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From In the Beginning
by Dr. Alister McGrath
MARTIN LUTHER (1483-1546) is widely regarded as one of the most significant of the reformers. Luther was born on November 10, 1483, in the German town of Eisleben, and named after Martin of Tours, whose festival fell on November 11, the day of Luther's baptism. Hans Luder (as his father's name was spelled at this stage) moved the following year to the neighboring town of Mansfeld, where he established a small copper mining business. Luther's university education began at Erfurt in 1501 . His father clearly intended him to become a lawyer, not unaware of the financial benefits this would bring the family. In 1505, Luther completed the general arts course at Erfurt, and was in a position to move on to study law.
As events turned out, his study of law never got very far. At some point in June 1505, Luther was returning to Erfurt from a visit to Mansfeld. As he neared the village of Storterheim, a severe thunderstorm gathered around him. Suddenly, a bolt of lightning struck the ground next to him, throwing him off his horse. Terrified, Luther cried out, "St. Anne, help me! I will become a monk!" He kept his word. On July 17, 1505, Luther entered the most rigorous of the seven major monasteries at Erfurt the Augustinian priory. Luther's father was outraged at the decision, and remained alienated from his son for some considerable time.
Why should Luther have screamed these words? We shall never know for sure. The reference to St. Anne is perhaps the easiest part to understand; she was the patron saint of miners, and would have featured prominently in his father's prayers. Yet lying behind Luther's cry lies a medieval worldview that is difficult for the modern reader to fully appreciate. The past is indeed a strange country, in which things were done differently. Luther's mental world included a number of fixed landmarks that have crumbled over the centuries, and are not always easy to recognize today. One was a fear of death and what lay beyond.
The Middle Ages had developed an immensely sophisticated view of the afterlife, resting in part on some biblical texts, and perhaps in greater part on the human love for speculation and imagination. Dante's great fourteenth-century work The Divine Comedy sets out the geography of hell and purgatory in great detail. This cartography of hell echoed the popular beliefs of the time, to which Luther was heir. His views on this matter were those of his age, even if he held them with greater intensity than many.
Luther feared the wrath of God, whom he knew at this stage only as a vengeful and righteous figure, dispensing salvation to the few and eternal punishment to the damned. He knew hell to be a place in which the damned writhed in agony in a sulfur-laden atmosphere, tormented by fire. It was a terrifying thought, which preyed heavily on the young Luther's imagination, perhaps coupled with more popular beliefs of fiends and devils lurking in woods and dark places, awaiting their opportunity to snatch unwary souls and take them straight to hell. The incident of 1505 seems to have crystallized all the fears and anxieties that had been building tip within his troubled mind, unresolved. The bolt of lightning brought to the surface Luther's dark broodings, and released the emotional pressure that had been accumulating.
Whatever the explanation may he for this action, Luther chose to enter the Augustinian priory at Erfurt. It was an austere place - yet it guaranteed Luther his place in heaven. Was not becoming a monk the surest way to avoid hell? Were there not stories about monks who had abandoned their monastic habit, and been turned away from the gates of paradise because they were not properly dressed for the occasion? Luther wanted to know and know for certain that he would escape hell and arrive safely in paradise. What other option did he have?
These ideas were widespread at the time, and Luther was in many ways faithfully reflecting the settled beliefs of the Western European Christian community a community that embraced Church and state, and gave every indication of intellectual and cultural permanence Were these beliefs not grounded in the Bible, and guaranteed by the Church, as the authorized guardian and interpreter of that sacred text? We are all limited and shaped by the apparent assumptions of our culture, held to be self evidently true, which become absorbed as essential pieces of furniture of the mental worlds we inhabit These seemingly unshakable assumptions were to prove vulnerable, not least through the growing demand - pioneered by people such as Luther himself - that individual Christians should have the right to read and interpret the Bible for themselves, rather than meekly receive and accept the official views of the Church.
Luther took up his position as professor of biblical studies at the University of Wittenberg in 1512. This was perhaps not the greatest academic accolade of the period. Wittenberg would have been near the top of a league table of insignificant European universities. It had been founded by a local prince about ten years earlier, in the vain hope of establishing a university that would outperform the neighboring university of Leipzig. By the time Luther arrived, the fledgling university was having trouble enrolling students, not least on account of the lack of a high public profile. By the time Luther had finished with it, of course, Wittenberg would have a gratifyingly high profile but not for reasons of which its founder would have approved.
Luther's position involved extensive lecturing on the text of biblical works. We know that he lectured on the Psalms between 1513 and 1515, and that he went on to lecture on Paul's letter to the Romans in 1515 - 16. By then, Luther was having serious misgivings about many of the teachings of his Church, not least those concerning how salvation was achieved, and whether the individual believer could be assured of that final salvation.
Much scholarly ink has been spilled over exactly when Luther changed his mind about how salvation is achieved and secured. There is perhaps most support for the view that Luther began to develop a new understanding of how salvation comes about as he wrestled with the Psalter, and then the letter to the Romans, in 1515. In a later recollection of his youthful anxieties, dating from the year before his death, Luther noted how he found a passage in Paul's letter to the Romans to be a stumbling block to him. Paul speaks of the "righteousness of God" being revealed in the gospel (Romans 1: 17). But how could this be good news? All that this meant was that God, being righteous, would reward those who deserved it with eternal salvation. and would damn those who were sinners.
There can be no doubt that Luther saw himself as a man who was deeply sinful. He observed the rules of his order with the utmost scrupulosity. As he later recalled: "I was a good monk, and kept the rule of my order so strictly that I can say that, if ever a monk got to heaven by his monastic discipline, that was me." But Luther was plagued with self-doubt and morbid thoughts. He was utterly convinced that he was a sinner - and that sinners could expect only condemnation at the hands of a righteous God. It was a terrifying thought.
Then - possibly in 1515 Luther had a new insight. We shall never be sure exactly how and when Luther arrived at his new way of thinking. We do, however, have his own account of what happened. He meditated daily on the words of Paul, which he found so problematic, hoping against hope to have the answer to his questions. Finally, he arrived at his conclusion. The "righteousness of God" of which Paul spoke so highly was not the righteousness by which God was righteous, but a righteousness given to us by God. The gospel was indeed good news, in that God provided the righteousness needed for salvation. Individual humans were not being asked to be righteous and hence he saved - they were being offered precisely the righteousness that was demanded as a condition of entry into paradise. Luther exulted at his discovery, which changed everything.
This immediately made me feel as though I had been born again, and as though I had entered through open gates into paradise itself From that moment, the whole face of Scripture appeared to me in a different light.
There is also some debate over exactly where Luther's insight took place. A somewhat cryptic remark in one of Luther's personal recollections has been the subject of much interest. Luther wrote of being granted his theological insight in a room identified by the Latin abbreviation cl. What could this mean? One obvious interpretation would be that the abbreviation is to be understood as cloaca a semipolite Latin term for "latrine" or "privy." This possibility has evoked considerable discussion. For example, John Osborne's 1961 play Luther represents Luther as achieving theological insight at the same moment as he experienced relief from a longstanding bout of constipation.
This might initially seem somewhat improbable. Nevertheless, Luther himself saw a link between Satanic temptation and latrines, even if that connection might well be puzzling to most modern readers. In a recollection dating from Christmas 1531, Luther quotes a popular poem concerning the monk who is caught by the devil reading his prayers on a latrine:
Devil: Monk on the latrine! You shouldn't be reading matins here!
Monk: I am purging my bowels
While worshiping almighty God.
You can have what goes down
While God gets what goes up.
Interesting though this possibility might be, we must note that there is another (and rather more plausible) explanation of the mysterious Latin abbreviation cl. The term could be an abbreviation for the heated room in the Wittenberg monastery, which was a favorite haunt of monks feeling the cold in winter.
This debate aside, the relevance of Luther's insight cannot be ignored. What Luther was proposing, based on his reading of key sections of the Bible, was that the righteousness required for salvation was not acquired through scrupulous monastic observance, or through individual moral achievement it was the free gift of God. As Luther wrestled with this issue over the period 1514 - 17, it seemed to him that the entire Church of his day had lapsed into a complete misunderstanding of what Christianity was all about. The Church seemed to Luther to stress achieving, meriting, or even downright purchasing forgiveness and eternal life, when in fact this was offered by God as a gift. What humans could never achieve, or hope to acquire, was given them as a gift by a gracious God. It was clear to Luther that this was the central theme of the Bible, and that the Church had lost sight of it. And if it had lost sight of so central a theme, how could it be called a "Christian" Church?
These worrying questions, which dogged Luther's thoughts throughout this period, were brought to a focus when Johann Tetzel arrived in Wittenberg in October 1517 to sell indulgences. For many scholars, the incident that resulted triggered the massive upheaval we know as "the Reformation."
Excerpted from In the Beginning by Dr. Alister McGrath, copyright 2001. Used with permission from Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc.
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