10 Things You Should Know about Martin Luther
Much will be said and written about Martin Luther in 2017, inasmuch as this is the 500th anniversary of his posting of the 95 theses on the church door at Wittenberg, an event that many believe launched the Protestant Reformation. But here are ten things about Luther you may not know.
(1) Tradition records that Luther decided to become a monk after being frightened by a thunderstorm (July 2, 1505). As the story goes, Luther was so unnerved that he vowed to St. Anna (the patron saint of miners and people in distress in thunderstorms) that if delivered he would leave the university and enter the monastery. Perhaps. But in his Table Talk, some thirty-four years later, Luther said that he regretted making the vow and that many individuals tried to dissuade him from the decision during the two weeks between the vow and the time he actually entered the cloister. It is undeniably true that his father, Hans, was enraged at his son’s decision as he had long envisioned a lucrative legal career for Luther.
(2) The exact time and place of Luther’s conversion is also disputed. Some have placed it as early as 1512 and others as late as 1518. A few cynical historians have argued that Luther’s breakthrough insight into justification by faith alone came as he struggled with and finally found relief from constipation, supposedly while relieving himself in the lavatory of the monastery’s tower. The best evidence is that his conversion happened sometime in 1515 while he was studying Romans and preparing his lectures on Paul’s epistle.
(3) During his time as a monk Luther was a pious Roman Catholic and revered the Virgin Mary. He undertook the most menial and humiliating duties hoping to subdue his pride. He begged in the streets, swept the floor, and subjected his body to rigorous asceticism and self-inflicted torture. He was obsessed with finding the peace of salvation but repeatedly failed. He was ordained to the priesthood on May 2, 1507, at which time he performed his first Mass. Upon being instructed by his teachers that a priest actually holds “his God” in his hands and offers him to others, Luther doubted his worthiness to perform such a task. He trembled at the altar and had to be assisted in completing the ceremony.
(4) His teaching career began in 1508 at Wittenberg. During the winter of 1510-11 he went to Rome, a city then filled with enthusiasm for the Renaissance but indifferent to religion. Luther was appalled at the unbelief and immorality of the papacy, an impression that undoubtedly was instrumental in his conversion. Upon his return home he said: “Some people took money to Rome and brought back indulgences. I, like a fool, carried onions there and brought back garlic.” By this Luther meant “that he had carted his despair to Rome, hoping to be rid of it, but had come away with an even deeper despair” (Bard Thompson, Humanists & Reformers, 390).
(5) According to the testimony of his son, Paul (who claims to have heard it from his father in 1541), it was during his visit to Rome that Luther ascended on bended knees the 28 steps of the famous Scala Santa (allegedly the steps taken from the Judgment Hall in Jerusalem), kissing the places where Christ's blood was said to have fallen, all in order to secure for himself the indulgence attached to this ascetic performance since the days of Pope Leo IV in 850. Suddenly, struck by the futility of his actions, he arose and returned to Germany.
(6) Some scholars still argue that the posting of the 95 theses on the church door at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, never actually happened. But it more than likely did. It was not, however, a revolutionary act or a call to arms. Luther’s posting of his theses was simply an invitation to debate the subject of indulgences and their abuse. In 1515 Pope Leo X authorized the sale of indulgences by Archbishop Albert of Brandenburg who, at the age of 27, was the highest ranking official in Germany. The money from the proceeds of the sale would be used to finance the on-going construction of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome. Albert selected John Tetzel to lead the effort. Although the guilt of sin was forgiven by the death of Christ, the penalty for it must be endured in purgatory. An indulgence would exempt a person from suffering either all or a portion of that penalty. Tetzel was a master at portraying the agonies of purgatory as a way of stirring people to purchase remission at an ever-increasing price.
As time passed, the subject of indulgences faded into the background and never again served as the primary point of contention between Luther and Rome. The controversy instead swirled around the issue of papal authority: was the Pope the final, interpretive authority over all Christians, infallible in his decrees, or was the Bible the ultimate standard and only inerrant authority over the conscience and behavior of Christians? Luther’s strident advocacy for sola scriptura was the central dispute in the reformation from that point, even until today.
(7) Luther long believed that the reformation’s focus on the truth of the gospel of grace and the centrality of Jesus Christ had provoked Satan to initiate the final battle against God and the Church. The reformation, therefore, was, in the thinking of Luther, “the prelude to the Last Day and to the arrival of God’s eternal kingdom” (Scott Hendrix, Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer, 274). Thus Luther considered all his adversaries as mere instruments of Satan’s nefarious schemes and thus deserving of the utmost scorn and ridicule (which often times bordered on the vulgar and obscene).
(8) Luther’s poor health is a matter of record. Some have speculated that his almost constant physical pain and distress may have contributed to his vehement opposition to and criticism of certain adversaries. Who were the latter? Scott Hendrix suggests that “for Luther, the ‘adversary’ was any person or group who would not cooperate with his mission to restore a purified Christianity to Germany” (264). In addition to the Roman Catholic Church, Luther had an extraordinary disdain for both Turks (Muslims) and Jews, not for racial or ethnic reasons but entirely due to their resistance to the gospel of Christ. Although early in his life he had recommended that the Jews be treated with kindness, his attitude hardened as time passed. Without in any way excusing his inexcusable opposition to the Jews, Hendrix wisely reminds us that “Luther was a prisoner of his age and its prejudices” (276). The notion of “religious toleration” was simply not entertained in the 16th century, either by the Roman Catholic Church or the leaders of the Protestant Reformation.
(9) Another thing you probably don’t know about Luther is that he was largely responsible for introducing into the life of the evangelical church the practice of congregational singing. From the Council of Laodicea in the 4th century until Luther in the early years of the 16th century, virtually no one sang in church except for the ordained clergy. Luther was convinced that if God’s people were to worship God as the Bible commands they must sing. He would often put Christian lyrics to the melodies sung in German beer taverns and introduce these songs in Protestant churches. Luther had an extremely high view of the importance and life-changing power of music. One of Luther's enemies insisted that he “had damned more souls with his hymns than with all his sermons!”
Luther was committed to the primacy of music and song as a means both for spreading the gospel and for the worship of God. “I have no use for cranks who despise music,” said Luther, “because it is a gift of God. Music drives away the Devil and makes people happy; they forget thereby all wrath, unchastity, arrogance, and the like. Next after theology I give to music the highest place and the greatest honor” (quoted in Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther [Nashville: Abingdon, 1950], p. 341).
“Experience proves,” wrote Luther, “that next to the Word of God only music deserves to be extolled as the mistress and governess of the feelings of the human heart. We know that to the devils music is distasteful and insufferable. My heart bubbles up and overflows in response to music, which has so often refreshed me and delivered me from dire plagues” (ibid.).
Luther had little patience for those who dismissed the power and primacy of singing. “He who does not find this [singing] an inexpressible miracle of the Lord is truly a clod and is not worthy to be considered a man” (ibid., 343). (:19-20). Whether you wish “to comfort the sad, to terrify the happy, to encourage the despairing, to humble the proud, to calm the passionate, or to appease those full of hate, name the emotions, inclinations, and affections that impel men to evil or good – what more effective means than music could you find?” (Quoted by Richard D. Dinwiddie in "When You Sing Next Sunday, Thank Luther," Christianity Today [Oct. 21, 1983], 21).
(10) There is a very real sense in which the success of the Lutheran reformation during the decade of the 1520’s in Germany was, at least indirectly, made possible by Islam. The Ottoman rulers of the Islamic state in Turkey, known to most simply as the Turks, posed a serious threat to central Europe. Charles V was crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire at the age of nineteen (1519) and was forced to devote most of his energy and resources to defending Europe from the ever-present possibility of invasion. “The Turkish threat gave Luther and the German Reformation breathing room” to grow and expand their influence (Hendrix, 8).