It was Luther who established the Protestant Reformation in Germany in 1517. His purpose was to reform the medieval Roman Catholic Church, but his actions met with firm resistance from the side of the church. It was the main reason for the permanent divisions in the structure of Western Christianity – he not only divided Christianity into two separate churches, but the second division, Protestantism, divided over the next few centuries into thousands of separate churches.
Luther was born in Eisleben in the Saxony province of Germany on 10 November 1483. His parents were Hans and Margaret Ziegler Luther. Soon after his birth the family moved to Mansfeld where his father took up a job as a copper miner. The young Luther attended school at Magdeburg and Eisenach before he enrolled at the University of Erfurtin in 1501 at the age of 17. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1502 and a master’s degree in 1505.
He then began to study law on insistence of his father in 1505. During the year he changed his mind, abandoned the law studies and entered the religious life by becoming an Augustinian monk. In later years he explained his sudden choice as receiving a great scare during a thunderstorm were a bolt of lightning struck the ground near him. In his state of alarm he became aware of the fleeting character of life, and therefore he renounced the world and entered the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt in July 1505. Luther made his career as a monk in the second half of 1506. His superiors selected him for the priesthood, and he was ordained in 1507.
Luther became a superior theologian and Biblical scholar. He earned his doctorate in theology in 1512, and became professor of Biblical literature at Wittenberg University. He took over the chair of biblical theology, which he held until his death.
Luther came to a severe personal crisis as a result of the sincerity with which he took his religious profession. He had to reach clarity as to how it was possible to reconcile the demands of God’s law with human inability to live up to it. He found the answer in his study of the New Testament in preparation for his lectures. He came to believe that Christians are saved not through their own efforts, but by the gift of God’s grace, which they accept in faith. This insight was decisive in Luther’s life, as it turned him decisively against some of the major codes of belief of the Catholic Church. He now knew that, what was required of mankind was not strict adherence to law or the fulfilment of religious obligations, but a response of faith that accepted what God had done. Such assurance would lead to an obedience based on love, and not fear.
The principles as formulated by Luther brought him into his first major conflict with the Catholic Church in 1517. To raise money for the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Pope Leo X offered indulgences for sale to the people. These indulgences offered limited remission of the punishment for sins to those who made donations of money. Luther reacted strongly against this practice.
On 31 October 1517, Luther became a known and controversial individual when he published his 95 Theses, Latin propositions contradicting the way in which indulgences were being sold. Luther nailed the list of propositions to the door of the church in Wittenberg. The proposition denied the right of the Pope to forgive sins by the sale of indulgences, among other challenges. The theses caused great excitement and were immediately translated into German and widely circulated in Germany. It caused great controversy.
The pope ordered Luther to appear before the Cardinal in Augsburg and the latter ordered him to retract all he had said. Luther refused unless the church could prove from the Bible that he was wrong.
Early in 1521 the pope issued a Bull of Excommunication against Luther and ordered Emperor Charles V to execute it. The Emperor then called Luther to a council for examination at Worms. He appeared before Emperor Charles V in April 1521, where he was asked before the assembled secular and ecclesiastical rulers to recant. Once more he strongly refused. According to him he would have to be persuaded by Scripture and by clear reason in order to do so. Acting against principles is not safe for anyone. The words “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise”, which is usually credited to him, is most probably legendary. Luther refused to revoke his statement, and was outlawed.
With the help of his friend Frederick the Wise of Saxony he managed to escape, and Luther hid in the Wartburg castle near Eisenach. There he remained in disguise. During his time at Wartburg he began to translate the New Testament from the original Greek into German, a determining contribution to the development of a standard German language. In 1534 Luther’s translation of the Bible was published.
The process that he started seemed like a furious effort to reform the church as soon as possible. Instead it turned into a project of building a new church independent of the Catholic Church. His small work, Von der Freiheit des Christenmenschen (Of the Freedom of the Christians), is the theological and ideological core of Luther’s belief – the basic term of value that centre around which every other aspect of his thought rotates, is the concept of Freiheit, (“freedom,” or “liberty”).
Finally the emperor’s concern with the war he was waging with France made it safe for Luther to return to his work at Wittenberg in March 1521. While Luther was in concealment, some of his followers had carried the reform movement further than he had intended, and he restored peace through a series of sermons. In 1524 many of the German peasants used his teachings as a reason for revolting. Luther denounced them and supported the princes’ efforts to re-establish order. Although he later repudiated the severe, vengeful policy implemented by the nobles, his attitude toward the war lost im many friends.
In 1525, in the midst of this controversy, he married Katharina von Bora, a former nun. The marriage was happy, and his wife became an important supporter in his busy life. This emphasized his rejection of monasticism and celibacy for the clergy.
By 1537, Luther’s health began to deteriorate. The rest of his life was spent in writing, preaching, and organizing the reformed church in Saxony. He replaced the Latin service of the mass with a service in the German language and he wrote many hymns that are still in use today. The most popular hymn being the famous Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress Is Our God). Luther died on 18 February 1546 at his birthplace, Eisleben.