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Martin Luther

1. Martin Luther (b. 1483) is one of the few individuals of whom it may be said that the history of the world was profoundly altered by his work. For centuries an object of fierce attacks by Roman Catholic detractors, Luther is today widely honored in Catholic circles as a genuine man of religion and a worth partner in theological dialogue. The young Luther felt strongly a deep sense of sinfulness and anxiety. He was profoundly moved by the sudden death of a classmate and by a narrow escape from lightning while returning from a trip home, he made a vow to St. Anne to become a monk. In the monastic life Luther won speedy recognition and was ordained into the priesthood in 1507. The next year he was in Wittenberg lecturing on Aristotle's ethics and preparing for a future professorship in the university there. He then entered upon a series of exegetical lectures on the Psalms (1513-1515), Roman (1515-1516), Galatians (1516-1517), and Hebrews (1517-1518). In the course of his doctrinal studies, and in preparing for his early lectures, Luther familiarized himself with all the exegetical, mystical, and Scholastic traditions of medieval theology, as well as with the new humanistic scholarship of Reuchlin and Erasmus. His so-called "evangelical breakthrough" which scholars have often attempted to date with misplaced precision, extended over a period of years, from his first Psalms lectures of 1513-1515 to his second course of Psalm lectures in late 1518. During this period his position took on increasing clarity and certainty, not least owing to his involvement in the controversy over indulgences and his ensuing trial before church authorities. Whereas in 1515-1516 Luther could still speak of the faith that justifies as one shaped by humility, by early 1519 he was consistently teaching that the sinner is justified before God by faith alone, that is, by absolute dependence on and trust in the Gospel of free forgiveness, the "Word of God".

2. In late 1517 Luther felt compelled to speak up against an abuse. Pope Leo X (1513-1521) had earlier issued an allowance permitting Albrecht of Brandenburg (1490-1545) to hold at the same time three bishop positions. This dispensation from the church regulation against "pluralism" (multiple offices) cost Albrecht a great sum of money (which he paid to the pope), which he borrowed from the Augsburg banking house of Fugger. To repay this loan, Albrecht was also permitted to share half the proceeds in his district from the sale of indulgences that the papacy had been issuing, since 1506, for building the new basilica of St. Peter (which is still one of the ornaments of Rome). A commissioner for this collection was Johann Tetzel (1470-1519), a Dominican monk of eloquence, who, intent on the largest possible returns, painted the benefits of indulgences in the crassest terms. Luther had no knowledge of the financial transactions between Albrecht and the pope. His objections were pastoral and theological, namely, that indulgences create a false sense of security and are thus destructive of true Christianity, which proclaims the cross of Christ and of the Christian, not release from deserved punishment. As Tetzel approached Saxony (Luther's district), he was not allowed to enter, and Luther preached against the abuse of indulgences and prepared his memorable "95 Theses", copies of which he sent on October 31, 1517 to Archbishop Albrecht.

3. Luther had not anticipated the uproar. A formidable opponent soon appeared in the person of the able Johann Maier of Eck (1468-1543). Luther was charged with heresy. He defended his position in a sermon entitled "Indulgence and Grace". By the beginning of 1518 formal charges against Luther had been lodged in Rome by Archbishop Albrecht and the Dominicans. Luther was ordered before the general chapter of the order of Augustinians at Heidelberg in April 1518. Here, in his important "Heidelberg Theses" Luther argued against free will and the control of Aristotle in theology and outlined the leading features of his "theology of the cross". Here he also won new adherents, of whom the most important were Martin Bucer (1491-1551) and Johannes Brenz (1499-1570), later the reformers of Straussburg and Wurttemberg, respectively. His case would have ended in his speedy condemnation had he not had the powerful protection of his prince, the elector Frederick. Owing to Frederick's political skill, Luther was granted a hearing before the papal legate at the Reichstag in Augsburg. The result of this hearing was the order to Luther to retract his teaching, and order which Luther refused and on October 20 he fled from Augsburg.

4. Luther's great accomplishment of the year 1520 was the preparation of three epoch-making works. The first of these treatises was published in August and entitled "To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation". Written with burning conviction by a master of the German language, this treatise soon spread throughout the breadth of the empire. It declared that the three "walls" by which the papacy had buttressed its power were now overthrown. The pretended superiority of the spiritual to the temporal estate (the first wall) is baseless, since all believers are priests by virtue of baptism. The truth of universal priesthood casts down the second wall as well, that of exclusive papal right to interpret Scriptures; and the third wall also, that a reformatory council can be called by none but the pope. Two months later Luther put forth in Latin his "Babylonian Captivity of the Church" in which questions regarding the sacraments are raised and addressed, and the teaching of the Roman church unsparingly attacked. Luther held that Scripture recognizes only two sacraments instituted by Christ himself: baptism and the Lord's Supper. . His third great tractate of 1520, "The Freedom of a Christian" presents the paradox of Christian existence: "A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none; A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all". The preface to this tract, an "open letter" to pope Leo X, is a most curious document, breathing goodwill to the pope personally but full of denunciation of the papal court and its claims for the papacy, in which the pope is represented as "sitting like a lamb in the midst of wolves".

Sources utilized in these pages may include:
  • Everett Ferguson's: Backgrounds of Early Christianity
  • Walker's: History of Christianity (out of print)

    (These links will take you to book detail pages at

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