About Martin Luther

I heard and read so many things about Maritn Luther, I’m not sure what to beleive.
Can anyone give me a good logic reason why he left the Catholic Faith? also I heard that on his death bed he called for a Catholic Priest to hear his confession and give him absolution and the last rights…is that true?

I’m not one to defend Martin Luther very far, mainly because I know mainly just scattered things about him. However, his apparent Marian devotion was quite admirable.

It should be no secret to Catholics that Luther was philosophically a nominalist.  He rejected "reason" as a means to coming to truth.  He held to Scripture and experience.  Some may even say that he was well on his way to being a Modernist.  I understand he got this from being trained in the philosophy and theology of William of Ockham (yeah, the "Ockham's Razor" guy).  

This school of thought sought to rethink the age old Platonic (Form and Matter) and Aristotlean categories regarding universals. In fact, let’s get rid of universals. Everything is a particular, and we understand things apart from their “thingness,” we understand things as they are. (That’s kind of what nominalism proposed.) Occam influenced Luther’s view of justification too, all due to nominalist teachings. But he did try to be a good Augustinian. Wow, I’m rambling! :yawn:
I’m no expert on this by any means, but I’d posit that, in addition to any political and ecclesiastical influences the Reformation enjoyed, the philosophical ones were deeply rooted in the Reformers’ minds.


The story that Luther called for a Catholic priest on his deathbed is definitely false.

As for why he wound up breaking with Rome and inspiring the organization of independent regional churches, there are a number of different factors:

  1. A tradition of academic theologians asserting independent authority to teach over against the Pope and bishops. (For instance, when the Curia tried to intervene in favor of Erasmus of Rotterdam, the University of Paris basically told Rome to mind its own business and affirmed that it had the authority to determine what was or was not heresy.) This was often linked to a text-based conception of authority as opposed to the curial canon lawyers who saw the Pope as the source of authority.

  2. Luther’s adherence to a radically Augustinian understanding of grace and human nature, which made him reject many aspects of the nominalist tradition in which he’d been trained.

  3. At the same time, as Rob says, Luther’s nominalism did predispose him to contrast faith and reason and to think in terms of covenants and decrees of God’s will rather than of essences and participation in God’s nature.

  4. Growing German nationalism (a rather anachronistic term, but it will have to do for now) and resentment of papal financial demands led German theologians like Luther to look with deep suspicion on everything Italian, the Papacy not least.

  5. By the early sixteenth century, Western Christians were facing a crisis of religious authority. The long conflict between Pope and Councils combined with a growing perception of corruption in the Church had led to a huge gap between papal claims and papal credibility.

  6. Many Western Christians, including Luther, found the Church’s teaching about salvation tormenting and confusing because they never felt confident that they had met the requirements for receiving and retaining sanctifying grace. This probably didn’t include the majority of the population. If you were asking why Luther’s ideas caught on, I’d focus more on people’s sense of being oppressed by the regulations and exactions of the Church, and on a belief among the urban middle classes that a more disciplined, morally demanding form of religion was needed.

  7. Luther’s personality definitely played a role, though I think the psychohistory of some scholars (including anti-Luther Catholics such as Denifle and Grisar) is way over the top and not very helpful. But Luther unquestionably was a very unusual person with a domineering personality, who found it very difficult to take other people’s ideas very seriously. One approach is to see him as a product of the up-and-coming middle classes. His father was the son of a miner who had married into a lawyer’s family and had become the owner of a smelting factory. In other words, a self-made man who had risen in the world. It makes sense that his son would be an aggressive person with a problem accepting traditional patterns of authority unquestioningly. But this kind of explanation can only go so far.

There are all sorts of other explanations one could mention, but these are some that come to mind. (BTW, I’m Episcopalian, not Catholic, and am studying the Reformation for my doctorate. Just so you know where I’m coming from.)

The most popular biography of Luther is Roland Bainton, Here I Stand. It’s very readable and a good place to start, though it does have a definite liberal Protestant bias. I’d recommend Heiko Oberman’s Luther: Man between God and the Devil. The most thorough treatment is Martin Brecht’s three-volume biography. Brecht is invaluable if you want to know what happened and when, but I disagree with many of his interpretations. He’s very very Lutheran and his treatment of Luther is (IMHO) way too hagiographic. For instance, he takes Luther’s later reminiscences of life in the convent as if they were objective, factual descriptions of monastic life in the early 16th century.


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