Martin Luther, known as the father of the Reformation, had a remarkable life that is discussed by several authors. In his Martin Luther: A Late Medieval Life book, Volker Leppin offers his vision on the key biographic points of this theologian. By reading and analyzing the lives of prominent persons in their historical contexts, it is possible to better understand their ideas. This paper aims to examine three major events that are highlighted by Leppin, focusing on his point of view and noting characteristic issues. Namely, such periods as upbringing, the presentation of 95 Theses, and being on the margins of Reformation will be discussed.
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Major Milestones of Luther’s Life
In his book, Leppin presents the events in a chronologic manner so that readers can easily trace the transformation of Martin Luther. Each of the chapters is named after the key occupation or characteristic of the given theologian, which also allows following the ideas of the author. Throughout the book, Leppin alerts the readers that Luther was a medieval person, and his life should be considered in the historical context to better understand the events and persons that made an impact on his thoughts and actions.
The first chapter titled The Son describes the early years of Luther, who was born in a religious family of Catholics. The father of the boy, Hans Luther, was a miner and had six foundries. The mother, Margaret, was also a descendant of the peasant class. Martin was brought up in stringency and educated in church schools with strict rules. In 1501, he entered the University of Erfurt and graduated with a Master of Arts degree. After that, he started the study of law; however, it seems that his career as a lawyer answered his father’s wishes, not his own. As noted by Leppin, the study at the University developed his humanistic approach to life compared to the “alternative to the dominant and dry Scholasticism of the day”1. This shows that Luther was interested in challenging the existing norms and introducing new perspectives into the sphere of education. At the same time, the author of the book points out that music entered into the life of the future theologian, which proves his skills in various areas of life.
Speaking of Luther’s upbringing, Leppin notes that his family was religious and followed the rules prescribed by the church. The son of that family was educated to fear demons and God as the key powers affecting one’s destiny and daily routine. Luther had long tormented the question of the fate of a person in the world. His epoch was characteristic of the cult of death, which originated a century earlier after the epidemics of the Black Death. Not only death but also the subsequent persecution and the threat of eternal damnation caused the greatest fear. In 1505, when Luther returned to the University, having stayed with his parents, he was in a thunderstorm. Falling to the ground during a terrible lightning strike, he cried out in horror, addressing the patron saint of her father: “help me, St. Anna, and I will become a monk”2. In fulfilling this vow, he soon joined the Augustinian Order that was distinguished by a strict statute.
The described event was perceived by Luther as a divine symbol and call to join the monastery. As stated by Leppin, the letter to one of his friends demonstrates these intentions. However, the involvement of St. Anna in the decision of the theologian receives skepticism from the author. He notes that this sacred person was not popular in the region and that Luther did not mention her name directly. In this connection, it is suggested that Martin feared the sudden death and meeting with the Lord, which forced him to take the vow. Leppin also mentions that “it seems that the vow provided an ideal way out of a difficult family situation”3. In other words, Luther preferred to serve his heavenly Father and also remain loyal to his family. It is possible to assume that Luther was aware that the promises given under the pressure are not to be fulfilled obligatorily. Nevertheless, his entrance to the monastic life may is interpreted as gratefulness to God for his survival.
Luther’s Performance as a Publicist
Another prominent event related to the biography of Martin Luther refers to his key publicist work. In 1517, following the old custom, he hung out the Latin-language theses at the door of the palace church in Wittenberg, inviting theologians to discuss them. They included 95 points, which is why they received the name of the Ninety Five Theses. The father of the Reformation strongly opposed the idea of any connection between charging money from people and the subsequent absolution or exemption from punishment. He denied the extension of the jurisdiction of the Pope to purgatory. Leppin stresses that if the Pope had the power to free souls from purgatory, he would have to free them all without any bribe (36). Many contemporaries of Luther would agree with this, but he went further to the rejection of the fundamental theory of good deeds performed by the saints.
It should be clarified that the author of the given book considers that Luther did not speak out against the abuse of indulgences, but against the very idea of buying forgiveness. He argued that worldly life and the entire order, which provides a person the opportunity to surrender to faith, occupy an important place in the Christian religion. The theologian rejected the authority of the papal decrees and epistles and demanded the rebuilding of the authority of the Scripture. At the same time, the theologian refuted the statements of the clergy to a dominant position in society. The role of the clergy was limited to the admonition of Christians in terms of humility and the complete dependence on the mercy of God. Leppin emphasizes that the proclamation by Luther of the idea of the independence of a secular state from the Catholic Church was of great historical significance (35). Thus, the views of Luther were radically different from the widely accepted principles regarding religious practices.
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With the official church doctrine, Luther disagreed on one point: he resolutely rejected the possibility for a person to undertake something that would bring him or her closer to salvation. The church taught that God gives a person the ability to fulfill His commandments through grace. People were perceived as free to reject this grace, but if they accept it and make good deeds, then it was credited to them. Luther argued that when good deeds are performed with focusing on the future reward, this is no longer merit yet a sin. Luther’s theses were perceived by opposition groups as a signal to speak out against the Catholic Church.4 Relying on a public movement in Germany, Luther refused to appear at a church court in Rome when he was called to come after his theses become public. In Leipzig, the dispute with Catholic theologians in 1519 openly stated that he largely considered the positions put forward by the Czech reformer Jan Hus.
Namely, hearings were scheduled in the presence of Cardinal Cajetan, who arrived in 1518 at the Augsburg Reichstag. The cardinal acquainted Luther with the papal bulla, where the doctrine of the treasure trove of the accumulated merit was set forth. Luther opposed this doctrine, thereby challenging not only the authority of the Pope but also the canonical law in which this doctrine was enshrined. The cardinal declared Luther a heretic and ordered him to retire and not return until he was ready to renounce his opinion. Leppin also notes the position of Luther’s opponents to present a full picture of his biography’s context.5 It is declared that the opponents predicted that he could be burned, and they might be correct in case it had not been for a rapid alteration in the political situation.
Furthermore, Leppin tries to be objective and demonstrate the details of how society and other theologians responded to Luther’s actions.6 The German Emperor Maximilian passed away, and the choice of his successor depended on seven electors headed by Friedrich of Saxony. To win Friedrich, the Pope allowed Luther to arrange a public dispute with a major theologian of that time, Dr. Johannes Eck, at the University of Leipzig. In the center of the debate, there was the question of the antiquity of the institution of the papacy. It was assumed that if the succession of popes can be traced back to the time of the apostles, this institution is of divine origin. Luther stated that the power of the Pope over the entire church exists only 400 years and that this is a human institution. In turn, Eck forced Luther to publicly acknowledge that, in his opinion, neither the authority of the Pope nor the authority of the ecumenical councils is infallible.
The mentioned events resulted in a new stage in Luther’s struggle, during which he entered into open confrontation with the papacy. According to Leppin, “this realization brought with it a new sense of identity for Luther, for he had now discovered his salvation-historical role as revealing the antichrist and recovering the gospel”7. Nevertheless, the reformer and his followers took advantage of the favorable political conditions for them. In Germany and beyond its borders, the number of those who saw Luther as a leader of the biblical faith grew. In addition to supporters of his theological views, he was supported by many humanists and German nationalists. The former found much in common with the reforms they proposed in protest of Luther. The nationalists saw him as the mouthpiece of the German people in the face of Rome, ignoring their interests.
Aging and Marginalization
By deepening the historical context of the medieval ages, Leppin strives to present Luther as a person who had several stages in his life. After the peak of prominence, his image became marginalize, which was caused by the split in the views of Martin and further movement of the Reformation. After the Reichstag of Worms, Luther stopped performing the social role he had played before. Excommunicated and outlawed, he could not participate in the Reichstag. Melanchthon, the Professor of Wittenberg University and intellectual leader, assumed this responsibility. Luther also could not appear before a secular assembly to confess his convictions, as in Worms. For him, the German princes did on the Augsburg Reichstag in 1530. In the last 25 years of his life, Luther was primarily a teacher and preacher, although, he continued to write articles and pamphlets. They received the widest resonance and were at the very center of the Reformation movement.
Leppin tracks the transformation of Luther’s ideas in terms of Reformation and claims that he is perceived by the people as the pioneer of change. The shift in his opinions is evident for the readers of the book: earlier, the theologian said that faith cannot be the result of coercion and that officials are not able to judge heresy. Luther never retreated from these words, but later, he, nevertheless, acknowledged that public blasphemy and incitements to insurgency are to be punished with death.8 When the Anabaptist pacifist movement arose, Luther declared them to be agitators as their unwillingness to defend justice with a sword undermined the authority and the state. Another example is that Luther was more concerned with theology, while Reformist leaders sought to make alliances.
While working on the theological aspect of life, Luther could not avoid the connection between the state and church. Even though Leppin is sure that He was not a politician, some thoughts of this theologian should be identified. Luther argued that the spiritual power of the Church is based on conviction, not coercion, and concerns the human soul, and not its body or property. The worldly power of the state is established on coercion, not the conviction, and concerns the body and property of a person, not his or her soul. Luther deeply criticized the papacy for mixing the two authorities, especially in his system of canonical law. He made a careful distinction between the two kinds of power, both in their sources and in their fields of application. However, he also insisted that they did not oppose each other, but were different aspects of the same issue — a Divine rule in the fallen and sinful world.
With aging, the political marginalization of Luther became more pronounced. He returned to the University department to teach students and delivered sermons daily. Instead of the old routine prayers, he preferred to preach the gospel. In Wittenberg, it seemed that the theologian was safe – people loved and respected him. Luther continued to work, deepening his teaching and writing letters to his colleagues. Most of all, he was busy translating the text of the New Testament into German. Before that, there was a German translation from primitive Latin, and Luther translated the Gospel into spoken German from the Greek translation of Erasmus of Rotterdam. This made it possible for the ordinary people of Germany to read the main Christian work for the first time and helped in creating the foundations of a single German language. Through this work, the reformer is considered one of the founders of the German literary language.
Two of the most essential late works of Luther are the Great Catechism and the Small Catechism compiled by him in 1529. According to Leppin, they reflect Luther’s understanding of the Christian Gospel, the basic principles of which were left for many generations of Lutherans. His comments on Genesis and Galatians also became widely known. The new dogma resembled in many respects the opinions of the predecessors of the Reformation and was the exact opposite of Catholicism. Luther, rejecting the errors and abuses of Catholicism, reconsidered the Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. The reformer reconsidered the basic position that a person is justified only by faith in the Redeemer, which is the gift of God. The personal interaction with Him and all means of salvation, such as the Church, the hierarchy, and the sacraments, were also declared erroneous.
According to Luther’s Catechism, the Church is not a treasury of gracious gifts, but a society of equal believers in Christ. He claimed that the hierarchical ministry is superfluous, as everyone makes his or her salvation. The priesthood belongs to all believers, so the hierarchy was replaced by simple officials — teachers, preachers, and the civil authorities, whom Luther provided the highest authority. It should be stressed that Luther viewed sacraments only as symbols or as pious customs. However, the fact that he paid attention to the Ten Commandments shows that he was interested in motivating people to live better. By following these principles, it seems that the theologian wanted to cause the feeling of sin. By realizing one’s sins, a person can understand that he or she fails to meet the fundamental instruction left by God. For example, the first commandment promotes the idea that there is only one God, who demands complete adherence.
To conclude, one should state that Martin Luther is a father of the Reformation that started in the Medieval Ages. One of the key points of Luther’s teachings is the thesis that salvation can be achieved only by faith. Each believer is justified by it personally before God, acting as a priest to himself or herself and as a result, no longer needing the services of the Catholic Church. This paper examines three main points in the life of Luther, including his upbringing, the role of publicists’ work of 95 Theses, and the late stage of marginalization. It is revealed that Luther’s family was marked by religiousness that was expressed in fear of God and demons. 95 Theses caused a resonance in society and led to the onset of Reformation based on the rejection of indulgences and other practices. The years in Wittenberg allowed Luther to deepen his theological views and teach in the University, leaving the movement to other people.
Martin Luther: A Late Medieval Life book by Volker Leppin is a brief biography of Luther, where the author presents his point of view. Based on the discussion of the mentioned three points, it is possible to state that Leppin is objective and attentive. He reasonably argues that Luther had a comprehensive personality and acted like a musician, teacher, prophet, and theologian. One may conclude with the statement that Luther’s main intention was to further strengthen the Reformation, and he devoted twenty years to translating the New Testament into German.
Kolb, Robert. Martin Luther and the Enduring Word of God: The Wittenberg School and its Scripture-Centered Proclamation. Ada, MI: Baker Academic, 2016.
Leppin, Volker, and Timothy J. Wengert. “Sources for and against the Posting of the Ninety-Five Theses.” Lutheran Quarterly 29, no. 2015 (2015): 373-398.
Leppin, Volker. Martin Luther: A Late Medieval Life. Ada, MI: Baker Academic, 2017.
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Sagovsky, Nicholas. “Volker Leppin, Martin Luther: A Late Medieval Life.” Theology 122, no. 1 (2018): 67-68.
- Volker Leppin, Martin Luther: A Late Medieval Life (Ada, MI: Baker Academic, 2017): 6.
- Leppin, Martin Luther: 7.
- Ibid., 8.
- Volker, Leppin, and Timothy J. Wengert, “Sources for and against the Posting of the Ninety-Five Theses,” Lutheran Quarterly 29, no. 2015 (2015): 384.
- Volker Leppin, Martin Luther: A Late Medieval Life (Ada, MI: Baker Academic, 2017): 37.
- Nicholas Sagovsky, “Volker Leppin, Martin Luther: A Late Medieval Life,” Theology 122, no. 1 (2018): 67.
- Volker Leppin, Martin Luther: A Late Medieval Life (Ada, MI: Baker Academic, 2017): 39.
- Robert Kolb, Martin Luther and the Enduring Word of God: The Wittenberg School and its Scripture-Centered Proclamation (Ada, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), 35.