Martin Luther, 1483-1547

His Life

Born 1483 in Germany the son of peasant miners who were very conservatively religious. He was brought up very strictly.

1501 - Went to University of Erfurt
1505 - Became an Augustinian Monk
1507 - Ordained as a priest
1511 - Became a lectured on biblical theology at Wittenberg University in electoral Saxony.
1515 - In a lecture on St Paul's letter to the Romans spoke on a passage containing the now infamous phrase:
"The Just shall live on faith alone"
This became known as sola fide or justification by faith.
1517: Sept - Published his diputation against scholastic theology
1517: Oct - Pinned his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg

His Beliefs

Pauline and Augustine influences are most important when examining the origins of Luther's theology. Luther took the ideas of St Paul and St Augustine together with those of William of Ockham as an indication that salvation was necessary and that faith was the means of salvation.

Key Ideas:

  • Justification by Faith - There was no need for things like pilgrimages, indulgences, relics or masses for the dead. Nor was there anything to be gained by the worship of saints or relics.
  • Priesthood of all Believers - Faith in Christ made every man his own priest, creating the priesthood of all believers. Ministers would have to be appointed to conduct services and help their congregations bit they have not secular powers or privileges. Therefore you could have communion in both kinds, priests could marry and there was no need for monks of nuns.
  • Sacraments - Baptism and the Eucharist are the only two valid sacraments of the original seven. However Luther rejects transubstantiation in favour of consubstantiation. This means he does not reject the real presence.
  • Papacy - The Pope is not infallible. Scripture is superior to the Pope. A general council of the church could guide and dictate to the Papacy
  • Church State - Secular authorities should be able to organise the church within their own kingdoms.
Minor Points:
  • Music is an integral part of worship
  • Usury is illegal
  • Compulsory education but not necessarily solely by the church
  • Preaching is an intergral part of worship
  • Community should be responsible for the poor, sick and insane
  • The existence of the social hierarchy

About Luther supporting the state and rules rather than the rightless: he was following the (supposedly inspired) teachings of St. Paul. From Romans 13:1-2

Obey the government, for God is the one who has put it there. There is no government anywhere that God has not placed in power. So those who refuse to obey the laws of the land are refusing to obey God, and punishment will follow.

Thus, if there's a ruthless king who oppresses the people, God put the king there to punish the peasants, and the peasants deserved to be oppressed.

Of course, a lot of people think that the teaching of Jesus and the teachings of Paul are very much at odds, but pretty much all Christians of that day believed that the parts of the New Testament outside of what Jesus said was as directly from God as what Jesus said.

Martin Luther (1483-1546) was one of the major leaders of the Protestant Reformation and the founder of Lutheranism.

Early Life

Luther was born in Eisleben, Saxony in 1483 to a family of small but free landholders. Educated at the cathedral school at Eisenach and the University of Erfurt, he planned to study law. In 1505 however, Luther experienced a sudden, profound religious experience and decided to become an Augustinian friar. He was ordained as a priest in 1507, and travelled to Rome in 1510, where he was shocked by papal opulence and ostentation.

In 1512 Luther became a professor of Scripture at Wittenberg University, where he began to wrestle with issues of personal salvation. After months of mental anguish and psychic turmoil, Luther eventually concluded that salvation flowed unmerited from a loving God as a free gift to mankind. God's grace could not be earned by eartly acts such as confession, pilgrimage, or charity, but was obtained by faith alone. This doctrine became known as the Justification by Faith.

Calls for Reform

Luther's activist phase began in 1517 when Johann Tetzel toured Saxony selling papal indulgences. Luther denounced the practice in his famous 95 Theses, which he posted on the door of the castle church. In one of the earliest examples of the power of the printing press, the theses were mass reproduced and became wildly popular reading, earning Luther followers and fame, but also drawing vicious attack, especially from Johann Eck.

At first Luther sought to initiate reform from within the church, but Pope Leo X ordered the Augustinian order to supress the burgeoning movement. Luther was called before the papal legate at Augsburg in 1518, but refused to recant, and in 1519 in a public disputation with Eck at Leipzig Luther found himself forced to declare himself in open oposition to established church doctrine.


As Luther began to realize that a break with the church was inevitable, he started to call for even more extensive reform. In To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation (1520) Luther attacked the claim of the papacy of authority over secular rulers, calling for German control of German ecclesiastical matters and appealing to the German princes to help effect a reformation in Germany. Dangling the promise of greater power for the German princes proved to be an astute move, as the princes would eventually back Luther's movement and protect him from chruch persecution. Most importantly, Luther denied the central role of the pope as final interpreter of Scripture, instead declaring a "priesthood of all believers."

In other writings, most notably The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Luther further denied any special spiritual role for priests and rejected the idea of transubstantiation, instead embracing consubstantiation. He also called for clerical marriage, assailed the corruption of the church, attacked usury and commercialism, and recommended a return to a primitive agrarian society.

Break with the Church

The Church responded with a crackdown, condemning Luther's views and threatening him with excommunication in the papal bull Exsurge Domine. Luther responded by holding a public burning of the bull and a copy of the canon law and the Church excommunicated him in 1521. That same year the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor Charles V summoned Luther to the Diet of Worms and demanded that he renounce his heresies. Luther refused, allegedly saying, "Here I stand: I can do no other."

After a heated debate, the Diet decided to outlaw Luther as a heretic and issued an edict for his arrest, but Luther found protection under Frederick III of Saxony and sought refuge in the castle at Wartburg. There, in only six months, Luther translated the New Testament into German and began a translation of the entire Bible, which he completed 10 years later.

Later Years

Luther's movement continued to grow, and he felt safe enough to return to Wittenberg, from where he directed the Reformation for the rest of his life. Luther attempted to moderate the tide of reform, offering harsh opposition to more extreme reformers such as the Anabaptists. In 1525 he split with the humanists, writing The Bondage of the Will in response to the attacks of Erasmus. Luther's intolerance of divergent streams of reform and his unpopular opposition to the Peasants' War (Luther always sided with the princes who protected him) contributed to the gradual breakup of the initially united reform movement.

Luther's main-line movement continued to grow, however, and Luther himself continued to thrive as a polemicist and respected leader. In 1525 he married a former nun, Katharina von Bora, with whom he would raise six children. His closest associates, Philip Melanchthon and Justus Jonas, helped carry forward his endeavors, and after the death of Frederick III he enjoyed the strong support of John Frederick I. Luther worked actively to build a competent educational system, wrote extensively on church organization, composed numerous hymns, and wrote a liturgy. In 1529 he wrote two catechisms that became the foundations of Lutheran religious practice.

Luther remains perhaps the towering figure in Early Modern European History. His teachings changed the daily life of half a continent, and shaped the wars and writings and ideas for hundreds of years to come. In addition, his prolific, lively, and idomatic prose helped standardize modern German language.

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