Martin Luther

General Information

Martin Luther was a German theologian and a major leader of the Protestant Reformation. He is sometimes called the father of Protestantism, and one of the major branches of Protestantism - Lutheranism - is named after him.

Early Life

Luther, the son of a Saxon miner, was born at Eisleben on Nov. 10, 1483. He entered the University of Erfurt when he was 18 years old. After graduation he began to study law in 1505. In July of that year, however, he narrowly escaped death in a thunderstorm and vowed to become a monk. He entered the monastery of the Augustinian Hermits at Erfurt, where he was ordained in 1507. The following year he was sent to Wittenberg, where he continued his studies and lectured in moral philosophy. In 1511 he received his doctorate in theology and an appointment as professor of Scripture, which he held for the rest of his life. Luther visited Rome in 1510 on business for his order and was shocked to find corruption in high ecclesiastical places.

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He was well acquainted with the scholastic theology of his day, but he made the study of the Bible, especially the epistles of Saint Paul, the center of his work. Luther found that his teachings diverged increasingly from the traditional beliefs of the Roman church. His studies had led him to the conclusion that Christ was the sole mediator between God and man and that forgiveness of sin and salvation are effected by God's Grace alone and are received by faith alone on the part of man. This point of view turned him against scholastic theology, which had emphasized man's role in his own salvation, and against many church practices that emphasized justification by good works. His approach to theology soon led to a clash between Luther and church officials, precipitating the dramatic events of the Reformation.

Dispute over Indulgences

The doctrine of Indulgences, with its mechanical view of sin and repentance, aroused Luther's indignation. The sale by the church of indulgences - the remission of temporal punishments for sins committed and confessed to a priest - brought in much revenue. The archbishop of Mainz, Albert of Brandenburg, sponsored such a sale in 1517 to pay the pope for his appointment to Mainz and for the construction of Saint Peter's in Rome. He selected Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar, to preach the indulgences and collect the revenues. When Tetzel arrived in Saxony, Luther posted his famous 95 theses on the door of the castle church at Wittenberg on Oct. 31, 1517. Although some of the theses directly criticized papal policies, they were put forward as tentative objections for discussion.

Copies of the 95 theses were quickly spread throughout Europe and unleashed a storm of controversy. During 1518 and 1519, Luther defended his theology before his fellow Augustinians and publicly debated in Leipzig with the theologian Johann Eck, who had condemned the ideas of Luther. Meanwhile, church officials acted against him. The Saxon Dominican provincial charged him with heresy, and he was summoned to appear in Augsburg before the papal legate, Cardinal Cajetan. Refusing to recant, he fled to Wittenberg, seeking the protection of the elector Frederick III of Saxony. When the Wittenberg faculty sent a letter to Frederick declaring its solidarity with Luther, the elector refused to send Luther to Rome, where he would certainly meet imprisonment or death.

Reforms

In 1520, Luther completed three celebrated works in which he stated his views. In his Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, he invited the German princes to take the reform of the church into their own hands; in A Prelude Concerning the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, he attacked the papacy and the current theology of sacraments; and in On the Freedom of a Christian Man, he stated his position on justification and good works. The bull of Pope Leo X Exsurge Domine, issued on June 15 that same year, gave Luther 60 days to recant, and Decet Romanum Pontificem of Jan. 3, 1521, excommunicated him.

Summoned before Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms in April 1521, Luther again refused to recant and was put under the ban of the empire. He took refuge in the Wartburg castle, where he lived in seclusion for eight months. During that time he translated the New Testament into German and wrote a number of pamphlets. In March 1522 he returned to Wittenberg to restore order against enthusiastic iconoclasts who were destroying altars, images, and crucifixes. His reforming work during subsequent years included the writing of the Small and Large Catechisms, sermon books, more than a dozen hymns, over 100 volumes of tracts, treatises, biblical commentaries, thousands of letters, and the translation of the whole Bible into German.

With Philipp Melanchthon and others, Luther organized the Evangelical churches in the German territories whose princes supported him. He abolished many traditional practices, including confession and private mass. Priests married; convents and monasteries were abandoned. These were difficult times. Luther lost some popular support when he urged suppression of the Knights' Revolt (1522) and the Peasants' War (1524 - 26); his failure to reach doctrinal accord with Ulrich Zwingli on the nature of the Eucharist (1529) split the Reform movement. Nonetheless, Luther found personal solace in his marriage (1525) to a former Cistercian nun, Katherina von Bora; they raised six children.

At Worms, Luther had stood alone. When the Evangelicals presented the Augsburg Confession to Charles V and the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, many theologians, princes, and city councils subscribed to that classic Protestant statement of faith. By the time of Luther's death, a large part of northern Europe had left the Roman Catholic church for new Evangelical communities. Late in 1545, Luther was asked to arbitrate a dispute in Eisleben; despite the icy winter weather, he traveled there. The quarrel was settled on Feb. 17, 1546, but the strain had been very great and Luther died the next day.

Luther left behind a movement that quickly spread throughout the Western world. His doctrines, especially justification by faith and the final authority of the Bible, were adopted by other reformers and are shared by many Protestant denominations today. As the founder of the 16th - century Reformation, he is one of the major figures of Christianity and of Western civilization.

Lewis W Spitz

Bibliography
P Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther (1966); J Atkinson, Martin Luther and the Birth of Protestantism (1968) and The Trial of Luther (1971); R Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (1951); H Boehmer, Road to Reformation (1946); G Brendler, Martin Luther: Theology and Revolution (1990); W D Cargill Thompson, The Political Thought of Martin Luther (1984); M Edwards, Martin Luther and the False Brethren (1975); E H Erikson, Young Man Luther (1958); R H Fife, The Revolt of Martin Luther (1957); V H H Green, Luther and the Reformation (1964); M Hoffman, ed., Martin Luther and the Modern Mind (1985); M Luther, Luther's Works (1955); A McGrath, Luther's Theology of the Cross (1985); H A Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil (1990); J Pelikan, ed., Interpreters of Luther (1968); G Ritter, Luther: His Life and Work (1964); G Rupp, Luther's Progress to the Diet of Worms (1964); E G Schwiebert, Luther and His Times (1950); B Tierney, ed., Martin Luther, Reformer or Revolutionary? (1977).


Martin Luther (1483 - 1546)

Advanced Information

Martin Luther was a major leader of the German Reformation. Luther's father came from peasant background, but achieved success in the mining industry so that he was able to afford an excellent education for his son. Luther began his studies at the Ratschule in Mansfeld and probably attended the Cathedral School at Magdeburg, where he came under the influence of the Brethren of the Common Life. He completed his preparatory education at the Georgenschule in Eisenach before entering the University of Erfurt in 1501. He received his B A in 1502 and his M A in 1505. In accordance with his father's wishes he had begun study for a law degree when a brush with death in a thunderstorm, July, 1505, caused him to make a vow to become a monk.

While in the monastery Luther began the serious study of theology at Erfurt. In 1508 he was sent to Wittenberg to lecture on moral philosophy at the newly founded University of Wittenberg. In 1509 he returned to Erfurt, where he continued his studies and delivered lectures in theology. His teachers at Erfurt adhered to the nominalist theology of William of Ockham and his disciple, Gabriel Biel, which disparaged the role of reason in arriving at theological truth and placed a greater emphasis on free will and the role of human beings in initiating their salvation than did traditional scholasticism. In 1510 - 11 Luther made a trip to Rome on a mission for his order. While in Rome he was shocked by the worldliness of the clergy and disillusioned by their religious indifference. In 1511 he was sent back to Wittenberg, where he completed his studies for the degree of Doctor of Theology in October, 1512. In the same year he received a permanent appointment to the chair of Bible at the university.

During the period 1507 - 12 Luther experienced intense spiritual struggles as he sought to work out his own salvation by careful observance of the monastic rule, constant confession, and self - mortification. Probably as a result of the influence of popular piety and the teachings of nominalism Luther viewed God as a wrathful judge who expected sinners to earn their own righteousness. Partly because of his contact with the vicar general of his order, Johann von Staupitz, and his reading of Augustine, but primarily through his study of the Scriptures as he prepared his university lectures, Luther gradually changed his view of justification. His "tower experience," in which he achieved his major theological breakthrough and came to the full realization of the doctrine of justification by faith alone, has normally been dated before 1517.

However, recent scholarship has suggested that Luther was correct when he stated near the end of his life that it did not occur until late 1518. This interpretation maintains that Luther gradually progressed in his understanding of justification from the nominalist view, which gave human beings a role in initiating the process, to the Augustinian view, which attributed the beginning of the process to God's free grace but believed that after conversion human beings could cooperate. The fully developed Lutheran doctrine, which viewed justification as a forensic act in which God declares the sinner righteous because of the vicarious atonement of Jesus Christ without any human merit rather than a lifelong process, was not clearly expressed in Luther's writings until his sermon Of the Threefold Righteousness, published toward the end of 1518.

The Reformation began in October, 1517, when Luther protested a major abuse in the sale of indulgences in his Ninety - five Theses. These were translated into German, printed, and circulated throughout Germany, arousing a storm of protest against the sale of indulgences. When the sale of indulgences was seriously impaired, the papacy sought to silence Luther. He was first confronted at a meeting of his order held in Heidelberg on April 26, 1518, but he used the Heidelberg disputation to defend his theology and to make new converts. In August of 1518 Luther was summoned to Rome to answer charges of heresy, even though he had not taught contrary to any clearly defined medieval doctrines. Because Luther was unlikely to receive a fair trial in Rome, his prince, Frederick the Wise, intervened and asked the papacy to send representatives to deal with Luther in Germany. Meetings with Cardinal Cajetan in October, 1518, and Karl von Miltitz in January, 1519, failed to obtain a recantation from Luther, although he continued to treat the pope and his representatives with respect.

In July, 1519, at the Leipzig debate Luther questioned the authority of the papacy as well as the infallibility of church councils and insisted on the primacy of Scripture. This led his opponent, Johann Eck, to identify him with the fifteenth century Bohemian heretic, Jan Hus, in an effort to discredit Luther. After the debate Luther became considerably more outspoken and expressed his beliefs with increasing certainty. In 1520 he wrote three pamphlets of great significance.

The first, the Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, called upon the Germans to reform the church and society, since the papacy and church councils had failed to do so.

The second, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, clearly put Luther in the ranks of the heterodox, because it attacked the entire sacramental system of the medieval church. Luther maintained there were only two sacraments, baptism and the Lord's Supper, or at most three, with penance possibly qualifying as a third, rather than seven sacraments. He also denied the doctrines of transubstantiation and the sacrificial Mass.

The third pamphlet, The Freedom of the Christian Man, was written for the pope. It was nonpolemical and clearly taught the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

Even before the publication of these pamphlets a papal bull of excommunication was drawn up to go into effect in January, 1521. In December, 1520, Luther showed his defiance of papal authority by publicly burning the bull. Although condemned by the church, Luther still received a hearing before an imperial diet at Worms in April, 1521. At the Diet of Worms he was asked to recant his teachings, but he stood firm, thereby defying also the authority of the emperor, who placed him under the imperial ban and ordered that all his books be burned. On the way home from Worms, Luther was abducted by friends who took him to the Wartburg castle, where he remained in hiding for nearly a year. While at the Wartburg he wrote a series of pamphlets attacking Catholic practices and began his German translation of the Bible. In 1522 Luther returned to Wittenberg to deal with disorders that had broken out in his absence, and he remained there for the rest of his life. In 1525 he married Catherine von Bora, a former nun, who bore him six children. Luther had an extremely happy and rich family life, but his life was marred by frequent ill health and bitter controversies.

Luther often responded to opponents in a polemical fashion, using extremely harsh language. In 1525 when the peasants of south Germany revolted and refused to heed his call to negotiate their grievances peacefully, he attacked them viciously in a pamphlet entitled Against the Murdering Horde of Peasants. A controversy with the Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli over the Lord's Supper split the Protestant movement when an effort to resolve the differences at a meeting in Marburg failed in 1529. Throughout his life Luther maintained an overwhelming work load, writing, teaching, organizing the new church, and providing overall leadership for the German Reformation. Among his more important theological writings were the Smalcald Articles published in 1538, which clearly defined the differences between his theology and that of the Roman Catholic Church.

Luther never viewed himself as the founder of a new church body, however. He devoted his life to reforming the church and restoring the Pauline doctrine of justification to the central position in Christian theology. In 1522, when his followers first began to use his name to identify themselves, he pleaded with them not to do this. He wrote: "Let us abolish all party names and call ourselves Christians, after him whose teaching we hold . . . I hold, together with the universal church, the one universal teaching of Christ, who is our only master." He died at Eisleben on February 18, 1546, while on a trip to arbitrate a dispute between two Lutheran nobles. He was buried in the Castle Church at Wittenberg.

Bibliography
J Pelikan and H T Lehmann, eds., Luther's Works; H T Kerr, ed., A Compend of Luther's Theology; P Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther; E G Rupp, The Righteousness of God; U Saarnivaara, Luther Discovers the Gospel; A G Dickens, The German Nation and Martin Luther; J Atkinson, Martin Luther and the Birth of Protestantism; R H Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther; H Boehmer, Martin Luther: Road to Reformation; R H Fife, The Revolt of Martin Luther; H Grisar, Luther; H G Haile, Luther: An Experiment in Biography; E G Schwiebert, Luther and His Times; J M Todd, Martin Luther: A Biographical Study.


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