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Martin Luther

April 30, 2021

Martin Luther (1483-1546), German theologian and religious reformer, who initiated the Protestant Reformation, and whose vast influence, extending beyond religion to politics, economics, education, and language, has made him one of the crucial figures in modern European history.


Luther was born in Eisleben on November 10, 1483. He was descended from the peasantry, a fact that he often stressed. His father, Hans Luther, was a copper miner in the mining area of Mansfeld. Luther received a sound primary and secondary education at Mansfeld, Magdeburg, and Eisenach. In 1501, at the age of 17, he enrolled at the University of Erfurt, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1502 and a master’s degree in 1505. He then intended to study law, as his father wished.

In the summer of 1505, however, Luther suddenly abandoned his studies, sold his books, and entered the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt. The decision surprised his friends and appalled his father. Later in life, Luther explained it by recalling several brushes with death that had occurred at the time, making him aware of the fleeting character of life. In the monastery he observed the rules imposed on a novice but did not find the peace in God he had expected. Nevertheless, Luther made his profession as a monk in the fall of 1506, and his superiors selected him for the priesthood. Ordained in 1507, he approached his first celebration of the mass with awe.

After his ordination, Luther was asked to study theology in order to become a professor at one of the many new German universities staffed by monks. In 1508 he was assigned by Johann von Staupitz, vicar-general of the Augustinians and a friend and counselor, to the new University of Wittenberg (founded in 1502) to give introductory lectures in moral philosophy. He received his bachelor’s degree in theology in 1509 and returned to Erfurt, where he taught and studied (1509-1511). In November 1510, on behalf of seven Augustinian monasteries, he made a visit to Rome, where he performed the religious duties customary for a pious visitor and was shocked by the worldliness of the Roman clergy. Soon after resuming his duties in Erfurt, he was reassigned to Wittenberg and asked to study for the degree of doctor of theology. In 1512 he received his doctorate and took over the chair of biblical theology, which he held until his death.

Although still uncertain of God’s love and his own salvation, Luther was active as a preacher, teacher, and administrator. Sometime during his study of the New Testament in preparation for his lectures, he came to believe that Christians are saved not through their own efforts but by the gift of God’s grace, which they accept in faith. Both the exact date and the location of this experience have been a matter of controversy among scholars, but the event was crucial in Luther’s life, because it turned him decisively against some of the major tenets of the Roman Catholic Church.


Luther became a public and controversial figure when he published (October 31, 1517) his Ninety-five Theses, Latin propositions opposing the manner in which indulgences (release from the temporal penalties for sin through the payment of money) were being sold in order to raise money for the building of Saint Peter’s in Rome. Although it is generally believed that Luther nailed these theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, some scholars have questioned this story, which does not occur in any of his own writings. Regardless of the manner in which his propositions were made public, they caused great excitement and were immediately translated into German and widely distributed.

Luther’s spirited defense and further development of his position through public university debates in Wittenberg and other cities resulted in an investigation by the Roman Curia that led to the condemnation (June 15, 1520) of his teachings and his excommunication (January 1521). Summoned to appear before Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms in April 1521, he was asked before the assembled secular and ecclesiastical rulers to recant. He refused firmly, asserting that he would have to be convinced by Scripture and clear reason in order to do so and that going against conscience is not safe for anyone. (The statement “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise,” traditionally attributed to him, is most likely legendary.)

Condemned by the emperor, Luther was spirited away by his prince, the elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony, and kept in hiding at Wartburg Castle. There he began his translation of the New Testament from the original Greek into German, a seminal contribution to the development of a standard German language. Disorders in Wittenberg caused by some of his more extreme followers forced his return to the city in March 1521, and he restored peace through a series of sermons.


Luther continued his teaching and writing in Wittenberg but soon became involved in the controversies surrounding the Peasants’ War (1524-1526) because the leaders of the peasants originally justified their demands with arguments somewhat illegitimately drawn from his writings. He considered their theological arguments false, although he supported many of their political demands. When the peasants turned violent, he angrily denounced them and supported the princes’ effort to restore order. Although he later repudiated the harsh, vengeful policy adopted by the nobles, his attitude toward the war lost him many friends. In the midst of this controversy he married (1525) Katharina von Bora, a former nun. The marriage was happy, and his wife became an important supporter in his busy life.

After having articulated his basic theology in his earlier writings (On Christian Liberty,1519; To the Christian Nobility,1520; The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,1520; On the Bondage of the Will,1525), he published his most popular book, the Small Catechism, in 1529. (A translation of Luther’s writings is Luther’s Works, 56 volumes, begun in 1955.) By commenting briefly in question and answer form on the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist), the Small Catechism explains the theology of the evangelical reformation in simple yet colorful language.

Not allowed to attend the Diet of Augsburg because he had been banned and excommunicated, Luther had to leave the presentation of the reformers’ position (formulated in the Augsburg Confession, 1530) to his friend and colleague Melanchthon. Luther’s translation of the Bible from Greek into German was published in 1534. Meanwhile, his influence spread across northern and eastern Europe. His advocacy of the independence of rulers from ecclesiastical supervision won him the support of many princes (and was later interpreted in ways contrary to his original intention). His fame made Wittenberg an intellectual center.


By 1537 Luther’s health had begun to deteriorate, and he felt burdened by the resurgence of the papacy and by what he perceived as an attempt by Jews to take advantage of the confusion among Christians and reopen the question of Jesus’ messiahship. Apprehensive about his own responsibility for this situation, he wrote a violent polemic against the Jews, as well as polemics against the papacy and the radical wing of the reformers, the Anabaptists. In the winter of 1546, Luther was asked to settle a controversy between two young counts who ruled the area of Mansfeld, where he had been born. Old and sick, he went there, resolved the conflict, and died on February 18, 1546, in Eisleben.


Luther was not a systematic theologian, but his work was subtle, complex, and immensely influential. It was inspired by his careful study of the New Testament, but it was also influenced in important respects by the great 4th-century theologian Saint Augustine.

A Law and Gospel

Luther maintained that God interacts with human beings in two ways—through the law and through the Gospel.

The law represents God’s demands—as expressed, for example, in the Ten Commandments and the golden rule. All people, regardless of their religious convictions, have some degree of access to the law through their consciences and through the ethical traditions of their culture, although their understanding of it is always distorted by human sin. The law has two functions. It enables human beings to maintain some order in their world, their communities, and their own lives despite the profound alienation from God, the world, their neighbors, and ultimately themselves that is caused by original sin. In addition, the law makes human beings aware of their need for the forgiveness of sins and thus leads them to Christ.

God also interacts with human beings through the Gospel, the good news of God’s gift of his Son for the salvation of the human race. This proclamation demands nothing but acceptance on the part of the individual. Indeed, Luther argued that theology had gone wrong precisely when it began to confuse law and Gospel (God’s demand and God’s gift) by claiming that human beings can in some way merit that which can only be the unconditional gift of God’s grace.

B Sin

Luther insisted that Christians, as long as they live in this world, are sinners and saints simultaneously. They are saints insofar as they trust in God’s grace and not in their own achievements. Sin, however, is a permanent and pervasive feature in the church as well as in the world, and a saint is not a moral paragon but a sinner who accepts God’s grace. Thus, for Luther, the most respected citizen and the habitual criminal are both in need of forgiveness by God.

C The Finite and Infinite

Luther held that God makes himself known to human beings through earthly, finite forms rather than in his pure divinity. Thus, God revealed himself in Jesus Christ; he speaks his word to us in the human words of the New Testament writers; and his body and blood are received by believers (in Luther’s formulation) “in, with, and under” the bread and wine in Holy Communion (see Eucharist). When human beings serve each other and the world in their various occupations (which Luther called vocations) as mothers and fathers, rulers and subjects, butchers and bakers, they are instruments of God, who works in the world through them. Luther thus broke down the traditional distinction between sacred and secular occupations.

D Theology of the Cross

Luther asserted that Christian theology is the theology of the cross rather than a theology of glory. Human beings cannot apprehend God by means of philosophy or ethics; they must let God be God and see him only where he chooses to make himself known. Thus, Luther stressed that God reveals his wisdom through the foolishness of preaching, his power through suffering, and the secret of meaningful life through Christ’s death on the cross.

See also Christianity; Lutheranism; Protestantism.

Contributed By:
George Wolfgang Forell

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