Martin Luther—the Story of his Life - E. Singmaster

Monk, Teacher, and Preacher

The friends whom Luther invited to his farewell supper were aghast at his announcement of the step he was about to take. In the short hours left them they tried every argument to dissuade him. It was wicked for one so young and with so promising a future to bury himself in a monastery. It is probable that Luther heard now, if he had never heard before, the scornful appellations which scoffers applied to the monks.

More difficult to bear than the protests of his friends was the anger of his father, who, whatever might be his opinion of the monks, had meant his boy for a different career and to that end had made so many sacrifices.

But stronger than paternal commands and the pleas and scoffing of his friends was the need of Martin's soul for peace. If the natural desires of a young man, who knew himself to possess a good mind and qualities of heart which made him sought after by many, caused him to cast any longing glances backward, his thoughts were soon turned once more to the assurance of salvation which he expected ere long to feel. The world was behind him, shut out forever by the closing of the monastery door, but soon the blessed light of heaven would beam upon him.

The monastery of the Augustinians was the best of the cloisters in Erfurt, and in selecting it Martin acted with characteristic good sense. Its monks were the preachers of Erfurt; they bore a good reputation and were esteemed for their good works among the needy.

Luther rendered the most exact obedience to his superiors and to the rules of the order. His days and nights from dawn to dark and from dark to dawn were laid out for him; so many hours for labor, so many for prayer, so many—or so few!—for sleep. The chief object of the training of the year of novitiate was the cultivation of obedience and humility. A monk must learn, first of all, that he had ceased to have a will of his own. Among the tasks which were assigned to the newcomer were the sweeping and cleaning of the convent, and, most humiliating of all, that of begging. The young graduate of the university, who had been so much admired and from whom so much had been expected, went through the streets of Erfurt with a sack on his shoulders, waiting humbly at doors which had hitherto opened to him as an honored guest. It is probable that he considered this task a small price to pay for the boon which he was seeking, and that he rejoiced in each pang which, conquered, brought him nearer to his goal. To his university which had been so proud of him the humiliation was intolerable, and its officials besought that he might be sent to beg elsewhere than in the city streets. To his superiors within the convent his learning was at once a source of 'pride and a reason for additional discipline. He must be taught that his achievements were as nothing.

At any time during the first year he might have left the monastery without a stain upon his honor. It is certain that there was no lack of persuasion to such a course. The friends who had so entreated him, the father who thought of him with angry grief, all did their best to call him back before it was too late. But all was without avail. No peace had as yet visited his heart, but to turn back would make certain the eternal loss of his soul. In the autumn of 1506, he became a member of the Augustinian Order, and promised to live until death in poverty, obedience, and chastity.

In the monasteries there were many varieties of men and many varieties of occupation. The Church used for her purposes all the various talents of her sons. There were monks who swept and scrubbed and dug gardens; there were those with musical talent who had in charge the elaborate and beautiful service; there were those whose gift for teaching was put to use in the monastery schools and in the universities; there were scholars who had for many years guarded and venerated learning which otherwise would have been lost; there were priests who admonished the people and administered the sacraments.

Having trained the novice in humility and patience and having admitted him to full fellowship with their order, Luther's superiors now resolved upon his ordination to the priesthood, which took place in February, 1507. On May 2 of the same year he celebrated his first mass.

To this solemn yet joyful ceremony he invited his father and various friends. His own joy in the occasion was profound. "God, glorious and holy in all his works, has deigned to exalt me, wretched and unworthy sinner, and to call me into his sublime ministry only for his mercy's sake. I ought to be thankful for the glory of such divine goodness (as much as dust may be) and fulfill the duty laid upon me. Wherefore the fathers have set aside Sunday, May 2nd, for my first mass, God willing. That day I shall officiate before God for the first time . . . ."

Half mollified, his father brought him a gift. But he was not wholly reconciled. At the banquet which followed the mass, Martin described a vision which had finally led him to the monastery. "God grant," cried Hans, "that it was not some lying and devilish specter!" It was long before the father could entirely forgive or forget that which he considered to be an offense against filial duty. Luther was now bound and sealed to the monastery. He occupied a small cell, seven feet by nine, from which a deeply embrasured window opened on the monastery graveyard. The furniture consisted of a pallet bed, a chair, and a table. Here in quiet and seclusion, relieved of the hard manual labor of his novitiate, he continued the study of philosophy in which he had distinguished himself, and began the study of the theology which taught that God, having promised for Christ's sake to forgive sin, has made it possible for man by good works to merit salvation. His textbook was not the Bible, but the works of theologians and philosophers who had commented upon it.

Now he began once more to look into his own soul. He had taken the great step, he had suffered the required discipline, he had offered himself fully to God, and he might justly expect that the blessed change had been wrought and that he should find peace.

Instead, alas, he seemed to see only more abysmal depths of misery and wickedness. His heart was more troubled than before; more ominous than ever the fearful question fronted his frightened eyes, "What must I do to be saved?" Of his mental anxiety during this period he spoke in later years, saying that the pains of hell could be no greater.

With the most earnest zeal, he tried to apply to his own misery the answer given by the scholastic philosophy and theology which he was studying. A man could win God's grace by his works. He willed now to save himself by harsher penance and more ardent prayer. He secured a scourge and beat his poor body—already fearfully emaciated by fasting—until he fainted. He went without food for days and without sleep for many nights, and he exposed his body to the cold, lying at night on the stone floor of his cell without covering. There his fellow monks found him senseless and almost lifeless and talked with uncomprehending admiration of his wonderful piety, until not only the cloister but the community regarded him with awe.

But all his self-torture was vain; still his despair grew. Living in the unhealthy atmosphere of the monastery apart from the wholesome distractions of the world, men invariably magnify the importance of those faults which they commit and imagine a hundred errors or, as Luther called them, "doll sins," of which they are not guilty. Luther's fear of God changed to hatred. Man could not avert the punishment which God had threatened nor could he love so arbitrary and unmerciful a Creator.

Gradually, however, he found relief. He began to read the Bible in obedience to the neglected rule of the Augustinians, and slowly there dawned upon his heart the first beams of coming day. Still at tithes clouds darkened the light, but the fearful tortures of the past oppressed him at longer and longer intervals. At his diligence in reading the Scriptures and at his finding comfort therein, his fellow monks were astonished.

Older monks by their counsels aided him in his struggle. To them, Luther with his fearful depression seemed at times almost mad. An old confessor insisted to him that God was not angry with him, but that he was angry with God and that it was his duty to believe that God would forgive him.

From no other human agency did he receive as valuable help as from John Staupitz, a nobleman, the Vicar of the German provinces of the Augustinian Order, who loved him and who reminded him constantly of the love of God for him. Staupitz was dean of the theological faculty of the University of Wittenberg, recently established by Elector Frederick of Saxony, in which it was intended that the teachers should be Augustinian monks. When Staupitz recommended Luther to the position of instructor in philosophy, he accomplished two objects, he withdrew the young priest from the unwholesome contemplation of his imagined sins, and he provided for the new university a gifted and enthusiastic teacher. Thither in 1508 went Luther.

Wittenberg was a town of about three thousand inhabitants, situated in the flat, sandy country along the river Elbe. It was very different from handsome Erfurt. Among the few fine buildings were the castle of the Elector of Saxony and the castle church set close together at one end of the town. In the center rose the tall towers of the great city church and at the other end stood the Augustinian monastery, or Black Cloister, so called from the black garb of the monks, and near it the single building of the university. The castle church was the repository for the five thousand relics of the saints gathered together by the pious Elector. Without doubt Luther looked with credulous reverence upon these objects.

The Elector Frederick, though he gave superstitious veneration to the Church, was an educated and intelligent man. Most important of all, he was foremost among the German rulers in resisting the absurd claims of the Pope.

Luther continued his work at Wittenberg until the autumn of 1509. During this time he took his first theological degree, baccalaureus ad biblia, and gradually also a more important work was wrought upon him. He continued a diligent study of the Bible, and one day as he was reading in the tower of the Augustinian convent where he lived, he came upon a short sentence in the Epistle to the Romans, "The just shall live by faith." Now, for Brother Martin was the world made over. In deep and constant meditation, he came finally to see that the Bible teaching was different from the theology which he had been taught. It was not by man's work, but by his faith, that he was saved. An extraordinary peace came to abide in his soul. It seemed to him that now at last he was a Christian, a good Catholic. Here was the foundation stone of religion.

In the autumn of 1509 Luther returned to Erfurt, where he remained for almost two years preparing by study and by the delivery of certain prescribed lectures to begin the teaching of theology. During this period he was unexpectedly given an opportunity for which every devout mediaeval yearned.

There had arisen among the Augustinians a difference of opinion about the policy of the order, and a messenger was sent to Rome to lay the matter in dispute before the proper authorities. Luther was appointed to accompany the monk to whom the matter was entrusted. The journey was made on foot in pleasant October weather, the two monks walking sedately one behind the other and praying as they walked. They counted no weariness too great which brought them each evening a little nearer to that city which their hearts held in affectionate veneration. Here the blood of martyrs had been shed, here thousands of sacred relics lay yet hidden in the earth, here dwelt the Vicar of Christ.

The journey consumed about two months. The travelers rested for the night at the convents of the Augustinian Order along the way, and each day their eyes opened more and more widely at the fruitfulness of the land and at the comfort and elegance in which the inhabitants lived. In Florence they visited the hospitals. It is probable that the eyes of the tender-hearted Luther, which passed by without remark many other objects of art, gazed with pleasure upon the sculptured Della Robbia babies on the walls of the Spedale degli Innocenti. Upon the care and neatness within the hospital he commented with astonishment.

At sight of Rome he prostrated himself upon the ground, crying, "Hail, Holy Rome! Thrice holy art thou in whom the blood of the martyrs has been poured out!" Since he was merely the traveling companion of the monk who had the business of the Augustinians in hand, he was free to set out at once to visit the city. The architectural remains of antiquity interested him and he spoke of them frequently in later years, particularly of mighty ruins like the Coliseum and the Baths of Diocletian.

Most diligently he visited the numerous shrines, which were supposed to have virtue for the healing of sickness and the remitting of sins. What an opportunity for the pious German monk who in his own words "believed all that he heard!" He said mass ten times, amazing his Italian acquaintances by his solemnity and deliberation, and he wished that his father and mother were already dead so that their stay in purgatory might be shortened by the doubly efficacious prayers which he could make in Rome.

The account of his halt midway in the ascent of the Santa Scala with the words, "The just shall live by faith," is of somewhat doubtful authenticity, since it rests upon the word of his son who, hearing his father tell the story in his childhood, wrote it down many years later. Luther's own account of the credulous piety with which he regarded every stone of Rome makes unlikely any resistance to custom. Though he was disgusted and horrified by the levity and impurity of many of the Roman priests, his faith in the Church was unshaken.

Soon after his return to Erfurt, Luther was again summoned to the University of Wittenberg, this time to become professor of theology. His friend Staupitz was anxious to retire from his position as dean of the theological faculty, and in response to his urging, Luther took in 1512 the highest degree in theology, that of doctor of divinity, so that he might succeed him. Settled once more in the Black Cloister, he applied himself with all his strength of mind and heart to his teaching.

At last he was to do the work which he loved and for which he had longed; he was to lecture on the Bible. As earnestly as he had searched his own soul for its imperfections in the days of his despair, so now he searched the Bible in order that he might discover every element of saving truth which it contained. He continued his study of Hebrew so that he might read at first hand the Old Testament, and began the study of Greek so that he might similarly learn the New Testament. His published lectures of this period, with their many allusions and quotations, show how wide was his reading. He studied with deep joy the writings of German mystics who insisted that a period of despair and anguish must precede the rebirth of the soul. This had been his case exactly; surely now he was truly saved! A few years after he had begun to lecture there appeared a new Greek edition of the New Testament with a Latin translation by Erasmus, the humanist of Rotterdam, learned, witty, and a most ardent advocate of freedom of thought. The effect of a study of Erasmus was at once visible in the exposition of the young lecturer.

We have proof of the closeness and thoroughness of his application in the books which he used. Worn, thumbed, every tiniest spot covered with annotations, they enable the scholar to trace step by step his growing apprehension of Biblical teaching. That this teaching was different from that of the Church, or that it should some day sever him from her, could not have occurred to him as the most remote of possibilities.

He lectured during the first five years of his professorship upon the Psalms, the Epistle to the Romans, the Book of Judges, and the Epistle to the Galatians. Possessing great merit as commentaries upon the text of Scripture, these lectures were further marked by two qualities which were new to the theological classroom. In the first place, they were intensely practical. Luther drew his illustrations partly from his own heart, only recently torn with doubt and anguish and now entirely at peace, partly from the life about him, and partly from contemporary history. His meaning could not be mistaken when it was so amply explained by events with which every one was acquainted or by the homely incidents of everyday life. His ability in this direction was like that of Lincoln, but his illustrations were drawn from much wider and deeper sources.

In the second place, his lectures proclaimed a new doctrine, the Pauline justification by faith. He declined no opportunity to attack the schoolmen and their cardinal principle of salvation by works. In the words of a contemporary: "After a long and dark night the light of a new doctrine seemed to dawn. He showed the distinction between the Law and the Gospel, and refuted the then prevalent error that, by their own works, men merit the forgiveness of sins, and by their observance of discipline, are righteous before God, and, like the Baptist, pointing to the Lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world, he declared that sins are remitted freely, on account of the Son of God, and that this benefit is to be received by faith. Other portions of the Church's doctrine were made clear. These beginnings of still better things gave him great influence, especially since his life corresponded with his speech, and his words seemed to spring, not from his lips, but from his heart."

Not only the scholastic theology, but the scholastic philosophy, was the object of sharp attack, so that presently, in Luther's words, "Aristotle tottered to a fall" in Wittenberg. He attacked the schoolmen, not only for their errors, but for their dullness—a charge which must forever appeal to youth.

The personal attractiveness of the young teacher had probably not a little to do with the enthusiasm of the students. It was natural that they should flock to hear one so young and eager and interesting. Luther's youth, his fervor, his learning, his mellow voice, his deep, kind eyes, now melting into tenderness as he spoke of the love of God, now brightening into fire as he alluded to those who would deny or ignore the power of His grace, all combined to win for him the affection and admiration of his students and his companions. His friend George Spalatin said of him, "I think so much of him as a most learned and upright man, and, what is extremely rare, one of such acumen in judging that I wish to be entirely his friend." To him Christopher Schuerl, a well-known scholar, wrote: "Honored Sir; and reverend Father, the Augustinian profession, your splendid virtue and great fame have so made me your subject that I greatly desire to be your friend, and to be inscribed in the catalogue of your intimates. With our common parent and vicar I conversed as much as the business of each of us permitted, and during several days and a part of the night the subject of our talk was frequently your excellence, goodness and learning."

Presently Luther began to preach as well as to teach. At first he was timid, even terrified, but as he realized his own strength, he grew confident. His sermons had the same merits as his lectures; they were simple, direct, and practical. Many pious Germans found that he expressed that which they had long felt, but which they had neither the courage nor the skill to say. He condemned superstition and faith in the efficacy of fasts and pilgrimages, and he had even something to say about the wickedness of an evil Pope. When he was invited to preach at a conference of the Augustinian Order, he selected as his theme not some scholastic question as had been the custom, but the evils of backbiting and slander in the monasteries. He reproved the students at Wittenberg for their unseemly behavior, thereby winning the devout thanks of the townspeople. He ventured even to remonstrate with the Elector for his faults.

In May, 1515, Luther was made district vicar of his order and thereby his duties were greatly increased. To his friend John Lang he wrote a description of his days: "I am convent preacher, the reader at meals, am asked to deliver a sermon daily in the parish church, am district vicar (that is eleven times prior), business manager of our fish farm at Litzkau, attorney in our case versus the Herzbergers now pending at Torgau, lecturer on Saint Paul, assistant lecturer on the Psalter, beside having my correspondence, which, as I said, occupies most of my time. I seldom have leisure to discharge the canonical services, to say nothing of attending to my own temptations with the world, the flesh, and the devil."

But while the young monk labored for his Church, worn by her orisons and emaciated by her fasts, he had left, unknown to himself, the broad course established by her doctrine and practice. Whether the stream which he had entered should prove to be a true passageway to the great ocean of truth or merely a perilous bay where shoals should soon wreck his frail boat, time would tell.