Article abstract: Out of his own personal struggle and his conflict with the Church, Luther developed a theology and a religious movement that rejuvenated the Christian faith and had a profound impact on the social, political, and religious thought of Western society.
Martin Luther was born on November 10, 1483, at Eisleben, Saxony, to Hans and Margarethe Luther. Soon after his birth, the family moved to Mansfield, where his father worked in the copper mines, prospering sufficiently to become one of the town’s councillors in 1491. Possessing a strong, forceful character, Hans Luther had a great impact on his son. He could be exceptionally stern; years later, Luther stated that his father gave him a sense of inferiority that took years to overcome. Yet, recognizing that his son had a promising intellect, his father sent Luther to Latin school at Mansfield. At age twelve, he spent a year at a school in Magdeburg operated by the Brethren for the Common Life and in 1498 attended a school at Eisenach. In 1501, Luther entered the University of Erfurt, one of the best universities in Germany, obtaining his bachelor’s degree in 1502 and his master’s degree in 1505.
His father wanted Luther to pursue a legal career. Luther, however, was suffering from depression, a lifelong chronic condition. On July 2, 1505, as he was returning to Erfurt from Mansfield, a lightning bolt knocked him to the ground. Fearful, facing eternity, Luther at that moment vowed to become a monk. Without consulting his father, Luther immediately entered the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt. He was ordained in 1507 and was selected for advanced theological studies, receiving his doctorate in theology from the University of Wittenberg in 1512. Luther then succeeded his mentor, Johann von Staupitz, to the chair of biblical theology at Wittenberg.
Beneath his successful exterior, however, all was not well with Luther. Between 1505 and 1515, Luther underwent an acute personal crisis. Harboring terrible anxieties about sin and his own salvation, Luther believed that no matter how irreproachably he lived, he was unable to satisfy God. Luther was clearly headed for a breakdown. At this juncture, Staupitz interceded and told Luther to abandon the concept of God as judge, to focus on Christ, and simply to love God. This was a revelation for the young monk. While studying Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, Luther realized that mankind is saved by faith and not by works. Thus, the essential theology of Protestantism arose to a large extent from Luther’s inner, personal struggle.
The issue that ignited Luther’s conflict with the Church was the sale of indulgences in Germany by the Dominican friar Johann Tetzel. Indulgences were the remission for money of part of the temporal (priest-assigned) penalties for sin. They were granted on papal authority and sold by licensed agents. While the Church never maintained that divine forgiveness could be obtained through an indulgence, unscrupulous agents such as Tetzel employed such claims with great success. Luther, disturbed that ordinary people were having their salvation endangered by these false claims, authored ninety-five theses attacking indulgences and fastened them to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. Contrary to Luther’s wishes, the theses were widely circulated, striking a responsive chord among the Germans. What Luther had intended as a local, scholarly debate was becoming a public controversy.
The Archbishop of Mainz, who was profiting directly from the sale of indulgences, forwarded copies of the ninety-five theses to Rome, requesting that Luther be disciplined. Pope Leo X, viewing the dispute as an argument between the Augustinians and Dominicans, simply told the former to deal with Luther. At this point, the scope of the controversy suddenly widened. A colleague of Luther at Wittenberg, Bodenstein von Karlstadt, responding to criticisms of Luther’s positions by Johann Eck, published 405 theses, some of which attacked Eck personally. Eck’s order, the Dominicans, were outraged, and heresy proceedings against Luther began to move forward in Rome. Luther himself inflamed the situation by publishing a sermon on excommunication which clearly questioned papal authority.
Rome sent a summons for Luther to appear at Rome to Cardinal Thomas Cajetan, who was at Augsburg. For political reasons, however, the pope could not afford to antagonize Frederick II of Saxony, an elector of the Holy Roman Empire and Luther’s protector. Luther was instead given a safe-conduct to have a personal interview with the conservative Cajetan.
History will always note the dramatic presentation of the ninety-five theses in 1517 and the even more significant confrontation at Worms in 1521, but the meeting at Augsburg in 1518 probably had more impact than either. In 1517, Luther was insulated by his anonymity; in 1521, he was famous, with possibly half of Germany supporting him. Yet in 1518 Luther was vulnerable, not yet famous and not certain how the Church would deal with him. The Church had an opportunity to silence Luther without suffering severe damage and failed to do so. Cajetan had no intention of hearing Luther’s statements, and, although he promised to forward Luther’s “explanations” to Rome, he demanded that Luther recant. Luther refused and, in fear for his life, fled Augsburg.
While he had been in Augsburg, Luther had met with Eck and had agreed to a debate at Leipzig in July, 1519. This dispute did not go well for Luther. Eck was able to maneuver him into...
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