Martin Luther is one of the greatest contributors to Christianity, and his Lutheran Reformation is counted among the most influential phenomenons of modern history. Luther is the originator of the Protestant Reformation, and it is said that, more books have been written on him than any other person except his master, Jesus Christ. He is a German theologian and religious reformer, who inspired hordes of followers to denounce some of the established doctrines of the Catholic Church. This essay will examine his life and scrutinize how his personal struggles influenced his philosophies and preaching.
Martin Luther was born in Eisleben, Saxony, a territory in the South eastern Germany, in the year 1483. He was the eldest of the several children of Hans Luder and Margarethe, who were of a peasant lineage. Hans tried his hands in the mining business too and was reasonably successful. He leased copper mines and was one of the four representatives of the local council of Mansfeld. However, since the mining industry was a tough business, Hans wanted his intelligent and energetic son, to get his education and become a successful lawyer.
Martin Luther studied in different schools, in places like Mansfeld, Eisenach and Magdeburg. He studied various disciplines such as rhetoric, metaphysics, logic and grammar, and in later years he defined his schooling experience as purgatory and hell. In the year 1501, fulfilling his father’s wishes, he enrolled in the University of Erfurt. He got his bachelor’s degree in 1502 and masters in 1503, and he later went on to become a professor at the University of Wittenberg.
On the month of July 1505, Luther had a life changing experience, whereby he got caught in a thunderstorm and made a pact with God, that if he ever escapes the storm he will dedicate his life to monkhood. It is said that while walking to the village of Stotternheim, he was struck by a thunderbolt and he pleaded with St. Anne, Catholic patron of miners, “Save me, St. Anne, and I’ll become a monk!” So, the ambitious young man, who was on his way to becoming a lawyer, kept his vow and joined the Augustinian monastery.
In the monastery, Luther tried hard to purge himself from his sins. He was a dedicated monk and practiced a very strict routine during his days in the monastery. He later wrote that, he almost killed himself through his strict vigils, prayers and other monastery vows. Yet, he did not find inner peace and in an attempt to free himself from guilt, he turned his room in the monastery into a prison, living in confinement for days without food.
Luther was deeply troubled by the concept of wrath of God. He experienced religious torment like Augustine did, and his fear of sin can be seen in all his later preaching, where he talks extensively about the Devil. During his years as a monk, he tried everything like daily prayers and ascetic exercises, but none of these helped him alienate the fear in his heart. He wrote in his accounts about, how he would cry out to God to help him escape the clutches of the Devil.
He had access to the Bible, and since he was proficient in Latin he was able to read it. After a hard period of searching for the truth, Luther came across the verses 1:17 – “the righteous will live by faith”. On reading this, he realized that salvation does not come by pain and labor, but by belief in God and sacrifice. After contemplating the true meaning of the Biblical verse, Luther felt reborn and his entire view about faith and religion underwent a profound transformation.
This truth armed him with a newly found understanding of salvation, and this changed his outlook of the Catholic Church’s doctrine. He argued that, if faith is the sole path through which God’s grace can be obtained and not by works, then the sale of salvation by the Clergy of the Catholic Church was a distortion of the truth. He explained to his followers, that buying indulgences from the priests would not free them of their sins, but only undeterred faith in God could salvage their corrupted soul.
He was ordained priesthood in the year 1507 and received Bachelor’s degree in Biblical studies and sentences in the years 1508 and 1509 respectively. At the age of 27, he was a part of a delegation to a conference in Rome, and the corruption he witnessed among the clergy there left him disillusioned. Deeply troubled by this experience, he joined the University of Wittenberg to take time away from his spiritual turmoil. In the year 1512, he was honored as the ‘Doctor of theology’ and he remained in that post, in the University of Wittenberg, for a long time thereafter. Years of studying the scripture gave Luther his spiritual enlightenment.
During these years at the University of Wittenberg (1513-1518), Luther taught students his interpretation of the message of Christ. He rejected the scholastic theology and developed with the help of his other colleagues the ’Theology of the Cross.’ He listened to the preaching of the Church, and called for a debate on issues in which he felt that the Church deviated from the message of Christ. By his Christ centric approach, Luther stressed on the importance of humility, judgment, obedience, faith and man’s relationship with God. He was particularly concerned about man’s understanding of salvation and Grace. He believed that trusting in God will lead to one’s liberation from sins.
In the year 1516, Johann Tetzel, the indulgences commissioner, was sent by Pope Leo X for collecting indulgences to rebuild the church of St. Peter’s basilica. The Roman Church advocated that, faith in God alone cannot grant salvation, and a man should be charitable and indulge in good works for the liberation of his soul. It also stated that, the benefits of good deeds can be obtained by donating money to the Church. Tetzel combined these theological promises with his mercenary lust, and started to lure people into parting with money in return for salvation.
Infuriated by this practice, Luther felt that it was his duty to guide the people in the right path. Luther particularly was incensed by the following words uttered by Tetzel – “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings the soul from purgatory springs.” Luther felt compelled to intervene and as was the practice during that day, he nailed a sheet in the Church’s door. In October, 1517, on the eve of All Saints Day, Luther nailed his 95 theses for the public to see. This event propelled the reformation movement in Europe that went on to revolutionize Christendom.
Though Luther, at that time, believed his theses to be a scholarly objection rather than a challenge to the church’s control over religion, some of his theses posed challenging questions about the authority and functioning of the Church. For example in Thesis 82 he asks:
“Why does not the pope empty purgatory, for the sake of holy love and of the dire needs of the souls that are there, if he redeems number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a Church?”
Luther’s belief that man cannot purge himself from his sins through his efforts and could do so only by faith in God, conflicted with the preaching of the Church and thus turned him against the Catholic church. Luther’s theses were translated from Latin to German and were communicated to the people.
The advent of printing press helped the cause of Luther to a great extent, as his messages were easily circulated to the masses, thanks to this new invention. The reformation movement perfected the use of pamphlets and booklets as a means of reaching the people. Approximately 10,000 pamphlets were produced from German printing presses between the year 1500 and 1530, out of which Martin Luther alone contributed to twenty percent of the overall total.
This publishing exercise of Luther put him in a life threatening battle with the Church leaders. His early accounts of life show how he was severe with himself in his religious practices and he exhibited the same zeal in his fight against what he called ‘perversion of scriptures’ practiced by the papacy. He spoke against many practices of the Church, such as the irrevocable vows, burning of heretics, power of Church over the State, and the authority of the pope as the only person who can interpret the scripture.
In January 1521, Luther was excommunicated by the Pope and he was summoned to the assembly of Holy Roman Empire in Diet of Worms, where he refused to recant. This led the emperor Charles V, to declare Luther as a heretic and outlaw. Since he now became a wanted man, Luther had to hide in the Wartburg Castle through the help of some friends. During this period, he translated the New Testament into German language.
He returned to Wittenberg Castle Church in 1522, avoiding capture and started his new Church. He sided with the rulers against the peasants during the Peasant war of 1524-25, as he depended on the patronage of the rulers for his church. This lost him many of his followers, as the instigators of the revolt had used his reforms as a justification for their opposition to ruling class. With the end of the revolt, radicalism ceased to be a part of Luther’s reformation movement.
In the year 1534, he published the German translation of the entire Bible, which helped Biblical messages reaching the common people. His fame grew in Eastern Europe and Wittenberg, where he resided, transformed into an intellectual capital. He married a former nun, Katharina von Bora, in the year 1525, and had six children with her. Though from the beginning he was opposed to the celibacy of the clergy, his marriage essentially sealed the debate over his stand on the issue. He died on 18 February 1546, leaving a strongly built ideology of Protestantism.
Over the years, Martin Luther, the man and his ministry, has been interpreted in wide different ways, with some calling him an advocate human liberty while others branding him as a supporter of absolute monarchy. However, the fact that no other man, without commanding an army or wielding unlimited political power, has single handedly changed the course of history, like Martin Luther did, is a testimony to his stature. He was a religious personality who fought theological and intellectual battles, but his legacy still lingers in every area of our life even after all these centuries.
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