As we commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Living Lutheran is exploring 500 of its unique aspects, continuing the series this month with 50 Reformation things you may not know about Martin Luther.
This list is not meant as an all-encompassing compendium of everything essential to the Reformation and its theology, but rather as a glimpse of the variety of ways the movement that Luther sparked in 1517 would influence the history of the world.
Martin Luther did not think of himself as a reformer of the church. He felt that that job belonged only to Jesus Christ; Luther was merely a John the Baptist, pointing to the Lamb of God.
Luther was not exactly from peasant stock. His father—whose father was a farmer—ended up a well-to-do mine owner, and his mother’s family, the Lindemanns, included a mayor of Eisenach, Thuringia, in Germany.
The 95 Theses may or may not have been posted on the University of Wittenberg’s “bulletin board” (the Castle Church door) on October 31, 1517—but they were posted in the mail to the Archbishop of Mainz, Albrecht von Brandenburg.
Luther’s chief complaint in the 95 Theses was bad preaching and how it undermined the listeners’ faith in God.
In the 16th century, Luther would’ve posted a university notice like the 95 Theses with wax or paste, not hammer and nails. The depiction of Luther hammering the Theses first appeared in 1717.
During Luther’s lifetime, the 95 Theses were only available in three Latin printings. Only with the publication of the German Sermon on Indulgences and Grace did Luther become the world’s first living best-selling author.
In Luther’s defense of the 95 Theses, called the Explanations, Luther first insisted that God’s word, not our decisions or works, creates faith in us and makes us Christians.
When Luther insisted that Christians are righteous and sinner at the same time (“simul iustus et peccator”), he was not giving believers an excuse to sin but was providing a way to be honest about themselves (as sinners) and about God’s mercy (as righteous).
Luther rarely used the phrase sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”) because he also recognized other, lesser authorities in the church and because he preferred to use phrases like “God’s word alone,” which implied proclamation of Scripture’s commands and promises.
With the phrase “faith alone,” Luther excluded all human preconditions for receiving God’s mercy, so that faith itself can never be a “work” we do for God but a relationship God establishes with us through word and sacrament. That is why his explanation of the third article of the Creed in the Small Catechism begins, “I believe that … I cannot believe.”
In 1520, Luther became convinced that the word in the Greek New Testament translated as “grace” (charis) did not designate a power dwelling in us but God’s undeserved mercy.
Despite some movie depictions to the contrary, Luther never met privately with his prince and protector, Elector Frederick the Wise.
Luther was not a monk but a friar. Friars (Dominicans, Franciscans and Augustinians) lived in community in cities and often had responsibilities as university professors of theology or preachers. Monks often lived in isolated areas and focused their lives on work and prayer.
Luther’s “theology of the cross” was not a theory about only the cross but the belief that God always reveals himself in the last place human beings would reasonably look: with the Israelites not the Egyptians; in a manger; on the cross; among mortal sinners in the church.
When Luther and other reformers distinguished between “law” and “gospel,” they were not differentiating between the Old and New Testaments but between two ways that God’s word works: to reveal sin and mortify the “old creature” (law), and to reveal God’s mercy and make the new creature of faith alive.
Although John Eck numbered among Luther’s most formidable opponents, prior to the Reformation, Luther had hoped to become friends with him.
Philip Melanchthon, Luther’s associate at the University of Wittenberg and one of Europe’s foremost Greek scholars, was less than five feet tall, prompting Luther to nickname him “our little Greek.”
Although he began preaching at Wittenberg’s city church in 1514, Luther was never its head pastor, but always an assistant. From the early 1520s Wittenberg’s chief pastor and preacher was Johannes Bugenhagen.
Luther understood the common priesthood believers share with Christ through baptism not as a way to divide the clergy and laity but as a way to unite them in the single body of Christ. He felt that within that body, or common priesthood, different members have different “offices,” but all are spiritually equal in God’s grace.
Luther probably never said “Here I stand” when appearing at his trial before Emperor Charles V in the city of Worms. Instead he or a compatriot wrote it (in German) in a Latin description of the events of 1521 to emphasize his refusal to recant what he had written.
However, Luther did say this at the Diet (parliament) held in the imperial city of Worms: “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason … I am bound by the Scriptures that I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.”
Luther’s translation of the New Testament (which he completed in just a few weeks while in hiding at Wartburg Castle) was not the first printed German translation. All previous translations were based upon the Latin “Vulgate”; Luther was the first to use the original Greek text.
Although his superior had released him from his vows as an Augustinian friar, Luther maintained a monastic lifestyle until shortly before his marriage in 1525, thinking of himself as “a Daniel in the lion’s den” of monastic practices.
Although Luther did not always mind that people called his followers “Lutherans,” he preferred to think of all believers as “Christians.” In German-speaking areas, the usual designation is “evangelisch”—that is, people oriented toward the gospel.
Although Luther had deep respect for the role of government in keeping good order and just laws in a society, he also thought that a Christian prince “would be a rare bird in heaven.”
Luther’s chief concern for the church was how bad the preaching was. Not only did he publish “sermon helps” (postil in German) for the epistle and gospel readings appointed for the church year, but his 1520 tract, Freedom of a Christian, outlined the content of true evangelical preaching.
By defining “church” as the assembly of believers where the gospel is proclaimed and the sacraments rightly administered, Luther (sometimes) included Anabaptist preachers among those sharing the gospel, and Roman Catholics as also having the markings of the true church.
The Peasants’ War (1524-1525) ravaged central Europe. Luther and several other important leaders of the Reformation wrote against the uprising—not only as a breach of fealty by those in revolt but also as a misuse of God’s word for selfish ends. Luther was one of the few who, at least initially, also blamed the rulers for exploiting their subjects.
Katharina von Bora, Luther’s wife, was 16 years younger than Luther. She bore six children (and suffered at least one miscarriage), ran the household—which included not only immediate family members and servants but also students, refugees and other relatives—purchased land for growing crops to provide for them and brewed her own beer.
Luther often showed his emotions. He wept when his infant daughter, Elizabeth, died in 1528 and when his 13-year-old daughter, Magdalena, died in his arms.
Medieval tradition believed that the parents of the Antichrist would be a monk and a nun, but Luther’s adult children disproved that myth. Only one of Luther’s sons, Martin (1531-1565), studied theology; none became a professor. His son Hans (1526-1575) became a lawyer; his son Paul (1533-1593) was a physician; and his daughter, Margarete (1534-1570) married a nobleman, Georg von Kunheim, and died in East Prussia.
Luther and his colleagues, especially Philipp Melanchthon, often collaborated on projects. In the preface to the 1529 German translation of Melanchthon’s commentary on Colossians, Luther described himself as the rough woodsman, clearing the forest so that Melanchthon could follow as the happy farmer, planting crops.
In 1529, when asked in a debate over the Lord’s Supper to explain how Christ could be truly present at God’s right hand in heaven and in the bread and wine, Luther responded that people should not argue about mathematical concepts concerning “place” but simply believe Christ’s promise to be truly present in his Supper.
According to an eyewitness, when Luther received news of his father’s death in 1530, while at the Castle Coburg awaiting news regarding the Diet of Augsburg, he locked himself in his room with his Psalter and was heard praying and crying.
The chief Lutheran confession of faith, the Augsburg Confession, was presented on June 25, 1530, to Emperor Charles V. Luther compliments its main drafter, Melanchthon, by insisting that Luther could not have treaded so lightly. He also saw it as a fulfillment of Psalm 119:46: “I will also speak of your decrees before kings, and shall not be put to shame.”
The Luther Bible, completed in 1534, always included the Old and New Testaments and the Apocrypha (books written after books of the Hebrew Scriptures but before the New Testament).
That Luther’s translation of the Bible was the product of a team of scholars from Wittenberg made it unique—in addition to the fact that it included marginal notes and extensive introductions to many books and to each Testament, as well as illustrations of many of the stories in the Old Testament and of the visions in Revelation but virtually none of the Gospels or Acts.
Luther lectured at the University of Wittenberg on one book of the Bible (Genesis) for 10 years (1535-1545). The resulting commentary takes up the first eight volumes in the “American Edition” of Luther’s Works.
In the 16th century, Lutherans accorded special authority to three of Luther’s writings (Small and Large Catechisms and the Smalcald Articles) and placed them in their collection of confessions of faith, The Book of Concord, because these writings especially witnessed to the Christian faith.
One of Luther’s chief contributions to German society in the 16th century was his consistent concern for the poor. He refused to glorify self-chosen poverty and thought it was a citizen’s duty to help those who were living in poverty, especially through the establishment of the “Community Chest.”
In Wittenberg, the local “Community Chest,” which received money from individual contributions and other sources, provided welfare for the poor, zero-interest loans to get impoverished artisans back on their feet, and funds for teachers, church workers and even a physician to care for those unable to afford medical care.
In Luther’s last great tract, On the Councils and the Churches (1539), he listed seven visible markings of the true church: preaching and professing the gospel; baptism; the Lord’s Supper; public absolution; the call and consecration of public ministers; public prayer, praise and the catechism; and the cross (misfortune and persecution).
In 1540, when Melanchthon got sick in Weimar on his way to meetings in Alsace, Luther traveled to be at his bedside. When prayers for his stricken colleague were answered, he reported to his wife that he was “eating like a Bohemian and swilling like a German (yet not too much)” in part to celebrate Melanchthon’s recovery. (Luther’s Works, vol. 50:218f.)
None of Luther’s hymns were based upon barroom songs (but rather upon the “bar form” of A-B, A-B, C-B [“A Mighty Fortress”]) but came instead from a variety of sources, including medieval chants and hymns (“Lord, Keep Us Steadfast”); ballad forms and other folk tunes (“Dear Christians” and “From Heaven Above”); ancient Latin poetry and the Psalms (“Savior of the Nations” and “Out of the Depths”).
In 1543 Luther wrote a series of hateful tracts against the Jews. Although not all of his colleagues approved of them even at that time and sometimes preferred his more balanced comments about the Jewish people from 1523, Luther’s comments were for the most part ignored by later Lutherans until the Nazis reprinted them in the 1930s (accusing the Lutheran churches of suppressing them). Only after the Holocaust have many Lutheran churches around the world (including the ELCA) explicitly condemned Luther’s statements.
Luther died in his 63rd year in Eisleben, his birthplace, where he had been invited to resolve a territorial dispute between brothers, the princes of Mansfeld.
Before his death, Luther’s wife Katharina sent a letter to him, worrying about his health. Luther responded by counseling her to read the Gospel of John and the Small Catechism, “about which you once said, ‘everything in this book has been said about me.’ ”
The pulpit where Luther preached his last sermon (in Eisleben) is now in Wittenberg’s Luther House.
Luther’s last written words were a mixture of German and Latin: “Wir sind bettler; hoc est verum” (“We are beggars; this is true”). Among his last spoken words were Psalm 31:5: “Into your hand I commit my spirit.”
After his death, four different people gave funeral sermons or orations. In Eisleben, Justus Jonas (Luther’s former teaching colleague, then the pastor in Halle) and Michael Coelius (the princes’ court preacher) did so; in Wittenberg, where he was buried, Johannes Bugenhagen (Wittenberg’s pastor) preached and Philipp Melanchthon delivered a Latin oration.