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Martin Luther



Luther Project
Martin Luther


Selected Works of Martin Luther
The 95 Theses
The Large Catechism
Table Talk
The Smalcald Articles
An Open Letter to The Christian Nobility
Die Bibel, Martin Luther translation

Martin Luther, German theologian and religious reformer, initiated the Protestant Reformation, and his vast influence, extending beyond religion to politics, economics, education, and language, has made him one of the crucial figures in modern European history.

Luther was born in Eisleben on November 10, 1483. He was descended from the peasantry, a fact that he often stressed. His father, Hans Luther, was a copper miner in the mining area of Mansfeld. Luther received a sound primary and secondary education at Mansfeld, Magdeburg, and Eisenach. In 1501, at the age of 17, he enrolled at the University of Erfurt, receiving a bachelor's degree in 1502 and a master's degree in 1505. He then intended to study law, as his father wished. In July of that year, however, he narrowly escaped death in a thunderstorm and vowed to become a monk. The decision surprised his friends and appalled his father. He entered the monastery of the Augustinian Hermits at Erfurt, and in the monastery he observed the rules imposed on a novice but did not find the peace in God he had expected. Nevertheless, Luther made his profession as a monk in the fall of 1506, and his superiors selected him for the priesthood. where he was ordained in 1507.

After his ordination, Luther was asked to study theology in order to become a professor at one of the many new German universities staffed by monks. In 1508 he was assigned by Johann von Staupitz, vicar-general of the Augustinians and a friend and counselor, to the new University of Wittenberg (founded in 1502) to give introductory lectures in moral philosophy. He received his bachelor's degree in theology in 1509 and returned to Erfurt, where he taught and studied (1509-11). In November 1510, on behalf of seven Augustinian monasteries, he made a visit to Rome, where he performed the religious duties customary for a pious visitor and was shocked by the worldliness of the Roman clergy. Soon after resuming his duties in Erfurt, he was reassigned to Wittenberg and asked to study for the degree of doctor of theology. In 1512 he received his doctorate and took over the chair of biblical theology, which he held until his death.

Luther 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 (sola gratia) and are received by faith alone (sola fide) 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 the necessity of the church for salvation. Herein consisted the essential break between Luther and the medieval church. He did not deny the role of the church as an instrument of God; what he denied was the widely held belief that salvation was impossible outside of it. He saw the emphasis on penitential exercises and other good works as unhealthy and even useless for one who could see himself as a sinner justified by God himself.

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.

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, 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 to appear before Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms in April 1521, he was asked before the assembled secular and ecclesiastical rulers to recant. He refused firmly, asserting that he would have to be convinced by Scripture and clear reason in order to do so and that going against conscience is not safe for anyone. (The statement "Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise," traditionally attributed to him, is most likely legendary.) Condemned by the emperor, Luther was spirited away by his prince, the elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony, and kept in hiding at Wartburg Castle. There he began his translation of the New Testament from the original Greek into German, a seminal contribution to the development of a standard German language. Disorders in Wittenberg caused by some of his more extreme followers forced his return to the city in March 1521, and he restored peace through a series of sermons.

Luther continued his teaching and writing in Wittenberg but soon became involved in the controversies surrounding the Peasants' War (1524-26) because the leaders of the peasants originally justified their demands with arguments somewhat illegitimately drawn from his writings. He considered their theological arguments false, although he supported many of their political demands. When the peasants turned violent, he angrily denounced them and supported the princes' effort to restore order. Although he later repudiated the harsh, vengeful policy adopted by the nobles, his attitude toward the war lost him many friends. In the midst of this controversy he married (1525) Katharina von Bora, a former nun. The marriage was happy, and his wife became an important supporter in his busy life. After having articulated his basic theology in his earlier writings, he published his most popular book, the Small Catechism, in 1529. By commenting briefly in question and answer form on the Ten Commandments, the Apostles' Creed, the Lord's Prayer, baptism, and the Lord's Supper, the Small Catechism explains the theology of the evangelical reformation in simple yet colorful language. Not allowed to attend the Diet of Augsburg because he had been banned and excommunicated, Luther had to leave the presentation of the reformers' position (formulated in the Augsburg Confession, 1530) to his friend and colleague Philipp Melanchthon. In 1532 Luther's translation of the Old Testament from the original Hebrew was published. Meanwhile, his influence spread across northern and eastern Europe. His advocacy of the independence of rulers from ecclesiastical supervision won him the support of many princes (and was later interpreted in ways contrary to his original intention). His fame made Wittenberg an intellectual center.

By 1537, Luther's health had begun to deteriorate, and he felt burdened by the resurgence of the papacy and conflict with a radical wing of the reformers, the Anabaptists. In the winter of 1546, Luther was asked to settle a controversy between two young counts who ruled the area of Mansfeld, where he had been born. Old and sick, he went there, resolved the conflict, and died on February 18, 1546, in Eisleben.

Luther was not a systematic theologian, but his work was subtle, complex, and immensely influential. It was inspired by his careful study of the New Testament, but it was also influenced in important respects by the great 4th-century theologian St. Augustine. Luther's theological ideas can be summarized as follows:

Law and Gospel

Luther maintained that God interacts with human beings in two ways—through the law and through the Gospel.

The law represents God's demands—as expressed, for example, in the Ten Commandments and the golden rule. All people, regardless of their religious convictions, have some degree of access to the law through their consciences and through the ethical traditions of their culture, although their understanding of it is always distorted by human sin. The law has two functions. It enables human beings to maintain some order in their world, their communities, and their own lives despite the profound alienation from God, the world, their neighbors, and ultimately themselves that is caused by original sin. In addition, the law makes human beings aware of their need for the forgiveness of sins and thus leads them to Christ.

God also interacts with human beings through the Gospel, the good news of God's gift of his Son for the salvation of the human race. This proclamation demands nothing but acceptance on the part of the individual. Indeed, Luther argued that theology had gone wrong precisely when it began to confuse law and Gospel (God's demand and God's gift) by claiming that human beings can in some way merit that which can only be the unconditional gift of God's grace.


Luther insisted that Christians, as long as they live in this world, are sinners and saints simultaneously. They are saints insofar as they trust in God's grace and not in their own achievements. Sin, however, is a permanent and pervasive feature in the church as well as in the world, and a saint is not a moral paragon but a sinner who accepts God's grace. Thus, for Luther, the most respected citizen and the habitual criminal are both in need of forgiveness by God.

The Finite and Infinite

Luther held that God makes himself known to human beings through earthly, finite forms rather than in his pure divinity. Thus, God revealed himself in Jesus Christ; he speaks his word to us in the human words of the New Testament writers; and his body and blood are received by believers (in Luther's formulation, called consubstantiation) "in, with, and under" the bread and wine in Holy Communion. When human beings serve each other and the world in their various occupations (which Luther called vocations) as mothers and fathers, rulers and subjects, butchers and bakers, they are instruments of God, who works in the world through them. Luther thus broke down the traditional distinction between sacred and secular occupations.

Theology of the Cross

Luther asserted that Christian theology is the theology of the cross rather than a theology of glory. Human beings cannot apprehend God by means of philosophy or ethics; they must let God be God and see him only where he chooses to make himself known. Thus, Luther stressed that God reveals his wisdom through the foolishness of preaching, his power through suffering, and the secret of meaningful life through Christ's death on the cross.

1996 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Copyright 1996 Grolier Interactive, Inc.

Microsoft Encarta 98 Encyclopedia, Copyright 1993-1997 Microsoft Corporation.
Geddes MacGregor, Dictionary of Religion and Philosophy, New York: Paragon House, Copyright 1989 Geddes MacGregor.