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Martin Luther

Martin Luther (November 10, 1483 - February 18, 1546) was a Christian theologian and Augustinian monk whose teachings inspired the Lutheran and Protestant Reformations and deeply influenced the doctrines of Protestant and other Christian traditions (a broad movement composed of many congregations and church bodies). His call to the Church to return to the teachings of the Bible resulted in the formation of new traditions within Christianity and the Counter-Reformation in the Roman Catholic Church, culminating at the Council of Trent.

Luther made contributions in fields beyond religion. His translation of the Bible helped to develop a standard version of the German language and added several principles to the art of translation. Luther's hymns sparked the development of congregational singing in Christianity. His marriage, on June 13, 1525, to Katharina von Bora, a former nun, began the tradition of clerical marriage within several Christian traditions.

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

Table of contents
1 Luther's early life
2 Luther's struggle to find peace with God
3 The Evangelical Discovery
4 The 95 Theses
5 Response of the Papacy
6 Diet of Worms
7 Exile at the Wartburg Castle
8 The Peasants' War
9 Luther's German Bible
10 Luther's writings
11 Martin Luther and Judaism
12 Luther's Death
13 See also
14 Bibliography
15 External Links

Luther's early life

Martin Luther was born to Hans and Margaretha Luder on 10 November 1483 in Eisleben, Germany and was baptised the next day on the feast of St. Martin of Tours, after whom he was named. His father owned a copper mine in nearby Mansfeld. Having risen from the peasantry, his father was determined to see his son ascend to civil service and bring further honor to the family. To that end, Hans sent young Martin to schools in Mansfeld, Magdeburg and Eisenach.

At the age of seventeen in 1501 he entered the University of Erfurt. The young student received a Bachelor's degree in 1502 and a Master's degree in 1505. According to his father's wishes, Martin enrolled in the law school of that university.

All that changed during a thunderstorm in the summer of 1505. A lightening bolt struck near to him as he was returning to school. Terrified, he cried out, "Help, St. Anne! I'll become a monk!" [Brecht, vol. 1, p. 48] Spared of his life, but regretting his words, Luther kept his bargain, dropped out of law school and entered the monastery there.

Luther's struggle to find peace with God

Young Brother Martin fully dedicated himself to monastic life, the effort to do good works to please God and to serve others through prayer for their souls. Yet peace with God escaped him. He devoted himself to fasts, flagellations, long hours in prayer and pilgrimages, and constant confession. The more he tried to do for God, it seemed, the more aware he became of his sinfulness.

Johann von Staupitz, Luther's superior, concluded the young man needed more work to distract him from pondering himself. He ordered the monk to pursue an academic career. 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 9 March 1508 and a Bachelor's degree in the Sentences by Peter Lombard, (the main textbook of theology in the Middle Ages) in 1509.[Brecht, Vol. 1, p. 93]. On 19 October 1512, the University of Wittenberg conferred upon Martin Luther the degree of Doctor of Theology. [Brecht, Vol. 1, pp. 126-27].

The Evangelical Discovery

The demands of study for academic degrees and preparation for delivering lectures drove Martin Luther to study the Scriptures in depth. Heeding the call of humanism ad fontes -- "To the source" -- the professor immersed himself in the teachings of the Scripture and the early church. Slowly, terms like penance and righteousness took on new meaning. The controversy that broke loose with the publication of the 95 Theses placed even more pressure on the reformer to study the Bible. This study convinced him that the Church had lost sight of several central truths. To Luther, the most important of these was the doctrine that brought him peace with God.

With joy, Luther now believed and taught that salvation is a gift of God's grace, received by faith and trust in God's promise to forgive sins for the sake of Christ's death on the cross. This, he believed was God's work from beginning to end.

The 95 Theses

Although many have been taught that Luther nailed these theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, this notion has recently been criticized. In the 95 Theses, he objected to many policies and doctrines of the Church. Luther's action was in great part a response to the selling of indulgencess by Johann Tetzel, a Dominican priest. Luther's charges directly challenged the position of the clergy as regards individual salvation.

Response of the Papacy

Johann Eck would claim that he had forced Luther to admit the similarity between Luther's doctrine and that of John Huss, who had been burned at the stake. On January 3, 1521 Pope Leo X excommunicated Martin Luther.

Diet of Worms

Luther's views were condemned as heretical by Pope Leo X in the bull Exsurge Domine in 1520. Consequently Luther was summoned to either renounce or reaffirm them at the Diet of Worms on 17 April 1521. When he appeared before the assembly, Johann von Eck, by then assistant to the Archbishop of Trier, acted as spokesman for Emperor Charles the Fifth. He presented Luther with a table filled with copies of his writings. Eck asked Luther if he still believed what these works taught. He requested time to think about his answer. Granted an extension, Luther prayed, consulted with friends and mediators and presented himself before the Diet the next day.

When the counselor put the same question to Luther the next day, the reformer apologized for the harsh tone of many of his writings, but could not reject the majority of them or the teachings in them. According to tradition, Luther is said to have spoken these words: "Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen." The Emperor later issued his Edict of Worms, declaring Martin Luther an outlaw.

Exile at the Wartburg Castle

Luther had powerful friends among the princes of Germany, one of whom was his own prince, Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony. The prince arranged for Luther to be seized on his way from the Diet by a company of masked horsemen, who carried him to Wartburg Castle, where he was kept about a year. He grew a wide flaring beard; took on the garb of a knight and assumed the pseudonym Jörg. During this period of forced sojourn in the world, Luther was still hard at work upon his celebrated translation of the Bible, though he couldn't rely on the isolation of a monastery. During his translation, Luther would make forays into the nearby towns and markets to listen to people speak, so that he could put his translation of the Bible into the language of the people.

Although his stay at the Wartburg kept Luther hidden from public view, Luther often received letters from his friends and allies, asking for his views and advice. For example, Philipp Melanchthon wrote to him and asked how to answer the charge that the reformers neglected pilgrimages, fasts and other traditional forms of piety. Luther's replied: "If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2. Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign." [Letter 99.13, To Philipp Melanchthon, 1 August 1521.] [1]

The Peasants' War

The Peasants' War (1524-1525) was in many ways a response to the preaching of Luther and other reformers. Revolts by the peasantry had existed on a small scale since the 14th century, but many peasants mistakenly believed that Luther's attack on the Church and its hierarchy meant that the reformers would support an attack on the social hierarchy as well. Because of the close ties between the hereditary nobility and the princes of the Church that Luther condemned, this is not surprising. Revolts that broke out in Swabia, Franconia, and Thuringia in 1524 gained support among peasants and some disaffected nobles. Gaining momentum and a new leader in Thomas Münzer, leader of the Anabaptists, a radical reform movement, the revolts turned into an all-out war. 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 came out forcefully against the revolt, encouraging the nobility to visit swift and bloody punishment upon the peasants. Many of the revolutionaries considered Luther's words a betrayal. Others withdrew once they realized that there was neither support from the Church nor from its main opponent. The war in Germany ended in 1525, when rebel forces were put down by the armies of the Swabian League.

Luther's German Bible

Luther translated the New Testament into German. He used the recent critical Greek edition of Erasmus, a text which was later called textus receptus. The translation was published in 1521.

The translation of the Old Testament followed in 1534. He chose to omit parts of the Old Testament that were found in the Greek Septuagint but not in the Hebrew Masoretic texts then available. Those parts were eventually omitted by nearly all Protestants, and are known in Protestant circles as the Apocrypha. See Biblical canon.

Luther's writings

Autograph of Martin Luther
The number of books attributed to Martin Luther is nothing short of impressive. However, some Luther scholars contend that many of the works were at least drafted by some of his good friends like Melanchthon. Luther's fame provided a much larger potential audience than his -- at least as learned -- friends could have obtained under their own name. His books explain the settings of the epistles and show the conformity of the books of the Bible to each other. Of special note would be his writings about the Epistle to the Galatians in which he compares himself to the Apostle Paul in his defense of the Gospel (for example the faith-building commentary in Luther and the Epistle to the Galatians). Luther also wrote about church administration and wrote much about the Christian home.

Luther's work contains a number of statements that modern readers would consider rather crude. It should be remembered that Luther received many communications from throughout Europe from people who could write anonymously, that is, without the spectre of mass media making their communications known. No public figure today could write in the manner of the correspondences Luther received or in the way Luther responded to them. Opinions today can be immediately shared electronically with a wide audience. One such statement would not be heard from most modern pastors. He regularly told the Devil to kiss his posterior.

Martin Luther and Judaism

Luther initially preached tolerance towards the Jewish people, convinced that the reason they had never converted to Christianity was that they were discriminated against, or had never heard the Gospel of Christ. However, after his overtures to Jews failed to convince Jewish people to adopt Christianity, he began preaching that the Jews were set in evil, anti-Christian ways, and needed to be expelled from the German body politic. In his On the Jews and Their Lies, he repeatedly quotes the words of Jesus in Matthew 12:34, where Jesus called them "a brood of vipers and children of the devil". In the book written three years before his death, he listed seven recommendations to deal with the Jews.

I shall give you my sincere advice: First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. (...)
Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed. For they pursue in them the same aims as in their synagogues. Instead they might be lodged under a roof or in a barn, like the gypsies. (...)
Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.
Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb. (...)
Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. (...)
Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them and put aside for safekeeping. (...)
Seventh, I recommend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow, as was imposed on the children of Adam (Gen. 3:19).

In spite of these seven recommendations, he added:

But if we are afraid that they might harm us or our wives, children, — servants, cattle, etc., if they had to serve and work for us — for it is reasonable to assume that such noble lords of the world and venomous, bitter worms are not accustomed to working and would be very reluctant to humble themselves so deeply before the accursed Goyim -- then let us emulate the common sense of other nations such as France, Spain, Bohemia, etc., compute with them how much their usury has extorted from us, divide, divide this amicably, but then eject them forever from the country. For, as we have heard, God's anger with them is so intense that gentle mercy will only tend to make them worse and worse, while sharp mercy will reform them but little. Therefore, in any case, away with them!

Luther's harsh comments about the Jews are seen by many as a continuation of medieval Christian anti-Semitism, and as the above quote shows, reflects earlier anti-Semitic expulsions in the
14th century, when Jews from other countries like France and Spain were invited into Germany. When Luther writes that the Jews should be expelled from his homeland, he expresses widespread feelings of his times.

Luther was zealous toward the Gospel, and he wanted to protect the people of his homeland from the Jews who he believed would be harmful influences since they did not recognize Jesus as their Saviour. In Luther's time, parents had a right and a duty to direct their children's marriage choices in respect to matters of faith. Likewise, Luther felt a duty to direct his German people to cling to the Jesus the Jews did not accept. It should be noted that church law was superior to civil law in Luther's day and that law said the penalty of blasphemy was death. When Luther called for the deaths of Jews, he was asking that the laws that were applied to all other Germans also be applied to the Jews. Jews were exempt from the church laws that Christians were bound by, most notably the law against charging interest.

In 1994, the Church Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America publicly rejected the parts of Luther's writings that advocated government action against practitioners of Judaism. In 1983, the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod made an official statement([1]) regarding the subject of Luther's statements and anti-Semitism.

Luther's Death

"Know that no one can have indulged in the Holy Writers sufficiently, unless he has governed churches for a hundred years with the prophets, such as Elijah and Elisha, John the Baptist, Christ and the apostles... We are beggars: this is true." [The Last Written Words of Luther][1]

See also

  1. John Calvin
  2. Christian antisemitism
  3. John Huss
  4. Lutheran church
  5. Philipp Melanchthon
  6. Johann Tetzel
  7. Huldreich Zwingli



  1. Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: a Life of Martin Luther, New York: Penguin, 1995, c1950. 336 p. ISBN 0452011469.
  2. Martin Brecht, Martin Luther, James L. Schaaf, trans. Philadelphia : Fortress Press, c1985-1993. 3 v. ISBN 0800628136, ISBN 0800628144, ISBN 0800628152.
  3. Hans J. Hillerbrand, ed. The Reformation: A Narrative History Related by Contemporary Observers and Participants. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1979.
  4. Uwe Siemon-Netto, The Fabricated Luther: the Rise and Fall of the Shirer myth, Foreword by Peter L. Berger. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, c1995. ISBN 0570048001.
  5. Luther's Works, 55 volumes of lectures, commentaries and sermons, translated into English and published by Concordia Publishing House and Fortress Press, 1957; released on CD-ROM, 2001.


  1. 1953: Martin Luther, theatrical film, with Niall MacGinnis as Luther; directed by Irving Pichel. Academy Award nominations for black & white cinematography and art/set direction. Rereleased in 2002 on DVD in 4 langauges.
  2. 1973: Luther, theatrical film (MPAA rating: PG), with Stacey Keach as Luther.
  3. 1992: Where Luther Walked, documentary directed by Ray Christensen.
  4. 2001: Opening the Door to Luther, travelogue hosted by Rick Steves. Sponsored by the ELCA.
  5. 2002: Martin Luther, a historical film from the Lion TV/PBS Empires series, with Timothy West as Luther, narrated by Liam Neeson and directed by Cassian Harrison.
  6. 2003: Luther: Rebel. Genius. Liberator theatrical release (MPAA rating: PG-13), with Joseph Fiennes as Luther and directed by Eric Till. Partially funded by American and German Lutheran groups.

External Links

Original Texts

Writings of Luther and contemporaries, translated into English
  1. Project Wittenberg archive of Lutheran documents [1]
  2. Full text of the 95 Theses[1]
  3. Full text of On The Jews And Their Lies[1]

Online Resources

Online information on Luther and his work
  1. KDG Wittenberg's Luther site (7 languages) [1]
  2. Luther Memorial Foundation of Saxony Anhalt (German/English) [1]
  3. Martin Luther PBS movie [1]
  4. Luther: Rebel. Genius. Liberator theatrical release [1]

Lutheran Publishers

English-language publishers of books on Luther and Lutheran theology
  1. Concordia Publishing House [1]
  2. Fortress Press [1]
  3. Northwestern Publishing House [1]