Truly a Man for All Seasons

Today is the 500th anniversary of the first declaration of an individual’s right to speak out his/her own conscience, in the Western World. Although no one can confirm these words categorically (that this is the first declaration of an expression of an individual's right to express his/her mind against the prevailing authority), but if we judge the aftermath of the event, however, we can verify that Martin Luther (Nov 10 1483-Feb 18 1546) might be responsible for initiating the freedom of self expression that we take for granted today. 

Luther, an Augustinian monk, nailed his petition of Ninety-Five Theses on the door at the Cathedral in Wittenberg, Germany, October 31, 1517. He was condemning the abuses he saw in the Catholic Church which, among other things, was selling indulgences, promising poor, trusting peasants forgiveness for their sins. The Church was using the monies collected to build St. Peter's Cathedral.  Luther's position, after extensive Biblical studies, was that there was no place in Scripture where it was said that the faithful had to perform any deed, or buy any piece of paper to gain forgiveness. God's grace and a person's faith was all that was needed. 

Luther was a scholar.  He began his career as a lawyer at the University of Erfurt at age 19 in 1501, as his father wished. Those years he studied hard but was increasingly dissatisfied and tormented. On July 2nd 1505, while riding back to the University Luther encountered a terrifying thunderstorm.  With lightening striking all around him and fearing for his life, he cried out in prayer, "If you save me Lord, I will become a monk".  Having been saved, upon returning to the University, he quit law school and on July 17th entered the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt.

Ordained in 1507, Luther received a BA in Biblical Studies in 1508, and another degree in 1509.  He taught theology and was awarded a Doctorate of Theology on October 19th in 1512. That same year he became Chair of the Theology department at the University of Wittenberg, where he remained for the rest of his career.

His lectures and sermons in those years 1510-1520 were all directed toward the idea that faith and God's grace alone can save one from hell and damnation. Of course this position was counter not only to the Catholic Church of Rome (where he visited and was horrified by the debauchery he saw in Rome) but the Holy Roman Emperor.

In order to defend his theses, Luther had to appear for 3 days before a papal legate in October 1518,  where he was questioned about his beliefs, with the hope that he would recant his words, but where he questioned the pope's right to issue indulgences.  The Pope issued a bull of excommunication in June 1520, which Luther tossed into a fire, December 10, 1520 and thus was formally excommunicated on Jan 3 1521. 

Then he had to appear before delegates from the Holy Roman Emperor at the Diet of Worms (local civil governing body) April 18th 1521, where he declared: 

“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me.


Martin Luther is one of those notable figures, like Alexander Hamilton, who has come back to life. Hamilton came back to life with Lin Manuel Miranda's phenomenal Broadway musical of the same name.  To a somewhat lesser extent Martin Luther has come back to life after over 500 years, with the PBS broadcast of Martin Luther "The Idea That Changed the World", first airing Tuesday September 12th.  On viewing this show I was immediately struck by the enormity of his contributions to human history then and certainly now.

The PBS special gave Luther credit for: the proliferation of schools and universities in Germany, making a point that this proliferation was far greater than in other Continental countries; stressing the importance of teaching children of both sexes; translating the Bible into German from Latin so everyone could read scripture (this was done during his enforced captivity as there was a bounty on his head); unifying the German language for the first time; awakening people to the concept that, according to scripture (which he made sure everyone could read by translating the Bible into German from Latin) your conscience was your guide in spiritual matters (this of course had unintended consequences as the peasants often interpreted scripture in ways that made Luther’s hair stand on edge);  that believers did not have to perform certain works (purchase indulgences, go on pilgrimages) to achieve salvation; only faith in Christ and the power of His forgiveness was important for salvation. (Of course, the church’s position was that it was only through the institution that salvation was achieved.)

Further, according to the producers, Luther was a "first media star," as he could take advantage of Gutenberg's invention of the printing press (1439) to promote his new idea. Two weeks after he posted his "Ninety-five Theses", railing against the church's selling of indulgences copies were all over Germany and within two months copies were all over Europe. There are 130 volumes of his works, books and pamphlets, and true to his unique understanding of the importance of the printing press, he carefully made sure each one was aesthetically pleasing in look and feel.

After he was excommunicated by the Pope, Luther married and had many children. He loved being a family man and was devoted to the care of his wife (a former nun whom Luther helped to escape from the nunnery) and children. Not only was he on the Pope’s wrong side, but he was considered an outlaw by the Holy Roman Emperor, who issued a degree that there would be no consequences for anyone who took upon himself the task of sending him to his grave. Hence his forced captivity after his statement at the Diet of Worms, but which afforded him the time to do all his translation work.

After his excommunication Luther declared that celibacy was not crucial to becoming a priest, as it was not mandated in Scripture.  He felt celibacy was a "gift" but not for every monk or priest. This was in the era of primogeniture when second and third sons had to have a career as the whole of a family’s estate went to the eldest son. Clergy often lived with concubines and or wives even when the Vatican’s policy was to mandate celibacy. He denounced the notion that popes and monks and priests were “holier” than the rest of humanity (whom he thought quite sinful).

Luther had a much more enlightened view of the role of women, than did most men of his time, in evidence, deeding his farm to his wife, which was illegal at the time.  (After Luther died, the farm was razed by the Holy Roman Emperor in retaliation-never daring to do that in Luther’s lifetime for fear of a peasant revolt with whom Luther was immensely popular.)

Luther’s influence was enormous.  He oversaw 11 monasteries, which he visited regularly, heard hundreds of confessions from monks and laymen, and altered the liturgical service to include more music. Luther was also a prolific hymnodist, that is he wrote many hymns and psalms, including “A Mighty Fortress is our God”, probably his best-known hymn. He encouraged no less than J.S. Bach to compose.

He wrote a German Mass in 1526, which was widely used throughout Germany, so all the parishioners could understand the words. Under Luther’s influence, too, sermons took on a greater role in the service as a teaching tool. Luther wrote a catechism in 1529 -a manual for pastors and teachers as well as a smaller catechism for children which became a model for clear religious teaching. After finishing the translation of the Old Testament into German in 1534, we had  'The Luther Bible". 

There is another side to Martin Luther. In later years Luther wrote against the Jews.  He had a messianic attitude towards Jesus as Savior and had a very hard time withstanding the denunciations of Jesus by the Jews who could not reconcile what they saw in the historical Jesus with the scriptures descriptions of the kind of king to expect. Luther has often been be scourged for this position as Hitler used his writings in his propaganda in the 1930’s.  However, let us not forget, that Martin Luther King Jr. changed his name in honor of the ex-monk.

There is a new biography of Martin Luther by Eric Metaxas, published by Viking which has just popped up on the New York Times best-seller list, should you wish to read more about his life and struggles.  He is truly a man for all seasons, including our own.