Martin Luther Biographical Information

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Biographical Information

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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 claimed that he was highly temperamental and expressive, given to periods...

(The entire section is 1,592 words.)