Luther Cranach, 1526

The Following is adapted from: The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. Cross, Livingstone; (OUP, 1983).

MARTIN LUTHER, founder of the German Reformation. The son of a miner at Mansfeld in Saxony,

he was educated at Magdeburg and Eisenbach, and then at Erfurt University (1501–5). His studies in the faculty of arts brought him under the influence of leading Nominalists such as Jodocus Trutvetter and Bartholomäus Arnoldi of Usingen.

In 1505 (age 22) he entered the monastery of the Augustinian Hermits at Erfurt, and was ordained priest in 1507 (age 24).

In 1508 he was sent to be professor of moral philosophy in the faculty of arts at the recently-founded University of Wittenberg, in the aftermath of university reforms which appear to have established the presence of a Nominalist faction within that faculty.

In 1510 he went to Rome on affairs of his order. (age 27)


1511 - Professor of Biblical Exegesis


Soon after his return to Wittenberg in 1511 (age 28), with the support of his superior, Johannes von Staupitz, he became a doctor of theology and professor of biblical exegesis in the university faculty of theology, retaining this position until his death.  Lectures on the Psalms - 1514 (n.b. Julius Exclusis publ same year)

In 1515 (age 32) he was made vicar of his order, an office entailing the charge of 11 Augustinian monasteries.

   Initially Luther appears to have adopted a form of biblical exegesis and theology of justification similar to that of Nominalism, allowing man a definite, if limited, role in his own justification. During the years 1512–19, however, he developed insights concerning man’s incapacity to justify himself which led him initially to modify, and then to reject, this position. He came to believe that man is unable to respond to God without divine grace, and that man can be justified only through faith (per solam fidem), by the merits of Christ imputed to him: works or religious observance are irrelevant [for salvation]. In an autobiographical fragment of 1545, Luther indicated that this theological break-through was linked with the discovery of a new understanding of ‘the righteousness of God’ (Rom. 1:17). On the basis of internal evidence within his writings of the period, this discovery is generally regarded as having taken place in the period 1514–15. It is often, though perhaps unwarrantably, referred to as the ‘Turmerlebnis’ (‘Tower Experience’). During the period 1515–19, Luther consolidated his doctrine of man’s justification before God (coram Deo), emphasizing that justification was a work of God within man. Although in many respects Luther’s theology of justification at this stage parallels that found in St Augustine’s anti-Pelagian writings, important differences emerged, esp. in relation to the nature of justifying righteousness. Parallels have also been noted with the writings of J. Tauler and the Theologia Germanica (which Luther edited in 1516 and 1518). In April 1517 Carlstadt (then dean of the faculty of theology at Wittenberg) lent his support to Luther, after a close reading of Augustine’s De Spiritu et Littera, with the result that by March 1518 the Wittenberg faculty of theology was committed to a program of theological reform based on ‘the Bible and St Augustine’.


Oct. 31, 1517 - The Ninety-Five Theses


On 31 Oct. 1517 (age 34) Luther’s 95 theses on indulgences were posted on the door of the castle church at Wittenberg. They were written largely in response to the preaching of J. Tetzel on the indulgences granted by Leo X for contributions towards the renovation of St Peter’s in Rome. Although possessing the status of a purely academic disputation, and stating little that was exceptionable or radical, given the variety of opinions on the subject at the time, the theses came to be viewed as a manifesto of reform, and attracted considerable attention throughout Germany within weeks of their publication - [publication without Luther's knowledge or consent.]


April 1518 - Heidelberg Disputation impresses Bucer and Augustinians


In April 1518 Luther defended his position in the Heidelberg Disputation, held during a meeting of the chapter of his order; he won over several of his brethren and the Dominican M. Bucer.

Meanwhile the Dominicans awarded Tetzel a doctorate and encouraged him to defend his approach to indulgences in writing.  Luther responded with the Resolutions Concerning the Ninety-Five Theses, noting:

1. Poeitentiam agite [Vulgate: do penance] is not the same as metanoeite [Erasmus' Greek: repent]

2. Before Gregory the Great the Latin Church was not above the Greek Church.  What if [...]

AS WELL AS (in sermons printed as pamphlets and eagerly disseminated without his permission ):

3. Excommunication affects only external communion with the Church, not with God or His grace

4. Bishops who excommunicate over money matters should not be obeyed


August 7, 1518 - Luther Summoned to Rome within 60 Days


Papal theologian and censor Sylvester Prierias considers the 95 theses of Luther and within three days composed his Dialogos in praesumptuosas Martini Lutheri conclusiones de potestate papae. In August, 1518, Luther was tried in absentia in Rome, declared a Son of Perdition, and on August 7 given sixty days to appear in Rome on charges of heresy. 


October 1518 - Diet of Augsburg - Luther flees by night


Through the influence of the Elector Frederick III of Saxony the case was tacitly transferred to Germany.  Luther was summoned in October (1518) before Cardinal Cajetan at Augsburg following a meeting of the Diet. Refusing to recant, he fled to Wittenberg under the protection of the Elector.


November 1518 - Cum Postquam clarifies Indulgences


On November 9 Pope Leo issues Cum Postquam, clarifying the disputed points concerning indulgences:

1. Indulgences apply only to penalty and not to guilt;

2. Guilt must first have been remitted through the Sacrament of Penance

3. Only the temporal pains of earth and purgatory may be remitted

3a. The Pope has complete power over the earthly penalties he imposes

3b. In regard to the penalties of Purgatory the Pope may only present to God - by way of petition - the superfluous merits of Christ and the saints

On November 28 Luther lodged with a notary an appeal to a future General Council.


January 12, 1519 Emperor Maximilian (who had eagerly urged Luther's condemnation) dies.  Elector Frederick (Luther's patron) become a pivotal player in the contest for Emperor: The Pope fears both the King of France and Maximillian's nephew, Charles of Spain: either would be a tremendous consolidation of power that could threaten Rome.


Jan.-Oct. 1519 - Miltitz Negotiates and Atempts Compromise


Negotiations with the Papal camerarius, C. von Miltitz (January-October, 1519) become conciliatory (involving a promised golden rose and hints of a cardinalitial nomination to Frederick).   Tetzel was made scapegoat, condemned, and retired to a convent to die of chargrin.  This elicited from Luther nothing more than a promise that he would remain silent if his opponents did likewise.  Luther pointed out that the was "not  a word of scripture" in Cum Postquam.


July 1519 - Leipzig Disputation with Eck


Through the influence of Duke George of Saxony Luther and Johannes Eck, Professor of Theology at Ingolstadt, literate and learned pamphlet-opponent of Luther,  confronted each other at the Leipzig Disputation in July, 1519.

In March Luther had confided disquieting suspicions concerning the pope as antichrist.  At the Disputation Eck is able to manipulate Luther into denying both[:]

the primacy of the Pope and

the infallibility of General Councils.

By this time Luther was the object of considerable admiration in humanist circles, being ‘productively misunderstood’ as sharing the humanist concern for the institutional and moral reform of the Church.

Acc. to Bucer and others, Luther and Erasmus differed only in the extent to which they voiced their views. Recent scholarship has drawn attention to the way in which the humanist movement expanded what was initially little more than an academic debate into an international cause célèbre.


To The German Nobility; Babylonian Captivity; Freedom of Christian


In 1520 (age 37) Luther’s programme of reform was further consolidated by a direct appeal to the German people to take the initiative in reforming the Church. Three major reforming treatises were published.

[1.] The first, An den christlichen Adel deutscher Nation, addressed to the German princes, laid the foundations for a programme of lay reform by rejecting the distinction between the ‘spiritual’ and ‘temporal’ orders, by insisting on:

[1] the right to challenge the Pope on the interpretation of Scripture, and

[2] the right of the laity to summon a reforming General Council.

[3] It encouraged the princes to abolish
   tributes to Rome,
   the celibacy of the clergy,
   Masses for the dead, and many other Catholic practices and institutions.


[2.] This was followed by De Captivitate Babylonica Ecclesiae (pub. in Latin and German, Von der babylonischen Gefangenschaft der Kirche); here Luther criticized the subjection of the laity to the institution of the Church which he particularly identified with
   the denial to the laity of Communion in both kinds,
   the doctrine of transubstantiation,
   and the Sacrifice of the Mass,

and only Baptism and the Eucharist were recognized as possessing sacramental character.

[3.] In the final work of the trilogy, Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen, the liberation of the Christian from a ‘bondage of works’ through his justification was enthusiastically proclaimed. The cumulative effect of these treatises was considerable.

Even before they were published, however, Luther was condemned in the bull ‘Exsurge Domine’ of 12 June 1520, which censured 41 theses drawn from his works to date. Luther replied by burning the bull, along with many Catholic books; this action led to his excommunication by the bull ‘Decet Romanum Pontificem’ of 3 Jan. 1521.





May 26, 1521 - Diet of Worms and Imperial Condemnation - To WARTBURG


In the aftermath of this excommunication, Luther was summoned before the Diet of Worms, where he refused to recant (acc. to an early but unreliable tradition, in the famous words ‘Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders’, ‘Here I stand, I can do no other’).

On 26 May 1521 his teachings were formally condemned in the Edict of Worms and Luther was put under the ban of the Empire.

Fearing for his safety, the Elector of Saxony arranged for Luther to be abducted in June to the Wartburg, near Eisenach, where he spent the next eight months under the pseudonym ‘Junker Georg’. In many respects, this was one of the most constructive periods of Luther’s career, witnessing the beginning of his translation of the Bible into German, of which the NT was published in Sept. 1522. His important attack on Jacobus Latomus, in which Luther’s views on the relation of grace and faith are explained with some brilliance, also dates from this period.


March 6, 1522 - Return to Wittenburg

In his absence, however, the situation at Wittenberg had deteriorated, with radical elements (such as the ‘Zwickau Prophets’), recently joined by Carlstadt, causing religious anarchy. Luther was obliged to return to Wittenberg on 6 March 1522, and to restore order with the assistance of the secular authorities. In this period of liturgical reform and consolidation Luther issued the Formula Missae et Communionis (1523), an important pamphlet explaining the new Protestant rite and clarifying his attitude to the Eucharist; in the following year the first Wittenberg hymnal (incl. four of Luther’s own compositions) appeared.

Having already abandoned many Catholic practices, incl. private Masses and fasts, since leaving the Wartburg, Luther finally discarded his Augustinian habit in 1524.


1525 - Marriage and Peasant's War

After the death of the Elector, who had remained hostile to the marriage of priests and religious, he married the former Cistercian nun, Katharina von Bora, on 13 June 1525.

In the same year Luther’s pamphlet advising the German princes to wage war against the peasants who had risen in arms appeared; this cost him the sympathies of a section of the population.


1. Every town and village shall be entitled to elect and to dismiss its preacher if he misbehaves. The preacher shall preach the gospel simply, straight and clear, without any human additions, for it is written that we can only attain God through true faith.

2. The preachers shall be paid from the great tithe. Any surplus shall be used to help the village poor and pay the war tax. The small tithe shall be abolished, for it was invented by humans, for the Lord, our God, created livestock free for mankind.

3. Until now it has been practice that we have been treated like serfs, which is deplorable, since Christ redeemed all of us with his precious blood, both the shepherd and the nobleman, with no exceptions. Accordingly we hereby declare that we are free and want to remain free.

4. It is unbrotherly and not in accordance with the word of God that the poor man is not entitled to hunt game or fowl, or to fish. Since when God our Lord created man, he gave him power over all beasts, the birds in the air and the fish in the water.

5. The nobles have taken sole possession of the forest. When the poor man needs something, he must buy it for twice its price. Consequently, all the forests that were not bought (meaning former community forests, which many rulers had simply appropriated) shall be returned to the village so that anybody can satisfy his needs therefrom for timber and firewood.

6. The excessive compulsory labor demanded of us, which grows from day to day, should be reduced to the amount that our parents used to perform, according to God's word.

7. The nobility shall not force us to perform more compulsory labor than was agreed upon. (It was common for nobles to raise unilaterally the compulsory labor they demanded of their serfs.)

8. Many fields cannot produce enough to pay the rent demanded for them. Honest men shall inspect these lands and set a fair amount of rent for them, so that farmers need not work for free, because each day's work deserves its pay.

9. New laws are constantly being made to impose new fines. Punishments are not being meted out depend on the offence but instead in an arbitrary fashion (raising fines and arbitrary judgments were common). In our opinion we should be judged in accordance with the old written law, according to the case's merits, instead of on a whim.

10. Many [nobles] have appropriated meadows and fields belonging to the towns (commons, which were at the disposal of all townspeople). We want them returned to all of us in common.

11. The “Todfall” (a sort of inheritance tax) shall be abolished altogether and never again shall widows and orphans be shamefully robbed contrary to God and honor.

12. It is our decision and final opinion that if one or more of the articles listed herein contradict God's word ... we shall rescind them if it is explained to us on the basis of what is written. If any articles were already granted to us and it emerges afterwards that they were unjust, then they shall be null and void. Likewise, all this is subject to the condition that if additional articles are found here written that are against God and a grievance by some other person.

From: Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants LUTHER - 1525

Therefore, dear lords, here is a place where you can release, rescue, help. Have mercy on these poor people [whom the peasants have compelled to join them]. Stab, smite, slay, whoever can. If you die in doing it, well for you! A more blessed death can never be yours, for you die obeying the divine Word and commandment in Romans XIII, and in loving service of your neighbor, whom you are rescuing from the bonds of hell and of the devil. And so I beg everyone who can to flee from the peasants as from the devil himself; those who do not flee, I pray that God will enlighten and convert. As for those who are not to be converted, God grant that they may have neither fortune nor success. To this let every pious Christian say Amen! For this prayer is right and good, and pleases God; this I know. If anyone think this too hard, let him remember that rebellion is intolerable and that the destruction of the world is to be expected every hour.

 His open attack on Erasmus in De Servo Arbitrio (1525) exposed the tension between them, causing some embarrassment to the more humanist of the Wittenberg Reformers, such as P. Melanchthon (even though U. Zwingli had independently set out what were to be the main elements of Luther’s attack in a work published earlier the same year, but not known to the German Reformer).

The religious and political situation, however, continued to favor the spread of Luther’s views. The use of the vernacular in the liturgy (the Deutsche Messe was published in 1526), in the public reading of the Bible, and in the singing of hymns, all served to further Luther’s end.

His work was considerably facilitated by the Diet of Speyer (1526), which established the right of the princes to organize national Churches.


1529 - Marburg Colloquy

At this time, however, the differences between the Lutheran and Reformed wings of the Reformation became increasingly evident, esp. in relation to sacramental theology. At the Colloquy of Marburg (1529) the deep division between Luther and Zwingli over the nature of the Presence of Christ in the Eucharist proved unbridgeable: Luther argued that after consecration the substances both of the Body and Blood of Christ and of the bread and wine coexist in union with each other (‘consubstantiation’), Zwingli that the Presence of Christ was purely symbolic (or, perhaps, at best pneumatic).


1530 - Diet of Augsburg and Augsburg Confession

Although Luther was unable to be present at the Diet of Augsburg (1530) on account of the ban of the Empire, he lent his approval to the comparatively conciliatory ‘Augsburg Confession (Confessio Augustana)’, drawn up by Melanchthon, which established the doctrinal basis of the Lutheran Church.

The renewal of the Eucharistic controversy within Lutheranism itself in the 1540s, in addition to the continued tension between the Lutheran and Reformed wings of the Reformation, illustrates how serious this division would prove to be. The final years of Luther’s life were marked by controversy, arising over such matters as his covert approval of the bigamous marriage of Philip of Hesse and the appointment of Nikolaus von Amsdorf as Bp. of Naumburg in 1541.

Luther died on 18 Feb. 1546 and was buried in the castle church at Wittenberg. The rumour that his body had been disinterred and reburied in a field during the Schmalkaldic War was finally silenced through its recovery during the restoration of the castle church on 14 Feb. 1892.

Apart from his three treatises of 1520, Luther published a considerable number of works, mostly small occasional pamphlets, with no attempt at a systematic elaboration of his doctrine, and prone to frequent lapses into personal abuse of his opponents. His passionate reply to Henry VIII’s Defence of the Seven Sacraments, entitled Contra Henricum Regem Anglicanum (1522), lost him the sympathies of England. But several such works are of importance. In De Servo Arbitrio (1525) Luther defended his radical views on the impotence of the human free will against the criticisms of Erasmus in De Libero Arbitrio. His pedagogical works, Kleiner Katechismus and Grosser Katechismus (both 1529) heightened the attraction of the Reformation for humanists, allowing them to regard the movement as fundamentally educational. His abilities as a biblical commentator are perhaps best seen from the 1535 Galatians commentary. A more informal, and perhaps rather inaccurate, view of the Reformer may be gained from the Tischreden (records of conversations over Luther’s dinner table in the period 1529–45). Many of his German hymns, an important means of disseminating the ideas of the Reformation among the people, are still in general use, the most celebrated being ‘Ein feste burg ist unser Gott’ (Eng. tr., ‘A Might Fortress is Our God’, EH 362), prob. written in 1528.

Luther’s distinctive ideas were considerably modified by the Lutheran Church after his death, with the Formula of Concord (1577) explicitly rejecting some of the ideas defended by Luther in De Servo Arbitrio (e.g. the doctrine of double predestination, and of God as auctor peccati). In the 20th cent., however, Luther’s ‘theologia crucis’ has been reappropriated, esp. by theologians such as Jürgen Moltmann and Eberhard Jüngel, as a fruitful way of exploring the nature of God’s presence in and dealings with the world. In CW, feast day, 31 Oct.

The standard critical edn. of Luther’s works is the ‘Weimarer Ausgabe’ in some 100 vols. (Weimar, 1883 ff.; text completed 1983, though since 1963 some works in the edition have been re-edited; indexes to vols. 1–60, 1986 ff.). Its four sections contain his writings and lectures, the Tischreden, his correspondence, and material on his tr. of the Bible. Selected docs. on his intellectual development to 1519 in O. Scheel, Dokumente zu Luthers Entwicklung (2nd edn., Sammlung ausgewählter kirchen- und dogmengeschichtlicher Quellenschriften, NF 2; Tübingen, 1929). Standard Eng. tr. of Luther’s Works [not exhaustive], ed. J. Pelikan and H. T. Lehmann (54 vols. + introd., St Louis and Philadelphia, 1955–76).

Modern historical and biographical studies incl. G. [G. B.] Ritter, Luther: Gestalt und Tod (1925; 6th edn., 1959; Eng. tr., 1963); J. Mackinnon, Luther and the Reformation (4 vols., 1925–30); E. G. Schwiebert, Luther and his Times (St Louis [1950]); R. H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (1951); A. G. Dickens, The German Nation and Martin Luther (1974); H. Bornkamm, Martin Luther in der Mittes seines Leben (posthumously ed. K. Bornkamm, Göttingen, 1979; Eng. tr., 1983); H. G. Haile, Luther: A Biography (New York, 1980; London, 1981); M. Lienhard, Martin Luther: Un temps, une vie, un message (1983); H. Junghans (ed.), Leben und Werk Martin Luthers von 1526 bis 1546: Festgabe zu seinem 500. Geburtstag (2 vols., 1983). M. Brecht, Martin Luther (3 vols., Stuttgart, 1981–7, Eng. tr., vol. 1, Philadelphia, vols. 2–4, Minneapolis, 1985–93).

On his theology, there is a classic work by K. Holl, Gesammelte Aufsätze, Bd. 1: Luther (1921); Bd. 3: Der Westen (1928), pp. 130–243. More recent studies incl. P. S. Watson, Let God be God! An Interpretation of the Theology of Martin Luther (1947); [E.] G. Rupp, The Righteousness of God: Luther Studies (Birkbeck Lectures, 1947; 1953); G. Ebeling, Luther: Einführung in sein Denken (Tübingen, 1964; Eng. tr., 1970); and B. Lohse, Luthers Theologie in ihrer historischen Entwicklung und in ihrem systematischen Zusammenhang (Göttingen, 1995; Eng. tr., 1999). Seminal essays on specific doctrines by W. von Loewenich, Luthers Theologia Crucis (Munich, 1929; 4th edn., 1954; Eng. tr., Belfast, 1976); R. Prenter, Spiritus Creator: Studier i Luthers Teologi (Copenhagen, 1944; 2nd edn., 1946; Eng. tr., Philadelphia, 1953); H. Sasse, This is my Body: Luther’s Contention for the Real Presence in the Sacrament of the Altar (Minneapolis [1959]; rev. edn., Adelaide, 1977); E. Bizer, Fides ex auditu: Eine Untersuchungen über die Entdeckung der Gerechtigkeit Gottes durch Martin Luther (Neukirchen, 1958; 3rd edn., 1966); I. D. K. Siggins, Martin Luther’s Doctrine of Christ (1970); G. Ebeling, Lutherstudien (3 vols. in 4, Tübingen, 1971–85); M. Lienhard, Luther, témoin de Jésus-Christ (1973; Eng. tr., Minneapolis, 1982); H. A. Oberman, Luther: Mensch zwischen Gott und Teufel (1982; Eng. tr., Luther: Man between God and the Devil, New Haven and London [1989]). A. E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross: Martin Luther’s Theological Breakthrough (Oxford, 1985); H.-M. Gutmann, Über Liebe und Herrschaft: Luthers Verständnis von Intimität und Autorität im Kontext des Zivilisationsprozesses (Göttinger theologische Arbeiten, 47 [1991]; G. Ebeling, Luthers Seelsorge: Theologie in der Vielfalt der Lebenssituationen an seinen Briefen dargestellt [1997].

Full bibl. of the vast lit. is provided in the authoritative Jahrbuch der Luther-Gesellschaft (1919; from 1920 Luther-Jahrbuch) and a shorter account in the annual Literaturberichte of the Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte (1903 ff.). M. Brecht and others in TRE 21 (1991), pp. 514–94, s.v., with extensive bibl.


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