As a Doktor Biblicus, Doctor of the Bible, at the University of Wittenberg, Martin Luther influenced the culture of the world around him as well as the church.
Paul E. Koelpin
First and foremost, Martin Luther returned the church back to the foundation of the Scriptures. We remember grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone, and Christ alone.
But Luther’s impact stretches beyond his work of advancing the truth of the gospel and the wisdom of Holy Scripture. Luther is considered one of the most historically important people of the last millennium. He was consistently ranked in the top 10 in polls conducted around the year 2000—a reflection of the status he has enjoyed for centuries.
While that kind of press has raised his reputation, it has also blurred his image. By many who measure his impact, he is perceived chiefly as an enlightened visionary, a political pioneer, or a cultural icon. Surely Luther offered perspectives on everything from politics to science to music to education. As an expression of faith, Luther believed that every element of earthly existence should be understood as ordered and ordained by God, who also reconciled the fallen world to himself in Christ. His influence then is both sacred and secular, both direct and indirect.
Some historical contributions
Luther did not set out to become famous or to change the world. He did set out to reform the church—the rest was, in some ways, a byproduct of his role as a reformer. So, as we sift through the interpretations to consider the reach of his influence, we offer a partial list of historical contributions that are related to Luther and the Reformation movement.
Language.Luther is often credited with “standardizing” elements of the German language. His translation of the Bible into German was both a monumental and momentous achievement. Luther communicated the original languages of the Bible to the German people in a clear, creative, and enduring way. Luther was also a prolific writer—by far the most widely published author of the mid-1500s. An 18th-century German historian said of Luther that he “awakened and unbound the German language.” Luther was in a unique position to influence, promote, and unify the dialect and idiom of public German discourse. With so much of the German that was read both publically and privately connected to Luther’s work as translator or writer, there is no doubt that his impact on the German language was significant.
Education.The Lutheran Reformation was, essentially, an education movement. This thought encompasses both Luther’s emphasis on teaching the Christian faith (as through his catechisms) and his promoting of schools in general. In his 1524 treatise To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany That They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools (Luther’s Works [LW], Vol. 45, pp. 339-378), Luther strongly advocated that governing authorities support elementary education for both boys and girls. He understood that, under God’s provision, education was impartial to gender. Luther perceived the benefits both for the “spiritual and temporal estates”—to train leaders in the church and for governing the state. Luther was conscious of the need to prepare young people to be productive citizens. He saw schools as a means to preserve discipline; order; and, especially, the truths of Scripture.
Scientific investigation.For some, the association of Luther with advancement in the field of science may be surprising. After all, he is often remembered as disapproving of the Copernican heliocentric theory. But Luther actually was quite critical of scholars and theologians who denied the value of scientific investigation. In his commentary on Ecclesiastes, he wrote, “It is not an evil thing to investigate the nature and the qualities of things. Besides, the causes and the objects of this world are the most evident of all, far from difficult to know” (LW, Vol. 15, p. 18). He believed that greater discovery would simply disclose the greatness of God. Luther would not have favored scientific speculation, but he clearly encouraged closer examination of the universe.
Church/statedistinction. Tension and overlap between church and political authority were characteristic of the Middle Ages. Luther experienced firsthand the chaotic consequences of just such confusion and disorder. His study of Scripture led him to conclude that “God has ordained two governments: the spiritual, by which the Holy Spirit produces Christians and righteous people under Christ; and the temporal, which restrains the un-Christian and wicked so that—no thanks to them—they are obliged to keep still and to maintain an outward peace” (LW, Vol. 45, p. 91). Luther’s clear distinction between the roles of church and state has enjoyed wide application since he first articulated it in the 1520s—our own American Constitution bears witness to this influence.
Because intersection with political authority was unavoidable for Luther, he is linked, often inappropriately, to many of the political movements that emerged after his work of reforming the church. Luther has been variously credited with laying the foundations for modern democracy, initiating modern nationalism, and instigating revolution. It is true that he gave expression to a life of “freedom,” but Luther meant to highlight the kind of freedom we experience when Christ releases us from captivity to sin and guilt—the freedom of the gospel. Christian freedom was not an end in itself; it was, rather, an invitation to serve others in love.
Music.Luther famously said, “Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise” (LW, Vol. 53, p. 323). He was a musician, composer, and arranger who understood the power of music to “comfort the sad, to terrify the happy, to encourage the despairing, to humble the proud, to calm the passionate, or to appease those full of hate” (LW, Vol. 53, p. 323). So much of Luther’s theology has endured through such hymns as his majestic anthem “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (Christian Worship [CW] 200), the melodic Christmas carol “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come” (CW 38), or the reflective Easter song “Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands” (CW 161). He transformed worship to include congregational singing as a regular feature of the service. Luther’s emphasis on music set the context for other historically significant Lutheran composers such as J. S. Bach and Felix Mendelssohn.
The reform movement that Luther spearheaded changed the 16th-century world in which he lived. For many historians, the “Reformation Era” marks the transition from medieval to modern time. Luther represents a major change or shift in mindset—away from a society dominated by the Roman Catholic Church to a place of greater autonomy, governed more by the dictates of conscience and reason. Reforming the church took on a life of its own, and it shaped more than just the church.
From his lecture stand in Wittenberg and the various pulpits from which he preached to the books and pamphlets that were published under his name, Luther had the advantage of having the title “Doctor.” He was in the role of professor and pastor, someone whose words were meant to influence.
Luther’s words and ideas—shaped by his Christ-centered theology—cast a wide net. They still do.
Paul Koelpin, a professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.
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Author: Paul E. Koelpin
Volume 104, Number 10
Issue: October 2017
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