Christian Cyclopedia

About the Cyclopedia

Luther, Martin

(November 10, 1483–February 18, 1546). “Doctor biblicus”; Father of Protestantism; founder of Lutheranism; b. and d. Eisleben, Ger.

1. Information on ancestry is limited. Family name variously spelled, e.g., Chlotar, Luder, Ludher, Luder, Lauther, Lutter. The ancestral lands were at Möhra, near Eisenach, Thuringia. Luther's grandparents, Heine and Margarethe (nee Lindemann) Luder, had 4 sons. The oldest, Gross-Hans (“Big Hans”), married Margarethe Ziegler (some say Lindemann) and moved to Eisleben, at the E foot of the lower Harz mountains, to become a miner. Their oldest son was bap. Martin on November 11, St. Martin's Day, in nearby St. Peter's Ch. The family moved to Mansfeld 1484; industry and thrift improved their circumstances; by 1491 Hans Luther had become an influential citizen.

2. M. Luther's childhood was that of a normal RC boy in a burgher home. His father wanted him to become a lawyer and sent him to 3 preparatory schools (in Mansfeld, Magdeburg, and Eisenach). In Mansfeld he received training preparatory to academy work. It was probably in Magdeburg, under instruction of the Brethren* of the Common Life at the Cathedral School, that he first saw a (Lat.) Bible. in Eisenach he fortunately moved in the Schalbe-Cotta family circles, where he seems to have roomed at the Cottas (see Cotta, Ursula) and boarded at the Schalbes, whose son he tutored. Both families were very devout. A frequent guest was Johann Braun, vicar at St. Mary's Ch. and in charge of the Franciscan monastery at the foot of the Wartburg, a castle near Eisenach; around him gathered a group of young people interested in music and poetry.

3. In spring 1501 Luther entered the U. of Erfurt, which had ca. 2,000 students (see also Trutvetter, Jodocus). In May 1505 he entered the Erfurt Law School; obtained a copy of Corpus* iuris canonici to aid his studies. Then, quite unexpectedly, July 17, 1505, he entered the Black Cloister of the local Augustinian* Hermits (their black garb gave it its name). Later he often spoke of a severe thunderstorm which had wrung from him a prayer to St. Anne and a vow to become a monk.

4. Luther did not find peace of mind and soul in the monastery, but he determined to keep his vows. He was ordained priest in spring 1507, celebrated his 1st mass May 2, 1507, in presence of his father, other relatives, and many friends. He continued his studies 1507–12, acquiring the degrees of Biblicus (or lector), Formatus, Sententiarius, and ThD The more he studied medieval theol. and the more he became involved in the labyrinth of scholasticism,* the more confused he became. The main problem which disturbed him: How may I render God gracious to my soul?

5. Luther was called to Wittenberg 1508 to teach moral philos. He was recalled to Erfurt 1509, perhaps to assist his old Augustinian teacher Johannes Nathin (15th–16th c.) instruct novitiates. In November 1510 Luther and another monk set out on foot for Rome to help settle some matters pertaining to the Augustinian Order. They reached Rome January 1511. The pope was in Romagna. All cardinals except 2 were absent. Few relic chambers were open. Luther was shocked by the worldliness of some of the It. clergy. He climbed the Scala Sancta (see Lateran), praying for his grandparents.

6. Shortly after his return to Ger. he was recalled to the U. of Wittenberg, where he was trained to succeed John Staupitz in the chair of lectura in Biblia as soon as he had earned the doctorate, which was awarded October 18–19, 1512 (see also Frederick III [1463–1525]). While lecturing on Gn, Ps, Rm, Gl, and Heb 1512–18, Luther evolved from a scholastic theol. to a Biblical humanist. Probably in fall 1514, while lecturing on Ps 71, he discovered the key to the entire Bible in the principle of “justification by faith.” He did not fully understand all its implications but realized that he had found the “Gate to Paradise” (WA 54, 186). In course of time he won the whole U. faculty to his point of view. By 1517 the school was becoming a center of Biblical humanism.

7. The “New Theol.,” which was Christocentric and stressed sola* Scriptura, was too dynamic to leave the RC Ch. unaffected. Conflict with traditional scholastic theol. was unavoidable; it began in connection with sale of indulgences.* Luther posted notice of a debate on the school bulletin board (N door of the Castle Ch.) October 31, 1517, listing 95 theses (see Theses, Ninety-Five, of Luther) for discussion. He hoped that an academic debate would clarify the subject of indulgences and determine the position the U. should adopt toward the practice. The theses were in Lat. because that was the academic language of the day. For some unknown reason the debate was never held. But the subject was timely. The theses rapidly spread through Ger. Many agreed with Luther's stand. Financial returns from indulgence sales in Ger. were greatly reduced.

8. This financial loss brought immediate reaction from J. Tetzel,* indulgence salesman in Luther's territory, from Tetzel's fellow Dominicans, and from Albert* of Brandenburg, who was hoping thus to pay his “fee” for appointment as abp. Mainz, which made him holder of 3 ch. positions simultaneously. All these brought pressure to bear on the pope to silence Luther.

9. The processus inhibitorius (Lat. “process of inhibiting”), the RC church's way of silencing its critics, was set in motion. The Augustinian Order was instructed to discipline its recalcitrant mem. But at the Heidelberg* Disputation, April 1518, Luther won many new friends; instead of reprimanding him, the Order asked him to write an elaboration of his original 95 theses.

10. Under influence of the Saxon Dominican provincial, the fiscal procurator of Rome opened Luther's case, charging “suspicion of heresy.” In September 1518 Luther was summoned to appear at Augsburg before the papal legate Cajetan* (see also Augsburg Diet [1518]). Luther was willing to be convinced on the basis of Scripture that indulgences were Biblical. But the differences could not be reconciled. J. v. Staupitz* absolved Luther of the vow of obedience ca. the middle of October 1518. Cajetan recommended to Frederick III that Luther be either banished or surrendered to Rome.

11. On Luther's initiative the Wittenberg U. faculty sent a letter dated November 22, 1518, to Frederick III, attesting complete agreement with Luther's views. Upon this statement of Luther's case and the advice of his court, Frederick III; refused to surrender Luther to Rome before he had been proved a heretic by a neutral tribunal. Luther hoped for solution by a gen. council.

12. RCs connected with the case include K. v. Miltitz* and J. Eck,* the latter known esp. for his part in the Leipzig* Debate 1519. First hopeful of cleansing the ch. of error, Luther began to realize that no reformation of the existing body, permeated with error in head and mems., was possible.

13. After election of Charles* V 1519 Rome again turned its attention to the Luther case. The univs. of Louvain and Cologne had issued condemnations of Luther's theol. 1519. The bull Exsurge, Domine was drafted June 15, 1520: it gave Luther 60 days to recant and required all his writings to be burned. Tension mounted. At Wittenberg, Luther retaliated by burning the Canon* Law and the bull. Rome's reply was the bull of excommunication, Decet Romanum Pontificem, issued January 3, 1521. Considerable pressure was exerted on Charles to condemn Luther. After much pol. maneuvering, Charles summoned Luther to appear at the Diet of Worms* 1521. Luther resisted all efforts to persuade him to recant and privately and pub. reiterated that he could not recant unless convinced of error by Scripture. Lacking necessary support of Ger. princes to secure Luther's condemnation, Charles waited till the Diet had been dismissed, then in a rump session declared Luther a heretic and outlaw who could be killed on sight. Luther's prince, who left the Diet earlier because of illness, anticipated the outcome and arranged to have Luther placed in “protective custody” at the Wartburg.*

14. At the Wartburg Luther reexamined his position and clearly realized that reform of the existing ch. was impossible, that the only solution was a return to the practices and tenets of early Christianity. His Wartburg works include a Ger. NT (see Bible Versions, M).

15. In March 1522 Luther returned to Wittenberg against the wishes of his prince to quiet the confused situation which had developed there under the ill-considered leadership of A. R. B. v. Karlstadt* and G. Zwilling* (see also Luther, Controversies of, d). He preached a series of 8 sermons and began to reorganize ch. services. Hymn singing was introd. and the liturgy revised, providing greater participation by the cong. (see also Luther, Hymns of; Luther, Liturgies of).

16. Other works include the Large and Small Catechisms (see Catechisms, Luther's); postils (see Postil) providing sermon materials for the “emergency preachers” who filled pulpits made vacant by conversion of many congs from RCm to Lutheranism: a Ger. Bible (see Bible Versions, M); tracts; letters; treatises (see also Luther, Chief Writings of).

17. The pol. situation that followed the Diet of Worms was confused. The Edict of Worms* could not be enforced. New economic forces brought on other disturbances culminating in the Knights* Revolt and the Peasants* War. In both cases Luther's writings were misconstrued. When he called on forces of law and order to quell the revolt, he was accused by his enemies of turning against the peasants.

18. When the 1529 Diet of Speyer* nullified an earlier pronouncement permitting a prince to control religious affairs in his realm both factions prepared for violence. The rift which had developed among followers of Luther and those of H. Zwingli* divided Prot. forces. An attempt to resolve their differences at the Marburg Colloquy 1529 (see Luther, Controversies of, g; Lutheran Confessions, A 2) ended in agreement on all points but the Real Presence (see Grace, Means of, IV 3; Lutheran Confessions, A 2 [b]). Other attempts at reconciliation bet. RCs and Prots., include the 1530 Diet of Augsburg (see Lutheran Confessions, A). See also Lutheran Confessions, B 1–2.

19. Never a robust man and beset by many attacks of illness, Luther led an amazingly active and productive life. Late in 1545 he was asked to arbitrate a family quarrel among the princes of Mansfeld. Though old, ill, and loath to undertake an arduous journey of ca. 80 mi. from Wittenberg in winter, Luther went to Eisleben. Adjudicating the family quarrel proved hard. Besides, Luther preached 4 times and helped conduct several services. The quarrel was settled February 17, 1546. That evening Luther felt severe pains in the chest. Despite treatment he died early the following morning in presence of sons Martin and Paul (see Luther, Family Life of), 2 doctors, et al.

20. Testimony of the love and esteem with which he was regarded by the people was the homage given his mortal remains as the funeral cortege returned to Wittenberg, where his body was laid to rest in the Castle Ch. February 22, 1546. EGS

See also other entries beginning Luther …; Christian Church, History of the, III, 1; Pack, Otto von; Philip of Hesse; Psychology, F.; Reformation, Lutheran; Sachs, Hans.

A. H. Böhmer, Road to Reformation, tr. J. W. Doberstein and T. G. Tappert (Philadelphia, 1946) and Luther in Light of Recent Research, tr. C. F. Huth Jr. (New York, 1916); J. Mackinnon, Luther and the Reformation, 4 vols. (London, 1925–30); M. Reu, Luther's German Bible (Columbus, Ohio, 1934): P. Nettl, Luther and Music, tr. F. Best and R. Woods (Philadelphia, 1948); E. M. Plass, This Is Luther (St. Louis, 1948); E. G. Schwiebert, Luther and His Times (St. Louis, 1950); R. H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York, 1950); W. Dallmann, Martin Luther, rev. ed. (Saint Louis, 1951); P. Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, tr. R. C. Schultz (Philadelphia, 1966).

Edited by: Erwin L. Lueker, Luther Poellot, Paul Jackson
©Concordia Publishing House, 2000, All rights Reserved. Reproduced with Permission

Internet Version Produced by
The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod

Original Editions ©Copyright 1954, 1975, 2000
Concordia Publishing House
All rights reserved.

Content Reproduced with Permission

Stay Connected! Join the LCMS Network:

Contact Us Online
(Staff Switchboard)
(Church Info Center)
1333 S Kirkwood Rd
Saint Louis, MO 63122-7226 | Directions


Featured Publication

The Lutheran Witness

LCMS Communications

Interpreting the contemporary world from a Lutheran Christian perspective.
Visit TLW Online