background of Dante's “ Paradiso, ” were present to Luther from childhood.
Luther was the greatest religious genius which the 16th century produced, and the roots of the movement in which he was the central figure must be sought for in the popular religious life of the last decades of the 15th and opening decades of the r6th centuries-a field which has been neglected by almost all his biographers. When it is explored traces of at least five different types of religious sentiment can be discovered. Pious parents, whether among the burghers or peasants, seem to have taught their children a simple evangelical faith. Martin Luther and thousands of children like him were trained at home to know the creed, the ten commandments, the Lord's prayer, and such simple hymns as Ein Kindelein so lobelich, Nun bitten 'wir den Heiligen Geist and Crist 1st erstanden; and they were taught to believe that God for Christ's sake freely pardons sin. They learned that simple faith which Luther afterwards expounded in his Small Catechism and called the Kinderlehre. When lads trained like himself entered school and college they came in contact with that religious revival which characterized the last half of the 15th century. Fear seemed to brood over the peoples of Western Europe. The plague devastated the badly drained towns, new diseases spread death, the fear of the Turks was permanent. All this went to feed revival, which, founded on fear, refused to see in Jesus Christ anything but a stern judge, and made the Virgin Mother and Anna the “ grandmother ” the intercessors; which found consolation in pilgrimages from shrine to shrine; which believed in crude miracles, and in the thought that God could be best served within convent walls. Luther's mind was caught in this current of feeling. He records how it was burnt into him by pictures which filled his boyish imagination. Jesus in the painted window of Mansfeld church, stern of face, sword in hand, sitting on a rainbow, coming to judge; an altarpiece at Magdeburg, in which a ship with its crew' was sailing on to heaven, carrying no layman on board; the deeds of St Elizabeth emblazoned on the window of St George's parish church at Eisenach; the living pictures of a young nobleman who had turned monk to save his soul, of a monk, the holiest man Luther had ever known, who was aged far beyond his years by his maceration; and many others of the same kind. p
Alongside this we can trace the growth of another religious movement of a different kind. We can see a sturdy commonsense religion taking possession of multitudes in Germany, which insisted that laymen might rule in many departments supposed to belong exclusively to the clergy. The jus episcopal which Luther afterwards claimed for the secular authorities had been practically exercised in Saxony and Brandenburg; cities and districts had framed police regulations which set aside ecclesiastical decrees about holidays and begging; the supervision of charity was passing from the hands of the church into those of laymen; and religious confraternities which did not take their guidance from the clergy were increasing. Lastly, the medieval Brethren were engaged in printing and distributing tracts, mystical, anti-clerical, sometimes socialist. All these influences abounded as Luther was growing to manhood and laid their marks upon him. It was the momentary power of the second which drove him into the convent, and he selected the monastic order which represented all that was best in the revival of the latter half of the 15th century-the Augustinian Eremites.
In the convent Luther set himself to find salvation. The last word of that Scotist theology which ruled at the close of the middle ages was that man must work out his own salvation, and Luther tried to do so in the most approved later medieval fashion by the strictest asceticism. He fasted and scourged himself; he practised all the ordinary forms of maceration and invented new ones, all to no purpose. His theological studies, part of the convent education, told him that pardon could be had through the Sacrament of Penance, and that the first part of the sacrament was sorrow for sin. The older theology declared that such sorrow must be based on love to God. Had he this love? God MARTIN 1
always appeared to him as an implacable judge, threatening punishment for breaking a law which it was impossible to keep. He confessed to himself that he often hated this arbitrary Will which Scotist theology called God. The later theology, taught in the convent by John of Palz and John Nathin, said that sorrow might be based on a meaner motive provided the Sacrament of Penance was continually resorted to. Luther wearied his superiors with his attendance at the confessional. He was looked upon as a young saint, and his reputation extended throughout the convents of his order. The young saint felt himself to be no nearer the pardon of God; he thought that he was “ gallows-ripe.” At last his superiors seemed to discover his real difficulties. Partly by their help, partly by study of the scriptures, he came to understand that God's pardon was to be won by trusting to His promises. Thus after two years of indescribable mental conflicts Luther found peace. The struggle marked him for life. His victory gave him a sense of freedom, and the feeling that life was given by God to be enjoyed. In all external things he remained unchanged. He wasa faithful son of the medieval church, with its doctrines, ceremonies and usages.
Soon after he had attained inward peace, Luther was ordained. He continued his studies in theology, devoting himself to the more “experimental” portions of Augustine, Bernard and Gerson. He showed himself a good man of business and was advanced in his order. In 1508 he was sent with some other monks to Wittenberg to assist the small university which had been opened there in 1502 by Frederick the Wise, elector of Saxony. It was there that Luther began to preach, first in a small chapel to the monks of his order; later taking the place of one of the town's clergy who was in ill-health. From Wittenberg he was sent by the chiefs of the German Augustinian Eremites to Rome on a mission concerning the organization of the order. He went up with the feelings of the medieval pilgrim rather than with the intoxication of the ardent Humanist. On his return (1512) he was sent by Staupitz, his vicar-general, to Erfurt to take the necessary steps for higher graduation in theology, in order to succeed Staupitz himself as professor of theology in Wittenberg. He graduated as Doctor of the Holy Scripture, took the Wittenberg doctor's oath to defend the evangelical truth vigorously (viriliter), became a member of the Wittenberg Senate, and three weeks later succeeded Staupitz as professor of theology.
From the first Luther's lectures in theology differed from those ordinarily given at the time. He had no opinions on theological subjects at variance with the theology taught at Erfurt and elsewhere. No one attributed any heretical views to the young Wittenberg professor. He differed from others because he looked at theology in a more practical way. He thought it ought to be made useful to guide men to the grace of God and to tell them how to persevere in a life of joyous obedience to God and His commandments. His teaching was “experimental ” from the beginning. Besides he believed that he had been specially set apart to lecture on the Holy Scriptures, and he began by commenting on the Psalms and on the Epistles of St Paul. He never knew much Hebrew and was not specially strong in Greek; so he used the Vulgate in his pr elections. He had a huge widely printed volume on his desk, and wrote the notes for his lectures on the margins and between the lines. Some of the pages survive. They contain in the germ the leading thoughts of what became Lutheran theology., At first he expressed himself in the phrases common to scholastic theology, when these were found to be inadequate in words borrowed from the mystical writers of the 14th and 15th centuries, and then in new phrases more appropriate to the circle of fresh thoughts. Those new thoughts at first simply pushed aside the ordinary theology taught in the schools without staying to criticize it. Gradually, however, Luther began to find that there was some real opposition between what he was teaching and the theology he had been taught in the Erfurt convent. It appeared characteristically enough on the practical and not on the speculative side of theology in a sermon on Indutgences preached in July 1 516.