the philosophical points, as is the work of Reinhard Schwarz, Fides, Spes und Caritas beim jungen Luther unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der mittelalterlichen Tradition (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1962). The work of Heiko Augustus Oberman in The Harvest of Medieval Theology: Gabriel Biel and Late Medieval Nominalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963) is intended to lay the foundations for a study of nominalism in relation to the beginnings of Reformation theology.
For the wider aspects of Luther's thought, see the articles and bibliographies under "Luther" in Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 3rd ed. (Tübingen, 1960), Vol. IV, pp. 480–523, which may be brought up to date by the annual listings of the Luther-Jahrbuch.
B. A. Gerrish (1967)
LUTHER, MARTIN (1483–1546), German theologian and reformer of the Christian church. Luther was born in Eisleben on November 10, the son of Hans Luder, who was engaged in copper mining. After moving to nearby Mansfeld, the family increasingly acquired modest prosperity. Because Hans Luder appears prominently in Luther's later recollections as a stern and oppressive presence, the question has arisen whether the son's development was significantly affected by intense conflict with his father. No satisfactory answer to this question has been given.
After initial schooling in Mansfeld, Martin Luther attended the cathedral school in Magdeburg from 1497 to 1498, where he came into contact with the Brethren of the Common Life, one of the most spiritual of late medieval religious movements. Between 1498 and 1501 he attended school in Eisenach, and, in 1501, he matriculated at the University of Erfurt to pursue the customary study of the seven liberal arts. Luther was declared ineligible for financial aid, an indirect testimonial to the economic successes of his father. The philosophical climate at the university was that of Ockhamism, which undoubtedly exerted its influence upon the young student. Upon receiving the master's degree in 1505, Luther began the study of law in the summer of that year, in accordance with the wishes of his father. Less than two months later, however, the experience of a terrifying thunderstorm near Stotterheim prompted his vow to Saint Anne to become a monk, resulting in the abandonment of his legal studies.
Undoubtedly, spiritual anxiety and uncertainty about his vocational choice combined to precipitate the determination to carry out the vow. On July 17, 1505, Luther entered the Monastery of the Eremites of Saint Augustine in Erfurt. His choice of this monastic order is explained not only by its strictness but also by its philosophical and theological orientation, to which Luther had been exposed during his earlier studies.
Two years later, on February 27, 1507, Luther was ordained to the priesthood. In his later recollections his first celebration of the Mass stood out as an awesome experience. Afterward, at the behest of his monastic superior, Johann von Staupitz, Luther began graduate studies in theology, first at Erfurt and then, in the fall of 1508, at the recently founded university at Wittenberg, because of his transfer to the Augustinian monastery there. In accordance with custom, he served as philosophical lecturer in the liberal arts curriculum. In 1509 he received his first theological degree, the baccalaureus biblicus.
In the fall of 1509 Luther was transferred back to Erfurt, where he continued his theological studies. Sometime thereafter (the exact date is uncertain) he was sent to Rome on monastic business. In his reflections of later years, he attributed great significance to that trip: the Rome that he had presumed to be the epitome of spiritual splendor had turned out to be terribly worldly. Soon after his return from Rome, Luther transferred a second time to Wittenberg, completing his doctorate in theology there in October 1512. He then assumed the lectura in Biblia, the professorship in Bible endowed by the Augustinian order.
The first academic courses that Luther taught were on Psalms (1513–1515), Romans (1515–1516), Galatians (1516–1517), Hebrews (1517–1518), and another on Psalms (1519). His lecture notes, which have been analyzed intensively, chronicle his theological development: his shift from the traditional exegetical method, his increasing concentration on questions of sin, grace, and righteousness, his preoccupation with Augustine of Hippo, and—last but by no means least—his alienation from scholastic theology. At the same time Luther acquired increasing responsibilities in his monastic order. In 1515 he became preacher at the parish church in Wittenberg and was appointed district vicar of his order. The latter position entailed the administrative oversight of the Augustinian monasteries in Saxony.
In his later years Luther spoke of having had a profound spiritual experience or insight (dubbed by scholars his "evangelical discovery"), and intensive scholarly preoccupation has sought to identify its exact date and nature. Two basic views regarding the time have emerged. One dates the experience, which Luther himself related to the proper understanding of the concept of the "righteousness of God" (Rom. 1:17), as having occurred about 1514, the other in about 1518. The matter remains inconclusive, partly because nowhere do Luther's writings of the time echo the dramatic notions that the reformer in later years associated with his experience. The import of the issue lies both in the precise understanding of what it was that alienated Luther from the Catholic church, and in understanding the theological frame of mind with which Luther entered the indulgences controversy of 1517. The dating of the experience before or after 1517 is thus important. Placing the experience in 1518 seems to be the most viable interpretation.
The Ninety-five Theses of October 31, 1517 (the traditional notion that Luther nailed them to the door of the Wittenberg castle church has recently been questioned) catapulted Luther into the limelight. These theses pertained to the ecclesiastical practice of indulgences that had not as yet been dogmatically defined by the church. Luther's exploration of the practice was therefore a probing inquiry.
Almost immediately after the appearance of the Ninety-five Theses, a controversy ensued. Undoubtedly it was fanned by the fact that Luther had focused not merely on a theological topic but had also cited a number of the popular grievances against Rome, thus touching upon a political issue. In addition to sending copies of the theses to several friends, Luther sent a copy to Archbishop Albert of Hohenzollern, whom he held responsible for a vulgar sale of indulgences in the vicinity of Wittenberg, together with a fervent plea to stop the sale. Luther was unaware that the sale was part and parcel of a large fiscal scheme by which Albert hoped to finance his recent elevation to the politically important post of archbishop of Mainz. Albert's response was to ask the University of Mainz to assess the theses and, soon thereafter, to request the Curia Romana to commence the processus inhibitorius, the proceedings by which Luther's orthodoxy would be ascertained. Thus the theses and Luther became an official matter for the church. The commencement of official proceedings against Luther added far-reaching notoriety to the affair, as did the related accusation of heresy by several theological opponents. The ensuing debate therefore became a public one, eventually allowing for the formation of a popular movement.
In April 1518 Luther presented a summary of his theological thought, which he called the "theology of the cross," at a meeting of the Augustinian order in Heidelberg. In presenting a caricature of scholastic theology, Luther appropriately emphasized its one-sidednesses. Soon afterward he was ordered to appear in Rome in conjunction with the proceedings against him, but the intervention of his territorial ruler, Elector Frederick, caused the interrogation to take place in Augsburg, Germany. With Cardinal Legate Cajetan representing the Curia, the meeting proved unsuccessful, since Luther refused to recant. Luther fled from Augsburg and, upon his return to Wittenberg, issued an appeal to a general council.
Overwhelmed by the unexpected notoriety of the affair, Luther agreed to refrain from further participation in the controversy. All the same, he was inadvertently drawn into a disputation held in Leipzig in July 1519. In the context of a wide-ranging, if tedious, discussion of the fundamental issues in the controversy, Luther's opponent, Johann Eck, professor of theology at Ingolstadt, was intent on branding him a heretic and succeeded in eliciting Luther's acknowledgment that the church's general councils had erred. Luther posited a difference between the authority of the church and that of scripture, a notion that late medieval thinkers had never seen as problematic.
After the election of Charles V as the new emperor, which had preoccupied the Curia for some time, official proceedings against Luther were resumed. In June 1520 the papal bull Exsurge Domine (Arise, O Lord) condemned forty-one sentences from Luther's writings as "heretical, offensive, erroneous, scandalous for pious ears, corrupting for simple minds and contradictory to Catholic teaching." Luther was given sixty days to recant. His response was to burn the bull in a public spectacle on 10 December 1520. On January 3, 1521, the bull Decet Romanum Pontificem (It Pleases the Roman Pontiff) excommunicated Luther. It was now incumbent upon the political authorities to execute the ecclesiastical condemnation, but Luther was given the opportunity to appear before the German diet at Worms in April 1521.
Several factors converged to bring about the unusual citation. Luther had begun to precipitate a popular movement, in part playing on prevailing anti-Roman and anticlerical sentiment. There was apprehension about popular restlessness. Moreover, Luther claimed persistently that he had not received a fair hearing. To invite Luther to appear at Worms, and, indeed, give him an opportunity to recant, seemed to be to everyone's advantage. When he appeared before the diet, Luther acknowledged that he had been too strident in tone, but he refused to recant anything of theological substance. After several weeks of deliberation, and despite some reluctance, a rump diet promulgated an edict that declared Luther (and all of his followers) political outlaws and called for the suppression of his teachings.
By that time, however, Luther had disappeared from the public scene. At the instigation of his ruler Elector Frederick, he had been taken on his return to Wittenberg to a secluded castle, the Wartburg, where he was to spend almost a full year in hiding. A period of self-doubt, it was also an exceedingly creative time, part of which he spent in translating the New Testament from Greek into German. He returned to Wittenberg in March 1522 to calm the restlessness that had surfaced there over the nature of the reform movement. In a series of sermons he enunciated a conservative notion of ecclesiastical reform, and his stance left its imprint on the subsequent course of the Reformation.
Luther resumed his professorial responsibilities and continued his prolific literary activities, clarifying theological themes and offering guidelines for undertaking ecclesiastical reform. His own theological formation was essentially complete by 1521; his theological work thereafter consisted in amplification and clarification.
The year 1525 proved to be a major theological and personal watershed for Luther: he became embroiled in two major controversies—with Erasmus and Thomas Müntzer—that resulted in a marked division in the reform movement. On June 13 of that same year he married Katharina von Bora, a former nun who had left her convent the previous year. Even though the marriage—coming as it did on the heels of the German Peasants' War—was a subject of notoriety among Luther's enemies, it set the tone for a Protestant definition of Christian marriage for which the term "school for character" was aptly coined.
The next several years were overshadowed by Luther's growing controversy with Huldrych Zwingli over Communion. The controversy reached its culmination in October 1529 with a colloquy held at Marburg at the instigation of Landgrave Philipp of Hesse, who viewed the split of the Reformation movement over this issue as a major political liability. Luther was a reluctant participant in the colloquy, for he saw the theological differences between Zwingli and himself to be so fundamental as to make conciliation impossible. The major issue debated at Marburg was the bodily presence of Christ in the Communion elements. It is unclear whether for Luther the politically more prudent course of action would have been theological conciliation (which would have presented a unified Reformation movement) or intransigence (which by its separation from Zwingli would have underscored the proximity of the Lutheran and the Catholic positions). No agreement was reached at Marburg; as a result, at the diet at Augsburg the following year, the Protestants appeared divided.
As a political outlaw, Luther was unable to be present at Augsburg. He stayed at Coburg (as far south as he was able to travel on Saxon territory), and his close associate Philipp Melanchthon functioned as spokesman for the Lutherans. Several of Luther's most insightful publications appeared during that summer—a tract on translating, an exposition of Psalm 118, and Exhortation That Children Should Be Sent to School.
The unsuccessful outcome of the discussions at Augsburg and the subsequent formation of the League of Smalcald (1531) were accompanied by Luther's reconsideration of his views on the right of resistance to the emperor, which he had previously rejected. The 1530s brought Luther's extensive involvement in the reorganization of the University of Wittenberg (1533–1536). His extensive participation in the academic disputations that were now resumed were evidence of the richness and fullness of his thought.
Luther's final years were overshadowed by his growing antagonism toward the papal church, and the consequences of his well-meant but misunderstood counsel to Landgrave Philipp of Hesse that bigamy was permissible under certain circumstances. In addition, the Lutheran movement was torn by several internal conflicts, and Luther was concerned about the increasing role of the political authorities in ecclesiastical affairs.
Luther's recognition that his norm of authority—scripture—did not preclude disagreement in interpretation and that the papal church was unwilling to accept the primacy of the word of God undoubtedly serve to explain—along with his increasing physical ailments—the vehemence of his last publications, especially those against the papacy and the Jews. He was plagued by insomnia and, from 1525 onward, by kidney stones, which in 1537 almost led to his demise. In February 1546 Luther traveled, together with two of his sons and Philipp Melanchthon, to Luther's birthplace, Eisleben, to mediate in a feud among the counts of Mansfeld. There, having succeeded in that assignment, he died on 16 February.
Not surprisingly, Martin Luther has received considerable scholarly and theological attention throughout the centuries. Assessments of Luther have always been staunchly partisan, with a clear demarcation between Protestant and Catholic evaluations. The former, while uniformly positive, have tended to follow the intellectual or theological currents of their particular time, such as the eighteenth-century Enlightenment or nineteenth-century German nationalism.
In the twentieth century, particularly in the latter part, the biographical and theological evaluation of Martin Luther focused on a number of specific aspects. There was a preoccupation with the "young" Luther, that is, Luther between 1512 and 1518, and particularly with Luther's "evangelical discovery," his formulation of a new understanding of the Christian faith. This new understanding has generated much speculation about Luther's relationship to the late Middle Ages, the medieval exegetical tradition, the significance of Augustine, Ockham, and mysticism. The "older" or "mature" Luther, generally defined as Luther after 1526, is only beginning to receive widespread attention; this part of his life has not attracted much scholarly interest because it lacks the excitement of Luther's earlier years. The general question is whether the "older" Luther should be seen in continuity or in discontinuity with the young Luther.
A key theme in Luther's theology is that of the sole authority of scripture, formulated as the notion of sola scriptura; this notion, because it implied the possibility of a divergence of tradition from scripture, raised a startling new question. Late medieval theology had formulated the issue of authority in terms of the possible divergency of pope and council. A related theme in Luther's theology was the relationship of law and gospel, which provided the key to the understanding of scripture. God reveals himself as both a demanding and a giving God, two qualities that Luther loosely assigned to the Old and New Testaments respectively; but in truth, so Luther asserted, grace is found in the Old Testament even as law is found in the New.
The notion of justification by faith is traditionally cited as the heart of Luther's thought. It is, in fact, his major legacy to the Protestant tradition. In contradistinction to the medieval notion of a cooperative effort between man and God, between works and grace, Luther only stressed grace and God. Such grace is appropriated by faith, which affirms the reality of the grace of forgiveness, despite the reality of sin. Luther's "theology of the cross" affirmed that God always works contrary to experience.
These themes must be considered in the context of Luther's general affirmation of traditional dogma. His sacramental teaching repudiated the medieval notion of transubstantiation and affirmed a "real presence" of Christ in the bread and wine of Communion. Besides the sacrament of Communion, only that of baptism was affirmed. At least in his early years, Luther advocated a congregationally oriented concept of the church, with the "priesthood of all believers," another key motif, as an important corollary. Luther's teaching of the "two kingdoms" sought to differentiate the Christian principles applicable in society.
The definitive Weimar edition of Luther's works, D. Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesammtausgabe, edited by J. K. F. Knaake and others (Weimar, 1883–1974), in more than a hundred volumes, continues to be the basic tool for Luther research. An exhaustive sampling of Luther in English can be found in his Works, 55 vols., edited by Jaroslav Pelikan (Saint Louis, 1955–1976). The Luther-Jahrbuch (Munich, 1919–) publishes an annual bibliography, as does, less comprehensively, the Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte (Leipzig and Berlin, 1903–). A useful general introduction to facets and problems of Luther scholarship is found in Bernhard Lohse's Martin Luther: Eine Einführung (Munich, 1981). Of the numerous Luther biographies, the following deserve to be mentioned: Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand (Nashville, 1955); Heinrich Bornkamm, Martin Luther in der Mitte seines Lebens (Göttingen, 1979); H. G. Haile, Luther (Garden City, N. Y., 1980); and Eric H. Erikson, Young Man Luther (New York, 1958), a controversial psychoanalytic study. Two useful collections of sources are Martin Luther, edited by E. G. Rupp and Benjamin Drewery (New York, 1970), and Walther von Löwenich's Martin Luther: The Man and His Work (Minneapolis, 1983).
Important studies on specific aspects of Luther's life and thought are Erwin Iserloh's The Theses Were Not Posted (Boston, 1968); Wilhelm Borth's Die Luthersache (causa Lutheri) 1517–1524 (Lübeck, 1970); and Mark U. Edwards, Jr.'s Luther and the False Brethren (Stanford, Calif., 1975) and Luther's Last Battles (Ithaca, N. Y., 1983). A creative statement of Luther's theology is Gerhard Ebeling's Luther (Philadelphia, 1970).
Hans J. Hillerbrand (1987)
Excerpt from "The Ninety-Five Theses or Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences" (1517)
Reprinted in Confessions and Catechisms of the Reformation
Edited by Mark A. Noll
Published in 1997
The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were a time of transition from the Middle Ages (c. 400 –1400; also called the medieval period) to the modern era. The medieval period had been an era of walls and of faith. Massive stone walls had been built round each little town to protect against the evils of the outside world. Inside these walls, medieval people knew their place. They were craftsmen, noblemen, churchmen, farmers, and knights (noblemen soldiers). They did not question their duties because they were safe and had faith in the way things were run. At that time the Roman Catholic Church (a Christian religion headed by a pope and based in Rome, Italy) controlled all aspects of social, political, and religious life. It was the largest institution in western Europe and consisted of an elaborate hierarchy (ranks of officials)—the pope, cardinals (officials ranking below the pope), bishops (heads of church districts), canons (legal administrators), priests (heads of local churches), and numerous other clergymen. The pope was considered infallible (always correct), and he was the most powerful ruler in Europe. The Catholic Church was also immensely wealthy, owning vast properties and collecting huge sums in taxes, tithes (one-tenth of church members' income), and other forms of payment from the people.
Beginning in the fifteenth century, the medieval view of the world underwent radical change in response to new discoveries. By the end of the fifteenth century, for instance, Portuguese explorers had rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and Christopher Columbus had reached the New World (the European term for the Americas). Renaissance humanists (scholars who revived the literary culture of ancient Greece and Rome) had freed scholarship and the arts from the sponsorship of the church. In so doing, humanists not only redis-covered the individual but also challenged the blind acceptance of authority and encouraged the individual search for truth through reason. Now people were seeking a better way to understand God in terms of their own experience.
Luther questions church
Into this changing world was born Martin Luther (1483–1546). Now known as the father of the Protestant Reformation, Luther was a German priest who single-handedly altered the course of European history. A native of Eisleben, Saxony (a state in Germany), Luther originally planned to become a lawyer. In 1501 he enrolled at the University of Erfurt, one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in Germany, and within four years he earned both bachelor's and master's degrees. In 1505 he had just begun the study of law and was on his way to a career in service to the church or to one of the many German princes (rulers of states). Then he abruptly abandoned the university for the disciplined life of a monastery (house for men in a religious order). This dramatic change occurred on July 2, 1505, while Luther was returning to the university from a visit with his parents. Along the way he was suddenly caught in a thunderstorm. As lightning struck nearby, he cried out in terror to his patron saint: "Save me, Saint Anne, and I will become a monk." Just two weeks later, Luther joined the Eremites of Saint Augustine, a religious order in Erfurt. He was ordained a priest within a year.
Luther was no ordinary monk, for he was deeply troubled by the teachings of the church. Since the early Middle Ages, Catholic leaders had taught that the church was the only link between the individual and God. The church provided salvation (deliverance from sin, or wrongdoing) to repentant sinners through the sacraments, or holy rituals, most notably communion (also called the Holy Eucharist). Administered in a ceremony called the mass, communion is a ritual in which bread and wine symbolize the body and blood of Jesus of Nazareth (called the Christ), the founder of Christianity. Also, the church taught that the individual had a duty to use his or her own free will (ability to make independent choices) to love and serve God. This was the way to earn salvation from God. In short, the individual participated in his or her own salvation through good works, or acts. Such teachings brought comfort to many, but they caused distress for Luther. His problem was that no matter how hard he "worked" at earning his salvation, he could not find any peace with God.
Luther found the answer to his spiritual problem sometime during the fall of 1515. By then he was a professor of theology (study of religion) at the University of Wittenberg and the overseer of eleven monasteries. The answer came while he was preparing a series of lectures in his study in monastery's tower. He was pondering the meaning of verse 17 in chapter 1 of the book of Romans in the New Testament (second part of the Bible, the Christian holy book): "For it is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, The just shall live by faith." In that little verse was contained the heart of Luther's problem, as well as the solution. He was perplexed by the two phrases, "the righteousness of God" and "The just shall live by faith." In accordance with church teachings, Luther understood "the righteousness of God" to mean that a righteous, even angry, God punishes all sinners. Such a view caused him to hate the God he knew he should love. Then, as Luther meditated over the verse, its meaning broke through: "I began to understand," he wrote later, "that the righteousness of God is that gift of God by which a righteous [morally upright] man lives, namely, faith, and that … the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: 'The righteous shall live by faith.'"
Reaches revolutionary conclusion
Luther had come to a revolutionary conclusion—that salvation comes through faith alone. He then reached an even more startling conclusion: This truth is revealed in the Bible, not through the mass and other sacraments administered by priests. Therefore, all of the clergy, from the pope down to the parish priest, were unnecessary. Luther did not immediately challenge the church with this hypothesis. What spurred him to action was the appearance, in 1517, of a monk peddling indulgences, payments to church officials for forgiveness of sins, (see accompanying box) outside Wittenberg. The monk was selling indulgences on behalf of the new Archbishop of Mainz, twenty-three-year-old Albert von Hohenzollern, who had "purchased" his position. To pay back the funds he borrowed from the Fugger bank in Augsburg to finance the purchase, Albert was authorized by Pope Leo X (1475–1521; reigned 1513–21) to sell indulgences in Germany.
Indulgences began as gifts of money given to the clergy in appreciation or gratitude for forgiveness of sins, or wrongdoings. Soon, however, indulgences began to represent an outward showing of grief for sins. People would pay for indulgences to prove to the church and others that they were truly repentant for their sins. In the thirteenth century, the Catholic Church formulated what was called the "treasury of merits." It was a spiritual bank of sorts that "contained" the good works performed by Jesus Christ, the saints, and all pious Christians. In other words, because Jesus and the saints had lived better lives than necessary to get into heaven, their good deeds had been left on Earth in the treasury of merits. Good deeds from this treasury could be redistributed to Christian believers in the form of indulgences. One would give money to his or her clergyman, who would in turn make a "withdrawal" from the spiritual bank. This system was supposed to reduce the punishments one suffered in purgatory, but many did not understand it. It was widely believed that people could sin as much as possible and still buy their way into heaven.
The abuse of the indulgence system was evident in the aggressive sales tactics of John Tetzel (1465–1519), an experienced indulgence salesman who appeared outside Luther's door in October 1517. Tetzel was selling indulgences to finance the new Saint Peter's Basilica, which was under construction in Rome. He claimed that indulgences could be purchased for relatives already dead, or for sins one might commit in the future. "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings," Tetzel said, "the soul from purgatory springs."
Luther felt impelled to respond to the obvious misuse of indulgences. According to popular legend, on October 31, 1517 (the eve of All Saints' Day; now called Halloween), Luther defiantly nailed a document titled "Ninety-Five Theses or Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences" to the door of the church at the University of Wittenberg. Some scholars downplay the drama of this act, suggesting that Luther simply tacked the "Ninety-Five Theses" to the church door, which served as a kind of bulletin board at the university. Others say he attached the theses to the letter he wrote to the Archbishop of Mainz, protesting the sale of indulgences. In any case, he intended the document as an invitation to his colleagues to debate the issue.
Things to Remember While Reading an Excerpt from "The Ninety-Five Theses or Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences":
- In the "Ninety-Five Theses" Luther challenged indulgence sales and reprimanded the church for its financial exploitation of Germany. For instance, in Thesis 86 he inquired, "Why does not the pope, whose wealth is today greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus build this one basilica of Saint Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?" (Marcelus Licinius Crassus [c.115–53 b.c.e.] was a Roman financier and politician who accumulated a vast fortune.)
- Theses 1 through 25 trace Luther's main arguments against the practice of selling indulgences. He asserted that salvation should be based wholly on faith, which is derived from the Scripture, or text of the Bible, and cannot be granted by the pope or members of the clergy.
- In Theses 26 through 51 Luther outlined the proper spiritual obligations of the pope toward Christians. In Theses 52 through 95 he provided additional evidence of how the pope's misuse of indulgences violated the true spirit of Christianity.
- The following excerpt from "The Ninety-Five Theses" consists of Theses 1 through 25.
Excerpt from "The Ninety-Five Theses or Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences"
Out of love and zeal for truth and the desire to bring it to light, the following theses will be publicly discussed at Wittenberg under the chairmanship of the reverend father Martin Luther, master of arts and sacred theology and regularly appointed lecturer on these subjects at that place. He requests that those who cannot be present to debate orally with us will do so by letter.
In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, "Repent" [Matt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
2. This word cannot be understood as referring to thesacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.
3. Yet it does not mean solely inner repentance; such inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outwardmortifications of the flesh.
4. The penalty of sin remains as long as the hatred of self, that is, true inner repentance, until our entrance into the kingdom ofheaven.
5. The pope neither desires nor is able to remit any penalties except those imposed by his own authority or that of thecanons.
Sacrament: Holy rite.
Mortifications: Self-inflicted pain or discomfort.
Heaven: Dwelling place of God and the blessed dead.
Canons: Rules or regulations made by a church council.
Remit: Lay aside partly or wholly.
6. The pope cannotremit any guilt, except by declaring and showing that it has been remitted by God; or, to be sure, by remitting guilt in cases reserved to his judgement. If his right to grant re-missionin these cases were disregarded, the guilt would certainly remain unforgiven.
7. God remits guilt to no one unless at the same time he humbles him in all things and makes himsubmissive to his vicar, the priest.
8. The penitential canons are imposed only on the living, and, according to the canons themselves, nothing should be imposed on the dying.
9. Therefore theHoly Spirit through the pope is kind to us insofar as the pope in his decrees always makes exception of the article of death and of necessity.
10. Those priests act ignorantly and wickedly who, in the case of the dying, reserve canonical penalties forpurgatory.
11. Thosetares of changing the canonical penalty to the penalty of purgatory were evidently sown while the bishops slept [Matt. 13:25].
12. In former times canonical penalties were imposed, not after, but beforeabsolution, as tests of truecontrition.
13. The dying are freed by death from all penalties, are already dead as far as the canon laws are concerned, and have a right to be released from them.
14. Imperfectpiety or love on the part of the dying person necessarily brings with it great fear; and the smaller the love, the greater the fear.
15. This fear or horror is sufficient in itself, to say nothing of other things, to constitute the penalty of purgatory, since it is very near the horror of despair.
16.Hell, purgatory, and heaven seem to differ the same as despair, fear, and assurance of salvation.
17. It seems as though for the souls in purgatory fear should necessarily decrease and love increase.
18. Furthermore, it does not seem proved, either by reason or Scripture, that souls in purgatory are outside the state of merit, that is, unable to grow in love.
Submissive: Submitting to others.
Holy Spirit: Third person of the Christian Trinity (God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit).
Purgatory: The place between heaven and hell.
Absolution: Forgiveness of sins pronounced by a priest.
Contrition: The state of being truly penitent or sorry.
Piety: Dutifulness in religion.
Hell: Realm of the devil where the damned endure everlasting punishment.
19. Nor does it seem proved that souls in purgatory, at least not all of them, are certain and assured of their own salvation, even if we ourselves may be entirely certain of it.
20. Therefore the pope, when he uses the words "plenary remission of all penalties," does not actually mean "all penalties," but only those imposed by himself.
21. Thus those indulgence preachers are in error who say that a man isabsolved from every penalty and saved bypapal indulgences.
22. As a matter of fact, the pope remits to souls in purgatory no penalty which, according to canon law, they should have paid in this life.
23. If remission of all penalties whatsoever could be granted to anyone at all, certainly it would be granted only to the most perfect, that is, to very few.
24. For this reason most people are necessarily deceived by that indiscriminate and high-sounding promise of release from penalty.
25. That power which the pope has in general over purgatory corresponds to the power which any bishop orcurate has in a particular way in his owndiocese or parish.
Plenary: Complete in every respect.
Absolved: Set free from sin.
Papal: Relating to a pope or Roman Catholic Church.
Curate: Clergyman in charge of a parish.
Diocese: Territorial district of a bishop.
What happened next…
Although Luther had directly challenged the pope's authority, Leo X did not move immediately to silence him. In 1519 Luther attended a debate at the University of Leipzig. The debate raged on for eighteen days before it was called off. Luther had defended his beliefs by stating that people should live their lives by following the Bible, not the pope. He said people could find their own salvation through faith—they did not need the church. Luther began writing his views in pamphlets, and his ideas soon spread throughout Germany. Many people backed him. In June 1520, Leo X issued a bull, or papal order, criticizing Luther and excommunicating (expelling) him from the church. When Luther received this document, he publicly burned it. The following April, Luther was summoned to the town of Worms, where an assembly of German princes (called the Diet) had been convened by the new Holy Roman Emperor, nineteen-year-old Charles V (1500–1558; ruled 1519–56). The Diet wanted Luther to withdraw his views. He refused, so Charles declared him an out-law of the church and ordered his arrest. But Frederick the Wise (1463–1525), Luther's friend and the prince who ruled Wittenberg, kidnapped Luther and hid him in Wartburg Castle, one of Frederick's residences near Eisenach. There, over the next eleven months, Luther spent his time translating the New Testament of the Bible from Latin into German.
Returning to Wittenberg in March 1522, Luther tried to unify his followers. By then, almost half the people of Germany had adopted his views. Many called themselves "Lutherans" (only later did the reformers come to be known as Protestants). Yet the movement began to fragment almost immediately. The Bible may be the final authority, but according to Luther every believer is his own priest, his own interpreter of what the Bible says. Hence, numerous Protestant sects, or groups, were formed—and they are still being formed even today.
All that happened after the Diet of Worms was anticlimactic. Luther tried to halt the radicalism, or extreme views, of some of his followers. But fragmentation, not unity, was to characterize the future of the Protestant churches. In 1530 Philip Melanchthon (1497–1560), Luther's closest associate, drafted a confession, or statement, of faith. Both he and Luther hoped it might provide a basis for unity between the Lutherans and the Roman Catholic Church. Rejected by the Diet of Augsburg, Melanchthon's confession, called the "Augsburg Confession," became the basis for the doctrine (beliefs and teachings) of Lutheran churches. Luther introduced numerous reforms in the worship service. He placed an emphasis on preaching and teaching from the Bible, and he reintroduced music and congregational singing. A fine musician, Luther wrote many popular hymns, including A Mighty Fortress Is Our God and Away in a Manger. Throughout the remaining years of his life, Luther continued writing, preaching, and teaching. He died on February 18, 1546, four days after he had preached in Eisleben, his hometown. He was buried on the grounds of the church in Wittenberg.
Did you know…
- Most modern scholars agree that Luther never intended to begin a widespread reform movement within the Catholic Church. He merely wanted to spark academic debate about a serious issue. Initially, his protest fell on deaf ears, since the archbishop of Mainz was sharing the profits of indulgence sales with the pope. Had someone not translated the "Ninety-Five Theses" from Latin (the language used in all formal communications) into German, they might have gone unnoticed. With the aid of the recently invented printing press, the translation appeared throughout Germany. The theses were thus made available to theologians, scholars, and anyone else who could read German.
- In 1525, Luther married Katherine von Bora, a former nun (a woman who belongs to a religious order). They had six children, some of whom died early, and adopted eleven others. By all accounts, their home was a happy one. Luther called his wife "my beloved Katie," and she was a great source of strength for him.
- Saint Peter's Basilica was completed in 1614. The construction had been beset by design changes and construction delays since Pope Julius II originally ordered the rebuilding of the old Saint Peter's church in 1506. Altogether, six architects were involved in the project. Saint Peter's Basilica is now considered the crowning achievement of Renaissance architecture.
For More Information
Fearon, Mike. Martin Luther. Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1986.
Noll, Mark A. Confessions and Catechisms of the Reformation. Vancouver, B.C.: Regent College Publishing, 1997.
Scheib, Asta. Children of Disobedience: The Love Story of Martin Luther and Katharina von Bora: A Novel. Translated by David Ward. New York: Crossroad, 2000.
Stepanek, Sally. Martin Luther. New York: Chelsea House, 1986.
Martin Luther. Worcester, Pa.: Vision Video, 1990.
Halsall, Paul. "Martin Luther; Letter to the Archbishop of Mainz, 1517." Medieval Sourcebook. [Online] Available http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/lutherltr-indulgences.html, April 10, 2002.
"Luther, Martin." MSN Encarta. [Online] Available http://encarta.msn.com/find/concise.asp?z=1&pg=2&ti=04875000, April 10, 2002.
Martin Luther and the Reformation. [Online] Available http://mars.acnet.wnec.edu/~grempel/courses/wc2/lectures/luther.html, April 10, 2002.
BORN: November 10, 1483 • Eisleben, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany
DIED: February 18, 1546 • Eisleben, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany
German theologian; monk; religious reformer
Martin Luther was a Catholic monk whose teachings helped inspire and define the Protestant Reformation in sixteenth-century Europe. The movement he sparked brought huge political and religious changes to the continent and made him an important figure in Western history. Those who knew him personally, however, regarded him as a thoroughly unlikable person. He was rude, self-important, insulting to opponents, and given to horrible outbreaks of temper. Many of his students found him amusing, as he punctuated classroom lectures with jokes and gross bodily noises. Members of the Lutheran Church throughout the world honor his memory and respect his teachings, but few, perhaps, would have wanted him as a houseguest.
"My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe."
A change of course
Martin Luther was born in the town of Eisleben, Germany, on November 10, 1483. At the time Germany was a loose collection of independent states, each ruled by a noble. Shortly after Luther's birth, his father, Hans, moved the family to Mansfeld and took up the copper trade. Hans and his wife, Margaretha, wanted Martin to succeed in the civil service, so they sent him to schools in Mansfeld, Magdeburg, and Eisenach. In 1501 Luther entered the University of Erfurt, where he completed a bachelor's degree in 1502 and a master's degree in 1505. He then enrolled in the university's college of law.
On July 2, 1505, Luther's well-ordered life changed suddenly. According to legend, he was returning to school from a visit home when a storm struck and he was knocked off his horse by a lightning bolt. Grateful that his life had been spared, he cried out, "Help, Saint Anne! I'll become a monk." To the great anger and disappointment of his parents, Luther then entered the Erfurt monastery of the Augustinian monks, an order founded in 1256 and formally referred to as the Hermits of Saint Augustine. A monastery is a place set away from the distractions of the world where one goes to focus on spiritual pursuits.
When Luther became a student at the monastery, his good-humored nature began to change as he searched for an understanding of God. He devoted himself to fasting (going without food), prayers, the confessions of his sins, pilgrimages, and self-flagellation, or whipping himself as punishment. His superior decided that his excessive devoutness was a product of having too little to occupy his mind, so Luther was ordered to pursue an academic career. After being ordained (invested with the authority of) a Catholic priest in 1507, Luther earned bachelor's degrees in theology in 1508 and 1509 and a doctorate in theology in 1512. (Theology is the study of religion.) Shortly after completing his doctorate, he joined the faculty at Wittenberg University. In addition to teaching theology he served as a parish priest at the Castle Church in Wittenberg.
Over the next five years Luther grew to believe that the Catholic Church had become dishonest and overly involved with worldly, rather than spiritual, matters. He also believed that it had gone astray on a number of basic theological principles. The chief point of the church's theology that Luther disagreed with was how people achieved salvation, or life after death, in heaven. The Catholic Church taught that a person could earn a place in heaven in part through good works, but Luther believed that this was untrue. Based on his reading of the Bible, the sacred book of Christianity, he emphasized justification by grace through faith, often phrased more simply as justification through faith. This doctrine, or principle, says that salvation is an unconditional gift of God's love and grace that one receives through his son Jesus Christ, and that this gift is based on faith alone. This doctrine became one of the most important of the Protestant Reformation, a movement that saw the rejection of many of the teachings of Catholicism and led to the formation of many different Protestant churches, including the Lutheran Church.
Luther's beliefs regarding indulgences, however, were what attracted the attention of church authorities. According to Catholic theology, when a person confesses a sin to a priest and receives absolution, or forgiveness, from God through the priest, the sin is removed. The person is then in a state of grace and is eventually eligible to enter heaven at death. The Catholic Church, however, teaches that the stain of the sin is not fully removed, even after confession. Rather, after death, a person's soul must spend time in purgatory, a midway dwelling place between Earth and heaven. In purgatory, people are denied the presence of God until they redeem themselves for past sins and become fit to enter heaven. Indulgences, granted by the church, typically in the form of prayers, can shorten the time a person's soul must spend in purgatory. A plenary, or complete, indulgence takes away all of the time a person's soul would have otherwise spent in purgatory.
In Luther's era the practice of granting indulgences was much abused. The Catholic Church often simply sold them, granting letters of indulgence to those who contributed money. One of the worst offenders was a Dominican friar named Johann Tetzel (c. 1465–1519), who traveled around selling indulgences to raise funds for the renovation of Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome, Italy. Tetzel was reported to have often said, "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from Purgatory springs." Luther was deeply offended by this practice, as well as by other indications that the church had grown greedy, and preached sermons against it. He feared that Catholics would feel they did not need to confess their sins and ask for God's forgiveness when they could simply buy their way into heaven.
The Ninety-five Theses
In 1517 Luther wrote out a number of statements, called the Ninety-five Theses, about the sale of indulgences and other matters regarding
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faith and salvation. According to legend, on October 31 of that year Luther nailed the Ninety-five Theses to the door of the Castle Church, probably hoping to open a public debate on the issue. Many people would later view this dramatic, defiant act as the symbolic start of the Protestant Reformation. Yet most historians say that he did not actually nail the document to the church door, but instead sent it to a small number of bishops. Importantly, none of the Ninety-five Theses questioned the right of the pope (the head of the Roman Catholic Church) to grant indulgences, nor did they in any way question the pope's authority. Soon Luther's work was translated from Latin and distributed throughout Germany and all of Europe, which was made possible by the recent invention of the printing press. The publication of the Ninety-five Theses started a great debate in the Catholic Church.
The pope at the time, Leo X (1475–1521; served 1513–21), thought that Luther was just "a drunken German" and ordered a well-known Italian theologian, Sylvester Mazzolini (1460–1523), to investigate the matter. Mazzolini concluded that Luther's statements were in opposition to the church's doctrine on indulgences, which had been set by Pope Clement VI (1291–1352) in 1343 in a papal bull, or an official letter from the pope. He labeled Luther a heretic, which is a person who disagrees with official church teachings. As a heretic Luther could be excommunicated, or forced to leave the church. The pope demanded that Luther submit to his authority by withdrawing his heretical statements. To that end the pope sent a representative to confront Luther at Augsburg, Germany, in October 1518.
In response to the arrival of the pope's representative, Luther chose to deny the pope's absolute authority over the Catholic Church. Over the next two years, the disagreement grew more intense. In his writings and theological debates, Luther stated that the papacy, or the institution of the pope and his authority, was not a part of the original fundamental makeup of the church. Thus he began to preach what would become another key doctrine of the Protestant Reformation: that the church priesthood was in the hands not of the church hierarchy—the priests, bishops, cardinals, and pope—but of the community of the faithful. In Luther's view, people no longer needed to depend on the church's authority for guidance in spiritual matters. Rather, they could obtain such guidance on their own from sacred scripture, the sole source of revealed truth. Again, the invention of the printing press played a key role. For the first time in history a relatively affordable copy of the Bible was available to nearly all who wanted one.
In 1519 and 1520 Luther's writings continued to be published, and his name became widely known throughout Europe. In various books and sermons he openly questioned a number of basic doctrines of the Catholic Church. He denied that a person needed to be a member of the Roman Catholic Church to achieve salvation. He made a number of changes to the Catholic Church's ritual of baptism (a ritual involving the symbolic use of water that results in a person being admitted to the church community) and the Eucharist, or Holy Communion, in which bread and wine are believed to be transformed into the body and blood of Christ, during a church ceremony known as Mass. In particular he urged that laypersons be allowed to share in the cup of wine rather than just the bread, a practice contrary to that of the Catholic Church. Laypersons are those who are common worshippers and are not a part of the priesthood. He argued that confirmation (the ritual that follows a baptism, admitting a person to full membership in the church), marriage, holy orders (the ordaining of priests), and extreme unction (the applying of oil or ointment to the dying) were not true religious rites or rituals, seeing them instead as simply extensions of the ritual of baptism because they were continuations of God's grace as bestowed in baptism.
Luther also challenged what he saw as abuses of the church. He wanted the church to reduce the number of cardinals, who were the highest-ranking members of the church other than the pope. He called for reform of the universities and the priestly orders. He believed the church should promote people based on their abilities rather than on their personal connections, only concern itself with spiritual matters, and not excommunicate all those who disagreed with church doctrine. He also called for an end to celibacy, the requirement that priests cannot have sexual intercourse. He called for complete freedom of thought and conscience on the part of Christians. Luther wrote to the pope, "I submit to no laws on interpreting the Word of God."
The Diet of Worms
In 1520 the pope threatened Luther with excommunication unless he recanted, or denied, his views. In response Luther burned the papal bull that contained the warning. On January 3, 1521, the pope finally issued a bull excommunicating Luther.
That same month, Charles V (1500–1588), the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, a loose grouping of nations of which the German states and cities were a part, assembled the Diet of Worms. A diet (pronounced DEET) is an assembly similar to a parliament, while Worms is a small German city on the Rhine River. On April 16 Luther appeared before the diet and was confronted with a table covered with his books and writings. He was asked whether he still believed in the things that they taught. Luther asked for time to consider his answer. When he appeared the next day, he reportedly replied to the diet "Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe." He then said, "Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen."
On May 25, 1521, the Diet of Worms issued the Edict of Worms. This edict, or ruling, labeled Luther a heretic and an outlaw. As such, he would have been subject to civil punishments, including imprisonment or even burning at the stake. He had left Worms, however, and taken refuge in the Wartburg Castle at Eisenach, where he lived for the next year under the protection of a German prince. He occupied his time by translating the New Testament, the second half of the Bible, into simple German that ordinary people could understand. This was another step in his efforts to free the faithful from dependence on church authority. He would wander into the nearby town to overhear people talk so that he could capture the words and rhythms of ordinary speech in his translation. Many historians and students of language credit Luther with standardizing the German language through his Bible, which was published in full in 1534.
Luther's later years
During his time in Wartburg Castle, Luther received letters from groups all over Europe asking him to comment on various matters of church doctrine or to lend his support to their own reform movements. Reformism seemed to be spreading rapidly. In many European countries, particularly in Germany, various groups rejected church doctrine and formed new Protestant branches. Luther, however, grew concerned that the revolution he had sparked would grow out of control. He preached to his followers to proceed with more caution, especially after he left Wartburg Castle and took up residence in Wittenburg, Germany.
In the final years of his life, Luther continued to preach and write. He suffered from a number of health problems and became more stubborn, rude, insulting, and bad tempered. The death of one of his daughters in 1542 was a blow from which he never recovered. Some historians believe that his unsettled state of mind is suggested by the titles of some of his late works: On the Jews and Their Lies (1543) and Against the Papacy at Rome Founded by the Devil (1545).
In January 1546 Luther traveled to his birthplace, Eisleben, to help his family negotiate an agreement with a group of German counts who were attempting to take over the family's copper business. He began complaining of chest pains and died early in the morning on February 18, 1546. On February 22 he was buried at the Castle Church in Wittenberg.
Passages from the Ninety-five Theses
Martin Luther distributed the Ninety-five Theses to start a discussion about the practices of the Catholic Church that he believed went against the faith and how it should be practiced. Among them was an important matter of his day, indulgences. Indulgences were granted by the priesthood to absolve people of their sins. In Luther's day, indulgences had become something that could be bought. Luther felt that if people believed they could buy their way out of sin, they would never repent and gain salvation in heaven. He spoke strongly on the matter in his Ninety-five Theses.
1. Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Poenitentiam agite ["Repent,"], willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.
6. The pope cannot remit any guilt, except by declaring that it has been remitted by God and by assenting to God's remission; though, to be sure, he may grant remission in cases reserved to his judgment. If his right to grant remission in such cases were despised, the guilt would remain entirely unforgiven.
7. God remits guilt to no one whom He does not, at the same time, humble in all things and bring into subjection to His vicar, the priest.
16. Hell, purgatory, and heaven seem to differ as do despair, almost-despair, and the assurance of safety.
21. Therefore those preachers of indulgences are in error, who say that by the pope's indulgences a man is freed from every penalty, and saved;
22. Whereas he remits to souls in purgatory no penalty which, according to the canons, they would have had to pay in this life.
31. Rare as is the man that is truly penitent, so rare is also the man who truly buys indulgences, i.e., such men are most rare.
36. Every truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without letters of pardon.
44. Because love grows by works of love, and man becomes better; but by pardons man does not grow better, only more free from penalty.
45. Christians are to be taught that he who sees a man in need, and passes him by, and gives [his money] for pardons, purchases not the indulgences of the pope, but the indignation of God.
52. The assurance of salvation by letters of pardon is vain, even though the commissary, nay, even though the pope himself, were to stake his soul upon it.
94. Christians are to be exhorted that they be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, deaths, and hell;
95. And thus be confident of entering into heaven rather through many tribulations, than through the assurance of peace.
Luther, Martin. "Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences." Internet Christian Library. http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/wittenberg/luther/web/ninetyfive.html.
Luther's conflicts with the Catholic Church helped inspire the Peasants' War of 1524–25. Throughout Luther's lifetime, Europe was in a state of unrest. European peasants had been revolting against their masters since at least the fourteenth century. They saw Luther's attack on the church as an attack on the social order that oppressed, or mistreated, them as well. They believed that if they rebelled, Protestant reformers such as Luther would support them. The peasants were also aided by poor nobles who had no way to repay the debts that they owed to the Catholic Church.
Luther supported the peasants until the revolts turned into a bloody war. Many of Luther's critics blamed him for the uprisings. As a result he felt increasing pressure to criticize the peasants, which he did in 1525 in Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants. He was motivated in part by his desire to support the German nobility who, like him, resisted the authority of the pope and had offered him protection. The revolt was put down in 1525, though parties of peasants continued to loot churches, kidnap church officials, and commit other criminal acts.
The Peasants' War was only the beginning of a long conflict. For centuries after the Protestant Reformation, Catholicism and Protestantism would battle with each other. Violence broke out in 1606 when Catholics and Protestants clashed in the German city of DonauwÖrth. Elsewhere, most of the European nations—many of them, such as Spain and Italy, still Catholic—eyed the growing influence of Protestant Germans with fear and distrust. In 1618 these tensions led to the outbreak of the Thirty Years' War. The war involved most of Europe and led to the deaths of nearly one-third of the German population.
These kinds of clashes continued to occur. In England a seventeenth-century uprising ended when the Catholic king, Charles I, was beheaded by Protestant revolutionaries in 1649. Later, in 1688, the Catholic James II fled England into exile and was replaced by King William and Queen Mary, both Protestants. Catholics in England were not allowed to hold public office or attend universities until the nineteenth century. Similar anti-Catholic prejudice was common in the largely Protestant United States throughout the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth. Even in the early twenty-first century, Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland continued to attack one another in bombings and assassinations.
Despite the bloodshed, conflict, and prejudice that took place during the Protestant Reformation, historians agree that the revolution launched by Luther and others contributed significantly to the development of Europe. The continent's nations were freed from the iron grip that the Catholic Church had on most aspects of life, including government, education, scientific research, and the publication of books. The emphasis on personal belief rather than church authority gave rise to a renewed interest in learning. In turn, this new interest contributed to the rapid intellectual, social, and artistic advancement of Europe.
For More Information
Bainton, Roland H. "The Gospel," Here I Stand: a Life of Martin Luther. New York: New American Library, 1950.
Luther, Martin. On the Jews and Their Lies (1543). Translated by Martin H. Bertram. Luther's Works Volume 47: The Christian in Society IV. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971.
Marty, Martin E. Martin Luther. New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 2004.
Nichols, Stephen J. Martin Luther: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003.
Luther, Martin. "Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences." Internet Christian Library. http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/wittenberg/luther/web/ninetyfive.html(accessed June 5, 2006).
Whitford, David M. "Martin Luther (1483–1546)." The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://www.iep.utm.edu/l/luther.htm (accessed on June 5, 2006).
The German reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) was the first and greatest figure in the 16th-century Reformation. A composer of commentaries on Scripture, theology, and ecclesiastical abuses, a hymnologist, and a preacher, from his own time to the present he has been a symbol of Protestantism.
Martin Luther was born at Eisleben in Saxony on Nov. 10, 1483, the son of Hans and Margaret Luther. Luther's parents were of peasant stock, but his father had worked hard to raise the family's status, first as a miner and later as the owner of several small mines, to become a small-scale entrepreneur. In 1490 Martin was sent to the Latin school at Mansfeld, in 1497 to Magdeburg, and in 1498 to Eisenach. His early education was typical of late-15th-century practice. To a young man in Martin's circumstances, only the law and the church offered likely avenues of success, and Hans Luther's anticlericalism probably influenced his decision that his son should become a lawyer and increase the Luther family's prosperity, which Hans had begun. Martin was enrolled at the University of Erfurt in 1501. He received a bachelor of arts degree in 1502 and a master of arts in 1505. In the same year he enrolled in the faculty of law, giving every sign of being a dutiful and, likely, a very successful son.
Between 1503 and 1505, however, Martin experienced a religious crisis which would take him from the study of law forever. His own personal piety, fervently and sometimes grimly instilled by his parents and early teachers, and his awareness of a world in which the supernatural was perilously close to everyday life were sharpened by a series of events whose exact character has yet to be precisely determined. A dangerous accident in 1503, the death of a friend a little later, and Martin's own personal religious development had by 1505 started other concerns in him.
Then, on July 2, 1505, returning to Erfurt after visiting home, Martin was caught in a severe thunderstorm in which he was flung to the ground in terror, and he suddenly vowed to become a monk if he survived. This episode, as important in Christian history as the equally famous (and parallel) scene of St. Paul's conversion, changed the course of Luther's life. Two weeks later, against the opposition of his father and to the dismay of his friends, Martin Luther entered the Reformed Congregation of the Eremetical Order of St. Augustine at Erfurt. Luther himself saw this decision as sudden and based upon fear: "I had been called by heavenly terrors, for not freely or desirously did I become a monk, much less to gratify my belly, but walled around with the terror and agony of sudden death I vowed a constrained and necessary vow."
Luther's early life as a monk reflected his precipitate reasons for entering a monastery: "I was a good monk, and kept strictly to my order, so that I could say that if the monastic life could get a man to heaven, I should have entered." Monastic life at Erfurt was hard. Monks had long become (with the friars and many of the secular clergy) the targets of anticlerical feeling. Charged with having forsaken their true mission and having fallen into greed and ignorance, monastic orders made many attempts at reform in the 15th and 16th centuries. The congregation at Erfurt had been reformed in 1473. The year before Luther entered the Augustinian order at Erfurt, the vicar general Johann Staupitz (later Luther's friend) had revised further the constitution of the order.
Luther made his vows in 1506 and was ordained a priest in 1507. Reconciled with his father, he was then selected for advanced theological study at the University of Erfurt, with which his house had several connections.
Luther at Wittenberg
In 1508 Luther was sent to the newer University of Wittenberg to lecture in arts. Like a modern graduate student, he was also preparing for his doctorate of theology while he taught. He lectured on the standard medieval texts, for example, Peter Lombard's Book of Sentences; and he read for the first time the works of St. Augustine. In 1510 Luther was sent to Rome on business of the order and in 1512 received his doctorate in theology. Then came the second significant turn in Luther's career: he was appointed to succeed Staupitz as professor of theology at Wittenberg. Luther was to teach throughout the rest of his life. Whatever fame and notoriety his later writings and statements were to bring him, his work was teaching, which he fulfilled diligently until his death.
Wittenberg was a new university, founded in 1502-1503, strongly supported by the elector Frederick the Wise. By 1550, thanks to the efforts of Luther and his colleague Philip Melancthon, it was to become the most popular university in Germany. In 1512, however, it lacked the prestige of Erfurt and Leipzig and was insignificant in the eyes of the greatest of the old universities, that of Paris. It was not a good place for an ambitious academic, but Luther was not ambitious in this sense. His rapid rise was due to his native ability, his boundless energy, his dedication to the religious life, and his high conception of his calling as a teacher.
The intellectual climate which shaped Luther's thought is difficult to analyze precisely. The two competing philosophic systems of the late Middle Ages—scholasticism (derived from the Aristotelianism of St. Thomas Aquinas) and nominalism (derived from the skepticism of William of Ockham and his successors)—both appear to have influenced Luther, particularly in their insistence on rigorous formal logic as the basis of philosophic and theological inquiry. From Ockhamism, Luther probably derived his awareness of the infinite remoteness and majesty of God and of the limitation of the human intellect in its efforts to apprehend that majesty.
Luther's professional work forced him further to develop the religious sensibility which had drawn him to monasticism in 1505. In the monastery and later in the university Luther experienced other religious crises, all of which were based upon his acute awareness of the need for spiritual perfection and his equally strong conviction of his own human frailty, which caused him almost to despair before the overwhelming majesty and wrath of God. In 1509 Luther published his lectures on Peter Lombard; in 1513-1515 those on the Psalms; in 1515-1516 on St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans; and in 1516-1518 on the epistles to the Galatians and Hebrews. Like all other Christians, Luther read the Bible, and in these years his biblical studies became more and more important to him. Besides teaching and study, however, Luther had other duties. From 1514 he preached in the parish church; he was regent of the monastery school; and in 1515 he became the supervisor of 11 other monasteries: "…. write letters all day long," he wrote, "I am conventual preacher, reader at meals, sought for to preach daily in the parish church, am regent of studies, district Vicar, inspect the fish-ponds at Leitzkau, act in the Herzberg affair at Torgau, lecture on St. Paul, revising my Psalms, I seldom have time to go through my canonical hours properly, or to celebrate, to say nothing of my own temptations from the world, the flesh, and the devil."
Righteousness of God
Luther's crisis of conscience centered upon the question of his old monastic fears concerning the insufficiency of his personal efforts to placate a wrathful God. In his own person, these fears came to a head in 1519, when he began to interpret the passage in St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans which says that the justice of God is revealed in the Gospels.
Luther, the energetic monk and young theologian, felt himself to be "a sinner with an unquiet conscience." After an intense period of crisis, Luther discovered another interpretation of St. Paul's text: "I began to understand that Justice of Go…. to be understood passively as that whereby the merciful God justifies us by faith…. At this I felt myself to be born anew, and to enter through open gates into paradise itself." Only faith in God's mercy, according to Luther, can effect the saving righteousness of God in man. "Works," the term which Luther used to designate both formal, ecclesiastically authorized liturgy and the more general sense of "doing good," became infinitely less important to him than faith.
The doctrine of justification, taking shape in Luther's thought between 1515 and 1519, drew him into further theological speculation as well as into certain positions of practical ecclesiastical life. The most famous of these is the controversy over indulgences. In 1513 a great effort to dispense indulgences was proclaimed throughout Germany. In spite of the careful theological reservations surrounding them, indulgences appeared to the preachers who sold them and to the public who bought them as a means of escaping punishment in the afterlife for a sum of money. In 1517 Luther posted the 95 Theses for an academic debate on indulgences on the door of the castle church at Wittenberg. Both the place and the event were customary events in an academic year, and they might have gone unnoticed had not someone translated Luther's Latin theses into German and printed them, thus giving them widespread fame and calling them to the attention of both theologians and the public.
News of Dr. Luther's theses spread, and in 1518 Luther was called before Cardinal Cajetan, the papal legate at Augsburg, to renounce his theses. Refusing to do so, Luther returned to Wittenberg, where, in the next year, he agreed to a debate with the theologian Johann Eck. The debate, originally scheduled to be held between Eck and Luther's colleague Karlstadt, soon became a struggle between Eck and Luther in which Luther was driven by his opponent to taking even more radical theological positions, thus laying himself open to the charge of heresy. By 1521 Eck secured a papal bull (decree) condemning Luther, and Luther was summoned to the Imperial Diet at Worms in 1521 to answer the charges against him.
A student of Luther's described his teacher at this period: "He was a man of middle stature, with a voice which combined sharpness and softness: it was soft in tone, sharp in the enunciation of syllables, words, and sentences. He spoke neither too quickly nor too slowly, but at an even pace, without hesitation, and very clearly…. If even the fiercest enemies of the Gospel had been among his hearers, they would have confessed from the force of what they heard, that they had witnessed, not a man, but a spirit."
Luther throughout his life always revealed a great common sense, and he always retained his humorous understanding of practical life. He reflected an awareness of both the material and spiritual worlds, and his flights of poetic theology went hand in hand with the occasional coarseness of his polemics. His wit and thought were spontaneous, his interest in people of all sorts genuine and intense, his power of inspiring affection in his students and colleagues never failing. He was always remarkably frank, and although he became first the center of the Reform movement and later one of many controversial figures in it, he retained a sense of self-criticism, attributing his impact to God. He said, in a characteristic passage: "Take me, for example. I opposed indulgences and all papists, but never by force. I simply taught, preached, wrote God's Word: otherwise I did nothing. And then, while I slept or drank Wittenberg beer with my Philip of Amsdorf the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a prince or emperor did such damage to it. I did nothing: the Word did it all. Had I wanted to start troubl…. I could have started such a little game at Worms that even the emperor wouldn't have been safe. But what would it have been? A mug's game. I did nothing: I left it to the Word."
Great personal attraction, absolute dedication to his theological principles, kindness and loyalty to his friends, and an acute understanding of his own human weakness—these were the characteristics of Luther when he came face to face with the power of the papacy and empire at Worms in 1521. He was led to a room in which his collected writings were piled on a table and ordered to repudiate them. He asked for time to consider and returned the next day and answered: "Unless I am proved wrong by the testimony of Scripture or by evident reason I am bound in conscience and held fast to the Word of God. Therefore I cannot and will not retract anything, for it is neither safe nor salutary to act against one's conscience. God help me. Amen." Luther left Worms and was taken, for his own safety, to the castle of Wartburg, where he spent some months in seclusion, beginning his great translation of the Bible into German and writing numerous tracts.
Return to Wittenberg
In 1522 Luther returned to Wittenberg, where he succeeded in cooling the radical reforming efforts of his colleague Karlstadt and continued the incessant writing which would fill the rest of his life. In 1520 he had written three of his most famous tracts: To The Christian Nobility of the German Nation, which enunciates a social program of religious reform; On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, on Sacraments, the Mass, and papal power; and Of the Liberty of a Christian Man, a treatise on faith and on the inner liberty which faith affords those who possess it.
The Lutheran Bible, which was "a vehicle of proletarian education" as well as a monument in the spiritual history of Europe, not only gave Luther's name and views wider currency but revealed the translator as a great master of German prose, an evaluation which Luther's other writings justify.
Besides these works, Luther had other matters at hand. His name was used now by many people, including many with whom he disagreed. The Reformation had touched society and its institutions as well as religion, and Luther was drawn into conflicts, such as the Peasants' Rebellion of 1524-1525 and the affairs of the German princes, which drew from him new ideas on the necessary social and political order of Christian Germany. Luther's violent antipeasant writings from this period have often been criticized. His fears of the dangerous role of extreme reformers like Karlstadt and Thomas Münzer, however, were greater than his hope for social reform through revolution. Luther came to rely heavily upon the princes to carry out his program of reform. In 1525 Luther married Katherine von Bora, a nun who had left her convent. From that date until his death, Luther's family life became not only a model of the Christian home but a source of psychological support to him.
Luther's theological writings continued to flow steadily. Often they were written in response to his critics or in the intense heat of debate with Protestant rivals. Among those great works not brought about by conflict should be numbered the Great Catechism and the Small Catechism of 1529 and his collection of sermons and hymns, many of the latter, like Ein Feste Burg, still sung today.
Debates with Theologians
In 1524-1525 Luther entered into a discussion of free will with the great Erasmus. Luther's On the Will in Bondage (1525) remained his definitive statement on the question. In 1528 Luther turned to the question of Christ's presence in the Eucharist in his Confession concerning the Lord's Supper, which attracted the hostility of a number of reformers, notably Ulrich Zwingli. In 1529 Luther's ally Melancthon arranged a discussion between the two, and the Marburg Colloquy, as the debate is known, helped to close one of the early breaches in Protestant agreement.
In 1530, when Charles V was once again able to turn to the problems of the Reformation in Germany, Luther supervised, although he did not entirely agree with, the writing of Melancthon's Augsburg Confession, one of the foundations of later Protestant thought. From 1530 on Luther spent as much time arguing with other Reformation leaders on matters of theology as with his Catholic opponents.
Luther's disputes with other theologians were carried out with the same intensity he applied to his other work: he longed for Christian unity, but he could not accept the theological positions which many others had advanced. He was also fearful of the question of a general council in the Church. In 1539 he wrote his On Councils and Churches and witnessed in the following years the failure of German attempts to heal the wounds of Christianity. On the eve of his death he watched with great concern the calling of the Council of Trent, the Catholic response to the Reformation.
In the 1540s Luther was stricken with diseases a number of times, drawing great comfort from his family and from the lyrical, plain devotional exercises which he had written for children. In 1546 he was called from a sickbed to settle the disputes of two German noblemen. On the return trip he fell sick and died at Eisleben, the town of his birth, on Feb. 18, 1546.
The Writings of Martin Luther (1958) provides 55 volumes of selected works in good translations. A shorter selection is Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings, edited by John Dillenberger (1961). There is a vast literature on Luther and the Reformation. An old but still useful work, of interest because it was written almost a decade before the "Luther Renaissance" of the 1920s, is Preserved Smith, The Life and Letters of Martin Luther (1911; repr. 1968). But it needs to be supplemented by more recent studies.
Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (1950), is one of the most comprehensive biographies. Other biographies are Gordon Rupp, Luther's Progress to the Diet of Worms, 1521 (1951); Robert H. Fife, The Revolt of Martin Luther (1957); Erik H. Erikson, Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History (1958); V. H. H. Green, Luther and the Reformation (1964); Gerhard Ritter, Luther: His Life and Work, translated by John Riches (1964); and Arthur Geoffrey Dickens, Martin Luther and the Reformation (1967), half of which is devoted to the Reformation itself. A popular account is Edith Simon, Luther Alive: Martin Luther and the Making of the Reformation (1968).
A specialized study dealing with doctrinal issues is Erwin Iserloh, The Theses Were Not Posted: Martin Luther between Reform and Reformation (1968). Two brief and good accounts of Luther's theology are Philip S. Watson, Let God Be God: An Interpretation of the Theology of Martin Luther (1947), and Gordon Rupp, The Righteousness of God: Luther Studies (1953). An interesting account of later interpretations of Luther is Jaroslav Pelikan, ed., Interpreters of Luther: Essays in Honor of Wilhelm Pauck (1968). The best general accounts of Luther and the Reformation are Roland H. Bainton, The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century (1953); The New Cambridge Modern History (14 vols., 1957-1970), vol. 2: G. R. Elton, ed., The Reformation, 1520-1559; A. G. Dickens, Reformation and Society in Sixteenth-century Europe (1966); and H. G.Koenigsberger and George L. Mosse, Europe in the Sixteenth Century (1968). □
November 10, 1483
February 18, 1546
Scholar, professor, writer, religious reformer
"I began to understand." he wrote later, "that the righteousness of God is that gift of God by which a righteous [morally upright] man lives, namely, faith, and that … the merciful God justifies us by faith…"
The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were a time of transition from the Middle Ages (c. 400 –1400; also called the medieval period) to the modern era. Throughout the Middle Ages the Roman Catholic Church (a Christian religion headed by a pope and based in Rome, Italy) controlled all aspects of social, political, and religious life. It was the largest institution (complex organization) in western Europe and consisted of an elaborate hierarchy (ranks of officials)—the pope, cardinals (officials ranking below the pope), bishops (heads of church districts), canons (legal administrators), priests (heads of local churches), and numerous other clergymen. The pope was considered infallible (always correct), and he was the most powerful ruler in Europe. The Catholic Church was also immensely wealthy, owning vast properties and collecting huge sums in taxes, tithes (one-tenth of income), and other forms of payment from the people.
Beginning in the fifteenth century, the medieval view of the world underwent radical change. Renaissance humanists (scholars who revived the literary culture of ancient Greece and Rome) had freed scholarship and the arts from the sponsorship of the church. In so doing, humanists not only rediscovered the individual but also challenged the blind acceptance of authority and encouraged the individual search for truth through reason. Now people were seeking a better way to understand God in terms of their own experience. Into this changing world was born Martin Luther. Now known as the father of the Protestant Reformation, Luther was a German priest who singlehandedly altered the course of European history.
"Save me, Saint Anne"
Martin Luther was born at Eisleben in Saxony (a duchy in northwest Germany) on November 10, 1483, the son of Hans and Margaret Luther. His parents were of peasant stock, but his father had worked hard to raise the family's social status. Hans Luther began his career as a miner, then became the owner of several small mines that brought the family a fair degree of financial comfort. This process took nearly a decade, however, and life for the nine Luther children (five boys and four girls) was sometimes difficult. Young Martin was severely beaten by both his mother and his father for relatively minor offenses. This type of discipline was common at the time. In 1490 Martin was sent to the Latin school at Mansfeld, Germany. Seven years later he was sent to a better school in Magdeburg, Germany. In 1498, after he had shown academic excellence, he enrolled in a school located in Eisenach, Germany. Here he met Johann Braun, a dedicated cleric who became his role model.
Luther's early education was typical of late-fifteenth-century practices. To a young man in his circumstances, only the law and the church offered likely avenues to success. His parents believed that the financial success of their children would guarantee them, the elder Luthers, comfort in their old age. Hans Luther had a dislike for the priesthood, a feeling that probably influenced his decision that Martin should be a lawyer. In 1501 Martin enrolled at the University of Erfurt, one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in Germany. Within four years he earned both bachelor's and master's degrees. In 1505 he had just begun the study of law and was on his way to a career in service to the church or to one of the many German princes (rulers of states). Then he abruptly abandoned the university for the disciplined life of a monastery (house for men in a religious order). This dramatic change occurred on July 2, 1505, while Luther was returning to the university from a visit with his parents. Along the way he was suddenly caught in a thunderstorm. As lightning struck nearby, he cried out in terror to his patron saint: "Save me, Saint Anne, and I will become a monk." Just two weeks later, Luther joined the Eremites of Saint Augustine (a religious order) in Erfurt. He was ordained a priest within a year.
Luther was no ordinary monk, for he was deeply troubled by the teachings of the church. Since the early Middle Ages, Catholic leaders had taught that the church was the only link between the individual and God. The church provided salvation (deliverance from sin, or wrongdoing) to repentant sinners through the sacraments (holy rituals), most notably communion (also called the Holy Eucharist). Administered in a ceremony called the mass, communion is a ritual in which bread and wine symbolize the body and blood of Jesus of Nazareth (called Christ), the founder of Christianity. Also, the church taught that the individual had a duty to use his or her own free will (ability to make independent choices) to love and serve God. This was the way to earn salvation from God. In short, the individual participated in his or her own salvation through good deeds. Such teachings brought comfort to many, but they caused distress for Luther. His problem was that no matter how hard he "worked" at earning his salvation, he could not find any peace with God.
Luther found the answer to his spiritual problem sometime during the fall of 1515. By then he was a professor of theology (study of religion) at the University of Wittenberg and in charge eleven monasteries. The answer came while he was preparing a series of lectures in his study in a tower of the monastery. He was pondering the meaning of verse 17 in chapter 1 of the book of Romans in the New Testament (second part of the Bible, the Christian holy book): "For it is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, The just shall live by faith." In that little verse was contained the heart of Luther's problem, as well as the solution. He was perplexed by the two phrases, "the righteousness of God" and " The just shall live by faith." In accordance with church teachings, Luther understood "the righteousness of God" to mean that a righteous, even angry, God punishes all sinners. Such a view caused him to hate the God he knew he should love. Then, as Luther meditated over the verse, he realized that a morally upright person gains salvation through faith in God alone, and not through the interpretations of the Scriptures that were enforced by church officials. Luther's idea came to be known as justification of faith.
Indulgences began as gifts of money given to the clergy in appreciation or gratitude for forgiveness of sins (wrong-doing). Soon, however, indulgences began to represent an outward showing of grief for sins. People would pay for indulgences to prove to the church and others that they were truly repentant for their sins. In the thirteenth century, the Catholic Church formulated what was called the "treasury of merits." It was a spiritual bank of sorts that "contained" the good works performed by Jesus Christ, the saints, and all pious, or devoted, Christians. In other words, because Jesus and the saints had lived better lives than necessary to get into heaven, their good deeds had been left on Earth in the treasury of merits. Good deeds from this treasury could be redistributed to Christian believers in the form of indulgences. One would give money to his or her clergyman, who would in turn make a "withdrawal" from the spiritual bank on behalf of person who paid for the indulgence. This system was supposed to reduce the amount of time the soul (spirit of a dead person) spent in purgatory (place between heaven and hell), but many church members did not fully understand this aspect of indulgences. It was widely believed that people could sin as much as possible and still buy their way into heaven by purchasing indulgences.
Makes revolutionary discovery
Luther had made a revolutionary discovery—that salvation comes through faith alone. He then reached an even more startling conclusion. This truth is revealed in the Bible, not through the mass and other sacraments (holy rites) administered by priests. Therefore, all of the clergy, from the pope down to the parish priest, were unnecessary. Luther did not immediately challenge the church with this discovery. What spurred him to action was the appearance, in 1517, of a monk peddling indulgences (payments to church officials for forgiveness of sins; see accompanying box) outside Wittenberg. The monk was selling indulgences on behalf of the new archbishop of Mainz, twenty-three-year-old Albert von Hohenzollern, who had "purchased" his position. To pay back the funds he borrowed from the Fugger bank in Augsburg to finance the purchase, Albert was authorized by Pope Leo X (1475–1521; reigned 1513–21) to sell indulgences in Germany.
The abuse of the indulgence system was evident in the aggressive sales tactics of John Tetzel (1465–1519), an experienced indulgence salesman who appeared outside Luther's door in October 1517. Tetzel was selling indulgences to finance the new Saint Peter's Basilica, which was under construction in Rome. He claimed that indulgences could be purchased for relatives already dead, or for sins one might commit in the future. "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings," Tetzel said, "the soul from purgatory springs."
Posts theses at Wittenberg
Luther felt impelled to respond to the obvious misuse of indulgences. According to popular legend, on October 31, 1517 (the eve of All Saints' Day; now called Halloween), Luther defiantly nailed a document titled "Ninety-Five Theses or Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences" to the door of the church at the University of Wittenberg. Some scholars downplay the drama of this act, suggesting that Luther simply tacked the "Ninety-Five Theses" to the church door, which served as a kind of bulletin board at the university. Others say he attached the theses to the letter he wrote to the archbishop of Mainz, protesting the sale of indulgences. In any case, he intended the document as an invitation to his colleagues to debate the issue.
Luther's "Ninety-Five Theses"
Martin Luther wrote down his theological disagreements with the Catholic Church in the "Ninety-Five Theses." His intention was to generate a discussion that could help the church eliminate corruption. Luther was not planning to leave the church or cause the controversy that eventually resulted in the Protestant Reformation.
The following is only a brief excerpt of the entire list of Luther's theses, but it gives the reader a sense of the issues. Notice that Luther spoke of an individual relationship with God, and he dismissed the idea of purgatory. He emphasized that personal penance (showing sorrow for sin) and faith are the only way to gain salvation from sin. The roles of the pope and priests were greatly reduced by Luther. For instance, he argued that the pope could not remit (grant forgiveness for) sins because the act of penance (an act performed to seek forgiveness of sins) should take place only between the individual and God. In fact, Luther called into question the authority of the church to create canons (laws) and administer sacraments, because such authority rests only in God, not the church.
- When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, "Repent" [Matt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
- This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.
- Yet it does not mean solely inner repentance; such inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward mortifications [humiliations] of the flesh.
- The penalty of sin remains as long as the hatred of self, that is, true inner repentance, until our entrance into the kingdom of heaven.
- The pope neither desires nor is able to remit any penalties except those imposed by his own authority or that of the canons.
- The pope cannot remit any guilt, except by declaring and showing that it has been remitted by God; or, to be sure, by remitting guilt in cases reserved to his judgment. If his right to grant remission in these cases were disregarded, the guilt would certainly remain unforgiven.
- God remits guilt to no one unless at the same time he humbles him in all things and makes him submissive to his vicar, the priest.
- The penitential canons are imposed only on the living, and, according to the canons themselves, nothing should be imposed on the dying.
- Therefore the Holy Spirit through the pope is kind to us insofar as the pope in his decrees always makes exception of the article of death and of necessity.
- Those priests act ignorantly and wickedly who, in the case of the dying, reserve canonical penalties for purgatory.
Source: Noll, Mark A. Confessions and Catechisms of the Reformation. Vancouver, B.C.: Regent College Publishing, 1997, pp. 29–30.
Most modern scholars agree that Luther never intended to begin a widespread reform movement within the Catholic Church. He merely wanted to spark academic debate about a serious issue. Initially, his protest fell on deaf ears, since the archbishop of Mainz was sharing the profits of indulgence sales with the pope. Had someone not translated the "Ninety-Five Theses" from Latin (the language used in all formal communications) into German, they might have gone unnoticed. With the aid of the recently invented printing press, the translation appeared throughout Germany. The theses were thus made available to theologians, scholars, and anyone else who could read German.
Called before Diet of Worms
Although Luther had directly challenged the authority of the pope, Leo X did not move immediately to silence him. In 1519 Luther attended a debate at the University of Leipzig. The debate raged on for eighteen days before it was called off. Luther had defended his beliefs by stating that people should live their lives by following the Bible, not the pope. He said people could find their own salvation through faith—they did not need the church. Luther began writing his views in pamphlets, and his ideas soon spread throughout Germany. Many people backed him. In June 1520 Leo X issued a bull (papal order) criticizing Luther and excommunicating (expelling) him from the church. When Luther received this document, he publicly burned it. The following April, Luther was summoned to the town of Worms, where an assembly of German princes (called the Diet) had been convened by the new Holy Roman Emperor, nineteen-year-old Charles V (1500–1558; ruled 1519–56; see entry). The Diet wanted Luther to withdraw his views. He refused, so Charles declared him an outlaw of the church and ordered his arrest. But Frederick the Wise (1463–1525), Luther's friend and the prince who ruled Wittenberg, kidnapped Luther and hid him in Wartburg Castle, one of Frederick's residences near Eisenach. There, over the next eleven months, Luther spent his time translating the New Testament from Latin into German.
Returning to Wittenberg in March 1522, Luther tried to unify his followers. By then, almost half the people of Germany had adopted his views. Many called themselves "Lutherans" (only later did the reformers come to be known as Protestants). Yet the movement began to fragment almost immediately. The Bible may be the final authority, but according to Luther every believer is his own priest, his own interpreter of what the Bible says. As a result of Luther's view, numerous Protestant sects (groups) were formed—and they are still being formed. In 1525 Luther married Katherine von Bora (1499–1552), a former nun (a woman who belongs to a religious order). They had six children, some of whom died early, and adopted eleven others. By all accounts, their home was a happy one. Luther called his wife "my beloved Katie," and she was a great source of strength for him.
Protestants fall into disunity
All that happened after the Diet of Worms was anticlimactic. Luther tried to halt the extreme views of some of his followers. But fragmentation, not unity, was to characterize the future of the Protestant churches. In 1530 Philipp Melanchthon (1497–1560), Luther's closest associate, drafted a confession (statement) of faith. Both he and Luther hoped it might provide a basis for unity between the Lutherans and the Roman Catholic Church. Rejected by the Diet of Augsburg, Melanchthon's confession, called the "Augsburg Confession," became the basis for the doctrine (beliefs and teachings) of Lutheran churches. Luther introduced numerous reforms in the worship service. He placed an emphasis on preaching and teaching from the Bible, and he reintroduced music and congregational singing. A fine musician, Luther wrote many popular hymns, including A Mighty Fortress Is Our God and Away in a Manger. Throughout the remaining years of his life, Luther continued writing, preaching, and teaching. He died on February 18, 1546, four days after he had preached in Eisleben, his hometown. He was buried on the grounds of the church in Wittenberg.
For More Information
Fearon, Mike. Martin Luther. Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1986.
Noll, Mark A. Confessions and Catechisms of the Reformation. Vancouver, B.C.: Regent College Publishing, 1997.
Scheib, Asta. Children of Disobedience: The Love Story of Martin Luther and Katharina von Bora: A Novel. David Ward, translator. New York: Crossroad, 2000.
Stepanek, Sally. Martin Luther. New York: Chelsea House, 1986.
Martin Luther. Worcester, Vision Video, 1990.
"Luther, Martin: Letter to the Archbishop of Mainz, 1517." Medieval Sourcebook. [Online] Available http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/lutherltr-indulgences.html, April 5, 2002.
"Luther, Martin." Martin Luther and the Reformation. [Online] Available http://mars.acnet.wnec.edu/~grempel/courses/wc2/lectures/luther.html, April 5, 2002.
"Luther, Martin." MSN Encarta. [Online] Available http://encarta.msn.com/find/concise.asp?z=1&pg=2&ti=04875000, April 5, 2002.
Martin Luther was the son of prosperous peasants, and his father intended him to become a lawyer, the avenue that many upwardly mobile people followed in the fifteenth century. Early in his life he studied at schools run by the Brethren of the Common Life and he eventually attended the University of Erfurt where he earned a master's of arts degree in 1505. Before he could begin his law studies, however, fate intervened. One day he was caught in a terrible storm and, fearing for his life, he prayed to St. Anne, vowing to become a monk if he was spared. He survived to make good on his promise, despite his father's vehement opposition. He entered an Augustinian monastery and took priestly orders. During this time he continued his studies, earning a doctorate in theology in 1512. A few years later he became professor of biblical theology at the University of Wittenberg in Saxony, one of Germany's newest universities. He stayed in this position for the rest of his life.
In the 1950s the Danish psychologist Erik Erikson painted a picture of Luther's psychological makeup that was less than flattering. He saw Luther as someone who had suffered from an identity crisis in his early life because of his conflicts with his father over his choice of career. According to Erikson, Luther's quest for certainty of his salvation was a way to resolve these long-standing issues with his father. Historians have long attacked Erikson's version of events, but it is clear that Luther was someone with an anxious nature. Even as he completed his studies in biblical theology, the future reformer continued to try all the remedies the medieval church prescribed for sinful human nature. In the later Middle Ages the church taught that while human beings could not save themselves, they needed to cooperate with God by participating in the sacraments and doing good works. Luther tried this path. He went on pilgrimage to Rome, performing the prayers and rituals that were customarily undertaken in the Holy City to obtain indulgences. He fasted and spent long nights in prayer vigils, but he could not dispel doubts and uncertainties about his salvation. Johann von Staupitz, Luther's superior in the monastery, originally identified Luther's problems, and it was he who suggested Luther undertake biblical studies in the first place. Staupitz thought that reading and studying the Bible would calm Luther's fears, and in his ongoing attempts to keep Luther occupied, he arranged for the scholar to be appointed to his post at Wittenberg. Sometime around the time he took up his new position, though, Luther had a momentous insight. This event would later become known as his "Tower Experience," although it cannot be established with certainty just when it occurred. While gathering his thoughts together for a lecture on St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, he was struck by the phrase, "The just shall live by faith." Fueled by his powerful new insight, he began to teach that works were unnecessary for salvation. Only faith in the promises of God could redeem sinners. These insights soon clashed with imperial politics. During 1517, members of the Dominican Order began to sell a papal indulgence in Germany in order to finance the building of the new St. Peter's Basilica in Rome and to retire the debts a German archbishop had acquired in securing his election. Luther became disgusted with the techniques of the chief salesman, Johann Tetzel, and he wrote his 95 Theses to spur debate. Luther probably did post these propositions on the door of Wittenberg's university church on 31 October 1517, an event that has become legendary as the start of the Protestant Reformation. But it cannot be definitely established whether he decided to publicize his ideas in this way at the time. He did send the 95 Theses to the church officials responsible for the sale and to close friends and associates. Someone soon arranged for its publication without Luther's knowledge, and although it had been written in Latin, the language of scholars, its translation into German caused great excitement throughout the country.
While Luther's fame grew, Rome made several attempts to quiet his criticisms. These efforts failed, and in 1519 Luther debated his propositions publicly at Leipzig against the Dominican theologian Johann Eck. The reformer defended his positions skillfully, although at several points in the debate Eck drew him into making statements that showed he did not recognize the authority of the pope. Luther also expressed sympathy for John Huss, the leader of the fifteenth-century religious rebellion in Bohemia. These admissions made it clear to Pope Leo X that Luther was a heretic, but they also extended his popularity throughout Germany where the press promoted him as a sort of folk hero. Leo X condemned Luther's positions, but when Luther received his copy of the condemnation in June 1520 he publicly burnt it together with several esteemed theological works of the medieval church. In the months that followed, Luther actively engaged in preaching and writing about his new ideas. Among the many works he wrote in 1520, three treatises stand out in the history of the Reformation because they redefined Christian teachings according to Luther's principle of justification by faith. They presented a plan for the reform of the church and they also reformulated the role of the sacraments in Christianity. Over the following years these three treatises circulated throughout Germany and Europe in thousands of cheaply produced copies. They soon produced such excitement that a number of writers throughout Germany wrote similar tracts condemning the church, and the short Reformation pamphlet became the most popular printed work in Germany.
As the controversy over Luther's ideas grew, the emperor Charles V summoned Luther to a meeting of the imperial parliament in the city of Worms. Charles wanted to put the matter to rest, but Luther refused to recant his ideas and he was condemned as an outlaw. Before attending the meetings at Worms, though, Luther had asked for a safe conduct, and he was able to leave the meetings to travel home. While en route, his protector, Frederick the Wise, arranged to have him kidnapped and taken to the Wartburg castle, where Luther hid for ten months. During this period Luther began his translation of the Bible into German, a task that would require another decade to complete. Although Bibles were tremendously expensive, Luther's translation became enormously popular. It was printed in hundreds of thousands of copies and had a major impact on the German language.
While Luther was at the Wartburg, the situation at home in Wittenberg was quickly changing. Many of Luther's closest associates began to promote ideas that were even more radical than his own. In 1522 the reformer returned to Wittenberg to try to establish control over the situation. One of the key elements of these radical reformers' program at the time was the condemnation of traditional religious images and sculptures. These figures taught that religious art was a violation of the Bible's teachings about "graven images." Iconoclasm, that is, the destruction of religious art, had broken out in Saxony. Luther responded with a conservative defense of religious art's role in worship. The ideas he formulated at this time fashioned an essentially conservative Reformation in the church.
Reform of Worship.
Luther insisted that the chief insight of his movement, justification by faith, should be the central teaching of the church. For those who possessed faith, religious art was a matter of indifference. While church and state authorities should see to it that those objects that excited idolatrous affection in the people should be removed, religious art, Luther argued, had a role to play in people's devotions. At this time Luther also translated the traditional Mass and the other services of the church into German. He pruned away those parts of medieval worship that were in conflict with his teachings, but he preserved much from the Middle Ages. With Frederick the Wise's support, Luther abolished monasticism, and at Wittenberg, he arranged for the marriage of the town's monks and priests to nuns. In 1525, Luther himself married Katherina von Bora, a former nun.
While Luther reshaped the life of the church in Saxony, unrest continued to brew. In 1524, peasants in Germany's southwest revolted, formulating their demands for religious and social reform in a widely circulated manifesto known as the TwelveArticles. The movement soon spread to the east and north in Germany, threatening to erupt into a full-scale social revolution. Luther had originally supported the peasants' demands. He had himself been born a peasant and knew that Germany's nobles were often harsh and repressive in their dealings with the class. As the peasant rebellion grew more violent, Luther distanced himself from the peasant rebels, and in 1525, he condemned the movement outright. In the years after the bloody suppression of the Peasants' War, the reformer increasingly relied on the power of the state to reform the church. Together with his close associates, especially Philip Melanchthon, Luther developed new plans for the education of the young, instituted an inspection of local churches, and reformed the curriculum of the University of Wittenberg. Luther's reliance on the state, however, coupled with his denunciation of the peasantry during the Peasants' War, condemned many of his reforms to unpopularity, particularly in the countryside.
The remaining two decades of Luther's life were times of both success and failure. During the 1520s Ulrich Zwingli had championed a different course of reform in Switzerland and southern Germany, and this movement now rivaled Luther's own. In 1529 Zwingli and Luther met at Marburg in Germany in an attempt to iron out their differences so that they might form a united church. This Marburg Colloquy, as it became known, was a failure, and Swiss Protestantism continued to develop as a separate movement. During the 1530s and 1540s, numerous attempts to reconcile Luther and his followers with the Roman Church also failed. Furthermore, the bigamy of one of his most powerful followers, Philip of Hesse, embarrassed Luther, as Philip's taking of a second wife made it seem to many conservative minds that Reformation was a force of disorder and lawlessness. Still, there were many positive developments in these years. Luther's cause took on a distinctive identity and its message became the religion of many cities and territories. In 1534 Luther also completed his biblical translation. His family multiplied, eventually totaling twelve children, six of whom Luther's wife Katherina bore, and six which they adopted. The loss of Luther's daughter, Magdalena, in 1542 devastated Luther, and he was unusually candid about it. In these years he also continued to suffer from health problems, as he had throughout his life. Some have credited his worsening health with inspiring the violent anti-Semitism of a tract entitled Against the Jews and Their Lies which he published in 1543. He wrote increasingly violent diatribes against the papacy in these years, too. At the same time Luther remained a tremendously popular figure in the circle that surrounded him at Wittenberg. He boarded many of his students, who recorded their lunchtime conversations with him. Known as the "Table Talk," these accounts provide us with an unparalleled view into his life, often allowing us to reconstruct his day-to-day activities. His death in 1546 came after he had traveled to a neighboring territory to help settle a dispute between two nobles. Even in death, though, Luther's life produced controversy. His followers circulated an account of his final hours that stressed that he had remained steadfast in his faith until the very end. But rival Catholic propagandists circulated a counter myth that he had recanted in the last moments and returned to the traditional faith.
M. Brecht, Martin Luther (Stuttgart: Calwer, 1981).
R. Marius, Martin Luther (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999).
Born: November 10, 1483
Died: February 18, 1546
The German reformer (one who works to change outdated practices and beliefs) Martin Luther was the first and greatest figure in the sixteenth-century Reformation. An author of commentaries on Scripture (sacred writings), theology (the study of religion), and priestly abuses, a hymnologist (writer of hymns [sacred songs]), and a preacher, from his own time to the present he has been a symbol of Protestantism (group of Christian faiths that do not believe in the supremacy of the pope, but in the absolute authority of the Bible).
Family and education
Martin Luther was born at Eisleben in Saxony, Germany, on November 10, 1483, the son of Hans and Margaret Luther. Luther's parents were peasants, but his father had worked hard to raise the family's status, first as a miner and later as the owner of several small mines, to become a small-scale businessman. In 1490 Martin was sent to the Latin school at Mansfeld, in 1497 to Magdeburg, and in 1498 to Eisenach. His early education was typical of late-fifteenth-century practice. To a young man in Martin's situation, the law and the church offered the only chance for a successful career. He chose to become a lawyer to increase the Luther family's success, which Hans had begun. Martin was enrolled at the University of Erfurt in 1501. He received a bachelor of arts degree in 1502 and a master of arts in 1505. In the same year he enrolled in the instructors of law, giving every sign of being a dutiful and, likely, a very successful, son.
Between 1503 and 1505, however, Martin experienced a religious crisis that would take him from the study of law forever. A dangerous accident in 1503, the death of a friend a little later, and Martin's own personal religious development had by 1505 changed his focus. Then, on July 2, 1505, returning to Erfurt after visiting home, Martin was caught in a severe thunderstorm and flung to the ground in terror; at that moment he vowed to become a monk if he survived. This episode changed the course of Luther's life. Two weeks later, against his father's wishes and to the dismay of his friends, Martin Luther entered the Reformed Congregation of the Eremetical Order of St. Augustine at Erfurt.
Life as a monk at Erfurt was difficult. Luther made his vows in 1506 and was ordained (officially given a religious position in the church) a priest in 1507. No longer in disagreement with his father, he was then selected for advanced theological study at the University of Erfurt.
Luther at Wittenberg
In 1508 Luther was sent to the University of Wittenberg to lecture in arts. He was also preparing for his doctorate of theology while he taught. In 1510 Luther was sent to Rome, Italy, and in 1512 received his doctorate in theology. Then came the second significant turn in Luther's career: he was appointed professor of theology at Wittenberg. He was to teach throughout the rest of his life.
In 1509 Luther published his lectures on Peter Lombard (1095–1160); in 1513–1515 those on the Psalms; in 1515–1516 on St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans; and in 1516–1518 on the epistles to the Galatians and Hebrews. Besides instruction and study, however, Luther had other duties. From 1514 he preached in the parish church; he was regent (head) of the monastery school; and in 1515 he became the supervisor of eleven other monasteries.
Righteousness of God
The doctrine of justification, taking shape in Luther's thought between 1515 and 1519, drew him further into theological thought as well as into certain positions of practical priestly life. The most famous of these is the controversy (causing opposing viewpoints) over indulgences. A person who committed a sin would buy an indulgence from the church to avoid punishment—especially punishment after death. In 1513 a great effort to distribute indulgences was proclaimed throughout Germany. In 1517 Luther posted the Ninety-Five Theses for an academic debate on indulgences on the door of the castle church at Wittenberg. This was the customary time and place to display such an article. They were given widespread fame and called to the attention of both theologians and the public.
News of Luther's theses spread, and in 1518 he was called before Cardinal Cajetan, the Roman Catholic representative at Augsburg, to deny his theses. Refusing to do so, Luther returned to Wittenberg, where, in the next year, he agreed to a debate with the theologian Johann Eck (1486–1543). The debate soon became a struggle between Eck and Luther in which Luther was driven by his opponent to taking even more radical theological positions, thus laying himself open to the charge of heresy (believing in something that opposes what is formally taught by the Church). By 1521 Eck secured a papal bull (decree) condemning Luther, and Luther was summoned to the Imperial Diet at Worms (meeting of the Holy Roman Empire held at Worms, Germany) in 1521 to answer the charges against him.
Luther came face to face with the power of the Roman Catholic Church and empire at Worms in 1521. He was led to a room in which his writings were piled on a table and ordered to disclaim them. He replied that he could not do this. Luther left Worms and was taken, for his own safety, to the castle of Wartburg, where he spent some months in privacy, beginning his great translation of the Bible into German and writing numerous essays.
Return to Wittenberg
In 1522 Luther returned to Wittenberg and continued the writing that would fill the rest of his life. In 1520 he had written three of his most famous tracts (written piece of propaganda, or material written with the intent of convincing people of a certain belief): To The Christian Nobility of the German Nation; On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church; and Of the Liberty of a Christian Man.
In 1525 Luther married Katherine von Bora, a nun who had left her convent. From that date until his death, Luther's family life became not only a model Christian home but a source of psychological support to him.
Luther's writings continued to flow steadily. Among the most important are the Great Catechism and the Small Catechism of 1529 and his collection of sermons and hymns, many of the latter, like Ein Feste Burg, still sung today.
Debates with Theologians
In 1524–1525 Luther entered into a discussion of free will with the great Erasmus (1466–1536). Luther's On the Will in Bondage (1525) remained his final statement on the question. In 1528 he turned to the question of Christ's presence in the Eucharist (communion with God) in his Confession concerning the Lord's Supper.
In 1530 Luther supervised, although he did not entirely agree with, the writing of Philipp Melancthon's (1497–1560) Augsburg Confession, one of the foundations of later Protestant thought. From 1530 on Luther spent as much time arguing with other Reformation leaders on matters of theology as with his Catholic opponents.
In 1539 Luther wrote his On Councils and Churches and witnessed in the following years the failure of German attempts to heal the wounds of Christianity. In the 1540s Luther was stricken with disease a number of times, drawing great comfort from his family and from the devotional exercises that he had written for children. In 1546 he was called from a sickbed to settle the disputes of two German noblemen. On the return trip he fell ill and died at Eisleben, the town of his birth, on February 18, 1546.
For More Information
Bainton, Roland H. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1950.
Booth, Edwin P. Martin Luther: The Great Reformer. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1999.
Kolb, Robert. Martin Luther As Prophet, Teacher, Hero. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999.
Leplay, Michel. Martin Luther. Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1998.
Schwarz, Hans. True Faith in the True God: An Introduction to Luther's Life and Thought. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1996.