Biography of Martin Luther: Part 1

By Luke Lancaster

Martin Luther. The man who split from the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century. In the name of reform he created his own church, which came to be known as Lutheran. Two questions should immediately come to mind: Was this justified, and why did he do this? The answers to these questions determine if one is a Catholic-Christian or a Protestant-Christian. Yet unfortunately, many do not know the biography of Martin Luther. So in this short pamphlet, his historical life will be summarized and analyzed.

Early Life

Martin Luther was born in Eisleben, Germany, in 1483. Education was not mandatory, but Luther's father, Hans, wanted the best for his son. Hans had been poor but ultimately found good work and got involved in politics. Hans Luther wanted Martin to continue in this wealthy and prestigious tradition. This fact will become important later.

Martin Luther’s parents were rather harsh. Based on what Martin said of his early life, he remembers taking a walnut from the kitchen and his mother subsequently beating him till she drew blood. His father also was just as difficult to please. Both parents seemed to be what modern psychology would call verbally and physically abusive.

In 1501, Martin left the tyranny of his parents and went to the University of Erfurt, where he was awarded his Master's degree in 1505. After graduation, Martin enrolled in law school to please his father. However, he suddenly quit and went to the monastery the same year, which displeased his father greatly. Angering his father was not his intention, but rather a fulfillment of a promise to God. For when Martin was traveling one day, a lightning storm erupted. Martin thought that he would die, and promised God that if he did not die, then he would become a monk. The latter occurred, and he chose to enroll with the Augustinian monks. They were a group of consecrated priests and brothers who attempted to follow the 5th century Christian teacher, St. Augustine. Joining these monks seemed appropriate, since Martin’s teachers at the University of Erfurt were Augustinians.

Luther entered the monastery and made his final vows after less than a year of strict rules and study in 1506. He begged for food, prayed the Liturgy of the Hours, and continued to study. During his time in the monastery, Martin was filled with anxiety over sin.

Martin would try to please God as a monk by doing good works. He would try fasting for days without any food. He would sleep in his cell without blankets as a penance and nearly freeze to death in the winters. Martin’s life seemed a continuous cycle of vigils, prayers, readings, and self-inflicted penances. He would go to confession and spend large amounts of time there, anywhere from thirty minutes to six hours. Sometimes as soon as he left, he would run back in. Luther wrote, “I did not love [God], yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners” (Luther’s Works, 34, 336-337). He was having a difficult time.

Luther’s life as a religious seemed to be characterized by what modern psychologists have called a religious form of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. For confessing one’s sins for such an extended amount of time every single day would imply an immense amount of thinking and reflection over every thought, word, and deed. The reason for the obsession would possibly have been due to him imagining God as an angry father. His own earthly father was unable to be pleased, and it is well known today how early childhood experiences shape one’s thinking. Martin Luther may have transferred the image of his earthly father to his Heavenly Father.

While in the monastery, Luther continued to study. In 1508, he earned a Bachelor’s in Sacred Scripture and in 1509 a Bachelor’s in the “Sentences,” which was a sort of systematic theology textbook by Peter Lombard. He continued on and earned a doctorate in Scripture in 1512. While studying in the monastery, Luther’s confessor was Dr. Staupitz. This professor was the Vicar General of the Augustinians. Dr. Staupitz approached him with the idea of becoming a professor. Luther did not want to be a teacher, but Dr. Staupitz pushed him to do it.

Dr. Staupitz’s desire for Luther to become a professor was so strong that he stepped down from his teaching position at the University of Wittenberg and had Martin take his place. Wittenberg University was a rather new school, having only been founded in 1502 by Prince Frederick the Wise, so it was exciting. While teaching, the young German monk lectured on what he learned in his private research. When he lectured on Scripture, he got to Paul’s letter to the Romans. Martin would interpret this epistle either while lecturing on it or while reflecting on it a few years later, and understand it to be teaching salvation by faith alone. This was a big deal, for Catholicism taught that faith and faithfulness (good works) were two sides to the same coin. But for Luther, chapter 1 of Romans seemed to be saying that good works were not as important as Catholicism made them out to be. Romans 1:17 says that man becomes righteous in God’s sight through faith. This passage changed his life and began his life-long conviction that salvation is by sola fide - faith alone.

Some will say that Luther arrived at this understanding as a reaction to his immense struggles with pleasing God. That can never be answered definitively. According to Martin, St. Paul was saying that good works had nothing to do with maintaining salvation. However, many have pointed out that such an interpretation of St. Paul would actually have contradicted his other statements (Ex. Romans 2:4-8, where works determine salvation or damnation).

Martin Luther would soon post his thoughts in 95 points or theses while serving as a monk and professor at Wittenburg. That would begin his difficulties with the Church, but it is important to understand what led to this. He had a rough childhood, greatly feared God, demonstrated seemingly OCD-like actions, and became a professor. That professor would cause quite a stir in 16th century Germany, as we will see.