We are making our way through Martin Luther’s life, thought, and legacy. When we last left Luther, his family had just moved to Mansfeld after his birth in Eisleben. From Mansfeld, Luther went to Magdeberg for his schooling, and then he went to Eisenach. Eisenach is famous for being the birthplace of Johann Sebastian Bach. This town, which sits in the shadow of Wartburg Castle, will later factor into Luther’s life.
In Eisenach, young Martin established himself as a good student. He had to sing for his supper, so to speak, and so he’d be on the street corner saying, Panum propter Deum, “bread, for God’s sake.” He wanted people to help him so he could eat. But he established himself as a scholar and later made his way to Erfurt.
Erfurt was quite the university town. The university was established in 1392, and the town had many churches. There were twenty thousand people within the town walls when Luther was there in the early 1500s. In addition to its many churches, it also had a monastery. Let’s look at five things about Luther at Erfurt.
The first is that Luther studied law. He earned his bachelor’s degree in 1502 and his master’s degree in 1505. That summer, he decided to visit his family in Mansfeld. On July 2, 1505, as he was returning to Erfurt, he was caught in a thunderstorm. Luther thought that God was out to get him, to take his very soul. He cried out, “Help me, St. Anne, and I will become a monk,” calling on the patron saint of miners. To the surprise of his friends and the fury of his father, Luther kept his vow. He turned over his law books to his friends, threw a party, and two weeks later entered the Augustinian monastery. So, Luther’s entrance into the monastery is the second thing to note about his time in Erfurt.
The third thing to know is what Luther would call “monkery.” He was a very devout monk; he thought that through his monkery he could somehow attain righteousness. Later in his life, Luther reflected on his time in the monastery and said, “If ever a monk got to heaven by monkery, I was the monk.” Luther poured himself into pleading his case before God.
The fourth thing we need to know about Erfurt is that it was from here that Luther was sent on a pilgrimage to Rome. Johann von Staupitz, vicar general of the Augustinians in this region, was asked for advice on how to handle this overzealous monk. Staupitz said to send him to Rome, that would be great for his soul. Luther got there and was utterly disillusioned by what he saw. Upon climbing the Scala Sancta or holy stairs, an act for which pilgrims earned a plenary indulgence, he uttered the famous words, “Who knows if it is true?” Luther was looking to his church for something, and instead he found disillusionment.
The fifth thing, and maybe the most important thing, about Erfurt was that Luther was exposed to the Bible there. It was in the library in the Augustinian monastery that Luther held a complete Bible for the first time. And it was there that Luther lectured on the Bible for the first time. He later transferred to the Augustinian monastery in Wittenberg and began lecturing on the Psalms and on Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews. You don’t have to spend much time in those books to recognize that the salvation that Luther was seeking can be found in them.