A Brief Look at Martin Luther
In the spirit of the five hundredth anniversary of the traditionally recognized start of the Protestant Reformation on October 31, 1517, I thought it would be worthwhile to take a brief look at the impact and legacy of Martin Luther. More than any other figure of his time, he was the catalyst of a sweeping reform movement that would eventually spread across Europe and beyond, forever altering the institution of the church and the theology of the church, as well as the geographical landscape of much of Europe even a hundred years after his death. Moreover, Luther’s unshakable convictions regarding the Word of God and the gospel of Christ came at a great cost, first to himself and later to others. The wrath of the Pope, the Catholic Church authorities, and the Holy Roman Emperor had little sympathy for this German monk and scholar from Wittenberg who was causing such a social, ecclesiastical, and theological earthquake.
Looking back on that otherwise typical October day in 1517 when Luther posted his 95 theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, his intention was merely to spark a debate over the selling of indulgences, and hopefully facilitate some much-needed reforms. It certainly was not to break away from the church or to cause a revolution in the church and society. Yet once the chain of events following Luther’s protest began to unfold, many of which were beyond his control, it became inevitable that there would be no turning back. Thus, Luther’s initial quest for a scholarly and spirited debate would ultimately usher in both a Protestant Reformation and a Catholic Counter-Reformation, the effects of which are still being felt today.
This article comprises three parts: Luther’s faith, Luther’s reform, and Luther’s breach, followed by some concluding thoughts.
Part 1: Luther’s faith
The first key event in Luther’s adult life was when, after earning his Master of Arts degree at the University of Erfurt in 1505, he narrowly escaped death during a severe lightning storm. He believed this was a sign and favor from God, causing him to change his career plans from studying law to instead becoming an Augustinian monk, even over his family’s objections. Thus, forsaking a career in the law, as an Augustinian monk Luther immersed himself in theological and philosophical studies, and within a year became a priest, and then within a couple of years starting teaching at the University of Wittenberg. Eventually, Luther’s continual studies in theology, Greek and Hebrew, and the Bible allowed him to earn his Doctor of Theology degree at Wittenberg in 1512.
As additional background regarding Luther’s education and religious training, it’s important to note that Luther, along with many Catholic theologians and teachers in the medieval universities of his day, were taught and influenced in the Scholastic tradition. Scholasticism was a particular intellectual movement during the late “Middle Ages” and was characterized by the attempt by theologians and philosophers to provide rational justifications for religious beliefs. It wasn’t so much a system of thought in its own right, but rather a method of doing theology and the process of organizing and systematizing beliefs and arguments. The most notable of the Scholastic theologians were St. Anselm in the eleventh century and St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century.
One hallmark of the Scholastic movement was its emphasis on Natural Theology and Natural Revelation, as opposed to Special Revelation (the Bible), mysticism, and blind acceptance of tradition. Critics of the Scholastic movement deemed it too philosophically oriented, too rigid, and often disconnected from the truths of the Bible. For some, it positively complemented the revelation of the Bible and the theological tradition; but for others, it had a tendency to deviate from the Bible, placing too much emphasis on man’s wisdom rather than God’s wisdom. This would come to have an impact on Luther.
It is against the backdrop of this intellectual and religious climate that Luther’s thought – and faith – would be significantly challenged in an unforeseen, dark direction, but would eventually solidify due to his fervent study of the Scriptures and his awakening by the Holy Spirit sometime in 1514, following years of spiritual struggle and spiritual darkness. The darkness that had plagued Luther was characterized by an earnest – even agonizing – desire to please God and seek His righteousness, yet only to find himself fearing the justice of God, feeling condemned by God, and feeling forsaken by God.
It was during Luther’s first lecture series on the Psalms beginning in 1513, as the chair of Biblical studies at Wittenberg, where Luther’s diligent study of the Scriptures began to shed the light of truth on the spiritual darkness that he felt in his soul. As the late Luther scholar Roland Bainton described:
For Luther, this was a breakthrough in his understanding of the gospel of Christ, and it began to change the way he viewed many of the doctrines and traditions he had inherited in his theological training. Following his studies and lectures in the Psalms, Luther experienced another breakthrough during his subsequent lecture series on the book of Romans. It was during this period that Luther came to understand in a new way what the apostle Paul meant by the righteousness of God that is revealed – a righteousness that is by faith from first to last (in Rom. 1:17). As the late church historian Geoffrey Bromiley explained:
This new understanding of the righteousness of God was another turning point for Luther, since the apostle Paul was conveying that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the repentant sinner by faith alone – not by works. Thus, the believing sinner is legally declared “not guilty” since he is made righteous in God’s sight due to Christ’s righteousness being transferred to him. This is the essence of justification. As a just and righteous judge, God through the death of His Son, justifies and declares righteous those sinners who come to true faith in Christ. Luther’s renewed understanding of Rom. 1:17 profoundly influenced his view of justification, which is one of his towering legacies to the Evangelical church. For Luther personally, the truth of the gospel finally freed him from the spiritual darkness he had endured for so long. As he would later declare, “The Church’s true treasure is the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
This article is Part 1 of 3.
Dan is a Consultant Business Systems Analyst at HSBC in Arlington Heights, IL. Dan is also a founding member and deacon at Redeemer Fellowship in St. Charles, IL. Dan is married to Stephanie, and they have three children: Joseph, Daniel and Grace.