Martin Luther and the 95 Theses
Martin Luther was born in 1483 in Eisleben, Germany. He died in 1546. His father, Hans, had risen from the peasant class to become the owner of a copper mine. Determined to advance his family, Hans decided to ensure that his son had a good education. After having attended preparatory schools, when he was seventeen Martin Luther was sent to study at the University of Erfurt in 1501. Evidently a proficient student, he received his bachelor's degree in 1502. He received his masters degree three years later. He then enrolled in law school.
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Yet Martin Luther was not destined to become a lawyer. In a scene reminiscent of the Apostle Paul on the Road to Damascus, Luther was nearly struck by lightning. He swore to St. Anne that if he was preserved he would become a monk. It was said that his new career choice was a reluctant one. Yet once he became a monk, he dedicated himself to it whole-heartedly. In 1507 he became an ordained priest. It was said of him that he was so intense and introspective (doubting his own worthiness) that his superior ordered him to work in an academic career to keep him from reflecting so much on himself.
In 1508 Martin Luther became a professor at the University of Wittenburg. In 1512 he became a doctor of theology. All of the study and thought that Luther did in order to achieve his degrees gave him intimate knowledge of scripture. In the course of this he had come to the conclusion that good works were not necessary for a person to achieve salvation. He believed that a person could commune directly with God and achieve everlasting life in heaven by faith alone. Luther felt so strongly that he decided to challenge the established church on this issue.
It was in 1517 that Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of Wittenburg Cathedral. The posting was a challenge to anyone to debate him publicly. The 95 Theses were a 95 point argument against the sale of indulgences. An indulgence was the papal granting of the remission of sins. Luther believed that divine forgiveness could only be granted by God. The church had been selling indulgences as a way to finance a lavish court in Rome. At this point in history, the church had deviated somewhat from its primary mission, which was to save souls.
The text of the 95 Theses was spread throughout Europe by means of pamphlets. Pope Leo X felt that Martin Luther's arguments were a threat to the church. The Holy Roman Emperor called a meeting at a place called Worms - pronounced "vorms" - which comes down through history as the Diet of Worms. (A "diet" - pronounced dee-yet - is a meeting of a governing body.) Martin Luther was summoned and in 1521 he was called upon to renounce his arguments. Luther refused and was declared an outlaw by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.
On his way home from the diet, Luther was "kidnapped" by a benefactor, Frederick the Wise, the Elector of Saxony. He was kept in a castle in Wartburg for about a year for his own protection. He worked on a translation of the Bible into German. He felt the common people should have access to biblical texts. From the castle, Luther corresponded with authorities and scholars all over Germany. In 1522 he returned to Wittenburg at the request of the city council. In part he returned in order to reign in the chaos which was fomenting in the wake of his publications. He was especially adamant that rebellion against the state be squelched. He was distressed that rebels were using his name in an attempt to overthrow local governments.
In the course of this time a new church was developing which would come to be named after the theologian. The Lutheran Church was becoming the established church in many places in northern Germany and even in Scandinavia - especially Sweden. One of the changes in church rules made by Luther was that in the Lutheran Church priests were allowed to marry. Luther himself married. His wife, Katharina von Bora, had been a young nun. It appears to have been a happy marriage. She bore him six children.
Luther worked in conjunction with state authorities in order to form his new church - especially in Saxony with the new ruler, John the Steadfast. While some of the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church was maintained, congregations were given the ability to choose their own ministers. Luther then spent a large part of the rest of his life building and running the new Church. He wrote documents on church governance. He created a complete translation of the Bible into German. He even wrote many hymns, some of which are still sung in churches today, including A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.
On the negative side, Luther became involved in a controversy when the Landgrave of Hesse wished to marry multiple wives. Luther is thought to have advised him to keep the second marriage a secret. Of course, the incident became public and Luther's reputation was tarnished. The great reformer also wrote several polemics against Jews, encouraging their mal-treatment.
Luther's declining years were marked by several illnesses including cataracts, tinnitus, vertigo, kidney stones, and arthritis. Nevertheless, he continued to work to grow his church. He became hugely influential in Germany and may have been the most read author of his age. He died in 1546. He was significant because the break between the Protestant Church and the Catholic Church began with his acts. Protestant Christian churches continue to splinter even to our present age.
Fragmenting churches was hardly what Luther had in mind at the beginning of his career. His intent had been to reform the institution from within. When this seemed impossible, he branched out on his own with the support of secular governments in northern Germany. Ironically, his work would ultimately have the desired effect on the Catholic Church. The reformer, Pope Paul III, arose as a response to Luther's reformation. He would re-orient the Catholic Church, ridding it of the abuses which had arisen from years of Feudal stagnation.
Luther would leave a great legacy. The Lutheran Church would arise to be a powerful cultural force in Germany, Scandinavia, and even the United States. It remains a widely practiced religion. His writings, sermons, and hymns are still read, sung, and discussed to this day.
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