Luther: A Life by John M. Todd
John M. Todd is the author of a number of books, including Reformation, and John Wesley and the Catholic Church. Luther: A Life was published in 1982 by The Crossroad Publishing Company. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.
Chapter 4: Wittenberg
Even on a wet day in winter Erfurt had something rather fine about it. Even though the brooks were overflowing on to the streets, and the sewage was stinking in the gutters there was something to celebrate. The two great churches on the little hill, and behind them, higher again the centuries-old Benedictine abbey on the Petersburg dominated the town. The University, with its ancient traditions was seldom without some public event. The students were all around with their energy, their disputations, their singing and their beer drinking. Even when the Archbishop of Mainz’s officials were at their most tiresome in demanding taxes, and the day workers at their most aggressive in resenting the situation, still there was something to be proud of, something with which to identify a long tradition symbolised by the many fine buildings. And out in the near countryside there was a burgeoning peasant life.
Wittenberg offered less. Set beside a sluggish stretch of the Elbe in flat country often the outlook in this small market town of little more than 2000 inhabitants was simply dull. And the town itself as a result of its flat site had the reputation of being even smellier than most towns. However, small and at first sight unprepossessing as it was, the town had a history of hundreds of years and something to bring the visitors to it. Furthermore, when the Elector Frederick succeeded in 1486 to the title of Ruler (and Imperial Elector) of this Ernestine portion of the Wettin lands, in Saxony, he set about raising its reputation with great determination. He wanted to show that he could produce something to rival Leipzig in the other Albertine part of the Wettin lands ruled first by his uncle and then from 1500 by his cousin Duke George. He started with disadvantages. Wittenberg was a frontier town between the German and the Slav peoples.
The Slavs, known here as the Wends, were the successors of the invading barbarians from many centuries previously, and were now there farming on the east side of the Elbe — and a surviving Wend community still holds together in twentieth-century East Germany. There was a general impression that Wittenberg was out on a limb. Its internal arrangements were much the same as those for Mansfeld and Eisenach, towns of about the same size. Citizens were responsible for keeping the streets clean and were fined if they failed. But paving was confined to the one long main street and one or two short stretches off it. However, it did have the privilege of marketing salt to the rest of the region. And it did have an incomparable collection of relics, to revere which many pilgrims came from afar. Frederick started on this.
He went to the Holy Land and picked up a great quantity more. He got the Pope to issue a letter encouraging ecclesiastical authorities, bishops, abbots and others to hand over relics to his safe-keeping. By the early years of the sixteenth century he was able to have a vast illustrated catalogue drawn up showing 5005 items, including pieces of the bodies of the ‘Holy Innocents’ (babies murdered by King Herod as described in the New Testament), a thorn from the crown of thorns worn by Jesus before his crucifixion, milk from the Blessed Virgin Mary the mother of Jesus, teeth from various saints, and so on. It seems people wanted to believe in these things and had a passion for the ‘very thing itself’, even though these were often enough ridiculed by intellectuals, who, however, themselves could not resist the sheer curiosity aroused. Valuable Indulgences were attached to pious reverencing of these relics. And all was good for business. The brewing of beer was a major part of the economy of Wittenberg, and from time to time an important part of it must have been drunk by visitors. The new Elector built a good bridge over the Elbe to make the final approach to the town more easy.
Father Martin perhaps knew little more, or perhaps even less, than all this about Wittenberg when he was suddenly told, to his astonishment, that he had been appointed to go to the little Augustinian Friary at Wittenberg. The purpose was that he should lecture in philosophy at the University. For a new university had been the very ambitious second part of the Elector’s plan virtually to refound Wittenberg. In the last years of the fifteenth century he began talks with the Augustinians about founding a university there. Elector Frederick would himself provide the buildings if the Augustinians would provide the core of professors. They agreed to do this and to increase their community in Wittenberg, eventually arranging that Father Staupitz, a member of a noble Saxon family and thus suited to working with the Elector, should be invited to come over from their Munich house and take on the chair of Bible Study . Frederick set about building the University lecture halls and provided money both for new buildings for the friars and for his own property at the other end of the main street, the Castle (for his occasional visits from his permanent residence at Torgau) and the Castle Church, together with a worthy building where the relics could be kept and displayed.
All was agreed, and after the normal negotiations with the Emperor Maximilian, a charter was granted which founded the University of Wittenberg, its patrons to be St Augustine and the Blessed Virgin. This was in 1502, and the University now had the right to grant degrees. Its graduates would have the right to teach in all other universities throughout the Christian world. The building began. Straw roofed wooden houses down the main street began to give way to stone and brick. The town Council played its part by providing the desks and benches required. Doors of temporary lecture halls were opened; prospectuses sent out. The first rush of students came, either those rejected by other universities, or residents not far away, or those attracted by a new foundation where the teaching was not so rigid. The Elector and Staupitz went out of their way to organise a modern university. There were lectures in Greek from the start. The modernist school of Occamites was not to dominate; representatives of other schools were there, notably Andreas Bodenstein, known as Karlstadt a follower of Aquinas, and later Scotus. There were the usual Medical and Law Schools; the latter with young Christoph Scheurl as its Dean, was housed in the castle buildings which also had the University library within its walls. As the buildings went up painters were invited to decorate the interiors. Albrecht Durer was there for a few months; Cranach, later to be a leading citizen and a close friend of Luther’s, was already in residence and at work on the castle rooms when Father Martin arrived in the autumn of 1508.
It had been a big shock to Luther when the news of the appointment was first given to him at Erfurt. He had conflicting emotions – fear, excitement, pride, and pleasure at the challenge as the outline of the job began to emerge. He would have to continue with his own studies in theology, while lecturing to the students in philosophy. And clearly he would be someone much more important in the little community at Wittenberg than he had been, a mere post-graduate student, in the great friary at Erfurt. On arriving at Wittenberg he found it still in the hands of the builders. The friars were still in the little chapel they had had for numberless years, holding only about twenty people. But there was bustle and promise in the air everywhere. Luther was one of a batch of seven friars recruited from various friaries to improve the performance at Wittenberg.
As the weeks went by, it became clear that Father Staupitz was wanting the brilliant young priest to hasten on with his studies so that he could begin to lecture eventually in Staupitz’s own discipline. Some six years previously, Father Staupitz had been elected Superior of the whole big group of Reformed or Observant Friaries. He was not able to carry out properly the duties involved at the same time as lecturing regularly at Wittenberg. Luther’s sudden appointment, it began to be clear, was related to this fact. He had shown himself to be exactly the kind of man Staupitz favoured. He had not gone along with the more sophisticated humanists, or followers of bonae litterae as they referred to themselves. On the other hand, his penetrating and lively mind had been in evidence from the days of his Master’s degree before he entered the Augustinians. He was meticulous in his monastic observance and always specially loyal to Church authority. The sometimes overwrought expression on his face might mean that what he needed was more demanding work, and more responsibility. The Rector of the new University already knew Martin well; Staupitz had persuaded Dr Trutvetter a reliable man who had had enough, after twenty-five years, of the difficulties always generated in such a Complex ancient foundation as Erfurt was, to come over to teach at Wittenberg. Soon after his arrival he had been elected Rector.
When Father Luther arrived, the first rush of enthusiasm for the new University was well over, and the hard business of making it work had begun. In 1502 between 600 and 700 students had matriculated. In most subsequent years the new students numbered between one and two hundred, though in 1508 dropping to only sixty-eight. Large numbers fell by the way each year in all universities, but there were not less than 500 students in Wittenberg. The little place was swamped by them. Luther found himself with too much to do and began the habit of overwork that ruined his health in later life. He was determined to keep up his own studies, as well as doing the lectures required, on Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics and keeping up strict monastic observance; and theology continued to excite him. The hard work and the excitement both come through in a letter to Father Braun. He wrote it in March 1511, and had to apologise that only now was he telling his old patron and friend that he had left Erfurt and was now in Wittenberg, alas teaching philosophy, though he so much preferred theology: ‘The study is tough, especially in philosophy which from the beginning I would gladly have exchanged for theology. I mean that theology which searches out the nut from the shell, the grain from the husk, the marrow from the bone.’ This letter also gives a strong hint of Luther’s growing, aggressive, antipathy to philosophy, a merely human way of trying to understand the Christian message as distinguished from theology which gets to the heart of the matter through an assent to Christ, through faith. ‘But God is God; man often, no rather always, fails in his judgement. This is where God comes in, who rules us in sweetness and for all time.’
The young lecturer was beginning to express himself confidently. The Wittenberg University authorities in that month of March told him he could qualify for the Baccalaureus Biblicum. The only difficulty was that he was still formally a member of the Erfurt community and they would have to pay the degree fees. This took some time to be done; there was resentment at his somewhat precipitate promotion. But worse was to come from that point of view. Father Luther began to work for his final theological degree as Sententiarius, and to lecture on the Bible. In the autumn, the Wittenberg authorities suddenly gave him permission to apply for the degree, several years ahead of the normal schedule at Erfurt. Staupitz was anxious that Father Luther should be able to take over his work at Wittenberg. But the realisation of his hopes were to be postponed.
Only a year had gone by when, in this autumn of 1509, the summons came from Erfurt that Father Martin should return to his mother community. He was required for teaching in the cloister. Now that he was well qualified and had continued to work so hard, they were glad to be able to use his services. However, on his return, the University authorities were understandably cool about the young man who had left Erfurt only thirteen months previously, with no theology degree, and came back not only with his Bible ‘Baca’, but with his application already well advanced for the final degree of Sententiarius; they refused to proceed with it. In fact they were out of order, and were obliged in the end to proceed with granting a degree already inaugurated by Wittenberg. However, some kind of contretemps occurred at the ceremony itself.
Early on in the proceedings for the formal recognition of Father Luther as Sententiarius, Father Nathin, the Augustinian theologian, came forward and started to read from a large sheet all the requirements to be filled by a candidate evidently implying that he was doubtful whether Luther had fulfilled them all. Furthermore, Luther was apparently not asked to take the usual oath nor to take higher degrees (and this could only be the Doctorate) at no other university. But Father Nathin represented only one, authoritarian, element of the Erfurt establishment. The ceremony was duly completed. Luther entered into his theology teaching with enormous zest, and the evidence can be seen today in the margins of several vast tomes he used in his cell. They were designed and printed to leave room for interlinear gloss, and for long comment in the margin. One lecturer would inherit the markings of a previous lecturer and treasure them and still find plenty of room for his own comment. Father Luther’s careful handwriting, small and precise, gives both his own personal thoughts and the notes he made to remind him what he wanted to say in his lectures when he had the great tome in front of him on a lectern, and the young men, not so very much younger than he, looking up expectantly from the benches. The writer of any such notes was also aware of himself as author of words which his successors would read; in Luther’s case these notes have been reprinted and are now pored over by twentieth-century theologians, as part of the Weimar edition of Luther’s Collected Works.
The books concerned were Augustine’s on The Trinity, on God as threefold, and on The City of God , written in the early years of the fifth century when the city of man, notably Rome, was looking to be shaky, texts still of great interest to historians and theologians in the twentieth century. And, primarily, there was Lombard’s Collection of Sentences in four volumes. The young lecturer’s words show that from these early days Luther began to prefer the dynamic and personal, even biographical, approach to theology, rather than an intellectual structure, and ‘summas’ based essentially on a philosophical outlook, reaching back to Aristotle for their assumptions. He quickly began to feel that a philosophical approach was even a betrayal of the message of the New Testament. Aristotle earned in these margins the title ‘rancid philosopher’ and was often designated ‘pagan’ with some special force, and a betrayer too of the Augustinian tradition of his own Order. Life, far from being a settled planned matter, was a fluxus, a flow of events, and in those events, man met his God. At that point Luther found it easy to be what he was, an orthodox Catholic, and to point the way to the normal medieval pieties.
In a number of ways Luther’s approach was a return to an older style, dating back to a time before Ockham and indeed before Thomas Aquinas who was primarily responsible for the systematisation that made such wide use of Aristotle — although when it came to theology Aquinas also treated the non-systematic and much more personal Augustine as a — often the — primary authority after the New Testament. Luther’s style of theology was deeply attuned to Augustine’s; ‘Beautiful, beautiful,’ he wrote in the margin of Augustine’s text. He preferred to do without the support of philosophy when it came to theology; here, ironically he linked directly if superficially with his modernist nominalist teachers, who always insisted that philosophy and theology were entirely distinct disciplines and that theology was coherent within itself, based on revelation. At the deeper level, however, Luther’s approach was entirely new and distinct, for his dynamic theology was in effect flowing back to cover the whole of life. So when he came to analyse the psychology of a Christian he did not like to speak in terms of the ‘habit’ (an Aristotelean and Thomist category) of charity, inspired by the Holy Spirit, but preferred to speak directly of the Holy Spirit of God, working in man, immediately, not mediately. This may seem complex. But it is fundamental to any understanding of what was going on in the young don’s mind. He was trying to present in intellectual fashion, in a style appropriate to the high discipline of the schools, a description of theology which was dynamic, ‘divine’ and, in the end, one strictly ‘indescribable’ on account of its nature as the working of the ‘holy spirit’. As yet he was only struggling towards it. And he was tremendously conscious of the censors, and of his own wish to be strictly loyal to the Church which he understood as itself the infallible oracle. So after he had propounded in these notes, partly for his own private guidance, and partly as actual lecture material, the idea of charity being not a ‘habit’ but directly the ‘Holy Spirit’, he added: ‘unless perhaps there be a decision of the Church in favour of the opposite view’. Although his own view chimed with Lombard and traditional piety, yet perhaps (he thought) the nominalists had persuaded authority to accept their categorical analysis as correct and he did not know about it. But in fact Father Luther was on safe ground. There was no such formal definition.
Many commentators have read the notes Luther wrote in these years when he was an unknown, reliable, respected young lecturer at Erfurt and tried to discern the seeds of the future reformer. The thing which really stands out is that he disliked the abstract statement and preferred to see life as a flux, rather than as a status. From Augustine’s De Vera Religione he dug out a reference to prime matter, which enabled him to propound a dynamic theory of the nature of all things. We live moment by moment, in a continuum, in God’s presence. The second thing is the intense personal and vibrant piety; coram deo, in God’s presence, is the note continually restruck in this unorganised array of themes, ideas and comments.
As Luther worked away, the streets of Erfurt were ceasing to be so safe. The tensions were beginning to burst into action. In 1510 the journeymen went into open revolt against the low level of their rewards, and chose the administration of the city as their target. There was rioting in the streets outside the Cloister and the University, and a local civil war broke out of a serious nature. The town was being ruined by excessive taxation, and it reflected on everybody in it. At first the students and the Cloister were on the side of the journeymen. But eventually the mayor was taken prisoner and beheaded, and the Augustinians took his four-year-old son into protective custody, as a hostage in case of the situation worsening with reprisals to be taken by the family of the murdered man. Meanwhile, a fire started by the rioters had burnt down some of the University buildings, including the Old College and the Library. Eventually the revolt was put down. No reforms were made. It was a scenario to be repeated more widely in fifteen years time. The friars played an important part in trying to hold a just balance between the claims of the ill-paid and the requirements of law and order. Such trouble had occurred before; the younger members oi the community were not involved, and went on with their daily life largely undisturbed by Erfurt’s ‘mad year’, as it was called.
By the autumn of 1510, twenty-seven-year-old Luther was getting into his stride. He had taught philosophy for a year at Wittenberg, theology for a year at Erfurt, As Sententiarius he was among the youngest in Germany. The margins of the text books witness to a mind intensely involved with its material, Every question was thought through afresh. In some cases this would lead only to acceptance of the conventional line. But on many issues there was in any case a pluralist approach: he was free to follow any of a number of options and take the open-ended discussion forward. The question of ‘freedom’ drew him. Today, the question is posited in the context of inherited and acquired influences, and of social psychology, asking how free we are to make decisions, showing that we are free only within a maybe very small area of inherited genetic data and acquired social and psychological habits. Luther was interested rather in the quality of free human activity, the moral category. His notes show him moving away from Biel’s (and many others’) complicated scheme which, while saving God’s prerogative, maintains that the ‘natural’ man has a chance of doing something worthwhile by ‘doing what is in him’, back to an idea that God’s ‘prevenient Grace’ is always available and always necessary for a life worthy of man and God. But only to the man who believes. Faith is the key, faith bracketed with the other two virtues, traditionally named as ‘theological’, those of hope and love, the latter also in a further sense under-girding faith. It requires a personal act, an assent, already being solicited from within him for a man to reach to his spiritual destiny, to live as a godly man. There is a divinity beckoning within man’s own life, promising a new freedom.
Luther’s studies were becoming more exciting than ever, because he had time to start Greek, the original language of the Christian source texts and was dabbling in Hebrew the language of the Old Testament, getting to know at least the alphabet, and a few words, from Reuchlin’s Rudiments which he already possessed. More importantly, from his long hours of recitation of the Psalms and from his growing intimate knowledge of the Old Testament, he was getting an intuitive grasp of the Hebrew mind and its language. He had a Greek dictionary, and was convinced that there was no way to penetrate the meaning of the Christian texts except by mastering the original language. In 1509 the French scholar Faber Stapulensis, or Lefevre, had published his version of the Psalms in no fewer than five different Latin versions. Luther possibly had that in his cell already, certainly a year or two later. But already he was learning to make sharp distinctions between one humanist scholar and another. He was moved to fierce expostulations against an Alsatian priest, Jakob Wimpfeling, who had written a Little Book on Purity attacking the worldliness and self-indulgence of clergy, both those in the monasteries and the ordinary massing priests, and had specially attacked the Augustinians for accepting the well-known Sermon to the Eremites as written by St Augustine himself. It was normal to attack one’s adversary with real animus. But there was already a special penchant for abuse in Martin. His notes say of Wimpfeling that he was an ‘aged and distracted scarecrow’, a ‘chattering bleater and critic of the fame of the Augustinians’, and had better ‘recall his reason’ and put some spectacles on his ‘mole’s eyes’. Sixteenth-century readers, used to this kind of colourful swordplay, took it as a matter of course, looking to the heart of the argument, awarding only a mark or two for any particularly appropriate and telling invective. The young Sententiarius wanted to display his ability to his close and valued humanist friends.
Luther’s reputation and his career were growing. But his depressions were also growing. His obligations were no longer Sufficient to distract him. At Wittenberg, Staupitz had been there to help, at least some of the time, and his advice must have tied in with Luther’s own attraction to an earlier spirituality. In the annotations is a significant quote from St Bernard that in the Christian life to stand still is to go backwards, the Christian must always be moving forward. And the repeated emphasis on humility, while traditional and genuine, has a special note of dissatisfaction with himself. In the end, however, none of this touched the depressions, the attacks, the temptations to despair and the conviction of guilt. But then, again, out of the blue came another distraction to put off the day of reckoning.
Luther was sent, under obedience, on a journey to Rome as the companion of an older brother friar, on business to the Procurator of the Augustinian Order. Friars always travelled in twos for company and protection. His superiors thought of this journey as an ideal opportunity to give more breadth to the mind of this so promising but rather precocious theologian, promoted too young by hasty Wittenberg.
The business of the journey was essentially an attempt to prevent twenty-five other Saxon Augustinian friaries from joining the group of Reformed Augustinians to which Erfurt belonged. A great deal of heat had been generated when Staupitz had got Rome to issue a Bull putting this juncture into effect. And it was not in fact envisaged that a community could be allowed to appeal against such a Bull, once issued; there had been plenty of discussion in the preceding years. But Erfurt went ahead anyhow. Whether Martin thought Erfurt was right in not wanting the risk of having the reform diluted by this big new influx of undesirables, we do not know. Excitement was all that remained in Martin’s memory in later years, the excitement of going to the centre of Christendom, the place of the first martyrs, and the place where special spiritual gifts could be obtained. And then there was the journey itself.
The lush north Italian countryside and the bare Alps remained imprinted on his mind. At first he was very impressed by the Italians as rather better at many of life’s tasks than the Germans — they seemed to get drunk less often and less obviously, they cut their clothes better, they were more polite and their hospitals were more efficient, cleaner and more obviously Christian. The warmer climate and the large grapes and pomegranates topped the picture off. From religious house to religious house, walking twenty miles or more a day they covered the thousand miles or so within two months. At last in sight of Rome, Luther prostrated himself on the ground. ‘Blessed art thou, Rome, Holy Rome.’ Once in the city, however, lodged at the Augustinian house near the Piazza del Popolo, half an hour’s walk from the Vatican, it was another story. Luther was not the first German and certainly not the last to be shocked by the city. If he had found a lot to admire in the Italian way of life there was plenty to criticise in the Christian life-style here: casual priests, wheeling and dealing for preferment on a scale which beggared the German scene, prostitutes, a general lack of seriousness. It was only in later years that the negative aspects came to have real significance in Luther’s mind. For the moment, while they impressed him, it was all discounted against Rome’s great status, the Indulgences to be gained by visiting the basilicas, the sheer fact of being at the heart of Christendom, and the usual Christian tourist reaction of the time — he admired the Pantheon, its size and its symbolism, once the place of the classical gods, now a Christian church. But of Bramante, of the new building and painting and what we now call Renaissance art and architecture, nothing really impressed him.
In all his later writings in which the visit to Rome is sometimes referred to either directly or indirectly, no reference is made by Luther to the purpose of the visit. It was the responsibility of the senior brother. The records of the Augustinian Order show that the request to be allowed to appeal to the Pope against the Bull amalgamating other Saxon friaries to Erfurt and the other reformed communities was not allowed by the Procurator General of the Order. So after what was in fact a month of wet and cold weather in Rome, when the city was certainly at its least inviting as far as climate goes, the two priests started the trek home.
Back in Erfurt, the travellers delivered their disappointing message of refusal. In the best tradition of those with everything to gain and nothing to lose by fighting, if necessary against the rules for what they want, the friaries of Erfurt and the six other Communities who had joined together to send the deputation immediately sent another two friars off to Rome, with a further objection and request. Tensions and tempers were high in the Friary at Erfurt. As the office was recited, minds revolved with angry thoughts, and determination still to resist the threatened Incursion. Other minds wondered whether this was fair on their much loved Provincial Superior, Father Staupitz. Others again looked at Canon Law, or at their obligations to be humble amid concluded that it was neither just nor right to resist the Bull of amalgamation any further. The latter were few, but Father Martin Luther and Father Johann Lang remained determined in their assertion of this position. The result was difficult for Martin as a still very young member of the Order. Cut off for several months from his lecture course, which was now being given by someone else, he was already in less of a central position, an ex-member of a deputation that had failed in its object, and now in a small minority on a matter of policy. Staupitz solved the difficulty very easily, and for him, satisfactorily. Father Luther was soon back in Wittenberg, on the teaching staff at the Friary and at the University. Luther’s move back to Wittenberg in the summer or early autumn of 1511 turned out to be both final and crucial for the whole of his future life.
Staupitz is sometimes thought of as somewhat gentle and almost easy-going; and his portrait shows a friendly face. But he had a streak of sharp determination in him. He had a further shock in store for Martin, though not quite immediately. Luther returned to the usual round of study and lecture, office and Mass and monastic rule, in the University and in the Cloister at Wittenberg. The buildings were coming on now. The libraries were improving. The movement of thought was that of a young university. About to become Dean of the Faculty of Theology in 1512, and Archdeacon of the castle church was Andreas Karlstadt, who had been promoted to the Doctorate in 1510, the year after Martin had returned to Erfurt. A year went by. In the autumn of 1512 the Order held a meeting at Cologne, to elect priors and sub-priors among other things. Father Staupitz took Father Luther in his party, and in later years Luther remembered the wine they had. When the Wittenberg Friar elections came up, the vote for sub-prior was for Luther. It was a vote of confidence in the young man and a genuine step up. Shortly after their return to Wittenberg, came the real shock.
After the main meal each day the friars would walk up and down outside in good weather, or they would gather in the calefactory, the only warm room in bad weather, taking their conventional ‘recreation’. It was pleasant to pass the time of day, to take a little rest, to hear the latest news about Cranach’s painting at the castle, or the international political news, what Emperor Maximilian was doing, or even the new young King of England, or the latest church gossip. One such midday, Father Staupitz was sitting outside silently under the pear tree. At last he made Father Martin sit down and said to him that he was to arrange to take a Doctorate. Martin nearly fainted. At twenty-eight? That was something for a man of forty or more. At Erfurt they were nearer fifty. And how could he possibly add the work entailed to all his other tasks, now that he was sub-prior? ‘It will kill me.’ ‘Ah well,’ said Staupitz, ‘the Lord has need of people in heaven, and if it kills you tant pis, tant mieux. He has great need of assistants up there,’ He found it quite easy to deal with Father Luther’s slightly hysterical reaction. Admittedly the suggestion was a challenge. Though Staupitz had also got Karlstadt a Wittenberg doctorate early in life, and young Father Wenceslaus Link in 1511, it was unusual for a man to aim at a doctorate so early, and after such a short and narrow experience, unless destined for high position.
The conversation with Staupitz stuck in Martin’s mind for the rest of his life. Bracketed with the honour of the doctorate and the requirement to lecture on the Bible, went a requirement to preach to his brethren, his own brother friars, some twice his age, and more.
Martin soon recovered his balance. Staupitz had asked him. In the fluxus of life one must respond to what God sent through one’s neighbour and above all through one’s superior. Arrangements were set on foot. And in no time Father Luther was penning the inevitable letter of invitation to Erfurt. He knew how irritated some of them must have been by this further promotion. There was no point in going through a lot of apologies, and talk of humility. And by now he had in any case learnt to cut down a little on the circumlocutions The letter, dated 22 September 1512, was addressed to: ‘The reverend, venerable and godly fathers, to the Prior, the Master, and the seniors of the monastery of the Order of the Eremites of Bishop St Augustine in Erfurt, my fathers, honoured in the Lord. Then came the Word ‘Jesus’ set down on a new line in the middle of the page, a medieval pious custom, and one that has in fact survived into the twentieth century among some Christians but mostly among monks and nuns.
Greeting in the Lord. Reverend, venerable and beloved fathers: Attention! St Luke’s day is approaching. On that day in obedience to the fathers and the Reverend Father Vicar, I shall be solemnly graduated as a Doctor of Theology. I assume that you, my fathers, are already very well aware of this due to a letter from our Reverend Father Prior here at Wittenberg. I omit all self-accusations, and do not mention unworthiness, lest I seem to seek honour and praise by means of humility. God knows, and my conscience also knows, to what extent I am worthy and grateful for such a bestowal of glory and honour.
He asked for their prayers and to ‘honour me with your presence, if it can be managed, and to take part in this my solemn "parade’ (I am honest) for the sake of decorum and the honour of the Order, and especially of our district’. He continued with a carefully worded section, saying he would not ‘presume to bother you with the inconveniences and expenses involved in such a journey, had the Most Reverend Father Vicar not ordered it’. He was clearly worried lest the tension between Erfurt and himself might come out in public: ‘. . . It would seem shameful, disgraceful and even scandalous that I should ascend to such dignity without you in Erfurt knowing of it, or being invited to it.
On 4 October, Luther swore the usual oath of fidelity to the University and the Church of Rome. This event set everything in motion, giving the candidate the ‘licence.’ But a large fee was now due. The Elector came to the rescue of the Cloister and its inmates in such a matter. But the cash itself had to be handed over to the University authorities; and first had to be collected from the Elector’s agent. Luther went himself to Leipzig to collect it. His receipt can still be seen: ‘I, Martin, brother of the monastic order at Wittenberg, do acknowledge with this my hand on behalf of the Prior at Wittenberg that I have received from the Honourable Degenhart Pfeffinger and Johann Doltzer, chamberlains of my gracious Lord, fifty guldens, Sunday after St Francis’ Day, 9 October 1512.’ On 18 October was the ceremony itself, the solemn presentation of the Doctor’s ring, which Luther ever after wore and regarded as giving him a brief that he was obliged to fulfil. There were debates after Vespers on the evening before, and then the next morning the ceremony itself up in All Saints, the castle church, with further oaths to obey the dean and faculty and the Church, and then the presentation of the symbolical open Bible and the shut Bible, and the silver ring. Then there was a sermon from the new doctor, and after that a Disputation. Martin’s two ‘seconds’ at this were his Prior, Dr Wenceslaus Link, and Nikolaus Grunberg, parish priest of Wittenberg. There were the usual medieval fringe events, with a fool taking off the principal. Martin enjoyed it, in spite of the sweating and the fearful anxiety of it all. He had made it to the top quicker than anyone had ever heard of. Now he must teach, and preach, and express what he had so far been able only to set down in the margins of his textbooks, or give to his students, or express informally to his brethren, who were not always either interested or in agreement, though never less than aware of his gifts. Father Luther already had many friends, and had already been Sub-Prior for a year. Now he was Professor of the Bible at the University. It meant much work, but many opportunities.