Site Menu

Father of the Reformation. A man of learning, insight, character, and faith. God's man for the hour who sparked the Reformation that had been arrested so long.

Powered by FreeFind

| Back | Home |

The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Philip Schaff Vol. VII:
MARTIN LUTHER (1483–1546)
Father of the German Reformation
  1. Early Life and Religious Training
  2. Initial Changes of View
  3. The Doctrine of Grace
  4. The Ninety-five Theses
  5. Denial of the Power of the Pope
  6. Development of Views on Eucharist, Priesthood. Church, and Works
  7. Appeal to the Laity for Reform
  8. Doctrine of the Sacraments
  9. At the Diet of Worms
  10. In Hiding at the Wartburg
  11. Opposition to Extreme Radicalism
  12. Correspondence with Other Sectaries and Break with Erasmus
  13. Polemics Against Carlstadt and Munster
  14. Transformations in Liturgy and Church Government
  1. Eucharistic Views and Controversies
  2. The Diet of Augsburg and the Question of Civil Resistance
  3. The Authority of Church Councils Denied
  4. Attacks on Zwingli, and Recognition of the Bohemian Brethren
  5. Luther as a Preacher and Exegete
  6. Theory of Confession and the Law
  7. Establishment of Consistories and the Marriage of Philip of Hesee
  8. Renewed Eucharistic Controversies
  9. The Death of Luther
  10. Summary of Luther's Doctrinal Development
  11. Theory of the Church and the World
  12. The Style of Luther
  13. The Personal Life of Luther
  14. His Hymns

Early Life and Religious Training

Martin Luther, the German Refonner, was born at Eisleben (23 m w. of Halle) Nov. 10, 1483, and died there Feb. 18, 1546. His father, Hans, was a miner, formerly living at Mohra, while his mother, Margarete (nee Ziegler), came from a family of the middle clans. At the age of six months, Luther was taken by his parents to Mansfeld, and was there brought up In an atmosphere of strictness and honesty. His father's financial condition gradually improving, Luther was sent to the Latin school, first at Mansfeld, then at Magdeburg (probably to an institution conducted by Brethren of the Common Life) in 1497, and finally, in 1498, at Eisenach, where his mother had relatives. There, with other poor students, he was obliged to sing in the streets begging for bread. and there he gained the sympathy of Ursula, the wife of Kunz Cotta. From Elsenach he went, in 1501, to the University of Erfurt, where his principal teachers were the nominalists Trutvetter and Arnoldi, and where he was a friend of at least some of the young humanistic "poet" circle. He received his bachelor's degree in 1502 and the master's degree three years later; and was destined by his relatives for a legal career. Brought up in the strict religious atmosphere of the Roman Catholic Church, but without any knowledge of the Bible, Luther was terrified by thoughts of the wrath of God, intensified by the sudden death of a friend. He resolved to become a monk, and on July 17, 1505, entered the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt, to the grief of his father, and without a clear comprehension of his act. In 1507 be was ordained to the priesthood, but his theological studies brought him no inward peace, and he eagerly followed the advice of an old master of studies in the monastery, who urged him to center his hopes in the article of the forgiveness sins. He was also aided by the instruction of Johann von Staupitz, the vicar of the order, but the decisive change was brought about by his study of the Scriptures. In 1508, at the suggestion of Johann von Staupitz, the Elector Frederick appointed Luther professor of philosophy at Wittenberg, where he received the degree of baccalaureus ad biblia In the following year. He was then recalled for some unknown reason to Erfurt, but in 1511 (or possibly in 1510) went to Rome in the interests of his order. Returning to Wittenberg, he received the doctorate of theology on Oct. 18, 1512, and three years later was appointed Augustinian vicar for Meissen and Thuringia, being also active as a preacher both in his own monastery and in Wittenberg.

Initial Changes of View

Even at this time his radical change of views bad become evident. Turning from philosophy, he sought the kernel of the trust of salvation in the Bible, especially in the Epistle to the Rornans and in the Psalms, which he interpreted entirely from the New Testament. He next lectured on Galatians, Hebrews, Titus, and Judges, his lectures being partly published and partly preserved in manuscript. Of the Fathers, Augustine had the profoundest influence on him, though be grasped more than his teacher the weaving of the faith which is the direct road to the righteousness of God. Among medieval teachers he was most impressed by Bernard of Clairvaux, while in 1516 be came under the Influence of the mysticism of Tauler.

The Doctrine of Grace

Although still devoted to the Roman Catholic Church, Luther had now reached essentially the conclusions which were to lead him to combat her claims. Resting salvation entirely on the grace of God, he held that all the good works of the natural man are sin, and that divine grace comes solely through the eternal election and predestination of God. Luther also held with Paul that man is purified by faith inwrought by the divine spirit and word of grace, and that the spirit of God then works inward righteousness in them that believe. Nevertheless, those who are thus regenerate still sin constantly and are without honor or merit, persisting only through pardoning grace and through faith before God. Like the mystics, Luther's concept of the plan of salvation is based on the relation of the individual to God and Christ in faith. Faith is identical with entire devotion, renunciation of all self-righteousness, and surrender of all self-will. Both faith and hope are directed only to Christ, who alone fulfilled the law and bore our sins; while man is justified solely by the imputation of God. While inward righteousness Is included in justification, it follows the forgiveness of sins which forms a part of faith. From faith Luther also derives love, and the strength, impulse, and delight to do good. Christ, who dwells in man through faith, himself does all and conquers all; but the deeds of the just are not for his own righteousness, but for the service of God and man. All this grace is bestowed by the Word, in which dwells Christ, the bread of life; and this bread of life is given outwardly in preaching and the Eucharist, and inwardly by "God's own teaching." That the current ecclesiastical views were opposed to those which formed the center of his belief and life was still unknown to Luther. In contradistinction to the prevailing custom, be held that the bishops should regard preaching as their prime duty, and that sermons should be free from false legends and the opinions of men, nor should the subjects longer be restricted to character and works, but should be devoted especially to faith and justice. Nevertheless, Luther entertained no doubt of the authority of the visible Church, and obedience to her was to him identical with obedience to Christ. The sources for his views at this period are his lectures on the Psalms, Latin sermons beginning with 1515, a preface to Tauler's Deutsche Theologie (1510), a German exegesis of the seven penitential Psalms, theses In Bernhardis of Feldkirehen and Günther's Disputation (1516- 1517), Sermons on the Decalogue (Latin ed., 1518), and a Gernian exegesis of the Lord's Prayer (1517), besides the letters of these years.

The Ninety-five Theses

The sale of indulgences by Johann Tetzel near Wittenberg incited Luther to a polemic attitude, yet not, in his opinion, against the Church, but for her honor, He began by assailing the misuse of indulgences, while his dogmatic views concerning them gradually developed out of the cardinal principles of his belief. On Oct. 31, 1517, he nailed his ninety-five theses on the castle church at Wittenberg, though he had no intention of making a decisive attack nor did he wish them to be generally circulated. The content of the theses was in accord with his sermons: penance was repentance, not priestly confession and satisfaction; mortification of the flesh, implying punishment until entrance into the kingdom of heaven, must coexist with inward repentance; this punishment only is remitted by papal indulgence, which can not remove the actual guilt of the smallest sin, being able to grant remission only in virtue of the proclamation and confirmation of divine pardon; the merit of Christ and the saints work grace to the inner and death to the outer man without the cooperation of the pope; the true " treasure of the church " is the Gospel of the grace of God, though God subjects those whom he forgives to the priests as his representatives. Luther accordingly restricted indulgences to the penalties and works prescribed by the Church, and herein he purposed to express the true intention of the pope, who could scarcely know how they were misused.

Denial of the Power of the Pope

Luther's theses spread throughout Germany in two weeks, gaining an unanticipated notoriety. He was egged on still further by his opponents, Tetzel, Silvester Prierias (the papal "master of the palace,"), Johann Eck (prochancellor of Ingolstadt and his chief adversary;), and Hoogstraten, to all of whom he replied individually, though his most important work on the questions involved in the controversy was his Resolutiones disputationum de indulgentiarum virtule (1518). Meanwhile he took part in an Augustinian convention at Heidelberg, where he presented theses on the slavery of man to sin and on divine grace. In the course of the controversy on indulgences the question arose of the absolute power of the pope, since the doctrine of the " treasure of the Church" was based on a bull of Clement VI. Luther saw himself branded as a heretic, and the pope, who bad determined to suppress his views, summoned him to Rome. Yielding, however, to the unwillingness of the Elector Frederick to part with his theologian, the pope did not press the matter, and the cardinal legate Cajetan was deputed to receive Luther's submission at Augsburg (Oct., 1518). The latter, while professing his implicit obedience to the Church, boldly denied the absolute power of the pope, and appealed first "from the pope not well informed to the pope who should be better informed " and then (Nov. 28) to a general council. Luther now declared that the papacy formed no part of the original and immutable essence of the Church, and he even began to think that Antichrist ruled the Curia. He had already asserted at least the potential fallibility of a council representing the Church, and, denying the church doctrine of excommunication, he was led by his concept of the way of salvation to the new tenet that the Church is the congregation of the faithful. Still wishing to remain on friendly terms with the elector, the pope made a last effort to reach a peaceable conclusion with Luther. A conference with the papal chamberlain H. von Miltitz at Al-tenburg in Jan., 1519, led Luther to agree to re-main silent so long as his opponents should, to write a humble letter to the pope, and to prepare a work to testify his honor of the Roman Church. The letter was written, but was not sent, since it contained no retraction; while in a German trea-tise later prepared, Luther, while recognizing pur-gatory, indulgences, and the invocation of the Write, denied all effect of indulgences on purga-tory. When, moreover, Eck challenged Lutber's colleague Carlstadt to a disputation at Leipaic, Luther joined in the debate (June 27-July 16, 1619), denying the divine right of the papacy, and holding that the " power of the keys " had been given to the Church (i.e., to the congregation of the faithful), affirming besides that belief in the preeminence of the Roman Church was not essen-tial to salvation and maintaining the validity of the Greek Church.

Development of Views on Eucharist, Priesthood. Church, and Works

There was no longer hope of peace. His writings were now circulated most widely, reaching France, England, and Italy as early as 1519, and students thronged to Wittenberg to hear Luther, who bad been joined by Melanchthon in 1518, and who now published his shorter commentary on Galatians and his Operationes in Pealmos, while at the same time he received deputations from Italy and from the Utraquists of Bohemia. These controversies necessarily led Luther to develop his doctrines further, and in his Sermon von dem hochwurdigen Sakrament den Leichnams Christi (1519) he set forth the significance of the Eucharist, interpreting the transubstantiation of the bread as the transformation of the faithful into the spiritual body, of Christ, i.e., into fellowship with Christ and the saints. The basal concept of the Eucharist, moreover, according to him, is the forgiveness of sins; and his entire theory is closely connected with his mystic view of the all-embracing participation in salvation shared by the believer with Christ and his Church. At the same time, he advocated that a council be called to restore communion in both kinds, and denied the doctrine of seven sacraments (letter of Dec. 18, 1519). He likewise stripped the priesthood of all meaning other than the general priesthood taught in the Bible, and cast doubt on the entire doctrine of purgatory. The Lutheran concept of the Church, wholly based on immediate relation to the Christ who gives himself in preaching and the sacraments, was already developed in his Von dam Papsttum cu Rom, a reply to the attack of the Franciscan Alveld at Leipsic (June, 1520); while in his Sermon von guten Werken, delivered in the spring of 1520, he controverted the Roman Catholic doctrine of good works and works of supererogation, holding that the works of the believer are truly good in any secular calling ordered of God.

Appeal to the Laity for Reform

From the time of his disputation at Leipsic, Luther came into relations with the humanists, particularly with Melanchthon, Reuchlin, Erasmus, and Crotus. The last was intimately associated with Ulrich von Hutten, who in his turn influenced Franz von Sickingen, so that, when it became doubtful whether it would be safe for Luther to remain in Saxony if the ban which threatened should be pronounced against him, both Franz von Sickingen and Silvester of Schauenburg invited him to their fortresses and their protection. Under these circumstances, complicated by the crisis then confronting the German nobles, Luther issued his An den christlichen am deutscher Nation (Aug., 1520), committing to the laity, as spiritual priests, the reformation required by God but declined by the pope and the clergy. The subjects proposed for amelioration were not points of doctrine, but ecclesiastical abuses: diminution of the number of cardinals and the demands of the papal court; the abolition of annats; recognition of secular government; renunciation of claims to temporal power on the part of the pope; abolition of the interdict, abuses connected with the ban, harmful pilgrimages, the misdemeanors of the mendicant orders, many holidays which led only to disorder; the suppression of nunneries, beggary, and luxury; the reform of the universities; abrogation of the celibacy of the clergy; and reunion with the Bohemians; besides demanding a general reform of public morality and denying transubstantiation in favor of the doctrine of the true presence of the natural body of Christ in the natural bread.

Doctrine of the Sacraments

The climax of Luther's doctrinal polemics was reached in his De captivitale Babyloniaca especially in regard to the sacraments. As concerned the Eucharist, he denied transubstantiation, the sacrificial character of the mass, and the withholding of the cup. In regard to baptism, he taught that it brought justification only when conjoined with belief, but that it contained the foundation of salvation even for those who might later fall. As for penance, its essence consists in the words of promise given to belief. Only these three can be regarded as sacraments, in virtue of the promises attached to them; and strictly speaking baptism and the Eucharist alone are sacraments, as being a " sign divinely instituted." The sacrament of unction was discarded by Luther with his doubts of the authenticity of the Epistle of James. In like manner, the acme of Luther's doctrine of salvation and the Christian life was attained in his Von der Freiheil eines Christenmenschen. Here be required complete union with Christ by means of the Word through faith, entire freedom of the Christian as a priest and king set above all outward things, and perfect love of one's neighbor. These three works may be considered the chief writings of Luther on the Reformation. In Oct., 1520, at the instance of Miltitz, Luther sent his De libertale Christiani to the pope, adding the significant phrase: "I submit to no laws of interpreting the word of God."Meanwhile it had been rumored in August that Eck had arrived at Meissen with a papal ban, which was actually pronounced there on Sept. 21. This last effort of Luther's for peace was followed on Dec. 12 by his burning of the bull, which was to take effect on the expiration of 120 days, and the papal decretals at Wittenberg, a proceeding defended in his Warum des Papstes und sinner Junger Bucher verbrannt sind and his Assertio omnium articulorum. The execution of the ban, however, was prevented by the pope's relations with the elector and by the new emperor, who, in view of the papal attitude toward him and the feeling of the Diet, found it inadvisable to lend his aid to measures against the Reformer.

At the Diet of Worms

The final judgment of the Roman Catholic Church had been pronounced on Luther in the ban, but the papal legate, Aleander, was obliged to acquiesce in the desire of the Diet to summon Luther under a safe-conduct to Worms. Luther quietly awaited the result, occupied with polemics against Emser and the Dominican Ambrosius Catharinus, and with work on a postilla. Entering Worms on Apr. 16, he was brought before the Diet on the following day and asked simply whether he acknowledged his writings, which were laid before him and read by title, and whether he retracted their contents or persisted in them, all debate on the truth of their statements being excluded by the emperor's agreement with Aleander. Luther requested a day for consideration, and on the evening o£ Apr. 18 replied to the question of Johann von Eek, the official of the elector of Treves, who asked whether he defended all his writings or would retract some, by distinguishing three divisions of them: those on faith and life, recognized as harmless and even useful by his opponents; against papal institutions and claims injurious to body and soul, of which he would retract none; and polemics against protagonists of that falsehood and tyranny, where again he would make no retraction of matter. His demand that he be refuted by arguments from the Bible was met by referring him to the decisions of the Church, particularly at the Council of Constance, on similar heresies. The debate which followed resulted in a stormy adjournment, though not before Luther had declared:" Unless I shall be convinced by the testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear reason, . . . I neither can nor will make any retraction, since it is neither safe nor honorable to act against conscience; God help me! Amen! " (other versions vary slightly, having, "I can naught else) Here I stand ! God help me I "; " Here I stand!I I can naught else! God help mel "; and "God come to my helpl Amen! Here I am!"). The archbishop of Treves still sought to change Luther's views, but in vain, since he persisted in the tenet, condemned by the Council, that "the Church universal is the number of the elect." On May 25 he was declared an outlaw, and leaving Worms on the following day, he was seized, with his own connivance, by the Elector Frederick and taken to the Wartburg, where he remained in hiding under the name of Junker Georg.

In Hiding at the Wartburg

With Luther's residence in the Wartburg began the constructive period of his career as a reformer; while at the same time the struggle was inaugurated against those who, claiming to proceed from the same Evangelical basis, were deemed by him to swing to the opposite extreme and to hinder, if not prevent, all constructive measures. In his "desert" or "Patmos" (as he called it in his letters) of the Wartburg, moreover, he began his translation of the Bible, of which the New Testament was printed in Sept., 1522. Here, too, besides other pamphlets, he prepared the first portion of his German postilla (commentary) and his Van der Beichte, in which he denied compulsory confession, although he admitted the wholesomeness of voluntary private confessions.

He also wrote a polemic against Archbishop Albrecht, which forced him to desist from reopening the sale of indulgences; while in his attack on Jacobus Latomus he set forth his views on the relation of grace and the law, an well as on the nature of the grace communicated by Christ. Here he distinguished the objective grace of God to the sinner, who, believing, is justified by God because of the justice of Christ, from the saving grace dwelling within sinful man; while at the same time he emphasized the insufficiency of this "beginning of justification," as well as the persistence of sin after baptism and the sin still inherent in every good work.

Opposition to Extreme Radicalism

Meanwhile some of the Saxon clergy, notably Bernhardi of Feldkirchen, had renounced the vow of celibacy, while others, including Melanchthon, had assailed the validity of monastic vows. Luther in his De votis monasticis, though more cautious, concurred, on the ground that the vows were generally taken" with the intention of salvation or seeking justification." With the approval of Luther in his De abroganda missa privata, but against the firm opposition of the prior. the Wittenberg Augustinians began changes in worship and did away with the mass. Their violence and intolerance, however, were displeasing to Luther, and early in December he spent a few days among them. Returning to the Wartburg, he wrote his Eine freue Vermahnung . . . vor Aufruhr and Emporung; but in Wittenberg Carlstadt and the ex-Augustinian Zwilling demanded the abolition of the private mass, communion in both kinds, the removal of pictures from churches, and the abrogation of the magistracy [i.e., the non-interference of the civil ruler in ecclesiastical matters.- About Christmas Anabaptists from Zwickau added to the anarchy. Thoroughly opposed to such radical views and fearful of their results, Luther entered Wittenberg Mar. 7, and the Zwickau prophets left the city. The canon of the mass, giving it its sacrificial character, was now omitted, but the cup was at first only given to those of the laity who desired it. Since confession had been abolished, communicants were now required to declare their intention, and to seek consolation, under acknowledgment of their faith and longing for grace, in Christian confession. This new form of service was set forth by Luther in his Formula missoe at communionis (1523), and in 1524 the first Wittenberg hymnal appeared with four of his own hymns. Since, however, his writings were forbidden by Duke George of Saxony, Luther declared, in his Ueber die weltliche Gewalt, wie weit man ihr Gehorsam echuldig sei, that the civil authority could enact no laws for the soul, herein denying to a Roman Catholic government what he permitted an Evangelical.

Correspondence with Other Sectaries and Break with Erasmus

Luther watchfully followed the effect of his preaching, commending the town of Leisnig when it introduced a new agenda in 1523, honoring the memory of two martyrs in Brussels (1523) and of Henry of Zutphen (1524), and counseling those of like views in Riga, Reval, Dorpat, and elsewhere. At this same period he entered into correspondence with the Bohemian Brethren, and in this connection he wrote the Vom Anbeten des Sakraments (1523), in which he maintained the natural presence and actual physical participation. In 1522 Luther wrote the Bohemian Estates to continue firm against the pope, and in the following year he sent, through the Bohemian Gallus Cahera, his De instituendis ministris to Prague, defending the right of a congregation to provide themselves with new ministers of the Word if their clergy withheld the Gospel from them, his argument being based upon the theory of the universal priesthood. Soon, however, the Bohemians, headed by Cahera himself, sought reconciliation with the pope, and Luther is not known to have had further dealings with them. At the same time he answered the criticisms of Henry VIII. of England on his De captivitate Babylonica in his Contra Henricum regem, a work of characteristic coarseness, for which he apologized in 1525 humbly, but in vain. The most important event in Luther's war with the Roman Catholic Church at this period was his break with Erasmus, who was followed by a large body of humanists in his return to the Church. Erasmus had long been offended by Luther's harshness and coarseness, while the latter charged his former friend with timidity and lack of recognition of the grace of God, which alone brought salvation. In 1524 Erasmus published his De libero arbitrio, to which Luther replied in 1525 with his De servo arbitrio. Here he identified foreknowledge and predestination, and distinguished between God as preached and God himself. Though the lost perish through the unconditioned will of God, this is right because God wills it, the reason, into which man may not inquire, being one of the mysteries of the divine majesty. Free will can, accordingly, he predicated only of God, never of man, whose duty it is simply to trust to the Word, accepting the inconceivable as such until the Son of Man shall reveal it.

Polemics Against Carlstadt and Munster

It now became Luther's task to war on the spirit of false freedom which had arisen within his own followers. Carlstadt denied the presence of the body of Christ in the Eucharist, while, on the basis of the Old Testament, he forbade pictures, but permitted polygamy. Others, likewise claiming the Old Testament as their support, sought to secure the restoration of the Mosaic year of jubilee; while Munster, the leader of the Zwickau fanatics, who had become pastor at Allstedt in 1523, plotted a revolution to establish a kingdom of his " saints." Luther attacked the entire tendency in his Wider die himmlischen Propheten (1525), in which he declared that the Mosaic law had been abrogated by Christ, who was the end of the law, the only law of the Christian being that written in the heart of every man. Nevertheless, the revolution, really caused by the political, economic, and social conditions of the peasants, was still threatening, especially as they hoped to find in the new religious movement a confirmation of the rights and freedom which they claimed. Luther therefore sought to show them that Christian freedom might coexist with earthly bondage, and that they must not attack their temporal superiors. On the other hand, he sharply criticized the princes and nobles; but when the Peasants' War actually broke out, he urged its merciless suppression, though he advocated clemency after the victory had been won During this time of conflict, Luther, learning of attempts on his life and already feeling himself old and near death, married the ex-nun Katharina von Bora on June 13, 1525. His motive was not love, but defiance of his opponents, and at the same time to testify his esteem of the married state and to obey his father's desire for posterity.

Transformations in Liturgy and Church Government

Luther marked a further step in his revision of the liturgy by his Deutsche Messe in 1528, making provision for weekday services and for catechetical instruction. He strongly objected, however, to making a new law of the forms, and urged the retention of other good liturgies. The gradual transformation of the administration of baptism was accomplished in the Taufbuchlein (1523, 1527); and in May, 1525, the first Evangelical ordination took place at Wittenberg. Luther had long since rejected the Roman Catholic sacrament of ordination, and had replaced it by a simple calling to the service of preaching and the administration of the sacraments. The laying-on of hands with prayer in a solemn congregational service was considered a fitting human rite. Conditions now seemed to Luther to require the introduction of a higher official authority. As early as 1525 he bad complained of the state of affairs, and he held that the secular authorities should take part in the administration of the Church, as in making appointments to ecclesiastical office and in directing visitations. Nevertheless, the discharge of these functions did not appertain to the secular authorities as such, and Luther would gladly have vested them in an Evangelical episcopate, had he known of any persons suited for that office, He even declared in 1542 that the Evangelical princes themselves "must be necessity-bishops," and even went so far as to meditate (letter of Mar. 29, 1527) a "congregation of Christians" with full ecclesiastical powers, but determined to be guided by the course of events and to wait until parishes and schools were provided with the proper persons. Since, however, the result of the Saxon visitation gave no encouragement to this project, it was deemed far more important. first. to win non-Christians to the faith through the Gospel, preserving the external form of the Church as it was at the beginning of the Reformation. The visitation accordingly took place in 1527-29, Luther writing the preface to Melanchthon's Unterricht der Visitatoren an die Pfarrherrn, and himself acting as a visitor in one of the districts after Oct., 1528 while, as a result of his observations, he wrote both his catechisms in 1529. At the same time he took the keenest interest in education, conferring with Georg Spalatin in 1524 on plans for a school system, and declared that it was the duty of the civil authorities to provide schools and to see that parents sent their children to them. He also advocated the establishment of elementary schools for the instruction of girls.

Eucharistic Views and Controversies

In the mean time the nature of the Eucharist had become a theme on which Luther found himself obliged to state his doctrines both fully and polemically. Rejecting transubstantiation, he nevertheless maintained the actual presence of the body of Christ, while Zwingli, Leo Jud, and Œcolampadius on the other hand, rejected this doctrine, interpreting the "is" of the words of institution as "signifies." Luther was sorely disturbed by this doctrine, which 'he regarded as closely akin to the teachings of Carlstadt and the "fanatics" in general. In the controversy which ensued, Luther replied to Œcolampadius in the preface to the Syngramma Suevicum, and also set forth his views in his Sermon von den Sakramenten . . . Wider die Schwarmgeisler avid Dass diese Worte , . , noch feststehen (spring, 1527), while he sought to give a final and most thorough statement in his Vom Abendmahl Christi Bekenntnis (1528). In view of the perils to Protestantism in the measures of the Diet of Speyer in 1529 and the coalition of the emperor with France and the pope, the Landgrave Philip desired a union of all the adherents of the Reformation, but Luther declared himself opposed to any alliance which might aid heresy. He accepted, however, the Landgrave's invitation to a conference at Marburg (Oct. 1-3, 1529;) to settle the matters in controversy, and there opposed Œcolampadius, While Melanchthon was the antagonist of Zwingli. Although he found an unexpected harmony in other respects, no agreement could be reached regarding the Eucharist; and he therefore refused to call them brethren, even while he wished them peace and love. (It was Luther's conviction that God had blinded Zwingli's eyes so that he could not see the true doctrine of the Lord's Supper. He denounced Zwingli and his followers at this time as "fanatics," "patricides," "matricides," °'fratricides," "devils," "knaves," "heretics," "rioters," " hypocrites," and the like. The princes themselves then made subscription to the Scbwabach Articles, upheld by Luther, a condition of alliance with them. Luther's reason for his Eucharistic doctrine was not a mere literal interpretation of the words of institution, but rather thankfulness for such an individual sealing and giving of the forgiveness won by the death of this body in the administering of the very same body, doubts as to the possibility of such a presence being silenced by remembering the absolute unity of the divine with the human in Christ. While Christ's presence is "repletive" (filling all places at once), His omnipresence in the Eucharist is especially "definitive" (unbound by space). On the other hand, Luther taught with equal clearness that participation in itself is of no avail without faith. (He insisted that the impious and even beasts in partaking of the consecrated elements partake of the body and blood of Christ, but the unworthy partake unto damnation. While, moreover, he combated the view that the Eucharist is a mere memorial, be fully recognized the commemorative element in it. As regards the effect of the Sacrament on the faithful, he laid special stress on the words "given for you," and hence on the atonement and forgiveness through the death of Christ.

The Diet of Augsburg and the Question of Civil Resistance

Under the same perilous conditions which had made desirable an alliance of all adherents of the Reformation, the estates convened with the emperor at Augsburg in 1530, when the relation of the empire to Protestantism was definitely to be determined. Luther, despised by emperor and empire, remained at Coburg, but the confession there presented by Melanchthon was essentially based upon his labors, The latter, while refraining from an authoritative attitude, was little pleased by the smooth and cautious procedure of Melanchthon. and saw no chance of harmony of doctrine except in abolishment of the papacy, although he hoped for official toleration of both religions in the empire. While the recess of the diet gave the Protestants only a short time to make their submission, the emperor, urged on by threatened war with the Turks and by the Schmalkald League of the Protestant princes and cities, made further attempts to secure harmony, which led to the Religious Peace of Nuremberg in 1532, to last until a general council should be called to make a final decision. Since the Diet of Speyer (1529) the question had become vital whether, in case the emperor refused peace, the princes were justified in, or even bound to, armed resistance. Until now Luther had held that even wrongful acts of the emperor in no way released his subjects from obedience, and had been unfavorable to offensive and defensive alliances between Evangelical princes, preserving this attitude even in regard to the Schmalkald League. His position was somewhat modified, however, by the opinions of the jurists that in cases of public and notorious injustice the existing imperial laws (" the emperor himself in his laws ") warranted such resistance. Accepting this, he nevertheless referred judgment on the present conditions to the jurists, and not to the theologians. In his Warnung an die lieben Deutschen (1531), nevertheless, he openly advocated resistance in a righteous cause, while in letters written in 1539 he went back still further to the general requirements of natural law.

The Authority of Church Councils Denied

The pope declaring himself ready to call a council, peaceable negotiations were renewed with the Roman Catholic Church, and in Nov., 1535, the papal nuncio Vergerius conferred with Luther in Wittenberg. While Luther had no faith in the pope's sincerity, he agreed to attend the council, wherever it might be held, although it was convened expressly for the extirpation of Lutheran heresy. At the instance of the elector, he prepared articles for the council in which he bitterly attacked Roman Catholic dogmas and the Roman Catholic Church, and termed the pope antichrist. The diet at Schmalkald (Feb., 1537) declined to take part in the council, and in 1539 Luther developed his views on councils in general in his Von den Concilien and Kirchen. Here he declared that not only could no reformation be hoped for from the pope and a papal council, but even the early councils and Fathers could not be regarded as the source for a reform. The entire system of Christian belief was to be derived, not from the Fathers and the councils, but from the Bible, the one task even of the four chief councils being simply and solely the defense of clear fundamental doctrines of the Scriptures. He therefore denied the right of any council which, he declared, should include laymen, to posit new articles of belief, to command new good works, or to require ceremonies; and he restricted their functions to juristic pronouncement of judgment according to the Bible in cases of peril to the faith. In this same treatise he reiterated his view that the Church consists solely of the congregation of the faithful, and is recognizable by the use of the means of grace and the power of the keys, as well as by prayer, the bearing of the cross, and uprightness of life, in that her members are sanctified by the Holy Spirit.

Attacks on Zwingli, and Recognition of the Bohemian Brethren

In the mean time, efforts had been made to unite the Protestants upon the doctrine of the Eucharist, and Butzer had conferred with Luther on the matter at Coburg as early as 1530. Luther himself could yield nothing, for he could not see why, if his opponents really acknowledged the true presence of the body of Christ, they would not grant external participation in the case of the unworthy. He accordingly expressed the utmost disapproval of Zwingli and warned against any acceptance of his teaching. Since, however, he found the other Southern Germans unexpectedly yielding, he reached a formal agreement with them at Wittenberg in 1536, wherein they renounced Zwingli's teachings and recognized the true presence. On the other hand, since he did not, evidently through some uncertainty regarding the question, demand recognition of the reception of the elements by the actually "impious," he left a loophole for Butzer's opinion that only Christians who, even though unworthy, believed the words of institution, received, but not those who "mocked at all and believed naught." In 1537 he wrote a friendly letter to the burgomaster of Basel and to the Swiss cities, who could not, however, be won over, and in the following year he informed Bullinger that since the Marburg conference he had considered Zwingli personally an "excellent man." Luther's desire for all possible union with those of kindred views was shown still more clearly by his recognition of the Bohemian Brethren. In 1533 and again five years later he had written the prefaces to the apology and confession which they had presented to the Margrave George of Brandenburg and King Ferdinand, even though in their new apology their theory of justification and of the Eucharist was not in agreement with his own.

Luther as a Preacher and Exegete

However much Luther took part in visitations and the like, his chief activity within his Church consisted not so much in external organization as in preaching, exegesis, spiritual counsel, and the preparation of treatises on the truths of salvation. As a preacher he now labored at the city church together with his friend Bugenhagen, and also visited the sick and performed other duties of private pastoral care. During the years following his return from the Wartburg, he delivered exegetical sermons on I and II Peter and Jude (1522-24), as well as on Genesis and Exodus (1523-27), besides preaching on the pericopes. In 1524-25 he had lectured on Deuteronomy, and in 1524-26 he delivered lectures on the minor prophets, Ecclesiastes, and Isaiah. In 1526 he published his exegeses of Jonah and Habakkuk, and that of Zechariah in the following year. Among his other lectures the most important were those on Galatians (1531-35; the chief presentation of his doctrine of salvation) and on Genesis (1536-45); of his sermons the most noteworthy, besides those on the pericopes, were delivered on Matthew and John. His postilla, the second half not edited by himself, was completed in 1527; while the sermons which Luther, prevented by ill health from delivering publicly, preached to his children and household in 1532 formed the basis of his Hauspostille. The translation of the Bible was completed in 1534, although he made emendations until 1545.

Theory of Confession and the Law

Within his own church questions repeatedly arose which led Luther to more explicit statements on weighty points of doctrine. While he had rejected Roman Catholic auricular confession, he laid great stress on Evangelical private confession, not because of any power of the confessor, but because of the words of promise with which forgiveness is declared, provided that the penitent is filled with faith. Although the words of forgiveness should be proclaimed in every sermon, he held private confession conducive to the ascertainment of the penitent's spiritual state; but declaration of forgiveness could be withheld only in case of manifest unbelief and impenitence. In 1533, and again in 1536, Luther approved the retention of public general absolution together with private confession at Nuremberg, and even drew up a formula for such absolution. Nevertheless, holding that absolution was not conditioned by priestly judgment (though it was an objective and effectual conferring of forgiveness), he later declared that it might be conferred by one layman on another in virtue of the "power of the keys." On the other hand, in 1538 he stated that those capable of instructing themselves need not make a formal confession before receiving the Eucharist. In 1537 a controversy broke out with Johann Agricola on the nature of the law. Sharply opposed by Luther in theses of 1537-38 and the Wider die Antinomer (1539), Agricola held that the Mosaic law had been abrogated. and that repentance should be preached only on the basis of the Gospel (the word of grace in Christ), not because of the law. Luther, on the contrary, maintained that the word of salvation could not awaken faith in the sinful heart unless it had first been broken by the law and its resultant terrors of conscience. This is, indeed, not true repentance, but is a preparation for it; and stress was also laid by Luther on the fact that wherever in the New Testament sin, wrath, and judgment are revealed, the law, and not the Gospel, prevails.

Establishment of Consistories and the Marriage of Philip of Hesee

The most important part in Church organization yet in store for Luther was the establishment of consistories. These were especially needed for the regulation of marriage. Luther, proseeding on his theory of the relation of the secular to the Mosaic law, and regarding marriage as a secular, though holy estate, relegated it to the State; and held that the clergy were concerned with it in so far as, from its very nature, it led to questions of conscience more than any other secular state The first consistory was established at Wittenberg in 1539 with Luther's approval. The chief importance of the consistory for the organization and life of the Church, however, came from the fact that the duty entrusted to it was discipline. This, it was thought, would lead to the introduction of the public ban, with its civic consequences, but when opposition was raised in Wittenberg in 1539 on the matter, Luther set forth very clearly the ban he would be willing to establish -- one based on Matt. xviii. 15. There is no record, however, that such a plan, so eminently in accord with the Evangelical concept of the Church, was anywhere carried out; nor had Luther himself much hope of the consistories' actual disciplinary powers. The end of Luther's life was now approaching, and he had already received warning in a sharp attack of Calculus at Schmalkald in 1537. Beneath his external bravery, be felt himself aging, and while full of gratitude for the grace of the Gospel, he felt the world an alien to it in precept and practice, and looked forward to a time of distress and judgment for the Church. He was pained most of all by the attitude of the masses and of the nobility toward the Gospel, illustrated by the marital relations of Philip of Hesse. The latter, though married, was enamored of a girl of the nobility, and asserted that he was compelled by most urgent reasons of conscience to search for another wife. He conceived the idea of a double marriage, and as early as 1526 asked Luther's opinion on it, renewing his inquiries most urgently through. Butzer after 1539. Though Luther held that monogamy was the original institution of God, he nevertheless granted the possibility of cases in which a dispenantion was admissible, even among Christians, especially as such a double marriage was preferable to an illegal divorce. This dispensation, however, could be given only as confessional advice, and could not alter the law, which recognized only a single wife; and it must, therefore, remain absolutely secret to avoid scandal. While sharply admonishing Philip of his sins and his duty, Luther and Melanchthon granted that his was a case for a dispensation, and the wedding took place on Mar. 3, 1540. Luther insisted that the affair be kept secret, and that the new wife be represented to the emperor as a mistress, knowing that he could not justify his attitude to the world, though he thought he might to God.

Renewed Eucharistic Controversies

The impossibility of peaceable relations with the Roman Catholic Church was felt still more keenly by Luther in these last years when, new attempts at reconciliation were made. He was obliged to diliberate with his colleagues in Jan., 1540, with only the passing hope that the emperor might convene a national council, for there was no remedy unless doctrines contrary to Scripture should first be openly renounced. He accordingly felt little sympathy with the Regensburg Conference in 1541, headed by Melanchthon and Cruciger, condemning their attitude toward both the Eucharist and the doctrine of justification. When, however, the emperor sought to reopen negotiations in I546, Luther subscribed to Melanchthon's proposal to reunite with the episcopate, but his diatribes against the Roman Catholic Church were even more bitter than ever, as is amply illustrated by his Wider dal Papsttum ze Rom, which appeared in the year before his death. He gave a very real ground of offense, moreover, to his opponents, when in 1542, despite the protests of the chapter, he made Nikolaus von Amsdorf bishop of Nuremberg, an act which he defended in his Exempel einen rechten christlichen bischof ze weihen, wherein be sought to establish from the Evangelical point of view the validity of the consecration which he had performed. With the growth of dissension between the two Saxon houses after 1542 came a break in the unity of the Evangelicals. Luther had never ceased warning against the doctrines of Zwingli, and he now found his suspicions increased by the fact that Zurich refused to give up these tenets. He formally renounced fellowship with the preachers of Zurich, but deemed that the heresy had entered Germany through the Cologne scheme of reformation drawn up by Butzer and Melanchthon, who made reception of the Eucharist simply a heavenly work and a matter of faith. Aroused to fresh elucidations, finally, by Schwenckfeld, he published, toward the end of 1544, his Kurze Bekenntnis des Sacraments, containing no new doctrinal development, but savage criticisms of those who disagreed with him, renewed in the following year in his attacks on the theologians of Louvain, where he declared "the Zwinglians and all blasphemers of the Sacrament" to be heretics and cut off from the Christian Church. He had likewise protested against the Eucharistic doctrine of the Bohemian Brethren in 1541, being suspicious of their views, but in the following year he received Augusta in friendly fashion in Wittenberg and gave him the hand of fellowship for his coreligionists, A still more striking proof of his recognition of unity of spirit despite difference of opinion is seen in his attitude toward Melanchthon, against whose synergistic passages in the later editions of his Loci Luther could never be persuaded to polemize. As early as 1537 Melanchthon was charged with Zwinglian views on the Eucharist, but Luther, though finding much suspicious in his writings, nevertheless desired "to share his heart with him." He also gave high tribute to the Loci and the entire theological activity of his colleague in the preface to the first volume of his Latin works (1545); but Melanchthon is said to have foretold in his illness (1537) that after his death there would be no peace among the theologians associated with himself.

The Death of Luther

More and more pronounced became Luther's conviction that bitter trials were to come on Germany, whether from the Turks or from internecine strife. While the whole world seemed to him to be in the state it had been in before the flood or the Babylonian exile or the destruction of Jerusalem, he was especially shocked by the immorality in Wittenberg, so that he threatened in 1545 that he would never revisit it. But he felt his death approaching. In 1544 he declined to prepare a church discipline on the plea of old age and exhaustion, and when, in 1545, he completed his lectures on Genesis, he expressed his longing to die. On Jan. 23, 1546, he went from Wittenberg to Eisleben to settle a mining dispute between the counts of Mansfeld, and was successful. But amid his preoccupations his health had been neglected; a fontanel which he had long had in his thigh had cicatrized; and he had caught a severe cold on his journey. On the evening of Feb. 17 he felt a heavy pressure on his chest, and on the following morning he died, still declaring his adherence to the faith he had preached. His corpse was solemnly buried in the castle church at Wittenberg, where it was rediscovered on the morning of Sunday, Feb. 14, 1892, by two men who had taken part in the restoration of the church ordered by William 1., thus disposing of the story that during the Schmalkald War the corpse had been exhumed and buried in a neighboring field.

Summary of Luther's Doctrinal Development

Surveying the entire course of Luther's life and activity, and especially the development of his theories and teachings, their important and positive content is seen clearly formulated when he entered upon his struggle in 1517; while their logical results, particularly as opposed to the Roman Catholic Church and the papal claims, were fully evolved at the time of his return from the Wartburg. The Peasants' War, often termed the great incentive to his subsequent career, was really important only as accentuating his boldness in the practical task of reformation. After that, modifications in his doctrine entered only in so far as he emphasized one or another factor, as circumstances required. His basal principle was ever "justification by faith in Christ," as set forth especially by Paul and experienced by himself. Curious as it may seem, however, he never understood the Pauline doctrine of justification as a declaration or assumption of righteousness in man; but he took it rather as an inward process, in the believer, of becoming justified. The first step is the forgiveness of sins by grace alone, after which justification and the imputation of righteousness proceed from the Spirit which is given to those thus forgiven. It is clear, moreover, from his controversy with Agricola, that from the first Luther held that the rousing of conscience by the mandatory and punitive word of God was a necessary preliminary to belief. A further characteristic of his views on the divine influence on faith and the divine part in those who were justified through faith was the realism with which he asserted the actual and full presence of God in the Holy Ghost. In regard to God, he held that he could never be known from human speculation or from a merely natural revelation, but that man may rise to him from his perfect self-manifestation in Christ, even while refraining, in trusting faith, from penetrating into what is here concealed. In his concept of the historic Christ, it is noteworthy that he insisted on the most intimate identification of the divine and human, instead of contenting himself with a mere coexistence of the two natures.

Theory of the Church and the World

Luther's doctrine of the Church, or congregation, of Christ and the means of grace conferred by it, was of the highest importance in his activity as a reformer. This was, in his opinion, the congregation of the faithful, who become sanctified by the means of grace and must exercise them continually in the name of God. As regards the moral status of the Christian in this world, proceeding from faith and the Holy Ghost, Luther held that he already shared in heavenly blessings and was exalted above the world, serving God and himself in the temporal ordinances and estates ordered of God, and partaking thankfully of the earthly blessings vouchsafed him. While he took a warm interest in the problems of secular, civil, and social life, he was a reformer here only in so far as he urged that they be considered according to the importance God had given them and with the proper attitude of mind. If, finally, the inquiry be made whence Luther gained the entire basis of his belief and doctrine, the answer must be that he ever defended the supreme authority of the Bible against the claims of the Roman Catholic Church. This faith is also based on the inner witness which the spirit of God bears to the believer in the right use of the Scriptures, not merely as regards its authority, but also its content, so that he considered himself permitted to distinguish the higher character and value of individual books included in the Bible, and to make a further distinction between statements referring to divine revelation and those alluding to secular affairs.

The Style of Luther

The style of Luther was naturally strong, simple, and clear; and, despite its depth and keenness, it was as free from excess of feeling of fantasy as from dialectic subtlety. But, as he himself said, he must always storm and fight. His basal concept of salvation ever occupied the foreground and center of his writings, even in the exegesis of texts where, strictly speaking, it scarcely applied. On the other hand, historical and linguistic accuracy were frequently imperfectly considered. The force of allegorical interpretation he denied, yet employed it as suggestive and enlightening. In his sermons, next to the requirement that Christ should be their theme, he sought intelligibility for the masses. They lack technical form, but combine exegesis and application, strictly following the thought and exhortation to be developed, though lacking an explicit theme.

The Personal Life of Luther

In conformity with his recognition of the free activity of man in secular affairs, Luther possessed a lively interest in such matters. He highly valued all noble arts and sciences, and he had a keen appreciation of proverbs, fables, and the like. His married life was marked by nothing noteworthy, yet it was true, happy, and patient, as is clearly shown by his letters and tabletalk. He was generous with his modest wealth, and among his friends his conversation was brisk and natural, though frequently far too coarse for a refined ear. In food he was extremely temperate, despite his corpulency, and be often fasted for several days in succession. His inner life was one of humble struggle, amid the strongest temptations (due, in great part, to the bodily infirmities from which he frequently suffered), for his own salvation, a phenomenon the more remarkable in view of his unswerving conviction of the truth of his belief and his resolute attitude in the face of external dangers. He never formed far reaching plans for the future, feeling that speedy death awaited him. Throughout his life he seemed to feel the impulse of a higher power constraining him to toil and fight; and in his obedience to the call he knew neither fear nor anxiety, but calmly awaited the results from on high. (JULIUS KOSTLIN )

His Hymns

For his contributions to hymnody Martin Luther deserves and receives the thanks of the Christian world. His activity in this direction included not only the writing of hymns but the compilation of hymnals, of which nine are on record, issued between 1524 and 1545, five of these being revisions of his Geistliche Lieter. These hymnals always contained a large proportion of his own compositions; thus the Etlich christlich Rider Lobgesang uft Psalm (Wittenberg, 1524) contained eight hymns of which four were his own, the Geistliche Lieder of Wittenberg, 1543, contained sixty-one hymns, of which he composed thirty-five. His own hymns were not all new, some of them being translations from the Latin, some revisions of pre-Reformation German hymns, while others were versions of Psalms or paraphrases of other portions of Scripture. In all Luther left thirty-eight hymns, the most celebrated of which is his "battle hymn," Ein' feste Burg ist unser God, known beet to those who worship in English in the version of Rev. F. H. Hedge, "A mighty fortress is our God," though the translation by Thomas Carlyle, "A safe stronghold our God is still," is justly celebrated on account of its strength and fidelity to the original. Other hymns which have passed into common use in English are Nun freut such lieben Christengemein, many times translated, but known best in the version of Mrs, Charles, "Dear Christian people, all rejoice "; and Gelobet seist du Jesu Christ, anonymously translated into " All praise to thee, eternal Lord." More than all other works of Luther, excepting only his translation of the Bible, his hymns have become the household possession of the German people, while his great battle hymn was sung by Gustavus Adolphus before the battles of Leipsi and Lotsen, and by others in times almost as critical.
  | Back | Top of Page | Home |
bioluther.htm: Part of Copyright ©2005 John M. Fritzius