Martin Luther

1483-1546. Born in Eisleben, Luther attended the Ratsschule (city school) in Mansfeld, came under the influence of the Brethren of the Common Life* while in Magdeburg, and continued his preparatory training in the Georgenschule in Eisenach, where he was a member of the Cotta and Schalbe circle, before enrolling at the University of Leipzig (1501). At Leipzig Jodocus Trutvetter, a Nominalist (via moderna), seems to have influenced him most. Luther received his B.A. in 1502 and the M.A. in 1505. In July of that year Luther entered the chapter house of the Hermits of St. Augustine in Erfurt as a novice, due to a vow made in “a moment of terror,” when thrown to the ground by a bolt of lightning during a thunderstorm. However, he was troubled about his salvation before this, and other incidents probably led to the decision to become a monk. In the monastery he pursued some theological studies and was ordained priest in 1507.

In 1508 Luther was transferred to the University of Wittenberg, where he earned the Baccalaureus Biblicus degree in 1509 and the doctor of theology degree in 1512. During these years he lectured on moral theology, the Sentences of Peter Lombard, and the Bible. Between November 1510 and March 1511 he was on a journey to Rome as a companion of a fellow friar on business for his order. With the doctor's degree Luther received the permanent appointment to the chair of lectura in Biblia at Wittenberg.

During these years before he became a doctor of theology, Luther was wrestling with the problem of his personal salvation. While in the monastery and as friar in Wittenberg he assiduously performed the required tasks and offices, frequently went to confession, and fulfilled the imposed penances. The problem of the dating of his “Tower Experience,” when he came to a full realization of the meaning of justification by grace alone, has occupied numerous scholars and has not been fully solved. Some have placed it in 1514; others have put it as late as 1518. The continued study of Scripture, the influence of Augustine, the writings of John Tauler* and other mystics, the Psalterium Quintuplex of Jacques Lefèvre d'étaples,* and the advice of his superior Johann Staupitz* were determinative probably in that order in clarifying his thoughts and convictions, and no one date or moment can be predicated. In 1518 his theology of the Cross was thoroughly Pauline, and Luther was the champion of sola fide (faith alone), sola gratia (grace alone), sola Scriptura (the Bible alone).

In his writings between 1516 and 1518 Luther evidences his Augustinianism. In Two Kinds of Righteousness (1518), Luther clearly speaks of Christ and His work from His birth to His death and resurrection as constituting the righteousness of believers; the promise is the assurance of faith for them. These thoughts are present in his lectures on the Psalms and on Hebrews (1518). By this time Luther had issued his famous protest against the scandals of the indulgence traffic, the Ninety-Five Theses* of 31 October 1517. The most noteworthy of these is number 62: “The true treasure of the church is the most holy Gospel of the glory and grace of God.” His Explanations of the Ninety-Five Theses (1518) states, “The merits of Christ perform an alien work.” The alien righteousness is the righteousness which he defines in his sermon on the Two Kinds of Righteousness as “the righteousness of another, instilled from without, the righteousness of Christ by which He justifies through faith.”

The controversy brought about polemics from Rome, tracts and treatises, blunt and subtle attempts to silence him, a debate with Johann Eck* at Leipzig (1519), and an interview with Tommaso de Vio (Cardinal Cajetan*) in Augsburg (1519). In 1519 Charles V was elected emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and soon became aware of the magnitude of the religious problem in Germany, because of Luther's writings and the anticlericalism of the German people.

The year 1520 marked the appearance of some of Luther's most important reformatory writings. The Treatise on Good Works (May 1520) used the Decalogue as a basis for showing how faith is implemented in the life of the believer. In his Sermon on the Mass (April 1520) he taught that every Christian is a priest. On the Papacy at Rome (June 1520) branded the pope as “the real Anti- Christ of whom all the Scripture speaks.” In The Address to the German Nobility (August 1520), Luther disallowed the authority of the pope over temporal rulers, denied that the pope was the final interpreter of Scripture, decried the corruption of the Curia, affirmed again the universal priesthood of the believers, and spelled out a program of the church reforms. Concerning the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (October 1520) reduced the number of sacraments from seven to two and aroused the ire of Henry VIII* of England. The Freedom of a Christian defended two propositions: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”

In April of the next year (1521) Luther stood before the emperor and the estates of the empire in the Diet of Worms,* declining to recant unless overcome by Scripture. Taken to Wartburg Castle by order of Frederick the Wise,* elector of Saxony, Luther had the opportunity to continue his writings and especially to translate the NT from Greek into German (the “September Testament” of 1522). The translation of the entire Bible was not completed until 1534, perhaps the greatest single achievement of the great Reformer.

Although condemned by the Edict of Worms and declared an outlaw, Luther returned to Wittenburg in March 1522 to cope with the Wittenburg Movement, braking its radical direction, assuring the essentially conservative character of his reformation. This conservative character is evident in Luther's revised Order of Mass and Communion (1523), the Order of Baptism (1523), and the German Mass and Order of Service (1526), collects and chants, orders for occasional services, a Litany, a German Te Deum and a Magnificat, and hymns for congregational singing. Among these Ein' feste Burg must be singled out. The conservative nature of the Lutheran Reformation was affirmed, too, by Luther's not depending on the knights, the humanists, or the peasants.

Luther's break with Erasmus* resulted from Erasmus's Diatribe on Free Will (1524). In his answer, The Bondage of the Will (1525), Luther affirmed that man cannot will to turn to God or play any part in the process leading to his own salvation. He granted that man has freedom regarding “things below him.”

Luther's position in the Peasants' Revolts* (1524-25) upheld authority, denied the right to rebel, called for social justice, and urged consideration for the economic welfare of the lower classes. His language was intemperate in urging the princes to put down revolt, and alienated some of the lower class.

Between 1525 and 1529 Luther carried on a controversy with Ulrich Zwingli* of Zurich and others regarding the Lord's Supper. He took the words of institution, “This is my body” and “This is my blood,” in a literal sense and opposed all attempts to interpret them figuratively. The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ-Against the Fanatics (1526) and That These Words of Christ, “This is My Body,” etc. Still Stand Firm Against the Fanatics (1527) define his position, often erroneously labeled consubstantiation. Philip of Hesse* attempted to bring about a reconciliation by calling the Colloquy of Marburg* (1529). Fourteen articles of the Christian faith were agreed on by the participants (Luther, Melanchthon,* Zwingli, Oecolampadius,* Bucer,* and others), but no agreement was reached on the fifteenth, regarding the Lord's Supper. However, in 1536 Bucer and Luther agreed on the Wittenberg Concord.*

Luther showed his concern for education by writing his appeal To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany, that they Establish and Maintain Christian Schools (1524) and his Sermon on the Duty of Sending Children to School (1530). His preface to Melanchthon's Instructions for the Visitors of Parish Pastors in Electoral Saxony (1528) is evidence, not only of his churchmanship, but also of his genuine desire to foster schools. Both his “Large Catechism” (1529) and his “Small Catechism” (1529) came in response to the findings of the visitation. They are his efforts to raise the level of the understanding of Christian doctrine. His Small Catechism has been dubbed the “Layman's Bible.” Moreover, Luther contributed to the revision of the theological curriculum of the University of Wittenberg; he was continually occupied in training pastors and preachers for the Lutheran churches; and he expended many efforts on behalf of non-German students who came to Wittenberg.

The history of Luther's life is not simply the history of the professor of Wittenberg. He was the leader of the movement of the professor that spread through much of Germany and the Scandinavian countries. Although he could not attend any of the diets of the Holy Roman Empire, because of the Edict of Worms, he was frequently consulted at his quarters in Castle Coburg during the Diet of Augsburg (1530). He prepared the Smalcald Articles* (1537) for the Smalcald League* in preparation for the council which was summoned, but did not meet, at Mantua. In 1535 his Lectures on Galatians were published; they are regarded by some scholars as his most profound theological treatise. In that year he began his Lectures on Genesis, which he completed ten years later, shortly before his death.

In 1525 Luther married Katharina von Bora, an ex-nun. His family life was a happy one. His home was a gathering place of friends and students, and the voluminous Table Talk was recorded by at least ten students between 1531 and 1544. Luther died in the town in which he was born (Eisleben) while on a mission to reconcile the princes of Anhaldt. His greatness can be gauged from the fact that during the four-hundred-plus years since his death, more books have been written about him than about any other figure in history, except Jesus of Nazareth.

J. Besizing, Lutherbibliographie: Verzeichnis der gedruckten Schriften Martin Luthers bis zu dessen Tod (1966). D. Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamt-Ausgabe (1883- ), known as the Weimar Ausgabe (WA) is still being published, and includes his letters, German Bible, and Table Talk. The most comprehensive English edition (55 vols., 1957- ) is still in production.

W. Pauck (ed.), Lectures on Romans (1961); T.G. Tappert (ed.), Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel (1955); J. Atkinson (ed.), Luther: Early Theological Works (1962); G. Rupp and P. Watson (eds.), Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation (1969); B.L. Woolf (ed.), Reformation Writings of Martin Luther (2 vols., 1952, 1956); P. Smith and C.M. Jacobs (eds.), Luther's Correspondence (2 vols., 1913, 1918).

Among biographies of Luther in English the following may be singled out: R. Bainton, Here I Stand (1950); E.G. Schwiebert, Luther and His Times (1950); U. Saarnivaara, Luther Discovers the Gospel (1951); H. Lilje, Luther Now (ET 1952); G. Rupp, The Righteousness of God (1953); R.H. Fife, The Revolt of Martin Luther (1957); H. Bornkamm, Luther's World of Thought (ET 1958); F. Lau, Luther (ET 1963); J.J. Pelikan, Obedient Rebels (1964); J.M. Todd, Martin Luther (1964); A.G. Dickens, Martin Luther and the Reformation (1967).