by Charles Fry
A BRIEF LIFE OF MARTIN LUTHER, Part 1
The wicked flee when no one is pursuing,
But the righteous are bold as a lion.
Proverbs 28:1, NASB
On January 12, 1519, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Maximilian I, came to the end of his days and his earthly power. To prepare for the life to come, he gave orders for “his body to be scourged, his hair shorn, his teeth broken out,”[i] hoping to appear before God as a penitent. Such instructions revealed the religious thought of his day: man was guilty before God, but if he could demonstrate through suffering, sacrifice, and acts of penance that he was remorseful enough over his sin and earnest in giving God something of his own merit, he might fare better in the afterlife.
Such was the religion that dripped from a medieval and Renaissance Europe saturated with fear and religious superstition. It was in this atmosphere that Martin Luther lived his days. In order to understand Luther, it is important to first consider the context in which he lived, particularly this merit-based religion that permeated society.
The Renaissance and Medieval Christianity
Most would agree that the Renaissance began around the mid-1300s in Italy and ended in the mid-1500s. Though the period contained much fear and superstition, it was also a time of great achievement, discovery, and change. The word Renaissance is itself French for rebirth, and during this time there were indeed significant changes in the arts, politics, exploration, and approaches to theology. Along with these came the invention of the printing press (circa 1400–1450), a rediscovery of the literary classics, and a renewed focus on the ancient sources, a movement later referred to as humanism. The cry of Renaissance humanism was ad fontes, “back to the sources.” With this focus came a renewed emphasis on the Bible and biblical languages, and a re-examining of all that was once assumed to be true.
The Renaissance came as an explosion in Italy, affecting every area of culture and the life of the church, and giving a unique shape to society. While the Renaissance brought great pride in the glory of man’s attainments, and optimism about the direction of the world, it also engendered great uncertainty about the eternal destiny of one’s life, this being a fruit of medieval Christianity. Lewis Spitz captures the paradox of the Renaissance age:
[It] was an age of powerful personalities, cruel military men, clever and ruthless statesmen, but also of exquisite artists, gentle poets, and dedicated scholars. There were men of enormous wealth, but multitudes who suffered abject poverty. It was a time when nights were consumed in debauchery, but also devoted to vigils and prayer. It was a time for display and pomp, but also for preachers of penitence, humility, and withdrawal to solitary life. It was a day for progress coupled with retrogression. It boasted of the dignity of man but bewailed his misery. It could be humanistic and yet act totally inhumane. It coupled a pronounced interest in man with a weariness with life and a longing for a celestial home.[ii]
Though the Renaissance came rapidly to Italy, it took root more slowly in its neighbor to the north, Germany.[iii] Renaissance thought would eventually make inroads into Germany, affecting its education and theology, but in Luther’s day German culture was still dominated by a medieval religion of fear and superstition.
For instance, Frederick the Wise, who ruled over Saxony in Germany, boasted of a personal collection of 5005 relics, whereby he could erase 1,443 years of purgatory for the “adoring faithful.” His prized collection was purported to include four hairs from Mary’s head, a piece of straw from Jesus’ manger, a strand of Jesus’ beard, and a twig from Moses’ burning bush.[iv] Frederick’s collection of relics demonstrates the superstitious thinking found in the Germany of Luther’s day.[v] Along with relics came teachings on indulgences and purgatory. The Roman Church taught that buying an indulgence from the papacy could free one from the torments of purgatory, a place where the dead pay the penalty for their sins not sufficiently atoned for while living.
The papacy, based in Rome, was also morally corrupt. Pope Innocent VIII, for example, openly celebrated the fact that he had fathered 16 illegitimate children. The father of Pope Leo X, who ruled the Roman Church during the early Reformation, pleaded with his son as he went to Rome to remain pure, calling it the sink of all sins. Early in his career, Luther himself went to Rome and was appalled at the debauchery he found among the priests. Such corruption inevitably influenced the Catholic priesthood in Germany, as well.
A scholarly monastic group, The Brethren of the Common Life, was also present in Germany at this time. While the group was sincere in its devotion to God, it was at the same time mystical in its view of the Christian life. The mystics varied in their theology, but a common thread through their doctrine was salvation by surrender. If you could only surrender enough, they taught, you could jump the chasm formed by sin and reach new heights in your love for and relationship with God.
This was a not-so-subtle form of perfectionism. Several influential writings, including The Imitation of Christ, a devotional by Thomas A’ Kempis (1380–1471), emerged from the group, giving voice to this mystical and perfectionistic view of Christianity. Another example was The Way of Perfection, a book written after Luther’s time by Teresa of Avila. Such books discussed valid and important truths such as the humility of Christ, yet the emphasis was not on Christ’s work for sinners, but on how people should live. Under such mystical teaching (still common today), one could never know if he or she had surrendered enough to be pleasing to God. Indeed, you would be left to wonder how much could ever be enough. Objective faith in Jesus Christ’s person and work had given way to the instability of subjective religious experience.
Such books discussed valid and important truths such as the humility of Christ, yet the emphasis was not on Christ’s work for sinners, but on how people should live. Under such mystical teaching (still common today), one could never know if he or she had surrendered enough to be pleasing to God. Indeed, you would be left to wonder how much could ever be enough. Objective faith in Jesus Christ’s person and work had given way to the instability of subjective religious experience.
Thus, medieval and Renaissance Germany was indeed a world of lofty ambition concerning its view of man, yet also a world of fear, superstition, purgatory, penance, indulgences, and introspective efforts to justify oneself before God by works. In short, it was a world that did not know grace. This was the world into which Martin Luther was born.
Next week: Luther’s early years, the torture of his monastic life, the trauma of serving his first Mass as a priest, and his move to Wittenberg.
Part 3 of an extended series drawn from A World Upside Down: The Life and Theology of Martin Luther, by Charles E. Fry.
Chuck Fry holds degrees from Marshall University, Moody Bible Institute, and Christ College. He has been in discipleship ministry since 1989 and is on staff with The Navigators in Huntington, West Virginia. He and his wife, Lisa, organize and host the annual Majesty of God conference, held each April.
[i] Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man Caught between God and the Devil (New Haven: Yale, 1982, 1989, 2006), p. 26.
[ii] Lewis W. Spitz, The Renaissance and Reformation Movements, volume 1 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing, 1971, 1987), 17. Used with permission.
[iii] Thomas M. Lindsay, A History of the Reformation: The Reformation in Germany, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1916), 57.
[iv] Roland Bainton, Here I Stand; A Life of Martin Luther (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1950, 1977, 2010), 53.
[v] Frederick the Wise was deeply respected by Luther and would later become Luther’s great protector. Frederick changed his view of relics and died a friend of the Reformation, believing in justification by faith alone.