Martin Luther: Influential Preacher and Reformist

Martin Luther: Influential Preacher and Reformist

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Martin Luther: Influential Preacher and Reformist


Luther was born in Eisleben, Germany, the son of Hans Luther, who
worked in the copper mines, and his wife Margarethe. He went to school at
Magdeburg and Eisenach, and entered the University of Erfurt in 1501,
graduating with a BA in 1502 and an MA in 1505. His father wished him to
be a lawyer, but Luther was drawn to the study of the scriptures, and
spent three years in the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt. In 1507 he was
ordained a priest, and went to the University of Wittenberg, where he
lectured on philosophy and the Scriptures, becoming a powerful and
influential preacher.

On a mission to Rome in 1510--11 he was appalled by the corruption
he found there. Money was greatly needed at the time for the rebuilding of
St. Peter's, and papal emissaries sought everywhere to raise funds by the
sale of indulgences. The system was grossly abused, and Luther's
indignation at the shameless traffic, carried on in particular by the
Dominican Johann Tetzel, became irrepressible. As professor of biblical
exegesis at Wittenberg (1512--46), he began to preach the doctrine of
salvation by faith rather than works; and on 31 October 1517 drew up a
list of 95 theses on indulgences denying the pope any right to forgive
sins, and nailed them on the church door at Wittenberg. Tetzel retreated
from Saxony to Frankfurt-an-der-Oder, where he published a set of counter-
theses and burnt Luther's. The Wittenberg students retaliated by burning
Tetzel's, and in 1518 Luther was joined in his views by Melanchthon.

The pope, Leo X, at first took little notice of this disturbance,
but in 1518 summoned Luther to Rome to answer for his theses. His
university and the elector interfered, and ineffective negotiations were
undertaken by Cardinal Cajetan and by Miltitz, envoy of the pope to the
Saxon court. The scholar Johann Eck and Luther held a memorable
disputation at Leipzig (1519); and Luther began to attack the papal system
more boldly. In 1520 he published his famous address An den christlichen
Adel deutscher Nation (Address to the Christian Nobility of the German
Nation), followed by a treatise De captivitate Babylonica ecclesiae
praeludium (A Prelude concerning the Babylonian Captivity of the Church),
which also attacked the doctrinal system of the Church of Rome.

A papal bull containing 41 theses was issued against him. He
burned it before a multitude of doctors, students, and citizens in
Wittenberg. He was excommunicated, and Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor,
convened the first Diet at Worms in 1521, before which Luther was called
to retract his teachings.

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Luther refused to relent. An order was issued
for the destruction of his books, and he was put under the ban of the
Empire. On his return from Worms he was seized, at the instigation of the
elector of Saxony, and lodged (for his own protection) in the Wartburg,
the elector's fortress. During the year he spent there, he translated the
Scriptures and composed his cogent controversial treatise, "Refutation of
the Argument of Latomus'.

Civil unrest called Luther back to Wittenberg in 1522. He rebuked
the unruly elements, and made a stand against lawlessness on the one hand,
and tyranny on the other. In the same year Luther published his
acrimonious reply to Henry VIII's attack on him in Assertio septem
sacramentorum adversus Martinum Lutherum (1521) about the nature of the
seven sacraments.

A divergence had gradually taken place also between the views of
the Humanist scholar Erasmus and Luther. There was an open breach in 1525,
when Erasmus published De libero arbitrio (1524, Discourse on Free Will),
and Luther followed with De Servo arbitrio (Concerning the Bondage of
Will). In the same year he married Katherine von Bora, a nun who had
withdrawn from convent life.

In 1529 he engaged with the controversial question of
transubstantiation in the famous conference at Marburg with Zwingli and
other Swiss theologians; he obstinately maintained his view that Christ is
present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. The drawing up of his
theological views in the Augsburg Confession (1530) by Melanchthon, ably
representing Luther at the Diet of Augsburg, marks the culmination of the
German Reformation.

Luther died in Eisleben, and was buried at Wittenberg. Endowed
with broad human sympathies, massive energy, manly and affectionate
simplicity, and a rich, if sometimes coarse, humour, he was undoubtedly a
spiritual genius. His intuitions of divine truth were bold, vivid, and
penetrating, if not necessarily philosophical and comprehensive; and he
possessed the power of kindling other souls with the fire of his own
convictions. His voluminous works include "Von den guten Wercken" (1520,
Of Good Works), and "Widder die hymelischen Propheten von den Bildern und
Sacrament".
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