Luther and the Protestant Reformation
While historical treatment of the German Reformation in the last 20 years has focused on social and cultural history, the reception of theo-logical ideas among the masses, and how the religious strife of the era affected society, the towering ﬁ gure of Martin Luther and his impact on German history is impossible to ignore.
A devout, even zealous, young man who had risen quickly through the church hierarchy, in 1517 Luther made a very unlikely reformer. Likewise, the issue that precipitated his split with the church, the sale of indulgences, was also improbable. By examining the formative experiences and spiritual crisis that beset Luther in his youth, these events, events that split Germany and eventually all of Europe along confessional lines, will become clearer.
Luther was born in 1483, in Eisenach, a Saxon mining town, the son of a former miner who had become wealthy through a lucrative copper smelting business. At the time of Luther’s birth, the Catholic Church was perhaps the most pervasive, powerful, and afﬂ uent institution in all of Europe. The church had a presence in every city, town, and village in Germany and a sophisticated bureaucracy in Rome controlled by the pope, at once Vicar of Christ and one of the most powerful princes on the Continent.
At the root of the church’s power was the author-ity the pope exercised as supreme arbiter in all religious matters and the monopoly the clergy held over the seven sacraments; without the church one could not reach salvation. The church offered the opportu-nity of advancement for a bright and ambitious young man like Martin Luther, but his father chose another path for his son, enrolling him at the nearby University of Erfurt to study law in preparation for a career serving at the court of a German prince or magistrate.
Luther lived a typical student’s life at the university, studying and carousing, but on July 2, 1505, Luther’s life changed forever when he was overcome by a terrifying thunderstorm while returning from a visit with his parents. Afraid that he would be struck by lightning, perhaps even that the storm was diabolical, Luther called out to St. Anne, the patron saint of miners, “Help, St. Anne, [and] I will become a monk!” When he recounted the story to his school companions upon his return to Erfurt, they thought he was joking about his promise to join a mon-astery,
but Luther regarded his utterance during the storm as a solemn promise to the saint. Against his father’s strident objections, and even his threats to disown his headstrong son, Luther joined the Observant Augustinian Order in Erfurt. The Observant Augustinians were consid-ered to be the strictest in the city, but their monastery was located near the university, so Luther could later return to his studies, changing his major to theology.
Luther progressed rapidly as a novice and proved to be an exemplary monk. In later life, reﬂ ecting on this period, he wrote:I was a good monk, and I kept the rule of my order so strictly that I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven through his monkery, surely that would have been I. All my brothers in the monastery who knew me will bear me out. If I had kept on any longer, I would have killed myself with vigils, prayers, reading, and other work. (Bainton 1950: 45)In fact, the head of the monastery, Johannes von Staupitz (1460–1524), remembered that Luther’s confessions, despite the extreme asceticism that regulated the life of the young monk, often lasted six hours.
These wrenching confessions of sins real and imagined were a symptom of a growing despair that gripped Luther during his years as a monk. While Luther devoted himself with ever more intense piety to the monastic life, he was stalked with the terrible uncertainty of his own salvation. Judged by a perfect God, Luther feared that he would ultimately fall short and suffer eternal damnation.
Once Luther was ordained as a priest, his uncertainty grew, and when called to perform his ﬁ rst Mass in the monastery’s chapel, he was ﬁ lled with a horriﬁc sense of dread. The church taught that if an unworthy ofﬁ ciant per-formed the Mass, it was still efﬁ cacious for the parishioners but placed the soul of the wayward priest in dire jeopardy.
Afﬂ icted by intense self-doubt, Luther threw himself into his monas-tic observances and his studies. The head of his order, von Staupitz, recognized the young man’s intellect—and the spiritual crisis that was plaguing him—and encouraged Luther to begin intensive theological study at the nearby University of Erfurt. Luther made rapid progress: In 1509, he received a bachelor’s degree in biblical studies, and in 1512, he earned a doctorate in theology. Once he had ﬁ nished these studies, Luther was recruited for a post as lecturer at the University of Wittenberg, which had been founded only a decade before by Frederick the Wise (1463–1525), the powerful elector of Saxony.
Luther was hired to lecture on the Bible and began a series of detailed lectures on the Scriptures, despite the fact that he was still plagued by the crippling fear of damnation, the realization of his own sinful nature, and increasingly by feelings of being abandoned by a vengeful God. During his studies, in 1510, the Observant Augustinians had sent him on a mission to represent the order in Rome, which only seems to have added to Luther’s uncertainty. The pious young monk found the trip to Rome, supposedly the holiest city in Christendom and the resting place of countless saints and martyrs, highly discouraging. Shocked by the cynical worldliness, corruption, and venality of the Renaissance Vatican, Luther later recalled a shocking Mass that he attended in the Eternal City.
According to the reformer, as the Eucharist was raised by the priest he snickered in Latin “Bread thou art; Bread shall thou remain,” blaspheming the central mystery of the Catholic religion (Bainton 1950: 50).At the University of Wittenberg, the young professor intensiﬁ ed his study of the Bible, as he provided exegesis on its chapters and verses from cover to cover. At some time during this period, from 1513 to 1518, Luther arrived at a series of theological conclusions that gradu-ally resolved his spiritual dilemma and eventually changed the world.
The culmination of these insights was the central theological tenet of the Protestant Reformation: sola ﬁ de, or justiﬁ cation by faith alone, the belief that salvation was not earned through performing good works or by partaking in the sacraments of the Catholic Church, but rather the grace of God was imputed to the believer through the gift of faith. Ironically, however, it was not this paradigm-shattering theological chal-lenge, one that threatened the central tenants of Medieval Catholicism, the centrality of the Sacraments, and the role of the Catholic clergy, that brought Luther into conﬂ ict with the church, but rather his involve-ment in a minor local squabble over indulgences in 1517.