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Martin Luther, the sixteenth-century leader of the Protestant Reformation, was a German monk who began to preach against the Catholic Church’s doctrines and practices, especially the legitimacy of indulgences, the Mass as a representation of Christ’s sacrifice, and vows of celibacy required for priests. Martin Luther initiated a movement of criticism that extended beyond the scope of his own reform efforts, especially during the Enlightenment.
Martin Luther was a German monk, teacher, and preacher whose work helped to usher in the Protestant Reformation. Luther was born in the German town of Eisleben, Saxony. He attended Erfurt University from 1501 to 1505, after which his father expected him to pursue the study of law. But Luther was strongly attracted to the order of the Augustinian Hermits in Erfurt, which he joined on 2 July 1505, in direct disobedience to his father’s wishes. Luther was ordained to the priesthood in 1507 and celebrated Mass, considered to be a representation of the sacrifice of Christ. Luther moved to the Augustinian house in Wittenberg in 1510, under the authority of his superior, Johannes von Staupitz. Luther became a doctor of theology in 1512, and began to lecture on scripture.
Beginning in 1515, Luther began to experience terrors in his conscience on account of his awareness of his sinful affections, which led him to feel that he was under the wrath of God. Luther termed these experiences Anfechtung (trial or assault), following the language of German mystics such as Johannes Tauler. Luther at first thought that his experience of trial was meant to free him from selfishness in conformity to Christ, so that he might be condemned and crucified with Christ. Since Christians ought to be willing to be punished to hell for their sins, Luther objected to the preaching of indulgences, which were a way Christians could lessen the punishment they owed for sins by means of funds given to the church. In 1517, Luther sent his Ninety-five Theses debating the legitimacy of indulgences to other universities and bishops, which were published and widely distributed very quickly, making Luther internationally famous. The pope began hearings in Rome to excommunicate Luther on the basis of the way Luther questioned the authority of the pope in the Ninety-five Theses.
In light of his growing controversy with Rome, and his own terrors of conscience, Luther’s teaching continued to develop. Luther was especially moved by Staupitz’s claim in confession that Christ in his death had made the sins that terrified Luther his own, and wanted instead to give Luther his righteousness, in an event of faith that Staupitz called “the royal marriage.” Luther took this idea of Staupitz’s and made it central to a new understanding of faith, which some date around the year 1519, although others date it as early as 1515. After 1519, Luther began to teach that nothing a person can do could free that person from the feeling of sin and wrath in the conscience. Only Christ can do this by his death on the cross, which he offers to sinners in the preaching of Gospel. Only faith in the Gospel and trust in the work of Christ can bring peace to the terrified conscience. The Mass does not represent the sacrifice of Christ, but offers the promise of forgiveness. When people believe the Gospel, argued Luther, they are then spontaneously led to share the burdens of their neighbors out of love, but none of this frees them from sin or makes them righteous before God. Luther outlined this teaching in several treatises written in 1520.
By 1521, Luther’s refusal to recant his teaching led him to be excommunicated by the pope and placed under a ban by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. However, Luther’s own ruler, Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, did not think that Luther received a fair hearing, and so protected him from both the pope and the emperor. In the same year, Luther concluded that monastic vows contradicted genuine Christian faith, and by 1525 Luther married a former nun, Katherine von Bora. Luther sought to reform the churches in Saxony gradually, following the lead of the elector, which brought him into conflict with those who wanted to pursue reform more quickly. Luther also came into conflict with the philosopher Erasmus over the free choice of the will, and with the reformers in the Swiss territories over their understanding of the Lord’s Supper, leading to a permanent break between the Lutheran and Reformed churches. Luther continued to lecture on scripture in Wittenberg until his death in 1546, in the hope that he could teach the next generation the true meaning of the Gospel.
By rejecting monastic vows as a legitimate expression of Christian faith, Luther raised marriage and the family to genuinely spiritual estates, and made them the locus of education in faith by means of his German translation of the Bible and his Small Catechism. By allowing the Elector of Saxony to protect him after 1521, Luther began a period in which temporal rulers would be given the power in the church previously accorded to bishops, which would raise problems of its own over time. By testing the whole of received tradition by the sole criterion of the clear word of God in scripture, Martin Luther initiated a movement of criticism that extended beyond the scope of his own reform efforts. The Reformed and Anabaptist movements used the same criterion to criticize both the Roman Church and Luther himself. The criticism of both scripture and tradition by reason in the age of the Enlightenment can be seen as a further development of the comprehensive critique of tradition initiated by Luther.
- Brecht, M. (1993). Martin Luther: His road to reformation 1483–1521. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
- Brecht, M. (1994). Martin Luther: Shaping and defining the reformation 1521–1532. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
- Brecht, M. (1999). Martin Luther: The preservation of the church 1532–1546. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
- Lull, T. (1989). Martin Luther: Basic theological writings. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
- Oberman, H. (1992). Luther: Man between God and the devil. New York: Doubleday.
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