Martin Luther

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Martin Luther Biography

Martin Luther intended to spark only a reform within the Catholic Church when he hammered his 95 Theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517. However, the result was a revolution that permanently split Christianity into independent denominations. A monk and a scholar, Luther had become disenchanted with a Catholic Church that used its power to promote ignorance in the masses and raise wealth for itself. In his 95 Theses, Luther detailed these abuses and refused to be silenced. Violent controversy followed as he continued to attack the corruption of the Papacy and supported the translation of the Bible into the vernacular so that people could read it for themselves. In living his conscience, Luther changed the world.

Facts and Trivia

  • Luther was a promising law student until 1505, when he underwent a religious conversion after being struck by lightning, crying at the time, “Help, St. Anne, I will become a monk.” He later joined the Order of the Hermits of Saint Augustine.
  • The Bible verse that first inspired Luther to question the church was Romans 1:17: “For the justice of God is revealed from faith to faith in that it is written, for the just shall live by faith.”
  • Many of Luther’s complaints about the church revolved around the sale of indulgences. Indulgences promised the purchaser the remission of sins and reduced his or her time in purgatory (a temporary hell where believers were to pay for their sins).
  • Luther translated the Bible into German, publishing The New Testament by himself in 1522.
  • On June 13, 1525, Luther married Katharine Von Bora, a former nun. She was one of a group of nuns that he had helped escape from a Cistercian convent by smuggling them out in herring barrels. They had six children together.

Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2314

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.

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Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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 supporting some Hussite positions and into questioning papal authority as well as the authority of ecclesiastical councils. The Church responded on June 15, 1520, with a papal bull condemning many of Luther’s teachings. The papal legate sent to circulate the bull among the German cities was shocked to discover German opinion solidly behind Luther. Luther’s friends, aware of his dangerous position, tried to have him moderate his beliefs, but Luther had already moved beyond that point and in 1520 published three of his most famous treatises.

In January, 1521, the Church formally excommunicated Luther. At this juncture, Frederick obtained a promise from Emperor Charles V to provide Luther with an opportunity to defend himself before the Imperial Diet then meeting at Worms. At the meeting, it became clear that Luther had been summoned only to recant. Since his life could depend on his answer, Luther requested time to think. The next day, Luther made a skillful statement, and the Chancellor of Trier made an equally skillful reply from the papal perspective. He concluded with a demand that Luther give a simple answer to the question, “Do you recant, yes or no?” Luther responded with a reply that change the course of history. Unless he were proved wrong on the basis of the Scriptures and sound reason—for popes and councils had erred and might do so again—he was bound by his conscience to the Word of God. He concluded in German, “May God help me. Amen.”

There was no doubt that Luther had won a great moral victory, but his enemies also gained something important: the Edict of Worms, which declared Luther an outlaw and proscribed his writings. This edict would dog him all of his days, but while it could restrict his freedom of movement, it could not restrict Luther’s ideas. It did mean that his protector, Frederick, could not openly support Luther, so for political reasons and for Luther’s own safety, Luther was “kidnapped” to the castle at the Wartburg. He found this enforced inaction tiresome and depressing, but he did use the time to begin the translation of the New Testament from Greek into German. Published in September, 1522, it was a historic work which would have a tremendous influence on German language, life, and religion. Luther remained informed about developments beyond the Wartburg, and when he left in March, 1522, he faced a situation that gravely concerned him.

Religious doctrine can easily have social and political ramifications, and Luther was very alarmed by the political and social unrest his theological cornerstones—justification by faith and the priesthood of all believers—had engendered. Luther, always a conservative, feared that the new radical teaching by Karlstadt and others would lead to revolution. In response, Luther in 1523 postulated the Two Realms theory. There is the spiritual realm, where man exists only in relation to God, and the temporal realm, where man exists as flesh, subject to sin and the needs of the flesh. Since both realms are divinely inspired, man has a duty to obey civil authority, and thus it is sinful to rebel against lawful authority. Freedom for Luther consisted of man’s freedom to obey the Gospel. These views help explain Luther’s strong condemnation of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1524-1525.

The year 1525 was pivotal for Luther and the Protestant Reformation. Luther was married to Katherina von Bora, a former nun, who proved to be a wonderful wife, bringing much-needed stability into his life. Also that year, relations were severed between Luther and Erasmus. Early in the Reformation, Erasmus had supported its goals, but he had counseled caution, peace, and change through a reforming council. He feared a catastrophic split in the Church. As Luther’s theology evolved and it became clear that the Reformation was no longer a reformation but a religious revolution, Erasmus parted company with Luther and chose the Church.

By the end of 1525, the lines were clearly drawn. From this point, Luther was the leader of a great religious movement—a man of true accomplishment. He would have to deal with doctrinal problems, the more radical Protestant leaders such as John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli, and, as he grew older, others, especially Philipp Melanchthon, who would share the mantle of leadership with Luther. Early in 1546, Luther traveled to Eisleben to settle a quarrel between two young princes. The weather was awful and cold. On February 17, he suffered a heart attack and died the next day. When news of his death reached Wittenberg, Melanchthon announced to his class, “Alas, gone is the horseman and the chariots of Israel,” citing the words spoken by Elisha when Elijah was taken to heaven.

Summary

Martin Luther rejuvenated and restored the Christian faith. Rather than canon law, it was now the Bible that was at the center, leading people to a life of faith, love, and good works. Jesus of Nazareth was once again considered to be a personal savior and not a distant, judgmental God approachable only through priestly mediation. The Church returned to being a community of believers and not a legalistic, bureaucratic institution. In accomplishing these reforms, Luther transformed the face of Europe as radically as Napoleon I or Otto von Bismarck and dramatically changed the course of Western civilization.

Luther himself is more difficult to summarize. He was clearly a man constrained by his love of God and the Scriptures. He was often depressed by the evil he found in the world but was ultimately confident of the salvation and glory that awaited after death. That this attitude gave Luther tremendous courage and confidence in the face of powerful opposition is seen in an incident that occurred early in the Reformation. While at the Wartburg, in hiding from his enemies under the ban of the empire, and with his own future far from certain, Luther wrote, “Our enemies threaten us with death. They would do better to threaten us with life.”

Bibliography

Atkinson, James. Martin Luther and the Birth of Protestantism. Reprint. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981. This book is essentially a theological account of Luther that is engagingly written and very understandable. Luther comes alive on these pages as a theologian and as a historical figure. Includes a subject index, an index of biblical references, a select bibliography, and a chronological table. Highly recommended.

Boehmer, Heinrich. Road to Reformation: Martin Luther to the Year 1521. Translated by John W. Doberstein and Theodore G. Tappert. Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1946. Based thoroughly on primary sources, the book’s detail and insight into Luther’s life and thinking to the conclusion of the Diet of Worms are exceptional. Lucid and well written, this work is considered by many Luther scholars to be a classic in the field. Includes an index.

Ebeling, Gerhard. Luther: An Introduction to His Thought. Translated by R. A. Wilson. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1964. Although this work is not popular discussion of Luther’s thought, it does not assume any special knowledge on the part of the reader. It concentrates on the dynamics of Luther’s thought. The discussion of Luther’s view of philosophy and theology is particularly insightful.

Schwiebert, Ernest G. Luther and His Times. St. Louis: Concordia, 1950. Schwiebert lays stress upon the philosophical and sociogeographical factors that contributed to the molding of Luther. The first three chapters give an excellent historical background to the Reformation. This highly impressive, scholarly, yet accessible book should be a standard in any Luther bibliography. Includes an index, chapter notes, bibliographical notes, numerous photographs, and illustrations.

Smith, Preserved. The Life and Letters of Martin Luther. Reprint. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1968. The author is considered one of the great Reformation scholars. This book is an excellent introduction to Luther’s letters with comments by the author placing them in historical context. Includes an index, chronological tables, and a detailed bibliography.

Thompson, W. D. J. Cargill. The Political Thought of Martin Luther. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1948. Thompson was recognized as a leading authority on Luther’s political thought. He places Luther’s political views in the context of his complete theology. The discussion of the Two Realms theory is outstanding. Includes an index and a select bibliography of secondary sources.

Todd, John M. Luther: A Life. New York: Crossroad, 1982. Like all top biographers of Luther, Todd draws heavily from Luther’s own writings. This historical and theological account of Luther is lucid, providing an excellent discussion of the historical currents and events that helped to shape the Reformation. Includes an index, an excellent appendix on indulgences, numerous illustrations, and a map of Germany.

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