I am very appreciative of Matt French’s work on these articles. Thanks, Matt!
Yesterday was the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. As I have been attempting to show, the Reformation did not really begin in 1517 with Martin Luther, but his nailing of the 95 Theses is commonly observed as the official day the Reformation began. As such, we shall be looking at the life and impact of Martin Luther, the world’s most famous reformer.
Martin Luther was born on the 10th of November, 1483, in Eisleben, Saxony, in what was a part of the Holy Roman Empire. His father, Hans Luther, was a successful owner/operator of several copper mines, and was able to pay for Martin’s education at a Latin school in Magdeburg and then later for Martin’s education at the University of Erfurt. Hans wanted Martin, his eldest son, to attend Law School and thus become a lawyer, and so Martin obliged his father by enrolling once he finished his master’s degree. He was in law school for but a short time before he ended up making good on an oath he had made one night (in the midst of a terrifying thunderstorm) to become a priest. Of course, this infuriated his father, but Martin was determined to pursue his call to the cloth and cloister.
Luther became a monk of the Augustinian order (the monastic order that follows much of the teachings of Saint Augustine), where he did all that was required and expected of him. Although he had always been mindful of sin and his own predisposition to sin, his time as a monk seemed to help him increase his sensitivity towards his own sinful life and actions. Confession was a required daily activity of all who lived in the monastery, but where others would take 10-15 minutes confessing their sins to their father confessor, Luther would spend hours, often exasperating his confessor. Luther became officially ordained as a priest on April 3, 1507, and the following year became a professor of theology at the University of Wittenburg. In the following few years he earned multiple bachelor’s degrees (one in Biblical Studies and another in Sentences by Peter Lombard), and in 1512 he earned his Doctor of Theology degree.
In 1516, Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar, was sent to Germany by the Church with the authority of the pope to sell indulgences to the people. Indulgences were essentially a way for people to lessen the time their loved ones spent in purgatory. Throughout his time teaching and studying, Luther began to slowly understand that what the Bible taught on certain subjects was not what the Roman Catholic Church was teaching, and this came to a head with the selling of indulgences. On October 31, 1517, Luther nailed a document that contained 95 points against certain practices of the Catholic Church, primarily the selling of indulgences and praying to the dead. Luther’s intention was to start a scholarly debate, but his 95 Theses was taken and copied into German and spread throughout the German lands.
Initially Luther and his Theses was viewed as a non-issue by the Pope, but over time his ideas began to spread. Luther began to teach that man is justified (made right) in the eyes of God through faith alone, and that Scripture should be our only infallible rule and standard for faith. He also taught that the sacraments of the church (Baptism, Communion, Confession, etc) do not help to save a person, but that salvation is a free gift of God’s grace to his elect people. Luther was summoned to several trials, the most famous of which is the Imperial Diet of Worms (pronounced Vurms) in 1521, where, when presented with a table full of all his written works and being told to recant, he requested a 24 hour reprieve before responding.
The next day, Luther gave the following answer: “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.” Of course, this didn’t sit well with the council, but thankfully, upon leaving the council, Luther was “kidnapped” by people friendly to his cause where they secreted him away to Wartburg castle where he spent his time translating Scripture into German. He was declared an outlaw and heretic within days after the council concluded. Luther would spend the rest of his days loving his wife, pastoring his flock, writing treatises, and ensuring the flame of the Reformation would spread as far as he could help it. Luther died from multiple illnesses and complications in 1546 at the age of 62.
Of course, there is far more to Luther and his story than has been related here, but covering it all is beyond the scope of our current endeavor. Suffice to say that Luther would go on to write profusely, argue vehemently, boast grandly, instruct constantly, and declare loudly that the truth is the only thing worth standing for, no matter how the odds may be stacked against you.