If you haven’t seen the movie “Luther”, you MUST watch it! It’s truly inspirational! After our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Martin Luther is one of our greatest heroes, as you should be able to discern from the name of our blog. We have decided to focus on two of the most important leaders of the Protestant Reformation because they had such a profound impact on Christendom.
For those of you who are acutely aware of Martin Luther and the tremendous role he played in the Protestant Reformation, please bear with us as we highlight Luther's background and significance in church history.
Martin Luther was born in Eisleben, Germany on November 10, 1483. His father, Hans Luther, was determined to see his eldest son, Martin, become a lawyer. In 1501, Martin matriculated at the University of Erfurt at the age of 17. He earned his master's degree in 1505. That same year, Luther honored his father's wishes by enrolling in law school; however, he dropped out almost immediately.
By divine providence, Luther was returning to the university after a trip home and got caught in a terrible thunderstorm. The date was July 2, 1505. A lightning bolt struck near him, and he cried out for help, exclaiming, "I will become a Monk!" Luther soon came to see his utterance as a vow he could never break. He left law school and entered an Augustinian friary in Erfurt about two weeks later on July 17, 1505. His father was furious over what he saw as a waste of his son's education.
Luther tried extremely hard to please God in the monastery, but the more devout he became, the more he realized his own sinfulness. He would later remark, "If anyone could have gained heaven as a monk, then I would indeed have been among them." It was a time of deep spiritual despair. Some time later Luther went to Rome on a spiritual pilgrimage. He was terribly disappointed with the moral corruption he witnessed and the “over-indulgence of indulgences”. Through divine inspiration, Luther’s eyes were opened to one of God’s most important truths – “The just shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:17) He returned home forever changed as a Christian.
Martin Luther was ordained to the priesthood in 1507, and he began teaching theology at the University of Wittenberg the following year. He continued to pursue his religious education and was awarded his Doctor of Theology on October 21, 1512. He spent the rest of his career in this position at the University of Wittenberg.
Pope Leo X, the last non-priest to be elected Pope, rose to power in 1513. He is known for his passion to reconstruct St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, primarily through the sale of indulgences. A Dominican friar named Johann Tetzel was sent to Germany by the Roman Catholic Church to sell indulgences so that funds could be raised to finance the Pope’s building project. Roman Catholic theology stated that “faith alone” cannot justify man; only when such faith is active in charity and good works can it justify man. In order to do good works, Catholics were encouraged to donate to the church.
In 1517, Tetzel drew the ire of Martin Luther, who objected to a saying attributed to Tetzel. It was as follows: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” Luther believed Tetzel to be in error because only God can forgive, not indulgence preachers! The indulgences they sold were worthless and amounted to thievery in Luther’s mind.
Martin Luther wrote to Albrecht, Archbishop of Mainz and Magdeberg with his criticisms. In his fiery letter, which came to be known as The 95 Theses, Luther boldly protested the sale of indulgences, among other things. History records that Luther also posted it on the door of All Saints’ Church (also known as Castle Church) in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. Why did Luther choose “All Hallows’ Eve” to make a public protest? November 1 is known as “All Saints Day”, and all Catholics were expected to attend mass on that day and pay their respects to the dead saints. While there they would also be viewing relics, and donations were expected for such a privilege. Of course, the money went into the Pope’s coffers in order to fund his magnificent basilica. With so many Catholics coming to All Saints Church the very next day, Luther would be maximizing the public exposure of his protest.
It’s worth mentioning that Luther’s colleague Philipp Melanchthon, who wrote an account of what happened many years later (1546), claimed that Luther posted his theses on October 31, 1517. However, some scholars have questioned Mehanchthon’s account because he was not an eye witness, having moved to Wittenberg in 1518. Furthermore, there is no contemporaneous evidence for Luther’s posting of the theses. Others feel that evidence is not necessary because it was customary at the university where Luther taught to advertise a “disputation” by posting it on the door of Castle Church.
Regardless of whether the posting happened, the 95 Theses were quickly translated from Latin to German, printed using the Guttenberg printing press, and distributed far and wide. Within two weeks, copies of Luther’s theses had circulated throughout Germany, and within two months, they had been distributed throughout Europe. His other writings circulated as well, and they reached France, England, and Italy as early as 1519. Luther developed quite a following in a rather short period of time.
The Archbishop of Mainz did not respond to Luther’s letter which contained the 96 Theses. Instead, he forwarded the letter to Rome. Pope Leo X responded slowly to Luther’s protest because he was used to reformers and heretics. One year later (October 1518), Luther met with one of the Pope’s representatives, Cardinal Cajetan. Luther was to recant what he had written, and the matter would be settled. However, the meeting did not as the Catholic hierarchy had planned, and Luther became an enemy of the Pope. Cajetan was to arrest Luther if he failed to recant, but he slipped out of the city at night and out of the clutches of the Pope’s henchmen.
Then on June 15, 1520, Pope Leo X warned Martin Luther that he risked excommunication unless he recanted 41 sentences drawn from his writings, including the 95 Theses, which was called a papal bull (edict). Luther had 60 days to recant. Not one to be intimidated, Martin Luther set fire to the bull on December 10, 1521. As a consequence, he was excommunicated by Pope Leo on January 3, 1521.
The secular authorities were then required to enforce the ban on the 41 sentences, so on April 18, 1521, Luther was ordered to appear before the Diet of Worms. Johann Eck presented Luther with copies of his writings spread out on a table and asked if they were his. Luther said they were. Then he wanted Luther to recant what he had written. Luther requested time to ponder how he might respond. He was granted one day to consider how he might answer. The following day, he stated these words, which on behalf of the Empire as assistant of the Archbishop of Trier, presented Luther with copies of his writings laid out on a table and asked him if the books were his, and whether he stood by their contents. Luther confirmed he was their author, but requested time to think about the answer to the second question. He prayed, consulted friends, and gave his response the next day. His words rocked the world. They are included here.
“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.
Luther is sometimes also quoted as saying: "Here I stand. I can do no other". Recent scholars consider the evidence for these words to be unreliable since they were placed before "May God help me" only in later versions of the speech and not recorded in witness accounts of the proceedings.
In the days that followed, conferences were held to determine Luther's fate. Charles, the Emperor, presented the final draft of the Edict of Worms on May 25, 1521, declaring Luther as an outlaw. Charles banned Luther’s literature and required that he be arrested. "We want him to be apprehended and punished as a notorious heretic," he declared. It was also a crime for anyone in Germany to give Luther food or shelter. The edict permitted anyone to kill Luther without legal consequence.
Fortunately, Frederick of Saxony was concerned for Luther’s safety and had him intercepted by masked horsemen and taken to the security of Wartburg Castle at Eisenach. Luther grew a beard and lived incognito at the castle from May 1521 until March 1522. During this time he pretended to be a knight called Junker Jorg. Luther was terribly isolated at Wartburg Castle, but he worked diligently to translate the New Testament from Greek to German.
And what happened to Pope Leo X during this time? Pope Leo died prematurely on December 1, 1521, at the age of 45. With his bitter enemy Pope Leo X dead, Luther secretly returned to Wittenberg on March 6, 1522.
Tomorrow, we will finish our biographical sketch of Martin Luther and see what lessons can be learned from his incredible example.