Martin Luther (1483-1546) is known the world over as the German priest who in the 16th century set the Protestant Reformation in motion. In 1516, Luther composed his now infamous set of 95 theses with the sole intention of proposing a number of Church reforms. To his surprise, his 95 theses met with tremendous popular support, and at the same time, caused great controversy. As a result, he was promptly ordered by the Papal Court to recant his statements.
Refusing to compromise his beliefs, Luther found himself the leader of a movement that eventually led to a radical break with the Catholic Church, which, at the time, was the prevailing religious, political, and social institution. The result of this split, or what is now referred to as the Reformation, gave rise to Protestantism, one of the major denominations that makes up Christianity today.
Luther was born on November 10, 1483 in Eisleben, Saxony into particularly tumultuous times. The Holy Roman Empire of Germany was under constant political turmoil. All of Europe too was adjusting to changes brought about by the Renaissance, the transition from the Middle to the Modern Age, as well as trying to cope with the devastating effects of the black plague. These turbulent times formed a fitting background for Luther's movement, the Reformation. At the time of his birth, Luther's parents were lowly peasants, but after the family moved to Mansfeld to mine copper, they became one of the most respected families in the area. As a child, young Martin distinguished himself as one of the brightest in his school, and his parents planned for him to pursue a future as a lawyer. Even as a child, Luther was known for his recurrent bouts of melancholy, a characteristic that would remain part of his identity throughout his life. In 1505, Luther received his master's degree from the University of Erfurt, but his plans to continue on to law school were interrupted. On a return trip to school after visiting his parents, he was caught in the middle of a thunderstorm. After being thrown to the ground by a sudden flash of lightning, Luther, cried out, "Saint Anne, help me! I will become a monk!" Luther's parents, especially his father Hans, were incensed. Nevertheless, he joined an Augustinian monastery in Erfurt 15 days later.
Once in the monastery, Luther sought to appease God by obsessively and excessively performing certain religious duties; he confessed daily, even up to 6 hours at a time, and often fasted for days on end. Despite the fact that his efforts did not earn him peace with God, Luther was ordained a priest in 1507. He then began studying theology at the University of Erfurt where he was influenced by the humanist slogan "back to the source." As a result, Luther often studied the Scriptures in their original Hebrew and Greek forms. After receiving his doctorate in 1512, Luther became a professor at Wittenberg University and a priest of Wittenberg's City Church 2 years later. As Luther pored over the Scriptures in preparation for his lectures, he came to understand God's justice not as centered on punishment, but rather, on mercy. Now often referred to as "the Tower experience," Luther himself claimed that this moment of revelation took place in his study room as he read Paul's Epistle to the Romans. However, other scholars have suggested that Luther's understanding was more a result of cumulative study. Regardless, adopting the notion of justification by faith, not works, was a turning point in Luther's spiritual development and life.
As Luther delved further into his studies, he found that his biblical interpretations differed significantly from those of the Church. In 1517, Luther wrote a letter to his superiors asking for an end to the sale of indulgences, a Church practice that claimed its members could decrease their time spent in purgatory in exchange for money. Luther also included in his letter 95 theses concerning other issues he had with the Church. Popular myth purports that Luther nailed these theses to the door of Wittenberg's Castle Church, but most scholars agree that this report is pure legend. Although Luther never intended to break with the Church and could hardly have imagined that copies of his theses would quickly circulate throughout the country, he refused papal orders to recant his views. As the Church declared Luther a heretic and began an inquisition in Rome, Luther produced what are considered his three greatest works: Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, The Babylonian Captivity, and The Freedom of the Christian Man. In 1521, Luther appeared before Emperor Charles V at the Imperial Diet of Worms, where he was again ordered to renounce his teachings. Although his journey to Worms could have resulted in arrest or death, along the way he was greeted more as a hero than as a heretic. After Luther refused to retract his beliefs, he was condemned as an outlaw. However, prince and elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony staged a kidnapping that enabled Luther to be brought to Wartburg Castle. Here, Luther hid in safety as the Reformation recouped itself.
Alone in the castle except for a warden and two servants, Luther fell into a deep depression. During this time, he was also plagued by a number of physical ills, including acute constipation and insomnia. However, Luther remained active, writing a number of treatises as well as translating the New Testament from Greek to German. By 1534, Luther finished a translation of the entire Bible, which set a new standard for the German language as a whole.
Although many reforms were effectively put in place during his absence, Luther returned to Wittenberg to deal with some of the more radical members of the movement. He soon found himself caught in the midst of the bloody Peasants'War, which lasted from 1524 to 1526.
During this time, several monks and priests found themselves wives as a protest against celibacy, and as a testament to his own take on this issue, in 1525, Luther wed Katharina von Bora, a former nun who had found refuge in Wittenberg. Luther and Katherina eventually had six children.
Although Luther had originally considered marriage as merely a remedy for lust, he began to write of the many beneficial lessons to be found in family life. However, just 2 years into his marriage, he fell into the most depressive state of his life. Indeed, Luther's last 20 years, from 1526 up until his death in 1546, are most notable for frequent outbursts of rage that were, for him, part of his ongoing depression.
The aging reformer's anger and depression stemmed in part from the fact that he took on the near impossible task of keeping in order an increasingly fragmenting movement. In addition, the Reformation was beset with the martyring of many of its followers and the religious indifference of the majority of the populace. Despite the added physical discomforts of heart congestion, fainting spells, an ulcer on his leg, and acid stones, to name a few, Luther refused to give up.
As early as 1523, Luther had added to his already full plate the task of trying to convert the Jews to Christianity. When his amiable efforts to win over Jewish believers failed, his writings resorted to using vulgar obscenities, and he even proposed such extreme measures as the burning of Jewish synagogues. The title of Luther's 1543 treatise, On the Jews and Their Lies, offers a hint of Luther's overly harsh stance. However, some scholars have pointed out that Luther also treated other groups whom he considered to be hindrances to the Gospel with equal ferocity. For instance, Luther viewed Anabaptists, papists, and Turks as Satan's tools.
While Luther's life was characterized by his fervor, his last lecture at Wittenberg University ended with the words, "I am weak. I cannot go on." Shortly thereafter, he traveled back to his birthplace of Eisleben to settle a dispute, and passed away without incident on February 18, 1546.
Luther's influence lies in a number of spheres across a number of centuries, from his expertise in the arenas of writing and music to his effects on larger societal institutions such as religion and politics. While often hailed as an icon, Luther never claimed to be a model of piety. Luther's theology remained rooted in his own deeply personal, and often turbulent, relationship with God. Luther openly admitted that he often struggled to feel and practice what he preached, even after he arrived at the pivotal moment of his spiritual life-Luther's discovery of justification by faith and the subsequent change in his rigid image of God as bearer of punishment to arbiter of mercy.
While Luther's doctrinal impact is evident even in present-day Christianity's emphasis on salvation by faith, a human touch still remains throughout his life and work. Thus, another of Luther's legacies is the melding of the personal and the theological into a modern vision of faith in a God who is both intimate and authoritative.