On this day: Martin Luther died, le 18 Février 1546
Martin Luther was a German theologian, an Augustinian monk, and an ecclesiastical reformer whose teachings inspired the Reformation and deeply influenced the doctrines and culture of the Lutheran and Protestant traditions. Born on le 10 novembre 1483, he died on le 18 février 1546.
Luther's call to the Church to return to the teachings of the Bible led to the formation of new traditions within Christianity and to the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic reaction to these movements. His contributions to Western civilization went beyond the life of the Christian Church. His translations of the Bible helped to develop a standard version of the German language and added several principles to the art of translation. His hymns inspired the development of congregational singing in Christianity. His marriage on le 13 juin 1525, to Katharina von Bora began a movement of clerical marriage within many Christian churches.
Martin Luther was born to Hans and Margarette Luther in Eisleben, Germany. He was baptized on the feast day 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 become a lawyer. To that end, Hans sent young Martin to schools in Mansfeld, Magdeburg and Eisenach.
At the age of seventeen, in 1501, Luther 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, he enrolled in the law school of that university. All that changed during a thunderstorm in the summer of 1505. A lightning bolt struck near to him as he was returning to school. Terrified, he cried out, "Help, Saint Anne! I'll become a monk!" His life spared, Luther left his law school and entered the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt.
Young Brother Martin Luther fully dedicated himself to monastic life, the effort to do good works to please God and to serve others through prayer for their souls. He devoted himself to fasts, flagellations, long hours in prayer and pilgrimage 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 excessive rumination. 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 received his Bachelor's degree in Biblical Studies on le 9 mars 1508, and a Bachelor's degree in the Sentences by Peter Lombard (the main textbook of theology in the Middle Ages), in 1509. On le 9 octobre 1512, Martin Luther received the degree Doctor of Theology and on le 21 octobre 1512, he was "received into the senate of the theological faculty" and called to the position of Doctor in Biblia.
The demanding discipline of earning academic degrees and preparing lectures drove Martin Luther to study the Scriptures in depth. Influenced by Humanism's call ad fontes ("to the sources"), he immersed himself in the study of the Bible and the early Church. Soon terms like penance and righteousness took on new meaning for Luther, and he became convinced that the Church had lost sight of several of the central truths of Christianity taught in Scripture—the most important of them being the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Luther began to teach that salvation is completely a gift of God's grace through Christ received by faith.
Later, Luther defined and reintroduced the principle of the proper distinction between Law and Gospel that undergirded his theology of grace. Overall, Luther believed that this principle of interpretation was an essential starting point in the study of the Scriptures. Luther saw failure to distinguish Law and Gospel properly as the cause of the obstruction of the Gospel of Jesus in the Church of his day, which, in turn, gave rise to many fundamental theological errors.
In addition to his duties as a professor, Martin Luther served as a preacher and confessor at the Castle Church, a "foundation" of Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony. This church was named "All Saints" because it was the repository of Frederick's collection of holy relics. This parish served both the Augustinian monastery and the university. It was in the performance of these duties that the young priest was confronted with the effects of obtaining indulgences on the lives of everyday people. An indulgence is the remission (either full or partial) of temporal punishment still remaining for sins after their guilt has already been removed by absolution. A buyer could purchase one, either for himself or for one of his deceased relatives in purgatory. The Dominican friar Johann Tetzel was enlisted to travel throughout Archbishop Albert of Mainz's episcopal territories promoting and selling indulgences for the renovation of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Tetzel was very successful at it. He urged: "as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs"
As a priest concerned about the spiritual welfare of his parishioners, Luther saw this traffic in indulgences as an abuse that could mislead them into relying simply on the indulgences themselves to the neglect of the confession, true repentance, and satisfactions. Luther preached three sermons against indulgences in 1516 and 1517. On All Saint's Eve, le 31 octobre 1517 Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church as an open invitation to debate them.The Theses condemned greed and worldliness in the Church as an abuse and asked for a theological disputation on what indulgences could grant. Luther did not challenge the authority of the pope to grant indulgences in these theses.
The 95 Theses were quickly translated into German from the Latin in which Luther had written them. They were widely copied and printed. Within two weeks they had spread throughout Germany, and within two months throughout Europe. This was one of the first events in history that was profoundly affected by the printing press, which made the distribution of documents easier and more widespread.
After disregarding Luther as "a drunken German who wrote the Theses" who "when sober will change his mind," Pope Leo X ordered the Dominican professor of theology, Sylvester Prierias in 1518, to inquire into the matter. Prierias recognized Luther's implicit opposition to the authority of the pope by being at variance with a papal bull, declared him a heretic, and wrote a scholastic refutation of his theses. It asserted papal authority over the Church and denounced every departure from it as a heresy. Luther replied in kind, and the controversy developed.
Meanwhile, Luther took part in an Augustinian convention at Heidelberg, where he presented theses on the slavery of man to sin and on divine grace. In the course of the controversy on indulgences, the question arose of the absolute power and authority of the pope, since the doctrine of the "Treasury of the Church," the "Treasury of Merits," which undergirded the doctrine and practice of indulgences, was based on the Bull Unigenitus (1343) of Pope Clement VI. Because of his opposition to that doctrine, Luther was branded a heretic, and the pope, who had determined to suppress his views, summoned him to Rome.
Yielding, however, to the Elector Frederick, who the pope hoped would become the next Holy Roman Emperor and who was unwilling to part with his theologian, the pope did not press the matter, and the cardinal legate Cajetan was deputed to receive Luther's submission at Augsburg in octobre 1518.
Luther, while professing his implicit obedience to the Church, now boldly denied papal authority, and appealed first "from the pope not well informed to the pope who should be better informed" and then on le 28 novembre to a general council. Luther now declared that the papacy formed no part of the original and immutable essence of the Church.
The pope made a final attempt to reach a resolution of the conflict with Luther. A conference with the papal chamberlain Karl von Miltitz at Altenburg in janvier 1519 led Luther to agree to remain silent as long as his opponents would, to write a humble letter to the pope, and to compose a treatise demonstrating his reverence for the Catholic Church. The letter was written but never sent, since it contained no retraction.
When Johann Eck challenged Luther's colleague Carlstadt to a disputation at Leipzig, Luther joined in the debate (le 27 juin – le 18 juillet 1519). In the course of this debate he denied the divine right of the papal office and authority, holding that the "officed of the keys" had been given to the Church, meaning to the congregation of the faithful. He denied that membership in the western Catholic Church under the pope was necessary to salvation, maintaining the validity of the eastern Greek (Orthodox) Church. After the debate, Johann Eck claimed that he had forced Luther to admit the similarity of his own doctrine to that of Jan Hus, who had been burned at the stake. Eck viewed this as corroborating his own claim that Luther was "the Saxon Hus" and an arch heretic.
Luther's writings were now circulated widely, reaching France, England, and Italy as early as 1519, and students thronged to Wittenberg to hear Luther, who had been joined by Phillip Melanchthon in 1518, and now published his shorter commentary on Galatians and his "Operationes in Psalmos" (Work on the Psalms), while at the same time he received deputations from Italy and from Bohemia.
Luther continued to develop his doctrines. In his Sermon on the Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ, and the Brotherhoods, he set forth the significance of the Eucharist that it is for the forgiveness of sins and the strengthening of faith for those who receive it, he advocated that a council be called to restore communion in both kinds for the laity.
The Lutheran concept of the Church, wholly based on immediate relation to the Christ who gives himself in preaching and the sacraments, was already developed in his "Von dem Papsttum zu Rom" (On the Papacy in Rome), a reply to the attack of the Franciscan Augustin von Alveld at Leipzig (juin 1520); while in his "Sermon von guten Werken" (Sermon on Good Works), delivered in the spring of 1520, he controverted the Catholic doctrine of good works and works of supererogation, holding that the works of the believer are truly good in any secular calling (vocation) ordered of God.
The disputation at Leipzig (1519) brought Luther into contact with the humanists, particularly Melanchthon, Reuchlin, Erasmus, and associates of the knight Ulrich von Hutten, who, in turn, influenced the knight Franz von Sickingen. Von Sickingen and Silvester of Schauenburg wanted to place Luther under their protection by inviting him to their fortresses in the event that it would not be safe for him to remain in Saxony because of the threatened papal ban.
Under these circumstances, complicated by the crisis then confronting the German nobles, Luther issued his "To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation" (août 1520), committing to the laity, as spiritual priests, the reformation required by God but neglected by the pope and the clergy. For the first time of many, Luther here publicly referred to the pope as the Antichrist. The reforms Luther proposed concerned not only points of doctrine but also ecclesiastical abuses: the diminution of the number of cardinals and demands of the papal court; the abolition of annates; the recognition of secular government; the renunciation of papal claims to temporal power; the abolition of the interdict and abuses connected with the ban; the abolition of harmful pilgrimages; the reform of mendicant orders to eliminate wrongdoing; the elimination of the excessive number of holy days; the suppression of nunneries, beggary, and luxury; the reform of the universities; the abrogation of the clerical celibacy; reunion with the Bohemians; and a general reform of public morality.
Luther employed doctrinal polemics in his "Prelude on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church," especially with regard to the sacraments.
With regard to the Eucharist, he advocated restoring the cup to the laity, called into question the dogma of Transubstantiation while affirming the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, and rejected the teaching that the Eucharist was a sacrifice offered to God.
Regarding Baptism, he taught that it brings justification only if conjoined with saving faith in the recipient; however, it remained the foundation of salvation even for those who might later fall and be reclaimed.
As for penance, its essence consists in the words of promise (absolution) received by faith. Only these three can be regarded as sacraments because of their divine institution and the divine promises of salvation connected with them; but, strictly speaking, only Baptism and the Eucharist are sacraments, since only they have "divinely instituted visible sign[s]": water in Baptism and bread and wine in the Eucharist. Luther denied in this document that Confirmation, Matrimony, Holy Orders, and Extreme Unction were sacraments.
In like manner, the full development of Luther's doctrine of salvation and the Christian life is seen in his "On the Freedom of a Christian" (published le 20 novembre 1520). Here he required complete union with Christ by means of the Word through faith, entire freedom of the Christian as a priest and king set above all outward things, and perfect love of one's neighbor. The three works may be considered among the chief writings of Luther on the Reformation.
On le 15 juin 1520, the Pope warned Martin Luther with the papal bull Exsurge Domine that he risked excommunication unless he recanted 41 points of doctrine culled from his writings within 60 days. In october 1520, at the instance of Miltitz, Luther sent his "On the Freedom of a Christian" to the pope, adding the significant phrase: "I submit to no laws of interpreting the word of God." Meanwhile, it had been rumored in août that Eck had arrived at Meissen with a papal ban, which was actually pronounced there on le 21 septembre. This last effort of Luther's for peace was followed on le 12 décember by his burning of the bull, which was to take effect on the expiration of 120 days, and the papal decretals at Wittenberg, a proceeding defended in his "Warum des Papstes und seiner Jünger Bücher verbrannt sind" and his "Assertio omnium articulorum." Pope Leo X excommunicated Luther on le 2 janvier 1521, in the bull Decet Romanum Pontificem.
The execution of the ban, however, was prevented by the pope's relations with Frederick III, Elector of Saxony and by the new emperor Charles V, who, in view of the papal attitude toward him and the feeling of the Diet, found it inadvisable to lend his aid to measures against Luther.
Emperor Charles V opened the imperial Diet of Worms onle 22 janvier 1521. Luther was summoned to renounce or reaffirm his views and was given an imperial guarantee of safe conduct to ensure his safe passage.
On le 16 avril, Luther appeared before the Diet. Johann Eck, an assistant of Archbishop of Trier, presented Luther with a table filled with copies of his writings. Eck asked Luther if the books were his and if he still believed what these works taught. Luther requested time to think about his answer. It was granted. Luther prayed, consulted with friends and mediators and presented himself before the Diet the next day. When the matter came before the Diet the next day, Counsellor Eck asked Luther to plainly answer the question: "Would Luther reject his books and the errors they contain?"
Luther replied: "Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen".Over the next few days, private conferences were held to determine Luther's fate. Before a decision was reached, Luther left Worms. During his return to Wittenberg, he disappeared.
The Emperor issued the Edict of Worms on le 25 mai 1521, declaring Martin Luther an outlaw and a heretic and banning his literature.
Luther's disappearance during his return trip was planned. Frederick the Wise arranged for Luther to be seized on his way from the Diet by a company of masked horsemen, who carried him to Wartburg Castle at Eisenach, where he stayed for about a year. He grew a wide flaring beard, took on the garb of a knight, and assumed the pseudonym Junker Jörg (Knight George). During this period of forced sojourn in the world, Luther was still hard at work upon his celebrated translation of the New Testament, though he could not rely on the isolation of a monastery.
With Luther's residence in the Wartburg began a constructive period of his career as a reformer; while at the same time the struggle was inaugurated against those who, claiming to proceed from the same Evangelical basis, were deemed by him to swing to the opposite extreme and to hinder, if not prevent, all constructive measures. In his "desert" or "Patmos" (as he called it in his letters) of the Wartburg castle he began his translation of the Bible, of which the New Testament was printed in septembre 1522. Here, too, besides other pamphlets, he prepared the first portion of his German postilla and his "Von der Beichte" (Concerning Confession), in which he denied compulsory confession, although he admitted the wholesomeness of voluntary private confessions. He also wrote a polemic against Archbishop Albrecht, which forced Albrecht to desist from reopening the sale of indulgences; while in his attack on Jacobus Latomus he set forth his views on the relation of grace and the law, as well as on the nature of the grace communicated by Christ. Here he distinguished the objective grace of God to the sinner, who, believing, is justified by God because of the justice of Christ, from the saving grace dwelling within sinful man; while at the same time he emphasized the insufficiency of this "beginning of justification," as well as the persistence of sin after baptism and the sin still inherent in every good work.
Although his stay at 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 replied on le 1 août 1521: "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. Sin boldly, 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"
Luther published his "Formula missæ et communionis" (Form of the Mass and Communion) in 1523, and in 1524 the first Wittenberg hymnal appeared with four of his own hymns.
Luther wrote Wenceslaus Link on le 8 avril 1523, "Yesterday I received nine nuns from their captivity in the Nimbschen convent." Luther had arranged for Torgau burgher Leonhard Koppe on le 4 avril to assist twelve nuns to escape from Marien-Thron Cistercian monastery in Nimbschen near Grimma in Ducal Saxony. He transported them out of the convent in herring barrels. Three of the nuns went to be with their relatives, leaving the nine that were brought to Wittenberg. One of them was Katharina von Bora.
All of the nuns but Katharina were happily provided for. It was thought that she would be married to a Wittenberg University student, Jerome Paumgartner, but his family most likely prevented it. Dr. Caspar Glatz was the next prospective husband put forward, but Katharina had "neither desire nor love" for him. She made it known that she wanted to marry either Luther himself or Nicholas von Amsdorf. Luther did not feel that he was a fit husband considering his being excommunicated by the pope and outlawed by the emperor. In mid 1525, it became known in Luther's circle that he intended to marry Katharina. Forestalling any objections from friends against Katharina, Luther acted quickly: on the evening of mardi, le 13 juin 1525, Luther was legally married to Katharina, whom he would affectionately call "Katy." Katy moved into her husband's home, the former Augustinian monastery in Wittenberg, and they began their family. The Luthers had three boys and three girls.
Luther translated the New Testament into German to make it more accessible to the common people. He used the 1519 second edition of Erasmus's Greek New Testament—Erasmus's Greek Testament would later be known as the Textus Receptus. During his translation, he would make forays into the nearby towns and markets to hear people speak so that he could write his translation in the language of the people. It was published in 1522.
His first full Bible translation into German, including the Old Testament, was published in a six-part edition in 1534. As mentioned earlier, Luther's translation work helped standardize German and is considered a landmark in German literature.
Luther marked a further step in his revision of the liturgy by his Deutsche Messe [German Mass] in 1526, making provision for week-day services and for catechetical instruction. He strongly objected, however, to making a new law of the forms, and urged the retention of other good liturgies. The gradual transformation of the administration of baptism was accomplished in the Taufbüchlein [Baptismal Booklet] (1523, 1526); and in mai 1525, the first Evangelical ordination took place at Wittenberg. Luther had long since rejected the Roman Catholic sacrament of ordination, and had replaced it by a simple calling to the service of preaching and the administration of the sacraments. The laying-on of hands with prayer in a solemn congregational service was considered a fitting human rite.
Luther took the keenest interest in education, conferring with Georg Spalatin in 1524 on plans for a school system, and declared that it was the duty of the civil authorities to provide schools and to see that parents sent their children to them. He also advocated the establishment of elementary schools for the instruction of girls. This emphasis on education became a strong Lutheran tradition. In the United States, Lutheran churches operate, after the Catholics, the largest system of parochial schools.
The nature of the Eucharist had become a theme on which Luther found himself obliged to articulate his doctrine fully and polemically. Rejecting the Roman Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation, he nevertheless maintained the Real Presence of the body and blood of Christ in the sacramental bread and wine. He stood by the simple, literal meaning of the Words of Institution ("This is my body," "This is my blood"). Refusing to define the mystery of the Eucharist by concepts such as Consubstantiation, Luther utilized the patristic analogy for the doctrine of the Personal Union of the two natures in Jesus Christ to illustrate his eucharistic doctrine: "by the analogy of the iron put into the fire whereby both fire and iron are united in the red-hot iron and yet each continues unchanged," a concept which he called [the] "sacramental union."
In 1528, Frederick asked Luther to tour the local churches to determine the quality of the peasants' Christian education. Luther wrote in the preface to the Small Catechism, "Mercy! Good God! what manifold misery I beheld! The common people, especially in the villages, have no knowledge whatever of Christian doctrine, and, alas! many pastors are altogether incapable and incompetent to teach." In response, Luther prepared the Small and Large Catechisms. They are instructional and devotional material on what Luther considered the fundamentals of the Christian faith, namely the Ten Commandments; the Apostles' Creed; the Lord's Prayer; Baptism; Confession and Absolution; and the Eucharist. The Small Catechism was supposed to be read by the people themselves, the Large Catechism, by the pastors. The two catechisms, published in 1529, are still popular instructional materials among Lutherans.
Martin Luther's final journey to his birthplace of Mansfeld Eisleben came about because of his concern for the families of his brothers and sisters who continued in father Hans Luther's copper mining trade, which was threatened by Count Albrecht of Mansfeld's bringing this industry under his own personal control for his own profit. The controversy that ensued involved all four of the Mansfeld counts: Albrecht, Philip, John George, and Gerhard. Luther journeyed to Mansfeld twice in late 1545 to participate in the negotiations for a settlement. A third visit was needed in early 1546 to complete the negotiations. On le 23 janvier Luther left Wittenberg accompanied by his three sons. The negotiations were successfully concluded on le 17 février. After 8:00 p.m. on that day Luther suffered chest pains. When he went to his bed he prayed, "Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God" (Ps. 31:5), the common prayer of the dying. At 1:00 a.m. he awoke with more chest pain and was warmed with hot towels. Knowing that his death was imminent, he thanked God for revealing His Son to him in Whom he had believed. His companions Justus Jonas and Michael Coelius shouted loudly, "Reverend father, are you ready to die trusting in your Lord Jesus Christ and to confess the doctrine which you have taught in His name?" A distinct "Yes" was Luther's reply. He died 2:45 a.m. le 17 février 1546 in Eisleben, the city of his birth. He was buried in the Castle Church in Wittenberg.
A slip of paper Luther wrote le 16 février 1546, was his last written statement:
"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."Martin Luther, more than the reformers that preceded him, shaped the Protestant Reformation. Thanks to the printing press, his pamphlets were well-read throughout Germany, influencing many subsequent Protestant Reformers and thinkers and giving rise to diversifying Protestant traditions in Europe and elsewhere. Protestant countries, no longer subject to the papacy, exercised their expanded freedom of thought, facilitating Protestant Europe's rapid intellectual advancement in the XVII et XVIII ème siecles, giving rise to the Age of Reason. In reaction to the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Reformation, too, was a part of this intellectual advancement, for example, through its scholastic Jesuit order. It would also be accurate to consider Martin Luther one of the founders of the German language.
Few men have changed the course of history like Martin Luther. In less than ten years, this German monk plunged a knife into the heart of an empire that had ruled for a thousand years, and set in motion a train that would reshape Western civilization, and lift it out of the Dark Ages. Luther's is the story of the birth of the modern age, of the collapse of medieval feudalism, and the first shaping of ideals of freedom and liberty that lie at the heart of the XXI ème siecle.
The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod's "Page Five" setting of the Divine Service, parts of which date to Luther's time, is available here, including midi files.
Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Abingdon Classics Series)