Theologians, they don't know nothing
About my soul, oh they don't know
They kill my heart with little things
And my life with change
Oh in so many ways
I find more missing every day
- "Theologians," by Wilco
Martin Luther's life story is the stuff of history and hagiography, of family squabbles and personal angst, of theological wrangling and political maneuvering. This brief overview takes us from the beginning of Luther's life to his exile at Wartburg in 1521.
1483-1505. Born into a middle class German family at the end of the Middle Ages, young Martin was privileged to attend school, his father hopeful that he would have a prosperous career in law. However, legal studies did not suit him. On his way back home from Erfurt after visiting his family, Luther was caught in a thunderstorm and cried out to St. Anne that he would become a monk if his life were spared. Within weeks, he found himself wearing the cowl of a friar in the Augustinian order, known for its strict discipline.
1505-1517. As an Augustinian, Luther became a priest and then studied for and achieved his doctorate. An assigned trip to Rome sowed seeds of disillusionment in him as he witnessed the city's immorality, corruption, and the work of incompetent and boorish priests there in the shadow of early construction work at St. Peter's Basilica. In 1512 he took up an assignment in Wittenberg, where he made his home until his death thirty five years later. Luther taught theology, and for the next several years lectured on the Biblical books of Genesis, Psalms, Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews. In addition, he preached in the town church and served as a pastor to the townsfolk of Wittenberg.
During this time as a professor he was growing in his understanding of Scripture and developing evangelical theological perspectives, while as a pastor he was hearing the confessions and spiritual burdens of his parishioners. His studies led him to believe that theological education should stress Biblical studies rather than scholasticism. His priestly experiences led him to question the way the Church was tending God's sheep.
Roland Bainton describes the religious situation, highlighting one egregious example Luther faced in Wittenberg:
As a parish priest in a village church he was responsible for the spiritual welfare of his flock. They were procuring indulgences as he had once done himself. Rome was not the only place in which such favors were available, for the popes delegated to many churches in Christendom the privilege of dispensing indulgences, and the Castle Church at Wittenberg was the recipient of a very unusual concession granting full remission of all sins. The day selected for the proclamation was the first of November, the day of All Saints, whose merits provided the ground of the indulgences and whose relics were then on display. Frederick the Wise, the elector of Saxony, Luther's prince, was a man of simple and sincere piety who had devoted a lifetime to making Wittenberg the Rome of Germany as a depository of sacred relics....
Those who viewed these relics on the designated day and made the stipulated contributions might receive from the pope indulgences for the reduction of purgatory, either for themselves or others, to the extent of 1,902,202 years and 270 days. These were the treasures made available on the day of All Saints.
Luther preached against such practices in 1516. The next year, an even greater controversy arose as Albrecht of Brandenburg, who aspired to the archbishopric of Mainz, sought to win the pope's favor by administrating the sale of indulgences throughout Germany in an effort to raise money for the building of the new St. Peter's. (He was also willing to promote the sale of indulgences because he would receive half the proceeds.) A theatrical Dominican vendor named Johann Tetzel spearheaded the sales efforts. Angered, Martin Luther fervently opposed these practices and believed they should be discussed publicly, and so he posted his Ninety Five Theses as a call for academic debate.- Bainton, Here I Stand, p. 53
In this context, within Luther's own heart and mind was growing a fuller and more precise grasp on the gospel. Though there is no certain date for what is known as his "tower experience," it may have occurred in this period around 1517-18. This was an epiphany of spiritual insight, an evangelical awakening that led Luther to comprehend and celebrate that God's righteousness in the gospel is not that standard by which he condemns us, but rather his gift to those who trust in Christ alone. It became the foundation of the reformer's work from that point on.
1517-1521. Luther would need a firm place to stand, for the next few years were tumultuous. His words and writings were being distributed far and wide, catching the attention of Rome. An inquisition was begun, and in 1518 Luther received notice that he was to appear in Rome on charges of heresy. Elector Frederick was able to have the location changed to Germany, and Luther was examined by Cardinal Cajetan, the papal legate, who urged the monk to recant some of his views. Later that year, Luther articulated his teachings at a meeting of the Augustinian order (The Heidelberg Disputation). This meeting led Johann Eck, a scholastic theologian, to challenge Luther to participate in a debate at the University of Leipzig, which was known for its support of traditional Catholic positions. The Leipzig Debate took place in 1519.
Then Martin Luther wrote several important Reformation tracts: A Treatise on Good Works, Address to the Christian Nobility, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and The Freedom of the Christian. These provocative writings set forth Luther's teaching in clear contrast to Rome. As a result, Pope issued his Bull Exsurge Domine and Luther's books were burned in Rome. When Luther received the Bull, he in turn burned it in Wittenberg. That led to his excommunication and a call to the Diet of Worms (a theological trial) in 1521.
Luther's famous refusal to recant at Worms led to an edict that cut him off from the Church, called for his arrest, and warned anyone who might protect him. By the time this edict was issued, Luther had been spirited away and safely hidden at Wartburg Castle, where he spent almost a year in exile from Wittenberg.
Martin Luther had opened a new door for the gospel to do its work in the Church and in the world. In so doing, he had attracted quite a following. A movement committed to reforming the Church had begun to form, with great enthusiasm.
What would those who embraced his teachings do now: with their most prominent leader condemned, forced into hiding, and perhaps (as far as some of them knew) dead, defeated by the powers who ruled the day?