Richard Nisley

Book Review: Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther
History - World Released - Mar 13, 2020
If you belong to any one of a number of the protestant churches, you owe a debt of gratitude to Martin Luther. It was he who launched the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century. To fully understand and appreciate what he did and what it cost him, you should read his biography. This one by Roland Bainton, is considered one of the best. Originally published in 1950, it's stood the test of time. At 400 pages, it's not overly long, but careful reading is required. Like me you may find many of the terms and expressions associated with the Catholic church, as well as the names of many of Luther's contemporaries, to be unfamiliar. As an added bonus, many of the cartoons that accompanied Luther's various tracts, are included, about 100 in all.

The Martin Luther who emerges in the pages of this book, is deeply religious, a life-long Bible reader, a formidable debater, extremely conscientious, fiercely independent, indefatigable and hard working, incredibly bright, and in possession of a very dry sense of humor. In matters of faith, he served Christianity in a variety of capacities: priest, monk, professor of theology, composer of church music, and exceptional writer.

Martin Luther was born in Eisleben, a small town in Saxony, Germany, in 1483, at the time a province of the Holy Roman Empire. His father was a copper miner and well-to-do-businessman, who specialized in the smelting of copper. Thus he had the necessary finances to send his oldest son, Martin, to the University of Erfurt. He wanted his son to become a lawyer. However, the studies impinged on theology, and the Master's degree for which Martin was preparing for the law could have equipped him equally for the cloth. As fate would have it, instead of law Martin opted for the cloth, or in this case the cowl, the head-ware of Monks.

He graduated with a Master of Arts degree in January of 1505, and by July of that same year entered the Augustinian cloister at Erfurt. In 1507, he was ordained as a priest. He continued with his education and in 1512 earned a doctorate in theology from the University of Wittenburg, where he would spend the rest of his life as a professor. From 1513 to 1516, Luther lectured extensively on the Books of Psalms, Hebrews, Romans, and Galatians (he was particularly fond of Paul, with whom he related). He also wrote a number of treatises. The best known are: "The Ninety-Five Theses","Luther's Large Catechism", "Luther's Small Catechism", "On the Freedom of a Christian", and "On the Bondage of the Will". In mid-life he translated the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek into German.

It wasn't easy being Martin Luther. He was particularly sensitive and, like most people of his day, fearful of going to hell, which partly explains his obsession with the confessing of sins. Prior to attending confession, he would sweat the details, trying to remember every one of his sins, no matter how small or trivial. Sometimes he would spend up to six hours in confession, trying to be exact and complete, which drove his fellow priests crazy. Afterward, he would wonder if he had confessed all of his sins; and therefore feel not only unfilled but fearful that he missed one, in which case he was doomed to burn in hell for all eternity.

Therefore when Luther learned of the Catholic Church's practice of selling indulgences (which, in so many words, is a means of buying one's entrance into heaven, or of paying money to relieve one's dead relatives from purgatory), he came out against it. Between 1503 and 1510, the selling of indulgences was renewed in Germany, and spread widely to become something of a cottage industry among Catholic churches. It was so prevalent that a sort of commercial jingle developed to increase business. It went as follow:

"As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, The soul from purgatory springs."

To a true believer like Luther, this reeked of blasphemy. Not only was it contrary to Scripture and therefore untrue, it was taking money from those who could least afford it–the poor–while enriching the coffers in Rome, which at the time was spending big on rebuilding St. Peter's Basilica.

In 1510, Luther visited Rome and was disillusioned by what he saw. He didn't like how Mass was being conducted; to a conscientious priest like Luther, the conducting of Mass at the Vatican seemed rushed and slipshod, as if the priests were in a hurry and didn't have their heart in it. Worse, perhaps, the selling of indulgences was out in the open, and widespread.

He came to believe that all the money being sent to Rome, would be better spent in Germany, where a number of local churches were in need of repair. The pope was rich, said Luther, let him spend money out of his pocket, and stop pickpocketing Germany. As something of a wag, Luther commented, "Germany is the pope's pig. That is why we have to give him so much bacon and sausages."

Luther wanted the practice of indulgences stopped, or at the very least debated among the clergy. In that spirit, in 1517, he wrote his "Ninety-five Theses" in Latin and posted them on the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg. However, someone got a hold of Luther's "Ninety-Five Theses," had them translated into German, printed, and posted among the towns of Saxony. Eventually they would circulate throughout all Germany and much of Europe, including Italy and England. This resulted in three things: (1) it made Luther famous, (2) it stirred up the German poor which led indirectly to the Peasant's War of 1524, and (3) it drew the ire of the Vatican.

For several weeks thereafter, Luther feared for his life, as a number of predictions circulated that he would be burned at the stake within two weeks, or a month at the latest. All the while Luther protested that he wasn't trying to embarrass the Catholic Church, but merely to question a debatable practice. "Show me the Scripture that proves me wrong," he said, "and I will recant."

Recant is what Pope Leo X wanted Luther to do, while trying to manage the growing crises from Rome. Eventually, Luther was granted an audience with a representative of the Catholic Church. This was in Augsburg, Germany, over a three-day period in October 1518. The problem for the Cardinal conducting the interview was that he was not as well-educated in Scripture as Luther. A debate followed, the Cardinal's ignorance of scripture was exposed making him angry, and the conversation degenerated into a shouting match. The result was Luther ended up being declared an enemy of the Church. Fearing he would be shackled and carted off to Rome for trial and possible execution, Luther slipped out of the city at night and went into hiding.

A year later, Luther was called to a second hearing, also in Augsburg, in which he made certain concessions and promised to remain silent if his opponents did likewise. The problem was with the church hierarchy, which desired to expose Luther's doctrine as false, primarily because the Pope had the last word on what the scripture said, and he was infallible. Who was Luther, a mere Monk to criticize or even to question the pope? Luther countered by declaring that being human, the pope was not in league with Jesus Christ, who, being God, was truly infallible. This was going too far, and a year later Luther was warned that unless he recanted, he risked being excommunicated. Luther would not, and on 3 January 1521, Luther's "Ninety-Five Theses" were banned and Luther himself summarily excommunicated by Pope Leo X. This was not the end, however.

The following April Luther was ordered to appear before a secular authority which was assigned the task of enforcing the ban on Luther's "Ninety-Five Theses". This was the so-called Diet (a.k.a. congress) of Worms, with Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire presiding. Once more Luther stood his ground by refusing to recant ("Here I stand," he said. "I can do no other. May God help me. Amen.")

Luther also said: "Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by a clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive of the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience."

In the end the Emperor declared Luther an outlaw, banned his literature (many of his books and treatises were burned in public) and ordered his arrest. As a result, Luther went into hiding at Wartburg Castle, in Eisenach. While there he translated the New Testament from Greek into German, and continued to write theses against church practices (which continued to be published and circulated). Being something of a stickler for using the exact right word, for which he went to great pains, he continued to revise the New Testament until his death in 1546.

With the Peasant's War underway, Luther secretly returned to the cloister at Erfurt, where he preached eight sermons, which were published as the "Invocavit Sermons." In these sermons, he reminded his flock to trust God's word rather than to turn to violence to bring about necessary change (at the time church statuary and artwork was being destroyed by Luther's fellow Augustinian monks). At the same time, he reiterated the core Christian values, of love, patience, charity, and freedom.

By now, Martin Luther was something of a folk hero, and the reformation he had inspired was taken up by others and spreading rapidly throughout Germany and Northern Europe, exceeding anything Luther might have imagined. After secretly visiting Wittenberg University in early December 1521, Luther wrote "A Sincere Admonition by Martin Luther to All Christians to Guard Against Insurrection and Rebellion."

The landscape was rapidly changing. Among the results ushered in by Luther and his followers, was that not only monks but also nuns were abandoning the cloisters. When the monks began to marry (some to nuns), Luther exclaimed, "Had I been told at Worms that in six years I would have a wife, I would not have believed it." But have a wife he did. On June 13,1525, he married an ex-nun named Katherine van Bora. She was 26; he was 42. "I married to make my father happy," he said. "He wants the Luther name to be extended." The only problem was he had no money; he didn't take a penny from sales of his books, and the university stipend was not enough to fund his married life. What to do? A year later he installed a lathe and learned the art of woodworking. However, he was still minded to give himself exclusively to the service of the Word, and he trusted that the heavenly Father would provide, and he did, indirectly. The elector over the Augustinian cloister doubled his salary, and frequently sent game, clothes, and wine to the Luther household. It wasn't long and Katherine gave birth to the first of their six children (three boys and three girls). In addition, the Luthers brought up four orphaned children from among relatives. The family grew even more when–to increase their income–the couple took in student boarders. The Luther household would number as many as twenty-five, making for lively dinner conversations, with Martin as the center of attention.

In church, Luther insisted his fellow protestants learned to sing. Practices were set during the week for the entire congregation, and in the home after the catechetical hour singing was commended to the family. In 1524 Luther brought out a hymnbook with twenty-seven hymns of which he was the author and perhaps in part the composer. Twelve were free paraphrases from the Latin hymnody. Six were versifications of the Psalms. His own experiences of anguish and deliverance enabled him in such free renderings to invest the Psalms with a very personal feeling. For example: "Out of the depths," became "In direct need."

In 1527, he composed his most famous hymn: "A Mighty Fortress." Writes the author: "Here if anywhere, we have the epitome of Luther's religious character."

In his later years, he translated the Old Testament into German; in 1534 the complete German Bible was published, perhaps Luther's noblest achievement and greatest contribution to German culture. There had been translations of the Bible into German before Luther. "But none had the majesty of diction, the sweep of vocabulary, the native earthiness, and the religious profundity of Luther," writes the author.

As I alluded earlier, Luther was something of a wag. Among his more famous quotes, are:

"What lies there are about relics! One claims to have a feather of the Angel Gabriel, and the Bishop of Mainz has a flame from Moses' burning bush. And how does it happen that eighteen apostles are buried in Germany when Christ had only twelve?"

"An officer of the Turkish war told his men that if they died in battle they would sup with Christ in Paradise. The officer fled. When asked why he did not wish to sup with Christ, he said he was fasting that day."

"They are trying to make me into a fixed star. I am an irregular planet."

"A cartoon has appeared of me as a monster with seven heads. I must be invincible because they cannot overcome me when I have only one."

Regarding his translation of the Bible into German, he wrote: "I endeavored to make Moses so German that no one would suspect he was a Jew."


If no Englishman occupies a similar place in the religious life of his people," writes the author, "it is because no Englishman had anything like Luther's range. The Bible translation in England was the work of Tyndale, the prayer book of Crammer, the catechism of the Westminster divines. The sermonic style stemmed from Latimer, the hymnbook came from Watts. And not all of these lived in one century. Luther did the work of more than five men. And for sheer richness and exuberance of vocabulary and mastery of style he is to be compared only with Shakespeare. . . . In fact a German historian has said that in the course of three hundred years only one German ever really understood Luther, and that was Johann Sebastian Bach."

About his church, the author writes: "Luther's influence extends far beyond his own land. Lutheranism took possession in Scandinavia and has an extensive following in the United States, and apart from that his movement gave the impetus which sometimes launched and sometimes helped to establish the other varieties of Protestantism. They all stem in some measure from him. And what he did for his own people to a degree, he did also for others. His translation, for example affected the English version. Tyndale's preface is taken from Luther. His liturgical reforms likewise had an influence on the Book of Common Prayer. And even the Catholic Church owes him much. Often it is said that had Luther never appeared, an Erasmian reform would have triumphed, or at any rate a reform after the Spanish model. All of this is of course conjectural, but it is obvious that the Catholic Church received a tremendous shock from the Lutheran Reformation and a terrific urge to reform after its own pattern."

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