On All Saints Eve 1517, Martin Luther nailed ninety-five theses on the doors of the castle church in Wittenberg for discussion and debate. Luther had not intended on arousing such a furious response from even Pope Leo X himself, but merely wished to bring the sale of indulgences into subjection to his conception of the Pope's intentions, as is apparent in his 91st thesis: "If, therefore, indulgences were preached according to the spirit and intention of the pope, all these doubts [the complaints of the laity] would be readily resolved. Indeed, they would not exist." As Luther broadened his research however, it became clear that his views of the Pope and Scripture could not be reconciled. He began writing against the Pope himself, and this would lead him and millions of Protestant followers down a path of separation and independence. The influence of Protestantism in undeniable in the founding of the United States, as Pilgrim and Puritan emigration from Europe was a direct result of the Protestant theological Reformation. Luther's 95 Theses became the unintentional tinderbox.
Martin Luther was born a peasant on November 10, 1483 to Hans and Magarete Luder in Eisleben in Saxony-Anhalt, Germany (Martin later changed his last name to "Luther"). Being a copper miner, Hans knew that mining was a dull life, and desired that his son have better opportunities. Hans thought that the law profession would suit his son better, and sent young Martin to a school in Mansfeld, where Martin learned Latin. At the age of 18, Martin entered the University of Erfurt, and studyed law. While at Erfurt, a thunderstorm changed Martin's life. On his way back from his visiting his parents, a thunderbolt ripped so near Martin that it threw him to the ground. In his despair he swore, "St. Anne Help me! I will become a monk!". Accordingly, he joined the Mendicant order of Augustinian monks at the Black Monastery (Erfurt) in 1505, much to his father's dismay. Ironically, Luther's insecurities would become even more insecure in this secure, solitary environment.
Luther was a man of doubt and self-examination. At the monastery, the reiteration of God's judgment became all consuming, as his sins became more obvious to him. The Church offered penance and confessions as methods for reconciliation and restoration, and Luther used all of these methods in extreme (including confession, fasting, and flagellation) without receiving any self-fulfilling assurance from such practices. Meanwhile, he threw himself into his studies, and in 1507 was ordained a priest. The same year, Luther began studying Theology at the University of Erfurt, and in 1512, after receiving his doctorate degree, began lecturing on the Psalms, Romans, Galatians and Hebrews at Wittenberg. While reading the book of Romans, Luther stumbled upon this passage, "For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, 'The one who is righteous will live by faith'" (Romans 1:17). This was the moment of his realization; the awareness in the rediscovery of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. At last, the pearly gates appeared closer than ever, and the God who had before seemed judgmental also seemed gracious. Luther was at long last at peace.
1514 was a tumultuous time in Germany. The Dominican monk, Johann Tetzel's policy of selling Pope Leo X's indulgences to finance the construction of St. Peter's basilica in Rome became disastrous for Luther. These indulgences were certificates that claimed eternal salvation for whoever bought them or for deceased friends and family. Members of Luther's church would cross over to Tetzel's jurisdiction to buy indulgences in order to live the way they wanted to without fear of condemnation. This infuriated Luther, who saw these indulgences as a mockery of the Pope and God Himself. Luther promptly began preaching against the misuse of indulgences, and in 1517 he wrote his 95 Theses. His plan was to inspire debate among intellectuals, and in so doing reform the system, but his playing field actually became much bigger than he had imagined when the Theses caught like wildfire among the peasantry of Germany (due to the fairly new invention of the printing press), and later, along with many of Luther's other works, over all of Europe. The German princes loved the Theses, as they saw it as a wedge with which to broaden their own powers at the Pope's expense. As Luther grew in his conviction of salvation by faith alone, he began writing more scathing works on the Pope's indulgences. Luther's teachings had caused such a ruckus that they eventually reached the Pope himself, and on July 15, 1520, Luther received a Papal Bull of Excommunication which gave him sixty days to recant. On that same day, Luther burned the Pope's Bull, alienating him forever from the Roman Church.
In 1521, the German princes gave him safe conduct to Worms, where they believed that Luther would be given the chance to be reconciled with Rome one last time. Upon reaching this council (called the Diet of Worms), Luther was given the blunt demand to recant his statements. Rome wasn't kidding, nor was it about to compromise with heretics. Luther, quite taken back, requested a day to consider. After reflecting, Luther's resolve was humble yet sure:
Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason - I do not accept the authority of the Popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other - my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.Luther was then rushed out of Worms by an arranged "kidnapping" to Wartburg Castle in Eisenach, where he hid from his immediate pursuers.
While in exile, Luther kept writing. He even began translated the entire Bible into the German vernacular for mass circulation. Luther returned to Wittenberg in 1522, resuming his teaching, and began preaching the Gospel all over Germany in 1524. On June 27, 1525, he married Katharina von Bora (1499-1552), who was a former nun. The Luthers had six children together. Luther died peacefully on February 18,1546 in Eisleben.
An Undeniable Influence
Martin Luther's work ushered in a modern era of independence, yet the observer must not confuse Luther as being a revolutionary. Indeed, when his writings inspired the Peasants War from 1524-1526, Luther was quick to condemn the rebellion, and reaffirm the legitimacy of the nobility. However, the new wine could not be contained in the old wineskins, and eventually European Protestants everywhere began evaluating all of life through the Bible. "Sola Scriptura" was their cry ("only Scripture"). The influence of Protestantism on the American patriot movement was so strong that King George III called the American War a "Presbyterian Rebellion." Luther's hammer on the doors of the Wittenberg church did not just merely question church practice; it tolled the beginning of our modern world.
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