Martin Luther

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Luther at age 46 (Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1529)

Martin Luther (November 10, 1483 – February 18, 1546) was the first and most prominent leader of a reform movement in sixteenth century Christianity, subsequently known as the Protestant Reformation. Essentially, Luther sought to recover core New Testament teachings that he claimed had been obscured by corruption and worldly traditions of medieval Catholicism. In particular, Luther opposed the idea, popularized by certain indulgence-sellers of his day, that one could buy salvation through monetary donations to the Church. Ever against this, Luther held that human beings could be saved by faith alone (sola fides).

He came to this understanding over the course of a long and tortuous personal struggle. Having resolved his inner conflicts by means of an "evangelical breakthrough," Luther began a public ministry that altered the course of Christianity and European history.

Early life

Martin Luther was born on November 10, 1483, in Eisleben, Germany, the son of Hans and Margaretha Luther. He was of peasant stock though his father had risen from the peasantry to own a copper mine. Two major influences characterized Luther’s upbringing. One was the severity of his parents and early teachers. Their punishments, which included beatings, may have been typical of the historical period in which he was raised. Nevertheless, Luther’s anxiety and fear of God as a severe judge was at least in part the result of his experience at home and in school. Luther, himself, later stated that the harshness and severity of the life he led compelled him later to run away to a monastery and become a monk.

Martin Luther’s residence from ages 14 to 17 in Eisenach, Germany.

The second important influence upon Luther’s upbringing was education. His father was ambitious for Martin and desired that he pursue a career in law. Having studied at schools in Mansfield, Magdenburg, and Eisenach, Luther entered the University of Erfurt in 1501. In 1502, he received the degree of bachelor of philosophy and in January 1505, graduated as a master of arts. The University of Erfurt was self-consciously modern, a leading light of the humanist movement in Germany, enthusiastically committed to the study of the Bible and church fathers in the original Greek and correspondingly critical of medieval scholastic theology. Luther entered the law school at Erfurt in May 1505. Then, in July, he suddenly abandoned his legal studies and entered a monastery of Augustinian friars.

Struggle to find peace with God

According to tradition, a near brush with death during a fierce thunderstorm was the immediate cause of Luther entering the cloister. He is reputed to have cried out, "St. Anne help me! I will become a monk." Others referred to his despondency over the death of a close friend. At a deeper level, Luther took monastic vows in order to cope with a pervasive sense of personal sinfulness and accompanying fear of an all-powerful, all-righteous God. Unfortunately, Luther’s monastic sojourn accentuated rather than resolved his anxiety. Brother Martin fully dedicated himself to life in the monastery, the effort to do good works to please God, and to serve others through prayer. Yet peace with God eluded him. He devoted himself to fasts, flagellations, long hours in prayer and pilgrimage, and constant confession. The more he tried to do for God, it seemed, the more aware he became of his sinfulness. His superior, Johann von Staupitz, advised him to study the mystics, following their path of surrender to the love of God. However, on self-examination, Luther found what he felt for God was not love but hatred. Luther’s spiritual crisis had thereby driven him to commit blasphemy, which for him was the unpardonable sin.

Evangelical breakthrough

Rather than counseling him out of the Augustinian order, Staupitz took the bold step of ordering Luther to study for his doctor’s degree, to begin preaching and to assume the chair of Bible at the recently established University of Wittenberg. By serving others, Staupitz reasoned, Luther might best address his own problems. In 1507, Luther was ordained to the priesthood. In 1508, he began teaching theology at the University of Wittenberg. Luther earned his bachelor's degree in biblical studies on March 9, 1508 and a bachelor's degree in the Sentences by Peter Lombard, the main textbook of theology in the Middle Ages, in 1509. On October 19, 1512, Martin Luther became a doctor of theology, more specifically Doctor in Biblia, and became university professor of Bible. He offered exegetical lectures on Psalms (1513-1515), Romans (1515-1516), Galatians (1516-1517), and Hebrews (1517-1518). In 1512, he was appointed director of studies in his Augustinian cloister, and in 1515, was made district vicar in charge of eleven monasteries. In 1511, he began preaching within the cloister and in 1514, to the Wittenberg parish church.

Luther’s "evangelical breakthrough" did not come all at once, but unfolded within the context of his teaching and pastoral responsibilities. However, a turning point came in 1515, when he was lecturing on Romans, in particular the passage on the "righteousness of God" (1:17). Luther previously regarded God’s righteousness as an impossible standard by which human beings were punished. Now, based on his immersion in Psalms and Romans, he came to see that the righteousness of God was a gift to be received. Christ, through the cross, had taken on all human iniquity and desolation. To be righteous, one simply needed to accept this. Luther, following Saint Paul, affirmed that one who is righteous through faith "shall live." Once he understood that human beings were "justified" before God by faith and not works, Luther wrote, "I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise."

At around about the time that he was writing his lectures on the Psalms, Luther experienced what he himself describes as the pivotal event of his life. This is known as the "revelation in the tower." The tower appears to refer to the monks' secret room, which may have been a toilet[1] In his psychological study of Luther, Erik H. Erikson (1993) identifies this experience as one that transformed Luther from a "highly restrained and retentive individual" into an "explosive person" (206). This transformation may have been spiritual and psychological, but also physical—since until this experience Luther had suffered from constipation and urinal problems. However, he was also struggling with his father's disappointment as well as with his hatred for the justice of God. Erikson says that the revelation in the tower occurred after Luther had a dream of an early death, and that it represented recovery from a deep depression. His subsequent redefinition of the relationship between God and Man "has striking configurations with the inner dynamic" of people who "recover from psychic distress" (206). Erikson says that Luther underwent the type of "sudden inner freedom…[a] cleansing…[a] kicking away" (205) comparable with Saint Paul's or Augustine's conversion. He refers four times in his writing at this time to Augustine's' conversion. Of course, faithful Christian believers often find this sort of "psychologizing" as incapable of grasping the simple truth of "rebirth" known clearly to millions of Christian believers, from the most simple to the most highly educated.

Luther came to regard this experience as his evangelical breakthrough, which was nothing less than the recovery of the authentic Christian gospel as one that transformed his attitude toward God. He wrote, "Whereas the ‘justice of God’ had filled me with hate, it now became to me inexpressibly sweet." It also transformed his life. Internally, gratitude rather than compulsion served as the source of motivation for his work. Externally, Luther’s breakthrough set him on a collision course with medieval Catholicism.

The indulgence controversy

In 1510, Luther went on a pilgrimage to Rome. This visit contributed significantly to his growing disillusionment with the power that the Catholic Church exercised over the people. He saw hundreds of people spending the little money they had to buy indulgences (remission from sin) for their deceased relatives. Initially, he did not perceive the challenge that his view of salvation presented to the Church. However, he did see the inconsistency between justification by faith alone and some of the major tenets of medieval scholastic theology. In September 1517, he prepared a Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, in the form of 97 theses, which attacked the idea that believers could be justified before God on the basis of their works. Luther’s position was favorably received by colleagues at the university but did not spark any wider debate. Later that year, Luther wrote another set of 95 theses which he expected would have no more impact than the previous set did. His 95 theses, which attacked the practice of selling indulgences, produced a firestorm which ignited the Protestant Reformation.

Controversy over Luther’s 95 theses was less due to their theological content than to the fact that they struck a political nerve. Indulgences were a time-honored component of the Catholic penitential system. Technically, an indulgence was a remission of temporal punishment due to sin, the guilt of which has been forgiven. According to Catholic theology, the sacrament of baptism not only removes all the guilt from sin but also all penalties attached to sin. In the sacrament of penance the guilt of sin is removed, and with it the eternal punishment due to mortal sin; but there still remains the temporal punishment required by Divine justice, and this requirement must be fulfilled either in the present life or in the world to come, i.e., in Purgatory. The Church possesses the extra-sacramental power to remit these punishments through indulgences based on the superabundant merits of Christ and of the saints. The ancient and early medieval church emphasized the spiritual conditions necessary for granting indulgences. However, in the later medieval period, the selling of indulgences became an important source of Church revenue. By Luther’s time, the situation had become extreme.

Luther’s attack on indulgences, occasioned by a Church-wide campaign to raise funds for the completion of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, galvanized opponents of the practice and threatened the financial interests of the Pope and church. The 95 Theses were quickly translated into German, widely copied and printed. Within two weeks they had spread throughout Germany, and within two months throughout Europe. This was one of the first events in history that was profoundly affected by the printing press, which made the distribution of documents easier and more widespread. For his part, Luther naively sent a copy of his theses to the archbishop of Mainz who was using his share from indulgence-selling in Germany to obtain a dispensation from the Pope allowing him to hold two bishoprics. The archbishop, who forwarded the theses to Rome, lodged formal charges against Luther in early 1518.

The breach widens

Pope Leo X initially dismissed Luther as "a drunken German who wrote the Theses," and, "when sober will change his mind." As a consequence, he was willing to have the Augustinians deal with the meddlesome monk at their chapter meeting in April 1518. Luther traveled incognito to Heidelberg, having been warned of the possibility of assassination along the road. However, to his surprise, he was well-received and returned as if from a triumph. This emboldened Luther to question the primacy of the Roman Church and the power of excommunication. He then affirmed that popes and councils might err and that the only final authority was scripture. Soon afterwards, Luther was ordered to appear in Rome to answer charges of heresy. Due to the intervention of Luther’s territorial ruler, Fredrick the Wise, the proceedings were transferred to Germany. Luther’s interview with Cardinal Cajetan, the papal legate, at Augsburg, was inconclusive. Luther refused to recant, wrote that the cardinal was no more fitted to handle the case than "an ass to play on a harp," and issued an appeal that a general council hear his case.

At this point, the Pope adopted a conciliatory policy due to the political climate following the death of the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian, in early 1519. The German electors, though preferring one of their own, were reconciled to accept the head of one of the great powers, either Francis I of France or Charles V of Spain. However, the pope objected to them both on the grounds that either’s election would upset the balance of power upon which the church’s security rested. Instead the pope favored Fredrick the Wise, Luther’s territorial lord. Given this circumstance, the pope needed to tread lightly with respect to Fredrick’s prized professor. He assigned Carl von Militz, a relative of Fredrick, as an assistant to Cajetan with the mission of keeping Luther quiet until the election was settled. Unfortunately, for those pursuing conciliation, Luther was drawn into a debate between the Universities of Leipzig and Wittenberg. There, in debate with Johann Eck, a professor of theology at Ingolstadt, Luther maintained "A simple layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope of council without it … For the sake of Scripture we should reject pope and councils." Eck also baited Luther into defending the Bohemian "heretic" John Hus.

With the election of Charles V as the new emperor (Fredrick voted against himself), proceedings against Luther resumed. In June 1520, Leo X issued the papal bull Exsurge Domine (Arise, O Lord) which stated, "A wild boar has invaded thy vineyard." The bull condemned 41 sentences from Luther’s writings as "heretical, offensive, scandalous for pious ears, corrupting for simple minds and contradictory to Catholic teaching." Luther’s books, which contained "these errors," were "to be examined and burned." Luther was given 60 days to recant, dating from the time of publication of the bull in his district. It took three months for the bull to reach Luther, its publication being prohibited in Wittenberg and its reception resisted in large parts of Germany. Luther’s response was to burn the bull publicly on December 10, 1520. At this point, the breech between Luther and Rome was irreparable.

The treatises of 1520

Luther produced three hugely influential tracts during 1520 that further amplified his thinking and set his agenda for ecclesiastical reform. In To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther expressed his convictions about the "priesthood of all believers." He announced his intention of attacking the "three walls" by which the Romanists had protected themselves and hindered reform. The first wall, that the temporal has no authority over the spiritual and that "the spiritual power is above the temporal," Luther declared was overthrown in that all believers were priests by virtue of their baptism. The second wall, that no one may interpret scripture except the pope, he likewise claimed was baseless, as all priests had the power of discerning what is right or wrong in matters of faith. The third wall, that no one may call a council but the pope, Luther said, "falls of itself, as soon as the first two have fallen." If the pope acts contrary to scripture and is an offense to Christendom, there needed to be a "truly free council" which Luther maintained could only be summoned by temporal authorities, whom he noted were "fellow Christians" and "fellow priests." Luther proceeded to attack papal misgovernment and annates (taxes), called for a "primate of Germany," declared that clerical marriage should be permitted, "far too numerous holy days" reduced, and held that beggary, including that of monks, ought to be forbidden. In all of these calls, Luther voiced sentiments that were widely held among Germans.

Luther’s next tract, on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, addressed the seven sacraments of the medieval church. Luther maintained that only two of them, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, were instituted by Christ. He thought penance—contrition, confession, absolution—had value as a relief to distressed consciences. However, he attacked monastic vows, pilgrimages, and works of merit as "man-made substitutes" for the divine word of forgiveness. The other Roman sacraments—confirmation, matrimony, clerical orders, and extreme unction—he maintained, had no sacramental standing in scripture.

Luther’s third major tract of 1520, The Freedom of a Christian, laid out his ethical vision. In so doing, Luther employed a central paradox. As he expressed it, "A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none; a Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all." Essentially, Luther attempted to show that the doctrine of justification by faith alone (sola fides) was not incompatible with Christian love and service. According to Luther, "Faith is enough for the Christian man. He has no need for works to be made just." In this respect, a Christian was "perfectly free." However, this was not an invitation "to be lazy or loose." The Christian also was also "subject to all" after the manner of Christ who "emptied himself, taking the form of servant." Speaking in the first person, Luther stated, "I will give myself as a sort of Christ to my neighbor … [and] even take to myself the sins of others as Christ took mine to himself." Accounting himself, "justified and acceptable to God, although there are in me sin, unrighteousness, and horror of death," Luther insisted, "Good works do not produce a good man, but a good man does good work."


Luther prefaced The Freedom of a Christian with a letter in which he addressed Pope Leo X with deference, but blasted the Roman curia as "pestilent, hateful, and corrupt … more impious than the Turk." If these sentiments were designed to promote conciliation, they fell well short. On January 3, 1521, Leo X issued a bull of excommunication, Decet Pontificaem Romanum (It Pleases the Roman Pontiff). It now was the responsibility of civil authorities to exact the ecclesiastical condemnation. However, because Luther had ignited a popular movement, because Fredrick the Wise worked to achieve Luther’s call for a fair hearing, and because Charles V was unwilling to alienate the Germans and saw the possibility of using Luther to extract concessions from the pope, it was agreed that Luther would be summoned to appear before the emperor and German Reichstag under the protection of an imperial safe-conduct.

Diet of Worms

Luther appeared before the Diet of Worms on April 16, 1521. Johann Eck, an assistant of Archbishop of Trier (not the Eck of the Leipzig debate), presented Luther with a table filled with copies of his writings. Eck asked Luther if the books were his and if he would recant their content. Luther requested time to think about his answer. It was granted. Luther prayed, consulted with friends and mediators and presented himself before the Diet the next day. When the matter came before the Diet the next day, Counselor Eck asked Luther to plainly answer the question. Luther subsequently launched into a lengthy differentiation among his works, some of which discussed evangelical topics, others of which inveighed "against the desolation of the Christian world by the evil lives and teachings of the papists," and some of which contained "attacks on private individuals." However, when pressed, Luther refused to abjure anything, concluding with the memorable statement, "Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason, I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other, my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe." Traditionally, Luther is remembered to have ended by speaking the words, "Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen."

Over the next few days, private conferences were held to determine Luther's fate. Before a decision was reached, Luther left Worms. During his return to Wittenberg, he disappeared. The Emperor issued the Edict of Worms on May 25, 1521, declaring Martin Luther an outlaw and a heretic and banning his literature.

Exile at the Wartburg Castle

Wartburg Castle in Eisenach.

Luther's disappearance during his return trip was planned. Frederick the Wise arranged for Luther to be seized on his way from the Diet by a company of masked horsemen, who carried him to Wartburg Castle at Eisenach, where he stayed for nearly a year. He grew a wide flaring beard, took on the garb of a knight, and assumed the pseudonym Junker Jörg (Knight George).

Martin Luther’s room at Wartburg Castle, c. 1900

During the period of his enforced absence, leadership of the reform cause in Wittenberg passed to Philip Melanchthon, a professor of Greek at the university; Andreas Carlstadt, a professor and archdeacon at the Castle Church; and Gabriel Zwilling, a monk of Luther’s Augustinian monastic order. Ironically, rather than slowing down, the pace of reform quickened and moved from theological debate to changes which affected people’s daily religious lives. Priests, nuns, and monks married. Communicants received the elements in both kinds, i.e., wine as well as bread. Priests led services without vestments and recited portions of the mass in German rather than Latin. Masses for the dead were challenged; meat was eaten on fast days. Students from the university smashed images. Monks left the cloister.

Luther took advantage of his exile, "my Patmos" as he called it in letters, to undertake his celebrated translation of the New Testament into German. However, he also communicated by letter to friends and allies who requested his views and advice. By and large, Luther supported the changes taking place. His tract, Concerning Monastic Vows, took the position that there was no scriptural foundation for monastic vows and that there was no such "special religious vocation." Another tract, On the Abolition of Private Mass, argued that the mass did not repeat the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and called upon Fredrick the Wise to abolish all endowed private masses for which twenty-five priests had been employed in Wittenberg’s Castle Church. However, Luther drew the line at popular violence. The Antichrist, he warned, "is to be broken without the hand of man. Violence will only make him stronger." As he put it, "Preach, pray, but do not do not fight." Luther did not rule out all constraint. He simply maintained that it must be exercised by duly constituted authority. Unfortunately, the duly constituted authorities did not appear capable of stemming the rising tide of turmoil. At this juncture, the Wittenberg town council issued a formal invitation for Luther to return.

Return to Wittenberg and the Invocavit Sermons

Although under an imperial ban, which meant that he was subject to capture and death by anyone anywhere, Luther returned to Wittenberg on March 6, 1522. For eight days beginning on March 9, Invocavit Sunday, and concluding on the following Sunday, Luther preached eight sermons that would become known as the "Invocavit Sermons." In these sermons, Luther counseled careful reform that took into consideration the consciences of those who were not yet persuaded to embrace reform. Noting that it took "three years of constant study, reflection, and discussion" to arrive where he was, Luther questioned whether "the common man, untutored in such matters [could] be expected to move the same distance in three months." Luther’s presence and sermons succeeded in quelling unrest. Zwilling and Carlstadt agreed to take up pastorates elsewhere. Reform in Wittenberg was firmly in Luther’s hands.

Luther’s return from Wartburg Castle marked a turning point in his career. Essentially, he moved from being a revolutionary to being a builder. In the coming years, Luther further clarified his theology; offered guidelines for ecclesiastical reform; refined his translation of the New Testament and completed his German translation of the Hebrew Bible; produced a Large Catechism for adults and a Small Catechism for children; revised liturgy; composed hymns; delivered sermons (2,300 are extant); and articulated a distinctive pattern of church-state relations. Unfortunately, Luther was less effective as a manager than he was as an instigator of the Reformation. His stubbornness and unwillingness to compromise, traits that served him admirably in his conflict with Rome, were not well suited to the task of welding together a unified movement composed of disparate parts. This was especially unfortunate since the reformers possessed a window of opportunity due to the Emperor’s preoccupation with the advance of the Turks and consequent need to mollify reform-minded German princes such as Luther’s protector, Fredrick the Wise. Despite this advantage, controversy and division became increasingly common, as Luther clashed with other reformers. This led to controversy and division. As a consequence, the reform movement, of which Luther was the putative head, became increasingly fragmented.

Defection of the Humanists

Renaissance humanists, intellectuals, and moderate reform-minded Catholics afforded Luther an early base of support. They secretly translated the 95 Theses from Latin into German and saw to it that they were spread across Europe by means of the recently invented movable-type printing press. As proponents of "new learning," humanists deeply believed in the freedom of inquiry and supported efforts to read the Bible in its original biblical languages as a way to revive Christianity. They opposed indulgences, pilgrimages, and masses for the dead, in short, the whole "mechanical side" of the Church, which they regarded as little more than Judaic legalism or superstition. At the same time, there were points of tension between humanist and Lutheran reform programs, which led to their eventual separation. Disagreement over the nature of human beings, Luther’s virulent polemics, and the mutual roles of theology and ethics doomed any hopes of mounting a common cause.

These disagreements came to a head in the parting of the ways between Luther and Erasmus (1466-1536), the leading Christian humanist of the period. Erasmus provided discreet support for Luther, intervening on his behalf with princes of the state and church, while attempting to be outwardly neutral. For his part, Luther was a great admirer of Erasmus, in particular, Erasmus’ 1516 publication of the New Testament in the original Greek. In his first letter to Erasmus, Luther termed him "Our delight and our hope," even going so far from 1517-19 as to adopt the humanist fad of Hellenizing vernacular names, calling himself "Elutherius" or "the free man." Their mutual admiration, however, became a casualty of the increasingly polarized times. Erasmus, given his international repute, was pressed to take a definitive stance on Luther, which led to an irreparable split.

Erasmus, in On the Freedom of the Will (1524), argued in favor of the late medieval church view that the human will and God’s grace cooperated in the process of salvation. This ran counter to Luther’s emphasis on sola fides and he answered Erasmus with a point-by-point refutation in On the Bondage of the Human Will (1525). Declaring himself to be a predestinarian, Luther upheld humankind’s absolute dependence on God’s grace. Had their dispute remained theological, it may have been contained. However, Luther proceeded, in characteristic fashion, to hurl all manner of rude epithets at Erasmus to which the learned humanist replied: "How do your scurrilous charges that I am an atheist, an Epicurean and a skeptic, help your argument?" This underscored Erasmus’ more basic concern that Luther’s acrimony was incongruent with the spirit of the apostles and divided Christian Europe into armed camps. He was especially unnerved by the way Luther enlisted the support of the German princes. Affirming an ethical rather than a dogmatic interpretation of Christian faith, Erasmus and his party came to view themselves as a "third church" alternative to Romanism and Lutheranism.

Struggle with radical spiritualists

Whereas Erasmus and other humanists viewed Luther as a source of tumult, radical spiritualists regarded him as a "halfway" reformer. Luther’s old associate, Andreas Carlstadt, having taken a parsonage outside of Wittenberg, attacked the use of all "externals" in religion, such as art or music. Eventually, Carlstadt’s position radicalized to the point that he denied the real presence of Christ in the sacrament. Thomas Müntzer (1488-1525), an early follower of Luther, was even more radical. Müntzer advanced a thoroughgoing spiritualism, which held the Bible was secondary to religious experience, including dreams and revelations. In this vein, Müntzer attacked Romanists and Lutherans as "scribes" who suppressed the "inner word" of the spirit. He also rejected traditional baptism, holding that the "inner" baptism of the spirit was the only true baptism. He taunted Luther as "Dr. Easychair and Dr. Pussyfoot," criticizing the "easygoing flesh of Wittenberg." Müntzer’s goal was to build a "new apostolic church" of the elect who would bring about a new social order, by bloodshed if necessary.

Luther termed Carlstadt and Müntzer, and others of their persuasion, Schwarmer or "fanatics." He warned the princes of Saxony that they were responsible to keep the peace and acquiesced in the banishment of Carlstadt from Saxony. Müntzer, after preaching to the Saxon princes that they needed a "new Daniel" to inform them of the "leadings of the spirit" and to "wipe out the ungodly," escaped over the walls of his city by night and fled Saxony. Rejecting both the papal monarchy and spiritualist theocracies, Luther sought to steer a "middle way" between papists to the right and sectaries to the left.

The Peasants' War

The Peasants' War (1524–1525) was in many ways a response to the preaching of Luther and others. Revolts by the peasantry had existed on a small scale since the fourteenth century, but many peasants mistakenly believed that Luther's attack on the Church and the hierarchy meant that the reformers would support an attack on the social hierarchy as well, because of the close ties between the secular princes and the princes of the Church that Luther condemned. Revolts that broke out in Swabia, Franconia, and Thuringia in 1524 gained support among peasants and disaffected nobles, many of whom were in debt at that period. Gaining momentum and a new leader in Thomas Müntzer, the revolts turned into an all-out war, the experience of which played an important role in the founding of the Anabaptist movement.

Initially, Luther seemed to many to support the peasants, condemning the oppressive practices of the nobility that had incited many of the peasants. As the war continued, and especially as atrocities at the hands of the peasants increased, Luther turned forcefully against the revolt. Some have suggested that since Luther relied on support and protection from the princes, he was afraid of alienating them. However, Luther’s altered stance was consistent with his conservative political philosophy. To Luther, all political revolution was rebellion against God in that it threatened the social order that God had ordained. Whatever his motivation, Luther’s tract, Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants (1525), encouraged the nobility to visit swift and bloody punishment upon the peasants, advising the princes to "crush, stab, smite, slay all you can; you will win heaven more easily by bloodshed than prayer." The war in Germany ended in 1525, when the armies of the Swabian League slaughtered rebel forces.

Luther, of course, was considered to have betrayed the peasants’ cause. As a consequence, his reform movement lost its mass appeal as the poorer classes tended to funnel into the Anabaptist movement. At the same time, Catholics held Luther responsible for the entire debacle. Probably the most enduring result of the conflict was the increased involvement of the state in religious matters. Civil authorities saw that religious reform was too potent and unstable a force to be left on its own. From 1525 onward, political leaders sought to maintain a tighter rein on religion within their spheres of authority and influence. Meanwhile, both Lutheran and Catholic camps established political and military alliances.

Luther and Zwingli

In 1529, the Emperor resolved his differences with the papacy, subjugated France, and was in a position to pressure the German evangelicals. At the Second Diet of Speyer, the Emperor’s representative attempted to re-establish Catholicism in Lutheran territories drew a "protest" from Lutheran princes; henceforth, the name "Protestantism" was applied to the evangelical movement. In response to this pressure, Phillip of Hesse, the leading Lutheran prince, tried to establish a defensive confederation of German and Swiss evangelical forces. To do so, Philip of Hesse invited the two major leaders of German and Swiss Protestantism, Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) to his castle at Marburg. With them came a number of lesser leaders including Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560), Martin Bucer, and Johannes Oecolampadius.

The Marburg Colloquy was unsuccessful in forging an evangelical alliance. The main point of contention was the nature of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper. Luther, in characteristic fashion, drew a circle with chalk on the table and wrote within, "This is my body." The Swiss, who affirmed the view of Christ’s spiritual rather than bodily presence, attempted to convince Luther that the element of the sacrament "signified" Christ’s body. All hope of compromise was to no avail and hopes of a confessional union were dashed. Luther famously told Bucer, "You have a different spirit than we." Because of this, Lutherans and Zwinglians were not even able to preserve intercommunion. Nor were the Germans agreeable to a defensive military alliance. As a consequence, the German and Swiss reformations went their separate ways.


Luther's Tombstone

On January 23, 1546, Luther left Wittenberg accompanied by his three sons on a journey to Mansfeld Eisleben, where they were to settle a business dispute involving the copper mine originally owned by Luther’s father. The negotiations were successfully concluded on February 17. After 8:00 p.m. on that day, Luther suffered chest pains. When he went to his bed he prayed, "Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God" (Ps. 31:5), the common prayer of the dying. At 1:00 a.m., he awoke with more chest pain and was warmed with hot towels. Knowing that his death was imminent, he thanked God for revealing His son to him in whom he had believed. His companions Justus Jonas and Michael Coelius shouted loudly, "Reverend father, are you ready to die trusting in your Lord Jesus Christ and to confess the doctrine which you have taught in His name?" A distinct "Yes" was Luther's reply. Luther died 2:45 a.m. on February 18, 1546, in Eisleben, the city of his birth. He was entombed in the Castle Church in Wittenberg next to his pulpit.

Marriage and family

The marriages of Protestant reformers, many of them former priests or monks, en masse was as much a revolutionary break from medieval Catholic tradition as was their stand on theology and faith. Luther was not the first monk to marry and he hesitated for some time, as he expected to be martyred. Nevertheless, unusual circumstances provided him with a bride. Luther supported efforts of fathers to remove their daughters from convents, even by force; in 1523, he praised the work of a burgher who successfully removed his daughter and eleven other nuns from a cloister, concealed in empty herring barrels. Luther felt responsible to provide nine of them, whom he sheltered in Wittenberg, with husbands and succeeded with all except one, Katherine von Bora. After two unsuccessful attempts to arrange marriages for the 26 year old former nun, Luther, at age 42, married her in 1525. Luther declared, "I would not exchange Katie for France or for Venice because God has given her to me and other women have worse faults." Maintaining themselves in the former Augustinian monastery in Wittenberg which Fredrick the Wise deeded over to them and which Katherine von Bora expertly managed, the Luthers had a happy home life and six children.

Luther married Katherina von Bora in 1525

Luther and the reformers regarded themselves as defenders of women and the goodness of marriage, rejecting the longstanding tradition of ascetic sexuality. Rather than uphold celibacy as a higher calling, Luther held that one cannot be unmarried without sin. His view of marriage was well put in a memorable statement, "There is no bond on earth so sweet or any separation so bitter as that which occurs in a good marriage." Although the reformers regarded marriage as men and women’s natural state, they did not regard it as a sacrament and did not regard it as part of humankind’s eternal destiny. Hence, they tended to take a more relativist stance with respect to marriage’s indelible character. Under medieval Catholicism, a marriage could only be dissolved or annulled and partners permitted to marry again on the grounds that the marriage had never in fact existed and that there had been an authorized dispensation attesting to the fact. However, Protestant reformers permitted divorce and remarriage on the grounds of adultery, abandonment, impotence, life-threatening hostility, or deceit prior to marriage (i.e., that a partner already had illegitimate children or was impregnated by another). Some Protestants went so far as to justify divorce due to an alienation of affection.

Luther actually counseled secret bigamy as an alternative to divorce and remarriage, doing so as early as 1521 for women with impotent husbands. This became public knowledge in 1539, when in one of the reformation’s most bizarre and scandalous episodes, Luther sanctioned a bigamous union between Philip of Hesse and a 17-year-old daughter of his sister’s court. Luther recognized that polygamy was contrary to natural law but held that it was justifiable as an exception in cases of great distress. However, he insisted that pastoral advice of this sort be kept absolutely secret. This was impossible in the case of a powerful Protestant prince like Philip of Hesse and when the affair became known it did significant damage to the Reform cause in Germany.

Luther and the Turks

Luther made numerous references to the Turks, but his most extensive treatment was his On War Against the Turks, his 1529 response to Suleiman the Magnificent’s siege of Vienna (Works, Volume 46: 155-205). He described Islam as a "patchwork of Jewish, Christian, and heathen beliefs," and saw the work of the devil behind this (177). The Turks, however, were God's scourge on European unbelief, "God's rod and the devil's servant" (170). Before fighting the Turks, repentance was a prerequisite (184). In 1532, he said that were he Samson, he would give the Turks "something to think about… Every day," Luther said, "I would kill a thousands Turks; in a year this would amount to 350,000 Turks" (Vol 54; 40).

On the other hand, he also wrote that Turks reputedly "are faithful, friendly and careful to tell the truth" among themselves, and that he thought "that they probably have more fine virtues in them than that" since "No man is so bad that there is not something good in him." However, "where there is true faith, true government and true marriage," he continued, the devil "strives earnestly to keep a little love and fidelity from appearing… so that he can put the foundation to shame" (182-3). The Turks' intolerance of images and egalitarianism was a positive trait (183), but like the Pope, the Turk "believes that he will become holy and be saved by his works" (184). The Qur'an is such a "great spirit of lies" that it leaves "almost nothing of Christian truth remaining" (181), thus the only explanation for its numerical success lies in "God's wrath" (179).

In 1542, Luther wrote the preface to a refutation of the Qur'an. It showed considerable knowledge of Islamic teaching, especially with reference to Jesus and to the Trinity. He regarded Islam's view of marriage as one of its chief failings, which it shared with the Pope; "for the devil keeps the three things—lies, murder and disregard of marriage—as the real foundation of hell" (182), and "both the Pope and the Turk are so blind and senseless that they commit the dumb sins shamelessly, as an honorable and praiseworthy thing… Since they think so lightly of marriage, it serves them right that there are ‘dog-marriages’… among them" (198)." Luther commented that he did not think his book would "make the Turk a gracious Lord [to him]…should it come to his attention" (205).

He had earlier remarked how some Germans thought they might be better off under the Turks than under the Holy Roman Emperor (193). Later, the sultan is said to have inquired about Luther, and "When told that Luther was 48 years old, the sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent replied, "I wish he were younger; he would find me a gracious lord." Presumably, the Sultan expected to subjugate Austria and Germany at some future time but thought that Luther might not live to see this happen (205; FN 129).

Luther repeatedly urged Christians to "remain steadfast in their allegiance to Christ" in the face of Muslim criticism of Christian belief. Reeves (2000) suggests that this indicated awareness of a certain vulnerability towards Islam (132). Luther saw God's hand behind historical events and was confident that God would bring about the ultimate defeat of both the Pope and Islam. This might be via a human agent, or by direct intervention; "he will also find a power against" Turk and Pope, or "reaching down from heaven He will finish them off Himself and strike them down with the Last Day" (Luther, 13: 270).

Luther and the Jews

Luther did not have extensive contact with Jews. However, he wrote about them at several stages of his career, and a late tract, On the Jews and Their Lies (1543), written three years before his death, left an unfortunate legacy. Luther's first known comment on the Jewish people is in a letter written to George Spalatin, Fredrick the Wise’s court chaplain, in 1514. He stated:

I have come to the conclusion that the Jews will always curse and blaspheme God and his King Christ, as all the prophets have predicted…. For they are thus given over by the wrath of God to reprobation, that they may become incorrigible, as Ecclesiastes says, for every one who is incorrigible is rendered worse rather than better by correction.

Luther’s attitude toward the Jews changed following his evangelical breakthrough, he saw them as God's people of the Old Testament, and he entertained hope of accomplishing their conversion. In a 1523 essay, That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew, Luther maintained that Christians "should remember that we are but Gentiles, while the Jews are of the lineage of Christ …Therefore, if one is to boast of flesh and blood the Jews are actually nearer to Christ than we are." In this vein, Luther attributed the Jews' unwillingness to convert to the abuses of the papacy. As he put it, "If I were a Jew, I would suffer the rack ten times before I would go over to the pope." In words at odds with his earlier and later writing, Luther stated,

What good can we do the Jews when we constrain them, malign them, and hate them as dogs? When we deny them work and force them to usury, how can that help? We should use toward the Jews not the pope’s but Christ’s law of love. If some are stiff-necked, what does that matter? We are not all good Christians.

Luther’s outlook changed dramatically in his later years. His health was poor. He was distressed by quarrels among reformers, and his theology had failed to transform German social and political life. On top of this, the Jews were seemingly as resistant to Protestant as they had been to the Catholic proselytizing.

News of Christians being induced to Judaize in Moravia finally set Luther off. In On the Jews and Their Lies, Luther described Jews as (among other things) "miserable, blind, and senseless," "truly stupid fools," "thieves and robbers," "lazy rogues," "daily murderers," and "vermin;" he also likened them to "gangrene." More than that, he advocated an eight-point plan to get rid of the Jews as a distinct group either by religious conversion or by expulsion: 1. "…set fire to their synagogues or schools…" 2. "…their houses also be razed and destroyed…" 3. "…their prayer books and Talmudic writings… be taken from them…" 4. "…their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb…" 5. "…safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews…" 6. "…usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them…" and "Such money should now be used in … the following [way]… Whenever a Jew is sincerely converted, he should be handed [certain amount]…" 7. "…young, strong Jews and Jewesses [should]... earn their bread in the sweat of their brow…" 8. "If we wish to wash our hands of the Jews' blasphemy and not share in their guilt, we have to part company with them. They must be driven from our country" and "we must drive them out like mad dogs." Several months after publishing On the Jews and Their Lies, Luther wrote another attack on Jews titled Schem Hamephoras, in which he explicitly equated Jews with the Devil. However, in his final sermon shortly before his death, Luther preached, "We want to treat them with Christian love and to pray for them, so that they might become converted and would receive the Lord."


Luther was the central figure of the Protestant Reformation. There were religious reformers prior to him. However, it was Luther who brought the reformation to fruition and defined its essence. Today, Luther stands in the direct line of some 58 million Lutherans and indirectly of some 400 million Protestants. He also helped set in play forces that reshaped Catholicism and ushered in the modern world.

Paralleling the ancient Israelite prophets Ezra, Nehemiah, and Malachi who reconstructed Judaism after its Babylonian captivity, Luther sought to restore Christianity’s foundation of faith following what he termed "the Babylonian Captivity of the Church." His efforts were only partially successful. Christianity rid itself of certain corrupt practices, such as the selling of indulgences, but divided into Protestant and Catholic camps. Luther was an unyielding proponent of Christian liberty, but unleashed forces that accentuated ideological chaos, the triumph of nationalism and religious intolerance.

Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone, sola fides, remains his most lasting theological contribution. It defined salvation as a new relationship with God, not based on any human work of merit but on absolute trust in the Divine promise of forgiveness for Christ’s sake. Here, Luther was a pioneer in reviving the Hebraic dimension of Christian faith that held that God’s word trumped all else. To Luther, Christianity had become Hellenized, subject to philosophy and humanistic manipulation. He believed that works-based righteousness had objectified faith, making salvation an impersonal mechanized process. His own "evangelical breakthrough" was the result of a series of intense personal encounters with scripture. In this respect, Luther restored the subjective aspect of Christian experience. His critics maintained that this led to unbridled individualism. However, it must be acknowledged that Luther’s emphasis on the subjective experience of salvation lay behind pietism, evangelical revivals of various types and even modern existentialism.

Linguistic/literary legacy

Martin Luther’s 1534 Bible

Beyond theology, Luther’s translation of the Bible was foundational in the development of modern German. Luther translated the Bible into German to make it more accessible to the common people. He began the task of translating the New Testament alone in 1521, during his stay in the Wartburg Castle. It was completed and published in September 1522. The entire Bible appeared in a six-part edition in 1534, and was a collaborative effort of Luther, Johannes Bugenhagen, Justus Jonas, Caspar Creuziger, Philipp Melanchthon, Matthäus Aurogallus, and George Rörer. Luther worked on refining the translation for the rest of his life, having a hand in the edition that was published in the year of his death, 1546. The Luther Bible, by reason of its widespread circulation, facilitated the emergence of the modern German language by standardizing it for the peoples of the Holy Roman Empire, encompassing lands that would ultimately become the nation of Germany in the nineteenth century. The Luther Bible is regarded as a landmark in German literature.

Luther's 1534 Bible translation was also profoundly influential on William Tyndale, who, after spending time with Martin Luther in Wittenberg, published an English translation of the New Testament. In turn, Tyndale's translation was foundational for the King James Bible, thus, Luther's Bible influenced the most widely used English Bible translation, the King James version.

Political legacy

Luther's political legacy is entwined with the formation of modern democracy. The teaching that an individual is ultimately accountable to God, and responsible for his or her fate, created a basis for moral self-direction that set the tone for the entire reformation. Democracy requires self-directed and self-sufficient people. His emphasis on reading the Bible and other literary works also led to the development of people capable of understanding political literature and debating political issues. Protestant families and culture nourished social dispositions ideal for the development modern democracy.

Luther’s role in the evolution of German nationalism and politics is more problematic. Luther appealed to German national pride in opposing Rome, as exemplified in his early Appeal to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation. It also indicated his high regard for German princes. The degree to which Luther was dependent upon their protection, and his inclination to side with the established order in the Peasant’s War, have led to charges of Lutheran quietism in the face of political injustice. This was consistent with Luther’s conservative social and political views as to the God-ordained nature of established society. Many have claimed that the Lutheran legacy of political quietism facilitated the rise of Nazism in twentieth century Germany. Whether or not Luther can be fairly saddled with a lack of German Protestant opposition to Hitler, it was the case that the absolute power of princes over their subjects increased considerably in the Lutheran territories.


Luther’s legacy with respect to modern antisemitism and the Holocaust is controversial. Luther did not invent antisemitism; he inherited it. Medieval pogroms and crusader violence against Jews were common. In Luther’s day, Jews already had been expelled from England, France, and Spain. Luther’s supporters have argued that Luther was vitriolic towards just about everyone, including his own parishioners, good friends, allies, opponents, and himself during his life. They also maintain that Luther’s opposition was entirely religious and in no way racial or political. Hence, they distinguish between anti-Judaism and antisemitism. Some have held anti-Judaism to be a prototype of antisemitism, and others argue that there is a direct line from Luther’s anti-Jewish tracts to the Nazi death camps.

In recent years, various Lutheran bodies have disassociated themselves from and rejected Luther’s anti-Judaic diatribes.

  • In 1983, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod made an official statement disassociating themselves from Luther's antisemitic statements.[2]
  • In 1994, the Church Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America publicly rejected Luther's writings that advocated action against practitioners of Judaism.
  • In July 1997, the Council of Presidents of the Lutheran Church of Australia published a statement on Lutherans and the Jews in which they acknowledged "that the anti-Jewish writings of Martin Luther were used by persecutors of Jews to justify their position and practices, and could be used by anti-Jewish extremists by tearing them out of their historical context."[3]
  • In May 2004, the European Lutheran Committee on the Church and the Jewish People issued a Statement on Antisemitism in which they cited the 1948 statement of the First Assembly of the World Council of Churches that "antisemitism is a sin against God and humanity" and admitted that Lutherans have "a special responsibility in the light of anti-Jewish elements in the Lutheran church."[4]

An ambiguous legacy?

The ambiguities in Luther’s legacy are rooted finally in his core theological doctrine of justification by faith alone. Though saved, Luther held that Christians are simultaneously sinners. He expressed the condition of the Christian as being simul justus et peccator (at once righteous and sinful). This paradox lies at the root of Luther’s mixed legacy. He attempted to reform the church but, in fact, divided it. He upheld public order, but within a century of his protests ferocious religious warfare associated with the Thirty Years’ War ravaged much of Germany, killing a third of its population. He promoted marriage and the family but sanctioned divorce and, in exceptional cases, even bigamy. He defended the rights of religious conscience, yet he attacked humanists, drove spiritualists out of Saxony, considered Catholics captive to the anti-Christ, and assented in the persecution of Anabaptists and Jews. Subsequent reformers, in efforts to reduce dissonance and ambiguities, supplemented Luther’s doctrine of justification with that of sanctification, seeking to sanctify society, as in the case of Calvin, or individuals, as in the case of Wesley. They, with Luther, established the major foundations of modern Protestantism.

Luther was an earthy man who spoke his mind in blunt language. Many of his comments, recorded for example in Tabletalk, were down-to-earth and provocative. This endeared him to the German public, who regarded him as one of the best orators of his day. Many of his comments grew out of specific circumstances, and Luther never intended them to be turned into systematic dogmatics, which other Lutherans did, beginning with Philipp Melancthon. Luther emphasized human fallibility, both of priests and believers, and therefore through constant preaching, hearing the Word, and continual study of the Bible, God would reveal himself in fragments. Hence, many feel there is a big difference between Luther and Lutheranism, just as there is between Christ and Christianity. Luther would probably not recognize the Lutheran Church that was (against his wishes) named for him, and had never intended his legacy to be turned into a type of orthodoxy.

Luther initiated a Reformation in Western Civilization that, combined with the Renaissance, paved the way for the modern democratic world. While demanding obedience to his teachings and his princes, he planted the idea that people are ultimately accountable to God and should glorify him through their work. This unleashed a productive work ethic and self-reliance that led to great creativity and prosperity. Protestants particularly flourished in the Netherlands and the United States, where there was religious freedom.


  1. Erik H. Erikson, Young Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History (New York, NY: W. W Norton, 1993), 204.
  2. The Luther Church, Missouri Synod, What is the Missouri Synod's response to the anti-Semitic statements made by Luther? Retrieved April 14, 2015.
  3. Jewish Christian Relations, Lutherans and Jews.
  4. Jewish Christian Relations, Statement on Antisemitism.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

Primary sources

  • Luther, Martin. "On War Against the Turks," 155- 205 in Luther's Works, Volume 46 (American Edition) edited and translated by Robert C. Schultz. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967.
  • Luther, Martin. "If Samson Would Deal with the Turks: Table Talk No 289, June 28 1532," 40, in Luther's Works, Volume 54 (American Edition), edited and translated by Theodore G. Tappert. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967.
  • Luther, Martin. Luther's Works. 55 Volumes. Various translators. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1957.

Secondary Sources

  • Bainton, Roland H. Here I Stand: a Life of Martin Luther. New York, NY: Penguin, 1995 (1950). ISBN 0452011469
  • Bornkamm, Heinrich. Luther in Mid-Career 1521-1530. E. Theodore Bachmann, trans. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1983. ISBN 0800606922
  • Bornkamm, Heinrich. Luther's World of Thought. Martin H. Bertram, trans. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1958. ISBN 0758608322
  • Brecht, Martin. Martin Luther. 3 Volumes. James L. Schaaf, trans. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1985-1993. ISBN 0800628136
  • Dickens, A.G. Martin Luther and the Reformation. New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1967.
  • Erikson, Erik H Young Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History. New York, NY: W. W Norton, reissue ed 1993. ISBN 0393310361
  • Haile, H.G. Luther: An Experiment in Biography. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1980. ISBN 0385159609
  • Hillerbrand, Hans J., ed. The Reformation: A Narrative History Related by Contemporary Observers and Participants. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1979. ISBN 0801041856
  • Kittelson, James M. Luther the Reformer: The Story of the Man and His Career. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1986. ISBN 0806622407
  • Kolb, Robert. Martin Luther As Prophet, Teacher, Hero: Images of the Reformer, 1520-1620. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2000. ISBN 0801022142
  • Manns, Peter. Martin Luther: An Illustrated Biography. New York, NY: Crossroad Publishing, 1982. ISBN 0824505107
  • Marty, Martin. Martin Luther: A Penguin Life. New York, NY: Penguin, 2004. ISBN 0670032727
  • Nohl, Frederick. Luther: Biography of a Reformer. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2003. ISBN 0758606516
  • Oberman, Heiko A. Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1989. ISBN 0385422784
  • O'Hare, Patrick F. Facts About Luther. Rockford, IL: Tan Books and Publishers, 1987. ISBN 0895553228.
  • Plass, Ewald M. This Is Luther: A Character Study. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1948. ISBN 0570039428
  • Schwiebert, E.G. Luther and His Times. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing, 1950. ISBN 0570032466
  • Siemon-Netto, Uwe. The Fabricated Luther: the Rise and Fall of the Shirer Myth. Peter L. Berger, Foreward. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing, 1995. ISBN 0570048001
  • Todd, John M. Luther: A Life. New York, NY: Crossroad Publishing, 1982. ISBN 0824504798

External links

All links retrieved November 6, 2022.


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