Luther Essay, Research Paper
Martin Luther was a German theologian and religious reformer, who started the Protestant Reformation, and whose vast influence during his time period made him one of the crucial figures in modern European history. Luther was born in Eisleben on November 10, 1483 and was descended from the peasantry, a fact that he often stressed. Hans Luther, his father, was a copper miner. Luther received a sound primary and secondary education at Mansfeld, Magdeburg, and Eisenach. In 1501, at the age of 17, he enrolled at the University of Erfurt, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1502 and a master’s degree in 1505 . He then intended to study law, as his father had wished. In the summer of 1505, he abandoned his studies and his law plans, sold his books, and entered the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt. The decision surprised his friends and appalled his father. Later in his life, Luther explained his suprising decision by recollecting several brushes with death that had occurred at the time, making him aware of the fleeting character of life. In the monastery he observed the rules imposed on a novice but did not find the peace in God he had expected. Nevertheless, Luther made his profession as a monk in the fall of 1506, and his superiors selected him for the priesthood. Ordained in 1507, he approached his first celebration of the mass with awe. After his ordination, Luther was asked to study theology in order to become a professor at one of the many new German universities staffed by monks. In 1508 he was assigned by Johann von Staupitz, vicar-general of the Augustinians and a friend and counselor, to the new University of Wittenberg (founded in 1502) to give introductory lectures in moral philosophy. He received his bachelor’s degree in theology in 1509 and returned to Erfurt, where he taught and studied. In November 1510, on behalf of seven Augustinian monasteries, he made a visit to Rome, where he performed the religious duties customary for a pious visitor and was shocked by the worldliness of the Roman clergy. Soon after resuming his duties in Erfurt, he was reassigned to Wittenberg and asked to study for the degree of doctor of theology. In 1512, after receiving his doctorate, he took over the chair of biblical theology which he held till his death. Although still uncertain of God’s love and his own salvation, Luther was active as a preacher, teacher, and administrator. Sometime during his study of the New Testament in preparation for his lectures, he came to believe that Christians are saved not through their own efforts but by the gift of God’s grace, which they accept in faith. Both the exact date and the location of this experience have been a matter of controversy among scholars, but the event was crucial in Luther’s life, because it turned him decisively against some of the major tenets of the Catholic church. Luther became a public and controversial figure when he published his Ninety-Five Theses on October 31, 1517. His main purpose of writing the theses was to show his opposition for the corruption and wealth of the papacy and to state his belief that salvation would be granted on the basis of faith alone rather then by works. Although it is generally believed that Luther nailed these theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, some scholars have questioned this story, which does not occur in any of his own writings. Regardless of the manner in which his propositions were made public, they caused great excitement and were immediately translated into German and widely distributed . Luther’s spirited defense and further development of his position through public university debates in Wittenberg and other cities resulted in an investigation by the Roman Curia that led to the condemnation of his teachings and his excommunication. Summoned to appear before Charles V at the Diet of Worms in April 1521, he was asked before the assembled secular and ecclesiastical rulers to recant. He refused firmly, asserting that he would have to be convinced by Scripture and clear reason in order to do so and that going against conscience is not safe for anyone. Condemned by the emperor, Luther was spirited away by his prince, the elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony, and kept in hiding at Wartburg Castle. There he began his translation of the New Testament from the original Greek into German, a seminal contribution to the development of a standard German language. Disorders in Wittenberg caused by some of his more extreme followers forced his return to the city in March 1521, and he restored peace through a series of sermons. Luther continued his teaching and writing in Wittenberg but soon became involved in the controversies surrounding the Peasants’ War (1524-26) because the leaders of the peasants originally justified their demands with arguments somewhat illegitimately drawn from his writings. He considered their theological arguments false, although he supported many of their political demands. When the peasants turned violent, he angrily denounced them and supported the princes’ effort to restore order. Although he later repudiated the harsh, vengeful policy adopted by the nobles, his attitude toward the war lost him many friends. In the midst of this controversy he married Katharina von Bora, a former nun. The marriage was happy, and his wife became an important supporter in his busy life. After having articulated his basic theology in his earlier writings, he published his most popular book, the Small Catechism, in 1529. By commenting briefly in question and answer form on the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, the Small Catechism explains the theology of the evangelical reformation in simple yet colorful language. Not allowed to attend the Diet of Augsburg because he had been banned and excommunicated, Luther had to leave the presentation of the reformers’ position to his friend and colleague Melanchthon. In 1532 Luther’s translation of the Old Testament from the original Hebrew was published. Meanwhile, his influence spread across northern and eastern Europe. His advocacy of the independence of rulers from papal supervision won him the support of many princes. His fame made Wittenberg an intellectual center. By 1537, Luther’s health had begun to deteriorate, and he felt burdened by the resurgence of the papacy and by what he perceived as an attempt by Jews to take advantage of the confusion among Christians and reopen the question of Jesus’ messiahship. Apprehensive about his own responsibility for this situation, he wrote a violent polemic against the Jews, as well as polemics against the papacy and the radical wing of the reformers, the Anabaptists. In the winter of 1546, Luther was asked to settle a controversy between two young counts who ruled the area of Mansfeld, where he had been born. Old and sick, he went there, resolved the conflict, and died on February 18, 1546, in Eisleben. Luther left behind a movement that quickly spread throughout the Western world. His doctrines, especially justification by faith and the final authority of the Bible, were adopted by other reformers and are shared by many Protestant denominations today. As the founder of the 16th-century Reformation, he is one of the major figures of Christianity and of Western civilization.
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