Luther, his Friends and his Legacy

Tours to Reformation sites last year and the year before have stimulated a reawakening interest in Luther.

Luther’s earliest years as a Professor of Exegesis in Wittenberg 1512-1516, when he lectured on the Psalms and Romans, were his most formative.  Not only was he convinced by the sole authority of the Bible his humanist frame of mind insisted that it must be based on the primary Greek and Hebrew texts, not the secondary Latin versions.

Likewise fundamental was his vision of ‘the justice of God’ that engaged with man not in judgment and condemnation but in grace and through faith in the crucified Son of God.

In his exegesis of texts Luther was committed to the principle that texts of Scripture cross exegete one another.  For example, based on his exegesis of Romans 3:28 he wrote that, ‘We hold that man will be justified without works of the law but by faith alone’.  Luther was criticized for introducing the word ‘alone’, which is not in Paul’s text but he defended himself insisting that its use was necessary to convey the wider truth of Christian doctrine.  Scripture interprets Scripture is a Reformation doctrine.

In his letter written to Albrecht, Archbishop of Mainz following the furore over the 95 theses (1517) Martin Luder spelled his name ‘Luther’ for the first time.  This was a word play on the Greek word eleutheros, ‘free’.  In a letter to a friend he described himself as ‘brother Martin the free’.  In 1520 he wrote his famous pamphlet, Of the Freedom of the Christian Man.  He transported the notion of Christian freedom into his own person.

Luther’s profound commitment to Christian freedom based on justification by grace through faith set him at odds against two formidable foes.  One was the humanist mindset, as found in Erasmus, that argued that man is free to find God by himself, and the other, the ‘old church’, that insisted on the merits earned by indulgences, pilgrimages and the worship of relics and statues were the basis of a right standing with God.

Luther himself was a larger than life character.  He was at the same time intellectually brilliant, amazingly hard working, but also with a maverick streak.  If Bucer is to be believed, Luther also possessed an engaging pastoral manner:

Although our chief men refuted him with all their might, their wiles were not          able to move him an inch from his propositions.   His sweetness in answering    is remarkable, his patience in listening is incomparable, in his explanations you would recognize the acumen of Paul…[1]

In this paper I will offer some reflections on (a) the circumstances that enhanced Luther’s impact on history, and (b) some of the benefits of that impact.

Helpful Circumstances

Just visiting the Luther sites ? Eisleben, Eisenach, Erfurt, Wittenberg, Wartburg, Leipzig, Worms ? prompts observations that that are reasonably obvious about the circumstances that allowed the greatness of Luther to find expression:
•the invention and development of the printing press seventy years earlier;
•the growing hostility to Rome in the German state-lets;
•the protection offered Luther by the Electors of Saxony, Frederick the Wise, his brother John Frederick, and his nephew also named John Frederick.

(The protection of Frederick the Wise is remarkable since he remained ‘catholic’ in pious outlook until his latter years, as witnessed by his large collection of 18,970 relics in Castle Church.  After Frederick’s death 1525 Luther quietly re-located them).

A basic factor making Luther’s work possible was the prior work of Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam.  This peerless humanist scholar went behind the extant Latin versions of the Bible and as a textual critic began to recover the original Greek of the New Testament.  It has been quipped with regard to the Reformation that ‘Erasmus laid the egg, but Luther hatched it’.

An even more informative image was the woodcut on the title page of a pamphlet Description of the Divine Mill published in 1521 that shows Erasmus and Luther side by side.  Erasmus is the miller of the flour that Luther bakes into his books, the bread of life.

Erasmus was as trenchant as Luther in his denunciation of the worship of statues and relics, describing these as an evil yoke in contrast to the gentle yoke of Jesus for those burdened souls who came to him for rest.  Erasmus loved the scriptures, declaring that they will ‘show you a better image’ (than statues or relics).  According to him, worshipping Christ means the Imitatio Christi based on his words in the New Testament.

In 1559, after Erasmus’s death the church banned his entire corpus, although he had opposed Luther and been faithful to that church throughout his life.

Luther’s impact was powerful, but it is interesting to speculate how much of it was dependent on Erasmus’s publication of the Greek New Testament.

Sadly, the two towering men became hostile to each other.  It was over the question of the human will, which however exposed the whole array of doctrinal issues that lay at the heart of the Reformation.  In 1519, upon receiving a delegation of Luther supporters, Erasmus reflected, ‘One would think they thirsted for human blood rather than the salvation of souls’.[2]  Luther responded, ‘How different is the judgment of the man who yields something to free will than one who knows something of grace…I see that not everyone is a truly wise Christian just because he knows Greek and Hebrew’.[3]

Erasmus’s hostility intensified after the excommunication of Luther at the Diet of Worms (1521).  Erasmus wrote Discourse Concerning Free Choice (1524), to which Luther responded by On the Bondage of the Will (1525).

Wittenberg friends
A second factor that enhanced Luther was his friends close by at Wittenberg, without whom many of his achievements would not have been possible, or at least would have been less.  Of these friends there were many.  In fact whenever we see Luther we see people with him.

Pride of place must be given to his wife, the redoubtable Katharina von Bora (1499-1552).  Katharina’s parents sent her to a convent at five, then to another at nine.  As a young adult she somehow became interested in Reformation thought and contacted Luther to help her escape.  The story of the escape of Katharina and other Nuns in a Herring delivery wagon is well known.  Luther approached the parents to receive them back into their homes, but as this was contrary to Canon Law the women were billeted in various homes in Wittenberg.  Also well known was Katharina’s refusal of various marriage proposals, so bent was she on marrying Martin Luther.

Martin and Katharina took up residence in the former Augustinian Cloister, a gift of the Elector.  Katharine is famous for her management of the former monastery and its extensive grounds.  She supervised the garden, bred and sold cattle, and brewed beer to provide for their family, for the many students who boarded with them, and for visitors seeking audiences with her husband.  In times of widespread illness, Katharina even operated a hospital on site, ministering to the sick alongside the nurses.

Katharina bore Martin Luther six children between 1526-1534 and also raised four orphans.  Their family prayers and music making made Martin and Katharina a model family, not only for fellow pastors, but also for German Christians in general.

It is appropriate that a statue of Katharina von Bora has been erected in the grounds of the Luther home.  Martin referred to Katharina as the ‘morning star of the Reformation’ because she arose from her bed each day at 4 am, to begin the labours that made possible her husband’s achievements.

According to Cochlaeus, a catholic and hostile biographer of Luther, there were ‘four evangelists’ in Wittenberg: Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, Johannes Bugenhagen and Justus Jonas.

There are two statues in the main square of Wittenberg, one of Martin Luther the other of Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560).  Born Philip Schwartzerdt (‘black earth’) he changed it to its Greek equivalent, ‘Melanchthon’ (Melanchth?n), a quirky practice among humanist scholars.  (As noted, Martin Luder changed his name to Luther, based on the Greek eleutheros, ‘free’).

Melanchthon was a true polymath.  In addition to his linguistic expertise, he became an authority on astronomy, jurisprudence, geography, mathematics and medicine.  When he retired as professor at Wittenberg it was necessary to appoint four professors in his place.

Luther persuaded Melanchthon, aged 21, to accept the chair of Greek at Wittenberg.  Based on his lectures on the Greek texts of Matthew and Romans he transferred to the theology faculty.  Melanchthon did not agree with Luther on all matters, for example, on the Lord’s Supper where for a period he followed Zwingli.  Nevertheless, the two men benefitted from their interaction.  Melanchthon’s major contribution was his formulation of the Augsburg Confession, which was based on Luther’s earlier tracts.

Although the two men were different in temperament (Melanchthon was the more irenic) it is safe to say that he contributed significantly to the achievements of Martin Luther.  Most likely Luther benefitted from Melanchthon’s linguistic assistance in Luther’s 1534 translation of the whole Bible.

Melanchthon systematized Luther’s ideas, defended them in public, and made them the basis of a religious education.  Melanchthon’s deep scholarship and personal calmness helped win support for Luther’s cause, which he often presented in explosive terms.  The two men complemented each other in launching and defending the Reformation.

Luther had this to say about himself and Melanchthon:

I was born for this purpose: to fight with the rebels and the devils and to lead        the charge.  Therefore my books are very stormy and warlike.  I have to uproot            trunks and stumps, hack at thorns and hedges, and fill in potholes.  So I am the      crude woodsman, who has to clear and make the path.  But master Philip         comes after me meticulously and quietly, builds and plans, sows and waters           happily, according to the talents God has richly given him.[4]

Luther typically overstates the contrast.  More balanced is Andrew Petergree’s assessment:

Without Melanchthon, his forensic intelligence and powerful capacity for   methodical theological thought, his lifelong commitment to the reform of the       university curriculum and the education of the young, and his calm restraining        presence at Luther’s side, the Reformation would have been immeasurably diminished.[5]

Johannes Bugenhagen (1485-1558) as a priest was initially opposed to Reformation thought, but upon further reflection on Luther’s Babylonian Captivity of the Church changed his mind and moved to Wittenberg (1520).  In 1523 he was elected as pastor of St Mary’s Church making him Luther’s pastor and confidante.

Subsequently Bugenhagen also joined the faculty and became one of the three Protestant doctors of theology.  Bugenhagen ordained numerous graduates from the Wittenberg faculty and was the most prominent activist in promoting the Reformation cause throughout northern Germany and Scandinavia, earning the epithet, ‘Apostle of the North’.  Bugenhagen produced rules and regulations for religious service, for schooling, and for social issues of the church.

After Luther’s death (1546) Johannes Bugenhagen cared for Katherina von Bora.

The fourth ‘evangelist’, according to Cochlaeus, was Justus Jonas, dean of the theology faculty and rector of the university.  A lesser figure, he is noted as a translator of Luther’s Bondage of the Will.

Another friend of Luther’s was Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), Court Painter for the Electors of Saxony, who had embraced the Reformation and become the close friend of Martin Luther.  Cranach was one of the three wealthiest people in Wittenberg.  Cranach became famous as an artist throughout Germany.  He used his art in the Reformation cause.

He made numerous portraits of Luther, which were disseminated throughout Germany to promote the reformer.  He also provided woodcuts for Luther’s translation of the Bible (1534).  Martin Luther made extensive use of Cranach’s presses for the mass production of his tracts, and later, his translation of the Bible.  Cranach’s title page woodcuts revolutionized the appearance of the book.  The result was a collection of miniature masterpieces.

Cranach was a witness at the betrothal festival for Martin and Katharina, and later godfather for their first child.

There were many others who stood with and supported the great Reformer of little Wittenberg, without whom his achievements would not have been so great.  There are many things in common between Luther and St Paul.  One of which was the special role of key friends like Priscilla and Aquila, Luke, Titus, Aristarchus and, of course, Timothy.  Wherever we see Paul we also see his fellow-workers, and it is the same with Marin Luther and millennium and a half later.

In this paper we have been reflecting on things that helped Martin Luther who was the catalyst of the Reformation.  So far we have mentioned the new printing technology that made possible the mass circulation of Reformation texts, the rising German rejection of the power of the Rome-based papacy, and the protective patronage of the Elector, Frederick the Wise.  To these we have acknowledged the unique work of the humanist textual critic, Erasmus, and the roles of Luther’s gifted and loyal friends, Katharina, his wife, his colleagues Philip Melanchthon, Johannes Bugenhagen, Justus Jonas and his patron, Lucas Cranach.

Luther was a gregarious man.  During his regime Wittenberg became thronged with people.  Thousands flocked to Wittenberg to hear him preach (he preached 4000 times in thirty years).  His home was effectively a combination of an inn and a lodging house.  When he travelled from Wittenberg to Worms in 1521 he was greeted like a rock star from town to town.  Wherever, we see Luther we see a man surrounded by people.

The New Literacy
Another element assisting Luther appears to have been the rising tide of literacy in the late Middle Ages.  Luther was projected into fame through his writings, something that would not have happened in earlier, pre-literary generations.


The pre-literary nature of that previous era is betrayed by various attempts to instruct the uneducated:
•the biblical theology in the windows of Kings College, Cambridge;
•the passion of Christ displayed in the East end of Notre Dame matched by a portrayal of the Apocalypse at the matching other end, making the great cathedral an ‘open Bible’;
•the astonishing windows in La Saint Chapelle depicting so many books of the Bible;
•the 200 metre long tapestry telling the story of the Apocalypse at d’Angers;
•the uniquely beautiful windows in Leon, Spain where the northern side glass (representing the Old Covenant) is somber matched by the southern glass (representing the New Covenant) which is gloriously bright and where the Crucified One is between them.
•the arched ceiling in St Isador’s, Leon, where Christos Pantocrator in the centre is supported by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

These and other architectural and decorative items tell the story of monks seeking to educate the people.


Counter-Reformation artists like Velasquez, Rubens and Van Dyke took great interest in and showed reasonable knowledge of Biblical Narratives and Biblical characters.


In claiming that the Old Church was against the Bible or uninterested in the Bible the Reformers’ polemic may have misstated their criticisms, scandalized as they would have been by the gross, money-grubbing  behaviour of Tetsel and others.

The problem seems to have been not the absence of the Bible but the phenomenon of the Bible ‘plus’ so many things: for example, elaborate altar pieces that displayed the Mother of God, Angels, saints, martyrs, relics that distracted attention from the Son of God.


Luther’s rampaging success as a publisher appears to be testimony to a growing literacy of that era.  The Old Church did not recognize that the day of the ‘Bible Alone’ had come and it was time now to refocus on Jesus alone.  Sadly, visiting the great churches in France and Spain suggests that they are still imprisoned in the distracting elements that Luther, Calvin, Cranmer and others saw so clearly to be contrary to the Word of the Lord.

Luther the publicist
Let me now turn to one other factor that contributed to Luther’s achievement, his own skill as a publicist and self-promoter.  This is the thesis of Andrew Petergree’s book, Brand Luther (2015).

It is not always noticed, as it deserves to be, that Luther became the most published author in Europe.  According to Petergree Luther ‘created a new form of theological writing: lucid, accessible, and above all short’.[6]  Luther wrote in German mainly ? not Latin ? since he was addressing the wider German public, not his fellow-academics and clerics.

In 1515 Luther’s name did not appear on the lists of the top 100 professors in three less well-known German universities.  By 1519 he had become Europe’s most published author.

Luther was a prolific writer: tracts, treatises, catechisms, hymns, and not least translations of the Bible (the New Testament in 1522 and the whole Bible in 1534).  Between 1518-1519 Luther wrote forty-five works, twenty-one of which were eight pages or less in length.  By 1522 his publications sold out quickly.

Martin Luther received no payments for his published works.

Nothing exceeded the importance of the publication of Bible translation.  Whole or partial translations of the sacred text would appear between 1522 and 1546, the year of his death.  The publication of the Bible in Wittenberg and elsewhere became the most important printed work in Germany.

But Luther was significantly interested in the presentation, appearance and publication of his texts.  According to Petergree ‘he spent his life in and out of print shops, observing and directing’ because ‘he understood the aesthetics of the book…appreciated the quality and design of the printed artifact…Luther transformed the look of the book’.[7]  Luther was intensely interested in the schedules of the printers and accommodated his own publications in line with their work rhythms.

Petergree attributes much of this to the influence of Lucas Cranach who designed the Luther pamphlets and employed his beautiful woodcuts to enhance the text.  The Illuminated Manuscripts of the era were elegant, but passive, whereas Cranach’s woodcuts were lively and message-centred.

Furthermore, Luther attracted skilled printers to move to Wittenberg.  Until 1517 Wittenberg had only one printing press, but by Luther’s death (1546) this small, out of the way town had six.  It had become Germany’s largest printing centre, the centre of the book world.  Between 1517-1546 Wittenberg printers between them published an average of 91 publications per year, one third of them works by Luther.

The growing volume of his printed texts made Luther the most famous man in Germany.  In the first half of the sixteenth century one third of all works published in Germany were written by Luther.

According to Petergree, ‘Print propelled Martin Luther, a man who had published nothing in the first thirty years of his life, to instant celebrity’.[8]  The growing fame of Luther corresponded with the growing size of Wittenberg, which in 1513 had been a town of a mere 384 dwellings.  Petergree states that Luther was ‘the chief motor of the Wittenberg economy…nothing else could have made this small, peripheral city into the print capital of the world’.[9]

Luther’s Legacy

We conclude this paper by reflecting on Luther’s impact.  It is clear that Luther changed the direction and course of history, not only in the Germany, but internationally.  The previously united church was now divided.  Wars erupted and new nation states emerged.  Catholic England became Protestant.  Luther unleashed the power of Protestantism, including Protestant missionary work in the newly formed colonies in North America ? what would become the United States and Canada ? India, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand.  The degree to which those and other countries in the British Empire were Protestant influenced can be traced back to the German reformer, Martin Luther.

Luther preceded the great French scholar John Calvin who although initially sympathetic to the German’s ideas soon differed from them.  There developed a continuing rift between the Geneva based reformers and Luther.  There is no statue of Luther in the Reformers’ Memorial Wall in Geneva, but merely his name inscribed on a wall nearby.

It was otherwise with Luther’s influence in England.  Cranmer and others who met together in Cambridge were deeply influenced by Luther.  Cranmer’s liturgies and Thirty Nine Articles of Religion bear the marks of Luther’s influence.  His doctrine of the Real Presence, however, separated him sharply from Cranmer whose Eucharistic views were closer to Calvin’s.  Years later the writings of Luther powerfully influenced Charles and John Wesley, an influence that continues through the words of Charles Wesley’s hymns.

The English Bible owed much to Luther.  Luther’s style of accessible translation influenced William Tyndale, who visited Luther in Wittenberg in 1524.  Tyndale remained in Europe completing his translation of the English Bible until his death by strangulation in 1536.  In 1526 Luther’s books had been publicly burnt in England.

Luther deliberately arranged his family life based on prayer, Bible teaching and singing the praises of God so that it would be a model for other pastors, and indeed church people generally.

Luther and his colleagues were passionately concerned for the education of children, especially including girls.  To that end Luther produced catechisms and hymns to be employed in the context of instruction.  But they set this in the matrix of general state run education, removing it from the hitherto exclusive domain of the church.

Music was very important to Luther, including within his household.  He was a skilled musician who wrote a number of hymns and even a cantata.  He retained much of the music of the Catholic liturgy in Lutheran worship ? the credo, Gloria, and Agnus Dei.

So important was music to him that there is a direct line from Luther through Heinrich Schütz and Dietrich Buxtehude to Johann Sebastian Bach, arguably history’s greatest musical genius.  Bach used Luther’s Bible.  He dedicated every piece he wrote ‘to the glory of God’.

There is one other influence from Luther: his use of the German language.  There were many German Bibles before Luther’s ? no less than eighteen ? but they were remote and dependent on Latin versions.

Alexander Weber, a philologist at Birkbeck College London, a student of Luther, wrote:

He was a man of incredible learning, but he was also someone who could    connect with ordinary people and who could pick up their use of             language…He was the son of a miner and he had very good use of colloquial           language…it brought the Bible to life…previous translations were very     learned, very stilted, very educated and only understood by people who knew       the Latin Bible…He modeled his written German on the spoken word…’

In his Open Letter on Translation (1530) Luther wrote, ‘You don’t ask Latin literature how to speak German, you ask the mother at home, the children in the street, the common man in the market ? look at how they speak, and translate accordingly.  Then they will understand it, and they will see that you are speaking German to them’.

Alexander Weber again:

Luther ‘modeled his language on the Chancery of Saxony, which is in the    middle of Germany…where the dialects are not that extreme…There is a main    dividing line, it is like a linguistic border, which divides High German from Low German…It is a stroke of luck in terms of the development of the             German language that the key figure who had the major historical impact on           the Reformation would actually be able to address an audience in Low     German and High German and therefore find a balance between the two.

Luther’s carefully crafted compromise language could be understood everywhere.  The language is simple, the syntax clear.  As one writer puts it, ‘he made the language pithy, vigorous and expressive’.

As Luther’s publications spread so did his particular form of German spread.  As Weber puts it, ‘There are very many phrases and words that are used in German which you can trace back to Luther.  The whole of German literary history is based on Luther’s language’.  For 500 years all great German writers ? Goethe, Nietzsche, Brecht, Mann ? have honed their language on, and against Luther’s.

In May 1945 the writer Thomas Mann, an American citizen who was born in Germany and wrote in German, visited Berlin and looked out bleakly on the bomb-wrecked smoking ruins of his country.  Yet, he said, his homeland remained intact ? the German language.  This was the language that was attributable to Martin Luther more than to anyone else.

Luther and the individual’s conscience
Weber again:

There is real individuality to the style and the language in which Luther writes.       It shows for once that that the individual in history matters.  For Luther what    mattered most was faith, and he saw the loss of faith around him.

Weber’s point about Luther’s advocacy of the individual is missed in Larry Siedentop’s otherwise brilliant Inventing the Individual.  The Origins of Western Liberalism.[10]  Siedentop declares the inventor of the individual to have been St Paul.

True as that insight may be it is curious that he fails to acknowledge that Paul’s inspiration was his Lord and Master, Jesus.  It is also striking that Siedentop has nothing to say about the lonely figure who stared down the Holy Roman Emperor in Worms in 1521.

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

Luther and St Paul followed and took their inspiration from Jesus of Nazareth, their Lord and Saviour, and ours.  He was the ultimate inventor of the individual, embodied 1500 years later in the former monk who stared down the might of the Papacy and the Roman Empire.
Paul Barnett







[1]Quoted Petergree, Brand Luther, 94.

[2]Quoted, Andrew Petergree, Brand Luther (New York: Penguin, 2015), 229.

[3]Quoted, Petergree, Brand Luther, 230.

[4]Quoted, Petergree, Brand Luther, 174.

[5]Petergree, Brand Luther, 174.

[6]Petergree, Brand Luther, xii.

[7]Petergree, Brand Luther, xiii.

[8]Petergree, Brand Luther, 11

[9]Petergree, Brand Luther, 24.

[10]Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual.  The Origins of Western Liberalism (Allen Lane: 2014)