MARTIN LUTHER 
1483-1536
 

 Luther Cranach, 1526


The Following is adapted from: The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. Cross, Livingstone; (OUP, 1983).


MARTIN LUTHER, founder of the German Reformation. The son of a miner at Mansfeld in Saxony,

he was educated at Magdeburg and Eisenbach, and then at Erfurt University (1501–5). His studies in the faculty of arts brought him under the influence of leading Nominalists such as Jodocus Trutvetter and Bartholomäus Arnoldi of Usingen.

In 1505 (age 22) he entered the monastery of the Augustinian Hermits at Erfurt, and was ordained priest in 1507 (age 24).

In 1508 he was sent to be professor of moral philosophy in the faculty of arts at the recently-founded University of Wittenberg, in the aftermath of university reforms which appear to have established the presence of a Nominalist faction within that faculty.

In 1510 he went to Rome on affairs of his order. (age 27)

Soon after his return to Wittenberg in 1511 (age 28), with the support of his superior, Johannes von Staupitz, he became a doctor of theology and professor of biblical exegesis in the university faculty of theology, retaining this position until his death.

In 1515 (age 32) he was made vicar of his order, an office entailing the charge of 11 Augustinian monasteries.

   Initially Luther appears to have adopted a form of biblical exegesis and theology of justification similar to that of Nominalism, allowing man a definite, if limited, role in his own justification. During the years 1512–19, however, he developed insights concerning man’s incapacity to justify himself which led him initially to modify, and then to reject, this position. He came to believe that man is unable to respond to God without divine grace, and that man can be justified only through faith (per solam fidem), by the merits of Christ imputed to him: works or religious observance are irrelevant. In an autobiographical fragment of 1545, Luther indicated that this theological break-through was linked with the discovery of a new understanding of ‘the righteousness of God’ (Rom. 1:17). On the basis of internal evidence within his writings of the period, this discovery is generally regarded as having taken place in the period 1514–15. It is often, though perhaps unwarrantably, referred to as the ‘Turmerlebnis’ (‘Tower Experience’). During the period 1515–19, Luther consolidated his doctrine of man’s justification before God (coram Deo), emphasizing that justification was a work of God within man. Although in many respects Luther’s theology of justification at this stage parallels that found in St Augustine’s anti-Pelagian writings, important differences emerged, esp. in relation to the nature of justifying righteousness. Parallels have also been noted with the writings of J. Tauler and the Theologia Germanica (which Luther edited in 1516 and 1518). In April 1517 Carlstadt (then dean of the faculty of theology at Wittenberg) lent his support to Luther, after a close reading of Augustine’s De Spiritu et Littera, with the result that by March 1518 the Wittenberg faculty of theology was committed to a programme of theological reform based on ‘the Bible and St Augustine’.

On 31 Oct. 1517 (age 34) Luther’s 95 theses on indulgences were posted on the door of the castle church at Wittenberg. They were written largely in response to the preaching of J. Tetzel on the indulgences granted by Leo X for contributions towards the renovation of St Peter’s in Rome. Although possessing the status of a purely academic disputation, and stating little that was exceptionable or radical, given the variety of opinions on the subject at the time, the theses came to be viewed as a manifesto of reform, and attracted considerable attention throughout Germany within weeks of their publication.

In April 1518 Luther defended his position in the Heidelberg Disputation, held during a meeting of the chapter of his order; he won over several of his brethren and the Dominican M. Bucer.

In the same year he was tried (in his absence) in Rome on charges of heresy, and was summoned in October (1518) before Cardinal Cajetan at Augsburg. Refusing to recant, he fled to Wittenberg under the protection of the Elector Frederick III of Saxony. Negotiations with the Papal camerarius, C. von Miltitz, elicited from Luther nothing more than a promise that he would remain silent if his opponents did likewise.

In 1519 Luther and J. Eck confronted each other at the Leipzig Disputation, at which Luther denied both the primacy of the Pope and the infallibility of General Councils. By this time Luther was the object of considerable admiration in humanist circles, being ‘productively misunderstood’ as sharing the humanist concern for the institutional and moral reform of the Church. Acc. to Bucer and others, Luther and Erasmus differed only in the extent to which they voiced their views. Recent scholarship has drawn attention to the way in which the humanist movement expanded what was initially little more than an academic debate into an international cause célèbre.

In 1520 (age 37) Luther’s programme of reform was further consolidated by a direct appeal to the German people to take the initiative in reforming the Church. Three major reforming treatises were published.


[1.] The first, An den christlichen Adel deutscher Nation, addressed to the German princes, laid the foundations for a programme of lay reform by rejecting the distinction between the ‘spiritual’ and ‘temporal’ orders, by insisting on:

[1] the right to challenge the Pope on the interpretation of Scripture, and

[2] the right of the laity to summon a reforming General Council.

[3] It encouraged the princes to abolish
   tributes to Rome,
   the celibacy of the clergy,
   Masses for the dead, and many other Catholic practices and institutions.

 


[2.] This was followed by De Captivitate Babylonica Ecclesiae (pub. in Latin and German, Von der babylonischen Gefangenschaft der Kirche); here Luther criticized the subjection of the laity to the institution of the Church which he particularly identified with
   the denial to the laity of Communion in both kinds,
   the doctrine of transubstantiation,
   and the Sacrifice of the Mass,

and only Baptism and the Eucharist were recognized as possessing sacramental character.


[3.] In the final work of the trilogy, Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen, the liberation of the Christian from a ‘bondage of works’ through his justification was enthusiastically proclaimed. The cumulative effect of these treatises was considerable.


Even before they were published, however, Luther was condemned in the bull ‘Exsurge Domine’ of 12 June 1520, which censured 41 theses drawn from his works to date. Luther replied by burning the bull, along with many Catholic books; this action led to his excommunication by the bull ‘Decet Romanum Pontificem’ of 3 Jan. 1521.

In the aftermath of this excommunication, Luther was summoned before the Diet of Worms, where he refused to recant (acc. to an early but unreliable tradition, in the famous words ‘Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders’, ‘Here I stand, I can do no other’).


On 26 May 1521 his teachings were formally condemned in the Edict of Worms and Luther was put under the ban of the Empire. Fearing for his safety, the Elector of Saxony arranged for Luther to be abducted in June to the Wartburg, near Eisenach, where he spent the next eight months under the pseudonym ‘Junker Georg’. In many respects, this was one of the most constructive periods of Luther’s career, witnessing the beginning of his translation of the Bible into German, of which the NT was published in Sept. 1522. His important attack on Jacobus Latomus, in which Luther’s views on the relation of grace and faith are explained with some brilliance, also dates from this period.

In his absence, however, the situation at Wittenberg had deteriorated, with radical elements (such as the ‘Zwickau Prophets’), recently joined by Carlstadt, causing religious anarchy. Luther was obliged to return to Wittenberg on 6 March 1522, and to restore order with the assistance of the secular authorities. In this period of liturgical reform and consolidation Luther issued the Formula Missae et Communionis (1523), an important pamphlet explaining the new Protestant rite and clarifying his attitude to the Eucharist; in the following year the first Wittenberg hymnal (incl. four of Luther’s own compositions) appeared.

Having already abandoned many Catholic practices, incl. private Masses and fasts, since leaving the Wartburg, Luther finally discarded his Augustinian habit in 1524. After the death of the Elector, who had remained hostile to the marriage of priests and religious, he married the former Cistercian nun, Katharina von Bora, on 13 June 1525.

In the same year Luther’s pamphlet advising the German princes to wage war against the peasants who had risen in arms appeared; this cost him the sympathies of a section of the population (see PEASANTS’ WAR). His open attack on Erasmus in De Servo Arbitrio (1525) exposed the tension between them, causing some embarrassment to the more humanist of the Wittenberg Reformers, such as P. Melanchthon (even though U. Zwingli had independently set out what were to be the main elements of Luther’s attack in a work published earlier the same year, but not known to the German Reformer).

The religious and political situation, however, continued to favour the spread of Luther’s views. The use of the vernacular in the liturgy (the Deutsche Messe was published in 1526), in the public reading of the Bible, and in the singing of hymns, all served to further Luther’s end.

His work was considerably facilitated by the Diet of Speyer (1526), which established the right of the princes to organize national Churches.

Although Luther was unable to be present at the Diet of Augsburg (1530) on account of the ban of the Empire, he lent his approval to the comparatively conciliatory ‘Augsburg Confession (Confessio Augustana)’, drawn up by Melanchthon, which established the doctrinal basis of the Lutheran Church.

At this time, however, the differences between the Lutheran and Reformed wings of the Reformation became increasingly evident, esp. in relation to sacramental theology. At the Colloquy of Marburg (1529) the deep division between Luther and Zwingli over the nature of the Presence of Christ in the Eucharist proved unbridgeable: Luther argued that after consecration the substances both of the Body and Blood of Christ and of the bread and wine coexist in union with each other (‘consubstantiation’), Zwingli that the Presence of Christ was purely symbolic.

The renewal of the Eucharistic controversy within Lutheranism itself in the 1540s, in addition to the continued tension between the Lutheran and Reformed wings of the Reformation, illustrates how serious this division would prove to be. The final years of Luther’s life were marked by controversy, arising over such matters as his covert approval of the bigamous marriage of Philip of Hesse and the appointment of Nikolaus von Amsdorf as Bp. of Naumburg in 1541.

Luther died on 18 Feb. 1546 and was buried in the castle church at Wittenberg. The rumour that his body had been disinterred and reburied in a field during the Schmalkaldic War was finally silenced through its recovery during the restoration of the castle church on 14 Feb. 1892.

Apart from his three treatises of 1520, Luther published a considerable number of works, mostly small occasional pamphlets, with no attempt at a systematic elaboration of his doctrine, and prone to frequent lapses into personal abuse of his opponents. His passionate reply to Henry VIII’s Defence of the Seven Sacraments, entitled Contra Henricum Regem Anglicanum (1522), lost him the sympathies of England. But several such works are of importance. In De Servo Arbitrio (1525) Luther defended his radical views on the impotence of the human free will against the criticisms of Erasmus in De Libero Arbitrio. His pedagogical works, Kleiner Katechismus and Grosser Katechismus (both 1529) heightened the attraction of the Reformation for humanists, allowing them to regard the movement as fundamentally educational. His abilities as a biblical commentator are perhaps best seen from the 1535 Galatians commentary. A more informal, and perhaps rather inaccurate, view of the Reformer may be gained from the Tischreden (records of conversations over Luther’s dinnertable in the period 1529–45). Many of his German hymns, an important means of disseminating the ideas of the Reformation among the people, are still in general use, the most celebrated being ‘Ein feste burg ist unser Gott’ (Eng. tr., ‘A safe stronghold our God is still’, EH 362), prob. written in 1528.

Luther’s distinctive ideas were considerably modified by the Lutheran Church after his death, with the Formula of Concord (1577) explicitly rejecting some of the ideas defended by Luther in De Servo Arbitrio (e.g. the doctrine of double predestination, and of God as auctor peccati). In the 20th cent., however, Luther’s ‘theologia crucis’ has been reappropriated, esp. by theologians such as Jürgen Moltmann and Eberhard Jüngel, as a fruitful way of exploring the nature of God’s presence in and dealings with the world. In CW, feast day, 31 Oct.

The standard critical edn. of Luther’s works is the ‘Weimarer Ausgabe’ in some 100 vols. (Weimar, 1883 ff.; text completed 1983, though since 1963 some works in the edition have been re-edited; indexes to vols. 1–60, 1986 ff.). Its four sections contain his writings and lectures, the Tischreden, his correspondence, and material on his tr. of the Bible. Selected docs. on his intellectual development to 1519 in O. Scheel, Dokumente zu Luthers Entwicklung (2nd edn., Sammlung ausgewählter kirchen- und dogmengeschichtlicher Quellenschriften, NF 2; Tübingen, 1929). Standard Eng. tr. of Luther’s Works [not exhaustive], ed. J. Pelikan and H. T. Lehmann (54 vols. + introd., St Louis and Philadelphia, 1955–76).

Modern historical and biographical studies incl. G. [G. B.] Ritter, Luther: Gestalt und Tod (1925; 6th edn., 1959; Eng. tr., 1963); J. Mackinnon, Luther and the Reformation (4 vols., 1925–30); E. G. Schwiebert, Luther and his Times (St Louis [1950]); R. H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (1951); A. G. Dickens, The German Nation and Martin Luther (1974); H. Bornkamm, Martin Luther in der Mittes seines Leben (posthumously ed. K. Bornkamm, Göttingen, 1979; Eng. tr., 1983); H. G. Haile, Luther: A Biography (New York, 1980; London, 1981); M. Lienhard, Martin Luther: Un temps, une vie, un message (1983); H. Junghans (ed.), Leben und Werk Martin Luthers von 1526 bis 1546: Festgabe zu seinem 500. Geburtstag (2 vols., 1983). M. Brecht, Martin Luther (3 vols., Stuttgart, 1981–7, Eng. tr., vol. 1, Philadelphia, vols. 2–4, Minneapolis, 1985–93).

On his theology, there is a classic work by K. Holl, Gesammelte Aufsätze, Bd. 1: Luther (1921); Bd. 3: Der Westen (1928), pp. 130–243. More recent studies incl. P. S. Watson, Let God be God! An Interpretation of the Theology of Martin Luther (1947); [E.] G. Rupp, The Righteousness of God: Luther Studies (Birkbeck Lectures, 1947; 1953); G. Ebeling, Luther: Einführung in sein Denken (Tübingen, 1964; Eng. tr., 1970); and B. Lohse, Luthers Theologie in ihrer historischen Entwicklung und in ihrem systematischen Zusammenhang (Göttingen, 1995; Eng. tr., 1999). Seminal essays on specific doctrines by W. von Loewenich, Luthers Theologia Crucis (Munich, 1929; 4th edn., 1954; Eng. tr., Belfast, 1976); R. Prenter, Spiritus Creator: Studier i Luthers Teologi (Copenhagen, 1944; 2nd edn., 1946; Eng. tr., Philadelphia, 1953); H. Sasse, This is my Body: Luther’s Contention for the Real Presence in the Sacrament of the Altar (Minneapolis [1959]; rev. edn., Adelaide, 1977); E. Bizer, Fides ex auditu: Eine Untersuchungen über die Entdeckung der Gerechtigkeit Gottes durch Martin Luther (Neukirchen, 1958; 3rd edn., 1966); I. D. K. Siggins, Martin Luther’s Doctrine of Christ (1970); G. Ebeling, Lutherstudien (3 vols. in 4, Tübingen, 1971–85); M. Lienhard, Luther, témoin de Jésus-Christ (1973; Eng. tr., Minneapolis, 1982); H. A. Oberman, Luther: Mensch zwischen Gott und Teufel (1982; Eng. tr., Luther: Man between God and the Devil, New Haven and London [1989]). A. E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross: Martin Luther’s Theological Breakthrough (Oxford, 1985); H.-M. Gutmann, Über Liebe und Herrschaft: Luthers Verständnis von Intimität und Autorität im Kontext des Zivilisationsprozesses (Göttinger theologische Arbeiten, 47 [1991]; G. Ebeling, Luthers Seelsorge: Theologie in der Vielfalt der Lebenssituationen an seinen Briefen dargestellt [1997].

Full bibl. of the vast lit. is provided in the authoritative Jahrbuch der Luther-Gesellschaft (1919; from 1920 Luther-Jahrbuch) and a shorter account in the annual Literaturberichte of the Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte (1903 ff.). M. Brecht and others in TRE 21 (1991), pp. 514–94, s.v., with extensive bibl.

 


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