Study Guide

Martin Luther

by Richard Marius

Martin Luther Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Richard Marius, professor emeritus of Harvard University, is a distinguished historian, novelist, playwright, and biographer. His numerous works include a well-received biography of Sir Thomas More, and now he has written what may well be the definitive biography of Martin Luther, “a narrative history about both events and ideas” of the sixteenth century. The critical tone of this book and much of its content are not unlike that of Marius’s earlier biography of Luther (Luther, 1974), but the current biography is a more challenging and scholarly work, broader and deeper in scope than the author’s previous attempt to portray the life of the German reformer.

In Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death, Marius carefully sets the scene for his readers by detailing the historical, social, and cultural context of Luther’s time, an age of great change and uncertainty in Western Europe and the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation, Luther’s native land. Although the medieval Church was a monolithic unity, presided over by a sovereign pope in Rome and embracing all of Western Europe, there was widespread political and social unrest. The Holy Roman emperor (Frederick III when Luther was born; later, Maximilian I) was ineffectual and had very little real authority. Church leaders, appointed by the pope, vied for political power with princes and nobles in Germany. Flourishing capitalism widened the gap between the rich and the poor, and peasants were by far the majority of the population. There was widespread resentment of the corruption of the medieval Church and the pomp of Rome and the papacy, which drained the coffers of German lands. It was a very superstitious and fearful age. Plague—the Black Death—threatened all of Europe with recurring outbreaks, and sudden death was a fact of life. (In its first outbreak from 1347 to 1350, the plague had killed one-third to one-half of Europe’s population. In the sixteenth century, Luther himself survived three outbreaks in Wittenberg.) Finally, the recently invented printing press disseminated knowledge of the discoveries of the New World, other religions, and classical literature (pagan writers and skeptics), causing people to question traditional values and beliefs. This climate of skepticism, unrest, and fear, together with the divisions in Germany, created a propitious setting for Luther’s Reformation, according to Marius. He was remarkably fortunate to take a stand against Rome in a land where his prince could protect him and at a time when his beliefs were acceptable to many.

Marius traces the critical events of Luther’s early life, his education in Erfurt, his entrance into the monastery, and his work as professor of biblical studies at Wittenberg. Luther was born in Saxony in 1483. In his discussion of Luther’s relationship with his father, Marius explores the Freudian perspective of Erik H. Erikson, who believed that Luther’s fear of his father Hans contributed to his fear of God and frequent bouts of depression throughout his life. Luther’s father wanted him to be a lawyer, and he was enrolled in the faculty of arts at Erfurt in 1501. There, during a violent storm, Luther cried out for help in terror of the lightning and vowed that he would become a monk. He kept this vow, which displeased his father, and entered an Augustinian monastery, where he worked diligently to save his soul from death and judgment. He was a good monk, but he struggled constantly with doubts and feelings of guilt. A year after he was ordained a priest, he was appointed doctor of theology at the new university at Wittenberg in Saxony. There Luther taught, published, and was the official preacher to the Augustinian monks, a job that led him to study Scripture extensively.

When Pope Leo X agreed to the sale of indulgences within German territories in order to finance the completion of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Luther was outraged. He believed that this practice was in conflict with biblical teaching, and he opposed any notion that men could win favor with God or earn merit by acts of penance or indulgences. He had become convinced that forgiveness was utterly dependent on God’s grace—the sacrifice of Christ on the cross was the only merit a loving God required of believers. (In a lengthy discussion, Marius explains how indulgences were initially a part of penance and depended on the contrition of the sinner.) The Church claimed to have a “treasury of merit,” where the accumulated merits of the saints were deposited. The pope could apply the merits of the saints to sinners who needed merit in much the same way as one can write a check on a bank account. Over time, free will offerings for indulgences were replaced by the sale of indulgences, and they could be applied even to those in Purgatory. Luther became notorious in 1517 when he protested the sale of the indulgences in his Ninety-five Theses or propositions for debate, which was the accepted procedure for protest in his time. Although he...

(The entire section is 2038 words.)