Martin Luther (1483-1546)

Written by Michael Vlach.

I.        Introducing Martin Luther 

A.    Martin Luther was born on November 10, 1483 in Eisleben, Germany. 

B.     He died in Eisleben on February 18, 1546. 

C.     Martin’s father was an upper-middle-class mine owner. 

D.    His mother was deeply religious and superstitious. 

E.     Martin’s father wanted him to become a lawyer so Martin entered the University ofErfurt.  

F.      He got a B.A. in 1502. He ranked 30th in a class of 57.  

G.    Luther received an M.A. in 1505 ranking 2nd out of 17. 

H.    On a summer day in 1505 he was almost killed by a bolt of lightning that knocked him to the ground. He cried out, “Saint Anne, help me! I shall become a monk!” (St. Anne was the patron saint of those who were in distress.) 

I.        After this, Martin sold his law books and joined an Augustinian monastery inErfurt. 

J.        He received his Th.D. in 1512. 

II.     The searching Luther 

A.    The monk, Luther, agonized much over the state of his soul.  

B.     He sought relief for his soul in God but became angry with God when he viewed God as mostly wrathful and not loving. 

“Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly  . . . I was angry with God” (Luther’s Works, 34, 336-37). 

C.     Luther was not certain of his own repentance and punished himself often. 

D.    Luther went to confession often. So much so, that he was instructed to stop going to confession until he really had something worthy of confession. Luther was constantly afraid that he had forgotten some sinful thought or deed. 

E.     Luther’s confessor in the monastery was Johannes Staupitz who was the vicar-general of the Augustine order of monks in Germany. Staupitz took a more lenient approach to God emphasizing God’s grace and mercy. He had a good influence on Luther encouraging him to be more concerned with the Bible than with Roman Catholic theology. 

F.      Staupitz sent Luther out of the monastery to the University of Erfurt where he studied philosophy and theology. He also was commissioned to do business for the Augustinian order. 

G.    Luther did not agree with the scholastic tradition of Thomas Aquinas and did not like its emphasis on natural theology and reliance upon Aristotle whom Luther designated as a “great whore” that seduced people from the mind of Christ (Olson, 376).  

H.    In 1511, Luther went to Rome which was a great opportunity to walk around the great capital city of the church. Luther was extremely disappointed by the immorality and blasphemy of the city.  

I.        Luther returned to Germany dismayed by what he saw but also determined to find an answer for the spiritual and theological decay that he had seen.  

J.        Luther earned his doctorate of theology degree in 1512 from the University ofWittenberg. 

K.    At UOW he taught in the area of biblical studies. 

L.     While preparing lectures on the Book of Romans Luther had what is now called his “tower experience.” From 1513–1518 Luther was struggling with the issues of God’s righteousness and mercy, particularly how both could be true at the same time. 

M.   Luther was struck by the Bible’s teaching that “the righteous shall live by faith.” He believed in “the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith.” 

“I beat importunately upon Paul. . . . At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, ‘In [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.’” 

N.    “Luther’s view of God and salvation was revolutionized by his new interpretation of the righteousness of God and the gospel of justification by grace through faith alone” (Olson, The Story of Christian Theology, 377). 

O.    “Soon he was lecturing about it and writing tracts and treatises explaining it in contrast to the standard ways of interpreting the gospel of salvation in his own time” (Olson, 377). 

P.     Other developments in Luther’s thinking: 

1.      He started to develop a more literal hermeneutic for understanding Bible passages. 

2.      He became more Augustinian in his theology. 

3.      Grace comes through faith, not the sacraments. 

4.      He gained a new concept of the sovereignty of God including predestination and efficacious grace. 

III.   The Road to the Reformation 

A.    In 1517, the indulgence seller, Tetzel, came to a town near Wittenberg. Commissioned by Pope Leo X, he was selling indulgences to raise funds for the rebuilding of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. His slogan: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings another soul from purgatory springs!” 

B.     The selling of indulgences infuriated Luther and was the stimulus for the posting of his 95 Theses on the castle church door in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517.  

1.      Thesis 82 challenged the pope as to why he lets souls out of purgatory for money. Why not just let all souls out of purgatory? Luther thought. 

2.      Luther’s 95 Theses included more than just challenges to indulgences including popular beliefs and practices of the church. 

3.      Luther was only intending an academic debate when he posted his theses. 

4.      In an effort not to arouse the laity he wrote his theses in Latin. 

5.      Eventually, the 95 Theses was translated into German. The German people liked it. 

C.     Luther became a hero to many in Germany but was viewed as a threat to the Roman Catholic Church. 

D.    On August 7, 1518 Luther received a papal summons. The pope demanded that Luther appear in Rome within sixty days on suspicion of heresy. Luther appealed to his Elector, Frederick the Wise to protect him. This request was granted.  

E.     From 1518 to 1520 Luther debated leading Catholic scholars on issues such as indulgences and the authority of the pope. 

1.      From June 27--July 16 1519 the Leipzig Debate occurred with the Roman Catholic scholar, John Eck. Luther asserted the following: 

a)      The pope is not infallible. 

b)     The church of Rome was not supreme over other churches. 

c)      Church councils have erred since they were made of human beings. 

d)     Scripture was the ultimate divine authority. 

2.      Luther began to turn to Scripture even more for his doctrine. He reexamined the issue of sacraments saying that there were only three, not seven—baptism, Lord’s Supper, and penance. 

F.      In 1520, Luther wrote “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church.” 

1.      This was an attack on the sacramental system of salvation of the Roman Catholic Church. 

2.      It was a defense of justification by faith. 

3.      It denies transubstantiation and promoted consubstantiation. 

G.      The Papal Bull of Condemnation, Exsurge Domine was published on October 10, 1520. Luther was given sixty days to recant. Luther responded by burning Exsurge Domine and other Roman Catholic books.                                                                                     

H.    Luther was excommunicated by the pope on January 3, 1521. 

I.        Luther was summoned to appear before emperor Charles V at his imperial court in the city of Worms in 1521. When ordered by the pope’s representative to repent of his heretical views he declared:  

“My conscience is captive to the Word of God. This I cannot and will not recant, for going against my conscience is neither safe nor salutary. I can do no other, here I stand, God help me. Amen.” 

J.        Luther was declared an outlaw by the emperor but was protected by the princeFrederick “The Wise” of Saxony. 

K.    Luther’s life was in danger but his supporters secretly had him placed in a castle in Wartburg. He stayed there for a year disguised as “Knight George.” 

L.     At the Wartburg castle, Luther translated the New Testament into German in eleven weeks. Five thousand copies were sold in two months; Two hundred thousand were sold in twelve years. 

M.   While absent, Andreas von Karlstadt, a colleague of Luther at Wittenberg, began a reform movement in Wittenberg. Luther viewed Karlstadt as inept and thus returned toWittenberg. 

N.    Luther launched a strong attack on Roman Catholicism and the papacy, even referring to the pope as the antichrist. 

O.    Luther married Catherine von Bora in 1525 when he was forty-two years old. Catherine was a former nun. Affectionately Martin called her “Katie.” They had six children.  

IV.  Martin Luther’s theology 

A.    Luther was not a systematic theologian and he did not produce a systematic theology. 

B.     He wrote two catechisms and helped with the Augsburg Confession and the Schmalkald Articles. 

C.     Luther’s writings were mostly treatises aimed at a particular issue or controversy. He also wrote biblical commentaries, hymns, and sermons. 

D.    “Luther was a dialectical thinker, meaning that he reveled in the paradoxical nature of truth. He believed that God’s Word reveals a message beyond human reason or comprehension and that its truth is often couched in apparent contradictions” (Olson, 379). 

E.     Luther was primarily a biblical theologian. He was a professor of bible, primarily Old Testament exegesis at the University of Wittenberg. 

F.      “The heart and essence of Luther’s theological contribution . . . was salvation as a free gift of divine mercy for which the human person can do nothing” (Olson, 380). 

G.    Luther’s theological contributions: The main contributions we will focus on here is Luther’s views on (1) the theology of the cross; (2) knowledge of God; (3) justification; and (4) sacraments. 

1.      Theology of the cross 

a)      The foundation for Luther’s theology was his “theology of the cross.”  

b)     The theology of the cross is contrasted with the “theology of glory.” The theology of glory is any approach that tries to discover God through human reason apart from supernatural grace (Olson, 381). 

(1)   The theology of glory focuses on human reason and natural revelation.  

(2)   Luther believed that Thomas Aquinas and the Roman Catholic Church focused too much on human reason and natural theology and did not emphasize the cross of Christ and God’s special revelation enough. 

(3)   Luther could not accept a theology that relied heavily on secular philosophers like Aristotle. 

(4)   The theology of glory was synergistic in regard to salvation. It places high value on the human will and human ability to cooperate with God. 

(5)   According to Luther, the theology of glory is a human-centered theology that overestimates the ability of human power and ability (Olson, 382). 

c)      The theology of the cross, on the other hand, stressed the following: 

(1)   The sufferings of Christ as the way to salvation. The cross is central to salvation. 

(2)   The total inability of man in regard to salvation. Thus, Luther stressed a strong monergism in which God is solely responsible for salvation. (Luther believed in double predestination.) 

(3)   The human will is in bondage to sin. 

(4)   The doctrine of predestination. 

(5)   The necessity of special revelation through the Word of God and the Holy Spirit. 

d)     Luther rejected the classical arguments for God’s existence. 

2.      Knowledge of God 

a)      According to Luther if God is to be known at all He can be known only through His choice to reveal himself. “Thus the basis of all true knowledge of God can only be God’s self-disclosure by his Word and his Spirit” (Olson, 384). 

b)     According to Luther, natural revelation could reveal God before the fall of man, but the Fall destroyed both the will and the ability to intellectually know God through nature apart from special revelation. 

c)      Luther had no use for Scholasticism’s natural knowledge of God. He had no use for the natural theology of Thomas Aquinas. He had no use for Aristotle. 

d)     Luther referred to reason in this context as a “great whore.” 

e)      Luther emphasized faith alone as the instrument for understanding God and the mysteries of divine revelation. 

f)       Luther’s corrective to the epistemology (theory of knowledge) of the Roman Catholic Church was sola scriptura—the Scripture alone was the ultimate guide and authority for Christian belief and practice. 

g)     Luther disagreed with the beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church on the following: 

(1)   Luther did not accept that unwritten tradition was as authoritative as Scripture. 

(2)   Luther did not accept that the Bible was the church’s creation and thus only the church hierarchy could properly interpret it. 

3.      Scripture 

a)      For Luther Scripture was of higher authority than both philosophy and tradition. 

b)     Luther did not reject the concept of tradition altogether and believed that the Anabaptists had gone too far in their rejection of tradition. For Luther, tradition was in accord with Scripture and should be kept. (It was not, though, another source of authority in addition to Scripture.) 

c)      Although Luther had an exalted view of Scripture he did not believe that all parts of Scripture were of equal value. 

(1)   For example, Luther rejected, at least in part, the value of the Book of James:  “Away with James. . . . His authority is not great enough to cause me to abandon the doctrine of faith and to deviate from the authority of the other apostles and the entire Scripture.” 

(2)   “St. James’ epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.” 

d)     For Luther, Scripture has levels of authority. The test for Scripture was whether it promotes the cross of Christ and salvation by grace through faith alone. 

e)      Luther did not call for the expulsion of James from the New Testament but he forbade Lutheran ministers from preaching from it or the Book of Revelation. 

f)       Luther expelled the Apocrypha from the Bible. 

g)     Luther promoted principles in regard to understanding Scripture.  

(1)   Nothing in Scripture is obscure. 

(2)   Anything that seems to be obscure is so because of the ignorance of man, not the obscurity of Scripture. 

(3)   Some texts are obscure because the reader does not understand key words and grammar. 

(4)   Satan tries to blind our eyes to the meaning of Scripture. 

(5)   If a scriptural topic appears to be obscure in one place, it will be clear in other places. 

(6)   The Holy Spirit helps people understand Scripture. 

(7)   The Roman Catholic Church has wrongly kept people from reading and studying the Bible. 

4.      Justification   

a)      Justification in history   Luther’s understanding of justification was revolutionary. In order to understand his views on this topic, it is necessary to survey the history of the doctrine of justification before he came on the scene. 

(NOTE: page numbers below are from Alister McGrath’s book, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification.) 

(1)    Pre-Augustinian Tradition     

(a)   Put simply, “Justification was simply not a theological issue in the pre-Augustinian tradition” (19). Thus, the church’s understanding of justification was “inchoate and ill-defined” (23).  

(b)    Any statements that appear to teach ‘works-righteousness’ in this period are “quite innocent” and not explicit attempts to add works to grace (23).  

(c)     The pre-Augustinian era was mostly known for its Christological and Trinitarian dogmas, not soteriology. Interestingly, Pauline literature was scarcely considered in the first 350 years of the church.   

(2)    Augustine   

(a)    Augustine had an enormous influence on soteriology. He is the first major theologian of church history to seriously address the issue of justification (24).  

(b)   Although Augustine’s views would undergo development and change in his own lifetime, many of his positions would eventually become predominant in the medieval era.  

(c)    Some of Augustine’s key views include: 

(i)     Man’s election is based on God’s eternal decree of predestination. 

(ii)      Free will is not lost; it is merely incapacitated and may be healed by grace. 

(iii)            The righteousness of God is that by which God justifies sinners. 

(iv)God’s prevenient grace prepares man’s will for justification. 

(d)   In specific relation to justification, Augustine held the following: 

(i)      The motif of amor Dei (“love of God”) dominates Augustine’s theology of justification. 

(ii)      The verb ‘to justify’ means ‘to make righteous.’ Thus, justification is about being ‘made just.’ 

(iii)            Justification is all-embracing, including both the event of justification and the process of justification. 

(iv)Man’s righteousness in justification isinherent rather than imputed. 

(3)    Medieval Period  

(a)   According to McGrath, “the framework of the medieval discussion of justification was essentially Augustinian” (38). The theology of this period was a systematic attempt to restate and reformulate Augustine’s theology to meet the needs of the new era (38). 

(b)   The predominant view of justification in the medieval era was this: “Justification refers not merely to the beginning of the Christian life, but also to its continuation and ultimate perfection, in which the Christian is made righteous in the sight of God and the sight of men through a fundamental change in his nature, and not merely his status” (41).  

(c)    With this understanding, there was no distinction between justification and sanctification that would later characterize Reformation orthodoxy. Other views associated with the medieval era include: 

(i)       The infusion of grace initiates a chain of events that eventually leads to justification. 

(ii)      Justification consists in the remission of sins. 

(iii)            Justification involves a real change in its object. 

(iv)     Man has a positive role to play in his own justification. 

(v)        A human disposition toward justification is necessary. 

(vi)  Justification takes place within the sphere of the church and is particularly associated with the sacraments of baptism and penance. 

(d)       Key theologians of the medieval era include Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Anselm, Peter Abelard, and William of Ockham. Aquinas is especially important because of his substantial Summa Theologiaeand his attempt to unite Christian doctrine with Aristotle. Gottschalk and his view of double predestination are also important. 

(e)   Important schools of thought include Dominican, Franciscan, and Augustinian schools. Interestingly, the school that claimed Augustine often differed with Augustine on significant issues. McGrath points out that “It is impossible to speak of a single homogeneous ‘medieval Augustinian tradition’ during the Middle Ages in relation to justification” (179). 

(f)     SUMMARY: The Catholic doctrine of justification which stretches back to Augustine was that justification is a gradual process in which a sinner is actually made righteous. This occurs as God’s righteousness is infused into the Christian through baptism and the sacraments, faith, and works of love. Thus justification is a process (like sanctification). Justification can be lost and one cannot be assured of his justification. 

b)     Luther’s views on justification  

(1)   Luther is best known for his contribution to the doctrine of justification. 

(2)   According to Luther, justification is the act by which God declares a person to be in a right relationship with himself. 

(3)   For Luther the doctrine of justification is the “chief article of faith with which the church stands or falls, and on which its entire doctrine depends.” 

(4)   Luther himself tried to achieve justification through the Roman Catholic approach. He starved himself and did self-flagellation but he found no rest for his soul.  

(5)   In his reading of Scripture Luther found the concept of the imputed and alien righteousness of Christ. “Through faith in Christ . . . Christ’s righteousness becomes our righteousness.” 

(6)   Luther said that justifying righteousness is solely Christ’s, not that of the believer. Thus, the believer does not immediately become righteous himself, but he is declared righteous because of the righteousness of Christ imputed to him.  

(7)    Justification is by God’s grace through faith. 

(8)   Essential to Luther’s legal and forensic understanding of justification was that the justified believer is simul iustus et peccator—“always righteous and a sinner.” The believer is righteous in principle, but a sinner in actuality. 

(9)   Good works would naturally flow from the one who has been declared righteous, but works in no way contribute to salvation. 

(10)           Luther’s view of justification is linked to his understanding of “the righteousness of God” in Romans 1:17. In his early study of Romans he understood this phrase to refer actively to the quality in God that punishes unrighteous sinners. Later he saw it passively as the gift God imputes to sinners through faith in Christ.  

(11)           “Luther’s doctrine of justification fell like a bombshell on the theological landscape of medieval Catholicism. It shattered the entire theology of merits and indeed the sacramental-penitential basis of the church itself” (Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers, 72). 

5.      Priesthood 

a)      According to Luther all true Christians were priests unto God. 

b)     There are no elevated class of priests that are mediators between God and sinners. 

c)      Everyone in the church is part of the “communion of saints” and the “evangelical priesthood.” 

d)     All Christians can go directly to God in prayer. 

6.      Sacraments 

a)      In Luther’s day the established church recognized seven sacraments that worked grace in the lives of those who received them. 

b)     Luther said there were only two sacraments—baptism and the Lord’s Supper. 

c)      In order for a sacrament to be efficacious in strengthening faith, faith must be present (Olson, 393). Thus, faith must be present for the sacrament to have any benefit. The sacraments do not work ex operaoperato—they do not work regardless of the faith of the person. 

d)     Baptism 

(1)   Luther rejected the idea of Roman Catholicism that baptism merely restores the original righteousness lost by Adam and begins the process of growth in grace. 

(2)   “Instead. . . baptism, when performed and received by faith, fully justifies the sinner through the Word of God that is mysteriously bound to the water” (Olson, 393). 

(3)   Baptism is the visible sign of unmerited justification through God’s grace. 

e)      Lord’s Supper 

(1)   Luther rejected the Roman Catholic view of transubstantiation.  

(2)   He believed in consubstantiation—there is a real presence of Christ “in, with and under” the elements of bread and wine. 

(3)   Luther strongly rejected Zwingli’s memorial view of the Lord’s Supper.  

(4)   He took literally the words of Jesus—“Hoc est corpus meum”—“This is my body.”