Martin Luther

Martin Luther (Nov 10, 1483 - Feb 18, 1546) was a German theologian, an Augustinian monk, and an ecclesiastical reformer whose teachings inspired the Reformation and deeply influenced the doctrines and culture of the Lutheran and Protestant traditions. Luther's call to the Church to return to the teachings of the Bible led to the formation of new traditions within Christianity and to the Counter-Reformation, the Roman Catholic reaction to these movements.

Luther's contributions to Western civilization went beyond the life of the Christian Church. Luther's translations of the Bible helped to develop a standard version of the German language and added several principles to the art of translation. Luther's hymns inspired the development of congregational singing in Christianity. His marriage on June 13, 1525, to Katharina von Bora began a movement of clerical marriage within many Christian traditions.


Luther's early life

Martin Luther was born to Hans and Margaretha Luther, Lindemann, on November 10, 1483 in Eisleben, Germany and was baptized on the feast day of St. Martin of Tours, after whom he was named. His father owned a copper mine in nearby Mansfeld. Having risen from the peasantry, his father was determined to see his son ascend to civil service and bring further honor to the family. To that end, Hans sent young Martin to schools in Mansfeld, Magdeburg and Eisenach.

At the age of seventeen in 1501, he entered the University of Erfurt. The young student received a Bachelor's degree in 1502 and a Master's degree in 1505. According to his father's wishes, Martin enrolled in the law school of that university.

All that changed during a thunderstorm in the summer of 1505. A lightning bolt struck near to him as he was returning to school. Terrified, he cried out, "Help, Saint Anne! I'll become a monk!" His life spared, Luther left his law school and entered the monastery there.

Luther's struggle to find peace with God

Martin Luther fully dedicated himself to monastic life, the effort to do good works to please God and to serve others through prayer for their souls. Yet peace with God escaped him. He devoted himself to fasts, flagellations, long hours in prayer and pilgrimage, and constant confession. The more he tried to do for God, it seemed, the more aware he became of his sinfulness.

Johann von Staupitz[1], Luther's superior, concluded the young man needed more work to distract him from excessive rumination. He ordered the monk to pursue an academic career. In 1507 Luther was ordained to the priesthood. In 1508 he began teaching theology at the University of Wittenberg. Luther earned his Bachelor's degree in Biblical Studies on March 9, 1508 and a Bachelor's degree in the Sentences by Peter Lombard (the main textbook of theology in the Middle Ages), in 1509 (Brecht, Vol. 1, p. 93). On October 19, 1512, Martin Luther became a doctor of theology, more specifically Doctor in Biblia (Luther's Works, Introduction to Volume 10, St. Louis: CPH, vol. 10, pp. 1-2), and on October 21, 1512 he was "received into the senate of the theological faculty" (Brecht, vol. 1, pp. 126-27).

Luther's theory of grace

The demanding discipline of earning academic degrees and preparing lectures drove Martin Luther to study the Scriptures in depth. Influenced by the call of humanism ad fontes "to the sources" he immersed himself in the study of the Bible and the early Church. Soon terms like penance and righteousness took on new meaning for Luther, and he became convinced that the Church had lost sight of several of the central truths of Christianity taught in Scripture the most important of which being the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Luther began to teach that salvation is completely a gift of God's grace through Jesus received by faith.

The indulgence controversy

In addition to his duties as a professor, Martin Luther served as a preacher and confessor at the Castle Church, a foundation of Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony. This church was named "All Saints" because it was the repository of his collection of holy relics. This parish served both the Augustinian monastary and the university. It was in the performance of these duties that the young priest was confronted with the effects of obtaining indulgences on the lives of everyday people. An indulgence is a certificate that absolved individuals of the temporal penalties of the sins they had confessed. A buyer could purchase one, either for himself or for one of his deceased relatives in purgatory. The Dominican friar Johann Tetzel was enlisted to travel throughout Archbishop Albert of Mainz's episcopal territories promoting and selling indulgences for the rennovation of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Tetzel was very successful at it. He urged: "as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs" [Brecht, vol. 1, p. 182].

As a priest concerned about the spiritual welfare of his parishioners, Luther saw this traffic in indulgences as an abuse that could mislead them into relying simply on the indulgences themselves to the neglect of the confession, true repentance, and satisfactions. Luther preached three sermons against indulgences in 1516 and 1517.

On October 31, 1517, according to traditional accounts, Luther's 95 Theses were nailed to the door of the Castle Church as an open invitation to debate them [Brecht, vol. 1, p. 200].

The Theses condemned greed and worldliness in the Church as an abuse and asked for a theological disputation on what indulgences could grant. Luther did not challenge the authority of the pope to grant indulgences in these theses.

The 95 Theses were quickly translated into German, widely copied and printed. Within two weeks they had spread throughout Germany, and within two months throughout Europe. This was one of the first events in history that was profoundly affected by the printing press, which made the distribution of documents easier and more wide-spread.

Response of the Papacy

After disregarding Luther as "a drunken German who wrote the Theses" who "when sober will change his mind," Pope Leo X ordered the Dominican professor of theology, Sylvester Mazzolini, called from his birthplace Priero, Prierias (also Prieras), in 1518, to inquire into the matter. Prierias recognized Luther's implicit opposition to the authority of the pope by being at variance with a papal bull, declared him a heretic, and wrote a scholastic refutation of his theses. It asserted papal authority over the Church and denounced every departure from it as a heresy. Luther replied in kind, and a controversy developed.

Meanwhile Luther took part in an Augustinian convention at Heidelberg, where he presented theses on the slavery of man to sin and on divine grace. In the course of the controversy on indulgences the question arose of the absolute power and authority of the pope, since the doctrine of the "Treasury of the Church," the "Treasury of Merits," which undergirded the doctrine and practice of indulgences, was based on the Bull Unigenitus (1343) of Pope Clement VI. Because of his opposition to that doctrine, Luther was branded a heretic, and the pope, who had determined to supress his views, summoned him to Rome.

Yielding, however, to the Elector Frederick, whom the pope hoped would become the next Holy Roman Emperor and who was unwilling to part with his theologian, the pope did not press the matter, and the cardinal legate Cajetan was deputed to receive Luther's submission at Augsburg (Oct., 1518).

Luther, while professing his implicit obedience to the Church, now boldly denied papal authority, and appealed first "from the pope not well informed to the pope who should be better informed" and then (Nov. 28) to a general council. Luther now declared that the papacy formed no part of the original and immutable essence of the Church, and he even began to think that Antichrist ruled the Curia. He had already asserted at least the potential fallibility of a council representing the Church, and, repudiating what he held to be the abuse of the practice of excommunication on the part of the pope, he was led by his concept of the way of salvation to hold that the Church in essence is the congregation of the faithful, a view foreshadowed in the thought and writings of John Wycliffe, Pierre d'Ailly, and Jan Hus.

Desiring to remain on friendly terms with Luther, the pope made a final attempt to reach a peaceful resolution of the conflict with him. A conference with the papal chamberlain Karl von Miltitz at Altenburg in Jan., 1519, led Luther to agree to remain silent as long as his opponents would, to write a humble letter to the pope, and to compose a treatise demonstrating his reverence for the Catholic Church. The letter was written but never sent, since it contained no retraction. In the German treatise he composed later, Luther, while recognizing purgatory, indulgences, and the invocation of the saints, denied all effect of indulgences on purgatory.

When Johann Eck challenged Luther's colleague Carlstadt to a disputation at Leipzig, Luther joined in the debate (27 June-18 July 1519). In the course of this debate he denied the divine right of the papal office and authority, holding that the "power of the keys" had been given to the Church (i.e., to the congregation of the faithful). He denied that membership in the western Catholic Church under the pope was necessary to salvation, maintaining the validity of the eastern Greek (Orthodox) Church. After the debate, Johann Eck claimed that he had forced Luther to admit the similarity of his own doctrine to that of Jan Hus, who had been burned at the stake. Eck viewed this as corroborating his own claim that Luther was "the Saxon Hus" and an arch heretic.

The excommunication of Luther

On June 15, 1520, the Pope warned Martin Luther with the papal bull Exsurge Domine that he risked excommunication unless he recanted 41 points of doctrine culled from his writings within 60 days. In October 1520, at the instance of Miltitz, Luther sent his On the Freedom of a Christian to the pope, adding the significant phrase: "I submit to no laws of interpreting the word of God." Meanwhile it had been rumored in August that Eck had arrived at Meissen with a papal ban, which was actually pronounced there on September 21. This last effort of Luther's for peace was followed on December 12 by his burning of the bull, which was to take effect on the expiration of 120 days, and the papal decretals at Wittenberg.

Pope Pope Leo X excommunicated Luther on January 3, 1521 in the bull Decet Romanum Pontificem.

The execution of the ban, however, was prevented by the pope's relations with Frederick III, Elector of Saxony and by the new emperor Charles V, who, in view of the papal attitude toward him and the feeling of the Diet, found it inadvisable to lend his aid to measures against Luther.

Diet of Worms

Emperor Charles V opened the imperial Diet of Worms on January 22, 1521. Luther was summoned to renounce or reaffirm his views and was given an imperial guarantee of safe conduct to ensure his safe passage.

On April 16, Luther appeared before the Diet. Johann Eck, an assistant of Archbishop of Trier, presented Luther with a table filled with copies of his writings. Eck asked Luther if the books were his and if he still believed what these works taught. Luther requested time to think about his answer. It was granted. Luther prayed, consulted with friends and mediators and presented himself before the Diet the next day. When the matter came before the Diet the next day, Counsellor Eck, asked Luther to plainly answer the question: "Would Luther reject his books and the errors they contain?" Luther replied: "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." According to tradition, Luther is then said to have spoken these words: "Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen." [Bainton, pp. 142-144].

Over the next few days, private conferences were held to determine Luther's fate. Before a decision was reached, Luther left Worms. During his return to Wittenberg, he disappeared.

The Emperor issued the Edict of Worms on May 25, 1521, declaring Martin Luther an outlaw and a heretic and banning his literature.

Luther's German Bible

Luther translated the New Testament into German to make it more accessible to the commoners and to erode the influence of priests. He used the recent critical Greek edition of Erasmus, a text which was later called Textus Receptus. During his translation, he would make forays into the nearby towns and markets to hear people speak, so that he could write his translation in the language of the people. It was published in 1522.

Luther had a low view of the books of Esther, Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation. He called the epistle of James "an epistle of straw", finding little in it that pointed to Christ and His saving work- though he later revised his opinion of James, seeing it as more compatible with Pauline teaching later in his career than earlier. He also had harsh words for the book of Revelation, saying that he could "in no way detect that the Holy Spirit produced it." He had reason to question the apostolicity of these books since the early church categorized these books as antilegomena, meaning that they weren't accepted without reservation as canonical. Luther did not, however, remove them from his edition of the scriptures.

His first full Bible translation into German, including the Old Testament, was published in a six-part edition in 1534. As mentioned earlier, Luther's translation work helped standardize German and are considered landmarks in German literature.

Luther chose to omit the portions of the Old Testament found in the Greek Septuagint, but not in the Hebrew Masoretic texts then available, on the ground that they were recognized as authoritative Hebrew scriptures neither in Christ's time nor in his own. These were included in his earliest translation, but were later set aside as 'good to read', but not as the inspired Word of God. The setting-aside (or simple exclusion) of these texts in/from Bibles was eventually adopted by nearly all Protestants.

Further reading




  • 1953: Martin Luther, theatrical film, with Niall MacGinnis as Luther; directed by Irving Pichel. Academy Award nominations for black & white cinematography and art/set direction. Rereleased in 2002 on DVD in 4 languages.
  • 1974: Luther, theatrical film (MPAA rating: PG), with Stacy Keach as Luther.
  • 1981: Where Luther Walked, documentary featuring the late Roland Bainton as guide and narrator, directed by Ray Christensen (Released in 1992), ISBN 1563640120
  • 1983: Martin Luther: Heretic, TV presentation with Jonathan Pryce as Luther, directed by Norman Stone.
  • 1983: Martin Luther: An Eye on Augsburg, a film funded by the Northern Illinois District of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod with Rev. Robert Clausen as Luther.
  • 2001: Opening the Door to Luther, travelogue hosted by Rick Steves. Sponsored by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
  • 2002: Martin Luther, a historical film from the Lion TV/PBS Empires series, with Timothy West as Luther, narrated by Liam Neeson and directed by Cassian Harrison.
  • 2003: Luther, theatrical release (MPAA rating: PG-13), with Joseph Fiennes as Luther and directed by Eric Till. Partially funded by American and German Lutheran groups.

See also

Original texts

Writings of Luther and contemporaries, translated into English

Luther and his work