Martin Luther

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Martin Luther (1483-1546) was a German theologian, the leader of the Protestant Reformation in Germany, and one of the founders of the Protestant Church which bears his name, the German Lutheran Church (Deutsche Lutherische Kirche). In English the name 'Luther' is pronounced with the 'th' as in 'thin', 'LOO-therIPA: /'luː θər/; in German it is pronounced with the 'th' as a 't', IPA: /'luː tər/.

Luther was born in Eisleben, a small town in Saxony, then part of the Holy Roman Empire. In 1501, in accordance with his father's wishes, he enrolled as a law student at the University of Erfurt but quickly found the study of law uncongenial and turned to philosophy and theology. In 1505 he entered an Augustinian friary in Erfurt, was ordained a priest.two years later, and in 1508 was invited to take up a position in the Faculty of Theology at the University of Wittenberg - a position he held for the rest of his life.

Luther's study of the Bible convinced him that salvation depends on faith alone, not on good works or acceptance of the sacraments, and this conviction in turn led to doubts about the authority of the Church - doubts which were strengthened by Luther's awareness of the widespread corruption of the clergy.

In 1517, angered by the sale of indulgences, i.e., the practice whereby individuals were promised that punishment for their sins would be remitted if they made a significant contribution to Church funds, Luther complained to his superior, the Bishop of Mainz, and nailed to the door of the church in Wittenberg a document - The Ninety-Five Theses (see also Thesis) - which stated his objections to the practice. At this stage he did not wish to set himself in oppostion to the Catholic Church but wanted the Church to reform itself. The Church, however, responded defensively, alleging that certain statements in The Ninety-Five Theses were heretical, and in 1521 Luther was summoned to appear before a Diet, i.e., a parliament of the Holy Roman Empire, in the city of Worms. When he refused to recant his views - he is famously reported to have said 'Here I stand, I can do no other' (Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders) - he was declared a heretic and an outlaw. Fortunately, Luther enjoyed the support of many members of the German nobility, who wished to restrict the power of the Pope in the territories over which they ruled, and the Elector Frederick III of Saxony gave Luther protection in the Castle at Wartburg until it was safe for him to return to Wittenberg in 1522.

On his return to Wittenberg Luther, with the assistance of a number of colleagues, set about reforming those churches that were sympathetic to his views. As parts of this task:

  • he translated the Bible into German. He had translated the New Testament in 1521-1522 in Wartburg Castle, and the translation of the Old Testament was completed, with help from other scholars, in 1534.
  • he composed a catechism in order that the laity should have an adequate understanding of the beliefs they were expected to hold.
  • he wrote many hymns. Perhaps the best known is Ein' feste Burg is unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress is Our God), the tune for which he adapted from a plainsong melody.

Although Luther was a religious revolutionary, he was cautious and conservative in social matters, and had little sympathy for the revolutionary social movements of his time. Most conspicuously, during the Peasants' War of 1524-1525, when the German peasantry rose up in protest against the harshness of their rulers, he acknowledged the justice of the peasants' complaints but insisted that this could not justify disobedience to the secular authorities.

Among the practices of the Roman Catholic Church for which Luther could find no biblical warrant was the requirement that the clergy remain celibate. In the German Church established by Luther and his colleagues the clergy were allowed to marry, and in 1525 Luther himself married Katharina von Bora (1499-1552), a former nun, with whom he had six children.

See further Augsburg Confession.

The adjective Lutheran is used to describe not only the reformer himself and events connected with him, but also various churches and sects based on his doctrines and developments from them. As a noun, it means a follower of Luther's doctrines or developments thereof.