My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Martin Luther represents the rapidly changing 16th century Europe where, many thanks to wide popularization of printing press, the spread of new knowledge, including Copernicus’s suggestion of the universe as being heliocentric and the discovery of new sea trade routes by the Spanish and the Portuguese, was available to the mass. Accordingly, this reading of Martin Luther: A Life from Beginning to End elegantly narrates Luther’s role of not only a religious reformist but also a cultural leader of the epoch. The reader will learn that Luther was in the right place at the right time to be in the vanguard of the Reformation by defining the emerging Protestant church and putting Europe in medieval mindset toward the new Europe in a modern way of thinking like never before.
Luther was born in 1483 and christened Martin on the feast day of St. Martin, the day after his birth. The oldest of five siblings, Luther was brought up in a strict disciplinarian household in which his miner father’s no-nonsense work ethics and mother’s strict methods of corporeal punishment (e.g., she beat her son’s hands until they bled for stealing a nut from a market.) had strong impacts on his character and belief system. Academically speaking, Luther was a reasonably intelligent student, not a brilliant one with flying colors aiming to be a lawyer at the University of Erfurt. His favorite subject was classical literature of which Virgil’s Aeneid was his passion that led him to the humanistic idea of reading original texts in contrast with other mandatory subjects including rhetoric, reasoning, and argument based on a translated version of writings of Aristotle with commentaries. His original aspiration to become a lawyer was fatefully changed when he encountered a turbulent thunderstorm on his way to see his father and became so frightened that in fear of mortal danger, he prayed to St. Anne that if she protected him from the storm, he would take a vow of monastic life. Hence, instead of returning to the university, Luther went to the monastery of the Augustine to become a monk.
Luther’s doubt and despair over his inability to please God according to the nominalism, a medieval school of thought teaching that good works through the Church would please God, continued to vex his conscience and question the true meaning of Christianity, all the more fueled by his study of scripture in its original language. Luther’s indignation at the dogmas ruling over Christianity not the Gospels alone in its original text resulted in the famous 95 Theses opposing the Church’s sale of indulgences on a variety of grounds nailed to the door of All Saints’ Church in Withenberg, which ignited embers of the Reformation especially against Church of Rome. Surely, that the papacy was secular, not divinely appointed was to infuriate the Church and excommunicate him. Notwithstanding the mortal threats from his foes, Luther was a man of convictions and successfully led the Reformation movement with a group of his followers. Be he ever imperfect, Luther was also a generous and kind man who cared for orphans and the sick even by lodging them in his house. Furthermore, Luther helped a group of nuns escape from a convent in 1523 during the Reformation and married Katharina von Bora, one of the escaped nuns without home and family whom Luther affectionately called, “My lord.”
In the eyes of Rome, Luther might be an infidel heretic to be condemned in the Sixth Circle of Inferno, but he was more of humanistic thinker, a pioneer educator putting his ideas into actions to upend the fallacies of the ecclesiastical bureaucracy and its practices under the pretext of redemption of fallen souls and blessing of celestial graces through the Church that had already become corrupt with the cardinal sins. What distinguishes Luther from other religious leaders is his role as a public activist, advocating church reform based on Christian freedom and the message of the Gospel in scripture without resorting to the use of violence because it was not of Christian conduct. He worked on the vernacular bible based on Erasmus’s recent edition of the New Testament in its original Greek by transcribing into German word by word without the use of commentaries in order that his translation would be accessible to the public and convey the contexts as truthfully as possible to the original. Also, Luther encouraged medieval German’s history of folk hymns in the vernacular during mass by rewriting the hymns himself, one of which was famed “A mighty fortress is our God.”
To encapsulate, the achievements of Luther that have influenced our modern way of thinking appertain to education of minds of people on the ground of individualism which are: (1) examination of each Christian’s conscience; (2) the sufficiency of scripture alone as the bedrock of Protestant church tenets; (3) building a direct relationship to God through only Christ, not through a priest; (4) active participation of laypersons in church worship; (5) emphasis on grace, forgiveness, and salvation by faith alone; and (6) the use of hymns in the vernacular for the mass. Had it not been for Luther’s pyrrhic vanguard of the Reformation movement, Europe would have still remained in the medieval mode of thinking and living.