Who Was the Real Martin Luther?

A biographical sketch of the spark that lit the Reformation.

Martin Luther portrait by Lucas Cranach the Elder.
Martin Luther portrait by Lucas Cranach the Elder. (photo: Public domain)
Five hundred years ago this month, Augustinian Saxon priest Martin Luther, an obscure university professor in Germany, rose to prominence and became a household name in Christendom.

From one moment 500 years ago, Luther (1480-1546), initially known only by his family, friends and academic colleagues, became one of the most studied and written about individuals in the history of Western civilization. Indeed, one biographer of Luther boasted, “In most big libraries, books by and about Martin Luther occupy more shelf space than those concerned with any other human being except Jesus of Nazareth.”

Despite the amount of scholarship dedicated to Luther, a false narrative perpetuated by Protestant propaganda often obscures the real man. This false narrative portrays Luther as a valiant monk fighting against the powerful papacy in order to reform the corrupt Catholic Church of the 16th century. Attacked by the Church for his heroic defense of the average Christian and desire to restore the Christian faith to its earlier purity, the false narrative alleges, Luther was a reformer who was forced into his rebellion.

Many myths and legends associated with Luther flow from the commonly held narrative about him. Perhaps the one that most illustrated the false image of the heroic monk standing alone against the powerful Catholic Church is his famous quote at the Diet of Worms in 1521, when a defiant Luther told Catholic Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, after refusing to recant his heretical teachings, “Here I stand. I can do no other.”

The only problem is: Luther never uttered those words; and through the centuries, it has become difficult to discern fact from fiction in the case of the rebellious monk.

As the 500th anniversary of the beginnings of the so-called Protestant Reformation is recalled in religious and secular media throughout the month, many of the myths and legends about Martin Luther will once more enter into the collective consciousness of the Western world. Despite the false narrative of Luther the “bold reformer,” the real story finds an angry man, whose rejection of papal authority, among other heretical positions, quickly ushered in a revolution, not a reformation, which cleaved Christendom and shaped Western civilization down to the modern day.

Martin Luther was born to Hans and Margaretta Luther, their first-born son, Nov. 10, 1480. Baptized the next day, on the feast of St. Martin of Tours, the infant was named for the former fourth-century Roman army soldier-turned-Christian.

According to Roland Bainton’s biography Here I Stand, Martin Luther was a self-absorbed, complex and troubled individual who “would have been a troubled spirit in a tranquil age.” Luther had a conversion experience in 1505 and decided to enter the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt instead of entering law school, as his father desired.

Luther was a scrupulous man who went to confession frequently in the monastery. He struggled with many spiritual issues, most especially the knowledge of his salvation. Despite the strict monastic life filled with penances and prayer, Luther doubted whether he was truly justified in the eyes of God. Sent to the University of Wittenberg to teach, his research for lectures on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans eventually led him to develop what became a bedrock Protestant theological doctrine: sola fide (“faith alone”), a belief that faith alone, apart from any works, justifies the sinner. Luther also adopted the belief in sola scriptura, or the only authoritative source of God’s divine revelation is Scripture, a heretical notion developed earlier by the proto-Protestants John Wyclif (1324-1384) and Jan Hus (1369-1415). Luther also held to a view of God that was very negative. God, for Luther, was a strict and wrathful judge who desired to punish sinful man with hellfire.

The Church in the 16th century was in need of reform, as many abuses had crept into its life, including the buying and selling of ecclesial offices (simony), nepotism, absenteeism (when a bishop did not live in his diocese) and pluralism (one man appointed bishop of multiple dioceses). Many people in the Church called for reform and desired an end to these practices. Luther came to fame with the publication of his “95 Theses” in the fall of 1517. This document railed against the granting of an indulgence for the giving of alms, a popular spiritual practice in the 16th century designed to spiritually assist the faithful for their temporal contributions in financing the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Contrary to the popular myth that Luther was condemned by the Church for his attack on the “selling” of indulgences, the real issue centered on Luther’s heretical claim that the pope had no authority even to grant an in-dulgence. After the 95 Theses were examined by papal theologians, Luther was ordered to travel to Rome for questioning and to recant his heretical views.

Luther never went to Rome, so Pope Leo X sent Cardinal Tomas de Vio (known as Cajetan) to Saxony to meet with Luther. The rebellious monk refused to recant, and his obfuscations and intransigence incited Cajetan. Eventually, Leo X condemned 41 of Luther’s theses in the bull Exsurge Domine (July 1520). Luther responded to the papal bull by publishing a work entitled, “Against the Execrable Bull of Antichrist,” in which he said the purpose of the bull was to “compel men to deny God and worship the devil.”

That same year, Luther published his three famous treatises, which formed the foundation of his teachings. In these treatises he called for the German nobility to rise up against the Church and separate from Rome by creating an independent national German church. He also argued that the sacramental system of the Church was designed by the pope and clergy to enslave the Christian people. Moreover, he wrote that man is not endowed with free will, but, rather, can only choose evil due to the effects of original sin, which, according to Luther, completely corrupted human nature to the point of depravity.

Luther viewed the Church as the “whore of Babylon” and the pope as the Antichrist.

A year later, in 1521, Luther wrote another work, “On Monastic Vows,” which led large numbers of monks and nuns to leave their monasteries and convents.

 Luther personally assisted the escape of 12 nuns from the convent; and a few years later, he married one of them, Katherine von Bora. Luther said he rejected his priestly ordination and married in order to please his father and to spite the pope.

Luther’s writing’s tapped into the nobility’s resentment of the Church and fueled their desire to wrest from the Church whatever temporal power it possessed. His writings also produced violence in Germany, as the peasants rebelled in 1525. Urged by his noble protectors to end the violence, Luther wrote the pamphlet “Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants,” in which he exhorted the nobility to kill the rebels.

By the end of year, 130,000 people had been killed. Toward the end of his life, Luther wrote a treatise entitled, “On the Jews and their Lies,” in which he advocated an eight-point plan to get rid of the Jews in Germany. His last work, “Against the Pontificate at Rome, Founded by the Devil,” contained his deep belief in the evil of the papacy and the need for its complete eradication.

In January 1546, Luther contracted an illness that he blamed on passing through a town of Jews. The next month, he suffered a stroke and died at the age of 66.

The fruit of heresy is violence. The Protestant Revolution brought death and destruction to Europe for a century after the death of Luther. France experienced a bloody religious conflict between Catholics and Huguenots for nearly 40 years. The Low Countries were engulfed in an 80-year war that resulted in the breakup of the region into Protestant (Netherlands) and Catholic (Belgium) provinces. The home of Luther was convulsed in sporadic bloodshed in the 16th century, resulting in an uneasy peace whereby the religion of a people was determined by the secular ruler’s personal faith preference. The peace did not hold, and Germany was thrust into a 30-year conflict in the 17th century that resulted in nearly 4.5 million deaths (25% of the population).

Over the centuries, Luther the man gave way to Luther the symbol. The former Augustinian monk who rebelled against the Church and whose writings spawned a century of horrific bloodshed throughout Europe was idolized as a valiant “reformer” who stood against the powerful and corrupt Catholic Church. Luther was not a reformer, but an angry revolutionary who cleaved the unity of Christendom and placed the Western world on a path toward the secularization and indifferentism of modern society.

Steve Weidenkopf is a lecturer in Church history at the Christendom College Graduate School in Alexandria, Virginia,

and the author of The Real Story of Catholic History: Answering Twenty Centuries of Anti-Catholic Myths

and The Glory of the Crusades, both by Catholic Answers Press.