Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

“Finding Clarity” [an extract from Martin Luther]

The foundation of Protestantism changed the religious landscape of Europe, and subsequently the world. Heinz Schilling traces the life of Martin Luther and shows him not simply as a reformer, but also as an individual. The following extract looks at the aftermath following the publication of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses.

Luther did not become a reformer overnight. The publication of his Ninety-Five Theses was only the opening act in a back and forth, rife with tension, involving his continuing intellectual and personal development as professor at the university in Wittenberg, on one hand, and complex external events that became part of the everyday existence, on the other. In a multifaceted process for which he did not bear sole responsibility, events beyond the university turned the Augustinian monk into one of the most prominent figures of his age. He was borne through these months and years on a wave of approval and admiration, but he also faced biting criticism that challenged him to the core, even to the extent of being accused of heresy, which put his life on the line: ‘In three weeks I will have the heretic in the fire and he will go to heaven in a bath cap,’ Tetzel had sworn as early as 1517.

Within a few weeks Tetzel’s words reached Luther, who now lived in the shadow of that all-too-real threat. Those who criticized the church could not easily shake off the memory of the bonfire lit in Constance some hundred years earlier to silence Jan Hus, the ‘heretical’ Czech reformer.

The situation seemed all the more dangerous as in October 1518, one year after Luther had published his Ninety-Five Theses, it was impossible to predict whether the electoral Saxon ruler would stand by him in the long run or whether Frederick would decide to distance himself from his criticized professor. When Luther learned that Karl von Miltitz, Rome’s special legate, was on his way to the Saxon elector and had with him ‘three papal letters in order to arrest me and hand me over to the pope’, he prepared himself for the worst—for imprisonment, death, or, as the best of the worst, banishment to France, an idea that Cajetan the papal legate, had thrown in the mix. Whatever the outcome, he was clear ‘that in this matter and on other matters I must make haste’, by which he meant that he had to give his newly discovered truth both written and organizational roots in order that it might not be stifled should he die or be imprisoned: ‘In order that they don’t kill me when I am unprepared or weigh down on me with punishments,’ he recorded, ‘I have organized everything and await God’s decision.’ As a precaution he had instructed his community in Wittenberg, ‘Live well…should I not return’, exhorting them ‘not to be alarmed by the enraged papal punishments directed against me…but rather to leave this matter and similar things to God’.

Before he was able to exclaim in Worms, ‘I’ve made it through,’ Luther had to live through a dramatic period during which he continued to work, undeterred, on the essential of his new theology. In this existential crisis he acquired an inner strength that subsequently, from the mid-1520s, enabled him to promote the reorganization of church, state, and society with the authority of a prophet sent by God. The anxieties and exertions of all his travel, poorly equipped and undertaken largely on foot, unleashed a range of troubling physical complaints with emotional origins, above all stock pains and agonizing constipation. Having suffered on his journey in 1518 to Augsburg, where he was questioned by Cajetan, the papal legate, Luther was tormented by the same ailments all the more when he travelled to Worms in spring 1521.

Yet during these testing times Luther’s theology assumed its definitive Reformation from while Luther’s character acquired the steeliness that left the reformer equal to the demands and attacks of the following decades. Luther interpreted his physical pains as assaults by the devil and therefore as a sure sign that his truth was from God and could not be halted by a human hand, no matter what burdens his body might have to bear. In a letter written in late autumn 1518 to Spalatin and the Electoral Saxon government in which he informed them that the curia was about to take action against his freedom and perhaps even his life, he could still assure his friend, ‘I am full of joy and peace and lecture and teach as before.’

Featured image credit: Martin Luther in Augsburg vor Kardinal Cajetan. Woodcut. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Recent Comments

  1. Jeanne Swack

    I just wrote a paper for a conference on anti-Judaism and Lutheran preaching in the 18th c. Luther became anti-Jewish fairly quickly, long before “On the Jews and their Lies.” I am troubled by all the celebration of the “Luther Year” and the adulation of a person whose writings are often so filled with hatred and who caused so much trouble for Jewish communities in Lutheran-dominated German areas. The historical consequencesa have lasted a long time.

Comments are closed.