Sunt bona, sunt quaedam mediocria, sunt mala plura Quae legis hic: aliter non fit, Avite, liber.
Martin Luther is unquestionably one of the most prominent figures of the past millennium, and there is certainly no shortage of books about him. Yet he remains a fascinating and enigmatic figure. He is in many ways foreign to twenty-first century sensibilities, but he continues to speak deeply to many people–myself included–nearly five hundred years after his death. He introduced Europeans to a God who was not concerned with their good works, their personal piety, or their religious observation, but who simply reconciled sinners to himself by grace. In doing so, Luther initiated a theological revolution that splintered the Christian church and ushered in the modern world. This is his story.
Issues and Problems in Luther Study
A new treatment of Luther is an enormous task–far larger than I had anticipated when I first began to write this book. Nevertheless, I soldiered on to produce the volume that you now hold in your hands. A part of the problem is the immense volume of source material there is to work with. Luther's own writings fill more than a hundred large volumes in the standard Weimar edition used by scholars. Only some of these have been translated into English, but the standard English translation still fills 55 large volumes. In addition to this, there are tens of thousands of books and articles about Luther's life and thought, with hundreds more coming out each year. Even the most dedicated scholar can only hope to absorb a small fraction of this material.
An additional challenge is the fact that, unlike many theologians, Luther never developed his thought in writing in anything like a systematic fashion. Most of his writings are direct responses to particular events in his life, making it difficult to understand his theological and philosophical views without first having a concrete understanding of his life and times. Thus, any student of Luther's thought must first master the intricacies of Luther's life, and have at least a passing acquaintance with the political and social history of the early sixteenth century.
And there are also interpretive problems with the sources themselves.
Although Luther lived nearly five hundred years ago, his influence can still be clearly felt in the twenty-first century. His actions and ideas changed Western civilization in profound ways, and the world in which we live is, in many ways, built upon the foundation that Luther laid. The historian A. G. Dickens summarized the enduring impact of Luther's reformation, despite the distance and foreignness of his context:
When we have finished bewailing the greed, folly and fanaticism of the sixteenth century, the Reformation still stands in mountainous bulk across the landscapes of western Christianity. It concerned most issues which still live to perplex and divide us.
Dickens is quite correct; Luther's legacy looms large in the twenty-first century. And this legacy is felt not only through the churches that Luther and his followers founded. Indeed, many of the major aspects of Western civilization—the growth of individualism, the rise of the nation state, and the development of public education, among others—can be traced to key ideas developed by Luther.
The spread of Lutheranism
Some parts of Luther's legacy are quite easy to observe. The proliferation of churches that trace their heritage to Luther's reformation is an example. Today there are more than sixty million people in the world who affiliate with churches that bear the name Lutheran, all of which, to one degree or another, continue to affirm Luther's theology. And even though Lutheranism itself remained largely within its homeland of northern Europe, Luther's influence is also felt in the growth of various other forms of Protestantism worldwide. Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists and other Protestant denominations each developed their own unique take on Luther's theological insights. This makes more than eight hundred million people in the world today whose religious heritage can be traced directly to Luther's actions and ideas.
Lutheranism itself rapidly grew in the sixteenth century. Saxony and many other north German states quickly adopted Lutheranism as their state religion during Luther's lifetime. From there, his ideas spread northward into Scandinavia. Many Swedish and Danish students studied under Luther and his associates at Wittenberg. In fact, literature's most famous Dane— Shakespeare's Hamlet—was a student at Wittenberg. When these students returned to their homelands, they brought Luther's ideas with them. Sweden is an instructive example.
Luther lived for 20 years after his marriage, and these last 20 years of his life are often neglected by biographers. There are several reasons for the relative neglect of Luther's later years. In part it has to do with the fact that, while Luther's life was exciting in the 1520s, the 1530s were a less eventful time. The excitement of the years in which he broke with the church, married, reprimanded the peasants and quarreled with friends and foes over doctrine gave way to a slower, more stable life for Luther. It is also challenging, especially for admirers of Luther, to tell the story of his later years because Luther grew increasingly quarrelsome as he got older. In the 1530s and 1540s he produced a number of increasingly violent treatises against those whom he saw as the enemies of the gospel. Despite this, the last 20 years of his life are important to give us a full picture of who Luther was.
Unlike the relative obscurity of his early years, Luther was a major public figure in the 1530s and was well known throughout Europe. As such, he often received visitors in Wittenberg from throughout Europe. One of these travelers has left us a remarkable firsthand description of a visit with Luther in 1523. This text gives a strong sense of Luther's personality and lifestyle, and is worth quoting at length:
Luther conveys the same impression in his countenance as in his books. His eyes are penetrating and they almost sparkle in a sinister fashion as one can observe it at times among the mentally ill […] His manner of speech is vehement, abounding in insinuations and ridicule. His apparel hardly distinguishes him from a courtier. When he leaves the house in which he lives—it was formerly the cloister—he wears, it is said, the robe of his order. Sitting together with him we did not merely talk but also drank beer and wine in a good mood, as is the custom there. In every respect he seems to be a “good fellow,” as they say in German. The integrity of his life, which is frequently praised among us here, does not distinguish him from the rest of us.
Today, some 500 years after he lived, Martin Luther is regularly considered by historians to be one of the most important figures of the last millennium. Lifemagazine, for instance, in its survey of the most important people and events of the last thousand years, listed Luther third, behind only Thomas Edison and Christopher Columbus. The Protestant Reformation, sparked by Luther's actions, was ranked by Lifeas the third-most-important event of the millennium. He is regularly studied by high school students in their history classes. He is the subject of countless books, and even of popular movies. Few would contest the fact that he is one of the most significant figures in European history.
However, few people in the late fifteenth century—the time of Luther's birth—would have expected young Martin to achieve anything near this kind of greatness. Luther himself, near the end of his career, looked back on his life and explained how his fame had taken him by surprise:
I am the son of a peasant. My great-grandfather, grandfather, and father were peasants… I should have become a superintendent, a bailiff or the like in the village, a servant with authority over a few… that I [earned a good education], that I became a monk which brought shame upon me as it bitterly annoyed my father—that I and the Pope came to blows, that I married an apostate nun; who would have read this in the stars? Who would have prophesied it?
The baby boy born to Hans and Margaret Luther on a rainy November evening in 1483 certainly did not seem like a potential world leader. He was from a peasant family of modest income. He had no influential connections in imperial or local politics. He lived in the small town of Eisleben, in a relatively unimportant corner of eastern Germany. Nevertheless, Luther would come to be one of the most important religious thinkers of all time, and his actions and ideas would deeply influence the future of Europe and the world. This is the story of how this apparently insignificant baby became a world-changing figure. In order to understand Luther's journey, however, we must begin a bit before his birth and examine the world into which he was born.
In the aftermath of the Diet of Worms, Luther had clearly broken with the church. He now had to face the vexing question of how to put his new theology into practice. Until 1521, Luther had worked primarily with abstract ideas. Now, he had firmly anchored himself to those ideas—primarily his commitment to justification by faith alone. But it remained to work out what those ideas actually meant for the average Christian. His defiance of the church had also unleashed forces that would ultimately prove impossible for him to fully control. He would find that many of his supporters would take his ideas further than he was comfortable with. The decade between 1521 and 1530 was, for Luther, a time of conflict over how to establish a truly reformed Christianity.
A Year of Exile
Luther and his companions set out from the Diet of Worms on April 26, having been ordered to return directly to Wittenberg. Before the party reached there, however, they were overtaken by a band of armed horsemen. These men grabbed Luther out of the wagon in which he was riding. They blindfolded him and dragged him off into the night. His companions did not know who had taken him or what would happen to him.
Fortunately for Luther, the kidnapping had been the work of his patron, Frederick the Wise. Hoping to keep Luther safe from the imperial ban—and to prevent him from getting into any further trouble—he had arranged to have Luther kidnapped and hidden away until it was safe. Luther himself was apprised of the plan, but only in the most general terms, so he was legitimately surprised by the kidnapping. He was not happy about being taken into hiding, however. Frederick's plan had been kept remarkably secret from most everyone else. Most of Luther's friends and supporters assumed that he had been taken by forces loyal to the pope or the emperor, and that they would never see him again. Many assumed he had been killed. The painter Albrecht Durer, an admirer of Luther, wrote in his diary when he heard of Luther's disappearance:
Oh God, if Luther is dead, who is going to proclaim the holy Gospel so clearly to us…
The crises and unrest of the late fifteenth century would have been far from the minds of Hans and Margaret Luther on the evening in 1483 when their son was born. The church, although under criticism, still dominated the lives of peasants like the Luthers. The first task of Hans Luther upon the birth of his son would have been arranging for the baby's baptism. So, as soon as it was practical, Hans brought the boy to the local parish priest and presented him for baptism. Because the day of the baby's baptism—November 11—was the feast day of St. Martin of Tours, the baby was named Martin.
Hans and Margaret were peasants, and the young Martin grew up among the peasantry—a fact about which he later boasted. The Luthers were not destitute, however. Hans' father (and Martin's grandfather), Heine Luther, had been a moderately prosperous independent farmer in the village of Möhra. According to local custom, the youngest son inherited the entire family property. Since Hans was an older son, he wasn't able to inherit the family farm. Instead, he sought his fortunes in the copper mines of the nearby county of Mansfield. He first tried the mines in Eisleben, the largest city in the area. It was here that Martin was born. Hans was unable to advance in Eisleben, however, and about a year after Martin's birth, Hans moved his growing family to the smaller town of Mansfield, ten miles away. At Mansfield, Hans began to prosper in the mining industry. By 1491, he had become a partner in a mining company that ultimately would operate at least six copper mines and two copper smelters, a position that gave him a reasonable income and good opportunities for advancement. Young Martin may have experienced some moderate scarcity in his early youth, as Hans was beginning to make his way in the mining industry, but it seems unlikely that he would have ever known true poverty—at least personally.
Hans' wife, the former Margaret Lindemann, was a young woman from an established middle-class merchant family in Eisenach. Margaret's relatives included doctors, lawyers, university professors, and civil servants. Margaret's relatives were probably instrumental in helping Hans Luther secure the credit he would have needed to purchase his ownership stake in the copper mines.
There is an enormous number of books about Luther, and tens of thousands of articles appearing in both popular and scholarly journals. The following is intended to guide those who might want to explore Luther and his world more deeply.
Every serious student of Luther should read Luther's own works. Most are easily available in English translation. The standard scholarly edition in English is the 55-volume Luther's Works, known commonly as the “American Edition” (Concordia/Fortress, 1955–1986). This is the most complete collection of Luther's writings available in English, and is commonly held by larger libraries. It is also available in a CD-ROM edition, which has the distinct advantage of being searchable by computer. John Dillenberger, Martin Luther: Selections from his Writings(Anchor Books, 1961) and Timothy Lull, Martin Luther's Basic Theological Writings(Augsburg, 2005) are both good onevolume compilations. Many of Luther's key works are also available online through the Project Wittenberg website (www.projectwittenberg.org).
There are literally thousands of biographies of Luther, and not all are worth reading. Martin Brecht's three-volume Martin Luther(Fortress Press, 1985–1993) is widely considered to be the scholarly standard. James Kittelson, Martin Luther the Reformer(Augsburg, 1986) and Derek Wilson, Out of the Storm(St. Martin's, 2007) are both readable single-volume treatments. Once considered a standard, Roland Bainton, Here I Stand(Abingdon, 1950) now seems a bit dated, but can still be valuable. Bernhard Lohse, Martin Luther: An Introduction to His Life and Work(Fortress, 1986) is not a biography in the traditional sense, but rather an outline and summary of the key topics and issues in Luther's career. Heiko Oberman, Luther: The Man Between God and the Devil(Yale, 1989) is powerful, but can be difficult. Many shorter biographies only cover portions of Luther's life. Some of the more helpful of these are Heinrich Boehmer, Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation(Meridian, 1957), Heinrich Bornkamm, Luther in Mid-Careeer, 1521–1530(Fortress, 1983) and H. G. Haile, Luther: An Experiment in Biography(Princeton, 1983).
To get a sense of the broader picture of the reformation and Luther's place in the larger movement, Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations(Blackwell, 1986) and Euan Cameron, The European Reformation(Clarendon, 1991) are very helpful.
Despite the fact that he was developing a new and distinctive theology, until 1517, Luther remained a relatively minor figure—an undistinguished theology professor at a tiny university tucked away in Saxony. But this would soon change dramatically. Luther would be instantly, and unexpectedly, catapulted into the international spotlight and would, by 1520, be one of the most famous men in Europe.
The Indulgence Controversy
The act that launched Luther's career as a church reformer was relatively small—or at least it seemed to be at the time. As a university professor, one of Luther's duties was to engage occasionally in public debates—called disputations—about theological or philosophical topics. The professor would draft a series of theses that he would be willing to defend, post these theses publicly, and then take on whoever wanted to argue against him in a public debate. These debates were intended to clarify disputed issues, to deepen the intellect and rhetorical skills of participants, and to some degree to entertain and education the audience, which would typically be made up of university students. Proposing such a debate, even on a controversial topic, would have raised few eyebrows. So when, in 1517, Luther posted a list of theses critical of the church's teachings on indulgences, he did not expect to ignite a churchwide controversy.
What is an indulgence?
Luther's 95 Thesesopposed the sale of indulgences. These were an outgrowth of the sacrament of penance. Late medieval theology held that a person in a state of sin could not enter heaven. This was inconvenient because all people—even deeply religious ones—tended to continue to sin regularly. Fortunately, the church had a process by which sinners could return to a state of grace after sinning. The sinners must first repent and confess their sins to a priest. After this, sinners must perform some act of penance. Only after these steps had been accomplished could sin be atoned for and a sinner be reconciled to God. If a person died in a state of sin, without having performed the proper penance, he or she could not go directly to heaven.
Between 1522 and 1530, Luther and his colleagues began to develop a new expression of Christianity, which they called Evangelical. The word comes from the Greek term for gospel, and reflects that Luther and his followers saw themselves as particularly focused on the gospel of Christ. The movement would, much later, become known as Lutheran. The Evangelicals had broken decisively with the Catholic Church over doctrine and were now developing their own distinctive institutions and practices. But they were convinced that they remained Christians—more truly Christian, in fact, than the Pope and the Catholic hierarchy.
Basic Themes in Luther's Theology
Because of the large number and diverse nature of Luther's written works, it is sometimes difficult to construct a general statement about the nature of Luther's theology. Certainly, however, there are several key themes which recur throughout his writings and it is worthwhile to pause for a moment to describe some of these main themes.
Justification by faith alone
When Luther looked back on his career at the end of his life, he identified the discovery of justification by faith as the decisive turning point in his career. Luther's conviction that humans were reconciled to God entirely through faith in Christ—rather than through their own efforts or their religious acts—is the central idea of the Reformation. “I teach,” Luther said, “that people should trust in nothing but Jesus Christ alone, not in prayers or merits or even in their own works.”
Luther starts with the observation that humans are incapable of living the kind of perfectly sinless life that the Bible seems to mandate. This is what gave him such a troubled conscience as a young man. He recognized that he couldn't live up to the high standards of righteousness that were outlined in the scriptures. The church had addressed this concern by instituting the sacrament of penance, by which people could atone for their sins. Even so, Luther saw little hope of anybody achieving the state of true repentance necessary for the sacrament to be effective. In practice, many believers, and Luther chief among them, participated in the sacrament of penance not because they actually repented of their sins, but rather because they feared divine punishment. In this case, Luther reasoned, the sacrament is done for a purely selfish motive.
Traditionally, China and Japan had always regarded their respective civilizations as intrinsically superior to all others. For many centuries their cultures had indeed equalled or even exceeded the achievements of the West. However, by the middle of the nineteenth century, both countries had been overtaken by Western empires in almost every sphere; commercially, militarily, culturally and politically China and Japan had become relative backwaters. The Japanese emperors were not afraid of reform and reacted quickly to the situation. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Japan had built a modern army and navy and had reformed itself politically, socially and economically; it was wealthy and increasingly industrialized. As we have seen, however, the Chinese had not been so willing to embrace change and instead had suffered the humiliation of foreign incursions on their own soil, including those of the Japanese, their nearest and greatest rival. Encroachments on China continued in the new century as the Japanese were ceded the former German concessionary rights to Shandong province in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles; this broke the undertaking given just a year before that they would revert to China.
These long-standing tensions between China and Japan were to become more marked in the 1920s. The American governments followed a protectionist economic policy which meant that foreign countries attempting to trade with the United States faced prohibitively high tariffs. This particularly affected the Japanese, who had come to depend on American markets to expand their economic activity. When their expensive goods failed to sell in the United States, the resulting lack of capital in Japan for buying raw materials caused a recession. In the face of economic hardship the Japanese government decided that the only solution was to acquire these raw materials by expanding their territorial boundaries in East Asia and the Western Pacific. Despite the fact that the Japanese had signed the Nine-Power Agreement in 1922, agreeing to respect the spheres of influence of the other powers, the Japanese embarked on a policy of imperial expansion in China in the 1920s and 1930s, leading to tension and conflict.
On 30 May 1925, in Shanghai, a large crowd of Chinese marched to protest the killing of native Chinese citizens by Japanese guards at a local factory.
The Crisis of China in the Late Qing Era
Revolutions rarely occur at the moment of greatest hardship or at the point of severest oppression, but rather when conditions are beginning to improve, when hope is kindled and the prospect of a better world can be glimpsed – when change seems possible but is neither adequate nor sufficiently fast. So it was in France in 1789; so it was in China in 1911. During the last years of the Dowager Empress Cixi there had been numerous attempts to reform backward, corrupt, semi-feudal conditions; in education, industry, taxation, government and the military there had been reforms and modernization – small sometimes grudging improvements, but progress nonetheless. These reforms, however, merely whetted the appetite for more extensive changes and, instead of being regarded as the first steps along a path of reconstruction, merely led to cries for far greater and more immediate changes – changes that first engulfed the Qing dynasty, which had initiated the reforms, and then swept away the imperial system altogether.
The historical interpretation of these last decades of the Qing dynasty has undergone substantial revision in recent years. Traditionally, the Chinese themselves have always had a great respect for the study of history and tend to regard the past as a source of object lessons for the present and the future. However, in the twentieth century, Chinese historical scholarship became heavily influenced by the views of the Communists, after they won the civil war in 1949 and formed the People's Republic of China; thereafter all past events were viewed through the prism of Communist belief, particularly as articulated by Mao Zedong. Grounded in Marxist thinking, Chinese writers rejected the feudal repression of the imperial period with its reliance on Confucian scholarship and the court's focus on high culture and elitism. However, they were to be equally damning of the period that followed the downfall of the empire in 1911, that of the newly formed Republic of China; truly admirable history only began with Mao's assumption of power in 1949. The only early history worth studying and emulating was that of the growth of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the actions of the peasant rebels against the Japanese and the Chinese Nationalists, and the transformation of China into a Communist state.
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