The German reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) was the first and greatest figure in the 16th-century Reformation. A composer of commentaries on Scripture, theology, and ecclesiastical abuses, a hymnologist, and a preacher, from his own time to the present he has been a symbol of Protestantism.
Martin Luther was born at Eisleben in Saxony on Nov. 10, 1483, the son of Hans and Margaret Luther. Luther's parents were of peasant stock, but his father had worked hard to raise the family's status, first as a miner and later as the owner of several small mines, to become a small-scale entrepreneur. In 1490 Martin was sent to the Latin school at Mansfeld, in 1497 to Magdeburg, and in 1498 to Eisenach. His early education was typical of late-15th-century practice. To a young man in Martin's circumstances, only the law and the church offered likely avenues of success, and Hans Luther's anticlericalism probably influenced his decision that his son should become a lawyer and increase the Luther family's prosperity, which Hans had begun. Martin was enrolled at the University of Erfurt in 1501. He received a bachelor of arts degree in 1502 and a master of arts in 1505. In the same year he enrolled in the faculty of law, giving every sign of being a dutiful and, likely, a very successful son.
Between 1503 and 1505, however, Martin experienced a religious crisis which would take him from the study of law forever. His own personal piety, fervently and sometimes grimly instilled by his parents and early teachers, and his awareness of a world in which the supernatural was perilously close to everyday life were sharpened by a series of events whose exact character has yet to be precisely determined. A dangerous accident in 1503, the death of a friend a little later, and Martin's own personal religious development had by 1505 started other concerns in him.
Then, on July 2, 1505, returning to Erfurt after visiting home, Martin was caught in a severe thunderstorm in which he was flung to the ground in terror, and he suddenly vowed to become a monk if he survived. This episode, as important in Christian history as the equally famous (and parallel) scene of St. Paul's conversion, changed the course of Luther's life. Two weeks later, against the opposition of his father and to the dismay of his friends, Martin Luther entered the Reformed Congregation of the Eremetical Order of St. Augustine at Erfurt. Luther himself saw this decision as sudden and based upon fear: "I had been called by heavenly terrors, for not freely or desirously did I become a monk, much less to gratify my belly, but walled around with the terror and agony of sudden death I vowed a constrained and necessary vow."
Luther's early life as a monk reflected his precipitate reasons for entering a monastery: "I was a good monk, and kept strictly to my order, so that I could say that if the monastic life could get a man to heaven, I should have entered." Monastic life at Erfurt was hard. Monks had long become (with the friars and many of the secular clergy) the targets of anticlerical feeling. Charged with having forsaken their true mission and having fallen into greed and ignorance, monastic orders made many attempts at reform in the 15th and 16th centuries. The congregation at Erfurt had been reformed in 1473. The year before Luther entered the Augustinian order at Erfurt, the vicar general Johann Staupitz (later Luther's friend) had revised further the constitution of the order.
Luther made his vows in 1506 and was ordained a priest in 1507. Reconciled with his father, he was then selected for advanced theological study at the University of Erfurt, with which his house had several connections.
In 1508 Luther was sent to the newer University of Wittenberg to lecture in arts. Like a modern graduate student, he was also preparing for his doctorate of theology while he taught. He lectured on the standard medieval texts, for example, Peter Lombard's Book of Sentences; and he read for the first time the works of St. Augustine. In 1510 Luther was sent to Rome on business of the order and in 1512 received his doctorate in theology. Then came the second significant turn in Luther's career: he was appointed to succeed Staupitz as professor of theology at Wittenberg. Luther was to teach throughout the rest of his life. Whatever fame and notoriety his later writings and statements were to bring him, his work was teaching, which he fulfilled diligently until his death.
Wittenberg was a new university, founded in 1502-1503, strongly supported by the elector Frederick the Wise. By 1550, thanks to the efforts of Luther and his colleague Philip Melancthon, it was to become the most popular university in Germany. In 1512, however, it lacked the prestige of Erfurt and Leipzig and was insignificant in the eyes of the greatest of the old universities, that of Paris. It was not a good place for an ambitious academic, but Luther was not ambitious in this sense. His rapid rise was due to his native ability, his boundless energy, his dedication to the religious life, and his high conception of his calling as a teacher.
The intellectual climate which shaped Luther's thought is difficult to analyze precisely. The two competing philosophic systems of the late Middle Ages—scholasticism (derived from the Aristotelianism of St. Thomas Aquinas) and nominalism (derived from the skepticism of William of Ockham and his successors)—both appear to have influenced Luther, particularly in their insistence on rigorous formal logic as the basis of philosophic and theological inquiry. From Ockhamism, Luther probably derived his awareness of the infinite remoteness and majesty of God and of the limitation of the human intellect in its efforts to apprehend that majesty.
Luther's professional work forced him further to develop the religious sensibility which had drawn him to monasticism in 1505. In the monastery and later in the university Luther experienced other religious crises, all of which were based upon his acute awareness of the need for spiritual perfection and his equally strong conviction of his own human frailty, which caused him almost to despair before the overwhelming majesty and wrath of God. In 1509 Luther published his lectures on Peter Lombard; in 1513-1515 those on the Psalms; in 1515-1516 on St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans; and in 1516-1518 on the epistles to the Galatians and Hebrews. Like all other Christians, Luther read the Bible, and in these years his biblical studies became more and more important to him. Besides teaching and study, however, Luther had other duties. From 1514 he preached in the parish church; he was regent of the monastery school; and in 1515 he became the supervisor of 11 other monasteries: "…. write letters all day long," he wrote, "I am conventual preacher, reader at meals, sought for to preach daily in the parish church, am regent of studies, district Vicar, inspect the fish-ponds at Leitzkau, act in the Herzberg affair at Torgau, lecture on St. Paul, revising my Psalms, I seldom have time to go through my canonical hours properly, or to celebrate, to say nothing of my own temptations from the world, the flesh, and the devil."
Luther's crisis of conscience centered upon the question of his old monastic fears concerning the insufficiency of his personal efforts to placate a wrathful God. In his own person, these fears came to a head in 1519, when he began to interpret the passage in St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans which says that the justice of God is revealed in the Gospels.
Luther, the energetic monk and young theologian, felt himself to be "a sinner with an unquiet conscience." After an intense period of crisis, Luther discovered another interpretation of St. Paul's text: "I began to understand that Justice of Go…. to be understood passively as that whereby the merciful God justifies us by faith…. At this I felt myself to be born anew, and to enter through open gates into paradise itself." Only faith in God's mercy, according to Luther, can effect the saving righteousness of God in man. "Works," the term which Luther used to designate both formal, ecclesiastically authorized liturgy and the more general sense of "doing good," became infinitely less important to him than faith.
The doctrine of justification, taking shape in Luther's thought between 1515 and 1519, drew him into further theological speculation as well as into certain positions of practical ecclesiastical life. The most famous of these is the controversy over indulgences. In 1513 a great effort to dispense indulgences was proclaimed throughout Germany. In spite of the careful theological reservations surrounding them, indulgences appeared to the preachers who sold them and to the public who bought them as a means of escaping punishment in the afterlife for a sum of money. In 1517 Luther posted the 95 Theses for an academic debate on indulgences on the door of the castle church at Wittenberg. Both the place and the event were customary events in an academic year, and they might have gone unnoticed had not someone translated Luther's Latin theses into German and printed them, thus giving them widespread fame and calling them to the attention of both theologians and the public.
News of Dr. Luther's theses spread, and in 1518 Luther was called before Cardinal Cajetan, the papal legate at Augsburg, to renounce his theses. Refusing to do so, Luther returned to Wittenberg, where, in the next year, he agreed to a debate with the theologian Johann Eck. The debate, originally scheduled to be held between Eck and Luther's colleague Karlstadt, soon became a struggle between Eck and Luther in which Luther was driven by his opponent to taking even more radical theological positions, thus laying himself open to the charge of heresy. By 1521 Eck secured a papal bull (decree) condemning Luther, and Luther was summoned to the Imperial Diet at Worms in 1521 to answer the charges against him.
A student of Luther's described his teacher at this period: "He was a man of middle stature, with a voice which combined sharpness and softness: it was soft in tone, sharp in the enunciation of syllables, words, and sentences. He spoke neither too quickly nor too slowly, but at an even pace, without hesitation, and very clearly…. If even the fiercest enemies of the Gospel had been among his hearers, they would have confessed from the force of what they heard, that they had witnessed, not a man, but a spirit."
Luther throughout his life always revealed a great common sense, and he always retained his humorous understanding of practical life. He reflected an awareness of both the material and spiritual worlds, and his flights of poetic theology went hand in hand with the occasional coarseness of his polemics. His wit and thought were spontaneous, his interest in people of all sorts genuine and intense, his power of inspiring affection in his students and colleagues never failing. He was always remarkably frank, and although he became first the center of the Reform movement and later one of many controversial figures in it, he retained a sense of self-criticism, attributing his impact to God. He said, in a characteristic passage: "Take me, for example. I opposed indulgences and all papists, but never by force. I simply taught, preached, wrote God's Word: otherwise I did nothing. And then, while I slept or drank Wittenberg beer with my Philip of Amsdorf the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a prince or emperor did such damage to it. I did nothing: the Word did it all. Had I wanted to start troubl…. I could have started such a little game at Worms that even the emperor wouldn't have been safe. But what would it have been? A mug's game. I did nothing: I left it to the Word."
Great personal attraction, absolute dedication to his theological principles, kindness and loyalty to his friends, and an acute understanding of his own human weakness—these were the characteristics of Luther when he came face to face with the power of the papacy and empire at Worms in 1521. He was led to a room in which his collected writings were piled on a table and ordered to repudiate them. He asked for time to consider and returned the next day and answered: "Unless I am proved wrong by the testimony of Scripture or by evident reason I am bound in conscience and held fast to the Word of God. Therefore I cannot and will not retract anything, for it is neither safe nor salutary to act against one's conscience. God help me. Amen." Luther left Worms and was taken, for his own safety, to the castle of Wartburg, where he spent some months in seclusion, beginning his great translation of the Bible into German and writing numerous tracts.
In 1522 Luther returned to Wittenberg, where he succeeded in cooling the radical reforming efforts of his colleague Karlstadt and continued the incessant writing which would fill the rest of his life. In 1520 he had written three of his most famous tracts: To The Christian Nobility of the German Nation, which enunciates a social program of religious reform; On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, on Sacraments, the Mass, and papal power; and Of the Liberty of a Christian Man, a treatise on faith and on the inner liberty which faith affords those who possess it.
The Lutheran Bible, which was "a vehicle of proletarian education" as well as a monument in the spiritual history of Europe, not only gave Luther's name and views wider currency but revealed the translator as a great master of German prose, an evaluation which Luther's other writings justify.
Besides these works, Luther had other matters at hand. His name was used now by many people, including many with whom he disagreed. The Reformation had touched society and its institutions as well as religion, and Luther was drawn into conflicts, such as the Peasants' Rebellion of 1524-1525 and the affairs of the German princes, which drew from him new ideas on the necessary social and political order of Christian Germany. Luther's violent antipeasant writings from this period have often been criticized. His fears of the dangerous role of extreme reformers like Karlstadt and Thomas Münzer, however, were greater than his hope for social reform through revolution. Luther came to rely heavily upon the princes to carry out his program of reform. In 1525 Luther married Katherine von Bora, a nun who had left her convent. From that date until his death, Luther's family life became not only a model of the Christian home but a source of psychological support to him.
Luther's theological writings continued to flow steadily. Often they were written in response to his critics or in the intense heat of debate with Protestant rivals. Among those great works not brought about by conflict should be numbered the Great Catechism and the Small Catechism of 1529 and his collection of sermons and hymns, many of the latter, like Ein Feste Burg, still sung today.
In 1524-1525 Luther entered into a discussion of free will with the great Erasmus. Luther's On the Will in Bondage (1525) remained his definitive statement on the question. In 1528 Luther turned to the question of Christ's presence in the Eucharist in his Confession concerning the Lord's Supper, which attracted the hostility of a number of reformers, notably Ulrich Zwingli. In 1529 Luther's ally Melancthon arranged a discussion between the two, and the Marburg Colloquy, as the debate is known, helped to close one of the early breaches in Protestant agreement.
In 1530, when Charles V was once again able to turn to the problems of the Reformation in Germany, Luther supervised, although he did not entirely agree with, the writing of Melancthon's Augsburg Confession, one of the foundations of later Protestant thought. From 1530 on Luther spent as much time arguing with other Reformation leaders on matters of theology as with his Catholic opponents.
Luther's disputes with other theologians were carried out with the same intensity he applied to his other work: he longed for Christian unity, but he could not accept the theological positions which many others had advanced. He was also fearful of the question of a general council in the Church. In 1539 he wrote his On Councils and Churches and witnessed in the following years the failure of German attempts to heal the wounds of Christianity. On the eve of his death he watched with great concern the calling of the Council of Trent, the Catholic response to the Reformation.
In the 1540s Luther was stricken with diseases a number of times, drawing great comfort from his family and from the lyrical, plain devotional exercises which he had written for children. In 1546 he was called from a sickbed to settle the disputes of two German noblemen. On the return trip he fell sick and died at Eisleben, the town of his birth, on Feb. 18, 1546.
The Writings of Martin Luther (1958) provides 55 volumes of selected works in good translations. A shorter selection is Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings, edited by John Dillenberger (1961). There is a vast literature on Luther and the Reformation. An old but still useful work, of interest because it was written almost a decade before the "Luther Renaissance" of the 1920s, is Preserved Smith, The Life and Letters of Martin Luther (1911; repr. 1968). But it needs to be supplemented by more recent studies.
Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (1950), is one of the most comprehensive biographies. Other biographies are Gordon Rupp, Luther's Progress to the Diet of Worms, 1521 (1951); Robert H. Fife, The Revolt of Martin Luther (1957); Erik H. Erikson, Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History (1958); V. H. H. Green, Luther and the Reformation (1964); Gerhard Ritter, Luther: His Life and Work, translated by John Riches (1964); and Arthur Geoffrey Dickens, Martin Luther and the Reformation (1967), half of which is devoted to the Reformation itself. A popular account is Edith Simon, Luther Alive: Martin Luther and the Making of the Reformation (1968).
A specialized study dealing with doctrinal issues is Erwin Iserloh, The Theses Were Not Posted: Martin Luther between Reform and Reformation (1968). Two brief and good accounts of Luther's theology are Philip S. Watson, Let God Be God: An Interpretation of the Theology of Martin Luther (1947), and Gordon Rupp, The Righteousness of God: Luther Studies (1953). An interesting account of later interpretations of Luther is Jaroslav Pelikan, ed., Interpreters of Luther: Essays in Honor of Wilhelm Pauck (1968). The best general accounts of Luther and the Reformation are Roland H. Bainton, The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century (1953); The New Cambridge Modern History (14 vols., 1957-1970), vol. 2: G. R. Elton, ed., The Reformation, 1520-1559; A. G. Dickens, Reformation and Society in Sixteenth-century Europe (1966); and H. G.Koenigsberger and George L. Mosse, Europe in the Sixteenth Century (1968).