Martin Luther was a seminal figure in the Protestant Reformation; he strongly disputed the claim that freedom from God’s punishment for sin could be purchased with money, famously argued in his Ninety-five Theses of 1517.
- Describe Luther’s criticisms of the Catholic Church
- Martin Luther was a German professor of theology, composer, priest, monk and seminal figure in the Protestant Reformation.
- Luther strongly disputed the claim that freedom from God’s punishment for sin could be purchased with money, called indulgences, which he argued in his Ninety-five Theses of 1517.
- When confronted by the church for his critiques, he refused to renounce his writings and was excommunicated by the pope and deemed an outlaw by the emperor.
- Luther’s translation of the Bible into the vernacular made it more accessible to the laity, an event that had a tremendous impact on both the church and German culture.
- Ninety-five ThesesA list of propositions for an academic disputation written by Martin Luther in 1517. They advanced Luther’s positions against what he saw as abusive practices by preachers selling plenary indulgences, which were certificates that would reduce the temporal punishment for sins committed by the purchaser or their loved ones in purgatory.
- excommunicationAn institutional act of religious censure used to deprive, suspend, or limit membership in a religious community or to restrict certain rights within it.
- indulgencesA way to reduce the amount of punishment one has to undergo for sins, usually through the saying of prayers or good works, which during the middle ages included paying for church buildings or other projects.
Martin Luther (November 10, 1483–February 18, 1546) was a German professor of theology, composer, priest, monk and seminal figure in the Protestant Reformation. Luther came to reject several teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. He strongly disputed the claim that freedom from God’s punishment for sin could be purchased with money, proposing an academic discussion of the practice and efficacy of indulgences in his Ninety-five Theses of 1517. His refusal to renounce all of his writings at the demand of Pope Leo X in 1520 and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms in 1521 resulted in his excommunication by the pope and condemnation as an outlaw by the emperor.
Luther taught that salvation and, subsequently, eternal life are not earned by good deeds but are received only as the free gift of God’s grace through the believer’s faith in Jesus Christ as redeemer from sin. His theology challenged the authority and office of the pope by teaching that the Bible is the only source of divinely revealed knowledge from God, and opposed priestly intervention for the forgiveness of sins by considering all baptized Christians to be a holy priesthood. Those who identify with these, and all of Luther’s wider teachings, are called Lutherans, though Luther insisted on Christian or Evangelical as the only acceptable names for individuals who professed Christ.
His translation of the Bible into the vernacular (instead of Latin) made it more accessible to the laity, an event that had a tremendous impact on both the church and German culture. It fostered the development of a standard version of the German language, added several principles to the art of translation, and influenced the writing of an English translation, the Tyndale Bible. His hymns influenced the development of singing in Protestant churches. His marriage to Katharina von Bora, a former nun, set a model for the practice of clerical marriage, allowing Protestant clergy to marry.
In two of his later works, Luther expressed antagonistic views toward Jews, writing that Jewish homes and synagogues should be destroyed, their money confiscated, and their liberty curtailed. Condemned by virtually every Lutheran denomination, these statements and their influence on antisemitism have contributed to his controversial status.
Portrait of Martin Luther
Martin Luther (1528) by Lucas Cranach the Elder.
Martin Luther was born to Hans Luther and his wife Margarethe on November 10, 1483, in Eisleben, Saxony, then part of the Holy Roman Empire. Hans Luther was ambitious for himself and his family, and he was determined to see Martin, his eldest son, become a lawyer.
In 1501, at the age of nineteen, Martin entered the University of Erfurt. In accordance with his father’s wishes, he enrolled in law school at the same university that year, but dropped out almost immediately, believing that law represented uncertainty. Luther sought assurances about life and was drawn to theology and philosophy, expressing particular interest in Aristotle, William of Ockham, and Gabriel Biel.
He was deeply influenced by two tutors, Bartholomaeus Arnoldi von Usingen and Jodocus Trutfetter, who taught him to be suspicious of even the greatest thinkers and to test everything himself by experience. Philosophy proved to be unsatisfying, offering assurance about the use of reason but no assurance about loving God, which to Luther was more important. Reason could not lead men to God, he felt, and he thereafter developed a love-hate relationship with Aristotle over the latter’s emphasis on reason. For Luther, reason could be used to question men and institutions, but not God. Human beings could learn about God only through divine revelation, he believed, and scripture therefore became increasingly important to him.
Luther dedicated himself to the Augustinian order, devoting himself to fasting, long hours in prayer, pilgrimage, and frequent confession. In 1507, he was ordained to the priesthood, and in 1508, von Staupitz, first dean of the newly founded University of Wittenberg, sent for Luther to teach theology. He was made provincial vicar of Saxony and Thuringia by his religious order in 1515. This meant he was to visit and oversee eleven monasteries in his province.
Start of the Reformation
In 1516, Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar and papal commissioner for indulgences, was sent to Germany by the Roman Catholic Church to sell indulgences to raise money to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Roman Catholic theology stated that faith alone, whether fiduciary or dogmatic, cannot justify man; justification rather depends only on such faith as is active in charity and good works. The benefits of good works could be obtained by donating money to the church.
On October 31, 1517, Luther wrote to his bishop, Albert of Mainz, protesting the sale of indulgences. He enclosed in his letter a copy of his “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” which came to be known as the Ninety-five Theses. Historian Hans Hillerbrand writes that Luther had no intention of confronting the church, but saw his disputation as a scholarly objection to church practices, and the tone of the writing is accordingly “searching, rather than doctrinaire.” Hillerbrand writes that there is nevertheless an undercurrent of challenge in several of the theses, particularly in Thesis 86, which asks, “Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?”
The first thesis has become famous: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” In the first few theses Luther develops the idea of repentance as the Christian’s inner struggle with sin rather than the external system of sacramental confession.
In theses 41–47 Luther begins to criticize indulgences on the basis that they discourage works of mercy by those who purchase them. Here he begins to use the phrase, “Christians are to be taught…” to state how he thinks people should be instructed on the value of indulgences. They should be taught that giving to the poor is incomparably more important than buying indulgences, that buying an indulgence rather than giving to the poor invites God’s wrath, and that doing good works makes a person better while buying indulgences does not.
Luther objected to a saying attributed to Johann Tetzel that “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” He insisted that, since forgiveness was God’s alone to grant, those who claimed that indulgences absolved buyers from all punishments and granted them salvation were in error. Luther closes the Theses by exhorting Christians to imitate Christ even if it brings pain and suffering, because enduring punishment and entering heaven is preferable to false security.
It was not until January 1518 that friends of Luther translated the Ninety-five Theses from Latin into German and printed and widely copied it, making the controversy one of the first to be aided by the printing press. Within two weeks, copies of the theses had spread throughout Germany; within two months, they had spread throughout Europe.
1517 Nuremberg printing of the Ninety-five Theses as a placard, now in the Berlin State Library.
Excommunication and Later Life
On June 15, 1520, the pope warned Luther, with the papal bull Exsurge Domine, that he risked excommunication unless he recanted forty-one sentences drawn from his writings, including the Ninety-five Theses, within sixty days. That autumn, Johann Eck proclaimed the bull in Meissen and other towns. Karl von Miltitz, a papal nuncio, attempted to broker a solution, but Luther, who had sent the pope a copy of On the Freedom of a Christian in October, publicly set fire to the bull and decretals at Wittenberg on December 10, 1520, an act he defended in Why the Pope and his Recent Book are Burned and Assertions Concerning All Articles. As a consequence, Luther was excommunicated by Pope Leo X on January 3, 1521, in the bull Decet Romanum Pontificem.
The enforcement of the ban on the Ninety-five Theses fell to the secular authorities. On April 18, 1521, Luther appeared as ordered before the Diet of Worms. This was a general assembly of the estates of the Holy Roman Empire that took place in Worms, a town on the Rhine. It was conducted from January 28 to May 25, 1521, with Emperor Charles V presiding. Prince Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, obtained a safe conduct for Luther to and from the meeting.
Johann Eck, speaking on behalf of the empire as assistant of the Archbishop of Trier, presented Luther with copies of his writings laid out on a table and asked him if the books were his, and whether he stood by their contents. Luther confirmed he was their author, but requested time to think about the answer to the second question. He prayed, consulted friends, and gave his response the next day:
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.
Over the next five days, private conferences were held to determine Luther’s fate. The emperor presented the final draft of the Edict of Worms on May 25, 1521, which declared Luther an outlaw, banned his literature, and required his arrest: “We want him to be apprehended and punished as a notorious heretic.” It also made it a crime for anyone in Germany to give Luther food or shelter, and permitted anyone to kill Luther without legal consequence.
By 1526, Luther found himself increasingly occupied in organizing a new church, later called the Lutheran Church, and for the rest of his life would continue building the Protestant movement.
An apoplectic stroke on February 18, 1546, deprived him of his speech, and he died shortly afterwards, at 2:45 a.m., aged sixty-two, in Eisleben, the city of his birth. He was buried in the Castle Church in Wittenberg, beneath the pulpit.