LUTHER, Martin (1483-1546)

Martin Luther, one of the most famous Reformers of the Christian church, was a monk, pastor, theologian, and professor. His theology and life's work continue to affect the Christian churches to this day.
Martin Luther was born in 1483 in Eisleben, Germany. He attended school in Mansfeld, Magdeburg, and Eisenach and entered the University of Erfurt in 1501. He obtained both the bachelor of arts (1502) and the master of arts (1505) degrees. He began to study law, but broke off his studies and, after a traumatic experience in a thunderstorm, entered the monastery of the Augustinian friars in Erfurt and became a monk. Ordained a priest in 1507, he studied for his doctorate in theology, which he gained in 1512. After a journey to Rome in 1510-11, Luther moved to the Augustinian monastery in Wittenberg and taught at the university there. He remained there the rest of his life.
Luther was plagued by the question of how sinful humans could ever be reconciled to a righteous God. Unsatisfied with the answers that the Catholic church, late medieval theology, and his own monastic lifestyle offered him, he continued to seek an answer to his question. He finally found his answer in Paul's Epistle to the Romans in the doctrine of justification by grace through faith. Luther believed that humans are justified (set right) with God not by anything they do, think, or decide, but solely by God's gift of the forgiveness of sins. God sees the sinner as righteous, not on the basis of the sinner's life, but rather for the sake of what Jesus Christ has done. God's grace, the forgive­ness of sins, is received by faith. In 1517 Luther wrote his ninety-five theses, a protest against the Catholic church's practice of selling indulgences. Luther protested that God's mercy was free and could not be bought. Intended to serve as the basis of an academic disputation and thus written in Latin, the theses were soon translated into German and distributed all over Germany. They struck a chord with many peo­ple tired of abuses in the Catholic church. The Heidelberg Disputation of 1518 afforded Luther an opportunity to expound his theology of the cross.
In 1520 Luther published three major treatises. The Babylonian Captivity of the Church was an attack on the medieval sacramental system. The Freedom of a Christian laid out Luther's views on the inner freedom of the Christian from sin and death and defined the Christian life as one of service to others. An Appeal to the German Nobility attacked the notion that the "religious" (popes, bishops, priests, monks, and nuns) were a separate class of people worthy of special privileges and advanced Luther's notion that all Christians were priests, though only some actually functioned publicly as priests.
By now excommunicated, Luther was granted safe conduct to the Imperial Diet at Worms in 1521. Asked to renounce his views before the emperor, Luther refused to do so. On his return to electoral Saxony, his prince had him kidnapped and hidden in the Wartburg castle. Here Luther translated the New Testament into German, an event that helped shape the modern German language. After his return to Wittenberg from the Wartburg in 1522, Luther was largely occupied with institutionalizing his reformation. He reformed the Latin liturgy (1523) and wrote the Small Catechism and the Large Catechism (both 1529) for instructing lay people and pastors in the basics of the Christian faith. In 1525 Luther op­posed the peasant uprisings in Germany. Though he sympathized with the peas­ants' grievances, he believed that they used the Christian gospel improperly to advocate their cause. Thus he encouraged the ruling princes to use violent force to put down the uprisings. Also in 1525 Luther married Katharina von Bora, a former nun. The couple had six children.
Unable to attend the Diet of Augsburg (1530), Luther nevertheless put his stamp of approval on the Augsburg Confession, the statement of beliefs that became the constitutive document for the Lutheran church. In the 1530s Luther was active as a pastor, professor, and expositor of the Bible. His lectures on Galatians (1531, published in 1535) provide a complete statement of his mature theology. Lectures on Genesis (1535-45) occupied the last years of his life. Although his literary output dropped during this time, his Smalcald Articles (1537) provided another summation of his theology. On the Councils and the Church (1539) contained Luther's views on ecclesiology. The 1530s and 1540s were also a time when Luther was subject to a number of different pressures from political, social, and ecclesiastical sources. During this time Luther is also particularly known for his harsh polemics against his opponents—in particular, Roman Catholics, Jews, and Anabaptists. Luther died in 1546 while on a visit to Eisleben.
Luther wanted to reform the theology and practice of the Christian church to reflect his central insight that humans were justified with God by faith in God's forgiveness of their sins. Luther never intended to form his own church, but the effect of his movement was to split the Christian church in Europe. The Lutheran churches of the world look upon Luther as their leading figure.
M. Brecht, Martin Luther, 3 vols., 1993-99. J. Kittelson, Luther the Reformer, 1986.
B. Lohse, Martin Luther: An Introduction to His Life and Work, 1986.
H. Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil, 1992.
Mary Jane Haemig

Renaissance and Reformation 1500-1620: A Biographical Dictionary. . 2001.

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