Martin Luther

Lesson 17:  Martin Luther

Scope:  Luther was a man of dramatic gestures, whether posting his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenburg, publicly burning the papal bull that excommunicated him, or declaring to the Diet of Worms, “Here I stand.”  Luther was a university professor for most of his adult life, and his writings fill almost 60 modern volumes.  However, in this lesson, we will look primarily at how Luther lived his life and how he developed new Christian models of marriage and education.  Certainly, there are elements of Luther’s thought that just about everyone today finds repugnant, especially some of his later writings about Jews.  However, no one knew better than Luther himself that he was a flawed human in need of God’s mercy.  Hs dying words were “We are beggars: this is true.”

  1. Martin Luther is justly famous for being one of the great theologians and commentators on scripture in the Christian tradition.
    1. Luther’s writings in modern editions run to almost 60 volumes.
    2. Luther was a “doctor” and spent much of his adult life as a professor at the University of Wittenburg in eastern Germany.
  2. For most people, however, Luther is not so much a theologian as the “first Protestant.”  His break with the Roman Church began with the posting of his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517 and became final at the Diet of Worms in 1521.
    1. Luther’s life story, especially from his birth in 1483 until the Diet of Worms, is well-known and often told.
    2. Both Protestants and Catholics recognize the significance of his formation of a new type of Christianity, by the time of his death, had spread through about half of Germany and most of Scandinavia and had influenced other reform movements.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                
  3. This lesson does not recount in detail the narrative of Luther’s life or examine the most important elements of his thought.
    1. Instead, we will explore Luther, the man of faith.
      1. He was troubled and burdened by his own failings and recognized his dependence on God
      2. He was a man of great personal courage who took extraordinary risks in proclaiming the truth of Christianity as he understood it.
    2. We will focus on events in Luther’s life that tell us the most about what sort of Christian he was.
    3. Luther’s writings reveal a man who was at times humble and at other times quite arrogant; a man who recognized love as a way humans express their faith, yet a man who was capable of virulent hatred and intolerance.
    4. It is significant that Luther’s last written words were “We are beggars: this is true.”
  4. Luther’s university training for a career in law was interrupted when, in fear during a storm, he pledged that he would become a monk if he survived.
    1. Luther entered the order of Augustinian friars at Erhart, where he was studying, and changed his study to theology.
    2. Despite “heroic” attempts at fasting and other ascetic practices as well as quite frequent confession, Luther was deeply troubled.
    3. After profession, ordination, and years of study, he went to a small and rather insignificant university in Wittenberg to teach.
  5. While Luther was preparing lectures on Paul, he had what we refer to as the Reformation discovery.
    1. Luther had been scrupulous about discipline and confession but continued to fear God’s wrath.
    2. Someone famously said to Luther that God was not angry with him but, rather, Luther was angry with God.
    3. As Luther reflected deeply on Paul, especially, Romans 1:17, it was as if the scales fell from his eyes: he realized that the just person lives by faith.
    4. This primacy of faith had extraordinary implications, but it took Luther a while to grasp them.
  6. In the meantime, as a priest, Luther had to deal with the fact that people in Wittenberg were buying indulgences that claimed to do all sorts of things, including getting souls out of purgatory.
    1. Troubled by this, Luther acted as a professor by posting in Latin on the bulletin board of the university (the door of the castle church in Wittenberg) 95 propositions or theses about indulgences, for the purpose of debate.
      1. These were translated into German, and printed versions were circulated in Germany, making Luther something of an “overnight sensation.”
      2. Authorities in the church had several meetings with Luther to persuade him that some of his theses were incorrect and had radical implications.
    2. As Luther was questioned and prodded, he began to see the implications in what he had written.
      1. When asked if he was a Hussite, Luther ultimately said yes.
      2. As these confrontations took place, Luther began to put together some of his theological insights and his pastoral concerns.
  7. In 1520, Luther wrote several important works that essentially created an unbridgeable gap between himself and the Roman church.
    1. Luther publicly burned the papal bull declaring his excommunication.
    2. Luther attacked not just the corruption of the Catholic Church but its very bases.
      1. He proclaimed the priesthood of believers, arguing that ministry is publicly serving a congregation but that all Christians become priests at baptism.
      2. Luther rejected Catholic teachings about the Eucharist and rejected five of the seven Catholic sacraments, leaving only baptism and the Eucharist.
  8.  In 1521, Luther appeared before the Diet of Worms and stood by what he had written, despite the virtually unanimous opinion of the secular and ecclesiastical authorities gathered there.
    1. Luther was “kidnapped” by his secular ruler and lived for a time at Wartburg Castle, directing religious matters at Wittenberg in absentia and translating the New Testament into German.
    2. When Luther returned to Wittenberg, he carried out a series of reforms, including vernacularization and simplification of the liturgy.  He also married.
  9. Luther faced opposition all around him and was quick to condemn his opponents.
    1.   He called for the slaughter of peasants who revolted, in part based on what they understood Luther to mean about Christian freedom.
    2. He saw Erasmus as something of a vacillating coward and rather vehemently attacked him in a famous treatise called On the Bondage of the Will, a response to a work of Erasmus about free will.
    3. Luther met with the Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli at the end of the 1520s but was unable to form an agreement with him because of differences in their understanding of the Eucharist.
  10. Especially toward the end of his life, Luther viciously attacked Jews and their religion.
    1. In 1523. Luther had written about the Jews, urging compassion toward them and hoping for their conversion to Christianity.
    2. In 1542, Luther published Against the Jews and Their Lies, advocating the expulsion of Jews from Saxony or, at least, the burning of their synagogues and books.
    3. The 16th century was not a tolerant time, and Luther’s powerful writings and strong personality show him in combat with everyone from Catholics to other Protestants to Jews.
  11. Luther was larger than life, a man of great intellect and courage, but one who shared some of the worst traits of the era in which he lived and, indeed, magnified them.


Significance of Martin Luther’s Work

Martin Luther is one of the most influential figures in Western history. His writings were responsible for fractionalizing the Catholic Church and sparking the Protestant Reformation. His central teachings, that the Bible is the central source of religious authority and that salvation is reached through faith and not deeds, shaped the core of Protestantism. Although Luther was critical of the Catholic Church, he distanced himself from the radical successors who took up his mantle. Luther is remembered as a controversial figure, not only because his writings led to significant religious reform and division, but also because in later life he took on radical positions on other questions, including his pronouncements against Jews, which some have said may have portended German anti-Semitism; others dismiss them as just one man’s vitriol that did not gain a following. Some of Luther’s most significant contributions to theological history, however, such as his insistence that as the sole source of religious authority the Bible be translated and made available to everyone, were truly revolutionary in his day.


Suggested Reading: 

  1. James Kittelson, Luther and the Reformer
  2. Martin Marty, Martin Luther

Next Week’s Lesson:  John Wesley and the Origins of Methodism