Martin Luther's Life (1483-1546)


Drawn from Mark Edwards and George Tavard, Luther: A Reformer for the Churches. An Ecumenical Study Guide (Fortress Press and Paulist Press, 1983), chapter 2 (written by Mark Edwards). Copyright © Fortress Press, 1983.


Martin Luther was born in Eisleben on 10 November. There is some debate about the year—Luther himself was unsure!—but 1483 is generally accepted. His father, Hans, was a copper miner, with time a mine operator of sufficient reputation to become a town councilor in Mansfeld, where the Luthers moved shortly after Martin’s birth. His mother was born a Lindemann, a leading burgher family in Eisenach. His father was hard-driving, going places, and nursed ambitions for his oldest surviving son: Martin was to be a lawyer. His mother may have strongly seconded these ambitions, given her family background. The Lindemanns sent their children to university; of Luther’s cousins two became pastors, two lawyers, one a physician, two schoolmasters, one a university docent, and three public officials. Luther parents, and especially his mother, were pious, god-fearing folk, who raised their son with strictness but also with obvious love and warmth. Although Hans Luther came originally of peasant stock, Luther grew up in a solidly bourgeois family.

Intended for a professional career, Luther was well schooled, seven years at the Latin school at Mansfeld, a year in Magdeburg, three in Eisenach surrounded by his Lindemann kin. In 1501 he enrolled at the University of Erfurt. There he received his bachelor’s degree in 1502 and his master’s degree in 1505, finishing second among seventeen candidates.

In later life he remembered with disapproval an experience in Magdeburg when he was fourteen. There he saw a former duke of Anhalt who had abandoned the world for a life of penance and self-denial as a monk. To the older Luther, this was a deluded attempt at works-righteousness. To the adolescent boy, however, this must have seemed exemplary piety. Certainly, the sermons he would have heard growing up, stressed above all else the reality and unpredictability of one’s own death and the imperative need to lead a life of contrition, a life of sincere, heart-felt sorrow for one’s sins, a life conformed to the discipline of the church, a search for grace through prayer, participation in the sacraments, fasting, and physical self-denial. The duke was living the ideal. In general he was a thoughtful young man, given to pondering the meaning of life; his friends at the university nicknamed him “the philosopher.”

The Monastery

It was probably this brooding thoughtfulness, fed by the many sermons on the nearness of death and on God’s demand for a life of repentance, and galvanized into decision by a personal brush with death, that led Luther in the summer of 1505 to abandon his study of law and enter a monastery. Although his father strongly disapproved, and questioned the soundness of Luther’s decision, this step into the monastery was consistent with the best and all but universal thinking of the day that saw the monastic life the most pleasing to God, the foremost means to advance in charity, to become a true and acceptable child of God.

This monastic life did not mean, except figuratively, a complete flight from the world. Recognizing Luther’s talents, his order, the Reformed Congregation of the Eremitical Order of St. Augustine, set him to studies. In 1507 he was made priest and said his first mass. He also returned to the class room, to study and to teach. In 1508 he lectured briefly on the Nichomachean Ethics of Aristotle at the fledgling University of Wittenberg. Back in Erfurt he continued to study for his doctorate in theology, interrupted only by a brief journey on foot to Rome on business for his order. In 1511 he returned to Wittenberg, was made doctor of theology in 1512, and immediately joined the faculty of the university. In later years when he was challenged for his presumptuousness in attacking the teachings of the Catholic church, he found support and comfort in his doctoral oath to oppose “strange doctrines” that were “offensive to pious ears,” and in his public call to teach at the university; he had only done, he claimed, what he had sworn and been called to do.

Indulgences and the Break With Rome

Luther’s responsibility as professor was to lecture on the Bible. From 1513 to 1515 he lectured on the Psalms, from 1515 to 1516 on Romans, from 1516 to 1517 on Galatians, from 1517 to 1518 on Hebrews. In 1519 he began a second series of lectures on the Psalms. During these same years he was given considerable responsibility within his order, and, from 1514, had the responsibility to preach in the Wittenberg Parish church.

Until 1518 Luther was known only in academic and clerical circles. His lectures show him to be from the beginning a talented and original interpreter of the Bible. In his theology, he had left largely behind the nominalism of his teachers and instead advocated an Augustinian approach to salvation, insisting that man’s salvation depended entirely on the unmerited gift of God’s grace. He and his colleagues at the little university of Wittenberg (enrollment 200 at the time Luther joined the faculty!) had also made a reputation for themselves for their advocacy of curriculum reform. They wished to replace the traditional study of Aristotle and scholastic theology with a curriculum based on the ancient sources, especially the Bible and the writings of the early church fathers such as Augustine. But it was not university reform or academic theology, but rather a pastoral matter, his objection to a nearby sale of indulgences to members of his and other congregations, that propelled Luther from his “little corner” at Wittenberg onto the stage of world history.

Indulgences were tied to the sacrament of penance. A sinful Christian was expected to feel true sorrow for his sins, confess them to a priest, receive absolution, and then undertake the works of penance or satisfaction imposed on him by the priest. The works of satisfaction imposed on the penitent were limited, temporal penalties for the sins that, without the priest’s absolution, would have condemned the individual to eternal punishment in hell. These works of satisfaction could be such things as special prayers, fasts, self-imposed corporal punishment, or pilgrimages. If a penitent failed to complete the satisfaction owed, he would suffer in purgatory for his omissions. By the later Middle Ages a penitent could purchase an indulgence, with the money going to some “good cause” such as the construction of a church. The indulgence would release him from the satisfaction he owed by drawing on the “excess” merits of Christ and the saints to pay his “debt” to God. This “treasury of merits” was in the control of the pope, who could dispense from it as he saw fit. By Luther’s day the church also taught that indulgences could also be purchased by the living for those already in purgatory, thereby accelerating their journey to heaven.

On 31 March 1517 Pope Leo X authorized the primate of Germany, Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz, to sell throughout much of northern Germany the St. Peter’s indulgence. The proceeds were to be divided between the construction of St. Peter’s in Rome and the retiring of Albrecht’s debts, which he had contracted in acquiring the Archbishopric of Mainz while being both underage and the possessor of two other bishoprics. In the late summer of 1517 the indulgence seller John Tetzel was peddling his wares just across the border from Electoral Saxony and some of Luther’s own parishioners crossed over to make a purchase.

From what he heard of Tetzel’s sermons and what he read of the Instruction under which Tetzel was operating, Luther became convinced that the purchasers of the indulgences were being seriously misled, perhaps even to their damnation. So on 31 October 1517 he send a humble but firm letter of protest to Archbishop Albrecht, enclosing with the letter a list of Ninety-Five theses on the power and efficacy of indulgences to show how problematic this sale of indulgences was. He also sent a copy of the letter and theses to his own bishop, Jerome Schulze of Brandenburg. The theses themselves were for academic debate. There is some doubt that the debate was ever held. Some historians also question the evidence for the posting of the Ninety-Five theses on the Wittenberg Castle Church door, the university’s bulletin board!

Historians do know that when Luther wrote his Ninety-Five Theses, he had no intention of breaking with the church or attacking the legitimate authority of the papacy. His concern was theological and pastoral. From his reading of Scripture, especially St. Paul, and his study of the early church fathers such as Augustine, Luther was convinced that the repentance that Christ taught was an unending life of repentance that expressed itself inwardly in the hatred of one’s sinful self and outwardly in mortifications of the flesh. A Christian who is truly sorry for his or her sins, seeks and desires punishment. To urge people to seek to escape punishment through indulgence is to lead them away from true repentance and into a dangerous, perhaps damning sense of false security. Good works of love were far preferable to indulgences. Luther denied that the pope had authority to release those in purgatory (except through prayers of intercession) or to forgive penalties that he himself had not imposed. To claim otherwise was to engender a false trust and to encourage people to lose the salutary and necessary fear of God.

By early 1518 the Ninety-Five Theses had been made public, translated into German, and were circulating throughout the empire. Response was quick. Archbishop Albrecht sent the theses to Rome with a note suggesting that Luther was spreading “new teachings.” Opponents, including John Tetzel, took up their pens to attack Luther, and the issue they seized on for their attack was not indulgences per se but the pope’s power to grant indulgences. Against Luther’s own wishes and expectation, the indulgence controversy was gradually transformed into a controversy over papal authority.

Driven step by step by opponents Luther clarified his thinking on papal authority. Popes were men like any other men, he argued in early 1518, and could err in faith and morals; their opinions must be tested against Scripture, church fathers, and councils. In late summer, 1518, he was challenged in writing by Sylvester Prierias, the pope’s theological advisor, with the assertion that the head of the universal church is the pope who cannot err in matters of faith, that all those who fail to recognize this authority are heretics, and that even Sacred Scripture draws its strength from the authority of the pope. Luther was unimpressed by his argument but disturbed that now the papacy itself had apparently taken a stand against him. On 7 August 1518 Luther received a summons to Rome, there to answer for his teachings. Elector Frederick was able, however, to transfer Luther’s examination from Rome to Augsburg, where the imperial diet was meeting. In October Luther met in Augsburg with the papal legate and Thomistic theologian, Cajetan. In their meeting Cajetan answered Luther’s appeal to Scripture and cogent reason with the assertion that the power of the pope was superior to councils, Scripture, and everything else in the church. Cajetan also challenged Luther’s assertion that if a penitent trusted in Christ’s words of forgiveness uttered by the priest in the sacrament of penance, he or she could be certain of his or her forgiveness. No one could be certain of forgiveness, Cajetan insisted. On his way home from Augsburg, Luther learned that the pope had ordered his arrest and recantation even before his meeting with Cajetan in Augsburg. In the aftermath of Augsburg, Luther appealed, first, from a badly informed pope to a better informed pope, and then, from the pope to a council.

In was in the midst of this controversy that Luther’s understanding of justification by faith alone crystallized into his mature position. Historians have spent endless hours and spilled oceans of ink on the exact timing and content of Luther’s “Reformation breakthrough.” Suffice it to say here that his theology developed over time. As Luther himself said, “I did not learn my theology all at one time; rather I had to dig for it ever deeper and deeper where my trials took me.” Aspects of his mature position can be found in the earliest of his lectures, others make their appearance only after the outbreak of the indulgences controversy. But at some point, by Luther’s report, they all came together and Luther experienced incredible relief. “Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates!” Buoyed up by his discovery, he returned to the fray with renewed assurance. He would cling to his understanding even if it meant death or burning or exile. It would be so easy to say ‘I recant,’ Luther wrote his colleague Karlstadt on the even of the third session with Cajetan. “But I will not become a heretic by recanting the belief that has made me a Christian.”

By late 1519 Luther was beginning to share with close friends his suspicion that the antichrist predicted by St. Paul (2 Thessalonians chapter 2) might be ruling in Rome. Although increasingly pessimistic about his chances of reaching an agreement, he continued to negotiate with Catholic authorities. By mid-summer, 1519, however, he had gone public with his criticism of papal claims to authority, prompted by an attack by the Catholic Professor and Theologian John Eck. To Eck’s claim that the pope and the Roman church had always been superior to all other church’s and Christ’s vicar on earth, Luther insisted that the history of the last fifteen hundred years, the Council of Nicea, and the Scripture itself all proved otherwise. Not only could popes err, their claim to rule by divine right was a fraud perpetrated by “flatters” of the pope. In debate with Eck at Leipzig in early July, 1519, Luther went one step further when he asserted that not only popes could err but also councils. Specifically, the Council of Constance had erred when it had condemned several articles of the Bohemian Huss, which were “most Christian and evangelical.” Scripture had become the sole touchstone by which all other authorities were judged.

The year 1520 saw Luther and the Roman church take their final leave of each other. For his part Luther published a series of treatises that spelled out his understanding of true Christianity and attacked all the perversions that he believed that the papacy, the antichrist, had introduced into the church. The three greatest of these treatises are a call for renewal within Christianity, and a call for resistance against papal tyranny: To the Nobility of the German Nation, On the Improvement of the Christian Estate, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, The Freedom of a Christian.

On 11 October 1520 Luther received the papal bull Exsurge, Domine, threatening him with excommunication if, within sixty days, he had not recanted. On 10 December the students of the University of Wittenberg were invited to witness “a pious and religious spectacle, for perhaps now is the time when the antichrist must be revealed.” A bonfire was kindled outside the gates of the town and Martin Luther committed the bull to the flames. On 3 January 1521 he was formally excommunicated by the pope.

The next step for his Catholic opponents was to have Luther placed under the imperial ban, declared outlaw. But according to the agreements that Emperor Charles had reached with the princes as partial price of his election, no subject could be placed under the ban without a formal hearing. While the behind-the-scenes maneuvering was fierce, Luther’s prince, Elector Frederick, was able to secure a hearing for Luther at the imperial diet meeting in Worms.

Luther’s appearance before the Diet of Worms (see chapter 1) marks the end of the first phase of the Reformation movement. Against his will, Luther had been expelled from the Roman Catholic church. But the task of reforming the church had just begun.

Defining a Movement

On his journey home from the Diet of Worms, Luther was “kidnapped” by some of Elector Frederick’s men and spirited away to the Wartburg, one of the Elector’s castles, to keep him safely from the hands of Catholic authorities. After the hectic pace of the last several years, his stay on the Wartburg gave him the time to think, and also to brood and to gain weight and to become sick. In later years Luther suffered from similar bouts of depression (battles with the devil, Luther called them), and he was often gnawed by the question, “Are you alone wise?” The emaciated monk gave way over the years to the fat doctor. And his health, delicate even as a monk, gradually declined. In later years he suffered from constipation, diarrhea, hemorrhoids, dizziness and ringing in his ears, an ulcer on his leg, kidney stones, and heart problems.

But depression, over-eating, and ill health hardly slowed his enormous productivity. Excluding Bible translations, Luther produced some 360 published works from 1516 to 1530. From 1531 to his death in 1546 he added another 184 publications to this incredible total. At the same time he lectured regularly at the university, preached for long stretches in the Parish church, wrote hundreds of letters, advised his princes in numerous written memoranda, and closely followed the events of his day. The critical edition of his works runs to well over one hundred large folio volumes! The following overview cannot even touch on all the highlights of his later years.

While on the Wartburg Luther continued the process of spelling out and justifying the reforms that flowed, inexorably he felt, from his understanding of justification by faith alone. He wrote a commentary on the Magnificat, honoring Mary as the Mother of God while insisting on the exclusive role of grace in her elevation. He wrote a treatise on confession, in which he rejected mandatory confess even as he recommended voluntary confession as an aid to troubled consciences. In another treatise he rejected monastic vows and enforced clerical celibacy as species of works righteousness that deluded people into looking to themselves rather than to Christ for salvation. All vocations were equal in God’s sight if done in faith and with love for one’s neighbor. Celibacy was a gift God gave to a few; it was praiseworthy but it contributed nothing to salvation. He also continued work on his Psalms commentary, wrote a wonderful collection of sermons for the Advent season, and lashed out in several treatises against Catholic opponents. Most significant of all, he translated the New Testament into German for all Germans to read in their mother tongue.

In the spring of 1522 Luther returned to Wittenberg to bring under control a reform movement that had become unruly (see chapter 5). Once back, he was home to say. Except for several short trips and a more extended stay at the Coberg in 1530 during the Diet of Augsburg, he was to live the rest of life in Wittenberg.

Once back Luther steered the reform movement in a more moderate direction. He was basically a conservative, preserving the status quo except where he felt that the Gospel demanded otherwise, and moving slowly even then. He rejected the idea of the Mass as a sacrifice, the doctrine of the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, the practice of private masses where there were no communicants, and the withholding of the communion cup from the laity. Yet he instituted each of these reforms only after considerable instruction from the pulpit and only after the laity had been given time to adjust to the changes. In his German Mass he retained as much of the traditional ceremony as he could.

Attempts by Catholic princes, such as Duke George of Saxony, to restrict access to Luther’s German Bible and other harassments of Protestant laity by Catholic rulers led Luther in 1523 to issue an important treatise, On Secular Authority, To What Extent It Should be Obeyed. He argued that God had established two “kingdoms.” Within the spiritual kingdom, God rules through the Word, the Gospel of Christ. Within the worldly kingdom, God rules through secular authorities, who bear the sword. God is lord of both kingdoms and rules in both, but they must not be confused. Secular authorities with their sword should not meddle in the spiritual kingdom where the Word is the only coercive force; similarly, the ministers of the Word should not meddle in the secular kingdom where the sword coerces evil does. Where there is a mixing, there you can find Satan at work. Under this schema Luther was able, on the one hand, to attack the papacy for meddling in secular matters, and, on the other hand, to criticize the peasants a few years later for attempting to use the Gospel to support their secular demands (see chapter 5).

In 1524 and 1525 he was forced to respond to the first major splits within the Protestant ranks and to the popular uprising known as the Peasants’ War (see chapter 5). At the peak of the uprising and expecting imminent death, Luther decided to offer Satan further defiance: he married. He had advocated marriage for other clerics for nigh on five years, but for a variety of reasons he had hesitated to practice what he preached. In 1523 he had indirectly assisted twelve nuns to escape from a convent near Grimma. Three returned to their families. For eight of the remaining nine Luther found suitable husbands, but for the ninth, Katherina von Bora, he found no one she would accept besides Wittenberg’s pastor, John Bugenhagen, and himself. And so, at age forty-two he married twenty-six year old Kate, not out of love or sexual desire, but to please his father who liked the idea of grandchildren, to spite the pope who forbad clerical marriage, and to witness to his convictions before his martyrdom! From this inauspicious beginning there did develop bonds of love and respect. The Protestant parsonage found its first model. The Luthers had six children, four of which survived to adulthood. Kate Luther took over the management of the former Augustinian cloister, where Luther lived. In later years it always teemed with student borders, orphaned relatives, and frequent long and short term guests, and Kate kept it running despite her husband’s imprudent generosity, which, on occasion, threatened to break the Luthers’ meager budget. She ran the house, her domain, with firmness. Punning on her name, Luther occasionally called her teasingly “my chain” (mea catena) and “my lord.” But he displayed his deep affection for his wife when he called his favorite Pauline epistle, the letter to the Galatians, “my Katherina von Bora.” No feminist in the twentieth-century sense, he nevertheless had a very high regard for women, for marriage, and for sexual relations within marriage. The misogyny of the Middle Ages found little echo in Luther.

1525 also saw the publication of On the Bondage of the Will, his reply to On the Freedom of the Will by the great humanist, Erasmus. The next several years saw the vituperative conflict with the Swiss and South German Protestants over the Lord’s Supper (see chapter 5).

Building a Church

In the later years of the decade the Reformation movement began the transition from movement to institution. It is one thing to formulate a new vision of the Christian faith and quite another to give this vision form so that it may be passed on to your children and your children’s children. Beginning in the later 1520s Luther and his supporters began the task of creating the Lutheran church.

First there was the need to define Lutheran beliefs. In 1529 Luther issued the Small and the Large Catechism to bring the fundamentals of Lutheran Christianity to a population that in distressing numbers was ignorant of even the basics of Christianity. In 1530 his colleague and co-worker, Philip Melanchthon, penned an enduring summary of the Lutheran faith to be presented to the emperor, the Augsburg Confession. Meant to approach the Catholic position as closely as possible without surrendering any crucial issue, the Confession laid out concisely the areas of agreement and disagreement. No mention was made of the pope. Seven years later, when the possibility of reconciliation seemed remote and the need for diplomacy less urgent, a new section was added rejecting papal claims of authority within the church and the world and identifying the papacy with the antichrist.

As the institution developed, the politicians gradually took over. In 1531 the League of Schmalkalden was formed to defend the Protestant states against possible Catholic attack. In 1536 the Lutherans and Southern Germans reached a concord on the Lord’s Supper, that, not incidentally, also regularized the military alliance between the two. In 1535 the papacy finally announced its intention to convene a general council of the church to settle the schism. It took in fact another ten years for the council actually to convene at Trent. This papally controlled council was rejected by the Protestant princes for both religious and political reasons, although their theologians, including Luther, argued that they should attend. In 1539 war threatened between the Protestant and Catholic estates, and the League of Schmalkalden skirmished with the Catholic Duke Henry of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel in 1542 and again in 1545.

Luther was much involved in these political maneuvering, but he also continued his theological and pastoral labors. In 1534 he and his colleagues completed their German translation of the Bible. Luther lectured regularly, helping the University of Wittenberg prepare the hundreds of new pastors needed to bring the reformation down to the grass roots. In 1539 he produced his masterwork On the Councils and the Church, in which he spelled out his understanding of councils and church from the standpoint of Scripture and history.

Luther was profoundly disquieted by events in these later years, seeing everywhere the signs that the end of the world was at hand. To do his part in these final days he issued ferocious “last testaments” against the papacy, the Turks, the ‘fanatics,’ and the Jews. Yet despite his pessimism and discouragement, Luther remained involved and productive to his death. He preached and lectured, wrote treatises and letters, offered advice and counsel to princes and common people. Finally, while in Mansfeld settling a feud between the local counts, he died of heart failure on 18 February 1546. One of the last things he jotted down was his musings about the limits of our knowledge.

No one can understand Virgil in his Bucolics unless he has been a herdsman for five years.

No one can understand Virgil in his Georgics unless he has been a farmer for five years.

No one can fully understand Cicero in his letters unless he has spend twenty-five years in a great commonwealth.

Let no one think that he had sufficiently tasted Holy Scripture, unless he has governed the churches with the prophets, such as Elijah and Elisha, John the Baptist, Christ, and the Apostles, for a hundred years.

Touch not this divine Aeneid.

Rather, fall on your knees and worship at its footsteps.

We are beggars, that’s the truth.”