On Halloween day, in 1517, Martin Luther publicly questioned the authority of the Catholic Church by posting his Ninety-five Theses or Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences for all to see in his hometown of Wittenburg. Luther’s actions, which unleashed the Protestant Reformation, make him a controversial figure to this day. To Protestants, Luther was a wise man, perhaps even a saint or a prophet. To many Catholics, however, Luther was a detrimental scourge that forever weakened the church and led astray the Christian faithful. Nevertheless, both sides can agree that Luther brought about a massive wave of change in both Protestant and Catholic churches.
Luther came from a family of average wealth, but his father, Hans Luther, earned enough money from his occupation as a smeltermaster to allow Martin Luther to receive an in-depth education. In his early schooling, he was introduced to the Greek and Roman Classics. Under the orders of his father, Martin Luther attended the University of Erfurt, in which he achieved a Bachelor of Arts and Master’s Degree. Hans Luther wanted his son to become a lawyer, but his son, Martin, had different plans.
There are conflicting theories as to what influenced Luther to pursue a monastic life, but a lightning storm or the death an acquaintance are the most popular stories among scholars. According to Lindberg, Luther joined the Black Cloister of the Observant Augustinians in 1505. The man he confessed to during his early days as a monk, Johann von Staupitz, encouraged Luther to study theology. He gained his doctorate 1512. In theology, Martin Luther found his true calling, and he became a astoundingly prolific writer.
Luther first started teaching at the Augustinian university in Wittenberg around 1513 or 1514. He was a professor of biblical interpretation. Luther’s favorite books of the Bible were Psalms, the Gospel of John, and the letters of St. Paul, but he received his most important revelation from Romans—“He who through faith is righteous shall live” (Romans 1:17) and “He forgives sin” (Romans 3:25). Martin Luther went on to write countless sermons, letters, essays, commentaries and meditations on his interpretation of the Bible.
With the publication of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, the Protestant theologian made many friends and enemies. He inspired other Protestant figures such as John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli and John Knox, but he also outraged and appalled Catholic men like Thomas More and Desiderius Erasmus. Luther’s interpretation of the Bible was not only debated with words, but also touted as a reason for independence. Kings used Luther’s interpretation to separate from the Pope’s authority, and emperors found their princes and vassals joining together in Protestant leagues. Martin Luther’s words and writings were powerful, but Europe’s response to his ideas was more dramatic than Luther could have imagined.
Written by c. Keith Hansley
- Carter Lindberg. The European Reformations (Second Edition). Massachusetts: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.
- A Reformation Reader: Primary Texts with Introductions, edited by Denis R. Janz. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.