What Made Luther a Lutheran?

By Eric Metaxas Published on October 31, 2017

What was the personal background that drove Martin Luther to radically re-examine Catholic theology? Eric Metaxas unfolds it in his new, immensely readable biography of the founding Protestant Reformer.

After taking his master’s degree, Luther was prepared to begin the study of law. Until this juncture in his life, he had been precisely fulfilling his father’s expectations, and now, by entering the study of law, he would take the final step toward becoming a lawyer. But perhaps something about having arrived at this point gave him pause. Perhaps the finality of it struck him. But whether the idea to enter a monastery had ever been in his head, as we guess it must have been, it must have been jarred loose to swim into his ken at this juncture. In any case, the mythic notion that his idea of entering the monastery was exclusively delivered by a lightning bolt from the sky near Stotternheim can hardly be the whole story. Like much else in the more fanciful and idealized versions of his life, it is far more folk legend than fact. That one day he was fear stricken and blurted a vow, and by some powerful sense of obligation decided to see it through, can hardly be the whole truth.

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Struggles with Depression

Luther had been planning on studying the law and becoming a lawyer and had now at last stepped through this final door. He had purchased his Corpus Juris — the expensive book every law student must have to study — and was now seemingly incorrigibly on his way. But in addition to Luther’s apprehending the finality of his life’s course at this time, we may imagine that other things affected him now too. It is easy for the modern mind to forget that at all times in history before our own the imminence of sudden death loomed heavily, especially for anyone thoughtful or sensitive, and Luther was both. Already at Erfurt the Anfechtungen (a German word that Luther used to describe his depression and anxiety) that would famously affect him as a monk began to rear its hopeless head, causing him to wonder disturbingly about his own eternal fate and whether, were he to die suddenly, he would be welcomed into the loving arms of God or, more likely, be condemned to fall everlastingly into the taloned clutches of grotesque devils.

Anyone who has experienced depression may have an idea. For Luther, it seems to have manifested itself as a widening hole of sheerest hopelessness, an increasing cacophony of devils’ voices accusing him of a thousand things

Once again, in considering the life of a late medieval man, we must set our modern, materialistic prejudices aside, and not only those prejudices but the equally anachronistic idea that if God is to be considered, it is always as a benevolent and loving figure. In Luther’s day, far more emphasis was put on God as an eternal judge, one whose holiness was almost always offended by us, so that if we were especially lucky, we might find ourselves in purgatory instead of hell. But even if we found ourselves in purgatory, we might face a steep and painful climb of literally thousands or perhaps even millions of years until we were properly purged of our deep- rooted sinfulness. Who knew what steep and half- infinite climb one might face? We know that Luther was too smart not to consider these things deeply and soberly and too sensitive not to have been bothered by them, often to the point of debilitating depression, which he called Anfechtungen. In fact, the word Anfechtung really has no English equivalent. It has as its root the verb fechten, which means “to fence with” or “to duel with.” Fecht is also obviously etymologically related to the word “fight.” So Luther’s Anfechtungen meant to do battle with one’s own thoughts and with the devil. But for him this was something so horrible that it’s difficult for us to fully comprehend.

Looking for Assurance

Anyone who has experienced depression may have an idea. For Luther, it seems to have manifested itself as a widening hole of sheerest hopelessness, an increasing cacophony of devils’ voices accusing him of a thousand things, and all of them true or true enough — and no way out of it. This is the very thing that has driven people to suicide through the centuries. It is hopelessness made real, or to use Milton’s famous phrase, it is “darkness visible,” a description that the author William Styron used as a title for his own poignant memoir on depression.


Excerpted from MARTIN LUTHER: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World by Eric Metaxas, published on October 3, 2017 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Eric Metaxas, 2017.

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