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Martin Luther’s Life, 1483–1516

Summary and Keywords

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.

Keywords: Martin Luther, biography, development, breakthrough, mysticism, St. Paul, Saint Augustine, Staupitz, Erfurt, Wittenberg


To understand Martin Luther means to understand a person whose life and piety was shaped within a late medieval framework. We know little to nothing about his early years, mainly from his own recollections and in some cases from the stories told by his friends, e.g., Philipp Melanchthon. It was Melanchthon who first set down 1483 as the year of Luther’s birth, following a family tradition.1 Actually, as with many other cases in the medieval and early modern period, the year remains uncertain. Some facts suggest that he could have been born in 1482, while others seem to argue for 1484.2 However, even if the year of Luther’s birth remains uncertain, the day of his birth was unquestionably November 10th. Following the common practice, he was baptized the following day, on St. Martin’s Day, in the city of his birth, Eisleben in the County of Mansfeld.

Luther seems to have been the firstborn of altogether eight or nine brothers and sisters, and the hope and desires of his father Hans were obviously focused upon him. The family’s name was Luder, which Martin later on, in 1517, changed to “Luther,” alluding to the Greek expression “eleutherios” for “liberated.”3 Hans Luder came from a rural family in Möhra near Eisenach, but married Margarete, a daughter of the well-established Lindemann family in Eisenach. This fortunate pairing may have inspired his ambitions. Excluded from parental heritage by Thuringian law, he advanced his social standing through hard work. The county of Mansfeld was famous for mining, and Hans Luder became a master of smelting works, successfully working as a subcontractor. Shortly after his first son’s birth, he moved his workplace to the city of Mansfeld proper, the capital of the county. Here, he acquired modest wealth for himself and his family. But he never lost the spirit of a social climber, which expressed itself in severe piety and high expectations for his son Martin.

As far as one can tell from Luther’s late remembrances, the piety in the family was directed by a God who ruled their life through his Ten Commandments and an awareness of the Devil’s abiding presence. The mother’s song “Mir und dir ist niemand hold, das ist unser beider Schuld” (“You and I are dear to none, and that is the fault of both of us”4) expresses the gloomy tenor of Luther’s early religious education. It also shows that both Luther’s father and his mother stood for this stern piety. Likewise, both of them preferred strict discipline, beating their children for little reason. Against this background, it would be too easy to blame Hans Luder for being responsible for Luther’s fear of God. Nevertheless, the atmosphere of his Mansfeld home represented exactly the kind of late medieval piety that Luther would later struggle with. For an appropriate understanding of the time it is important to understand that this stern piety was just one current within the broader stream of later medieval Christianity. In his childhood, Luther seems not to have had a chance to experience the sweeter variety of later medieval inward devotion. For this he had to leave his home, which he did quite early.

After five or six years attending elementary school (trivium) in Mansfeld, Martin was sent to Magdeburg in 1496 or 1497, where he presumably attended the Cathedral school. Here he may have come into contact with the Brethren of Common Life, which was a branch of the devotio moderna, a later medieval reform movement. This might have given him his initial insights into an inwardly oriented piety, in sharp contrast to the law-oriented external piety of his parents. We do not know why he left Magdeburg after not more than one year. Perhaps at least one reason may have been so that he could be nearer to his family while attending school in Eisenach. There he became a student in the St. George school. Other than his teacher Wigand Güldenapf, the most impressive person here was Johannes Braun, vicar at the foundation of St. Mary’s, who had procured some humanistic training. Even more important became the Schalbe college (collegium), a group of devoted and well-educated individuals loosely attached to the Franciscan monastery there. Here Luther came into contact with mendicant devotion and engaged in inward piety.

From Eisenach, it was an easy step to go on to Erfurt for university studies. In 1501, Luther was enrolled to study the artes liberales. His teachers Jodocus Trutvetter (d. 1519) and Bartholomaeus Arnoldi of Usingen (ca. 1464–1532) followed the via moderna, a terminist way of understanding universals. Together with Tübingen, Erfurt offered space for a renaissance of the thought of William of Ockham (d. 1347) as main authority. Later Luther would admit his affiliation with the school of Ockham. However, even more important was the humanist influence. In his bursa (presumably the bursa of St. George), Luther was respected as a “philosopher and musician,”5 which clearly indicates humanist interests. Indeed, Erfurt was one of the centers of the humanist movement in Germany, and it was closely connected with the circle of Mutianus Rufus in Gotha. These circles provided the inspiration for the “Letters of Obscure Men,” a satire against scholasticism that was received across Germany. Thus, Luther lived and learned in a context of sharp contrast to the traditional academic world of the scholastic theologian. When he later on began to criticize the scholastics on his own, he needed only to step forward and somehow to transform these tendencies. First, however, he completed his studies in the artes. In 1505, he became a Master of Arts and could now choose which of the higher faculties he would attend. His father’s preference was quite clear: Young Martin should take up the study of law and prepare for a promising career in urban or princely administration. Obviously, the father wanted his son to continue on the path of upward social mobility. And indeed, Luther began at first to study law, but a sudden break interrupted this career path: the famous Stotternheim event.

Becoming a Monk and Priest

The story is easy to tell, but difficult to explain. In the course of the summer 1505, Martin Luther visited his parents, for reasons unknown. On the way back, shortly before Erfurt, he was overtaken by a thunderstorm. Terrified, he vowed to become a monk, if God would but let him survive. Up to this point, there is no question about the historical facts. But their meaning is less clear when we consider the addressee of Luther’s plea critically. According to his own report in 1539, he cried out: “Hilff du, S. Anna, ich wil ein monch werden!” (“Help, Saint Anna, and I will become a monk!”).6 Though this story was often repeated later on, Angelika Dörfler-Dierken has shown its problems.7 It begins with what is perhaps the obvious one: The quote derives from a Table Talk more than thirty years after the supposed event. No mention of Anna is found in the reports regarding Stotternheim from all the years before. In 1539, however, the name fits suspiciously well into Luther’s intended theological message. In the Table Talk in question, Luther wanted to show the effects of God’s grace, referring to the Hebrew root chen, grace. From this root the name Anna could be derived, and thus Luther’s long-ago vow would reveal itself as a hidden hint of divine grace. Considering that the cult of Saint Anna was not as widespread in Mansfeld as was once assumed, there is good reason to surmise that originally she had no place in Luther’s vow.

Even more important is another critical reflection: As Luther and generations after him told the story, the decision to enter a monastery had come over the young man suddenly, occasioned by his fear of death in the face of the thunderstorm. This version does not fit very well with the fact that Luther would almost certainly have known that according to canon law a vow made in deadly fear was not binding. Luther could have revoked it, but he did not. This might indicate that the wish to become a monk was more deeply rooted in him than a mere spontaneous vow.

An earlier account of the story written by Luther himself suggests an intriguing backstory: In a dedicatory letter to his father, accompanying his 1521 tract “On Monastic Vows,” Luther wrote about his desire to become a monk: “It was even your intention to captivate me with a honorable and wealthy marriage.”8 This sentence presupposes a moment between Luther’s choice to become a monk and his fulfilling of this decision, when the father had tried to intervene. But no contact between Luther and his father is known to have taken place between Stotternheim and Luther’s entry into the monastery. This means that Hans Luder’s intervention must have happened before Stotternheim. If this is true, the question why Luther made the long trip from Erfurt to Mansfeld could be resolved in the midst of the summer term: The easiest explanation would be that Luther visited his parents at the end of June in 1505 and disclosed his intention to become a monk. His father obviously disagreed and instead proposed a well-respected marriage during this encounter. Whether Luther departed in peace or under a cloud is a matter of speculation. Returning to Erfurt, however, he ran into the thunderstorm, which led not to a reversal in his mind as the story is usually retold, but rather provided him the opportunity to take refuge under the wings of his heavenly Father against his earthly one: The vow transmuted his individual preference into an obligation to God. But even this could not avert his father’s rage. When Hans Luder heard of his son’s decision he ceased addressing him with the formal Sie (you) he had chosen after Martin’s Master promotion, reverting instead to the informal du (you), which signaled clearly that the son had lost his father’s respect, so recently achieved.

However the story of Stotternheim may be told, it led Luther into the monastery of the Augustinian Eremites in Erfurt, not far from his former college. The monastery was undoubtedly of good repute regarding its intellectual and spiritual life, but it is difficult to imagine just how Luther experienced this new life setting. Seemingly, there is a great deal of good information by his own reports: In his famous Table Talk as well as in other writings, Luther frequently refers to his time in the monastery. But all these reports were written in retrospect, and they come from a person who had become a reformer and wanted to explain his previous life. Thus, one should see Luther’s reports as biased by his own efforts to legitimate his new convictions. From this perspective, he characterized the monastery as a place of pursuing righteousness through works, so he portrayed himself as the best monk and thus also as the worst hypocrite. As he later described it, he had tried to redeem himself by rigorous ascetic training and praying more intensely than the others. When he had not been able to fulfill all his duties—particularly when administrative and teaching tasks kept him from fulfilling the liturgy of the hours—he had tried to catch up on the prayers he had missed. Stories like this give an impression of duty and fear. But to understand them historically, we must compare them with other sources, including sources from the order itself that depict the piety of the monks, the occasional remarks of Luther himself made prior to the 95 theses, and his even rarer positive comments on the monastery from later years.

It is interesting to consider the rite of profession of vows in the monastery’s church. Asked what he was looking for, the young novice was to respond, “Your mercy and that of God.” Later, Luther himself would describe his road to Reformation as a search for the gracious God. This means that he remained on the path on which he first set out within the order. Even more, he would not deny that he found help within the order. Concerning the Master for novices, John of Grevenstein, Luther said as late as 1532 that he had been a righteous Christian “under the damned frock”9 and recalled with gratitude the elder man’s advice to trust in Jesus Christ. Even years later, he admitted that the devil had released him for one year after entering the order.10 Somehow, he must have found spiritual calm and contentment in the monastic community. Carefully read, one even finds reports of his experiences of mystical ecstasy. Luther felt himself elevated into the chorus of the angels,11 which seems to be a circumlocution for ecstatic mystical experience. Even aspects of affliction and distress in this time are not easily to explain as the result of negative spiritual experiences in the monastery.

Luther’s concept of temptation, later so important for his spirituality and theology, was also shaped in the monastery. For all this, Luther found spiritual advisors in the monastery. Not only John of Grevenstein was helpful, but also, later on, his confessor and Superior John of Staupitz. Indeed, Luther somehow conceived confession as an aid in his afflictions and praised the community of brethren for providing the opportunity to confess their sins one to another. Even if he later rejected monastic life, one cannot underestimate the importance of this milieu for shaping his religious identity. With its inward piety, the monastery provided a welcome contrast to his parental education. One can also note that in Staupitz he found a spiritual father who somehow replaced his fleshly father, showing him a better way than had Hans Luder.

Luther’s chance for reconciliation with his father came in the year 1507: On April 4th Luther was ordained priest in a chapel of the cathedral cloister in Erfurt by John Bonemilch of Laasphe, a suffragan bishop of the diocese of Mainz, which included Erfurt. At last, Luther’s decision against his father’s plans was irreversible. He now was a cleric, destined to study theology instead of law. Luther was particularly anxious to make it possible for his father to witness his next step: his first mass as a priest, which took place on May 5th in the Augustinian church. The date was not set until Han’s attendance had been confirmed. Thus, for Luther the event had two aspects: the liturgical initiation, on the one hand, and reconciliation with his father, on the other. What made the event so complicated was that the reconciliation with Hans meant at the same time a farewell to parental care and the securing of his new life in the order.

Hans did attend the first mass. Hans Luder showed respect for Martin’s performance, but at the same time he for continued to criticize his son’s choice. As some reported, he arrived like a wedding guest, bringing some twenty people with him (whose meal he paid for himself) and spending twenty guilders on the banquet, a considerable sum. Thus, Hans celebrated the feast ostentatiously, and by that very display he demonstrated his wealth in the context of monastic poverty. This game of agreeing and denying caused some stress for young Luther. This might have been one of the reasons for Luther’s struggles during the celebration of the Eucharist. Later, he often reported that fear of God would had moved him to run away from the altar while singing the mass, had the order’s prior not prevented it. The specific words that caused his fright seem to vary in his remembrance, but the fright itself seems to be clear. In retrospect, Luther found a theological interpretation for it. He felt unworthy for this intimate commerce with God. This may well have been one of his motives, since other young priests in Luther’s day were similarly overcome by the holiness of their task. Indeed, for everyone starting a professional career the first step is full of expectations and pressure, especially when a skeptical family is present. So Luther’s embarrassing struggles in the mass somehow reflected the long-lasting conflict with his father. And Hans Luder continued to disgrace his son. At the banquet following the mass, he was asked why he had tried to prevent his son entering the order. He answered: “Ey lieben herren, wißt jr auch, das geschrieben stehet: Du solt vater und muter ehren? An nescitis mandatum Dei de honorandis parentibus?” (“Oh, my dear, do you know it is written: ‘Honor thy father and thy mother’? Or don’t you know the commandment to honor the parents?”).12 Obviously, he had still not made peace with his son’s decision.

But for Luther himself, things now seemed to be clear. He could begin both his service as a priest and his theological studies. We do not know much about his priestly tasks. Later he occasionally mentions his duty as confessor, stressing that there were few women among his penitents. If he was right when he noted in 1538 that he had been preaching for 50 years,13 then he must have started preaching during his time in Erfurt. However, this need not mean public preaching but could also refer to sermons at the monks’ table in the monastery. A bit more is known about his studies. He started studying theology in 1507. In accordance with the medieval system where students in the higher faculties (theology, law, medicine) were supposed to teach those subjects in the artes, Luther would also have had to do so, which means that he would have had to treat Aristotle and philosophy. In fact, his first stay at Wittenberg was for just this purpose. The position of lecturer in philosophy among the Augustinians had become vacant, so the order asked Luther to take up the position. In addition to that, he had to proceed with his theological training. Thus, he completed his first theological degree in Wittenberg, becoming a Bachelor of the Bible (baccalaureus biblicus) in 1509. That same year he returned to Erfurt, and there received a bachelor’s degree in the Sentences. From that point, he was required to read and comment on Peter Lombard’s Sentences, the most common theology text in the Middle Ages, which had been commented on by nearly every young theologian since the thirteenth century.

From Luther’s commentary only some notes remain, which become rarer as he progresses through the four books. But this is not the only evidence of Luther’s Erfurt studies. Jun Matsuura has published Luther’s annotations from this period,14 an impressive collection that reveals Luther’s interests. He read Anselm of Canterbury, Pseudo-Bonaventure, some of the works of Augustine and William of Ockham, as well as of Giorgio Valla. His interests were scholastic, e.g., questions on the Trinity, or the relationship between God’s eternity and earthly time. We do not find a new theology in these works. Nevertheless, one can state that Luther was becoming dissatisfied with contemporary theology. From Wittenberg, he wrote to his Eisenach friend John Braun that he was looking for a theology that explored the kernel of the nut,15 obviously meaning that the prevailing theology had failed to penetrate to the core.

In any case, Luther’s scholarly studies were interrupted by a trip to Rome. Recent research has shed some light on the circumstances surrounding it. There is little doubt that the reason for this, the longest journey Luther ever made, was contention within his order. Some monasteries that had adopted the Augustinian reform, among them the Erfurt group, were opposed to vicar general John of Staupitz’s plans to reunite the reform congregations with the laxer branch of the observant Augustinians. For about a hundred years the common narrative of Luther’s involvement in this controversy put him on the side of Staupitz’s opponents, recounting that he left Erfurt in the fall of 1510, returning in the spring of the following year. This interpretation had at least one significant problem: Quite soon after his return, one finds Luther at Staupitz’s side as one of his most loyal adherents. This seems difficult to explain if the prevalent narrative is correct. Thus, Hans Schneider’s16 argument for a different narrative has some merit. Based on a new reading of the order’s acts, Schneider argues that Luther’s journey took place one year later, from autumn 1511 to 1512, when he traveled with John of Mecheln, Staupitz’s legate. Indeed, this seems to be the best way to resolve all the critical issues, so that at this point Luther’s biographers should follow this newly established chronology. However, official affairs seem to have constituted just one aspect of Luther’s experiences in Rome. Far from having a reformation breakthrough in the Eternal City, as his son later assumed, he instead went there as a pilgrim, eagerly taking in Rome’s holy sites. He repeatedly mentions his visits to the catacombs, but also how astonishing Renaissance life and (im)piety was for him. He witnessed prostitution in the holiest city and priests who spoofed the words of institution in the Eucharist, saying: “Panis es et panis manebis” (“Bread thou art and bread thou shalt remain”).17 From a spiritual perspective, Rome seems to have made quite an impression on the young monk, but he also found it troubling.

Theologian in Wittenberg

Upon his return, Luther openly declared himself a member of the Staupitz party against the Erfurt monastery, which may have been the primary reason he was dispatched to Wittenberg again, this time for the rest of his life. In Wittenberg he was soon promoted to Doctor of Theology, on October 19, 1512 with Andreas Karlstadt presiding as the dean of the faculty. According to Luther’s later recollections, it was mainly Staupitz who encouraged him, even pushing him to take this step. Perhaps as a side effect of the conflicts with his former monastery, a conflict now arose at Erfurt University. The faculty of theology claimed that Luther had not been eligible to receive his doctorate in Wittenberg, because he had promised to pass his doctoral examinations exclusively at Erfurt. It seems that Luther deflected this charge by arguing that his first degree in theology, the bachelor’s in the Bible, did not stem from Erfurt, but from Wittenberg. The accusation thus seemed to be unfounded, and the controversy was ended.

With his doctorate, Luther acceded to the chair that had previously been held by Staupitz. As Ulrich Köpf has shown, this was not a special chair for the Bible but was dedicated to theology in general, as was usual in late medieval universities.18 Nevertheless, Luther concentrated his own efforts on interpreting the Bible, starting with lectures on the Psalms, the Dictata super Psalterium, from 1513 to 1515. He prepared his lectures with care, mainly by working through the Quincuplex Psalterium of Faber Stapulensis. In the course of the lecture one can observe Luther developing his new hermeneutics, as has been described by Gerhard Ebeling. On the one hand, he focused on the literal or historical sense as he understood it, including the assumption that the Psalms historically spoke prophetically about Jesus Christ. On the other hand, he stressed the aspect of pro nobis (“for us”), meaning that whatever is found in the Scripture is written for our benefit. Obviously, here the purpose of a lecture comes quite close to preaching. Indeed, for Luther, the two ways of interpreting the Bible were closely connected, which might be one of the reasons for his great success. Actually, it was while reading on the Psalms that he was appointed preacher at the Wittenberg parish church. The position did not include the duties of the parish priest, but was intended to provide clear contemplative sermons for the well-educated citizenry. Too little is known about Luther’s early preaching of Luther, even though some sermons survive, not all of which were given in the parish church.

What makes this question so difficult is a fact recently discovered by Natalie Krentz, which at this point has not been sufficiently reflected in Luther research.19 In the year 1512, Bishop Jerome Schultz of Brandenburg excommunicated the Wittenberg clergy—an action which did not affect Luther at this stage—because of their refusal to pay fees. The conflict worsened when a student claiming to be a cleric was jailed by magisterial authorities. The result was an interdict put on the city of Wittenberg, which was not reversed earlier than 1516. Thus, when Luther became preacher at the parish church, the services in Wittenberg upheld by the city were illegal in terms of canon Law. Nevertheless, Luther’s position within his order was unaffected, and he even was promoted. In 1515, he was elected vicar for the province of Thuringia and Meißen in the reform congregation of the Augustinian Eremites.

His growing honor brought with it much work, as Luther himself noted in a letter to his friend John Lang from October 26th:

I almost need two scribes or secretaries. All day I do nothing but write letters. So I do not know if I always repeat myself—you decide. I am preacher in the monastery, at the table, and every day I am requested as a preacher for the parish. I work as a master for our studies. I am vicar, which means eleven times a prior. I am a beggar for fishes in Leitzkau, a lawyer for the Herzbergians in Torgau. I hold lectures on Paul and gather material for the Psalter. And as I said: the trouble of writing letters takes most of my time. Too rarely is there enough time to fulfill the Liturgy of the Hours without a break. In addition, the temptations of the flesh, the world and the devil come over me. Look how lazy I am!20

The letter shows Luther as a young busy man, but he continued to hold lectures at the university. As he mentions, he shifted his attention to Paul in 1515 beginning with the exposition of his letter to the Romans, continuing with Galatians in 1516 to 1517. Erasmus’s Greek New Testament came out in the midst of Luther’s preparations for the Romans lecture, and Luther started interpreting the Bible not according to the Vulgate but to the Greek original. But his engagement with Pauline theology had a greater impact, resulting in a disputation on the power of the human will without grace in 1516 (Disputatio de viribus hominis sine gratia disputata). Luther’s intellectual development observed in these years has two aspects. On the one hand, he pointed out that a human being was the captive of sin, which he now defined as peccatum radicale, sin from the root upward. On the other hand, he taught God’s overwhelming grace, which gave salvation by divine means rather than human means.

No Breakthrough, but Gradual Development

Not surprisingly, a great deal of research has for many years examined in minute detail these developments in Reformation theology, searching out the very moment of Luther’s “reformatory breakthrough” (reformatorischer Durchbruch). No source from that time, however, testifies to such a sudden breakthrough. Luther mentions such an event neither in the well-documented manuscripts of his lectures nor in his letters, although we can certainly observe important developments within them.

The aim to find this presumed breakthrough followed from a simple understanding of Luther’s own later report. In 1545, decades after the event, he wrote about his reformation discovery:

Meanwhile, during that year I had already returned to interpreting the Psalter anew. I had confidence in the fact that I was more skillful, after I had lectured in the university on St. Paul’s epistles to the Romans, to the Galatians, and the one to the Hebrews. I had indeed been captivated with an extraordinary ardor for understanding Paul in the Epistle to the Romans. But up till then it was not the cold blood about the heart, but a single word in Chapter 1[:17], “In it the righteousness of God is revealed,” that had stood in my way. For I hated that word “righteousness of God,” which, according to the use and custom of all the teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically regarding formal or active righteousness, as they called it, with which God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner . . . At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which a righteous man lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which God the merciful justifies us by faith.21

What followed was Luther’s remembrance that he felt as though he had been reborn and was entering through the open doors of paradise. He reported as well that he raced to confirm his new insight with other phrases in the Scripture (“wisdom of God,” “power of God”) and concluded that the word “justice” had now become the sweetest word for him. Generations of researchers tried to apply this report to Luther’s early writings, looking for the moment when he suddenly had understood “justice” in the reported way and so took this remembrance as a straightforward report of real events.

This ignores the unreliability of human memory, as more recent research has described it. Memory not only reproduces things as they happened, but also creates new combinations, images, and stories. Actually, in Luther we can see that he used the pattern of his discovery story twice. As early as in 1518, in his letter to John of Staupitz accompanying the “Explanations of the 95 Theses,” he gives a different account of his discovery than in 1545, one which also revolves around a word he found bitter.22 As in the later report, he narrates the discovery of a completely new understanding of this word, which makes it “sweeter” than any other. Similar to the later opening of the paradise story, this one also builds a bridge between here and the beyond, the discovery of which Luther attributes to Staupitz, whose words he had heard like a “voice from Heaven.” As in the famous later report he also confirmed the interpretation by comparing it with other passages in Scripture.

Obviously, the pattern of the breakthrough in both cases seems to be the same, only the content differs. While the later report focuses on the word justice, the earlier one deals with penitence (poenitentia). This shows that in both cases Luther wants to confirm present convictions by means of an autobiographical report. While in 1545 no word could be more important than justice as the focus of his doctrine of justification, in 1518 he wishes to explain his path to the 95 theses, which dealt with the proper understanding of repentance. So, strictly speaking, both texts are adapted narrations that express particular, present convictions. They are not historical reports to be used as a template for our modern understanding of Luther’s historical development.

The same is true of the so-called “tower experience” (Turmerlebnis), which we should simply drop from our biographical narratives. Some Table Talks present the story of Martin Luther having his reformatory discovery “in the closet in the tower,”23 which gave rise to some debates about the exact location of the closet! However, a more careful reading of the Table Talks shows that the reference to a tower was not provided by Luther himself but by the scribes who compiled the Table Talks. When he himself spoke about this closet, he did not have an actual place in mind, but used the word metaphorically for the sinful world.24 So, just as there was no momentous breakthrough, there was also no tower experience. Things actually happened less dramatically than Luther’s followers wanted them to have happened.

Historically, Luther’s development did not occur suddenly, but step by step, slowly, and in a remarkably continuous fashion. Paul and even Augustine played a role in it. No less important was late medieval spirituality, as Luther himself admitted in the report of 1518 mentioned above. Parallel to the lecture on the Romans, Luther read the fourteenth-century mystic John Tauler (d. 1361). His marginal notes indicate strong interest in Tauler’s sermons, leading him to the conviction that a Christian could bring nothing before God than “naked Faith in God.”25 Just how excited Luther was by mystical theology in these days can be seen by his first publication: the so-called “Theologia deutsch,” which he brought to print in 1516 and, again, in a fuller version, in 1518. It was a medieval amalgam of Paul, Augustine, and German mysticism that provided the framework for Luther’s development in these early years. Readers who are unaware of Luther’s later role in history would find in these writings a quite interesting, sharply spoken proponent of later medieval inward piety, who was increasingly opposed to outward piety, since it can be seen, such as in indulgences.

The Influence of Staupitz

The most important figure for Luther was John Staupitz, who, “has begun with the doctrine,” as he later put it.26 It may even have been Staupitz who introduced him to Tauler. However, Staupitz became an advisor to him for his spiritual problems. The theological approach of the older man’s advice can be discerned from a scene that must have occurred in 1516, when Luther joined the Corpus Christi procession in his birthplace of Eisleben. The presence of Jesus Christ left him shaken with dread, a condition for which Staupitz offered the counsel: “It is not Christ himself who terrifies you, for Christ does not terrify someone, but rather he is a comforter.”27

Similarly, Staupitz comforted Luther when he found himself terrified by the doctrine of predestination, which tortured him for years. As an Augustinian, he took seriously the Church Fathers’ teaching on the certainty of predestination, caused by the inscrutable will of God alone. This left Luther with the question as to if he could know whether or not he was among the elect. He presented this question to Staupitz:

Once I complained to Staupitz about the sublimity of predestination. He answered: It is in Christ’s wounds that you will discover and understand predestination, nowhere else, for it is written: “Listen to him!” The Father is too high, but the Father said: “I will make a way for you to reach me, which is Christ. Go, believe, and hold on to Christ, and in due course you will find who I am.” But we don’t do this. For this reason God is incomprehensible to us, unthinkable. He will not be understood, for outside of Christ he does not want to be known.28

In these words of pastoral counsel we already somehow find the core of the answer Luther later give to the question of predestination in his De servo arbitrio (1525): It is the revealed God, Jesus Christ, who resolves the problem of predestination. There can be no question that in these years Luther learned the solus christus from Staupitz and that he combined it with the sola gratia as expressed in his Disputatio de viribus, both as convictions that still fit within the late medieval framework.

He did not develop these ideas in splendid isolation, however. Reading Tauler had become popular in Wittenberg, and a lengthy discussion of his ideas was taking place in a kind of sodalitas (group, fraternity), as witnessed by the lawyer Christoph Scheurl. By the time Scheurl left Wittenberg in 1511, a group of friends had formed, which included the Prince’s chaplain George Spalatin, mayor Christian Beyer, and scholars as Johannes Dölsch, Nikolaus of Amsdorff, Otto Beckmann, and Andreas Karlstadt. From about 1513 on, Luther participated in this sodalitas. The sense of belonging to a group can be seen in his first mention of change at the University, when he wrote again to John Lang on May 18, 1517:

By the help of God, our theology and St. Augustine are making good progress and are prevailing at our university. Aristotle is gradually declining and descending toward his future eternal doom. Astonishingly, the lectures on Sentences are neglected. So no one can hope to get listeners who do not wish to profess this theology, that is, the Bible, or St. Augustine or some other teacher of ecclesiastical authority.29

The reform had begun.

Review of the Literature

The question of the young Luther was one of the core questions of Luther research in the 20th century. Starting with the polemical work of Heinrich Suso Denifle,30 questions of when, why, and how Luther’s reformation theology developed were subject to heated debate. While for a long time mainstream research favored the so-called Frühdatierung (“early dating”), finding a reformation breakthrough witnessed in the Dictata super Psalterium, with Ernst Bizers argumentation in Fides ex auditu (1958)31 the Spätdatierung (“late dating”) seemed to be established. The Romans lecture, he argued, represented a monastic “theology of humility,” so that his breakthrough must have come no earlier than 1518. Further research has shown both stances to be oversimplified. They both sharply distinguish between medieval and reformation theology, which were divided by Luther’s sudden experience of revelation.

It was finally with the work of Heiko Augustinus Oberman that the recognition began to dawn that there is no way to sharply differentiate the young Luther from the Late Middle Ages. Accordingly, more recent research tends to refrain from the “Wende-Konstrukt” (assumption of a decisive turn).32 To the contrary, Luther’s development took place continuously, even smoothly. More recent research thus connects Luther far more closely with the Late Middle Ages than did older efforts to reconstruct Luther’s supposed “Reformation way.”

Moreover, this is not only a question of theology but also of psychological assumptions. Erik H. Erikson made an attempt in 1958 to understand Luther psychoanalytically.33 His work received sharp criticism, which focused upon his oversimplified view of Luther’s father and the connection between psychology and religious experience. Nevertheless, the question of a biographical understanding of Martin Luther that takes psychological developments into account remains open, but this question has to be answered with far more historical nuance than Erikson applied, so it remains a challenge.34

Primary Sources

The main problem in reconstructing the early years of Martin Luther are the sources. Before 1512 we have almost nothing, primarily his short annotations and a few letters. Although the situation improves after 1512, as far as theological texts are concerned (since Luther’s lectures are well documented from both his own manuscripts and student notes), most of his letters are still missing. So, the main source for reconstructing his early years are later recollections, as found in the Table Talks and other sources. For far too long, even these sources were not handled with the requisite care. Memory in general is unreliable, even more so when one wants to present one’s own life to others. Luther’s memories were shaped by the tendency to defend himself and by the perspective of a convert who often wished to show just how debased his earlier life as a monk had been. So, the challenge for Luther research is to reconstruct his early biography with a critical distance from Luther’s own later remarks.

Further Reading

Bainton, Roland H. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1950. Reissued New York: Meridian, 1995.Find this resource:

    Brecht, Martin. Martin Luther. 3 vols. Minneapolis: Fortress Press 1985–1993.Find this resource:

      Ebeling, Gerhard. Evangelische Evangelienauslegung; Eine Untersuchung zu Luthers Hermeneutik. Forschungen zur Geschichte und Lehre des Protestantismus, 10/I. Munich: Lempp, 1942.Find this resource:

        Hamm, Berndt. Der frühe Luther. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2010.Find this resource:

          Hendrix, Scott H.. Martin Luther: The Man and his Vision. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

            Volker Leppin. Martin Luther. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2010.Find this resource:

              Volker Leppin. Martin Luther. Grand Rapids/Cambridge, U.K.: Eerdmans, forthcoming.Find this resource:

                Marius, Richard. Martin Luther: The Christian between God and Death. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1999.Find this resource:

                  Methuen, Charlotte. Luther and Calvin: Religious Revolutionaries. Oxford: Lion Books, 2011.Find this resource:

                    Oberman, Heiko Augustinus. Luther: Man between God and Devil. London: Fontana Press, 1993.Find this resource:

                      Schilling, Heinz. Martin Luther: Rebell in einer Zeit des Umbruchs. Munich: Beck, 2013.Find this resource:

                        Schwarz, Reinhard. Luther. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1986.Find this resource:


                          (1.) Melanchthon, Praefatio (CR 6,156).

                          (2.) Jens Bulisch, “Wie alt ist Martin Luther geworden? Zum Geburtsjahr 1482 oder 1484,” Luther Jahrbuch 77 (2010): 29–39; and Reinhart Staats, “Luthers Geburtsjahr 1484,” in his Protestanten in der deutschen Geschichte (Leipzig, 2004), 269–280.

                          (3.) Bernd Moeller and Karl Stackmann, Luder—Luther—Eleutherius: Erwägungen zu Luthers Namen, (Göttingen: Nachrichten der Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen, 1981), 7.

                          (4.) Luther, Vorrede zu Urbanus Rhegius, Widerlegung des Bekenntnisses (WA 38:338, 6).

                          (5.) Crotus Rubianus to Luther, April 28, 1520 (WA B 2:91, no. 281, 141f).

                          (6.) WA TR 4:440, 9f, no. 4707.

                          (7.) Angelika Dörfler-Dierken, “Luther und die heilige Anna: zum Gelübde von Stotternheim,” Luther Jahrbuch 64 (1997): 19–46.

                          (8.) Luther, De votis monsticis iudicium (WA 8:573, 24).

                          (9.) Luther, Vorrede zu Athanasii libri contra idololatriam (WA 30/III:530, 25p).

                          (10.) Luther, De votis monasticis iudicium (WA 8:660, 31f).

                          (11.) Luther, Enarratio capitis noni Esiaiae (WA 40/III:657, 35p).

                          (12.) Luther, Vorlesungen über 1. Mose (WA 44:712, 4p).

                          (13.) Luther, Predigten des Jahres 1538 (WA 46:361, 11).

                          (14.) Martin Luther: Erfurter Annotationen 1509–1510/11, ed. Jun Matsuura (Köln/Weimar/Wien: Böhlau, 2009).

                          (15.) Luther to Johannes Braun, March, 17, 1509 (WA B 1:17, no. 5,43p).

                          (16.) Hans Schneider, “Martin Luthers Reise nach Rom: neu datiert und neu gedeutet,” in Studien zur Wissenschafts- und zur Religionsgeschichte, ed. Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen, (Berlin, 2011), 1–157.

                          (17.) WA TR 3:313, 3–7, no. 3428.

                          (18.) Ulrich Köpf, “Martin Luthers theologischer Lehrstuhl,” in Die Theologische Fakultät Wittenberg 1502 bis 1602, ed. Irene Dingel and Günther Wartenberg (Leipzig, 2002), 71–86.

                          (19.) Natalie Krentz, Ritualwandel und Deutungshoheit: Die frühe Reformation in der Residenzstadt Wittenberg (1500–1533) (Tübingen, Germany, 2014).

                          (20.) Luther to Johannes Lang, October, 26, 1516 (WA B 1:27, no. 28, 4–13).

                          (21.) Luther, Vorrede zum 1. Band der Gesamtausgabe seiner lateinischen Schriften (WA 54:185, 12–20; 186, 3–7). ET from LW 34:336–337.

                          (22.) Cf. Luther, resolutions (WA 1:525–527).

                          (23.) E.g., WA TR 3:228, no. 3232b.

                          (24.) For further arguments see Volker Leppin, “Erinnerungssplitter: zur Problematik der Tischreden als Quelle von Luthers Biographie,” in Martin Luthers Tischreden: Neuansätze der Forschung, ed. Katharina Bärenfänger, Volker Leppin, and Stefan Michel (Tübingen, Germany, 2013), 47–61.

                          (25.) Luther, Randbemerkungen zu Tauler (WA 9:102, 34–36).

                          (26.) WA TR 1:245, 12, no. 526.

                          (27.) WA TR 2:417, 14f, no. 2318a.

                          (28.) WA TR 2, no. 1490, 112, 9–16. The text Staupitz alludes to here in Luther’s recollection is Matt. 17:5, in which the Father’s voice comes from the cloud above to commend the Son below, with the words “Listen to him.”

                          (29.) Luther to Johannes Lang, May, 18th 1517 (WA B 1:99, no. 41, 8–13).

                          (30.) Heinrich Denifle, Luther und das Luthertum in der ersten Entwickelung: Quellenmäßig dargestellt, 2 vols., (Mainz, 1904–1909).

                          (31.) Ernst Bizer, Fides ex auditu. Eine Untersuchung über die Gerechtigkeit Gottes durch Martin Luther (Neukirchen, 1958), 3d ed., 1966.

                          (32.) Berndt Hamm, “Naher Zorn und nahe Gnade: Luthers frühe Klosterjahre als Beginn seiner reformatorischen Neuorientierung,” in Luther und das monastische Erbe, ed. Christoph Bultmann, Volker Leppin, and Andreas Lindner (Tübingen, Germany, 2007), 111–151, 113.

                          (33.) Erik H. Erikson, Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History (New York, 1958), reissued 1993.

                          (34.) For this see Volker Leppin, “God in Luther’s Life and Thought: The Lasting Ambivalence,” in The Global Luther: A Theologian for Modern Times, ed. Christine Helmer (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009), 82–95.