Martin Luther

Martin Luther (1483 – 1546)

Martin Luther was a German theologian and a major leader of the Protestant REFORMATION. He is sometimes called the father of Protestantism, and one of the major branches of Protestantism LUTHERANISM is named after him.

 Early Life

Luther, the son of a Saxon miner, was born at Eisleben on Nov. 10, 1483 and was name after Saint Martin since Luther was baptised on the feast day of St. Martin. He  entered the University of Erfurt when he was 18 years old. After graduation  he began to study law in 1505. In July of that year, however, he narrowly  escaped death in a thunderstorm and vowed to become a monk. He entered the monastery of the Augustinian Hermits at Erfurt, where he was ordained in 1507. The following year he was sent to Wittenberg, where he continued his studies and lectured in moral philosophy. In 1511 he received his doctorate in theology and an appointment as professor of Scripture, which he held for the rest of his life. Luther visited Rome in 1510 on business for his order and was shocked to find corruption in high ecclesiastical places. He was well acquainted with the scholastic theology of his day, but he made the study of the Bible, especially the epistles of Saint Paul the center of his work. Luther found that his teachings diverged increasingly from the traditional beliefs of the Roman church. His studies had led him to the conclusion that Christ was the sole mediator between God and man and that forgiveness of sin and salvation are effected by God’s GRACE alone and are received by faith alone on the part of man. This point of view turned him against scholastic THEOLOGY, which had emphasized man’s role in his own salvation, and against many church practices that emphasized justification by good works. His approach to theology soon led to a clash between Luther and church officials, precipitating the dramatic events of the Reformation.

 Dispute over Indulgences

The doctrine of INDULGENCES, with its mechanical view of sin and repentance, aroused Luther’s indignation. The sale by the church of indulgences the remission of temporal punishments for sins committed and confessed to apriest brought in much revenue. The archbishop of Mainz, Albert of Brandenburg, sponsored such a sale in 1517 to pay the pope for his appointment to Mainz and for the construction of Saint Peter’s in Rome. He selected Johann TETZEL, a Dominican friar, to preach the indulgences and collect the revenues. When Tetzel arrived in Saxony, Luther posted his famous 95 theses on the door of the castle church at Wittenberg on Oct. 31, 1517. Although some of the theses directly criticized papal policies, they were put forward as tentative objections for discussion.

 Copies of the 95 theses were quickly spread throughout Europe and unleashed a storm of controversy. During 1518 and 1519, Luther defended his theology before his fellow Augustinians and publicly debated in Leipzig with the theologian Johann ECK, who had condemned the ideas of Luther. Meanwhile, Church officials acted against him. The Saxon Dominican provincial charged him with heresy, and he was summoned to appear in Augsburg before the papal legate, Cardinal CAJETAN. Refusing to recant, he fled to Wittenberg, seeking the protection of the elector FREDERICK III of Saxony. When the Wittenberg faculty sent a letter to Frederick declaring its solidarity with Luther, the elector refused to send Luther to Rome where he would certainly meet imprisonment or death.


In 1520, Luther completed three celebrated works in which he stated his views. In his Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, he invited the German princes to take the reform of the church into their own hands; in A Prelude Concerning the Babylonian Captivity of the Church  he attacked the papacy, and in On the Freedom of Christian Man he stated his position justification and good works. The bull of Pope LEO X Exsurge Domine, issued on June 15 that same year, gave Luther 60 days to recant, and Decet Romanurn Pontificem of Jan. 3, 1521, excommunicated him.

 Summoned before Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms in April 1527, Luther again refused to recant and was put under the ban of the empire. He took refuge in the Wartburg castle, where he lived in seclusion for eight months. During that time he translated the New Testament into German and wrote a number of pamphlets. In March 1522 he returned to Wittenberg to restore order against enthusiastic iconoclasts who were destroying altars, images, and crucifixes. His reforming work during subsequent years included the writing of the Small and Large Catechisms, sermon books, more than a dozen hymns, over 700 volumes of tracts, treatises, biblical commentaries, thousands of letters, and the translation of the Whole Bible into German. With Philipp MELANCHTHON and others, Luther organized the Evangelical churches in the German territories whose princes supported him. He abolished many traditional practices including confession and private mass. Priests married; convents and monasteries were abandoned. These were difficult times. Luther lost some popular support when he urged suppression of the Knights’ Revolt (1522) and the PEASANTS’ WAR (1524-26); his failure to reach doctrinal accord with Ulrich ZWINGLI on the nature of the EUCHARIST (1529) split the Reform movement. Nonetheless, Luther found personal solace in his marriage (1525) to a former Cistercian nun Katherina yon Bora; they raised six children.

 At Worms, Luther had stood alone. When the Evangelicals presented the AUGSBURG CONFESSION to Charles V and the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, many theologians, princes, and city councils subscribed to that classic Protestant statement of faith. By the time of Luther’s death, a large part of northern Europe had left the Roman Catholic church for new Evangelical communities. Late in 1545, Luther was asked to arbitrate a dispute in Eisleben; despite the icy winter weather, he traveled there. The quarrel was settled on Feb. 17, 1546, but the strain had been very great and Luther died the next day.

 Luther left behind a movement that quickly spread throughout the Western world. His doctrines, especially justification by faith and the final authority of the Bible, were adopted by other reformers and are shared by many Protestant denominations today. As the founder of the 16th-century Reformation, he is one of the major figures of Christianity and of Western civilization. 

 Author Lewis W. Spitz


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Copyright 1995 by Grolier Electronic Publishing, Inc.