“IT IS said that more books have been written about [Martin Luther] than anyone else in history, save his own master, Jesus Christ.” So stated Time magazine. Luther’s words and actions helped give birth to the Reformation
What sort of man was Martin Luther? How did he come to have such an impact on European affairs?
Luther Becomes a Scholar
Martin Luther was born in Eisleben, Germany, in November 1483. Though a copper-mine worker, his father managed to earn enough to secure a good education for Martin. In 1501, Martin became a student at the University of Erfurt. In its library, he read the Bible for the first time. “The book pleased me wonderfully,” he said, “and I wanted to deem myself fortunate enough to possess such a book some day.”
At the age of 22, Luther entered the Augustine monastery in Erfurt. He later attended the University of Wittenberg, obtaining a doctorate in theology. Luther considered himself unworthy of God’s favor and was at times driven to despair by a guilty conscience. But Bible study, prayer, and meditation helped him to gain a better understanding of how God views sinners. Luther recognized that God’s favor cannot be earned. Rather, it is granted through undeserved kindness to those exercising faith.
How did Luther come to the conclusion that his new understanding was correct? Kurt Aland, professor of early church history and New Testament textual research, wrote: “He went through the entire Bible in his mind in order to determine whether this newfound knowledge could stand up to comparison with other Bible statements, and he found that he was corroborated everywhere.” The doctrine of justification, or salvation, by faith and not by works, or penance, remained a central pillar of Luther’s teachings.
Indignant About Indulgences
Luther’s understanding of how God views sinners brought him into conflict with the Roman Catholic Church. It was then widely believed that after death, sinners had to undergo punishment for a period of time. However, it was said that this time could be shortened by indulgences granted on the pope’s authority in exchange for money. Dealers like Johann Tetzel, who acted as agent for Archbishop Albert of Mainz, carried on a booming trade selling indulgences to the common people. Many viewed indulgences as a sort of insurance against future sins.
Luther was indignant about the sale of indulgences. He knew that men cannot bargain with God. In the autumn of 1517, he wrote his famous 95 theses, accusing the church of financial, doctrinal, and religious abuse. Wanting to encourage a reform, not a rebellion, Luther sent copies of his theses to Archbishop Albert of Mainz and to several scholars. Many historians point to 1517 or thereabouts as the birth of the Reformation.
In bemoaning the wrongdoings of the church, Luther was not alone. One hundred years earlier, the Czech religious reformer Jan Hus had condemned the sale of indulgences. Even before Hus, John Wycliffe of England had pointed out that some traditions held by the church were not Scriptural. Luther’s contemporaries Erasmus of Rotterdam and Tyndale of England urged reform. But thanks to Johannes Gutenberg’s invention in Germany of the printing press with movable type, Luther’s voice was heard louder and farther than the voices of other reformers.
Gutenberg’s press in Mainz was operating in 1455. By the turn of the century, there were presses in 60 German towns and 12 other European lands. For the first time in history, the public could be quickly informed about matters of interest. Perhaps without his consent, Luther’s 95 theses were printed and disseminated. The question of church reform was no longer a local issue. It became a widespread controversy, and Martin Luther suddenly became the most famous man in Germany.
“Sun and Moon” React
For centuries, Europe had been in the hands of two powerful institutions: the Holy Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church. “Emperor and pope belonged together like sun and moon,” explained Hanns Lilje, a former president of the Lutheran World Federation. However, a good deal of uncertainty existed as to who was the sun and who was the moon. By the early 16th century, both institutions were past their zenith of power. A spirit of change was in the air.
Pope Leo X reacted to the 95 theses by threatening Luther with excommunication unless he recanted. Defiant, Luther publicly burned the papal bull containing the threat and published additional works that encouraged the principalities to reform the church even without the pope’s agreement. In 1521, Pope Leo X excommunicated Luther. When Luther objected that he had been condemned without a fair hearing, Emperor Charles V summoned the reformer to appear before the imperial diet, or meeting, at Worms. Luther’s 15-day journey from Wittenberg to Worms in April 1521 was like a triumphal procession. Public sentiment was on his side, and people everywhere wanted to see him.
In Worms, Luther stood before the emperor, princes, and the papal nuncio. Jan Hus had faced a similar hearing in Constance in 1415 and had been burned at the stake. With the eyes of the church and the empire now fixed on him, Luther refused to recant unless his opposers proved from the Bible that he was in error. But no one could match his memory of the Scriptures. The document called the Edict of Worms gave the outcome of the hearing. It declared Luther an outlaw and proscribed his writings. Excommunicated by the pope and outlawed by the emperor, he was now in mortal danger.
Then came a turn of events that was as dramatic as it was unexpected. On his return journey to Wittenberg, Luther was the victim of a make-believe kidnapping arranged by the benevolent Frederick of Saxony. This took Luther beyond the reach of his enemies. Luther was smuggled into secluded Wartburg castle, where he grew a beard and took on a new identity
September Bible in Great Demand
For the next ten months, Luther lived in Wartburg castle as a fugitive from both emperor and pope. The book Welterbe Wartburg explains that “the time at Wartburg was among the most productive and creative periods of his life.” One of his greatest achievements, the translation of Erasmus’ text of the Greek Scriptures into German, was completed there. Published in September 1522 without identifying Luther as the translator, this work was known as the September Bible. The price was 1 1/2 guilders
In 1525, Martin Luther married Katharina von Bora, a former nun. Katharina was good at managing household affairs and was equal to the demands of her husband’s generosity. Luther’s household came to include not only a wife and six children but also friends, scholars, and refugees. Late in life Luther enjoyed such prestige as a counselor that scholars who were guests in his house armed themselves with pen and paper to note down his observations. These notes were put together in a collection entitled Luthers Tischreden (Luther’s Table Talk). For a time, it enjoyed a circulation in the German language second only to that of the Bible.
Talented Translator and Prolific Writer
By 1534, Luther had finished his translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. He had the ability to balance style, rhythm, and vocabulary. The result was a Bible that was understandable to ordinary people. Commenting on his method of translation, Luther wrote: “We should question the mother in her home, the children on the street and the common man at the market, and then watch their mouths to see how they talk and then translate accordingly.” Luther’s Bible helped lay the basis for a standardized written language that came to be accepted throughout Germany.
Luther’s talent as a translator was combined with skill as a writer. He is said to have written a treatise every two weeks throughout his working life. Some of these were as contentious as their author. If his early writings were sharp in style, age did nothing to blunt the point of Luther’s pen. His later essays became increasingly severe. According to the Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, Luther’s works reveal the “excessiveness of his anger” and a “lack of humility and love,” as well as a “highly developed sense of mission.”
When the Peasants’ War broke out and the principalities were bathed in blood, Luther was asked for his judgment on the uprising. Did the peasants have just cause for complaint against their feudal lords? Luther did not try to secure popular support by giving an answer pleasing to the majority. He believed that God’s servants should obey those in power. (Romans 13:1) In a forthright judgment, Luther said that the revolt should be put down with force. “Let whoever can, stab, strike, kill,” he said. Hanns Lilje remarked that this answer cost Luther “his hitherto unique popularity among the people.” Furthermore, Luther’s later essays on those Jews who refused to convert to Christianity, particularly On the Jews and Their Lies, have caused many to brand the author anti-Semitic.
The Reformation, spurred on by men like Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, led to the formation of a new approach to religion called Protestantism. Luther’s major legacy to Protestantism was his central teaching of justification by faith. Each of the German principalities aligned itself with either the Protestant or the Catholic faith. Protestantism spread and gained popular support in Scandinavia, Switzerland, England, and the Netherlands. Today it has hundreds of millions of adherents.
Many who do not share all of Luther’s beliefs still hold him in high esteem. The former German Democratic Republic, which embraced Eisleben, Erfurt, Wittenberg, and the Wartburg within its borders, in 1983 celebrated the 500th anniversary of Luther’s birth. This Socialist State acknowledged him as an outstanding figure in German history and culture. Moreover, a Catholic theologian of the 1980’s summarized Luther’s impact and remarked: “No one who came after Luther could match him.” Professor Aland wrote: “Each year there are at least 500 new publications on Martin Luther and the Reformation
Martin Luther had a sharp intellect, a prodigious memory, a mastery of words, and a prolific work ethic. He was also impatient and scornful, and he reacted vehemently to what he viewed as hypocrisy. When he was on his deathbed in Eisleben in February 1546, friends asked Luther if he remained steadfast as regards the beliefs he had taught others. “Yes,” he replied. Luther died, but many still cling to such beliefs.
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Luther opposed the sale of indulgences
Mit freundlicher Genehmigung: Wartburg-Stiftung
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Luther refused to recant unless his opposers proved from the Bible that he was in error
From the book The Story of Liberty, 1878
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Luther’s room in Wartburg Castle, where he translated the Bible
Both images: Mit freundlicher Genehmigung: Wartburg-Stiftung
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From the book Martin Luther The Reformer, 3rd Edition, published by Toronto Willard Tract Depository, Toronto, Ontario
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From the book The History of Protestantism (Vol. I)