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Martin Luther

Martin Luther

Martin Luther (1483-1546), a German priest, monk, and theo­logian, was among the leading figures of the Reformation. As part of the exceptional role he played in the history of religion during his life­time, Luther added some new thoughts to Christian thinking about time.

He was born to a burgher family. From approx­imately 1490 onward, Luther attended a variety of schools. In 1501, he began his basic philosophical studies at the University of Erfurt; these basic stud­ies were required for further studies in theology, medicine, or law. In the spring, Luther decided to follow his father’s wishes and began to study law. On July 2, 1505, he experienced a severe thunder­storm and, believing himself to be in mortal dan­ger, vowed to become a monk if he survived. Fifteen days later, he joined an Augustinian mon­astery in Erfurt. In spring 1507, he received his ordination to the priesthood. In the same year, also in Erfurt, he began his studies of theology, which were to continue later in Wittenberg. From November 1509 to April 1510, he traveled to Rome on behalf of the brotherhood. In 1512, he received his doctorate in theology, was appointed as professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg, and became subprior of the monastery in Wittenberg.

On October 31, 1517, he sent 95 theses about indulgences to archbishop Albrecht of Mainz and other theologians with the demand to discuss them. In these theses, Luther proclaimed that the selling of indulgences as it was practiced at this time was not the right way to salvation. The theses were followed by turmoil in the church. Luther was asked to abjure his theses, but he insisted on having a disputation. In 1518, he wrote to Pope Leo X to inform him better of the situation. The answer was the issuing of a Papal Bull in 1520 in which 41 of Luther’s theses were called heretical and which contained a warning that Luther risked excommunication.

In consequence of his refusal to recant, Luther was excommunicated from the church on January 3, 1521. In May 1521, he was ordered to the Reichstag zu Worms (Diet of Worms) with the promise of free passage on the way. Luther refused once again to deny his claims without their falsifica­tion by arguments from the Bible. On his way back to Wittenberg, Luther was kidnapped by men of his own sovereign and supporter, Frederick III of Saxony, and brought to the Wartburg in Eisenach to be kept there hidden in safety. In this exile, Luther translated the New Testament into German.

Luther stayed in Eisenach until March 1522, when he returned to Wittenberg to moderate the movement for religious reform, which was initiated by Andreas Karlstadt and which exceeded Luther’s goals. In the following years, the reform movement quickly spread, first to Saxony and later to other parts of Europe. From 1524 to 1526, peasants whose discontent had been fueled by Luther’s writ­ings revolted. After attempting to pacify the peas­ants, he took a position on the side of the sovereigns in this evolving war. In 1525, he married Katharina von Bora, a former nun. Over the years, there were many debates, especially with Müntzer, Karlstadt, and Zwingli, on the right course of the reformation and its theological contents.

At the Reichstag zu Speyer (Diet of Speyer) in 1529, the Catholic members of the diet wanted to cancel the provisional acceptance of the reformed members of the diet. The protestation against this decision established the name “Protestants.” During the Reichstag zu Augsburg, the reformed parties presented their confession, the so-called Confession of Augsburg (Confessio Augustana), which was composed by Luther’s friend Philipp Melanchthon. In 1534, Luther’s translation of the Old Testament was published.

During the following years Luther’s state of health deteriorated, although he stayed head of the German reformation and was often called upon in case of conflicts in theological disputes as well as in worldly matters. In February 1546, he traveled (although seriously ill) from Wittenberg to Eisleben to mediate in a conflict threatening the livelihood of his siblings’ families. He died there, after success­fully settling the matter, on February 18, 1546.

Luther’s view of time is always eschatological. Influenced by Pauline theology, two of the bases of his view of time are the virtues of fides (belief) and spes (hope). The difference between these two vir­tues is practically irrelevant for Luther’s concept. The Christian hope and belief aim for a future in which the realm of God is present. The suffering in this world for the Christian has two parts: first, the suffering every human has to endure due to illness and misfortune, and second, the worry about life, because every real Christian knows himself to be a sinner. In Luther’s view, the life of the Christian is justified because he endures the second suffering. In his view, Christ gives the promise that the realm of God is open for the people who are worrying about their sins.

But the object of Christian hope, the realm of God, cannot be perceived during one’s lifetime but stays hidden from the physical world. According to Luther’s belief, the exact design of the realm of God cannot be imagined by a human being. It will always stay hidden from the searcher’s mind and eyes. But in his view, it is possible that hell and heaven are not worldly places in real time and space but exist only within the soul. According to this line of thinking, every believer’s conscience might be the place of final judgment and hell. Therefore, resurrection might take place directly after every individual’s death, because it would not be bound to the dimension of time as humanity understands it. Here, the influence of Saint Augustine of Hippo is obvious. For Augustine, time exists only within the soul, because neither past nor future exist in the present, while the present itself has no extent.

Luther does not subscribe to the idea, however, that to believe is a pure decision of the individual. Following the tradition of Paul and Augustine, he is convinced that God manifests the true belief in people. In this way, he pleads for a kind of predes­tination. Belief is to be understood as a gift given by God to humanity. This gives humankind also a kind of freedom of conscience and belief, because its belief is not made by itself. But in the end, rational thinking is not an adequate means to fully understand the working of God.

Markus Peuckert

See also Augustine of Hippo, Saint; Bible and Time;

Christianity; Eschatology; Genesis, Book of; God and

Time; Gospels; Sin, Original; Time, Sacred

Further Readings

Bainton, R. H. (1995). Here I stand: A life of Martin

Luther. New York: Meridian.

Kittelson, J. M. (2003). Luther the reformer: The story of the man and his career. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress.

McKim, D. K. (Ed.). (2003). The Cambridge companion to Martin Luther. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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