Martin Luther 1483–1546
German theologian and religious reformer.
The following entry contains critical essays focusing on Luther's role in the Protestant Reformation.
Luther's challenges to the ecclesiastical authority and doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church precipitated the Protestant Reformation and eclipsed the hegemonic power of the papacy in the West. The splintering of the church and the formation of Protestantism ranks as a seminal historical event with profound social, cultural, and political repercussions. Luther's rebellion against the absolutism of church dogma and his insistence on the primacy of Scripture as the source of religious authority weakened both the power and the religious authority of the church. Initially seeking to reform the church from within, Luther's doctrinal departures elicited papal charges of heresy and resulted in his excommunication by Pope Leo X in 1521. Luther's first public quarrel with Rome was an indictment of the practice of granting indulgences for monetary donations, a fund-raising method that had become very corrupt by Luther's day. Luther's criticisms escalated from a reproach of ecclesiastical practices to a renegade attack upon sacrosanct Catholic dogma. He believed in the justification by faith alone, which meant that redemption was a free gift of God's love, and not contingent upon one's merit or the performing of good works. Luther's reform efforts emboldened other dissidents to challenge the ubiquitous grasp of Rome. The end result of the Reformation was not the successful reform of the church, but the creation of new Protestant denominations throughout Western Europe, culminating in the establishment of the Anglican Church in Britain by the middle of the sixteenth century. The growth of independent churches, often with national ties, occurred with the rise of nation-states in the West. Luther's translation of the Bible into the German vernacular and his composition of hymns and prayers also contributed to the cohesion of German culture and burgeoning nationalist sentiment. While scholars contest the degree to which Luther contributed to the demise of medieval piety and ushered in the modern age, there is unqualified agreement that he ranks as one of the most vital figures in Western history.
Luther was born at Eisleben in the province of Saxony. Although descended from peasant stock, Luther's father, Hans, became a prosperous copper miner at Mansfeld and was able to provide a superior education for his son. Luther received both his bachelor's and master's degrees from the well-regarded University of Erfurt before beginning legal studies there in accordance with his father's wishes. He soon abandoned the law, however, and entered the monastery of the Augustinian Hermits at Erfurt upon undergoing a profound religious conversion experience. In 1507 Luther was ordained a priest. At the urging of his mentor, Johann von Staupitz, he pursued theological studies and earned a doctorate from the newly founded University of Wittenberg in 1512; upon graduation Luther accepted the chair in biblical theology at the university. He taught philosophy and Biblical literature while grappling with the question of salvation: how could God love and forgive human beings so flawed that they could never possibly live up to his laws? An exploration of the Book of Romans provided Luther with his answer, and he formulated his doctrine of justification through faith alone. Luther believed that faith, not good works, was the means of redemption, and that the suffering and death of Jesus Christ provided both the basis and the proof of God's unconditional love. The tenet that salvation ultimately depended on the willingness of sinners to embrace God's grace and mercy...
(The entire section is 1592 words.)
*Disputatio pro declaratione virtutia indulgentiarum [The Ninety-Five Theses, published in The Origins and Results of the Ninety-Five Theses of Dr. M Luther] (theses) 1517
Die Sieben busspsalm mit deutscher au-siegung nach dem schrifftlichen synne tzu Christi und gottes gnadden, neben seynes selben, ware erkentniss grundlich gerichtet [The Seven Penitential Psalms, published in Vol.14 of Luther's Works, 1958] (psalms) 1517
Eyn Sermon von dem Ablasz und Gnade [Sermon on Indulgence and Grace] (sermon) 1518
**Epistola Lutheriana ad Leonem decimum summum pontificem. Dissertatio de libertate christiana per autorem recognita [A Treatise, Touching the Libertie of a Christian, 1579; also published as The Freedom of a Christian Man, 1901] (letter and essay) 1519; also published as Von der Freyheyt eynes Christen Menschen [abridged translation]
In epistolam Pauli ad Galatus [A Commentarie of M.Doctor Martin Luther upon the Epistle of S. Paul to the Galatians, 1535] (lecture) 1519; revised edition, 1535
**An den Christlichen Adel deutscher Nation: Von des Christlichen Standes Besserung [Address to the Nobility of the German Nation published in First Principles of the Reformation, 1883] (essay)1520
**De Captivitate Babylonica ecclesiae...
(The entire section is 771 words.)
SOURCE: "The Progress of the Reformation," in The Theological and Miscellaneous of the Works Joseph Priestley, Vol. X, edited by J. T. Rutt, 1803. Reprint by Kraus Reprint Co.,1972, pp. 112–27.
[In the excerpt below, Priestley traces Luther's increasing conflict with papal authority and the rise of his popularity with the laity.]
It is something remarkable that Luther began his reformation independently of any thing that had been done before him; so that he was truly a great original in that way. He ever dreaded the reproach of heresy, and it was by slow degrees that he was brought to any connexion with those who had been denominated heretics; but the affinity between his doctrines and those of the Hussites in Bohemia could not but soon be perceived, and all his enemies eagerly propagated reports of his connexion with them. Some colour was given to them by the publication of a sermon this year, in which he expressed a wish that the church, assembled in general council, would restore the cup to the laity. The bishop of Misnia censured this piece,1 and forbade the reading of it in his diocese; and the duke of Saxony wrote to the elector to complain of it. But he answered with great prudence, that he did not take upon him the defence of any of the writings of Luther, though there were persons of acknowledged piety and good sense who saw nothing reprehensible in them.
(The entire section is 6879 words.)
SOURCE: "The Three Great Reformation Treatises," in Luther and the German Reformation, T. & T. Clark, 1900, pp. 93–112.
[Below, Lindsay, outlines several of Luther's early works that challenged the power of Rome, and describes the subsequent reactions by the German peopie.]
THE THREE GREAT REFORMATION TREATISES
1. "CHRISTIAN LIBERTY" AND "THE CAPTIVITY OF THE CHURCH"
In 1520 Luther published the three writings which contain the principles of his reformation. They appeared in the following order: To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, respecting the Reformation of the Christian Estate, probably in the beginning of August; The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, probably before the end of September; and Concerning Christian Liberty, early in October. These three books are commonly called in Germany the "Three Great Reformation Treatises," and the title befits them well. Luther wrote and published them after three years of controversy, following upon the publication of the theses, had made his position perfectly clear to himself, and at a time when he knew that he had to expect nothing from Rome but a sentence of excommunication. However the details of his teaching may have afterwards changed, it remained in all essential positions unaltered from what we find it in these three books.1
(The entire section is 5621 words.)
SOURCE: "Faith and Wrath," in Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1958, pp. 223–50.
[In the excerpt below, Erikson examines Lather's writings, provides a psychoanalysis of the reformer, and describes the dynamics of his theology,.]
The importance of Luther's early lectures lies in the fact that they bear witness not only to the recovery of his ego, but also to a new theology conceived long before he suddenly became famous as a pamphleteer in the controversy over indulgences. To the Catholic scholar, his theological innovations seem pitiful, mere vulgarized fragments of the order he disavowed; to the Protestant, his theology is powerful and fundamentally new. The historical psychologist, however, can only question how efficacious an ideology is at a given historical moment. Obviously, when this monk spoke up he presented in his words and in his bearing the image of man in whom men of all walks of life were able to recognize in decisive clarity something that seemed right, something they wanted, they needed to be. Whatever theological rationale unified Luther's teachings as an evangelist was transcended by his influence on men in his own and in other reformers' churches, in his and in other countries, and even on the Catholic Church's own Counter Reformation.
There are a number of conflicting historical views about Luther's...
(The entire section is 7836 words.)
SOURCE: "The Way Luther Speaks of God," in Luther: An Introduction to His Thought, translated by R. A. Wilson, Fortress Press, 1970, pp. 242–67.
[In the following excerpt from a work originally published in 1964, Ebeling describes how Luther's conception of an "omnipresent" God shaped his faith.]
There is something challenging about the way Luther speaks of God. We cannot turn to his works without our own way of speaking about God faltering or falling silent or being brought into question, or without doubt being cast upon it. This implies that Luther's way of speaking of God expresses more than an ordinary degree of personal involvement, and therefore also involves us. All consideration of historical data in some respects involves the participation of the observer, so that the false ideal of a 'purely historical' consideration is neither possible nor desirable. In the same way, what has been said about God and handed down in tradition is even less capable of being dealt with by a 'purely historical consideration'. For to speak of God implies his essential presence, and this is true even of the statement 'God is dead', as can be seen from the way Nietzschc asserts the presence of the slain God: 'Do we still smell nothing of the divine putrefaction?'1
At a time when it has become exceedingly difficult to defend any attempt to speak about God, the decisiveness with which Luther...
(The entire section is 8743 words.)
SOURCE: "The True Church and the Empirical Church," in The Theology of Martin Luther, translated by Robert C. Schultz, Fortress Press, 1966, pp. 333–44.
[In the following excerpt, Althaus explains how Luther used scriptural authority to distinguish between the "true" Church and the exercise of ecclesiastical power.]
THE AUTHORITY OF TRADITION AND ITS LIMITATION
For Luther the Christian church is, without detriment to its spiritual nature, a historical reality, which constantly existed through all the centuries from the time of the apostles till his own time. The Evangelicals are not another and a new church but "the true old church, one body with the entire holy Christian church, and one community of saints."1 In spite of all his heartfelt criticism of the Roman Church, Luther remained certain that God had, in spite of everything, miraculously preserved the true church even in the midst of its Babylonian captivity.2 The Evangelicals received the great Christian inheritance from the hands of the pre-Reformation church—for this inheritance was not lost even under the papacy. "We on our part confess that there is much that is Christian and good under the papacy; indeed, everything that is Christian and good is to be found there and has come to us from this source. For instance, we confess that in the Papal Church there are the true Holy Scriptures, true...
(The entire section is 4541 words.)
SOURCE: "The Way Luther Speaks of God," in Luther: An Introduction to His Thought, translated by R. A. Wilson, Fortress Press, 1970, pp. 242–67.
[In the excerpt below from a work originally published in 1970, Ebeling discusses the problem of historical periodization, suggesting a way to transcend the attempts of Ernst Troeltsch and Hegel to assign Luther to either the medieval or modern age.]
I. TOWARDS THE HISTORY OF THE PROBLEM
1. Interpretation in the Manner of Salvation History
In his lectures on the philosophy of history Hegel calls the Reformation "the all-illuminating sun, which follows that day-break at the end of the Middle Ages."1 This metaphor of the dawning day to which the night gives way has a long history as an expression for a decided break in history.2 Here the picture is recalled only as an allusion and only in so far as it affects an understanding of the Reformation.
In the age of the Reformation and of Orthodoxy an ever recurring theme of the Protestant understanding of the Reformation event is that after a time of Egyptian darkness the light of the gospel arose again through Luther's word and deed.3 For that matter, this picture can also be applied to the inner illumination which Luther experienced, instead of to the general spread of the gospel.4 These phrases...
(The entire section is 11973 words.)
SOURCE: "The Principles of Lutheranism," in The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, Vol. 2, Cambridge University Press, 1978, pp. 3–19.
[Here, Skinner describes how Luther's theological tenets ultimately required individual obedience to secular authority.]
To begin the story of the Lutheran Reformation at the traditional starting-point is to begin in the middle. Luther's famous act of nailing up the Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg on the Eve of All Saints in 1517 (which may not even have happened)1 merely marks the culmination of a long spiritual journey on which he had been travelling at least since his appointment over six years before to the chair of Theology in the University of Wittenberg. One of the main achievements of Lutheran scholarship in the past generation has been to trace the course of Luther's intellectual development during this formative time. The basis for this reinterpretation has been provided by the rediscovery of the materials he used in giving his lectures on the Psalms in 1513–14, on the Epistle to the Romans in 1515–16, and on the Epistle to the Galatians in 1516–17. The outcome has been the suggestion that it would only be a 'slight exaggeration', as Rupp puts it, to claim that 'the whole of the later Luther' can already be discerned in the pages of these early lecture-notes (Rupp, 1951, p. 39). The implication is...
(The entire section is 8622 words.)
SOURCE: "Simul Gemitus et Raptus: Luther and Mysticism," in The Dawn of the Reformation: Essays in Late Medieval and Early Reformation Thought, T. & T. Clark Ltd, 1986, pp. 126–34.
[Below, Oberman outlines approaches to studying Luther and mysticism, and discusses Luther's own understanding of the role of mysticism in faith.]
"We will deal with that material than which none is more sublime, none more divine, and none more difficult to attain …" Jean Gerson1
"That [mystical] rapture is not the passageway [to God]." Martin Luther2
It cannot be our task to determine whether Luther is to be regarded as a mystic. For an empathie biographer it is interesting that Luther himself testifies to the highest degree of mystical experience when he writes: "once I was carried away (raptus fui) to the third heaven."3 Yet, in complete accordance with a widespread concern and hesitancy almost monotonously expressed in late medieval pastoral literature, he also states in 1516 that this "negotium absconditum" is a rare event.4 Furthermore there are grave dangers in the pursuit of the suavitas which "is rather the fruit and reward of love than love itself."5 Luther never based his authority on special revelations or high mystical experiences, nor does he write for the...
(The entire section is 13402 words.)
SOURCE: "The Dawn of a New Era," in The European Reformations, Blackwell Publishers, 1996, pp. 56–90.
[In the excerpt below, Lindberg gives a brief overview of the medieval worldview and the religious practices of the day, focusing on Luther's opposition to the Church's granting of indulgences for monetary donations.]
It is through living, indeed through dying and being damned that one becomes a theologian, not through understanding, reading, or speculation.
Luther came from an upwardly mobile family. His grandfather was a peasant farmer but his ambitious, determined father worked his way up in the mining industry to the position of a small employer. Luther himself was the first of his family to gain a formal education and become an academic. It is striking that other leading Reformers—Melanchthon, Zwingli, Bucer, and Calvin—came from similar backgrounds.
The poor to modest circumstances of Luther's youth were ameliorated as his father's mining ventures prospered. Indeed, as a smelter-master, Hans Luther earned sufficient income to provide Martin with a university education. After the younger Luther's marriage, his prince gave him the Augustinian monastery in Wittenberg for living quarters; he and his family had meat, fish, and fruit to supplement the medieval staple of life, bread,...
(The entire section is 13803 words.)
Grimm, Harold J. The Reformation Era: 1500–1600. New York: Macmillan, 1966, 703 p.
Contains an extensive bibliographic essay and survey of the literature on Luther and Reformation scholarship.
Bainton, Ronald H. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1950, 422 p.
Important biography spanning Luther's entire life, by a leading Luther scholar.
Brecht, Martin. Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation 1483–1521, translated by James L. Schaaf. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985, 557 p.
Biography of young Luther utilizing recent scholarship in specialized fields of historical research.
Brendler, Gerhard. Martin Luther: Theology and Revolution, translated by Claude R. Foster, Jr. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991, 383 p.
Biography of Luther that emphasizes his historical context—"the first revolution in German history"—and posits that "he thought like a theologian and acted as an intellectual in a princely dukedom."
Lohse, Bernard. Martin Luther: An Introduction to His Life and Work, translated by Robert C. Schultz....
(The entire section is 629 words.)