(Born – Nov. 10, 1483) Eisleben, Germany (Died – Feb. 18, 1546) Eisleben, Germany
Born in Germany in 1483, Martin Luther became one of the most influential figures in Christian history when he began the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. He called into question some of the basic tenets of Roman Catholicism, and his followers soon split from the Roman Catholic church to begin the Protestant tradition.
German theologian and religious reformer who was the catalyst of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation. Through his words and actions, Luther precipitated a movement that reformulated certain basic tenets of Christian belief and resulted in the division of Western Christendom between Roman Catholicism and the new Protestant traditions, mainly Lutheranism, Calvinism, the Anglican Communion, the Anabaptists, and the Antitrinitarians. He is one of the most influential figures in the history of Christianity.
Luther began his education at a Latin school in Mansfeld in the spring of 1488. There he received a thorough training in the Latin language and learned by rote the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, and morning and evening prayers. In 1497 Luther was sent to nearby Magdeburg to attend a school operated by the Brethren of the Common Life, a lay monastic order whose emphasis on personal piety apparently exerted a lasting influence on him. In 1501 he matriculated at the University of Erfurt, at the time one of the most distinguished universities in Germany. The matriculation records describe him as in habendo, meaning that he was ineligible for financial aid, an indirect testimonial to the financial success of his father. Luther took the customary course in the liberal arts and received the baccalaureate degree in 1502. Three years later he was awarded the master’s degree. His studies gave him a thorough exposure to Scholasticism; many years later, he spoke of Aristotle and William of Ockham as “his teachers.”
The Indulgences Controversy
In the fall of 1517 an ostensibly innocuous event quickly made Luther’s name a household word in Germany. Irritated by Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar who was reported to have preached to the faithful that the purchase of a letter of indulgence entailed the forgiveness of sins, Luther drafted a set of propositions for the purpose of conducting an academic debate on indulgences at the university in Wittenberg. He dispatched a copy of the Ninety-five Theses to Tetzel’s superior, Archbishop Albert of Mainz, along with a request that Albert put a stop to Tetzel’s extravagant preaching; he also sent copies to a number of friends. Before long, Albert formally requested that official proceedings be commenced in Rome to ascertain the work’s orthodoxy; meanwhile, it began to be circulated in Germany, together with some explanatory publications by Luther.
Luther clearly intended the Ninety-five Theses to be subservient to the church and the pope, and their overall tone is accordingly searching rather than doctrinaire. Nevertheless, there is a detectable undercurrent of “reforming” sentiment in the work—expressed in several theses beginning with the phrase “Christians are to be taught that”—as well as some openly provocative statements. Thesis 86, for example, asks,“Why does not the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?”
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