- Luther, Martin
- ( 14 8 3-1546 )founder of the Protestant ReformationBy his 1517 appeal for debate on a set of issues faced by the Roman Catholic community in Germany, Augustinian monk Martin Luther inadvertently launched what would become Protestantism. His polemical and organizational talents enabled him to defy the powerful Roman Catholic Church and revolutionize the religious life of Europe and later on, the lives of millions of people around the world.Luther was born on November 10, 1483, in Eisenben. He attended schools in Mansfield, Magdeburg, and Eisennach. In 1505, he earned his M.A. degree at the University of Erfurt, then entered the Augustinian order. As a monk, he continued his education and was ordained a priest in 1507. His superiors recognized his abilities and sent him to Wittenberg to prepare himself for a professorial career. He earned his bachelor's degree in theology in 1509 and a doctorate in 1512.As a lecturer at the University of Wittenberg, in Saxony, he focused his teaching on the biblical book of Psalms (1513-15). He came to believe that salvation was best described as a new relationship with God, based upon faith in Christ and not upon any deeds of merit done by the individual. The individual, a sinner and hence undeserving of God's love, was nevertheless redeemed; out of that new relationship he tried to live a life in conformity to God's will. This new theological insight, combined with his continued study of the Bible, especially Paul's letter to the Romans, led to a personal experience of salvation, which he came to understand derived from God's forgiveness of his sin, which he received by faith alone.Luther's personal experience of salvation and his new theological insights soon thrust him into the middle of public controversy. Johann Tetzel (1465-1519), a Dominican monk, had arrived in Saxony to sell indulgences to raise funds for the erection of St. Peter's in Rome. The church in Luther's day believed that most people would have to spend some time after death in purgatory to atone for their sins through pain and suffering. Acts of goodness and piety by individuals in this life, however, cleansed one of sin and hence shortened time in purgatory. in addition, the church could grant "indulgences" or pardons that could reduce or even eliminate the time in purgatory, for oneself or for a loved one. Tetzel offered an indulgence to any church member in Saxony who contributed to St. Peter's. Luther saw the practice as a rejection of God's gracious act of granting salvation to the sinner.Luther decided to raise the issue by calling for a public debate on the issue of indulgences, and on a set of additional topics, all of which grew out of his recent theological reflections. These issues were reduced to Ninety-five Theses (debating points); legend has it that a copy was nailed to the door of the church at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. Tetzel proposed a set of countertheses. Their actions led to a debate between Luther and another theologian, Johann Eck (1486-1543), in Leipzig in 1519. Luther invoked the authority of the Bible over the assertions of popes and the rulings of church councils, since the latter can err and have erred.Luther was declared a heretic and excommunicated. However, he was protected from the power of the church by the authority of Frederick, the elector of Saxony. Frederick was protective of his university and its faculty, and he also opposed the movement of large sums of Saxon money to Rome. Luther used the time to produce three famous essays, all published in 1520, in which he expanded his thoughts. In Appeal to the German Nobility, he developed his understanding of the priesthood of all believers, an approach to church life that stripped some authority from parish priests (and which later came to be interpreted quite radically by some of Luther's followers). In Babylonian Captivity of the Church he opined upon the church's sacramental system. He argued that there were only two sacraments, baptism and the Lord's Supper, not seven as was commonly believed. He also argued that the cup of wine representing the blood of Christ should be given to all believers, not just to the clergy. Luther called the withholding of the cup from the laity the imprisonment of the Lord's Supper. He laid out his understanding of faith in God, salvation, and the Christian life in The Freedom of the Christian Man.The broad circulation of Luther's ideas and essays led the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, the confederation of German states, to summon Luther to a meeting of the Diet of Worms, its governing body. Luther justified his position with an appeal to the Bible and to reason, but the diet rejected his approach and condemned him. However, by this time he had won significant support across northern Germany. With the protection of the civil authorities, Luther and his colleagues began to produce additional materials supporting his new perspective. This included a theological text written by Wittenberg colleague Philip Melancthon (1521), Luther's translation of the New Testament into German (1522), and a hymnal that included a number of hymns written by Luther (1524).The progress of the Reformation was threatened when peasants in southern Germany rose up to protest their situation in life; they hoped to win support from Luther, thanks to his advocacy of the priesthood of all believers and the freedom of the Christian. However, even as Luther attempted to arbitrate their grievances, some of the peasants turned violent, and Luther turned against them. On May 15, 1525, 50,000 of them were massacred following their defeat in a battle at Frankenhausen.Luther took a major personal step on June 13, 1525, when he put aside his monk's robes and married Catherine von Bora, thus signaling an end to clerical celibacy. The development of a uniquely Lutheran church occurred in the mid-1520s; the older Roman Catholic dioceses were dismantled and new church bodies established, bounded by the current borders of the many German states. For these churches Luther prepared the Longer and the Shorter Catechisms, the latter being the most used.At this time, Luther came into conflict with the leader of the Reformation in Switzerland, Ulrich Zwingli. While agreeing on most issues, such as salvation by faith and the sole authority of the Bible, the two leaders sharply diverged on the issue of the Lord's Supper. Zwingli regarded the Lord's Supper as primarily a memorial meal, while Luther affirmed the real presence of Christ in the sacraments, a position he termed consubstantia-tion. Zwingli and Luther met at Marburg in 1529 in an attempt to work out their differences and unite all of the Reformation adherents, but the Marburg Colloquy failed.The failure at Marburg led directly to the Augsburg Confession of Faith, the statement of faith of the Lutheran princes that was presented to the diet in 1530. The confession is often seen as the culmination of the first phase of the Reformation. Luther lived another 16 years, much of it devoted to writing, even as his colleagues took the lead in the ongoing battles with Catholic forces. From 1533 to his death in 1546, he served as dean of the theology faculty at Wittenberg.During this period, Luther completed the German translation of the whole Bible (1534), and compiled the confessional statement known as the Schmalkald Articles (1537). He continued to engage those who opposed the Reformation with polemic writings. He wrote Jews and their Lies in 1543, an attack upon the Jewish community that many have considered anti-Semitic; Short Confession Concerning the Lord's Supper (1544); and his final attack on Roman Catholic authority, Against the Papacy at Rome Founded by the Devil (1545).in January 1546, Luther traveled to Eisleben in what proved a vain attempt to settle a local dispute. While there, his health deteriorated. unable to return to Wittenberg, he died at Eisenben on February 18, 1546.Further reading:■ Luther's Works (LW), ed. by Jaroslav Pelikan and H. T. Lehmann (Philadelphia/St. Louis: Fortress Press/Concordia, 1955-86) 55 vols■ Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1950)■ Bernhard Lohse, Martin Luther: An Introduction to His Life and Work, trans. by Robert C. Schultz (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986).
Encyclopedia of Protestantism. Gordon Melton. 2005.