It was five hundred years ago today, 31 October 1517, that Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the doors of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany. Had it not been for the subsequent translation of these theses from Latin into German by someone unbeknownst to Luther, the Augustinian monk’s action would likely have drawn little attention. Instead, these 95 theses, translated into German, would prove to be the catalyst that would shake the medieval church to its very foundations.
The church of Luther’s time has been likened to one of those old buildings covered in ivy–in my view, an apt description. We’ve all seen those ivy-covered buildings from the late nineteenth-century. So completely covered in ivy are they that one can see nothing more than the windows and the door. It’s impossible to tell anything about the structure beneath all that ivy: whether it’s a building constructed of red brick, or grey sandstone, or something else. And so it was with the medieval church! So many practices and beliefs, with no basis in Scripture, had grown up over the centuries. What Luther, and his fellow reformers did, was to ‘pull down the ivy’ that had obscurred the church’s true message; salvation by faith alone (sola fides), by grace alone (sola gratia), and by Jesus Christ alone (solus Christus).
A few years ago I had the privilege of spending a day in Lutherstadt-Wittenberg, as its now known. The old university town is a great place for a walking tour because all the important sites are easily accessible. The prime site to visit, naturally, was the castle church door where Luther posted his 95 theses. Why the door of the castle church? In Luther’s day, the castle church door functioned as the local university’s bulletin board. In posting his list, Luther was calling for an academic disputation on the “power and efficacy of indulgences…”.
This is the door of the castle church (schlosskirche), or All Saints’ Church, where Luther posted his 95 theses. The 1517 door has not survived. This is a later-installed door inscribed with his 95 theses.
Luther’s grave is situated below the podium where he stood to preach.
One of the things I learned about Luther on this trip–something I hadn’t known previously–was that he was a talented musician who played the lute and possessed a great singing voice. Putting his musical gifts in service of the Reformation, he composed hymns as well. After viewing the door of the castle church, I went to nearby Corpus Christi Chapel where I joined with others in singing Luther’s most well-known hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” The Reformation was spread not only by sermon but by song as well. So thrilling to be singing this hymn in Wittenberg! A Lutheran pastor–from the US–led the group in singing Luther’s hymn, then gave a Bible reading and short talk to the handful of English-speaking tourists there.
Not long after my day in Wittenberg, I made it to another place famous for its Luther-connection: Wartburg Castle, located on a hill overlooking the city of Eisenach. It was here at Wartburg Castle where Friedrich the Wise (Elector Frederick of Saxony) hid Martin Luther, disguised as a certain ‘Squire George’, between 1521-22, thus keeping the reformer out of the clutches of the pope who would surely have had him executed as a heretic. Anyone who offered Luther protection would be punished as well. Anyone who offered him up, on the other hand, would be rewarded with a plenary indulgence.
Hidden away in the castle, in a stube or room provided by the Elector, Luther translated the New Testament from Greek to German. Luther had never seen a Bible until he was 20 years old, and that was when he came across a Latin Bible in the monastery library at Erfurt. He was amazed to find “what a small portion of the Scripture was allowed to reach the ears of the people.” To the reforming monk, scripture alone (sola scriptura) was the basis for right belief and practice. It was a moving experience for me to see the room where Luther did his translating.
Luther’s wife does not receive the attention she should, in my view, for her story is a remarkable one, too. Katharina von Bora had entered a Cistercian convent at an early age and took her vows as soon as possible. Become dissatisfied with her life in the convent, and her interest piqued by the new teachings (which may have had something to do with her growing dissatisfaction), she plotted with eleven other nuns to escape: an act punishable by death. Even giving shelter to an escaped nun was a crime under church law. Katharina contacted Luther, and he helped her escape in an empty fish barrel! Luther found homes, marriages, or employment for ten of the escaped nuns. When only Katharina was left, he married her himself in 1525. To many at this time, such a marriage was scandalous. For a monk and a nun to marry was nothing short of incest.
“Dear Kate,” as Luther called her, proved to be a wonderfully resourceful mate: she managed the household, brewed beer, leased land for gardening, bred cattle, and gave birth to six children. In marrying the resourceful ex-nun, Luther proved to those around him that one could be a clergyman and a happy husband and family man, all at the same time.
No account of the life of Martin Luther can be complete without mentioning his hateful rants against the Jewish people in his later years, his legacy thus forever tainted. That said, Martin Luther, flawed human being though he was, deserves to be acknowledged, especially today, for freeing those held captive by Rome and revealing once more “the glorious liberty of the gospel.”
Portraits of Katharina von Bora and Martin Luther