If Martin Luther is not the architect of Protestantism, he is certainly its primary pioneer. Born on November 10, 1483 in Eisleben Germany, Luther was the firstborn of seven children. He studied law at the University of Erfurt, and was preparing for a legal career when he was very nearly killed during a summer lightning storm in 1505. This close brush with death had a profound impact on Luther, and he joined the Augustinian hermits in Erfut less than one month later (much to the consternation of his father). He was ordained priest in 1507, and became professor of moral theology at the University of Wittenberg in 1508. He achieved a doctor of theology degree in 1512.
There followed a stormy spiritual season in Luther’s life. His “aha” moment leading to the protestant reformation is often simplified; the truth is, Luther’s thoughts probably developed somewhat methodically as he lectured on the book of Romans in 1515, and Galatians in 1516-1517. Eventually, Paul’s words in Romans 1:17: “the just shall live by faith” became the rallying cry not only of Luther, but an entire new movement of Christians. Now fully embracing “justification by faith alone,” Luther evolved into a virulent critic of selling indulgences and the several levels of “mediation” erected by the Roman Catholic church. At the same time, he began focusing on the importance of a personal relationship with God as well as the objective truth of the Bible, in opposition to a church that purported to follow tradition and Scripture together, but that in fact used Scripture as it was interpreted by tradition.
One of the most notorious scoundrels of that day was a Dominican named Johann Tetzel, who pilfered rich and poor alike by teaching that a soul was released from purgatory as soon as money was dropped into the church coffer. A church in Wittenberg profited greatly from this teaching, as it maintained a collection of 18,000 relics, ranging from a twig alleged to have come from Moses’ burning bush, to a purported tear that Jesus shed as He wept over Jerusalem. This collection brought earnest pilgrims from near and far, with the promise that indulgences could be bought that would cancel out 1,902,202 years in purgatory.
It was in response to teaching such as this that Luther performed perhaps the most influential religious act of the millennium when he nailed 95 theses on the Wittenberg church door on October 31, 1517. This date is often celebrated as the “birthday” of the protestant reformation.
In response, the Archbishop of Mainz (who had recently purchased his position from the Pope, as he was too young to be appointed a bishop) lodged a formal complaint against Luther in December. Rather than cause Luther to question his stance, the burgeoning opposition seemed to make him even bolder (if that were possible). He was soon summoned to Rome on charges of heresy, but Frederick of Saxony managed to get the meeting held in Augsburg, where Luther faced down Cardinal Cajetan. The pope disavowed Tetzel’s teachings, but by no means embraced Luther’s arguments.
Luther’s challenges grew. During a heated debate in Leipzig in 1519 with Johann Eck, Luther rejected both the supremacy of the pope and the infallibility of general councils, asserting the authority of Scripture over tradition. The pope released a bull pointing out 41 “errors” in Luther’s teachings in June of 1520, giving Luther sixty days to recant or risk excommunication. Luther responded by attacking the bull and then, in front of a wide gathering of people, publicly burned it.
Inevitably, formal excommunication followed on January 3, 1521. Luther was brought before the Diet of Worms in April of that year and given a chance to recant, which he refused to do unless someone could show him from Scripture where he erred. This is the context for his famous statement, “Here I stand! I can do no other!”
Not only did this raise the wrath of Rome, it also provoked the ire of King Charles V, who proclaimed that Luther was “an obstinate schismatic and manifest heretic.” The king ordered all his subjects to refuse Luther and all his followers any food or hospitality of any kind.
Frederick of Saxony realized how precarious Luther’s safety was, and accordingly had him seized and taken to the Wartburg Castle, where Luther spent his time translating the New Testament into German so that laypeople could read it. He stayed there until March of 1522.
Reform has a way of snowballing, but Luther worked diligently to rein in the more radical elements. He returned to Wittenberg in 1522, and entered into a famous dispute with Erasmus over free will. Luther publicly spoke out against the violent “Peasant’s Revolt” of 1524-1525.
Controversy erupted anew when Luther married Catharine von Bora, a former Cistercian nun, on June 13, 1525. In 1529, Luther met Ulrich Zwingli, the Swiss Reformer, in Marburg. The two leaders agreed on most basic doctrines, but agreed to disagree on their theology of communion. While Luther rejected Transubstantiation–the Roman Catholic Doctrine that the bread and wine literally become the body of Christ, he also rejected Zwingli’s teaching that the bread and wine are mere symbols. Luther reached out for a “middle way,” consubstantiation, which acknowledges a “real presence” of Christ within the communion elements.
Meanwhile, Melanchton was busily working on the Augsburg Confession, a restatement of the faith according to Luther’s teachings, which Luther himself accepted in 1530. Briefly, Luther rejected the many mediaries constructed by Roman Catholic doctrineÑwhether the mediation came from the saints, Mary the mother of Jesus, or priests. By the sacrifice of Christ, he believed, we are justified by God through faith alone, not through good works. He put Scripture above church tradition, and stressed personal faith and experience.
Luther was an extremely prolific writer. One of his best known classics is The Freedom of a Christian, which was published in 1520. This work was dedicated to Pope Leo X, whom Luther referred to as “a lamb in the midst of wolves.”
Following a long string of illnesses, Luther finally died in 1546, in his hometown of Eisleben. Protestantism was legally recognized nearly seven years later in the Treaty of Passau in 1552.