Martin Luther (1483-1546)
Luther, who became the leader of the Protestant Reformation in Germany (Zwingli had been active earlier in Switzerland), was born in 1483 in Eisleben, Saxony. His father, Hans Luther, was a miner, and he wanted his son to become a lawyer, and Martin earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Erfurt University. On his way back to Erfurt in 1505 during a life-threatening thunderstorm, the frightened Luther made a vow to become a monk. He abandoned his studies, became a monk at the Augustinian Monastery at Erfurt, and was ordained as a priest in 1507.
His assignment after his ordination was to return to university, this time in Wittenberg, to study theology, and he earned a bachelor’s degree in biblical studies in 1509 and received a doctorate in theology in 1512. He then was appointed professor of biblical exegesis at in the theology faculty of Wittenberg University, where he would stay for the rest of his career.
During Luther’s early career, including a disappointing trip to Rome in 1510 but especially during exegetical study of the Bible—most notably Romans 1:17—Luther developed a theology of justification by faith, that human beings could not become righteous through their own efforts; it only came about because of the grace of God: Righteousness is God’s free gift to sinners through the righteousness imputed by Jesus that is not merited but given through faith (and faith alone).
The decisive event that inaugurated the Lutheran Reformation occurred on October 31, 1517, when, as later documents claim, Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses on the door of the castle church of Wittenberg. The immediate catalyst for the 95 Theses was the preaching of Johann Tetzel about indulgences, the practice of the Roman Catholic Church to remit the penalty for sins—past present and future—for the payment of money, in this case, the indulgences were on behalf of Pope Leo X (and Albert of Mainz) for the restoration of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Tetzel declared, for example, that payment of indulgences resulted in souls being immediately released from purgatory. Luther’s 95 Theses denounced this practice and other practices of the Church, including the authority of the pope. Scripture alone (sola scriptura) is the true authority, not the pope or church councils or the church itself (e.g., Luther points to Abraham’s words to the rich man in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus; Luke 16:29-31; LW 1955 52:172). The 95 Theses created a firestorm throughout Germany, and, in 1520, Pope Leo X excommunicated Luther.
Luther refused to recant (e.g., at the Diet of Worms), but he survived because Frederick the Wise of Saxony (and others) protected him. Luther then embarked upon an ambitious number of writings that served as the foundation for a reform of the theology and practice of the church in Germany, including a translation of the Bible in German (the New Testament in 1522, and the Hebrew Bible in 1534) and such calls for reform as in the treatises On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, and On Christian Freedom, all three of which were written in 1520, the same year Luther was excommunicated. Luther continued to write prolifically, and his works included treatises, catechisms, hymns (e.g., A Might Fortress is Our God), sermons, commentaries on the Bible, and other works.
The next post will discuss Luther’s fascinating journey from allegorical interpretation of Scripture to (primarily) non-allegorical.
A personal note: Today would have been my brother Gary’s 61st birthday. This post is in his honor/memory. Gary would have enjoyed a Stammtisch and theological discussion with Martin Luther!