Martin Luther

[Martin Luther]
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Leader of the 16th century religious revolt. He graduated master of philosophy at Magdeburg in 1505, and a few months later joined the Augustinians at Erfurt. In 1507 he was ordained. The following year he taught philosophy at Wittenberg while studying theology. Shortly afterwards he went to Rome, Italy; the exact object and outcome of this journey is uncertain, and the account of it written later in life is of admittedly doubtful accuracy. He returned to Wittenberg as lecturer on Scripture and subsequently was appointed district vicar. Marked changes were already noticed in his manner of life which later he attributed to the teaching of the Church regarding good works, which he entirely misrepresented. A violent reaction resulted; after having placed undue reliance on his efforts towards justification and confused concupiscence with original sin, he declared that man was hopelessly corrupt and that all his works, even those done from charitable or pious motives, were grave sins; that he could be saved by faith alone, in virtue of which God clad him as with the mantle of Christ’s merits and concealed but did not blot out sin. This new theory of justification by faith alone was later developed by Luther into the fundamental doctrine of his religious system. Luther seized on the publication of the papal Bull of Indulgences in Germany as the occasion of his break with the Holy See. The preaching of the indulgence was entrusted to Johann Tetzel, an eloquent Dominican. On 31 October 1517, Luther proclaimed his “Ninety-five Theses,” some of which were adjudged heretical by the archbishop‘s councilors. The matter was referred to Rome. Luther was summoned thither in 1518, but he did not go. Later he met Cardinal Cajetan at Augsburg, but the meeting was fruitless. He appealed from the pope to a general council as the decisive authority in doctrinal disputes, though subsequently, having injected himself into the Leipsic disputation between Eck and Carlstadt, he was forced to reject the authority of the councils for that of the Bible. In his “Babylonian Captivity” he endeavored to stir up national feeling against the pope and make a bold appeal to the sensual appetites of the populace. At this time the main points of his creed, seem to have been: the Bible is the sole rule of faith; man is totally corrupt; he lacks moral free will and all his acts, even sin, are the work of God; he is justified by believing God will save him; this faith includes a pardon of sin and all its penalties; Baptism, the Eucharist, and Penance are the only sacraments; the hierarchy and exterior worship are unnecessary; the priesthood is universal; there is no visible Church.

In 1520 Luther was excommunicated by Rome and shortly afterwards the Diet of Worms gave civil corroboration to this act. He withdrew to Wartburg Castle for a year. During his retirement (1522) he translated the New Testament into German, the Old Testament being finished in 1534. Although Luther’s work had indisputably high literary merits and has exerted a potent influence on German literature, it was an unfaithful version, containing suppressions, mistranslations, and deliberate garblings to support his own doctrines. Another treatise, “On Monastic Orders,” boldly set forth a new ethical code, asserting the irresistibility of concupiscence and the impossibility of observing continence. Luther at this time was a victim of melancholia, sensual attacks, and, according to himself, diabolical obsession. He attacked Erasmus for upholding free will, and in his “Servitude of the Will” advocated determinism. Luther’s teachings and unbridled writings had been fanning the fire of the peasants’ growing discontent, resulting in the Peasants’ War of 1525. He sounded a warning, but too late, and throwing in his lot with the princes he eloquently exhorted them “to slaughter the peasants like dogs.” At this time he married an ex-Bernardine nun, Catherine von Bora.

Luther soon proclaimed the supremacy of the princes in matters of religion, a doctrine acceptable to those longing to obtain possession of the Church revenues and property. In 1531 the Smalkaldic League, an offensive and defensive alliance of all Lutherans, was formed, and Luther, attacking George of Saxony, prepared the people for a possible revolt against the emperor. Luther’s many maladies were now bringing his life to a premature close. He vigorously denounced his closest friends, and excoriated those who dared deviate from his views. In his “Table Talk,” his pictures of his youth grow darker, dates and facts are changed, incredibilities, exaggerations, and contradictions abound, and have given rise to many legends still found in popular biographies, but now rejected by critical historians. Much of the book is unprintable. The moral corruption and intellectual decay among his followers resulting from his teachings on concupiscence and man’s lack of free will nearly drove him insane; he imagined himself the special object of the devil’s hostility. Under these influences his coarseness reached its climax in his treatises against the Jews and the papacy. Luther was interred in the Wittenberg castle church.

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