Martin Luther

By Gottfried, Paul | The World and I, February 1999 | Go to article overview

Martin Luther


Gottfried, Paul, The World and I


Martin Luther (1483--1546) joined the Order of St. Augustine in 1506. Among his teachers were councilors as well as Nominalists, and when Luther went to the University of Wittenberg, in his native Saxony, as an Augustinian professor of theology in 1508, he found there a ferment of ideas produced by the assault on medieval Catholic thought.

His own spiritual searching likewise played a role in the formation of a distinctly Protestant theology. We now know from sermons and lecture notes that Luther's theology had taken shape in his head well before the dramatic gesture of October 31, 1517, when the struggling theologian and troubled monk nailed his provocative Ninety-five Theses to the cathedral door in Wittenberg. His challenge to the doctrine of purgatory and the church's power to remit sin, launched fatefully on the evening of All Saints Day (now pleasantly identified with tricks and treats), epitomized the Reformation. Christians, taught Luther, were justified by faith, as Paul had explained in Romans, and faith was the inner certainty of a divine grace that was made available to the sinner independently of any act of penance.

Though Luther produced entire volumes of tracts devoted to "justification by faith," this central conviction of Protestant belief came to him as an experiential truth. He arrived at it by reading and commenting on Scripture and by meditating on the effects of human sin. Luther was especially struck by the apparent futility of performing ritual acts for changing human character. After painful reflection he came to the conclusion that Christians were made righteous not by mortifying their flesh or by imposing upon themselves ritual order but by receiving the entirely gratuitous gift of divine faith. Thereafter they would act righteously not by their own light but through the indwelling presence of Christ.

The lyrical, existential quality of Luther's testimony to faith is important to note in considering why his Reformation succeeded while that of others failed. John Wycliffe in England, Jan Huss in Bohemia, and Peter Waldo in Italy had all preached ideas similar to Luther's in the late Middle Ages. None of them had founded a movement as successful as his, and while this may be partly attributed to the historical prematureness of their message, earlier reformers lacked Luther's expressive genius and force of personality. Though often crude and mean-spirited in his speech and writing, Luther had aesthetic and interpretive talents that continue to amaze. Among his accomplishments was creating a German literary and analytic idiom and, mostly unwittingly, a gem of German nationhood. Though he was certainly not a systemic theologian, his religious tracts would provide the basis for a new Protestant church, which by the time of his death would be established in northern Germany and Scandinavia.

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