How is life as a Catholic monk

A monk changes the world - Luther and the Reformation

The monk Martin Luther actually wanted to discuss grievances in the Catholic Church. But what happened 500 years ago, on October 31, 1517 in Wittenberg, became a Reformation that shaped Germany, Europe and finally the world. In order to be able to assess which tremor caused Luther's discussion basis, summarized in 95 theses, one has to delve into the time.

Piety in Luther's day

The Christian faith in the late Middle Ages and at the beginning of the modern age is dominated by the Roman Catholic monopoly of answers to all questions of faith. This is already reflected in the name Catholic, i.e. all-encompassing. Dogmas and regulations determine people's lives. Above all stands the judging and punishing God who does not overlook any faults of his people.

Events that cannot be clearly assigned, such as personal misfortune, bad harvests, wars or crises, often only allow one interpretation: sorcery, magic, witchcraft, the work of people who have made a pact with the devil. Pyre burns again and again.

Fear as a drive

Luther's birthplace in Eisleben, Saxony-Anhalt. He grew up in neighboring Mansfeld and Eisennach in Thuringia

Martin Luther, son of a small mining entrepreneur, born in Eisleben in 1483, is considered highly gifted. In the spring of 1501 he began basic studies at the University of Erfurt. Four years later he acquired the title of Magister Artium and then began studying law in Erfurt.

But then something drastic happens: on July 2, 1505, the law student gets caught in a heavy thunderstorm. He is deeply shocked when he is thrown to the ground by the force of lightning. He is immediately gripped by a deep fear of death and the associated fear of being unprepared before God after his death. In his distress he cries out to St. Anna, patron saint of miners, and swears: "Help you, St. Anna, I want to become a monk!"

A vow with consequences: Twelve days later, Martin Luther knocked on the door of the Augustinian Hermits' monastery in Erfurt, at that time an important branch of the order. He asks the prior to be admitted. So it is sheer fear of God's judgment that drives Martin Luther into the monastery.

Life as a monk

Luther lived and studied in the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt from 1505-1511. 2011 is Pope Benedict XVI. here to visit. A late reference to those who had been excommunicated since 1521?

In monastic life he sees the chance to realize the perfection of life demanded by God and in this way to earn his grace. The mainspring of his decision is also the search for a gracious God or, in other words, the fear of missing out on the eternal life promised in Christian teaching after earthly death.

From the beginning, Luther stood out for his meticulous adherence to the rules of the order. This includes concentrated prayer (up to six hours a day), strict fasting, conscientious self-inquiry, mortification, complete confession, giving up one's own will. Luther later judged his life behind the walls of the monastery: "If a person has ever got to heaven through monasticism, I wanted to have come too."

Just 20 months after entering the monastery, Luther was ordained a priest in 1507. The doctrine of the Church's faith is at the center of his theological studies. In studying he shows the same zeal that he shows in his monastic life. Professional success is not long in coming.

First acquaintance with the indulgence trade

Martin Luther as a monk. After just a few years he became vicar general of the Augustinian hermits

In 1510 Luther was sent to Rome as a delegate of his Augustinian hermits to clarify a matter about the order. A journey that will have a lasting impact on him. The Curia has massive financial problems, the cause of which lies in the expensive construction of St. Peter's Basilica. In order to alleviate their constant financial hardship, the top of the church had introduced the practice of indulgence. That means: For money - but also for good works - it should be possible to achieve forgiveness of past and future sins. The tariffs are graded according to income. Even more: Even those who have already died can supposedly be redeemed from purgatory in this way.

The young monk initially participates in it naively and uncritically. He only becomes aware of the negative consequences of what is happening there later.

Unsuccessful search

The Luther cell in the Augustinian monastery - a narrow cubicle in which great things are thought

A year and a half after his trip to Rome, in October 1512, Luther obtained his doctorate in theology and was appointed professor for biblical interpretation at the University of Wittenberg. Even at this point in time, the future reformer was held in high regard by colleagues and superiors.

But: Martin Luther is still a person who is looking for a gracious God, who is still faced with the question: What do I have to do in order to survive before God's judgment? But all monastic disciplines and church help remain unsuccessful.

Luther's breakthrough

In a process of ever deeper insights, it gradually crystallizes out what ultimately becomes the content of Reformation theology. Luther understands: God is not only a just and strict judge, he is also the Father who loves the people he created and who sent his Son into the world to conquer sin - that is, what people separates from God.

It follows from this: Whoever believes in God and his Son Jesus Christ is already righteous before God. God simply gives man justification. With this, Luther found the answer to the question that has been pressing him for years: "How can I stand before God's judgment?"

Four pillars of faith

15th Century Bible in Latin. In 1534, the complete Holy Scriptures translated into German by Luther are available

For Martin Luther, Christian faith rests on four pillars from now on:

First: Scripture alone. The Bible is the only standard. His opponents, on the other hand, argue mainly with decisions of the Pope and council.

Second, by grace alone. Christians become righteous without self-merit, but solely through the grace of God. With this he turns against the indulgence trade practiced by the church.

The third pillar: Christ alone. The death of Jesus on the cross, representing the guilt of the people, is the bridge to God.

And finally the fourth pillar: through faith alone. He explains what he means by this: "Everything depends on faith, the whole Christian life stands on it. Through faith, Christ is in us, yes, one with us. Through faith in Christ, Christ's righteousness becomes our righteousness and everything, what is his, yes he himself becomes ours. "

Revolutionary teaching

800 colored Luther figures stand on the market square of Lutherstadt Wittenberg in 2010. The installation serves to prepare for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation

With this knowledge, Luther puts the relationship between man and God on a new level. Man can now turn directly to his Creator and needs neither church nor priests nor saints as mediators. He is thus free from any kind of tutelage by the church.

With this doctrine the position of power of the church hierarchy is broken. Thus, for Luther, the Pope's claim to stand above the Bible as a teaching authority is wrong. Luther's findings are revolutionary, as they turn the entire moral concept of the Middle Ages off their hinges. The monk does not believe that something new has been created, but that he has exposed the buried old.

Fight against the indulgence trade

The theology professor conveys these insights in sermons to his listeners and in class to his students. But at first they are hardly noticed. Rather, it was Luther's consequence that caused a stir. He has the firm will to eliminate grievances and to return church teaching to the origin of the Christian faith. One of these grievances is first and foremost the indulgence trade that is now flourishing all over Germany. The common slogan is: "When the coin rings in the box, the soul jumps out of purgatory." But forgiveness of sins through money and thus through personal performance - Luther cannot remain silent on this.

Luther's posting of the theses

Today the 95 theses are immortalized as a bronze cast in the door of the castle church

For this reason he published an invitation to the theological disputation on the practice of indulgence in October 1517. But nobody answers. He then sends his theses directly to the two bishops responsible for the indulgence trade. At the same time, he is said to have nailed these 95 theses to the north portal of the Wittenberg Castle Church on October 31. At that time it had the function of a notice board. However, this is probably a legend.

Because Luther uses the relatively new medium of book printing, it is possible that his knowledge, insights and ideas will spread quickly throughout the empire. It gradually triggers a tremor in the church that shakes it right down to the foundations. The epicenter is Wittenberg.

Luther monuments - like here in Eisleben - can be found all over the world

Protestant Christians celebrate this day as Reformation Day and this year for the 500th time. After all, what happened 500 years ago on the threshold from the Middle Ages to the modern age is considered the prelude to the church renewal movement, the birth of Protestantism and the beginning of numerous innovations in almost all areas of society.

TV theme day: 500 years of the Reformation. Everything about Martin Luther and the Reformation on October 31, 2017 for a whole day on DW Deutsch and in our online special at dw.com/kultur.Starts at 6 a.m. UTC (7 a.m. CET). Livestream: http://www.dw.com/de/media-center/live-tv/s-100817