English 233: Introduction to Western Humanities - Baroque & Enlightenment

Introductory Readings in Martin Luther

A major source of Luther's writings on-line is Project Wittenberg. You will want to browse around in it on your own. Some of the links in what follows point to particular documents available on that site. 

One traditional point of entry into Luther's writings is the famous "Ninety-Five Theses" which Luther nailed to the door of the Wittenberg church in October 1517, in an attempt to get a discussion going on several issues concerning justification theory that were raised by a striking indulgence being sold nearby under a commission granted by Albert, the new archbishop of Mainz, himself acting under a special permission to issue the indulgence. There is a detailed Study Guide to this reading that -- if you're going to take on the 95 Theses -- you should print out and have on hand for item-to-item scrutiny of Luther's famous challenge.

Note that, while Luther vigorously protests the indulgence being hawked on Albert's behalf by the Dominican priest Johann Tetzel, he does not at this time repudiate the authority of the Pope as Christ's vicar on earth through the Apostolic Succession from St. Peter. He does not even challenge the sacramental status of the rite of penance. Still less does he voice any objections against the idea of a specially ordained priesthood, or against the validity of the Canon Law. (Indeed, at several points he relies upon it.) Finally, we see nothing explicit here of Luther's doctrine of salvation by faith alone. These are positions to which he was gradually driven in the conflict that developed with the pope over the Ninety-Five Theses.  In 1517, in other words, Luther was still basically a conservative late medieval Catholic.
If you prefer, you can get the text of the "Ninety-Five Theses" in HTML format, rather than in plaintext, as you are taken to in the previous link. These are the same translation from Latin.

As it became clear that Pope Leo X was determined not to admit that the indulgence he had permitted Albert to issue was invalid, the dispute between Luther and Rome broadened into irreconcilablility. For a long time, Luther had struggled to understand the sense of the idea of "the justice of God." This notion had caused him great anguish, since he repeatedly found himself unable to hate God for His vengeful punishment of human beings who were incapable of extricating themselves from their mire of sin, and he feared that this hating of God would assure his own damnation. His fears were magnified when he reflected that he could detect no change in his confidence when he followed all the standard sacrificial works prescribed for purifying the soul and acquiring merit: contact with supposedly powerful relics had done nothing for him during his visit to Rome (probably towards the end of 1510); fasting and other ascetic disciplines were of no avail; worst of all, even the sacraments of penance and the Lord's supper seemed to have no effect on his sense of sinfulness.

The breakthrough seems to have occurred in 1519 -- two years after the 95 Theses, filled with disputes with Dominican theologians the Vatican commissioned to expose Luther's errors.  Luther described what has come to be known as his "Tower Experience" (1519) in 1545 (a year before his death), in the Preface to the opening volume of his collected Latin works. This is an important source for understanding the personal origins of the distinctive Lutheran conception of the nature and role of Faith in justification. It is essential that you relate connect the centrality of this concept in Luther's theory of redemption to the centrality of the same term in our explication of the Fall story in Genesis.

[A translation of the full Preface to Luther's Latin Writings is also available on-line from the Wittenberg Project.  This is an exciting document to read, since it contains Luther's recollections, still vivid, of the days when the rift was widening between him and the Church.  Here, for example, you will find his summary of his correspondence with Albert of Mainz and Pope Leo, and of the face-off at the Diet of Worms.  Highly recommended.]

The locus classicus of Luther's doctrine of salvation by faith alone is found in the Introduction he composed to Saint Paul's Letter to the Romans, as part of Luther's famous translation of the Bible of 1522.  This is the source of a convient excerpt in which Luther defines what he means by "faith".

[The full Preface to the Book of Romans (1522) is also available on-line.   This is perhaps the central document in Luther's theology.  We will not be taking it on as a whole, but those of you who are intensely interested in the issues will want eventually to return to this on your own.]

Luther's most influential theological treatise of all is his "On Christian Freedom".  (Or go here for a slightly abridged version.)  (You will also find this work referred to as "On the Freedom of a Christian Man," and in more recent times as "On the Freedom of a Christian Person").  Written in 1520 -- the year in which Luther was excommunicated by Pope Leo X -- this famous work lays out in detail Luther's views on the relationship between faith and works in the life of the Christian.  If you decide to pursue further study of Luther, this is a work you will want to spend your most careful energies in understanding.  It defines Luther's disagreement not only with what would later be defined as Catholic orthodoxy by the Council of Trent, but also with those of his initial followers who would eventually proceed to antinomianism. 

Along with two other major treatises Luther published in the same year -- "On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church" (rejecting Roman doctrine on the sacraments) and "Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation" (in which Luther called upon the secular sovereigns in Germany to assume responsibility for purifying the Church from the corruptions he attributed to the usurpations of Rome) -- this work moved the Roman authorities to insist that Luther be delivered to Rome to face charges of heresy.  His own sovereign, the powerful Kurfürst Frederick the Wise of Saxony, insisted that his German subject appear before a German body.  The result was that it was arranged for Luther to be present for interrogation next year at the next imperial assembly (the Reichstag, known in English as the Diet, because it consisted of two distinct deliberative bodies), to be held in the German city of Wörms, under the Emperor Charles V's guarantee of safe conduct.

Luther arrived expecting to defend his positions, but the papal ambassadors were under instructions to allow him the opportunity only to retract his works which had been condemned in the papal bull of excommunication.  A crucial moment in the history of authority in the West is Luther's declaration before the Diet of Worms in 1521.

On leaving the city in the aftermath of this statement, Luther disappeared from view for over a year.  The incident was spectacular.  His prince had instructed his chamberlain to arrange for Luther's safety, but to keep the means secret from himself so that he could take an oath on the Bible that he did not know Luther's whereabouts.  It was arranged for Luther to be kidnapped on the way home, and taken to one of Frederick's castles, the Wartburg fortress outside of Eisenach.  It was there that, under the fictional identity of "Junker Georg," Luther set about translating the New Testament into German.

As part of this project, Luther undertook to provide his readers with the guiding perspective of a trained theologian.  His Commentary on Paul's Letter to the Romans (1522) is the source of the definition of faith we have already mentioned.

Some possible next steps in exploring Luther further

If you want to see how Luther eventually developed a comprehensive alternative vision of Christian teaching and practice, you might consult our Study Guide that summarizes Luther's mature theology.  Based on Roland Bainton's The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, it affords a review in detail larger system of differences between the Lutheran conceptions of the Church and of justification and those of Catholicism.

Part of the controversy between Luther and the established Church involved the number and nature (manner of operation) of the sacraments  A convenient place to look is the two catechisms he composed for the instruction of unlearned people.  You might look in one to see what he has to say about baptism and in the other to see what he has to say about the Lord's Supper.  Or you might want compare what he says in each version about one or both sacraments.  (What is important about the elaborations he gives in the Large Catechism?  Conversely, in what sense is it non-essential?)  Whichever you do, you will probably undertand these better if you read these in the light of the Study Guide mentioned above, which will aquaint you with the fuller implications of Luther's eventual elaboration of his thinking on these subjects.

The Small Catechism (1529) was designed to guide fathers of households in the instruction of their family and servants.  Here you might check out

Luther's Large Catechism (1530) covers the same ground but goes into deeper detail.

Reformation Ink is a site maintained by the Society of Classical Protestants that provides a gateway to numerous key works in the early Lutheran and Reformed Protestant traditions.

Other resources

For an aggressively adversarial view of Luther's personal character, see the entry on Martin Luther in the Catholic Encyclopedia.

While you're at it, you might take a look at the brief biographical account of Luther's initial adversary, Pope Leo X.  (It comes from the same Web site, but is excerpted from a different source:  Joseph Brusher, S.J., Popes through the Ages.)

Eventually anyone interested in Luther would want to immerse him/herself in some wonderfully readable books by Roland Bainton.  Both are currently in print in inexpensive paperback editions.

Where would you get these?  Of course, if you're at K-State, Hale Library might be the first place to check out!  If you want to acquire a copy of your own, there are lots of options to consider.

  Go to the Home Page of the course.

  Suggestions, comments and questions are welcome.  Please send them to lyman@ksu.edu .

      Contents copyright © 1999 by Lyman A. Baker

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      This page last updated 02 September 1999.