Martin Luther was one of the most influential figures of the last millennium. His philosophy led to the division of Western Christendom into separate churches in the Reformation.
Born in 1483 to wealthy parents, Martin Luther attended a school in Magdeburg run by the Brethren of Common Life. He went on to graduate from the University of Erfurt with a masters degree in 1505. He was not happy at university, describing every day as "a day of rote learning and often wearying spiritual exercises".
Luther struggled with the theology he was taught. He was troubled by the teaching of the "nominalists" of Erfurt, who claimed that mankind could never fully understand the Divinity and that the Bible could only fully reveal revelations. He did not like the idea that mankind was separate from God.
Luther joined the Augustinian Friars at Erfurt in July 1505 in an attempt to find God. He embraced the strict discipline of the Observant Order, but he could still find no peace of mind. He was afraid that he was condemned as a sinner in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church and there was nothing he could do to help himself. He could find no peace as long as he remained in doubt about the exact way in which God decided who could enter heaven.
In 1511, Luther started lecturing at the University of Wittenberg. He lectured on the St. Paul’s Epistles to the Romans and and the Psalms and by studying this scripture he found the answers he was looking for.
He learned that Man could not get near enough to God because his original sin had driven him towards evil. He learned that it was only God who could set Man free. Luther also learned that all sinner should have faith and hope in God as only through faith alone could Man find salvation.
Luther was still studying theology when John Tetzel, a Dominican friar, entered Germany selling indulgences in 1517. Tetzel was not allowed in the territories because it was feared that we would draw business away from the indulgences sold in Wittenberg. Thousands of people travelled to Tetzel to invest their money in these ‘powerful’ indulgences.
Luther strongly disapproved of this. He believed that Church was fooling people into thinking that they had bought their way into heaven. Luther was angry at the Catholic Church for allowing people to continue living in sin.
Luther pinned his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg's church in October 1517. The pamphlet outlined his view on indulgences. He was not directly attacking the Church, but rather Tetzel and the selling of indulgences. Somebody made translated the document into German and printed it. The 95 Theses circulated widely and quickly gained popular support, to the horror of the Church.
The Archbishop of Mainz, Albert of Brandenburg-Hohenzollern, was particularly concerned. He was hoping that the money raised would pay off his debt to the Pope. He appealed to the Pope for support, demanding that Luther be silences. Luther was summoned to Rome by Pope Leo X after he had read the 95 Theses. He wanted Luther to respond to accusations of heresy and undermining church authority. Cardinal Cajetan was chosen to lead the attack as he was one of the a major intellectuals in the Catholic Church as well as Papal legate in Germany.
Frederick the Wise, elector of Germany, suggested to the papal legate, Cardinal Cajetan, that Luther be allowed to answer the charge in Augsburg, Germany instead of Rome.
In October, Luther was interviewed for three days in Augsburg by Cardinal Cajetan. Luther was told that he must recant his views on indulgences and papal infallibility, but he refused to do so. Luther proposed that his case be referred to the universities and he fled Augsburg on horseback at night after hearing of plans to have him arrested.
Luther then filed an appeal seeking a review of his case by a general council, which he claimed was above the authority of the pope. By this time Luther had gained widespread fame and there was a growing interest in his ideas.
Luther engaged in a theological debate in Leipzig with a chief defender of traditional Catholicism, John Eck, a professor at the University of Ingolstadt. Luther said that the doctrine of Hus had contained some truths and that he should not have been condemned, while Eck accused Luther of being a Hussite. By now, Luther was challenging the very foundations of the Church - he even claimed that the Pope had no powers at all.
Following the debate, Pope Leo X decided that Luther should be excommunicated. In July 1520, Leo X issued a papal Bull - "Exsurge Domine" which condemned Luther’s beliefs and ordered the public burning of Luther’s work. It meant that he could have no dealings with Christian people and that he would be destined to hell. In response, Luther burnt a copy of the Bull in Wittenburg and announced that the Pope was the devil.
In July 1521, the Pope formally excommunicated Luther and ordered Emperor Charles V to enforce this. Charles V was a devout catholic but he recognised that Luther had huge public support and was wary about angering the German princes and public. Charles forbade the publication of Luther’s works and condemned Luther’s beliefs.
Luther was summoned to Worms to defend his case before an Imperial Diet. Luther set out from Wittenburg on April 1521.
The Church hoped that the Diet would condemn Luther, but Charles allowed Luther to make an appearance under the promise of ‘safe conduct’. Although Luther knew that this offered little actual protection.
Luther made his "Here I Stand" speech at Worms. Charles V found Luther guilty of heresy, but he did not put him to death. Luther was able to escape Wittenberg and gain the protection of his supporters, including Frederick the Wise, the Elector of Saxony.
Martin Luther was the first person to translate and publish the Bible in the commonly-spoken dialect of the German people. He used the recent 1516 critical Greek edition of Erasmus, a text which was later called textus receptus. The Luther German New Testament translation was first published in September of 1522. The translation of the Old Testament followed, yielding an entire German language Bible in 1534.
Luther died on 18 February 1546, aged 62.
See also: Was Martin Luther a Revolutionary
"Martin Luther". HistoryLearning.com. 2023. Web.