“Professor Luther”

Young Luther

Martin Luther’s father, Hans Luther, had designs for his son to become a lawyer, but God had determined otherwise. “There are many devices in a man’s heart; nevertheless the counsel of the Lord, that shall stand” (Prov. 19:21). As is said, “Man proposes, but God disposes.” Hans Luther devised son Martin’s way, but “the Lord directed his steps” (Prov. 16:9), first into the monastery, then into the university and seminary. In the end, Luther’s lifelong occupation was, as we would call it, seminary professor. By God’s design.

Because Hans Luther was a poor man, son Martin’s life began in poverty. The family was so poor that young Martin and his friends had to sing and beg for bread and board when they were at school away from home. But this was part of the sovereign God’s preparation of Luther for the important place he was to play in God’s reforming plans. The plan that Providence mapped out for Luther was God’s wise plan—poverty in his youth; a (probably too-strictly) disciplined home; the rigorous development of a mental discipline and work-ethic at gradeschool and university (before teaching, Luther obtained both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in philosophy); and most importantly, the God-created restlessness of a sinburdened soul that did not find peace until it rested in the sweet gospel of free grace.

After university studies and before law school began, God moved Luther to change course to the path of becoming a monk—to his father’s dismay and his friends’ great surprise. He chose the Augustinian Order of priests, both for its reputation for piety and its emphasis on learning. The rules of conduct were strict, but the standards of education were better. The Order of Augustinians had roots in the great church father Augustine, and had a strong emphasis on theology.

The long stories of Luther’s ‘conversion’ in the thunder storm, his pilgrimage to Rome, the development of his mind and heart in the gospel of free justification without works—all must be told elsewhere. Charles Terpstra’s article in this issue will mention biographies both old and new that you will want to read on cold nights this winter. What must be told here, at least briefly, is how this monk ended up in Wittenberg as a seminary professor on behalf of Reformation truth.

University of Wittenberg

In Luther’s youth, a German Elector named Frederick III founded a university in the little town of Wittenberg. This Frederick III was not that Frederick III who commissioned the writing of the Heidelberg Catechism. That Frederick was nicknamed “the Pious,” and was elector of the Palatinate. This Frederick III was Frederick “the Wise,” elector of Saxony, who died in 1525 when the other Frederick, of Heidelberg Catechism fame, was only ten years old. God used also this Frederick (“the Wise”) for Reformation causes in many ways, especially the later protection of Luther from the Roman Catholic authorities. This elector saw to it that Luther’s heresy trial was not held in Rome but in Germany; this elector refused to execute the papal bull against Luther; and this elector, after the Diet of Worms and the pope’s excommunication of him, even gave Luther refuge at the castle at Wartburg—where he stayed under a pseudonym for almost a year, translating the New Testament from Greek into German in less than ten weeks. This Frederick was truly used by God for the cause of Reformation!

This Frederick, at age thirty-eight, determined that Saxony needed another university. Little Wittenberg was too poor to support a university, but Frederick determined a way. He would see that capable priests became pastors in Wittenberg’s churches, which capable men could also teach at his new university. He founded the school in 1502, obtained Martin Luther in 1512, and Philip Melanchthon in 1518.

Luther’s appointment to the University of Wittenberg was as “Lecturer in Moral Philosophy,” which was the Roman Catholic way of saying, “Professor of Ethics.” In those days, “moral philosophy” included much more than teaching the ten commandments and the various vices and virtues of then-Roman Catholic doctrine, and certainly more than ethical dilemmas that a modern ethics course would treat. It embraced much of what we would call dogmatics, or systematic theology, with special focus on anthropology and soteriology, and required many semesters of instruction. Luther’s text was Augustine’s Enchiridion, the “handbook” of doctrine that was divided into three main parts: Faith, Hope, and Love. He taught in Wittenberg from 1512 until his death in 1546.

When we had opportunity a few summers ago to visit our friends in Giessen, Germany, we took the time to see the important Luther sites in Wittenberg, which combined have become the largest Reformation museum in the world. We toured the entire facility called Lutherhaus—the spacious convent facility where the Augustinian friars formerly lived, but was later made available to the university’s poor students, visiting preachers, and sometimes run-away nuns. On these grounds were Luther’s personal living quarters (Lutherstube), where Luther, Katie, six of their own children, an aunt, and several orphaned nieces and nephews stayed—along with several servants. We saw the pulpit Luther regularly ascended in the Stadtkirche, walked through the impressive hall and stood behind the (now) ornate desk from which he lectured to a large classrooms of students. One could not leave except with the deep sense that Luther gave his life to Christ’s church—to teaching and preaching—so that his students could be useful servants of that church.

Exemplary Professor Luther

If there were a way to prepare a newly appointed seminary professor (or to test the qualifications of one being considered for such appointment) by giving him a course on “Luther, Professor at Wittenberg,” the course could be valuable in many ways. Let me list a few of the elements that I would want to include if I would construct the course, preaching (God willing) to myself first of all.

Only with greatest reluctance did Luther accept the position of professor. It took over five years finally to bring him to be a priest in Wittenberg. He was certainly not unaware that the “pastorate” in that little town involved an appointment to the “seminary.” And it was this—not the ministry/priesthood itself, but the professorship at Wittenberg—about which he famously said, “Thus, I was drawn into the work of a teacher. If I had then known what I know now, ten horses would not have pulled me there.”1 No ambition here—fatal flaw for any servant of God.

Second, Luther was a master of the Bible. Although he did not see a copy of the entire Scripture until he came to the University, after that his life was consumed with reading God’s Word. The man God formed to begin the Reformation did not occupy his day reading about the Bible, although he certainly knew what the books said about the Bible. But he occupied himself with the Bible itself, so that he became a master of it. If a degree could be given to a man who “mastered” the Bible, Luther would have obtained it. “Dr. Martinus Luder, Master and Doctor of Holy Scripture” his diploma could have been inscribed. Listen to Prof. Luther:

You should diligently study the Word of God and by no means imagine that you know it. Let him who is able to read take a psalm in the morning, or some other chapter, and study it for a while. This is what I do. When I get up in the morning, I pray and recite the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer with the children, adding any one of the psalms…I do not want to let the mildew of the notion grow that I know them well enough.2

Luther also knew there were improper motives for reading Scripture: “For there are many who seek their personal interests in the Word, namely, how to obtain honor by it and how to enjoy a great reputation in the world, considering godliness a trade…. But woe to these.”

He never became “old enough” to stop reading Scripture systematically and at length. When he was still fifty years old he said, “For a number of years I have now annually read through the Bible twice. If the Bible were a large, mighty tree and all its words were little branches, I have tapped at all the branches, eager to know what there was and what it had to offer.” That he read the Bible more than comments on the Bible he made clear:

The Bible is being buried by the wealth of commentaries, and the text is being neglected…. As a young man I accustomed myself to using the Bible. By frequent reading I came to know the place where a given passage is to be found. Thereafter I directed my attention to the commentators. But finally I had to disregard all of them and drown myself in the Bible, for it is better to see with your own eyes than with foreign eyes.3

Third, Prof. Luther was a man of prayer. He engaged in no study except it was preceded by and permeated with prayer. “That the Holy Scriptures cannot be penetrated by study and talent is most certain. Therefore your first duty is to begin to pray, and to pray to this effect that if it please God to accomplish something for His glory—not for yours or any other person’s—He very graciously grant you a true understanding of His words.” It must have been his pious parents at home that formed this habit in him, for even when he was younger one of his colleagues reported that Luther told him, “He who prays aright has finished his studies more than half.”4 Fervency in prayer and frequency in Scripture were at the core of Luther’s qualifications.

Fourth, what made Luther outstanding in his day was his unique view of a theological professor. He was not to write theology for theologians, spinning arguments only intellectuals could understand. Nor was the professor to keep himself in his ivory tower, aloof from the real life of the church and from his students. Luther was a man of the people, aiming his sermons at the common man and constructing his theological lectures with the welfare of the church in view. He was not, that is, a professional training more professionals, but a theologian preparing men of God to serve God and His people, “in the trenches,” as they say. So, in addition to his important formal lectures, Luther sat regularly with his students and others who lived at Lutherhaus, and talked and talked and talked. The conversations were transcribed. Six large volumes of this “Table Talk” have been published. One learns about the man by reading these, too.

When the professor reads Luther, he will certainly be entertained; but especially he will be humbled by the open piety of Professor Luther. Luther was spiritual, personal, and experiential in the right way. Like John the Baptist, he pointed his students to Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God that bore Luther’s sins away and whose righteousness became Luther’s righteousness, freely. At age thirty-three, before he posted the Ninety-five Theses in 1517, he gave truly pious counsel to a friend cast down:

Now I would like to know about the state of your soul. Have you learned to despise your own righteousness and to put your trust in the righteousness of Christ alone? Many do not know the righteousness of God which is given us abundantly and freely in Christ; but they endeavor to do good works and depend on their own efforts, their own virtue, their own merits. You were full of this great error when you were here, and I was full of it. Even now I must fight against it, and have not finished. Therefore, my beloved brother, learn Christ and Him crucified. Learn to despair of thyself and to say to Him: ‘Thou art my righteousness, but I am Thy sin. Thou hast assumed what was mine and given me what was Thine. Thou hast assumed what Thou wast not, and hast given me what I was not.’ If by our own exertions we could attain peace of conscience, why, then, did Christ die?5

There are many other traits that would make up a useful course on “Luther, Professor at Wittenberg,” but no course would be complete without pointing to Brother Luther’s boldness. Of all the men of his day who should have done it, it was left to Luther to bell the cat. And what a cat to bell! Certainly, Luther did not create battles for the sake of being a warrior. He also knew the difference between his friends and his enemies. His friends he treated courteously, charitably, even if in disagreement and intending to correct them. But his enemies he treated with the fierceness of a warrior fighting for the survival of his own town and family. When it came to conflict, he did not flinch. Never cowed into submission or intimidated, he only grew stronger in the Lord. So when a friend once warned him, “They will not stand it!” he responded, “Suppose they have to stand it?”

At greatest personal cost.

“May Christ live, and Martinus die.” 6

At one point, before the alternatives of recanting his faith or being beheaded he exclaimed: “If I had a thousand heads, I would rather have them all cut off than to revoke.”

Exemplary, indeed.

1 There are many versions of this quotation. Probably Luther said something similar in different situations. This comes from Donald K. McKim, The Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 147.

2 From a sermon preached in 1530, on Luke 23:12-35, from What Luther Says (St. Louis: Concordia, 1991), 79.

3 Hugh T. Kerr, A Compend of Luther’s Theology (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1943), 16.

4 Quoted in John Louis Nuelsen, Luther: The Leader (New York: The Abingdon Press, 1917), 23.

5 Nuelsen, 46.

6 Nuelsen, 70, 71.