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Martin Luther (1483-1546), an Augustinian priest, biblical scholar, and linguist,
was born and died in Eisleben, Saxony, a duchy in northwestern Germany. His
attack on ecclesiastical abuses, the Ninety-five Theses, signaled the beginning
of the Protestant Reformation. Luther's father wanted him to be a lawyer and
sent him to the University of Erfut, where he received a B.A. degree in 1502
and an M.A. in 1505. Luther joined the Augustinian order in 1506 and was ordained
a priest a year later. Like other German Augustinians of this era, Luther sought
a stricter observance of the rules of the order and this was reflected in his
teaching and writing. Luther taught at the new University of Wittenberg from
1508 to 1546 and received a doctorate of theology in 1512.
Like Saint Augustine, the founder of his order, Luther was racked by self-doubt
and the uncertainty of his own salvation. Particularly troubling to him was
the nature of divine justice. Luther's reading of Augustine and Saint Paul led
him to conclude that God's justice lay in his punishment of sin. Further, his
reading of the Gospels convinced him that God demanded more than outward obedience
(conformity to the law); he also wanted love and inner purity, all this under
pain of divine justice. In this scheme, however, God was more easily feared
than loved, which seemed to be in conflict with the spirit of Christianity.
Moreover, Luther was tormented with self-doubt about his own ability to fulfill
God's expectations. His participation in the rituals of the Catholic church
did nothing to alleviate his anguish, and he came to believe that something
was fundamentally wrong with the church as governed by Rome.
The essence of Luther's rebellion lay in his doctrine of justification by faith.
He came to believe that faith was not the product of man's fear of divine justice;
rather, divine justice (justification) came through true faith, and salvation
(divine grace) was the just reward for faith. Divine justice, then, was not
related to punishment but was a positive, loving act. This view fit with Luther's
understanding of Christianity and became the essence of Reformation theology.
Other reforms such as the number and significance of the sacraments and the
role of the clergy sprang from Luther's interpretation of the Bible.
Luther's reflections became public and touched off the Reformation when he
posted his famous Ninety-five Theses on the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg
on October 31, 1517. The Theses were Luther's reaction to such corrupt church
practices as selling indulgences, and to such questionable practices as the
veneration of relics and saints. Although the Theses did not deny papal prerogative,
they did criticize papal policy by implication. The Theses also did not attack
such established teachings as purgatory, but they did stress the spiritual,
inward character of the Christian religion. During the religious and political
fight that followed the publication of the Theses, Luther was excommunicated
(1521), his views condemned, and a new order independent of the Papacy was born.
The widespread publication of the Theses (made possible by the recently invented
printing press) transformed what might once have been a mere local issue into
a controversy that consumed Europe. The Protestant Reformation triggered by
this controversy soon spread over northern Europe, sparking a war that lasted
thirty years and a religious movement that had a global influence.
Works by the Author
Luther, Martin. The Works of Martin Luther. 6 vols. Muhlenberg Press.
Luther, Martin. Luther's Small Catechism. Minneapolis: Augsberg Publishing
Luther, Martin. Luther's Large Catechism. Minneapolis: Augsberg Publishing
Luther, Martin. Luther's Commentary on Galatians. Translated by Theodore
Graebner. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1965.
Luther, Martin. Christian Liberty. Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press,
Luther, Martin. Three Treatises: An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility,
A Prelude on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church and A Treatises on Christian
Liberty. Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1947.
Luther, Martin. Dris Martini Lutheri Colloquia Mensalia: or Dr. Martin
Luther's Divine Discourses at His Table. Translated by Henrie Bell. London:
William Du Gard, 1652.
Luther, Martin. Great Voices of the Reformation An Anthology. Translated
by Harry Emerson Fosdick. New York: Random House, 1952.
Luther, Martin. Selections From the Table Talk of Martin Luther. Translated
by Henry Bell. Edited by Henry Morley. London: Cassell & Co., Ltd., 1886.
Luther, Martin. The Sermon on the Mount and The Magnificat. Vol. 21.
St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1955.
Luther, Martin. The Basis of the Protestant Reformation. Vol. 1. Translated
by Bertram Lee Woolf. London: Lutterworth Press, 1952.
Luther, Martin. The Table Talk of Martin Luther. Translated by Thomas
S. Kepler. The World Publishing Company, 1952.
The biographical material about the author originally appeared on The
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