Martin Luther (1483-1546) was an Augustinian monk, priest and a Christian theologian whose teachings became a great inspiration to the Protestant Reformation and deeply influenced the canons of Protestants and other Christian beliefs (Bainton, 1995). He strongly disagreed with the assertion that money could purchase liberty from God’s punishment for sinning. Luther’s refusal to heed to the demands of Pope Leo X’s demand in 1520, as well as, Emperor Charles V in 1521 (at the Diet of Worms) to withdraw all his writings, led to his excommunication by the Pope and condemnation by the Emperor as an outlaw (Bainton, 1995). According to Luther’s teachings, salvation is a gift of the grace of God through believing in Jesus Christ as the savior from sin, and cannot be earned via performing charitable deeds as many people believed during his time. Luther’s theology defied the Pope’s authority by teaching people that the bible was the only source of divine knowledge, as opposed to the sacerdotalism, which regarded all baptized Christians as a holy priesthood (Bainton, 1995). Thus, those who accepted and identified with his teachings were called Lutherans.
Luther’s translation of the Bible in the vernacular German language made it more reachable and readable, thus tremendously impacting the German culture, as well as the church. He helped promote the development of a standard version of German as a language, added numerous principles to translation, as well as influencing King James Bible’s translation to English (Bainton, 1995). Luther’s hymns also became a strong influence to the development of singing within several churches. This paper looks at the main events in Martin Luther’s life.
Martin Luther was born on November 10, 1483 in Eisleben, Germany by Hans Luder and Margarethe (Hendrix, 2011). On 11th November 1483, Luther was baptized as a Catholic during St. Martin of Tours’ feast day. In 1484, his family relocated to Mansfeld where his father became a leaseholder of a copper mine and a representative of the local council. Luther had numerous brothers and sisters, but it is reported that Luther was extremely close to Jacob, his brother (Hendrix, 2011). His father was a highly ambitious man, who worked very hard, to give his family a decent life, as well as to enroll Luther, who was his eldest son, in law school. In 1498, Hans sent Luther to Latin schools within Mansfeld, as well as Magdeburg, and the three schools which Luther went to mainly focused on logic, grammar and rhetoric. To Luther, his education in those schools was comparable to hell and purgatory (Hendrix, 2011). In 1501, when he was nineteen, Luther joined University of Erfurt, but he later described the University as a whorehouse and a beerhouse. Their schedule necessitated waking up at 4.00 am every morning for rote learning and spiritual exercises (Hendrix, 2011). In 1505, he graduated with a master’s degree. In line with his father’s desires, Luther enrolled in law school the same year at the same university, but he dropped out shortly after because he believed that law represented uncertainty (Hendrix, 2011).
Amidst his search for assurances regarding life, he was drawn to philosophy and theology, and he expressed interests in Gabriel Biel, Aristotle, as well as William of Ockham. Tutors Jodocus Trutfetter and Bartholomaeus Arnoldi had a considerable influence on Luther; they taught him to test all things himself through experience and to be suspicious of influential thinkers (Hendrix, 2011). Luther considered the love for God very important, but since philosophy only offered assurance on the use of reason, it became unsatisfying to him. According to him, the reason could not guide men to God, and consequently, his relationship with Aristotle became sour over his emphasis on reason (Hendrix, 2011). Luther stated that reason could be utilized to question institutions and men, but not God. According to Luther, learning about God was only via His divine revelation, and; therefore, the Scriptures became increasingly vital to him. Later on, when lightning and thunderstorm struck him along the way to the University from home, he became frightened of death and divine judgment, and cried out for help from Saint Anna, promising to become a monk. His promise became a vow that he had to keep, and consequently, he left law school and joined Augustinian friary in Erfurt in 1505 (Hendrix, 2011). Luther’s father got terribly furious over his son’s move, which he saw as a waste of education.
Monastic and Academic Life
Luther devoted himself to the monastic life, fasting, pilgrimage, regular confession and long hours of prayer (Marty, 2008). He is cited to have said that if people would enter heaven as monks, then he would have been among them. To Luther, his monastic life was one of profound spiritual despair, as he lost touch with Jesus Christ. Johann von Staupitz, Luther’s superior, came to a conclusion that Luther required more work in order to distract him from extreme introspection, and consequently gave him an order to pursue an academic career (Marty, 2008). Luther was ordained as a priest in 1507 and started teaching theology at Wittenberg University in 1508. He received two Bachelor’s degrees: one in Biblical studies and another in Sentences, in 1508 and 1509 respectively (Marty, 2008). Luther became a Doctor of Theology on 19th October 1512 and was received into the University of Wittenberg’s senate of the theological faculty three days later. He spent the rest of his career life at the University of Wittenberg serving as Doctor of the Bible (Marty, 2008).
The Commencement of the Protestant Reformation
In 1516, the Roman Catholic Church sent Johann Tietze (a Dominican friar) to Germany to sell indulgences so as to raise cash to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica situated in Rome (Linder, 2008). According to Roman Catholic theology, faith alone cannot justify men; but instead, man’s justification is dependent on faith that is accompanied by charity and charitable works (Linder, 2008). The benefits of good deeds could be obtained via contributing money to the church. Luther wrote a letter to Albert of Mainz (his bishop) on 31st October 1517 to protest the sale of the indulgences, enclosing a copy of The Ninety-Five Theses (Linder, 2008). According to Hans Hillerbrand, Luther had no intention of confronting the church, but his disputation was a scholarly protest to church practices. He, however, noted that there was an undercurrent of challenge in numerous Theses of Luther, especially Thesis 86, which questioned why the Pope used the money of poor believers to construct Basilica of St. Peter, as opposed to his own money yet he was immensely rich (Linder, 2008). Luther strongly opposed the Johann Tetzel’s saying that a soul from the purgatory springs the moment the coin rings in the coffer. He maintained that people who argued that indulgences absolved buyers from God’s punishment and granted them salvation were wrong, because only God could grant forgiveness (Linder, 2008). He encouraged Christians not to relax in following Christ due to such false promises. Nonetheless, Tetzel’s saying was in no way a representation of the Catholic teachings on indulgences, but, his own exaggeration. According to Linda (2008), even if he overstated the matter on indulgences for the departed, his teachings regarding indulgences for the living were true.
It was not until 1518 in January when Luther’s friends translated the 95 Theses which were written in Latin to German, after which they printed and made several copies of the theses. Within a period of two weeks, numerous copies had been spread all over Germany, and in just two months, the whole of Europe was aware of the contents of the 95 Theses (Linder, 2008). The writings of Luther circulated extensively, reaching as far as England, Italy and France, as early as 1519. Countless students thronged Wittenberg to listen to Luther’s speeches and lectures (Linder, 2008).
Luther’s Teachings on Justification by Faith
Between 1510 and 1520, Luther lectured on the books of Psalms, Romans, Hebrews and Galatians (Bayer, 2008). His view of terms like penance and righteousness, frequently used by the Catholic Church changed as he continued to study these books. He became certain that the church had lost sight of the truths of Christianity. Of great importance to Luther, was the principle of justification, which is the act of God of declaring sinners righteous, by faith alone through His grace (Bayer, 2008). Consequently, Luther started teaching about salvation as God’s gift achievable only via faith in Jesus Christ (Bayer, 2008). He came to comprehend justification as completely the work of God, and wrote that justification is the key article of the entire Christian doctrine. This teaching was evidently expressed in his book, On the Bondage of the Will, which was published in 1525 as a reaction to Desiderius Erasmus’s On Free Will (Bayer, 2008). Luther based his point on the book of Ephesians 2:8-10. In contrast to the teachings that believers’ virtuous acts are carried out in collaboration with God, Luther wrote that Christians obtained righteousness wholly from outside themselves i.e. that righteousness comes from Jesus Christ by faith, and that is why only faith makes one just and fulfilled in the law (Bayer, 2008). To Luther, faith was a gift from God, and he compared his experience of justification by faith with being born again.
Luther’s Opposition of the Papacy
Luther’s letter enclosing the 95 Theses was not replied by Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz and Magdeburg. Instead, he had it checked for heresy and forwarded them to Rome in December 1517 (Biesinger, 2006). He wanted the proceeds from the indulgences to induce a papal allowance for his tenure of over one bishopric. As noted by Luther later on, the pope had one finger in the pie, as a half of the indulgence was to be used in constructing St Peter’s Church in Rome (Biesinger, 2006). In subsequent three years, Pope Leo X deployed numerous papal envoys and theologians against Luther, but they only served to harden Luther’s anti-papal theology. Initially, Sylvester Mazzolini, the Dominican theologian, wrote a heresy case against Luther, which led to his summoning to Rome by Leo (Biesinger, 2006). Frederick, the Elector, convinced the pope to have Luther’s examination at Augsburg, the place where the Imperial Diet was carried out. In October 1518, Luther told Cardinal Cajetan, the papal legate, that he did not regard the papacy as part of the biblical church and that the hearings deteriorated into a shouting contest (Biesinger, 2006). Following his confrontation of the church, Luther became an enemy of the pope. Cajetan’s initial instructions were to arrest Luther if he did not recant, but did not have the means of doing so in Augsburg since; the Elector assured Luther’s security (Biesinger, 2006). Consequently, Luther was able to get out of the city at the night with no permission from Cajetan (Biesinger, 2006).
At Altenburg, in Saxony, in January 1519, Luther made some concessions to the Saxon and promised to stay silent on condition that his opponent did the same. However, Johann Eck, a theologian, was significantly determined to reveal Luther’s doctrine in an open forum (Biesinger, 2006). His determination saw him stage a debate with Andreas Karlstadt, Luther’s colleague, and invited Luther for a speech. Luther stated in the debate that Matthew 16:18 do not give popes the exclusive right to interpret the scriptures and; therefore, both the pope and the church councils were not infallible. As a result, Luther was branded a heretic and Johann Eck devoted himself to see to it that Luther was defeated (Biesinger, 2006).
On 15th June 1520, Luther was warned by the pope via the papal bull Exsurge Domine, of the risk of being excommunicated unless he renounced, within a period of sixty days, the forty one sentences drawn from his writing, together with the 95 Theses (Bainton, 1995). Johann Eck announced the bull publicly in Meissen, as well as other towns during autumn. Luther, however, set the bull and the decretals at Wittenberg on fire in December 1520, and consequently, Pope Leo X, excommunicated him on 3rd January 1521, through the bull titled, Decet Romanum Pontificem (Bainton, 1995).
Diet of Worms
The secular authorities were charged with executing the outlaw on the 95 Theses. On 18th April 1521, Luther appeared before the Diet of Worms as he had been ordered (Bainton, 1995). The Diet was a general meeting of the Holy Roman Empire’s estates, which occurred in Worms between January 28 and May 25, being presided over by Emperor Charles V. Prince Frederick III, who was the Elector of Saxony, managed to obtain a safe conduct for Luther’s travel to and from the assembly (Bainton, 1995). Johann Eck, standing for the Empire, presented copies of Luther’s writings on the table and asked him whether the books were his and whether he supported their contents (Bainton, 1995). Luther answered immediately that he authored the books, but asked for some time, to think about his answer to the next question. After prayer and consultations with friends, he responded the following day saying that he could not recant his writings since his conscience was captive to God’s Word, and he could not go against it. He then asked God to help him (Bainton, 1995).
Over the subsequent 5 days, secretive conferences were held to verify Luther’s fate. On 25th May 1521, a concluding draft of the Diet of Worms was presented by the Emperor, which declared Luther as an outlaw, banned his literature, and required his arrest (Bainton, 1995). The draft also made it a criminal offense for any person in Germany to provide food or shelter to Luther. It also allowed Luther’s murder by anyone without legal consequence (Bainton, 1995).
At Wartburg Castle
According to Somervill (2006), Frederick III had planned Luther’s disappearance in his return trip. He had masked horsemen intercept Luther on his journey home and escort him to the Wartburg Castle’s security at Eisenach. Throughout his stay in Wartburg, Luther was called, my Patmos. He took part in translating the Greek New Testament to German, as well as pouring out polemical and doctrinal writings. His writings comprised of a new attack on Archbishop Albrecht, whom he embarrassed into stopping the sale of indulgences (Somervill, 2006).
In his works, Luther argued that all charitable works that are designed to attract the favor of God are sins. He stated that all men are sinners by nature and that only God’s grace (which cannot be earned), can make men just. In 1521, Luther broadened his target from pilgrimages and indulgences to doctrines at the core of church practices (Somervill, 2006). In his book titled; On the Abrogation of the Private Mass, Luther condemned the notion that mass is a sacrifice, and asserted that, it is a gift that ought to be accepted by the entire congregation with thanksgiving (Somervill, 2006). In his essay titled; On Confession, Whether the Pope has the Power to Require It, Luther refuted obligatory confession and instead, encouraged secretive confession and absolution because all Christians are confessors (Somervill, 2006).
Luther made his declarations from Wartburg, following the speedy developments at Wittenberg, which he was fully aware of. In June 1521, Andreas Karlstadt, in conjunction with Gabriel Zwilling, initiated a radical reform programme that was more than anything envisaged by Luther (Somervill, 2006). The reforms aggravated disturbances, as well as a revolution by the Augustinian monks in opposition to their past. They smashed images and statues in churches and denounced their magistracy. Luther secretly visited Wittenberg at the beginning of December 1521 (Somervill, 2006). Accordingly, Wittenberg became more unstable after Christmas, especially with the preaching of revolutionary doctrines like Christ’s forthcoming return, equality of man etc, by the visionary zealots. Wittenberg’s town council became aware of Luther’s presence and asked him to return, which he did (Somervill, 2006).
Translation of the Bible
In 1522, Luther published the New Testament, which he had translated in Germany. Together with his collaborators, he finished translating the Old Testament in 1534 and consequently, published the entire Bible in Germany in the same year (Ozment, 2005). Luther continuously refined the translation until he died. It is vital to mention that others translated the Bible into German language; however, Luther customized his translation to suit his own doctrine. The translation of Luther employed the variant of German, which was conversed at the Saxon chancellery, comprehensible, to both Southern and Northern Germans (Ozment, 2005). His energetic, direct language was intended to make the Bible reachable to all Germans. Luther’s publication of the Bible came at a time of growing demand for publication in the German language, and as a result, Luther’s version of the Bible, rapidly became an influential and popular Bible translation (Ozment, 2005). By itself, it made a considerable contribution to the development of the German literature and language as a whole. The bible was furnished with Luther’s prefaces and notes, as well as Lucas Cranach’s woodcuts that had anti-papal imagery (Ozment, 2005). Luther’s version of the Bible, not only became significant in spreading his doctrines all over Germany, but also impacted other vernacular translations like the English Bible by William Tyndale (Ozment, 2005).
Final Years and Death
Luther suffered from ill health for many years from diseases such as vertigo, fainting, as well as a cataract in one of his eyes. Between 1531 and 1546, Luther’s health worsened further (Hendrix, 2011). It is suspected that his struggle with Rome for numerous years, as well as his rivalry with fellow reformers, played a key role to his poor health. He started suffering from bladder and kidney stones, in addition to arthritis in 1536 (Hendrix, 2011). In 1544, he started feeling the effects of angina. His deteriorating physical health caused him to be quick-tempered and harsh in his comments and writings. Luther delivered his concluding sermon at Eisleben on 15th February 1546, just three days prior to his death (Hendrix, 2011). According to James Mackinnon, Luther’s summon was aimed at expelling Jews from the German territory unless they refrained from their usury and turned into Christians. Luther took a final journey Mansfeld due to his concern for the families of his siblings who continued to work in their father’s copper mining trade (Hendrix, 2011). This is because Count Albrecht of Mansfeld was threatening their livelihoods by trying to control the industry. Luther travelled to Mansfeld two times towards the end of 1545 to take part in the negotiations for an agreement. The third meeting that concluded the negotiations took place on 17th February 1546 and was successful (Hendrix, 2011). However, Luther started experiencing chest pains after 8.00pm the same day; the chest pains, which increased further at 1.00 am. His companions, Michael Coelius and Justus Jonas who were with him at the time, asked whether Luther was ready to die trusting God, and he agreed. At 2.45 am, he suffered from stroke and died a few minutes afterwards, at the age of sixty two years (Hendrix, 2011). He was buried inside the Castle Church (Wittenberg) underneath the pulpit. Despite his demise several years ago, Martin Luther is still viewed by many people around the world as the father of reformation.