The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, vol. 2


III. Luther Sets the Pattern for the Reformation

MARTIN LUTHER (1483-1546), foremost of all the Reformers and master spirit of the Reformation, was born at Eisleben of humble rustic parentage. After preliminary schooling at Magdeburg and Eisenach, Luther began the study of law in 1501, for the usual four years. This was at the University of Erfurt, then one of the best on German soil, with its charter dated in 1392. While here Luther showed unusual intellectual powers and a scholarship that excited the admiration of the university. PFF2 248.4


It was here, when but twenty years of age, that Luther found a complete Latin Bible—a copy of the Vulgate—on the library shelves. 2 Previously all he had known of the Bible was that which was in the Breviary, and the parts sung during the mass and sermonaries. 3 The discovery amazed him. He studied this unfamiliar Book with intense eagerness, and it awakened within him a desire to know God. Shocked by a dangerous illness and the sudden death of a friend, Luther felt unprepared to meet his God. He longed to propitiate Him, but was convinced of the inadequacy of his past performances. The monastery must be the place, and penance the method, he thought. So, gathering his friends around, he made his farewell and, in 1505, betook himself to the Augustinian monastery. Day and night he gave himself to prayers, penances, fastings, and self-mortification. PFF2 248.5

When he entered the monastery, a complete copy of the Latin Bible was placed in his hands for study, as was enjoined by the new code of statutes drawn up by Von Staupitz, vicar-general of the German branch of the Augustinians. 4 Here Luther renewed his studies of the Holy Scripture with great intensity. But at first the awful attributes of divine justice and holiness appeared more terrible than ever. PFF2 249.1

One day Staupitz, 5 who was a man of deep spiritual aspiration and understanding, noticed the eager young monk with a troubled look and a face emaciated by fasting and long vigils, and drew him into his confidence. Step by step Staupitz directed his attention from meditation upon his sins to the merits of Christ, from the law to the cross. Staupitz made him understand that true repentance does not consist in self-imposed penances and punishments but in a change of heart, and that in Christ’s sacrifice the secret of God’s eternal will was revealed. Thus Staupitz became his best friend, his wisest counselor, and his spiritual father. In these quiet hours the seed of truth was sown in this eager heart which would bring forth an abundant harvest not long thereafter. 6 PFF2 249.2


In 1502 Frederick III, elector of Saxony, founded the University of Wittenberg, 7 and Staupitz became the first dean of its theological faculty. This was one of the first European universities to teach all three of the ancient languages—Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. In 1508 Staupitz summoned Luther, who had just received his B.D. degree, to teach. In 1512, on being made Doctor of Divinity ad Biblia (Doctor of Holy Scriptures), 8 and having to vow on his appointment to defend the Bible and its doctrines, Luther started on his career as a reformer. It was the beginning of a new epoch in his life, as in his lectures he now opened the gospel of “Christ our righteousness,” as the central thought of all his teaching. PFF2 249.3

Part of a tetzel indulgence, now in wittenberg museum, that precipitated the crisis with Luther (upper); Upper section of 1517 Printing of luther’s ninety-five theses (center); church Door to which theses Were nailed-replaced by brome povtals in which are cast the text of the these (lower right); front page of bull of leo X against luther’s errors (lower left)
Page 251

In 1517 Luther held the threefold office of subprior, preacher, and professor. 9 Great numbers came to hear the new doctrines so convincingly propounded. Meanwhile, Luther had written his little-known theses against the schoolmen (Disputatio contra scholasticam theologicam), and against the scholastic doctrine of man’s ability and strength to attain righteousness, as he attacked superstition and Scholasticism. 10 But it was his theses against indulgences that stirred the world. PFF2 251.1


The present St. Peter’s, at Rome, was built with the proceeds from the sale of indulgences. Begun in 1506 under Julius II, it was completed in 1626 at a cost of $46,000,000.” 11 In the bull Liquet omnibus of Julius II (Jan. 11, 1510), which excited Luther’s revolt, no mention is made of repentance and confession as a condition for gaining the indulgence, but only of payment. For an extra sum the sinner could choose his own confessor. It thus became an expedient of papal finance. 12 In 1514 Leo X began to organize collections for St. Peter’s on a large scale. Three commissions were directed to Germany and neighboring lands. In March, 1515, one was given to Albert, archbishop of Mainz. Half the proceeds were to go to the Holy See. This was not carried into execution until 1517, when the business of preaching the indulgence was put into the hands of the Dominican John Tetzel. 13 Offering his indulgences near Wittenberg, with hitherto unheard of claims, Tetzel set forth the pope as heaven’s dispenser of mercy, and the source of light, grace, and salvation. PFF2 251.2

Seeing the corrupting influence of these indulgences among his own parishioners, Luther tried to stem the tide, and refused to absolve those from their sins who produced an indulgence purchased from Tetzel. (Facsimile appears on page 250.) Therefore the immediate spark that ignited the Reformation did not come from the theological chair, nor even from the pulpit, but from a faithful pastor who was roused to protect his flock from spiritual harm. 14 When Tetzel heard that Luther did not respect his indulgences, he began to threaten with the Inquisition, but Luther was the last one to be intimidated by such a threat. His indignation became irrepressible, and according to the academic custom of the time, he wrote Ninety-five Theses against the indulgences, and at high noon, on October 31, 1517, he affixed them to the door of the Castle Church. 15 (Pictured on page 250.) These he offered to maintain against all opponents. PFF2 252.1

They were also sent, with a covering letter, to Archbishop Albert of Mainz. Underwritten by “Martin Luther, Monk of the Order of St. Augustine,” they asserted the pope’s utter insufficiency to confer forgiveness or salvation, and set forth Christ’s self-sufficiency. They asked those desiring to discuss the propositions to do so in person, or by letter. Their immediate effect was startling, and their boldness stunned the populace. Within a few weeks they were copied, printed, and spread all over Europe. 16 Their voice, echoing throughout Christendom, was felt by friend and foe alike. Their impact produced a mighty shock, giving men a new view of Christ that could not be escaped. PFF2 252.2


At first Pope Leo X was disposed to ignore the Wittenberg movement as a contemptible monkish quarrel. But five months afterward, in March, 1518, he found it necessary to appoint a com mission of inquiry under the direction of the learned Dominican Sylvester Mazzolini, also called Prierias (Prieras), who was master of the papal palace and official censor at Rome. Prierias was under the impression that Luther was ignorant and a heretic. In his refutation of the theses he identified the pope with the Church of Rome, and the Church of Rome with the Church Universal/and denounced every departure from it as heresy. 17 Luther published a reply in August, 1518. The effect of this controversy was to widen the breach, and so to lift the issue to a different level. Whereas in the beginning it was a matter of stopping certain abuses inside the church, it now became a matter of the authority of the church versus one’s own conscience. PFF2 252.3

Luther’s fate had already been decided in Rome. On August 7, 1518, he was summoned there in order to recant, and on the twenty-third of August Elector Frederick was asked to deliver this “Child of the Devil” to the papal legate. Instead, Frederick arranged a peaceful interview with the papal legate at Augsburg, which took place between October 12 and 14. 18 All these experiences troubled and tormented Luther’s heart to its depths, for he considered himself still a faithful son of the church. Doubts about the position of the Papacy became stronger and stronger, and on December 11, 1518, in a letter written to Wenceslaus Link, he promised: PFF2 253.1

“I will send you these compositions of mine, that you may judge whether I am right in my divination when I assert, that that true Antichrist mentioned by St. Paul reigns in the court of Rome and is, as I think I can prove, a greater pest than the Turks.” 19 PFF2 253.2

Before the final decision another attempt from Rome was made to silence Luther. Karl von Miltitz, a Saxon nobleman, was sent as papal nuncio to try by diplomacy to bring the matter to a satisfactory conclusion. On January 6, 1519, he met Luther at Altenburg, and partly succeeded. They reached a truce, under which Tetzel was reproved, and Luther promised to ask the pardon of the pope and to warn the people against the sin of separating from the mother church. 20 In his letter to the pope on March 3, 1519, Luther expresses his deepest humility to the Holy Father, but without retracting his conscientious convictions. At the same time, however, in his study of church history, grave doubts arose in his mind about the validity of the decretals on which the papal primacy was based. So, only a few days later (March 13) we have a letter from Luther, written to Spalatin confidentially, in which he states: PFF2 253.3

“I am sifting the pontifical decretals with a view to my disputation [at Leipsig]; and, to whisper to you the truth, I am not determined whether the Pope be Antichrist himself or only his apostle, so cruelly is Christ (which is the truth) corrupted and crucified by him in his decretals. I am in perfect torture when I consider that the people of Christ are thus mocked, under the pretence of the laws and name of Christ.” 21 PFF2 254.1