Martin Luther

Martin Luther is one of the most remarkable and influential figures in all of European history. In 1517, he was an obscure Augustinian monk and university professor; by the spring of 1521, he had defied both Pope Leo X and Emperor Charles V on behalf of his understanding of Christian faith and life. After his early life and university education, he joined the Observant Augustinians in 1505. In October 1517, he objected to abuses regarding indulgences in his Ninety-five Theses, which appealed to Christian humanists. At the Leipzig Disputation of June 1519, he asserted that scripture alone, not popes or councils, possesses ultimate authority for Christians. In the latter half of 1520, he published three important treatises after the pope threatened him with excommunication: Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and The Freedom of a Christian. After his excommunication, Luther refused to recant his views at the Diet of Worms (April 1521) and was condemned as a heretical outlaw by Charles V., Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.

Luther's Life

Martin Luther, the monk who shook the foundations of the Catholic Church and sparked the Protestant Reformation, was a man of fiery contradictions. Born in Eisleben, Germany, in 1483, he was raised in a strict but loving household, destined by his ambitious father for a legal career. He entered the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt in 1505, seeking spiritual refuge and the promise of salvation. His years as a monk were marked by intense introspection and theological struggles. Luther’s “revolt” against the Church followed years of monastic life.  He was deeply stricken with anxiety about his own sinfulness and inability to live up to God’s commandments.

There are some writers that insist Luther’s 95 Theses attack was intended to reform, but not break from the Church.   He was concerned that the laity was getting a distorted understanding of good works by its aggressive sale of indulgences to finance the construction of St. Peter in Rome. Whether his subsequent excommunication by Pope Leo X or Charles V’s subsequent declaration that Luther was an outlaw and a heretic incited him to publish more volatile statements is unknown.

Luther's Adversaries

Some historians describe Luther as “not a systematic, academic theologian, but rather primarily a preacher, biblical interpreter, and pastor who expressed his theology in a wide variety of genres: sermons, treatises written for specific occasions, biblical commentaries, letters, hymns, and in conversation. He frequently used gritty, vulgar language to make his point, a trait guaranteed to make enemies. He believed he was living in the last days – the Pope being the Anti-Christ – giving urgency to his message.

His theology and public announcements led to excommunication by Pope Leo X and condemnation by Charles V, his relationships with other reformers were inordinately prickly.  His debate with Erasmus in 1524 and 1525 over “free will” led to the former’s withdrawal from active writing. His condemnation of Thomas Münster’s Peasants War led to the death of 70,000 – 100,000 peasants in their efforts to create a new kingdom of righteousness. He broke with Zwingli over the issue of the Holy Communion in the Marburg Colloquy of 1528.


Luther's Theology

Three core ideas of Luther’s theology include his “Reformation discovery” of

  1. Justification by faith alone. Christians are saved: not by contributing in any way to their own salvation but by faith alone in Jesus Christ as savior.  (Romans 1:17 “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed-a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”) Luther believed that salvation is something passively received. Only by trusting in Christ’s redemptive sacrifice are sinners justified in God’s sight.
  2. Scripture alone -“sola scriptura.” The Bible possesses an authority independent of, and higher than, the authority of both popes and church councils. He rejected the medieval view that scripture must be understood in the tradition of the Roman Church and its authority. He also rejected the notion that the Mass was a reenactment of Christ’s sacrifice, as well as the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation.
  3. “Priesthood of all believers.” Luther rejected the idea that the clergy is intrinsically holier or closer to God than the laity. All legitimate callings in the world are equally good and holy when they are pursued out of obedience to God.

Luther's Antisemitism

Luther's On the Jews and Their Lies

In the treatise, he argues that Jewish synagogues and schools be set on fire, their prayer books destroyed, rabbis forbidden to preach, homes burned, and property and money confiscated. Luther demanded that no mercy or kindness be given to them, afforded no legal protection, and “these poisonous envenomed worms” should be drafted into forced labor or expelled for all time. He also advocates their murder, writing “[W]e are at fault in not slaying them.” Some Lutheran church bodies have formally denounced and dissociated themselves from Luther’s vitriol about Jews.

Condemnation of Catholic Sacraments

The implications of Luther’s theology and his principle of sola
scriptura were direct attacks against many medieval Christian beliefs,
practices, and institutions. He repudiated four of the sacraments as being unbiblical, retaining only baptism, communion, and Confession (all of which he reinterpreted). He rejected any and all practices inconsistent with his belief in justification by faith alone, including prayers to saints, the purchase of indulgences, participation in pilgrimages, and bodily asceticism. His new conception of the clergy placed monasticism as illegitimate or harmful.