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Ethics & Religion
Column #1,847
January 19, 2017
The Legacy of Martin Luther
By Mike McManus


This week we celebrated the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. But did you know that originally, his name was Michael King, Jr.?

King's father, a minister, visited Germany in 1934 where he was so impressed with the leadership and impact of the Great Reformer, Martin Luther - that he changed his name to Rev. Martin Luther King.

Of course, his son became Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther launched the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago in 1517 at age 34. An ordained Catholic priest, he earned a Doctorate of Divinity and became a college professor as well as a parish priest in Wittenberg.

He was outraged that Pope Sixtus IV was selling "indulgences" that supposedly reduced the time one had to spend in Purgatory before going to Heaven. Priests told the public the funds were being used to rebuild St. Peter's in Rome. However, half of the funds raised in Germany were given to Albert, an archbishop with a lot of debt.

Luther drafted 95 Theses "for the purpose of eliciting truth" and nailed them to the door of his All Saints Church in Wittenberg. He was not questioning the doctrine of Purgatory, but argued that repentance "involved the whole life of the Christian man" and attacked the "false peace," and the "security" of those "who thought of divine grace as something cheaply bought," as the Encylopaedia Britannica summarized it.

In other words, one's salvation had to be genuine and could not be purchased.

He sent his 95 Theses to his archbishop. Due to the recent invention of the printing press, his ideas quickly spread across Germany. His archbishop asked that Luther "be inhibited" which he ignored while writing a detailed defense.

Dominican priests pressed for Luther's impeachment for heresy. Two Catholic universities condemned his teaching. A Papal bull attacked 41 articles of Luther's writing and his books were burned in Rome.

In 1521 he appeared before the young emperor Charles V. Luther said he would recant if convinced of his error by Scripture or by evident reason. It was at this "Diet of Worms" he reportedly said, "Here I stand. I can do no other." It was a line that captured the imagination of Europe. However, the result was an edict of Worms that declared Luther to be an outlaw whose writings were proscribed.

It was at this point that he translated the New Testament from Greek into German, published in 1522. Then he translated the Old Testament from Hebrew into German in 1534.

Eric Metaxas, in his book Bonhoeffer, writes that Luther "invented Protestantism. Looming over the German culture and nation like both a father and mother, Luther was to Germany what Moses was to Israel...Luther's influence cannot be overestimated. His translation of the Bible into German was cataclysmic. Like a medieval Paul Bunyan, Luther in a single blow shattered the edifice of European Catholicism and in the bargain created the modern German language, which in turn created the German people."

Before his Bible, there was no unified German language, but a hodgepodge of dialects. He created a single German tongue so that millers from Muchen could communicate with bakers from Berlin. Metaxas also wrote that Luther "brought Germans to a fuller engagement with their faith through singing too. He wrote many hymns - the most well-known being "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" - and introduced the idea of congregational singing. Before Luther, no one outside the choir sang in church."

Luther's teachings about Christian liberty and a "priesthood of all believers" helped spark a peasant's revolt in 1524. A watershed year was 1525 when Luther married Katherine von Bora, a former nun. It was a happy, productive union that shattered another element of Catholicism, priestly celibacy.

For the first time in 1525, protests across Germany and evangelical princes standing up to Catholic pressure won them the title "Protestant." The Mass, which was in Latin, was translated into German.

Catholics took 437 years to learn that lesson in Vatican II in 1962 that the Mass should be in the language of the people. Catholics still have not learned that celibacy should be optional.

One tragic teaching of Luther was about the Jews. Initially, he described them as "God's chosen people," but when they would not convert to Christianity, he called them a "base and whoring people." He encouraged setting fire to their synagogues and schools, taking their money and putting them into forced labor. The Nazis quoted Luther to justify their persecution.

Luther was Germany's Moses, mostly for good - but not entirely.

Copyright (c) 2017 Michael J. McManus, a syndicated columnist and past president of Marriage Savers. For previous columns go to Hit Search for any topic.


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