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Luther Begins Teaching: 1508-1509


In preparation for the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, we are
presenting a brief survey of the life of Martin Luther. The series will culminate
in the October 2017 issue with an account of his posting of the Ninety-Five Theses.

Brother Martin, the Augustinian monk, became Father Martin. This was not something Martin desired; his fear of the tremendous majesty of God, especially as revealed in the mass, made him very reluctant. But he obeyed the command of his superiors, was ordained a priest on April 4, 1507, and celebrated his first mass a month later.

It was also contrary to the desire of Hans Luther (Martin’s father), who, however, did attend this mass—coming with some ceremony with twenty mounted companions and a generous gift for the monastery. But during the feast that followed, when Martin said that he was called to become a monk by a voice from heaven, his father responded, “God grant that it wasn’t a spook of the devil!”

 Life did not change much for Martin. 

It was back to his studies, this time to gain his Bachelor (and ultimately Doctor) of Theology degree. He applied himself with a will, devouring all the required texts. There were the scholastic authorities, such as Lombard and Aquinas, Occam and Scotus. Then there were the church fathers, ancient and medieval, especially Augustine and Bernard, but including many others. He absorbed history and pondered works of devotion. He was counseled by his teaching advisor, Dr. Nathin, to leave Scripture for later; but he followed the better advice of Staupitz, the head of his monastic order, and memorized it by the chapter. Midway through these studies he was assigned the added duty of lecturing.

Then, in the fall of 1508, he was sent to a new location, the fledgling university at Wittenberg. This was his first glimpse of this small and unimpressive town, which would later become his permanent home. He was to lecture on ethics using the Greek philosopher Aristotle as his text. He was to do this while vigorously continuing the pursuit of his own studies.

This was not all as he would have chosen. 

A letter he wrote from this period to Johann Braun survives. He spoke of the hard schedule and complained about being stuck with teaching philosophy, which didn’t interest him very much; he would much rather have traded it for theology. And not just any theology, either, but that which “delves into the kernel of the nut, the core of the wheat, the marrow of the bones.”

After a semester of this at Wittenberg, he had advanced far enough in his studies to be assigned the task of lecturing on the Bible. What he was assigned to teach and how he approached the subject is lost to us. No record has survived. A brief foretaste of things to come, it lasted only a semester. Recalled to Erfurt, he served as a junior professor and teaching assistant while still pursuing his degree. He would remain there for three semesters before returning to Wittenberg for good.

As this summary shows, we can trace Luther’s activities and academic progress during this time, at least in broad outline. But what is there here to allow us to predict what he would become? His inner development can only be surmised as we look back upon his life. This hidden period of his life can perhaps be compared to the forty years Moses spent as a shepherd in the wilderness, or the three years Paul spent in Arabia after his escape over the walls of Damascus. God prepares His servants quietly for important work ahead. Luther was diligently preparing for a career as a teaching monk and trying to find personal assurance in the midst of his own doubts. All the while, God was preparing him to reform His church.

Norman Greve is pastor of St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Iron River, Michigan.