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Martin Luther
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Martin Luther

For other people named Martin Luther see: Martin Luther (disambiguation)

Martin Luther (November 10, 1483 - February 18, 1546) was a German theologian of the Christian religion and an Augustinian monk whose teachings inspired the Protestant Reformation and deeply influenced the doctrines of Protestant and other Christian traditions (a broad movement composed of many congregations and church bodies). His call to the Church to return to the teachings of the Bible resulted in the formation of new traditions within Christianity and the Counter-Reformation in the Roman Catholic Church, culminating at the Council of Trent.

Luther made contributions in fields beyond religion. His translation of the Bible helped to develop a standard version of the German language and added several principles to the art of translation. Luther's hymns sparked the development of congregational singing in Christianity. His marriage on June 13, 1525 to Katharina von Bora, a former nun, began the tradition of clerical marriage within several Christian traditions.

Table of contents
1 Luther's early life
2 Luther's struggle to find peace with God
3 Luther's discovery of grace
4 The indulgence controversy
5 Response of the Papacy
6 Diet of Worms
7 Exile at the Wartburg Castle
8 The Peasants' War
9 Luther's German Bible
10 The Small and Large Catechisms
11 Luther's writings
12 Martin Luther and Judaism
13 Luther's death
14 See also
15 Bibliography
16 External Links

Luther's early life

Martin Luther was born to Hans and Margaretha Luder on 10 November 1483 in Eisleben, Germany and was baptised on the feast day of St. Martin of Tours, after whom he was named. His father owned a copper mine in nearby Mansfeld. Having risen from the peasantry, his father was determined to see his son ascend to civil service and bring further honor to the family. To that end, Hans sent young Martin to schools in Mansfeld, Magdeburg and Eisenach.

At the age of seventeen in 1501 he entered the University of Erfurt. The young student received a Bachelor's degree in 1502 and a Master's degree in 1505. According to his father's wishes, Martin enrolled in the law school of that university.

All that changed during a thunderstorm in the summer of 1505. A lightning bolt struck near to him as he was returning to school. Terrified, he cried out, "Help, St. Anne! I'll become a monk!" [Brecht, vol. 1, p. 48]. Spared of his life, but regretting his words, Luther kept his bargain, dropped out of law school and entered the monastery there.

Luther's struggle to find peace with God

Young Brother Martin fully dedicated himself to monastic life, the effort to do good works to please God and to serve others through prayer for their souls. Yet peace with God escaped him. He devoted himself to fasts, flagellations, long hours in prayer and pilgrimage, and constant confession. The more he tried to do for God, it seemed, the more aware he became of his sinfulness.

Johann von Staupitz, Luther's superior, concluded the young man needed more work to distract him from excessive rumination. He ordered the monk to pursue an academic career. In 1507 Luther was ordained to the priesthood. In 1508 he began teaching theology at the University of Wittenberg. Luther earned his Bachelor's degree in Biblical Studies on 9 March 1508 and a Bachelor's degree in the Sentences by Peter Lombard, (the main textbook of theology in the Middle Ages) in 1509 [Brecht, Vol. 1, p. 93]. On 19 October 1512, the University of Wittenberg conferred upon Martin Luther the degree of Doctor of Theology [Brecht, Vol. 1, pp. 126-27].

Luther's discovery of grace

The demands of study for academic degrees and preparation for delivering lectures drove Martin Luther to study the Scriptures in depth. Heeding the call of humanism ad fontes -- "To the source" -- the professor immersed himself in the teachings of the Scripture and the early church. Luther recounted that his great breakthrough came in 1513, as he was lecturing on the Psalms at Wittenberg. He realized that the phrase "justice of God" in Rom 1:17 did not mean active justice, that by which God is just and sinners unjust, but passive justice, that by which God makes sinners just. Terms like penance and righteousness took on new meaning. Soon, Luther's study of the Bible convinced him that the Church had lost sight of several central truths. To Luther, the most important of these was the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

With joy, Luther now believed and taught that salvation is a gift of God's grace, received by faith and trust in God's promise to forgive sins for the sake of Christ's death on the cross. This, he believed was God's work from beginning to end.

The indulgence controversy

Luther's first break with the papal hierarchy came in 1517, over the selling of indulgences. Luther hated the practice, since he believed that indulgences did nothing to save souls and only lined the pockets of the clergy. Albert of Brandenburg wanted the title of Archbishop of Mainz, so he struck a bargain with Pope Leo X: Albert would pay him for the empty see using money from the sale of a special, plenary indulgence, and the remainder would go to Leo X for the construction of St. Peter's Basilica. The Dominican friar Johann Tetzel was enlisted to sell the indulgences. Luther's parishoners began travelling to Tetzel to buy indulgences. Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony and Luther's prince, planned to buy an indulgence on All Saints' Day in Wittenberg itself. To forestall him, on October 31st Luther preached a sermon against indulgences and nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the castle church for debate. The Theses condemn the selling of indulgences as an abuse and ask for a theological disputation. Soon they were widely copied and printed; within two weeks they spread throughout Germany, and within two months throughout Europe.

The tradition that Luther nailed the theses to the door of the castle church has recently been criticized; instead he is said to have sent them to the Archbishop of Mainz in Latin as well as a few friends, who eventually translated them and contributed to their wider distribution.

Response of the Papacy

After disregarding Luther as "a drunken German who wrote the Theses; when sober he will change his mind," Pope Leo X ordered the Dominican professor of theology, Silvester Mazzolini, called from his birthplace Prierio or Prierias (also Prieras), in 1518, to inquire into the matter. Prierias recognised Luther's dangerous potential, declared him a heretic and wrote a scholastic refutation of the Theses. It asserted papal authority over the Catholic church, and denounced every departure from it as a heresy. Luther replied in kind and a controversy developed, which widened the breach between Luther and the papacy.

Johann Eck would claim that he had forced Luther to admit the similarity between Luther's doctrine and that of John Huss, who had been burned at the stake. On June 15, 1520, excommunicated Martin Luther with the bull Exsurge Domine. On December 10, Luther burned the bull in public at Wittenberg.

Diet of Worms

Emperor Charles V opened the imperial Diet of Worms on 22 January, 1521. Luther was summoned to renounce or reaffirm his views and was given an imperial guarantee of safe-conduct to ensure his safe passage. When he appeared before the assembly on 16 April, Johann Eck, an assistant of Archbishop of Trier, acted as spokesman for the Emperor. [Bainton, p. 141]. He presented Luther with a table filled with copies of his writings. Eck asked Luther if the books were his and if he still believed what these works taught. Luther requested time to think about his answer. It was granted.

Luther prayed, consulted with friends and mediators and presented himself before the Diet the next day. When the counselor put the same questions to Luther, he said: "They are all mine, but as for the second question, they are not all of one sort." Luther went on to say that some of the works were well received by even his enemies. These he would not reject.

A second class of the books attacked the abuses, lies and desolation of the Christian world. These, Luther believed, could not safely be rejected without encouraging abuses to continue.

The third group contained attacks on individuals. He apologized for the harsh tone of these writings, but did not reject the substance of what he taught in them. If he could be shown from the Scriptures that he was in error, Luther continued, he would reject them. Otherwise, he could not do so safely without encouraging abuse.

Counsellor Eck, after countering that Luther had no right to teach contrary to the Church through the ages, asked Luther to plainly answer the question: Would Luther reject his books and the errors they contain?

Luther replied: "Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason — I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other — my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe."

According to tradition, Luther is then said to have spoken these words: "Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen." [Bainton, pp. 142-144].

Private conferences were held to determine Luther's fate. Before a decision was reached, Luther left Worms. During his return to Wittenberg, he disappeared.

The Emperor issued the Edict of Worms on May 25, 1521, declaring Martin Luther an outlaw.

Exile at the Wartburg Castle

Luther's disappearance during his return trip was planned. Frederick the Wise arranged for Luther to be seized on his way from the Diet by a company of masked horsemen, who carried him to Wartburg Castle, where he stayed for about a year. He grew a wide flaring beard, took on the garb of a knight, and assumed the pseudonym Jörg. During this period of forced sojourn in the world, Luther was still hard at work upon his celebrated translation of the Bible, though he couldn't rely on the isolation of a monastery. During his translation, Luther would make forays into the nearby towns and markets to listen to people speak, so that he could put his translation of the Bible into the language of the people.

Although his stay at Wartburg kept Luther hidden from public view, Luther often received letters from his friends and allies, asking for his views and advice. For example, Philipp Melanchthon wrote to him and asked how to answer the charge that the reformers neglected pilgrimages, fasts and other traditional forms of piety. Luther's replied: "If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2. Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign." [Letter 99.13, To Philipp Melanchthon, 1 August 1521.] [1]

The Peasants' War

The Peasants' War (1524-1525) was in many ways a response to the preaching of Luther and other reformers. Revolts by the peasantry had existed on a small scale since the 14th century, but many peasants mistakenly believed that Luther's attack on the Church and its hierarchy meant that the reformers would support an attack on the social hierarchy as well. Because of the close ties between the hereditary nobility and the princes of the Church that Luther condemned, this is not surprising. Revolts that broke out in Swabia, Franconia, and Thuringia in 1524 gained support among peasants and some disaffected nobles. Gaining momentum and a new leader in Thomas Münzer;, the revolts turned into an all-out war, the experience of which played an important role in the founding of the Anabaptist movement. Initially, Luther seemed to many to support the peasants, condemning the oppressive practices of the nobility that had incited many of the peasants. As the war continued, and especially as atrocities at the hands of the peasants increased, Luther came out forcefully against the revolt; in Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants (1525), he encouraged the nobility to visit swift and bloody punishment upon the peasants. Many of the revolutionaries considered Luther's words a betrayal. Others withdrew once they realized that there was neither support from the Church nor from its main opponent. The war in Germany ended in 1525, when rebel forces were put down by the armies of the Swabian League.

Luther's German Bible

Luther translated the New Testament into German. He used the recent critical Greek edition of Erasmus, a text which was later called textus receptus. The translation was published in 1521.

Luther had a low view of Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation, and took the liberty of criticizing them. He called the epistle of James 'an epistle of straw', and could not reconcile the epistle with his belief in justification by 'faith alone'. He also had harsh words for the book of Revelation, saying that he could 'in no way detect that the Holy Spirit produced it.'

The translation of the Old Testament followed in 1534. He chose to omit parts of the Old Testament that were found in the Greek Septuagint but not in the Hebrew Masoretic texts then available. Those parts were eventually omitted by nearly all Protestants, and are known in Protestant circles as the Apocrypha. See Biblical canon.

The Small and Large Catechisms

In 1529, Frederick asked Luther to tour the local churches to determine the quality of the peasants' Christian education. Luther wrote in the preface to the Small Catechism, "Mercy! Good God! what manifold misery I beheld! The common people, especially in the villages, have no knowledge whatever of Christian doctrine, and, alas! many pastors are altogether incapable and incompetent to teach." In response, Luther prepared the Small and Large Catechisms. They are instructional and devotional material on what Luther considered the fundamentals of the Christian faith, namely the Ten Commandments; the Apostle's Creed; the Lord's Prayer; Baptism; and the Eucharist.

The two catechisms are still popular instructional materials among Lutherans.

Luther's writings

Autograph of Martin Luther

The number of books attributed to Martin Luther is nothing short of impressive. However, some Luther scholars contend that many of the works were at least drafted by some of his good friends like Melanchthon. Luther's fame provided a much larger potential audience than his — at least as learned — friends could have obtained under their own name. His books explain the settings of the epistles and show the conformity of the books of the Bible to each other. Of special note would be his writings about the Epistle to the Galatians in which he compares himself to the Apostle Paul in his defense of the Gospel (for example the faith-building commentary in Luther and the Epistle to the Galatians). Luther also wrote about church administration and wrote much about the Christian home.

Luther's writing was very polemical, and when he was passionate about a subject he would often insult his opponents. In the preface to De Servo Arbitrio (The Bondage of the Will), a response to Erasmus's Diatribe seu collatio de libero arbitrio (Discussion, or Collation, concerning free will), Luther writes, "your book ... struck me as so worthless and poor that my heart went out to you for having defiled your lovely, brilliant flow of language with such vile stuff. I thought it outrageous to convey material of so low a quality in the trappings of such rare eloquence; it is like using gold or silver dishes to carry garden rubbish or dung."

Luther's work contains a number of statements that modern readers would consider rather crude. It should be remembered that Luther received many communications from throughout Europe from people who could write anonymously, that is, without the spectre of mass media making their communications known. No public figure today could write in the manner of the correspondences Luther received or in the way Luther responded to them. Opinions today can be immediately shared electronically with a wide audience. At least one such statement would not be heard from most modern pastors: He regularly told the Devil to kiss his posterior.

Martin Luther and Judaism

Luther initially preached tolerance towards the Jewish people, convinced that the reason they had never converted to Christianity was that they were discriminated against, or had never heard the Gospel of Christ. However, after his overtures to Jews failed to convince Jewish people to adopt Christianity, he began preaching that the Jews were set in evil, anti-Christian ways, and needed to be expelled from the German body politic. In his On the Jews and Their Lies, he repeatedly quotes the words of Jesus in Matthew 12:34, where Jesus called the Jewish religious leaders (Pharisees) of his day "a brood of vipers and children of the devil". In the book written three years before his death, he listed seven recommendations to deal with the Jews:

I shall give you my sincere advice: First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. ...
Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed. For they pursue in them the same aims as in their synagogues. Instead they might be lodged under a roof or in a barn, like the gypsies. ...
Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.
Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb. ...
Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. ...
Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them and put aside for safekeeping. ...
Seventh, I recommend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow, as was imposed on the children of Adam (Gen. 3:19). ...

In spite of these seven recommendations, he added:

... But if we are afraid that they might harm us or our wives, children, — servants, cattle, etc., if they had to serve and work for us — for it is reasonable to assume that such noble lords of the world and venomous, bitter worms are not accustomed to working and would be very reluctant to humble themselves so deeply before the accursed Goyim — then let us emulate the common sense of other nations such as France, Spain, Bohemia, etc., compute with them how much their usury has extorted from us, divide, divide this amicably, but then eject them forever from the country. For, as we have heard, God's anger with them is so intense that gentle mercy will only tend to make them worse and worse, while sharp mercy will reform them but little. Therefore, in any case, away with them!

Luther's harsh comments about the Jews are seen by many as a continuation of medieval Christian anti-Semitism, and as the above quote shows, reflects earlier anti-Semitic expulsions in the 14th century, when Jews from other countries like France and Spain were invited into Germany. When Luther writes that the Jews should be expelled from his homeland, he expresses widespread feelings of his times.

Luther was zealous toward the Gospel, and he wanted to protect the people of his homeland from the Jews who he believed would be harmful influences since they did not recognize Jesus as their Saviour. In Luther's time, parents had a right and a duty to direct their children's marriage choices in respect to matters of faith. Likewise, Luther felt a duty to direct his German people to cling to the Jesus the Jews did not accept. It should be noted that church law was superior to civil law in Luther's day and that law said the penalty of blasphemy was death. When Luther called for the deaths of Jews, he was asking that the laws that were applied to all other Germans also be applied to the Jews. Jews were exempt from the church laws that Christians were bound by, most notably the law against charging interest.

In 1983, the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod made an official statement ([1]) disassociating themselves from the Luther's anti-Semitic statements.

In 1994, the Church Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America publicly rejected the parts of Luther's writings that advocated government action against practitioners of Judaism.

Luther's death

Luther died in Eisleben, the same town where he was born, on 18 February, 1546.

"Know that no one can have indulged in the Holy Writers sufficiently, unless he has governed churches for a hundred years with the prophets, such as Elijah and Elisha, John the Baptist, Christ and the apostles ... We are beggars: this is true." [The Last Written Words of Luther][1]

See also

  1. Christianity
  2. Protestant reformation
  3. John Calvin
  4. Christianity and anti-Semitism
  5. John Huss
  6. Lutheranism
  7. Philipp Melanchthon
  8. Johann Tetzel
  9. Huldreich Zwingli



  1. Patrick F. O'Hare, Facts About Luther, Rockford, IL: Tan Books and Publishers, 1987. 356 p. ISBN 0895553228.
  2. Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: a Life of Martin Luther, New York: Penguin, 1995, c1950. 336 p. ISBN 0452011469.
  3. Martin Brecht, Martin Luther, James L. Schaaf, trans. Philadelphia : Fortress Press, c1985-1993. 3 v. ISBN 0800628136, ISBN 0800628144, ISBN 0800628152.
  4. Hans J. Hillerbrand, ed. The Reformation: A Narrative History Related by Contemporary Observers and Participants. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1979.
  5. Uwe Siemon-Netto, The Fabricated Luther: the Rise and Fall of the Shirer myth, Foreword by Peter L. Berger. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, c1995. ISBN 0570048001.
  6. Luther's Works, 55 volumes of lectures, commentaries and sermons, translated into English and published by Concordia Publishing House and Fortress Press, 1957; released on CD-ROM, 2001.


  1. 1953: Martin Luther, theatrical film, with Niall MacGinnis as Luther; directed by Irving Pichel. Academy Award nominations for black & white cinematography and art/set direction. Rereleased in 2002 on DVD in 4 langauges.
  2. 1973: Luther, theatrical film (MPAA rating: PG), with Stacy Keach as Luther.
  3. 1992: Where Luther Walked, documentary directed by Ray Christensen.
  4. 2001: Opening the Door to Luther, travelogue hosted by Rick Steves. Sponsored by the ELCA.
  5. 2002: Martin Luther, a historical film from the Lion TV/PBS Empires series, with Timothy West as Luther, narrated by Liam Neeson and directed by Cassian Harrison.
  6. 2003: Luther, theatrical release (MPAA rating: PG-13), with Joseph Fiennes as Luther and directed by Eric Till. Partially funded by American and German Lutheran groups.

External Links

Original Texts

Writings of Luther and contemporaries, translated into English
  1. Project Wittenberg archive of Lutheran documents [1]
  2. Full text of the 95 Theses[1]
  3. Full text of On The Jews And Their Lies[1]
  4. Full text of the Book of Concord[1]

Online Resources

Online information on Luther and his work
  1. KDG Wittenberg's Luther site (7 languages) [1]
  2. Luther Memorial Foundation of Saxony Anhalt (German/English) [1]
  3. Martin Luther – PBS movie [1]
  4. Luther – theatrical release [1]
  5. Martin Luther: The Reformer Travelling Exhibition [1]