Martin Luther was born in 1483 into a relatively wealthy family. Martin Luther’s father was involved in the copper trade. In 1497, Luther was sent to a school in Magdeburg which was run by the Brethren of Common Life. In 1501 he went to the University of Erfurt which was a stronghold of “schoolmen”. In 1505 Luther graduated with a MA.
The “nominalists” of Erfurt claimed that Man had limited intelligence and that he could never fully understand the Divinity. A knowledge of God could only come through the revelations contained in the Bible. Luther believed that he was full of sin and the belief that God was separate from Man had an enormous impact on him.
In July 1505, Luther joined the Augustinian Friars at Erfurt – “to find God”. He joined the extremely strict Observant order and excelled in their discipline. However, he found no peace of mind. The Roman Catholic Church taught that an individual could gain favour with God by what were called “good works”. Luther believed that he, as a sinner, was condemned in the eyes of God and that nothing could help him. Despite doing many good works, Luther found no peace of mind.
In 1508, Luther was sent to the Augustinian house at Wittenburg to teach at the university.
In 1510, Luther was sent to Rome to make an appeal to the head of the Augustinian order which was the result of an internal squabble within the order itself. The head of the order was expected to a make a decision. While in the centre of Christianity, Luther used the opportunity to show his love of God when he climbed the Santa Scala on his knees. He found no peace and in fact he returned to Wittenburg in even more torment.
From 1511 to 1517, Luther lectured on the Psalms and St. Paul’s Epistles to the Romans. It was by studying these that he found the solution to his torment:
- Man could not get near to God by his own doing as Man was too sinful as original sin had driven him towards evil.
- Man could do nothing – only God could intervene to set him free from sin. Man could not force God to intervene.
- All sinners should live in hope – if God had sent Jesus into the world then he had to have faith in Man.
- Only through faith alone could you find salvation.
- There was nothing new in this as St. Paul and St. Augustine had emphasised this.
However, Luther believed that the Holy Spirit was at work in him and that this sign to him was a sign of regeneration.
By 1517, Luther was still re-assessing his thoughts when John Tetzel entered Germany selling indulgences which Luther believed would fool people into believing that they could buy their way out of sin with no thought of faith whatsoever. Also these people would believe that they were going to Heaven when in fact they would go to Hell. How could they be repentant when self-loathing and self-disgust was needed? Luther believed that there could be no short cuts to this and that God could not be fooled by sinners pretending that they were repentant. Luther’s main complaint against the Catholic Church was that it was supporting a system that left sinners in sin – and this was the institution that was meant to save lost souls!!
In October 1517, Luther pinned his “95 Theses” to a church door in Wittenburg. This was his views on indulgences. There was nothing unusual about this process. It was the standard practice to put up an idea you had for others to read and then to comment on. Luther’s work was in Latin, therefore it was not meant to be read by anyone else other than an academic. His thoughts were not a direct attack on the Catholic Church rather an attack on Tetzel and indulgences. What happened next is unclear. Someone took down the pamphlet and translated it into German and had it printed. Once in circulation the “95 Theses” gained much attention. In fact, so much attention that Luther tried to withdraw the pamphlet but he was too late.
The Archbishop of Mainz, Albrecht of Brandenburg-Hohenzollern under whom Tetzel was operating, sent a copy to Rome requesting that Luther be prohibited from expanding on his ideas. Wittenburg was in the archbishop’s diocese. Pope Leo X assumed that it was a “monkish quarrel”. He did not hold this view once he read the copy. He summoned Luther to Rome to answer charges of heresy and rebelling against church authority. The man appointed to lead the church’s attack against Luther was Cardinal Cajetan – a major intellect in the Catholic Church. Cajetan was also Papal legate in Germany.
Frederick the Wise of Saxony (Wittenburg was in Saxony) decided that Luther should not be handed over until he had a chance to defend himself. Ironically, Frederick’s collection of relics did not impress Luther! In one respect Luther had luck on his side. The Holy Roman Emperor was Maximilian. He could not intervene in this affair as he was trying to get the support of Frederick to get his son, Charles, crowned King of the Romans. Frederick was one of the seven Electors.
In October 1518, Luther went to Augsburg to argue his case against Cajetan. The latter argued that all should be obedient to the Catholic Church claiming that the church had access to the truths not contained in the Bible as it was a divine institution. Luther stood by his beliefs that if it was not contained in the Scriptures it was not relevant. Luther left Augsburg with it being obvious that there was a gulf between him and Cajetan.
Luther appealed to the General Council of the Church. This would have been a fruitless exercise but Luther was helped by the death of Maximilian in January 1519. Charles was not elected until June 1519 so from January to June the Electors had huge power and this included Frederick of Saxony. By now Luther had achieved national fame and Frederick would have been foolish to hand him over to the Catholic Church and at this point Charles was not strong enough to assert his authority.
In July 1519, Luther met the famous German theologian John Eck. Eck accused Luther of being a Hussite. Luther said that the doctrine of Hus had contained some truths and that he should not have been condemned. Luther had now moved well beyond his original position in that he 1) he denied the authority of the popes 2) he denied the authority of the general councils and 3) he re-iterated “justification by faith alone.”
In 1520 Luther developed his ideas further.
In July 1520, Leo X issued a papal Bull – “Exsurge Domine”. This condemned Luther’s beliefs and ordered the public burning of Luther’s work. Luther was ordered to recant on the threat of excommunication. Luther burnt a copy of the Bull in Wittenburg and the book of canon law. Interestingly, the Bull condemned Luther as the “bull who has got into the vineyard”……(Leo had a healthy liking for wine).
In July 1521, Luther was formally excommunicated and Charles was ordered to enforce this by the pope. Charles V was a devout catholic but he could not risk antagonising the German princes and public due to Luther’s popularity in the northern states. Charles condemned Luther’s beliefs and forbade the publication of his works. Luther was summoned to Worms to defend his case before an Imperial Diet. Luther set out from Wittenburg on April 1521 on a triumphal journey but aware that John Hus had been granted safe conduct by the authorities but had been condemned and burnt at the stake.
It was at Worms that Luther made his “Here I Stand” speech.
- Martin Luther has been one of the most influential people in history. Scroll down to access all topics Theological Terms The Roman Catholic Church in…
- Martin Luther and the German Reformation's impact on cities is difficult to generalise about as each city reacted differently to circumstances unique to it; some…