Martin Luther Essay - Critical Essays

Luther, Martin


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.

Biographical Information

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 through acts of faith implicitly attacked the Sacrament of Penance since it meant that only God, not clerics, had the capacity to absolve people of their sins; thus Luther condemned the Church's practice of selling indulgences. He became particularly critical when Dominican Johann Tetzel peddled indulgences in Saxony to raise funds for the building of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Luther posted his objections on the door of the church in Wittenberg in the form of a series of theological propositions, The Ninety-Five Theses (1517). This document was widely disseminated and discussed throughout Europe and created particular excitement in Germany. The Ninety-Five Theses prompted Johann Tetzel to compose his own list of theses as a retort and to hold a public burning of Luther's work. Luther's students retaliated by conducting their own burning of Tetzel's work. The controversy increasingly alarmed church elders in Rome. In 1518 Pope Leo X ordered Luther to appear before Cardinal Cajetan in Augsburg and recant his views within sixty days. He refused and instead demanded that his opponents offer Biblical proof that his beliefs were wrong. Luther spent the next several years defending his beliefs to his fellow monks, and even traveled to Leipzig to publicly debate with theologian Johann Eck, a blatant critic of his theology. In 1520 Leo X issued the papal bull (or official proclamation) Exsurge domine which branded Luther as a heretic. Luther responded by publicly burning the bull before the students, theologians, and townsfolk of Wittenberg. The Pope officially excommunicated Luther several months later and ordered him to stand trial before Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at a special council, the Diet of Worms. It is here that Luther is said to have proclaimed, "Here I stand: I can do no other. God help me. Amen." Facing certain imprisonment or death, Luther was taken into hiding at Wartburg castle by friends operating under the protection of Elector Frederick III of Saxony. He spent the next eight months in concealment, devoting his time to translating Scripture into German and writing intensively. When danger had passed, Luther returned to Wittenberg, where he continued to teach throughout most of the remainder of his life. In 1525 he married Katharina von Bora, a former nun, and together they had six children in a happy marriage. Luther continued his prodigious literary output throughout his lifetime. Biographers have...

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Principal Works

*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 praeludium [On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, published in First Principles of the Reformation, 1833] (essay) 1520; also published as Von der babylonischen Gerfencknues der Kirchen

**Von den Guten Wercken [Here after Ensueth a Propre Treatyse of Good Workes] (sermon) 1520

Warumb des Babits und feuner Jungernn bucher von Doct. Martino Luther vorbrant...

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Joseph Priestley (essay date 1803)

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...

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Thomas M. Lindsay (essay date 1900)

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.]



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...

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Erik H. Erikson (essay date 1958)

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,...

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Gerhard Ebeling (essay date 1964)

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...

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Paul Althaus (essay date 1966)

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.]


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...

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Gerhard Ebeling (essay date 1972)

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.]


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...

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Quentin Skinner (essay date 1978)

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...

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Heiko Augustinus Oberman (essay date 1986)

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...

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Carter Lindberg (essay date 1996)

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.

Martin Luther

Luther came from an upwardly mobile family. His grandfather was a peasant farmer but his ambitious, determined...

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Further Reading


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....

(The entire section is 629 words.)