Martin Luther’s Life: A Short Biography

By Albrecht Beutel (Translated by Katharina Gustavs)

Years As A Student

From the outside, Luther’s life passed by simply and steadily. With few exceptions, his whole life took place within the territories of Thuringia and Saxony, mostly in Wittenberg, the electoral capital at the Elbe river, and its surroundings. Only a few journeys led Luther beyond this small sphere of life: on behalf of his order to Rome (1510/11), to Cologne (1512) and Heidelberg (1518); later on behalf of a Reformation consensus to Marburg (1529), and also on his own behalf to Augsburg (1518) and Worms (1521). Equally, with regard to his profession, Luther’s was a remarkable and steady character. From entering the monastery through to his last moment, Luther always remained a man of the word: as a preacher, professor and writer (In addition to all the standard published “lives of Luther,” see also Helmar Junghans, Martin Luther: Exploring His Life and Times, 1483-1546, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998).

During Luther’s life the horizon of world history and humanities was in the process of becoming radically changed. The following names must stand for many others representing this era: the two emperors Maximilian I and Charles V, the popes Leo X, Clemens VII and Paul III (Council of Trent), as well as the names of such artists as Raphael, Michelangelo, Durer, Copernicus and Paracelsus. However, as far as Luther is concerned these changes could be deceptive because his childhood and youth had not been touched by the spirit of humanism or of the Renaissance. Limited to the provincial surroundings of his hometown, Luther grew up as a typical child of the late Middle Ages — just like thousands of other boys around him.

On November 10, 1483 Luther was born as the eldest of probably nine sisters and brothers at Eisleben in what was then the county of Mansfeld. The next morning he was baptized and named Martin after the saint of that day. Coming from a Thuringian family of farmers, his father Hans Luder, not being entitled to inherit, sought his luck in one of the most advanced business opportunities: the copper mines of Mansfield. During the course of his life he was able to gain a well-respected economic and social position through enormous hard work and thrift. We know only a very little about his wife Margarethe, Luther’s mother. She came from a family named Lindemann, resident in Eisenach. As the wife of a venturesome entrepreneur and as a mother of her large family, she had to work hard throughout her whole lifetime. Martin Luther was well aware of that fact that, as he put it, the bitter sweat of his parents had made it possible for him to go to the university.

Their parenting principles were strict, but not unusual for that time. Luther does not seem to have come to any harm. In fact, he honored the memory of his parents with love and respect. The devotional life at home also followed common church practices. Luther lived most of his life away from his parents’ home after he turned fourteen.

Between abut 1490 and 1497 Luther attended the town school in Mansfeld. Thereafter his father sent him to Magdeburg, probably because one of his friends also changed to the cathedral school there. Luther found accommodation with the “Brethren of the Common Life,” a modern religious movement emanating from the Netherlands. Once a year later he moved to the parish school of St. George in Eisenach. Closeness to his mother’s relatives may have played a role in this decision. Later Luther criticized the rigidity in late medieval schools. At any rate he owed them his proficiency in the Latin language, his familiarity with ancient Christian culture and his love for poetry and music.

In the spring 1501 Luther enrolled at the University of Erfurt. He stayed at a hostel, whose life followed strict monastic rules. To the prerequisite studies of liberal arts, which were mandatory for any prospective theologian, lawyer, or medical doctor, Luther devoted himself passionately. And after four years, in the shortest time possible, he graduated with excellent. When he was awarded his master’s degree in spring 1505, he took second place out of seventeen candidates.

Then Luther turned toward the study of law, as was his father’s desire. After having visited his parents, Luther got caught in a summer thunderstorm nearby Stotternheim on his way back home on July 2, 1505. A lightning bolt, which struck right behind him, scared him to death and caused him to vow: “Help me, Saint Anna, I will become a monk!” That Luther entered the monastery, but not before another fifteen days had passed, shows that he did not act under the effect of mere emotions, but that he became a monk only after careful self-examination. We will have to see his decision against the background of a deep existential fear, whose resolution he tried to force but whose dramatic expression it only became, since even in the Erfurt convent of the Augustinian Hermits, he was barred from the religious peace for which he had longed.

Luther’s father was outraged by his son’s unexpected turn: All the plans he had made for his eldest son’s life and career seemed to be thwarted. This conflict would cast a shadow over the relationship between father and son for many years to come and only in 1525 when Luther got married was it finally resolved.

During his first year as a novice, Luther subjected himself to an intense study of the Bible. He also familiarized himself with the rules and regulations of the monastic life. The strict way of living, which was predominant there, did not pose any problems to him. But soon it became apparent that even the most painstaking obedience to the three monastic vows Luther had taken at his profession (obedience, poverty, chastity) did not lead to the inner peace for which he had longed. An excessively pursued practice of confessing did not help either. It only increased his religious distress. Thus it was no coincidence that Luther got stuck in the high prayer during the first mass he had to read as a newly ordained priest. The young man who all of a sudden found himself facing God so closely was left speechless in his fear. Filled with awe of the sacred he tried to run away from the liturgy but his teacher admonished him to stay and finish mass.

In the figure of the pantocrator—the ruling and judging Christ—Luther’s fear of God became symbolically intensified. The anxieties and melancholies that haunted Luther throughout his entire life were fed from this image of the Judge of the World, so real for him during his early years. Yet Luther never lost himself to his religious anxieties. He rather felt spurred on to study the Bible more intensely. Unlike the approach of the scholastic tradition, Luther would not read the Scriptures for intellectual purposes but for existential meditation. Even later the professors at Wittenberg were always quite impressed by their young colleague’s outstanding knowledge of the Bible. The fact that Luther felt at home in this book more than any other became the characteristic trademark of his theology. No matter what he read from the fathers and teachers of the church, he would always relate it to the Bible and compare it with its original message.

In 1507, the same year he was ordained as a priest, Luther was selected by his superior to study theology. In Erfurt the Augustinian Hermits had established a general course of studies for their members. As a doctor of theology the respective chair had to fill the professorship of theology at the university as well. Through the works of Gabriel Biel, also von Ockam, Duns Scotus, Petrus of Ailly and Thomas Aquinas, Luther was introduced to Christian dogmatics. However, Augustine was the figure who became of utmost importance to Luther. Having studied his works most diligently, Luther preferred him over all other scholastics, turning him King’s evidence for his reformational renewal. In addition to these scholastics, he also came in contact with Aeropagitic (Dionysios, Gerson), the Roman (Bernard von Clairvaux) and the German mysticism (Tauler) as well as the German humanism (Reuchlin, Wimpfeling), though in a more limited, philology oriented manner.

At that time Johannes von Staupitz served as vicar general of the German monasteries of the Augustinian Hermits. Today there is still very little known about his theology, which was highly influenced by Augustine. He attached great importance to the study of the Bible in his monasteries. To Luther he became an important supported and father confessor, seeking to alleviate Luther’s fear of punishment and eternal damnation by pointing out that God only intends to punish the sinful nature in humans but seeks to win the person of the sinner for himself. In a somewhat modified manner this distinction can also be found later in Luther’s writings. At one point Luther tormented himself with an almost maniacal urge to confess, when von Staupitz, a pastor of high standing, objected that he could not even produce any real sins, but just hobbling stuff and puppet’s sins.

From fall 1508 to fall 1509 Luther was sent to the newly established university in Wittenberg where the Augustinian Hermits from Erfurt were in charge of one of the teaching positions. Due to a temporary vacancy Luther had to fill in as Master of Arts, reading about the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle. After this interim in Wittenberg, Luther returned to the monastery in Erfurt. From there he accompanied an older fellow friar on a trip to Rome in winter 1510/11, where the latter was engaged by his order to settle business with the curia. Only in the late summer of 1511 did Luther move for good into the city which would make history through him and in which he himself would make history.

As his very own creation Elector Frederick the Wise had established a new university in Wittenberg in 1502, for which the imperial privilege had been granted whereas papal confirmation of the university was not given until 1507. Georg Spalatin, electoral court chaplain and tutor of the princes, became the crucial intermediary between court and university. Though Spalatin also cherished other theological ideas at first, Luther did not have much trouble in winning him for his own opinions. The bond of friendship that grew immediately between them turned out to be an essential cornerstone of the Reformation, lasting through the storms of decades.

In Wittenberg the two converts of the mendicant orders were each engaged with a professorship in theology. For the Augustinian hermits von Staupitz was the one giving the lectures. However, he wished to free himself from this responsibility and it was obvious he built Luther up into being his successor right from the start. Under his spiritual guidance Luther graduated through all levels of theology studies up to and including his doctorate — and all that within the shorter time frame possible, as five years of study were the minimum requirement.

On October 18 and 19, 1512 Luther was solemnly awarded his doctor of theology. The required fee of fifty guilders was paid by the elector himself. With the doctorate came the right of independent academic work. Anyone with a doctoral degree was entitled to voice his own opinion, which could then be heard in theological disputes—of course this was only as long as it resonated with the asserted teachings of the church. Even though at first Luther was most reluctant to pursue the academic career intended for him, it did not take long to adjust and he would refer to his doctoral degree without reservation whenever his authority was questioned, be it toward the papal legate Cajetan, the elector Albert of Mainz, or the pope himself.

With his promotion Luther entered a stage of his life which was characterized by extremely intense academic and spiritual work. Beside his academic responsibilities, he already faced an enormous workload as sub-prior and chairman of the general course of studies in Wittenberg, adding even more duties when he became district vicar of his order in 1515.

A Time Of New Departures (1512-21)

Luther’s series of early lectures — first on Psalms (1513/14), then on the Letters to the Romans (1515/16), Galatians (1516/17) and Hebrews (1517/18) — is an invaluable source of information for understanding Reformation theology. Those lectures document an exciting and far-reaching process during whose course of discoveries Luther got out of the rut of conventional theology more rigorously with each new insight: He interpreted the passages not with a scholastic’s eye any more, but from the Bible’s perspective, not on the background of traditional interpretations by the church authorities, but within the framework of the whole biblical tradition. The debate as to whether Luther experienced his Reformation breakthrough in 1514/15 or somewhat later, in 1518, which has not been settled as of yet, loses more and more of its importance when Luther’s Reformation theology is not looked at as a sudden event, which might even have occurred overnight, but rather as a complex developmental process spreading out over several years, furthering sudden insights on a continuous basis. Without a doubt the most famous discovery of all is about God’s righteousness (Rom. 1:17) — which is not based on demanding but on giving, not on the law but on the gospel.

Luther’s early lectures seemed to make a fundamental reform of the theological course of studies absolutely necessary. His criticism of Aristotelian prerequisites for thinking grew steadily into a criticism of the entire scholastic theology. The call for a new reform of the theological study course was the inevitable consequence: away fro Artistotelianism and the interpretation of the Lombard’s Sentences toward a study of the Bible and, with a proper distance, the church fathers as well. Luther’s criticism found its preliminary peak in his —partly harshly termed — disputation theses “Against Scholastic Theology,” which were published in September 1517, only two months before his famous Ninety-five Theses “On the Power of Indulgences” were announced, triggering a snowball effect. Strangely enough, at this time everything appeared to remain largely calm on the outside (WA 1, 224-28 [Disputatio contra scholasticam theologiam; 1517]. Luther’s writings are quoted hereafter according to Weimarer Ausgabe {Weimar Edition}, the only complete critical edition of his works, letters, table talks and Bible interpretations: D. Martin Luther, Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe, Weimar: H. Bohlau, 1883-1993 {abbr, WA}).

Beside his academic work Luther had also assumed responsibility for the parish of Wittenberg as a preacher. In their inseparable connectedness these two, lectern and pulpit, formed together the decisive continuum of Luther’s theological existence. No later than 1514 he must have already filled in the preaching position at the town church of Wittenberg. Some of his sermons Luther sent immediately to press. However, the majority of his sermons — in the end somewhat over 2,000 – were handed down to us in form of shorthand transcripts. As a preacher Luther preferred a homiletic approach, which would closely follow the Bible passage. His interpretations were crafted in a down-to-earth manner without rhetorical pathos, but full of experiences from real life and faith. Beside the interpretation of individual passages of the Bible, Luther also liked to teach about central texts such as the Ten Commandments or the Lord’s Prayer. Those catechistic series of sermons formed the basis from which, later, the two catechisms grew.

The turning point in society, which Luther brought about not as an act of daring but unintentionally, was kicked off by his criticism of the widespread canonized practice of selling indulgences. By means of indulgences the church offered an opportunity to compensate for one’s untoned sin and punishments through money. Pope Leo X had reissued a plenary indulgence in 1515 for, among other territories, the church province of Magdeburg, near to Wittenberg. Many members of Luther’s parish made eager use of this opportunity, lulling them into a false sense of religious certainty. First of all, Luther voiced his pastoral concerns from the pulpit. On October 31, 1517 he presented his critique of the indulgences in a concerned letter to Margrave Albert of Brandenburg, who was at the same time Archbishop of Mainz as well as of Magdeburg. His Ninety-five Theses “On the Power of Indulgences” were also enclosed in this letter. In his writing he called repentance a lifelong attitude expected of Christians. He expressed his particular disapproval of the fact that humans were more frightened of punishments set by the church than of sin whose forgiveness lies in God’s power alone. Thus Luther’s criticism of the indulgences aimed at the church’s instumentalization of Christian repentance (WA 1, 233-38 [Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum; 1517).

Whether Luther actually posted his Ninety-five Theses on the castle church of Wittenberg remains uncertain — Melanchthon at least talks about that only decades later. However, it is beyond any doubt that his theses spread throughout all Germany in no time and launched a meteoric development after they had been released at the end of 1517 and explained in German by Luther in March 1518. This marks the beginning of Luther’s unprecedented writing activities. At the end of April 1518, when he visited his orders chapter in Heidelberg, he was already a famous man. With his theses of the “Heidelberg Disputation,” in which he gave the theology of the cross as promoted by him a distinct image, he won some of his most important connections in southern Germany, among them Johannes Brenz, Martin Buber, and Erhard Schnepf (WA 1, 243-46 [Ein Sermon von Ablab und Gnade {A Sermon on Indulgences and Grace}; 1518).

In summer 1518 Rome opened a trial for heresy against Luther. The situation appeared to be hopeless: The ban of the church would most certainly be followed by the ban of the empire. Luther asked his territorial ruler, Elector Frederick the Wise, to lend him his support with the emperor’s consent so that the whole cause could come to negotiations in Germany. Frederick complied with his request, and because Rome had political reasons to reach an agreement with Frederick, Luther was indeed examined by a papal legate on German soil in October 1518, following the Diet of Augsburg. The interrogations were led by the papal legate Cajetan, a highly educated Dominican, who had the authority to readmit Luther to the community of the church if he would recant, but also to excommunicate him if need be. Through it all Luther remained steadfast. Therefore Cajetan demanded that Luther be extricated to Rome. That of course was flatly declined by Frederick the Wise, who demanded instead that Luther be heard before an unbiased court of scholars. Since Rome did not intend to bargain away Frederick’s favor in view of the upcoming imperial election, no particular measures were enforced in the causa Lutheri  for the moment.

Yet the debate continued. In summer 1519 the theology professor Johann Eck from Ingolstadt sought a confrontation with Luther. In the “Leipzig Disputation” they first debated about indulgences, but soon moved on to the question of papal authority. Provoked by Eck, Luther disputed that the pope’s primacy was grounded in divine right and at the same time he also disputed the infallibility of the church councils: Those might not only err, but had certainly already erred, as with the Council of Constance (1414-18), for example, in the case of the Bohemian Jan His. The Leipzig Disputation helped clarify positions: From now on Duke George of Saxony saw his enemy in Luther. On the other hand many humanists, such as Erasmus of Rotterdam, sided with Luther or at least showed solidarity while keeping their distance.

The breathing space which the year 1520 seemed to grant was used by Luther to give his theology a more clearly defined image in writing. With the four main reformational works of this year he showed that he did not only aim at the criticism of a specific, ill-developed, practice of piety, but that he was on his way to renew the whole church and theology based on the gospel. He started out with the treatise Von den guten Werken (Of Good Works; WA 6, 202-76 {1520}). This fundamental writing of Reformation ethics Luther clothed in the form of an interpretation of the Ten Commandments. Faith alone, he stated at the beginning, is able to fulfill the first commandment. However, when a person in faith knows herself accepted by God without any contributing works of her own, she will not need to speculate about attaining God’s salvation through her own activities, but fueled by her confidence in God will feel free to do good works as the most natural thing in the world. Following this line to practice a life lived out of faith, Luther also interpreted all the remaining nine commandments. In his writing An den christlichen Adel deutscher Nation von des christlichen Standes Besserung (To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Regarding the Improvement of the Christian Estate {WA 6, 404-69 {1520}), Luther encouraged the target group to make active use of their right as secular authorities to lend their active support to a reform of Christianity. And all the more, Rome would take cover behind a threefold wall against all legitimate reform efforts: First, through the unbiblical division of Christianity between priests and lay people; second, through the claim that the pope holds the supreme power of teaching; third, through the presumptuous prevention that the pope alone was allowed to convene a council.

The “Nobility Treatise,” written in German, was selling like hot cakes. Only a few days after its publication the 4,000 copies of the first printing were sold out. The Latin writing Von der babylonischen Gefanggenschaft der Kirche (On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church {WA 6, 497-573 {De captivitate babylonica ecclesiae Praeludium; 1520}), however, was geared toward a theologically educated audience. In it Luther unfolded the base line for a biblical understanding of the sacraments, which on the one hand sorted out confirmation, marriage, ordination and extreme unction, and with some reservation also repentance, as unbiblical, and on the other hand announced his fundamental opposition to the Roman Catholic understanding of the Lord’s Supper. The explosive potential of Luther’s new teaching on the sacraments can hardly be overestimated, not to mention its practical implications which, for example, would render private masses pointless. This in turn would also put many priests out of work and in general would make the separation between clergy and lay people irrelevant. Luther certainly did not have an impious destruction of the church in mind, but rather its basic Christian renewal. Yet Luther hit the vital nerve of current church practices. Erasmus commented on this writing with the laconic remark that the break with Rome could hardly be healed any more.

The best-known writing of them all explored Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen (On the Freedom of a Christian {WA 7, 20-38 {1520}). Luther portrayed Christians in their relationship to God as free, in their relationship to the world, however, as obliged to the service and compassion of their neighbor: Faith would set humans free from the compulsion for self-justification and therefore would render them free to serve their neighbors. In short, humans would be free out of faith in love.

The programmatic writings of the Reformation were hereby established. In the same year the proceedings against Luther were taken up again. As early as 1519 the two universities in Cologne as well as Lowen had already condemned Luther. On June 15, 1520 the bull threatening Luther with excommunication was finally issued, and in October 1520 it was publicly announced to have the force of law. Somehow Frederick the Wise was able to negotiate that Luther was not to be arrested at once but would first be interrogated at the Diet of Worms. On March 6, 1521 Luther was summoned before the emperor with the promise of safe-conduct.

The journey to Worms turned into a triumphal procession. Wherever Luther went, he was eagerly greeted with public interest and good will. In Leipzig the magistrate welcomed him with an honorary cup of wine, in Erfurt the rector of the university received him at the city wall with great splendor as if a prince was to be honored. Here in Erfurt Luther also preached in his order’s church. which was overfilled to the point of mortal danger. When the creaking of the wooden gallery caused panic to spread, with great presence of mind he was able to avert the danger: Please stand still, he called into the crowd, nothing evil will happen, the devil just tried to frighten us.

Finally, on April 18, 1521, his crucial appearance in Worms became reality. In front of the emperor and the imperial estates Luther refused to follow their demand of renunciation. He did not feel the slightest obligation to the authority of the pope, he stated. Instead his conscience was bound to Holy Scripture. Therefore he could not and would not recant as long as his teachings could not be refuted through Scripture or clear reasoning. With reference to his conscience as solely obliged to the word of God, Luther had denied access to human faith to the two world powers, represented by the emperor and the pope.

Though the effort was made to continue negotiations in Worms, they did not produce successful results. On April 26, 1521 Luther set out on his return trip. Shortly before, Frederick the Wise had informed Luther that he would have him kidnapped on his way home so he could be brought to safety. This is exactly what happened on May 4: To all appearances an attack was launched and Luther was taken to his new refuge at the Wartburg castle. Since Worms, Luther’s life was in danger: The Edict of Worms had placed him under imperial ban. Furthermore, all his books were to be destroyed and censorship of religious writings was to be introduced in all territories of the empire.

Soon it became obvious that the orders of the Edict of Worms defied enforcement in this form. Yet it should not be underestimated that as a legal instrument they served their purpose in the imperial religious politics until the Peace of Augsburg in 1555.

A Time Of Creative Prowess (1521-25)

Often enough Luther found his isolation difficult to bear while locked up in the Wartburg castle. An immense work schedule was his way of going about coping with it. He studied the Bible and beside numerous letters he also wrote some of his most important works such as the Wartburgspostille (Church Postil {WA 10, 1,1 {1522}) — a collection of exemplary sermons — and also an interpretation of the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-56 {WA 7, 544-604 {Das Magnificat verdeutscht und ausgelegt; 1521}), a broadsheet against the theologian Latomus von Lowen( WA 8, 43-128 {Rationis Latomianae pro incendiariis Lovaniensis scholae sophistis  redditae, Lutheriana confutio; 1521}), and a fundamental treatise on monastic vows (WA 8, 573-669 {De votis monasticis M. Lutheri iudicium; 1521}), whose rejection of the bonding force of the vows soon triggered far reaching practical consequences. The exodus from the monasteries began.

But above all Luther translated the New Testament from the Greek original, a first since Wulfila, at the Wartburg castle within just eleven weeks. Luther’s German translations of the Bible outshone all those before him by far: in their linguistic beauty and power, but also in their spiritual authority and theological precision. Luther’s New Testament was released in September 1522 (Septembertestament) with 3,000 copies and a rather high retail price, notwithstanding which it was out of print within a few days. By December a revised edition (Dezembertestatement) was published. Between 1522 and 1533 Luther’s New Testament saw a total of eighty-five editions. Soon after 1522 Luther set out to translate the Old Testament. This endeavor which engaged several collaborators, came to its fruition with the first edition of a complete Luther Bible in 1534. It is said that the print shop of Hans Lufft in Wittenberg sold about 100,000 copies of the Biblia, das list die gantze Heilige Schrift Deudsch (Biblia, That is the Entire Holy Scripture in German) over fifty years. The number of non-local reprints or illegal copies, however, is beyond our knowledge. From 1531 Luther presided over a revision commission, whose goal it was to improve the texts of the German Bible on a continuous basis and whose work can still come alive for us through some extant commission protocols.

During the creative break Luther had been forced to take at the Wartburg castle, the call for restructuring the church system became more and more urgent. Now it all depended on shaping this critical potential, fed from all those forces across Germany that aligned themselves with Luther’s protest, into a positive and creative power that would be able to give this new faith, which claimed to be the truly old and evangelical one, a visible and credible expression of life. That Luther met this challenge without hesitating and dedicating his entire life to it without sparing himself is what really shows his greatness and at the same time has given the cause he represented its lasting historic meaning. 

In 1522 turmoil broke out in Wittenberg. Blind enthusiasm for reform got out of hand. First Luther responded in written form only, with his Treue[n] Vermahnung zu allen Christen, sich zu hut for Aufruhr und Emporung (Earnest Exhortation to All Christians Against insurrection and Rebellion) {WA 8, 676-87 {1522}). When he realized that written encouragement would not help, he came in person. At the beginning of March 1522 Luther preached for a whole week every single day. Thus he was able to stop the radical iconoclasm, cooling down the very heated feelings. Non vi sed verbo – not through violence, but through the word alone. This was the message of the “Invocavit Sermons” he preached very eloquently. This was also the start for the reorganization of the budding church of the Reformation (WA 10, 3; 1-64 {1522}).

Luther reformed the current form of worship service cautiously but also with consequences. So that the congregation could play its active role as set forth by the new evangelical approach, Luther initiated congregational singing in the native language. As early as 1524 the first three evangelical hymnbooks could be released, with a large portion of the new hymns contributed by Luther himself.

Furthermore, the church assets had also to be reorganized. In Wittenberg a satisfying solution was quickly found. After a temporary trial of the so-called “begging ordinance,” the Gemeine Kasten (“common chest”) was established in 1522. This new institution was responsible for the finances church and school and also for the social services to be granted in support of poor local residents. The begging of foreigners was hereby prohibited.

The school system Luther regarded as an excellent object for reform work. Over and over again he complained about the lack of interest in schooling among citizens and the magistrates. In 1524 he therefore appealed An die Ratsherren aller Stadte deutschen Lands, dab sie christliche Schulen aufrichten und halten sollen (To the Councillors of all Cities in Germany that they Establish and Maintain Christian Schools {WA 15, 27-53 {1524}). A solid knowledge of the original languages of the Bible seemed to be indispensable for a preacher in Luther’s opinion, and likewise the professional skills to access the whole of education currently available. This was the only way that an evangelical preacher could fulfill his task satisfactorily, just the opposite opinion, that of a fanciful and low regard for school and academic education, would inevitably lead to a bargaining away of the cause of the church. The gospel, Luther was certain, could not be deliberately trivialized. The educational responsibility of the Lutheran Church as put forth by Luther became an essential factor in the modern history of humanities.

Not only for the history of the Reformation, but also for Martin Luther himself the year 1525 meant a deep caesura. It was marked by the Peasants’ War as well as the suspect role Luther played in it. As early as 1523 Luther noticed that Thomas Muntzer, one of his followers during the first years, began to drift further off from him: The rigoristic mysticism that Muntzer began to spread, Luther regarded as much against the gospel as was its objective, to execute the punishment of the godless through violent-revolutionary means. At the beginning of 1525 Muntzer became one of the protagonists of the peasants’ movement in Thuringia.

The Peasants’ War turned into a trial of strength for Luther’s political ethics. Luther regarded most of the peasants’ demands as legitimate. However, he disliked the fact that the peasants did not voice their concerns in a political and pragmatic manner, but rather justified their cause from the Bible, thereby revoking the secular system of laws in the name of the gospel. Luther asked for a clear distinction between law and religion. When open rebellion broke loose in Thuringia, Luther became outraged about the peasants: They had violated their obligation of allegiance and were guilty of violation of the peace as well as blasphemy. At the same time Luther admonished the princes to take up their duties as rulers, that is, to protect the system of laws and go into action against the rebellious peasants.

Of course, Luther could not hinder the rebellion. After all, we should not overestimate the influence he exerted over the course of events. However, the consequences followed really hard upon him: The Roman Catholic party sought to make him legally responsible for the uproar as its spiritual father. Among Luther’s friends there was irritation die to his hard line. The peasants were disappointed by him, and most of them remained embittered. From now on Luther kept reminding the secular authorities of their duties to be the chosen patrons of the Reformation. The Landersherrliche Kirchenregiment (territorial church government), which grew out of this development, would define the Protestant church governance in Germany until 1918.

Beside the Peasants’ War the year 1525 also brought another caesura: the break with Erasmus. Humanism and Reformation, Erasmus and Luther: They were a pair of brothers, sometimes arguing but certainly cast in the same mold. Not only in their criticism of ecclesiastical incrustations and the traditional scholastic education system were connected, but also in their philological dedication toward the original documents of the Western world and in their deep respect for the ancient languages of the civilized world.

At first Erasmus had been kindly disposed towards Luther’s appearance. No later than 1521 he considered the break between Rome and Luther as irreparable. At best he had preferred to keep silent. Yet because he was increasingly suspected of being one of Luther’s secret followers and also because he had felt hurt by some of Luther’s adverse remarks, he could hardly avoid making a public statement. In September 1524 he began to take a stand against Luther with his treatise On Free Will (Erasmus von Rotterdam, De libero Arbitrio diatribe sive collatio {1524}). The topic was chosen cleverly: It hit the core argument over which Luther had become involved in the church.

Erasmus opted for the path of the golden mean: On the way to salvation, many things would have to be ascribed to divine grace and others to human will. Luther replied with his counter-writing On the Bondage of the Will in the fall of 1525 (WA 18, 600-787 {De servo arbitrio; 1525; ET The Bondage of the Will, trans. J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston. Westwood, NJ.: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1957}). To the question whether the human will can be thought of as being free, he also answered: half and half. Unlike Erasmus he drew a line of categorical distinction: With respect to its relationship to God, the human will is totally bound. On the other hand, with respect to its dealing with worldly things, freedom of choice belongs to humans. If humans were to ascribe freedom to themselves, then, stated Luther, God’s gift of faith becomes a human effort. According to Luther, this was exactly the position toward which Erasmus was leaning. For Erasmus, human faith in God would become a moral postulate.

Erasmus responded once more with a detailed defense statement (Erasmus von Rotterdam, Hyperaspistes diatribae adversus serum arbitrium Martini Lutheri, 2 vols. {1526/27}). Luther did not react to it any more. The break between the two scholars was complete by then. The relationship between the two movements they represented did not suffer the same fate, fortunately for both.

A Time of Trials (1525-1546)

With respect to his personal life the year 1525 also meant an essential caesura to Luther. He left monkhood and entered into marriage. From the union with Katharina von Bora, a former nun, six children were born: Hans (1526), Elizabeth (1527), Magdelena (1529), Martin (1531), Paul (1533) and Margarethe (1534). Two of the girls died young: Elizabeth after eight months, Magdelena — Luther’s beloved Lenchen — in her thirteenth year.

The burden of Luther’s household was immense. In addition to his own children, he also took in children of both his deceased sister, and an aunt of his wife. Some students found also accommodation in Luther’s house as well as varying numbers of foreign guests; these alone could amount to twenty-five people. This large operation posed a continuous domestic challenge. And that Luther on the one hand was a man of warm generosity and on the other hand lacked a sense of finances did not make things easier. That Luther’s wife not only managed the domestic matters but also secured their economic survival through husbandry and agriculture, Luther always appreciated with deep gratification. The relationship between the two spouses was conducted in mutual respect and happy love. In contrast to the law of his time, Luther appointed his wife as sole heir in his last will.

Luther’s professional duties took up most his time. As a preacher, often also as a father confessor or pastor, he served the parish of Wittenberg, unflustered in his faithful and reliable devotion despite many a dispute. From 1535 Luther was appointed again permanent dean of the theology faculty. Highlights of his academic work included the second lecture series on Galatians (1531) and the great interpretation of the Book of Genesis (1535-45), which took about ten years and was worked on with many an interruption. The practice of disputations, which had come to a standstill during the disturbances of the early 1520’a, was revived in 1535. Luther had been involved in a total of fourteen circular as well as thirteen doctoral disputations. For the promotion of this literary style, bu which the Reformation had been sparked off so to speak, Luther spared neither trouble not care. Therefore nowhere else can greater examples of his outstanding writing and editing skills be found than in the series of disputation theses he drew up. As for the subject matter, he would always aim at the heart of Reformation theology: The doctrine of justification. later also Christology, the doctrine of the Trinity, as well as anthropology, were his favorite topics.

Again and again Luther emphasized the importance of disputation exercises for theological teaching and church life. In his opinion they offered prospective pastors and teachers an ideal opportunity to train their rhetorical-dialectical skills and to prepare them for all those arguments they would inevitably be confronted with owing to their profession. To Luther theology was a science of conflict par excellence: Its subject was the dispute about the truth of faith into which everybody had been baptized and into which each and every studying Christian would certainly and constantly become involved. In Luther’s opinion, theological reality would not find its expression in unconditional neutrality but in a constantly raging debate: Only in the defense of life-threatening evil would the truth of faith manifest itself in concrete terms.

After the disaster of the Peasants’ War Luther made an appeal to the elector to have visitations in the parishes carried out and to urge his villages to regard the support of schools and churches as at least as important as the maintenance of bridges and roads. Thus in 1527 the first visitation was conducted in Electoral Saxony. Luther contributed mainly in written form: the “German Mass,” (WA 19, 72-113 {Deutsche Messe und Ordnung Gottesdiensts, 1526}), a new liturgy for baptism and marriage, a prayer book for children, new editions of hymnals, a series of sermons and of course the two Catechisms (WA 30, 1; 125-425 {1529}).

Both Catechisms, the Large as well as the Small, were Luther’s way of dealing with the depressing visitation results. In view of the alarming lack of biblical and theological knowledge encountered in the pastors — not to mention the congregations — Luther set out to tackle the challenge, whose effort can hardly be overrated, of putting the essence of the Christian faith in basic sentences without trivializing or reducing it excessively. Fortunately he could draw on some groundwork he had done earlier, in particular on three series of sermons from 1528, in which he had worked through the “Principal Themes of Faith” one after the other: Decalogue, Confession, Lord’s Prayer, Baptism, and Lord’s Supper. From that source the Large Catechism was born: a handbook for pastors designed to provide them with the necessary tools of the theological trade.

The Large Catechism was published in 1529 and the Small Catechism in the same year. The Small Catechism is first of all nothing more than its superbly phrased shore form for domestic use. The one-page format made it possible for the individual pages of the entire Catechism to be put up on the wall as an educational aid for memorizing. With unsurpassed proficiency Luther knew how to summarize the heart of the Christian faith in concrete terms, always keeping his readership in mind so that its translation into the lives of those who would read and memorize the Catechism came alive with each sentence. “Your book says it all,” commented his wife Katherine. And this is exactly how it was meant to be.

Beside the Luther Bile the Small Catechism in particular unfolded an incredible sphere of activity throughout the history of Protestant piety, extending to the dawn of the present time. The scheme of having the question “What is it?” constantly repeated was meant as an encouragement to render account to each other for the mystery of faith on a daily basis.

At the Diet of Speyer in 1529 the evangelical imperial estates submitted a formal protestation. An alliance of all “Protestants” came into sight then, for which Luther assumed as inevitable an agreement on all questions of teaching. The “Schwabach Articles” (WA 30, 3; 178-82 {Ein Bekenntnis christlicher Lehre und christlichen Glaubens durch D. M. Luther in 17 Artikeln verfabt; 1529}) which he had co-authored with Melanchthon were supposed to form the foundation. The teaching on the Lord’s Supper led to an argument with the reformers from Zurich: Do we celebrate only the memory Christ — as Zwingli said; or even his bodily presence — as Luther stated? In October 1529 the “Colloquy of Marburg” was set up to bring about the indispensable theological as well as political unity. Yet no agreement could be reached. From now on each party would go their own way. The consequences caused by the separation between the reformers of Wittenberg and Switzerland have reached right into the twenty-first century.

The separation from the Roman Catholic Church also remained tormenting. For the Diet of Augsburg in 1530 the emperor had promised a peaceful settlement of the religious issue. The “Augsburg Confession,” written by Melanchthon since Luther was not allowed to leave his territory of Electoral Saxony, offered a careful and cautious summary of the Lutheran teachings. Unlike Melanchthon, Luther regarded the attempt to reconcile with Rome in theological and ecclesiastical matters utopian. Therefore he aimed at a political settlement. The “Peace of Nuremberg” (1532) seemed to offer than. However, appearances were deceptive: The political reality only took root with the “Peace of Augsburg” in 1555. Though Luther did not true the pope’s plans for a church council, in his “Schmalkald Articles” (WA 50, 192-254 {1536}) he did summarize the theological priorities of the Protestants, which ought not to be given up in the discussion with Rome. They became his theological will.

Luther’s workload, which rested on his shoulders over decades on end, was enormous. Just a glance at his written legacy, collected in over one hundred thick volumes of the complete critical Weimar Edition — equivalent to one thousand and eight hundred pages per year —, makes one stand in wonder at so much creative power. Luther always worked on the verge of exhaustion.

Hi life became overshadowed by more and more illness. An angina pectoris ailed him over decades; a severe attack in 1527 had his family fearing the worst. Among other chronic disorders were headaches as well as a stubborn kidney disorder, which almost cost his life in 1537 while on a trip to Schmalkald.

Luther devoted his last energy to the mediation of a fight over an inheritance which had divided the counts of Mansfeld. In the end they asked Luther to help negotiate between the parties. At the end of 1545 Luther had become involved with several letters and visits, but in vain.

Thus he set out for another trip to Eiselben in January 1546. This time his arbitration efforts attained their goal. On February 16, 1546  first arbitration contract could be signed. The net day Luther was unable to participate in the signing of the second contract due to acute bodily weakness. In the night of February 18 he died. Both of the friends who were with him asked the dying Luther if he would remain steadfast and intended to die in Christ and the teaching he himself had preached. Luther replied with a clear and audible: Ja (“Yes”). This was his last word.

During the two following days Luther’s body remained laid out in Eisleben. Thereafter he was transferred to Wittenberg where he was taken to the castle and university church with a solemn escort. At the funeral service Bugenhagen as the town pastor preached in German and Melanchthon representing the university spoke in Latin. Then Luther was interred next to the pulpit. When the imperial troops entered Wittenberg a year later, Charles V ordered his soldiers to leave the grave of his adversary untouched. Luther has shaped his time in an extraordinary way. Now he had become history himself.

*Adapted from Chapter One of The Cambridge Companion To Martin Luther, edited by Donald K. McKim, Cambridge University Press, UK, 2003. The author of this chapter, Albrecht Beutel, is University Professor of Church History in the Evangelisch Theologische Fakultat, Westfalische Wilhelms Universitat, Munster, Germany. He has written Martin Luther and In dem Anfang war das Wort: Studien zu Luthers Sprachverstandnis.