A Brief Sketch of the Life of Martin Luther
by Anthony T. Selvaggio
Martin Luther was born in 1483 in Eisleben, Germany. His father, Hans, was not from the noble class but was ambitious and industrious. Hans moved his family to Mansfield, Germany, where he quickly established himself in the copper industry. Luther’s mother, Margaret, came from a prominent family with connections. Both of Luther’s parents were committed to his pursuit of education.
Given this focus on his education, in 1497 Martin left Mansfield at the age of thirteen to pursue more advanced studies. For one year he was educated in Magdeburg, Germany. In 1498, he moved to Eisenach, Germany, where he studied for three years. His instructors quickly recognized that Luther was a gifted student and encouraged him to pursue further study.
In 1501, Luther entered the University at Erfurt. His decision to study there was likely influenced by members of his mother’s family. He earned his bachelor’s degree in just one year and completed his master’s degree three years later. Luther intended to study law, a decision which brought great joy to his father. However, Luther’s intentions changed when he encountered the first great crisis of his life.
In early July of 1505, Luther journeyed to visit his parents. As he approached the village of Stotternheim, he found himself in the midst of a terrifying thunderstorm. A violent lightning strike sent Luther staggering to the ground. In the midst of his terror, he reportedly cried out to Saint Anne, “Help me, Saint Anne, I will become a monk!” While the historical veracity of the facts surrounding this event has been much debated, there is no doubt that after this experience the trajectory of Luther’s life changed. He had resolved that he would no longer pursue studies in the law, but would instead enter the monastery. In 1505, Luther entered an Augustinian monastery in Erfurt reportedly stating to his friends, “You see me today and never again.”
Luther was determined to be an excellent monk, and he diligently committed himself to that end. Luther’s passion for his calling was observed approvingly by older monks. Among those impressed was Johann von Staupitz. Staupitz was an influential and godly man. He was also connected to Frederick the Wise of Saxony who ruled over the local region and who would eventually become Luther’s most significant political ally. Staupitz not only advanced Luther’s career, but he also became a father figure and dear friend to him. Staupitz arranged for Luther to serve as a substitute professor at the University of Wittenberg. While this was not the most glamorous academic assignment, it allowed Luther to pursue an academic course which culminated in him receiving a doctorate in theology.
During this period of academic advancement, Luther often found himself experiencing long periods of depression as he confronted the realities of God’s justice and his own sinfulness. In late 1510, Staupitz, hoping to encourage Luther, arranged for him to visit Rome. Luther was overjoyed at the prospect of travelling to the holy city.
The Steps of Santa Scala
Upon arriving in Rome, Luther’s joy quickly gave way to disgust. He was appalled with the general conditions in Rome. Far more disturbing to Luther, however, was the spiritual state of the religious leadership in Rome. Luther was crushed by what he witnessed.
At one point during his visit to Rome, Luther decided to ascend the steps of the Santa Scala. These steps were believed to be the very steps of Pontius Pilate’s palace which had been moved from Jerusalem to Rome. Tradition held that these were the steps that Christ had climbed. Scaling these steps on one’s hands and knees was considered a meritorious work capable of releasing deceased loved ones from purgatory. Luther fell to his knees and began his ascent. Upon each new step he paused and prayed the Lord’s Prayer. However, arriving at the top of the stairs, he experienced a sense of doubt about the value of his actions. He began to question the teachings of the church. At the top of the stairs, Luther pondered, “Who knows whether this is really true?”
After returning from Rome, Luther learned that Staupitz had secured a full-time teaching position for him at the University at Wittenberg. In October of 1512, Luther made his way to the University at Wittenberg to assume his new post, and he immediately undertook preparation of his lectures. In 1513, he lectured on the Psalms. This was followed by lectures on Romans in 1515 and then Galatians in 1516-1517. His study of Scripture and preparation of lectures were both aided by the invention of the printing press.
The Tower Experience and The 95 Theses
As Luther dedicated himself to the study of Romans, he began to feel the weight of God’s justice. He knew himself to be a sinner and the prospect of God’s justice filled him with terror. He wrestled with the dilemma of how a just God could ever find him righteous. Then Luther came upon Romans 1:17 and that marvelous phrase “the just shall live by faith.” Contemplating that verse, Luther had an epiphany that radically transformed his conception of God’s justice. It dawned on Luther that God’s justice is upheld and fulfilled when God justifies his people through faith. Luther realized that Jesus was both just and justifier. This epiphany in Luther’s life is often referred to as his “tower experience” because he often studied the Scriptures in a tower at Wittenberg.
Luther’s epiphany regarding how a believer is justified before God began to impact his teaching, preaching and pastoral oversight. This put Luther on a collision course with the contemporary church practice of selling indulgences as a means of appeasing God’s justice for the sins of deceased loved ones. The selling of indulgences was a popular and effective means of placating the fears of Christians who were concerned that their deceased loved ones were trapped in purgatory due to their sins. For this reason, it was also an effective fundraising mechanism for church projects. One of the churches authorized to sell indulgences was Luther’s parish at the Castle Church at Wittenberg. Luther began to resent this practice and finally arrived at the point at which he could no longer tolerate it.
At the same time that Luther began to question the efficacy and propriety of indulgences, the church began a much more aggressive campaign to sell them. This new campaign was launched at the behest of Pope Leo X who had become increasingly concerned about the dismal financial condition of the papacy and its diminishing political power throughout Europe. The pope also longed to remodel Saint Peter’s Basilica, which had fallen into disrepair and which paled in comparison to lavish royal courts of Europe. Pope Leo X needed an effective communicator to spearhead this new campaign and he found one in Johann Tetzel.
Tetzel was very accomplished at selling indulgences. In the autumn of 1517, Tetzel was enlisted by the pope to sell a newly minted indulgence, and he diligently embraced his calling. Tetzel embarked on a campaign around Europe in an effort to sell indulgences, and eventually this campaign brought him within Luther’s vicinity.
Luther, out of a sense of pastoral concern for his people, openly preached against indulgences, particularly those being marketed by Tetzel. His sermons became progressively more emphatic in their opposition to this practice. Ultimately, his opposition led him to post a list of 95 grievances against the Church of Rome to the door of Castle Church at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517.
Luther’s act of posting a document to this door was not considered radical, nor was it intended for general public consumption. In essence, the door at Castle Church was an academic bulletin board where intellectuals would post items for academic disputation. However, while Luther may have intended a select academic audience for his dispute regarding indulgences, his 95 Theses were quickly copied and disseminated throughout Germany.
Luther’s actions, while admired by the laity, were not viewed so favorably by those in authority in the Church of Rome. Luther soon received a summons requiring him to appear in Rome to answer for his errors.
The Embattled Luther
Luther and his supporters were reluctant to send him to Rome, and eventually he was allowed to forgo a trip there if he agreed to appear before Cardinal Thomas Cajetan in Augsburg, Germany. In 1518, Luther began his journey to Augsburg, expecting not to return.
Cardinal Cajetan interrogated Luther with great vigor, but he ultimately failed to persuade Luther to recant. Luther was able to escape Augsburg with his life, but Cajetan continued his attack on Luther by attempting to undermine his relationship with his political protector, Frederick the Wise of Saxony. Despite the increasing political pressure, Frederick remained loyal to his favorite monk.
In 1519 a second battle with Rome commenced, this time in Leipzig, Germany. The Leipzig Debate pitted Luther against Johann Eck. Eck, a fellow German, was a capable scholar and debater. When the debate finished neither side had moved from its respective starting position. A frustrated Eck labeled Luther as the “Saxon Hus,” a reference to the 15th century church reformer Jan Hus who had been martyred for his accusations against the papacy.
In 1520, Pope Leo X launched another attack against Luther, this time by means of a papal bull entitled Exsurge Domine. This document reissued the demand that Luther recant. As Luther awaited receipt of the papal bull, he issued a flurry of tracts aimed at both rallying his allies against Rome and setting forth the theology of the emerging reform movement. The most famous of these tracts was On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church.
Upon receiving Exsurge Domine, Luther immediately responded by gathering his friends and setting the papal bull aflame. The pope responded to Luther’s rebellious actions by issuing another papal bull, Decet Romanum Pontificem, in which Luther was officially excommunicated from the church.
Luther’s excommunication resulted in a complex political situation which involved Frederick the Wise of Saxony, Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, and Pope Leo X. Charles V seized the moment as an opportunity to extend his own political power by attempting to bring resolution to the conflict. He accomplished this by exercising his power as Holy Roman Emperor to call an assembly. This assembly became known as the Diet of Worms.
On April 16, 1521, Martin Luther arrived at Worms where he was summarily called upon to recant and was given 24 hours to contemplate his decision. After the 24 hours expired, Luther stood before his accusers and issued his famous “Here I Stand” speech in which he asserted that he could not change his position unless persuaded by reason and the Holy Scriptures. At the conclusion of the Diet of Worms, a condemning edict was issued against Luther. It appeared his demise was certain.
Surprisingly, however, in the aftermath of the issuance of the edict, Charles V returned home to France and made no significant effort to bring Luther into custody. Perhaps Charles V recognized the risks of actually carrying out the sentence and was secretly hoping that the threat of the edict would be sufficient to silence Luther. While Luther took the threat seriously, evidenced by him taking refuge in Wartburg Castle, the Edict of Worms did not mark the end of the troublesome monk.
Luther the Leader
Luther did not enjoy being isolated at Wartburg Castle and it was during this period that he experienced what he described as spiritual opposition, often feeling directly attacked by the devil. Although Luther struggled greatly in the dark and foreboding castle, he was also amazingly productive. For example, it was during this time that Luther translated the New Testament into German.
While at Wartburg, Luther received reports from Wittenberg revealing that the reforms he had started were now being advanced by others. Luther welcomed the involvement of others, but was also troubled by some of the more radicalized efforts of these fellow reformers. He was particularly concerned with groups who mixed theological reform with societal revolution. These more radicalized groups were often led by a cult-like figure and endorsed extreme theological positions. They would later be classified as part of the “Radical Reformation.” Much to his chagrin, Luther’s efforts to reform the church were now inspiring something he detested—disorder and anarchy.
Eventually, in 1522, Luther left Wartburg Castle and returned to Wittenberg. His goal was both to resume his studies and to rein in the excesses of the Radical Reformation. Luther was now assuming a leadership role and this new role would challenge him greatly.
A prime example of the difficulties Luther encountered as a leader was his handling of the Peasants War of 1525. This conflict pitted the interests of the noblemen of Germany against those of its peasants. Luther found himself straddling a difficult political fence. He had ingratiated himself to the German nobles and benefitted from both their protection and patronage. On the other hand, he had sympathy with some of the concerns of the peasants and was beloved by the common people of Germany. In the early stages of the conflict, Luther expressed some sympathies with the plight of the peasants, but as the conflict intensified, and violence and chaos ensued, he shifted his support firmly in favor of the nobles. It was during this period that Luther penned a tract entitled Against the Murdering and Thieving Hordes of the Peasants. Essentially, Luther endorsed the right of the nobles to crush the revolt through the use of force. The nobles exercised that right and approximately 100,000 peasants were killed. Luther’s vacillation on this issue, and the devastating results which ensued, has brought him much criticism from historians.
Luther’s new role as leader also required him to provide guidance to an emerging Protestant church. Luther reformed the liturgy and music of the church. Luther even authored some of the hymns for this new church, including his most famous hymn, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. Luther also developed catechisms for adults and children to educate the laity in sound doctrine. Additionally, he encouraged general public education, trained pastors for the ministry, and refuted false teachers all in an effort to promote sound doctrine in the church.
Luther’s leadership further extended to domestic life. It is important to remember that the idea of a minister being married and having children was something foreign to most Christians in Luther’s time. Luther advocated that ministers should marry and have families, and he set the example himself in 1525 when he married Katharina von Bora, a former nun. Luther had a joyous marriage with his wife, whom he affectionately referred to as “Katie.” Luther also had children and attempted to provide a good example of a Christian home.
Furthermore, Luther’s role as leader required him to spar with other theological leaders of his time. Luther entered into a long and hostile debate with Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466–1536). Erasmus was a towering intellectual and strident defender of the Church of Rome. The two began to do battle through their publications. Erasmus launched an attack on Luther with his publication of On the Freedom of the Will, to which Luther responded in 1525 with his On the Bondage of the Will, which many scholars consider his theological magnum opus. In this work, Luther articulated his position that original sin had so incapacitated human volition that humanity was incapable of coming to know God in the absence of God’s grace.
However, Luther’s battles during this time were not limited to his Catholic foes. He also found himself in battle with his fellow reformers. The most notable of these conflicts was his battle with the Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) over the topic of the Lord’s Supper. Things became so heated between the two of them that they agreed to meet in Marburg, Germany, in an attempt to resolve their differences. The so-called “Marburg Colloquy” was held in October of 1529 and involved a passionate debate. Sadly, the two reformers, who shared much in common, could not come to agreement on this subject.
By 1530, Luther was no longer a renegade monk, but rather an established leader of a new church. This new role required him to deal with complex political, social, and theological issues. Despite these great challenges, Luther displayed a deep pastoral concern for the church under his care.
Luther’s Latter Years
As the decade of the 1530s unfolded, the overwhelming burdens placed on Luther began to take their toll on his physical and mental well-being. While never a healthy man, Luther’s many physical ailments worsened during this period. He had always struggled with times of depression and melancholy and these also intensified during this decade. By 1540, Luther was fifty-seven years old and he was not a well man.
As Luther aged he began to display an unprecedented harshness toward his enemies. He had always been a vigorous debater, both in writing and in oral debate, but as he aged his attacks took on a more personal and crass tone. For example, in his last published essay, Against the Papacy: An Institution of the Devil, which offered yet another attack against the papacy, Luther’s arguments frequently degraded into mere crass name calling. It was also during this period that Luther penned a reprehensible treatise which directly attacked Jews. The treatise, entitled On the Jews and Their Lies (1543), advocated for a variety of radical positions, such as setting fire to Jewish homes and synagogues, confiscating their property, destroying their religious texts, and forbidding rabbis from teaching their faith. Although some have tried to downplay Luther’s actions, suggesting they fall short of anti-Semitism as we know it today, the overwhelming scholarly assessment of this treatise is that it deserves unequivocal and unmitigated condemnation. This author joins in that assessment.
In the winter of 1546, Luther made a trek to Eisleben, Germany to attend to some business related to his family’s copper operations. On the evening of February 17, while Luther was in Eisleben, he suffered a heart attack which would eventually prove fatal. Martin Luther died on February 18, 1546.
Martin Luther’s death did not mark the end of his influence. Luther continues to live today through the lasting impact of the Protestant Reformation. The influence of Luther lives on through the myriad of Protestant churches which exist today. His legacy, however, is not just limited to the church. The Protestant Reformation which he sparked has impacted a variety of other areas of Western Civilization including public education, capitalism, and concepts of individual liberty. This year, 2017, will mark the 500th anniversary of Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door at Wittenberg. Even though half a millennium has passed, Martin Luther’s legacy continues to endure.
Anthony T. Selvaggio (J.D. The University of Buffalo School of Law; M.Div., Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary) is an ordained minister, a lawyer, an author, a lecturer, and a visiting professor at Ottawa Theological Hall in Ottawa, Canada. He has authored numerous books including his most recent publication, Meet Martin Luther: A Sketch of the Reformer’s Life (Reformation Heritage Books, 2017).