Martin Luther was on his way back to school after a visit with his parents in Mansfield, Germany, when he narrowly escaped being struck by lightning. He prayed to Saint Anna, the mother of the virgin Mary, “Help me, Saint Anna, I will become a monk!” 1 Twenty-one years old at the time, Luther spent the next 15 days in careful self-examination. He lived in a world of deep, existential fear. Despite the disapproval of his father, he applied to enter the Erfurt house of the observant Augustinian hermits.2
Luther was a dedicated postulant who strove to keep the rule: prayer, fasting, regular self-examination, and confession to a superior as part of his daily life. He was known as an extremely conscientious individual eager to attain assurance of his own salvation. During his novitiate he embarked on a careful study of Scripture, under the supervision of Johann von Staupitz (1465-1524), vicar general of the Augustinians in Germany and professor for the Bible at the University of Wittenberg. Staupitz recognized a need for study of the Bible in Augustinian monasteries.
In addition to Bible study Luther was influenced by Gabriel Biel’s Exposition of the Canon of the Mass, which encouraged the correct manner of celebrating the Mass and the need for the priest to be at one with God. His sense of his own personal inadequacy contributed to a sense of unworthiness. Luther struggled through his first Mass on May 2, 1507. This reflected his inner fears and uncertainties—his anfechtungen or tentationes (temptations)—as he wrestled with his understanding about how salvation could be achieved.
Staupitz continued to encourage Luther in his theological studies. He invited Luther to teach philosophy to the students in his Augustinian house. It appears that he was a successful teacher. In the autumn of 1508 he was sent to the obscure University of Wittenberg. Before he started his new teaching responsibilities, he first traveled to Rome in 1510. The Augustinian order at the time was divided over reforms proposed by Staupitz. He was sent to Rome to put forward the case of the reform movement. While there he was struck by the corruption at the papal court.
Upon his return to Wittenberg, he continued to oversee the training of Augustinian novices. He was awarded his doctoral degree in October 1512. In the autumn of 1513 Luther began his first lectures. He started by lecturing on the book of Psalms. He wrestled with ideas about faith, works, law, free will, and justification as he studied Scripture. Luther’s concerns about individual conscience were based upon the right to study and form theology founded upon the study and authority of the Bible.
Concern About Indulgences
By 1516 Luther was expressing concerns in his sermons about the misunderstanding and abuse related to indulgences. First instituted in the late 1000s Pope Boniface VIII issued the first jubilee indulgence in 1300. Indulgences were extremely profitable for the church—something that encouraged a Christian to replace something inward with a tangible action. By the time of Luther, indulgences were said not only to benefit the soul of the giver, but also the deceased souls of relatives or friends. “By the late fifteenth century indulgences had become a major source of income for the church.”3 So it was that in 1507 Pope Julius II issued a jubilee indulgence to help rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica and pay off his debts to Jakob Fugger, a wealthy German entrepreneur, who lent the pope millions.
In 1514 Albrecht von Brandenburg (1490-1545) purchased the office of the archbishop of Mainz, a post he held along with the offices of the archbishop of Magdeburg and the administrator of the diocese of Halberstadt. The cost of securing this third major office placed him heavily in debt to Jakob Fugger. Leo X’s renewal of the jubilee initiative created an opportunity to split with the Vatican funds raised. Albrecht appointed the Dominican friar Johann Tetzel, a proven salesman of indulgences, whose emotive preaching included: “Don’t you hear the voices of your wailing dead parents and others who say, ‘Have mercy upon me, have mercy upon me, because we are in severe punishment and pain. From this you could redeem us with a small alms and yet you do not want to do so.’”4
With this revival in selling indulgences, much of Luther’s concern centered on the question of free will. He saw a glimmer of hope that human beings through God’s grace alone could change the will as held captive in the bondage of sin. Increasingly critical of the scholasticism that dominated the ecclesiastical milieu, Luther openly criticized the sale of indulgences in his ninety-five theses: “They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.”5
Luther saw indulgences as providing false security. They did not contribute to active faith resulting in a change of life. His study of the Bible, first with Psalms and then as he continued with lectures on Romans and Galatians, led him to the revolutionary insight: “He [Luther] 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 church authorities, but within the framework of the whole biblical tradition.”6
As part of his intense Bible study, Luther acknowledged an error in the Latin translation of Matthew 4:17. He argued that the humanists were correct that a better translation was “Repent!” instead of “Do penance!” This new translation undermined the whole system of penance. He urged instead that the Christian should live a life of repentance. What is readily apparent is that by this point Luther had now undergone a dramatic and complex conversion process. At its core was his famous realization that it is only by God’s righteousness (Romans 1:17) that a person receives grace.7
Luther pushed the issue of indulgences in a letter he sent on October 31, 1517, to Albrecht of Mainz. Published later as “Disputation on the Value of Indulgences”,this document was quickly spread across Europe. By February 1518 voices in Rome demanded that his order silence him. Later in August 1518 he was summoned to Rome for a heresy trial. Fortunately for Luther, Elector Frederick the Wise intervened to assert his authority against both the pope and emperor by protecting Luther.
Luther’s Battle for Individual Conscience
Frederick the Wise negotiated with Cardinal Thomas Cajetan, the papal legate and a highly educated Dominican, to insist that Luther be questioned in German territory. Cajetan arrived with the authority to readmit Luther if he should recant, but he was also prepared to excommunicate him as well. In October 1518 Cajetan summoned Luther to Augsburg. During their three-day disputation Luther argued that selling indulgences had no foundation in Scripture. Thus the pope had no biblical basis from which to control access to God’s merit and grace.8 Afterward Cajetan demanded that Luther be sent to Rome. Frederick the Wise refused, insisting that Luther be tried by an unbiased court of scholars, familiar with Scripture, not canon lawyers.9
Luther’s battle for individual conscience centered upon the right to form correct theology based upon the authority of Scripture. In the summer of 1519 he debated theology professor Johann Eck from Ingolstadt. This “Leipzig Disputation” began with a debate on indulgences, but quickly moved on to matters related to 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 Hus.”10
In the wake of these meetings, Luther wrote what are considered to be his most influential writings. In the first, Von den guten Werken ( Of Good Works), he argued that the Ten Commandments could be kept only by faith alone. When a person knows they are accepted by God, it is a natural thing to live a life of faith. In a second pamphlet, 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), Luther affirmed the right of secular authorities to support the reform of Christianity. Even more significant was his rejection of the unbiblical division of Christianity between priests and laypeople. He similarly rejected the claim of the pope to hold supreme power of teaching, and that the pope alone had the right to call a church council. In a third pamphlet, Von der babylonischen Gefangenschaft der Kirche (On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church), he articulated a biblical understanding of the sacraments. He rejected the Roman Catholic understanding of the Lord’s Supper making private Mass pointless. Such a rejection made “the separation between clergy and laypeople irrelevant.”11 In the fourth and best-known of all his writings, Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen (On the Freedom of a Christian), he described the Christian relationship with God as free, but said that Christians were obliged to serve their neighbors. In essence humans should be free to serve others from faith and love.
Luther’s polemical writings meant that proceedings against him would inevitably be resumed. On June 15, 1520, a bull threatening Luther with excommunication was finally issued. Frederick the Wise negotiated for Luther not to be arrested. Instead he facilitated his interrogation at the Diet of Worms. In March 1521 Luther was summoned before the emperor with a promise of safe conduct. Before Charles V and the imperial estates, Luther refused to follow their demand for renunciation. He insisted that his conscience was bound to Holy Scripture and therefore would not recant unless his writings were refuted from Scripture and clear reasoning. What is clear is that without the support of Frederick the Wise, Luther almost certainly would have shared the same fate as Jan Hus a century earlier, who was tragically burned at the stake for making a similar stand before the Council of Constance. Even the illustrious Eck reminded Luther of the fate of Hus for holding similar views.
Fortunately for Luther (and unlike Hus a century earlier), his safe conduct was honored. He recognized his precarious situation at the Diet of Worms by confiding: “I am finished.”12 Luther was an unlikely Reformer, described as “ugly,” who suffered from gallstones, and who lost his vision in one eye.13 Despite Luther’s imperfections, Frederick the Wise found in him something more valuable, his willingness to shape his theology through his commitment to individual conscience as bound to the Word of God. In fact, Frederick the Wise informed Luther that during his return trip he would be kidnapped. He was taken to safety in Wartburg Castle. He used his time to translate the New Testament into German so that others could study it and be free to follow their own consciences to determine what is truth. He finished translating the New Testament from Greek in a remarkable 11 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.”14 Luther’s translation of the Bible was his greatest legacy. It quickly became a best seller; new printshops were created just to keep up with the demand.
Although Luther made many other significant contributions to religious history and thought, most notably the establishment of a separate Protestant church—something that he never could have envisioned when he set out to attack indulgences—one thing is clear: Luther believed that each person should determine truth through individual conscience based upon the Word of God. Such a view necessitated a rejection of the Augustinian worldview that dominated so much of Catholic theology to that point. Ultimately it led to a great hermeneutical discovery of Paul’s message of justification by faith alone.15 By the time Martin Luther’s remains were interred in the Castle Church in Wittenberg on February 22, 1546, “all medieval institutions” had changed as a direct “result of his theology.”16
1 Albrecht Beutel, “Luther’s Life,” in The Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther, ed. Donald K. McKim (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 4.
2 Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation, 1483-1521, trans. James L. Schaaf (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1985), pp. 48-50.
3 Charlotte Methuen, “Luther’s Life,” in The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology, eds. Robert Kolb, Irene Dingel, and L’ubomír Batka (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), p. 10.
4 Cited in Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations Sourcebook (New York: Blackwell, 2000), p. 31.
5 Thesis 27, Luther’s Works, vol. 31, p. 28.
6 Beutel, p. 7.
8 Methuen, p. 12.
9 Brecht, p. 264.
10 Beutel, p. 9.
11 Ibid., p. 10.
12 Methuen, p. 15.
13 Jonathan Hill, The History of Christian Thought: The Fascinating Story of the Great Christian Thinkers and How They Helped Shape the World as We Know It Today (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2003), p. 191.
14 Beutel, p. 12.
15 Markus Wriedt, “Luther’s Theology,” in The Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther, p. 91.
16 Helmar Junghans, “Luther’s Wittenberg,” in The Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther, p. 32.
Author: Michael W. Campbell
Michael W. Campbell writes from Cavite, Philippines, where he is a professor of History and Theology.