Christopher Boyd Brown
The years 1517–1525 were the most tumultuous of Luther’s career. They saw his emergence from obscurity to become a figure of international controversy and national renown as the controversy over indulgences exploded, with far-reaching ecclesiastical and political consequences. He emerged as a master—if not practically the creator—of the popular press, dominating German vernacular printing with a flood of treatises and the publication of his German New Testament in 1522. These years were the crucible in which Luther’s theology was shaped into its mature form through conflict not only with supporters of the papacy and of scholasticism but also with former colleagues and sympathizers. By 1525 Luther’s theology had established itself as a movement and distinguished itself from other versions of reform.
Derek R. Nelson
So much is known about Martin Luther, and the stakes of telling his story have been perceived to be so high, that an astonishing variety of presentations of his life have been offered. Some of his earliest opponents sought to discredit and vilify Luther by highlighting and in some cases fabricating shameful details about his life. His collaborators and sympathizers came to his defense. With similar one-sidedness, they inaugurated a long tradition of Luther hagiography. The man who did much to diminish the role that devotion to the saints played in the piety of Christianity came to function much like a Protestant saint. Miracles, such as his portrait not burning up in house fires, even came to be attributed to him.
As the process of confessionalization took place, subsequent generations told the Luther story as one of divine intervention in history. The monastic theologian became an evangelical prophet as well as a “national” hero. For Roman Catholics, Luther became the quintessential heresiarch, because the spate of divisions emerging from medieval Christendom were thought to be attributed to him, and thus any attempt to characterize and caricature him could be justified by appealing to the urgency to refute him. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century biographies of Luther display evidence of the growing sensitivity to objective historical scrutiny but maintained their confessional biases. Protestants in their 20th-century portrayals tend to exemplify the dominant philosophical and methodological interests of biographers: existentialists see an existentialist Luther, psychoanalysts see a manic-depressive Luther, and so on.
Portrayals of Luther come in other media, as well. Stage adaptations and numerous films show a tormented, angst-ridden soul who faces his pain with sometimes heroic resolve. And Luther becomes a wax nose, easily bent for organizers’ agendas, when he is depicted and contextualized in various anniversaries of his life, death, and Reformation.
Luther in his early years came of age in a late medieval setting from which he was not prone to depart during these years. His father, Hans, strongly impressed upon his son a responsibility to improve his lot by climbing the social ladder, for in his eyes that was what a dutiful son should do. But young Luther declined to follow this path and instead entered the order of the Augustinian Eremites in Erfurt in 1505. Here, he found pious advisors, chiefly John Staupitz, his patron over the course of the following years. Luther’s first mass in 1507 symbolically marked the break with his father. From that time forward, Luther spent his time as a monk, priest, and theologian. Somehow he became involved in controversies within his order, which led him to make a journey first to Rome in 1511/12, and, following his return, to Wittenberg. Here, he developed his hermeneutical method lecturing on the Psalms and Paul. In this time, his religious thought developed, but not all at once, as Luther himself often reported, but gradually. Here he was influenced not only by Paul and Augustine, but also by the late medieval mysticism he came to know through the sermons of John Tauler. Reading these sermons in 1515/16 he inserted many marginal notes, and they show that he was a proponent of an inward piety focused on the concept of faith. At this time, he was still attached to his spiritual advisor John of Staupitz. Mainly through the temptation occasioned by the doctrine of predestination, Luther developed some helpful insights, which led him to acknowledge Jesus Christ as the only Savior. His insights took him beyond the medieval framework and made him a reformer who was first and foremost focused on a new approach to the academic training of the theologian.