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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 281

Martin Luther is a biography of a German monk who started the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s. It begins with Luther's early life where he graduated from Erfurt College. His father wanted him to enter law, but Luther became a Catholic monk. Devoted to his studies, he became known as...

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Martin Luther is a biography of a German monk who started the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s. It begins with Luther's early life where he graduated from Erfurt College. His father wanted him to enter law, but Luther became a Catholic monk. Devoted to his studies, he became known as a devout monk who confessed to any minor sin or transgression. During his tenure, he became an ordained priest and professor.

However, Luther began to doubt the doctrine of the Church and questioned the practices of its representatives. For instance, church officials sold the viewing of supposed relics from the time of Christ and told paid viewers that they would face reduced time in purgatory. Moreover, Luther was critical of the selling of indulgences, which were documents that guaranteed a shortened time in purgatory. These schemes prompted Luther to nail the Ninety-five Theses on a church door. The document displaced the authority of the pope and castigated church corruption.

His actions led to his exile and excommunication. Over time, he translated the Bible from Latin and Greek to German. Further, Luther wanted the common man to read the Bible instead of relying on priests to interpret the word of God on their behalf. He also maintained that nuns and priests should be allowed to get married.

The biography reveals that Luther outlined the doctrine that further solidified the Protestant faith while attacking the corrupt practices of the Catholic Church. However, the author mentions the contradictions behind Luther's views, such as being a folk hero among the people but siding with princes when protests occurred, and supporting Jews when they showed devotion to the Bible but encouraged persecution if they rejected Christianity.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1713

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 and outside the Church, had become highly critical of the Church for using people's fear of purgatory as a ploy to raise money. At the cathedral in Wittenberg, Prince Frederick the Wise collected thousands of relics from biblical times, which supposedly included “ …thorns from Jesus’ crown, hay stalks from Christ's manger, some milk of the Virgin Mary, and body parts of …innocent infant victims massacred by King Herod's soldiers.” People who paid to view such relics were assured that their time in purgatory would be reduced. Also in this region of Germany, a priest named Johannes Tetzel was notorious for selling indulgences, which were documents that promised purchasers a reduction of their time in purgatory.

Such scandalous, corrupt practices caused Luther in 1518 to write a long letter to the archbishop, which became the famous Ninety-five Theses that Luther purportedly nailed to the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg. In the academic world, a thesis is not an established conclusion but an assertion intended by the writer to provoke discussion. Some of Luther's theses were quite radical: that popes and priests did not have the power to shorten one's time in purgatory, that selling indulgences was exploitation, and that penance was a churchly invention. Marty states that the Ninety-five Theses probably would have been merely a local squabble except that Wittenberg and other cities had acquired the recently invented printing press. They were able to publicize Luther's message which, much to his surprise, found a wide audience of interested and supportive readers.

Events moved rapidly from 1519 to 1521 and included a public debate on the authority of the pope; Luther's publication of three essays further attacking Church practices; his excommunication from the Catholic Church and his refusal to recant when given an opportunity to do so; Luther's faked kidnapping and confinement for his own safety; and the Edict of Worms, which banned Lutheran teachings in the Holy Roman Empire.

Luther was secluded at Wartburg for about ten months. During that time he undertook to translate the New Testament of the Bible from Greek and Latin sources into colloquial German. He wanted common people to have direct access to the Bible, as it was to become their infallible guide to salvation, replacing the pope. Marty writes that “’Scripture alone’ became a banner of the whole movement.”

In March of 1522, Luther secretly traveled from Erfurt to Wittenberg, where he was warmly welcomed. One Roman Catholic priest complained that 90 percent of the people in Saxony (central Germany) apparently had become supporters of Lutheranism, making it impossible to enforce the Edict of Worms. Luther gave eight sermons in as many days and had them published to reach congregations elsewhere. He encouraged priests and nuns to free themselves from their vows, which many did. Priests were not permitted to marry according to Catholic tradition, but some were openly living with mistresses and illegitimate children. In such cases, Luther said they should get married.

In 1522, Luther helped to free a group of nuns from their convent near Wittenberg. One of them, Katherine von Bora, became his wife in 1524, when Luther was forty-two years old. Over the next ten years they had six children, four of whom survived. Luther wrote that raising children was a vocation with a special calling like the priesthood, and that sexual expression was a valued part of married love. The family lived in the cloister at Erfurt, which had been converted from the monastery where Luther earlier had become a priest. Some glimpses of family life are preserved in a book of notes kept by visitors to the Luther household, titled Table Talk.

Luther's boldness in breaking free from the authoritarian teachings of Roman Catholicism had great popular appeal. However, the release from traditional patterns of church life generated strong disagreements within the Protestant movement. One particularly troublesome group were the Anabaptists, who promoted the idea of adult baptism. They argued that infant baptism, as done by the Catholic Church, was not valid. They rebaptized adult believers who were mature enough to make a faithful commitment. Luther strongly opposed this practice, arguing that baptism was a pure gift initiated by God. In 1528, the Holy Roman Empire banned adult baptism and declared its practitioners subject to the death penalty. Eventually, even Luther came to view Anabaptists as guilty of blasphemy, which justified death or exile. It is difficult to understand how this policy could be harmonized with Luther's view that faith should not be obtained by coercion.

Luther was a prolific writer. He translated both the Old and the New Testament into colloquial German. He wrote commentaries on most of the books of the Bible. He composed a Small Catechism for instructing young people and a Large Catechism addressed primarily to pastors. Many of his sermons, such as The Eight Wittenberg Sermons, were published. He wrote numerous pamphlets and tracts, defining his theology, defending himself from criticism, and attacking his opponents. He wrote many hymns, his most famous one being “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” He wrote letters, which often were preserved by the recipients because Luther was a celebrity during his lifetime. Marty refers to the writings of Luther collected into no less than fifty-five volumes.

In summing up Luther's contributions to theology, Marty makes a list of some apparent contradictions. He freed his contemporaries to make choices based on conscience but stressed obedience to authority. He was a hero to common people but sided with the ruling princes to put down even a legitimate revolt. He personally gave free-spirited interpretations of the Bible, but his advocacy of “Scripture alone” led others to a rigid literalism. He commended Jews for their devotion to biblical study but supported their persecution when they refused to convert to Christianity.

The picture of Luther that emerges from this biography is a person with a mixture of self-doubt and self-confidence in his lifelong mission to bring the church back to a genuine faith in God.

Review Sources

America 191, no. 6 (September 13, 2004): 27.

Booklist 100, no. 11 (February 1, 2004): 936.

Christianity Today 48, no. 5 (May, 2004): 68.

Commonweal 131, no. 6 (March 26, 2004): 22.

Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 23 (December 1, 2003): 1394.

Library Journal 129, no. 2 (February 1, 2004): 100.

Publishers Weekly 251, no. 3 (January 19, 2004): 73.

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