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Luther: Famous, but little-known

Volker Wagener
March 12, 2017

Don't you know Martin Luther? Why not? Admittedly, the man last made headlines 500 years ago. What's more, there is very little information about him and his life, and it usually consists of half-truths and legends.

Playmobil-Figur Martin Luther Deutschland
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S.Doepke

'As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.'

This jingle was used by Dominican monk Johan Tetzel, who was known for selling indulgences throughout Germany. Tetzel's work was irrelevant to Luther's theological concerns; however, Luther was angry about the sale of indulgences, the paying of money to the church in return for the remission of sins. He never intended to question the church or the pope. But on October 31, 1517, Luther wrote to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz asking for rectification and a disputation, meaning an academic debate on the issue.

Deutschland Geschichte Reformation Luthers Thesenanschlag Ferdinand Pauwels
Luther may or may not have actually nailed the document to the doorImage: picture-alliance/akg-images

Nailing the theses

Luther prepared a collection of arguments and points of criticism as a basis for the debate. According to his own accounts, 95 of these points became the theses that he personally nailed with a hammer to the Wittenberg church door. However, this has never been proved. On the other hand, the phenomenal effect of these theses quickly spread throughout the country. Luther probably became famous because the theses critical of the church were printed on a leaflet that was in circulation.

The inventor of High German

Luther translated the New Testament into German in just 11 weeks,. He was not the first to translate the Bible but he was the first to use the Greek original as the source text and not the Latin translation. He translated the historical text with great linguistic skill, poeticism and imagery; his translation surpassed all previous German translations. Everyone was able to understand the Bible, as he used simple language. It was no wonder that his writings rapidly spread with the help of the 16th century's new technology of book printing. He became famous despite - or because of - his crude language. "Why don't you fart or burp?" was a question that made him famous as well.

Wittenberg feiert Reformationstag
Martin Luther was professor of moral theology at the University of Wittenberg, which was founded in 1502Image: picture-alliance/dpa/H.Schmidt

Was Luther a social revolutionary?

Actually, this is far from the truth. Luther wanted to reform the church and faith matters together with church authorities and not against their will. He was not a revolutionary in the modern sense of the word. Present-day historians call him "the last medieval man and the first modern one." He was interested in the renewal of faith and rediscovery of religion for individuals and society. The advent of tolerance and pluralism was only an indirect consequence of his activities. During the German Peasants' Revolt of 1524-1526, Luther opposed the peasants after he had first called for peace. In his written piece "Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants," he asked authorities to use their swords in the name of God.

Obey authority

Luther distinguished between the divine and the worldly realms. The peasants' revolt that was guided by his new doctrine on one hand but made social and political demands on the other was an unacceptable mixture of the two realms. With the imminent loss of secular order, Luther also saw that his theological concerns were under threat. He urged the authorities to act against the insurgents.

Luther demanded nothing more than the obedience of subjects to their lords. In the 19th century, his ideas were the foundation of German authoritarian governments; however, researchers now have a much more nuanced view on the subject.

Wittenberg feiert Reformationstag
A celebration of the Reformation in Wittenberg in 2013Image: picture-alliance/dpa/H.Schmidt

Freedom of conscience

When the function of clergy as a link between the believer and God was, so to speak, abolished, Luther's Reformation filled the vacancy with the human conscience. The thoughts and actions of every Christian were no longer a part of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, but instead, each person was solely responsible to their own conscience. This was revolutionary, but it had nothing to do with individualism as we know it today. To Luther, freedom of conscience meant his conscience was "captive to the Word of God," to use his words. It was simply about faith. 

'Here I stand …'

Luther's most famous quote from the Diet of Worms in 1521, where he refused to retract his criticism of the church, has not been substantiated. After he had argued on the basis of the Holy Scriptures and his conscience, he finished his speech with the words, "God help me. Amen." The added sentence, "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise," is evidently a legend. It has not been found in the minutes or eyewitness accounts. Perhaps it was used for dramatic effect when portraying Luther's steadfastness.

Luther and music

Luther can also be considered as the inventor of the hymn, and wrote several himself. The chorale was one of the defining elements of the Reformation movement and an integral part of church services. Since Luther's era, singing together in German has been part of the tradition and identity of Protestants. Nothing proves it more than a book of hymns. Some of Luther's songs have even become spiritual folk songs. The most well-known one, "From Heaven Above to Earth I Come," is still a popular Christmas carol in Germany today.

Deutschland Gemälde von Martin Luther
A portrait of Luther by Lucas Cranach Image: picture-alliance/akg-images

Celibacy and sexuality

Long before he married Katharina von Bora, Luther had a clear opinion about the sexuality of monks and nuns. He believed that celibacy demanded superhuman powers and that only a very few among thousands would be able to be abstain from sex, even with the help of God.

In short, sexuality and marriage were part of the divine order, in Luther's opinion. Although he was sexually abstinent as a young man, just before his wedding he spoke of the "hell of celibacy" that ruined Christians. Ever since, the image of the Protestant vicarage with children running around has been a symbol of Protestantism. It was the basis for the broadening of academic education and the pastor's children were the first beneficiaries. Even in the 16th century, it was said that pastors had many books and many children.


Should a man who spoke and wrote so mercilessly about Jews be celebrated? In light of the Holocaust centuries later, the Protestant Church has a problem, especially in the anniversary year. Luther's polemic against the Jewish people reveals unbridled aggression combined with dreams of annihilation. Luther himself had little contact with Jews. His ideas about Jews and Muslims stemmed from the notion that Christian truth is absolute. His anti-Judaism, however, had nothing to do with the much later anti-Semitism of the Nazis. But the National Socialists made ample use of Luther's aggressive tirades. Only in the 1950s did the Protestant Church gradually distance itself from Luther's image of Jews. And what about today? His anti-Semitism would probably discredit him, the president of the German Protestant Church Congress, Christina Aus der Au, said in an interview with DW. He would probably not have been invited to the German Protestant Church Congress today.