This relatively brief biography of Martin Luther is intended for the general reader. The challenge of such an undertaking is to make Luther's verbal clashes with his Catholic opponents, as well as with his evangelical colleagues, comprehensible for the modern reader. The author, Professor Martin Marty, focuses on critical events in Luther's journey of faith. He provides informative background about Luther's antagonists and supporters. He also gives a historical context showing how Luther eventually came to characterize the pope as the Antichrist and to make a complete break with the Catholic Church.
Luther was born in 1483 in the town of Eisleben, Germany, about one hundred miles southeast of Berlin. He attended schools in Magdeburg and in Eisenach (which became famous later as the birthplace of composer Johann Sebastian Bach). Luther enrolled as a university student at Erfurt, where he graduated in 1505 at the age of twenty-two. His father wanted him to continue his education in law school. However, Luther shocked his parents and friends by announcing that he had decided to become a monk. This sudden decision was provoked by a stroke of lightning that hit very near him while he was out on a walk, frightening him into thinking that he might soon die and have to face the judgment of a wrathful God.
In the summer of 1505, Luther applied to join the Augustinian order of monks, founded by Saint Augustine in the fifth century. Luther was accepted into the monastery at Erfurt, where he lived in an unheated chamber and had to follow strict rules regarding prayer, fasting, and confession. He was obsessed with feelings of sinfulness and struggled to find his personal faith. It is hard for the modem mind to understand the extreme depth of his anxiety, which led him to make confessions to his superior that sometimes lasted for several hours. In 1507 he was ordained as a priest, which authorized him to perform the holy sacrament of Communion. His father attended his first Mass, a very special celebration. Unfortunately, the father chose this occasion to confront Luther regarding his disobedience to the Fourth Commandment (to honor father and mother) when he had decided to become a monk instead of study law. A strained relationship between father and son persisted for many years.
In 1508, Luther was appointed by his Augustinian superior, Johann von Staupitz, to fill in temporarily as a professor at Wittenberg, where a new university was struggling to become established. This position provided Luther with his first experience in lecturing to students and participating in public discussions of theological issues. In late 1510 or 1511, Staupitz assigned Luther to make a journey to Rome, where he spent about four weeks. He was shocked by the filth of the city and the lack of piety among priests. One of his memorable experiences was climbing the Scala Santa, or sacred steps, brought to Rome from Jerusalem, which Jesus was believed to have climbed at the court of Pontius Pilate. Luther made the climb on his knees and said a prayer on each step, hoping thereby to shorten the time that his parents would have to spend in purgatory, according to the teachings of the Church. When he reached the top step, however, Luther later recalled that doubt entered his mind: “Who knows whether this is really true?” It was at that moment that he started to question the authenticity of Church doctrine.
In 1512, Luther was accepted as a regular faculty member at Wittenberg, where he remained for most of his life. He lectured on the letters of Saint Paul in the New Testament and continued to struggle with his personal faith. When doubts dominated Luther's thinking, Marty describes his mental state as being “in an abyss of despair.” However, he later claimed a positive outcome from such experiences: “Such despair offered sinners opportunities to grow in faith. The assaults [of doubt] robbed them of all certainty, until they found no place to go except to the God of mercy and grace.” Luther identified himself with the story of Jacob in the book of Genesis, who wrestled with God through the night until he finally obtained God's blessing.
In the early sixteenth century, many people, both inside...
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