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.