Martin Luther (1483-1546)
By initiating and leading the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther gave a new shape to Western civilization. By translating the Bible, Luther also redefined the German language. His robust style influenced many major German writers including Goethe, Heine, Nietzsche, and Brecht.
In 2017 it was the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s criticism of the indulgence salesman Johann Tetzel with his Ninety-Five Theses - the event which began the Reformation.
Please note that the German spellings on this page, and on https://www.projekt-gutenberg.org/autoren/namen/luther.html, have been modernised. For Luther's actual German, follow the link at the bottom of this page.
The 46th Psalm, Luther’s version, lines 1-4:
Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott,
Ein gute Wehr und Waffen.
Er hilft uns frei aus aller not,
Die uns jetzt hat betroffen.
A mighty fortress is our God,
A good shield and weapon.
He helps us free of any trouble
which has now befallen us.
An die Ratsherrn aller Städte deutschen Landes, dass sie christliche Schulen aufrichten und halten sollen
To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany That They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools (1524)
In this essay Luther defends the importance of teaching languages in schools, claiming that: ‘The languages are the sheaths in which this sword of the Spirit is kept’. And Luther adds a warning: ‘If by our neglect we let the languages go (God forbid!), we shall not only lose the gospel, but in the end we shall be unable to speak or write correctly, not Latin or German.’
Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen; The Freedom of a Christian (1520)
This text sets out the key ideas of Luther’s theology. In paragraph 1, Luther sets out his two main arguments, namely that a Christian is both free and unfree. Paragraphs 4-18 deal with the inner freedom of the Christian; paragraphs 19-30 deal with the exterior servitude of the Christian. Paragraphs 5 and 6 explain Luther’s central beliefs: ‘sola scriptura’ (only by the Bible) and ‘sola fide’ (by faith alone’). These two axioms do not contradict each other, they are closely intertwined: for Luther, faith is exercised through reading the scriptures. The means of salvation is faith in Christ as encountered directly through the Bible.
Zum fünften hat die Seele kein anderes Ding, weder im Himmel noch auf Erden, darinnen sie lebe, fromm, frei und Christ sei, denn das heilige Evangelium, das Wort Gottes, von Christo gepredigt, wie er selbst sagt, Johann. 11: «Ich bin das Leben und die Auferstehung, wer da glaubt an mich, der lebet ewiglich»; [...] item Matth. 4: «Der Mensch lebet nicht allein vom Brod, sondern von allen Worten, die da gehen von dem Mund Gottes.» So müssen wir nun gewiß sein, daß die Seele kann alles Dinges entbehren außer dem Worte Gottes, und ohne das Wort Gottes ist ihr mit keinem Ding geholfen.
Fifth: the soul has nothing, neither in heaven nor earth, in which it lives and is righteous, free and Christian, but the Holy Gospel, the Word of God, preached by Christ, as he himself says, John (11, 25-26): ‘I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me […] shall never die’; also Matthew (4, 4), ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.’ Therefore we must be certain that the soul can do without anything except the Word of God and that without the Word of God there is no help at all for the soul.
In paragraph 22, Luther asserts that work is important for the body and not for the soul. Once again Luther is attacking the Catholic practice of indulgences here: good works cannot save the soul, although they benefit the body.
Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen; On Translating: An Open Letter (1530)
This essay contains Luther’s statement on his practice of Bible translation. Luther argues that the best way to learn how to talk and write German properly is to observe how the common people do it. This essay contains the famous phrase: ‘[das Volk] […] auf das Maul sehen’ (‘look at the mouths of the people’). Luther advises translators to ask ‘the mother at home, the children on the street and the common man in the market how to do it’.
Theodore G. Tappert (ed.), Selected Writings of Martin Luther, 4 volumes (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007)
Further Reading in English
‘How Luther went viral’, The Economist, 17 December 2011, pp. 63-65
Scott H. Hendrix, Martin Luther: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)
Howard Jones, ‘The Vocabulary of Righteousness in Martin Luther’s New Testament Translations’, Oxford German Studies 47:4 (2018), 381-416
Diarmaid MacCulloch, Reformation: Europe’s House Divided, 1490-1700 (London: Penguin, 2004)
Donald McKim (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)
Andrew Pettegree, Reformation and the Culture of Persuasion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005)
Andrew Pettegree, Brand Luther: How an Unheralded Monk Turned His Small Town into a Center of Publishing, Made Himself the Most Famous Man in Europe - and Started the Protestant Reformation (London: Penguin, 2015)
Lyndal Roper, Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet (London: Bodley Head, 2016)
R. W. Scribner, For the Sake of Simple Folk. Popular Propaganda for the German Reformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981)
R. W. Scribner and C. Scott Dixon, The German Reformation, 2nd edition (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003)
Peter Stanford, Martin Luther: Catholic Dissident (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2017)
Ulrike Zitzlsperger, ‘Martin Luther - Rebel, Genius, Liberator: Politics and Marketing 1517-2017’, in Memorialization in Germany since 1945, ed. by Bill Niven and Chloe Paver (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), pp. 341-350
Further Reading in German
The Weimar Edition of Luthers Werke available online (institutional subscription required; two weeks free trial available)
Norbert Mecklenburg, Der Prophet der Deutschen. Martin Luther im Spiegel der Literatur (Stuttgart: Metzler, 2016)
Web Links in German
Facsimile and transcription of the Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen; On Translating: An Open Letter (1530)
Reformation pamphlets in the Taylor Institution Library, Oxford University
Public reading of the Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen; On Translating: An Open Letter (1530) at Oxford University, 31 May 2017