Luther´s birthday and christening 1483

535 years ago today Dr. Martin Luther was born as the eldest child of the wedded couple Hans Luder (1459-1530) and his wife Margarethe born Lindemann (1459-1531) in Eisleben[1]. The 10thNovember was a Saturday. The very next day – Sunday – was the holiday of St. Martin of Tours. So, little Luder was christened in the church of St. Peter and Paul and named after the patron saint: Martin Luder![2]

In the beginning of the Reformation around 1517 Dr. Martin Luther changed his name from “Luder” (Literally translated it means cadaver) to the now familiar “Luther” using the Greek form “ἐλεύθερος: The liberated one![3]This name change aptly depicts his personal conversion and gospel story – moved by God´s grace from death to life through faith![4]

When the church Reformation began to be referred to as “Lutheran”, Dr. Luther vehemently rejected this idea in his pamphlet “Sincere admonition to all Christians to guard against insurrection and rebellion” (1522) for he had no illusions of grandeur or megalomania. Rather, he knew himself as a “can of worms” and “maggot-fodder” (“Madensack”) just as his old name “Luder” had graphically suggested:

In the first place, I ask that men make no reference to my name; let them call themselves Christians, not Lutherans. What is Luther? After all, the teaching is not mine [John 7:16]. Neither was I crucified for anyone [I Cor. 1:13]. St. Paul, in I Corinthians 3, would not allow the Christians to call themselves Pauline or Petrine, but Christian. How then should I—poor stinking maggot-fodder that I am—come to have men call the children of Christ by my wretched name? Not so, my dear friends; let us abolish all party names and call ourselves Christians, after him whose teaching we hold. The papists deservedly have a party name, because they are not content with the teaching and name of Christ, but want to be papist as well. Let them be papist then, since the pope is their master. I neither am nor want to be anyone’s master. I hold, together with the universal church, the one universal teaching of Christ, who is our only master [Matt. 23:8].[5]

In that year Luther writes a dialectical supplement to this negative point of view in the final paragraphs of another brochure “Receiving both kinds in the Sacrament”, which is worthwhile considering in this context too as it puts a positive spin on using the name “Luther” and “Lutheran”:

Finally, I see that I must add a good word of admonition to those whom Satan has now begun to persecute. For there are some among them who think that when they are attacked, they can escape the danger by saying: I do not hold with Luther or with anyone else, but only with the holy gospel and the holy church, or with the Roman church. For saying so they think they will be left in peace. Yet in their hearts they regard my teaching as the teaching of the gospel and stand by it. In reality this kind of statement does not help them, and it is in effect a denial of Christ. Therefore, I beg such people to be very careful.

True, by any consideration of body or soul you should never say: I am Lutheran, or Papist. For neither of them died for you or is your master. Christ alone died for you, he alone is your master, and you should confess yourself a Christian. But if you are convinced that Luther’s teaching is in accord with the gospel and that the pope’s is not, then you should not discard Luther so completely, lest with him you discard also his teaching, which you nevertheless recognize as Christ’s teaching. You should rather say: Whether Luther is a rascal or a saint I do not care; his teaching is not his, but Christ’s.

For you will observe that the tyrants are not out merely to destroy Luther, but to wipe out the teaching. It is on account of the teaching that they attack you and ask you whether you are Lutheran. Here you must be sure not to speak with slippery or evasive words but frankly to confess Christ, no matter who did the preaching—Luther, or Tom, Dick, or Harry. The person you can forget; but the teaching you must confess. Paul also writes thus to Timothy in II Tim. 1[:8]: “Do not be ashamed then of testifying to our Lord, nor of me, a prisoner for his sake.” If it had been enough here for Timothy to confess the gospel, Paul would not have commanded him not to be ashamed also of Paul—not of Paul as a person but of Paul as a prisoner for the sake of the gospel. Now if Timothy had said, I do not hold with Paul or with Peter, but with Christ, when he knew that Peter and Paul were teaching Christ, then he would actually thereby have denied Christ himself. For Christ says in Matt. 10 concerning those who preach him: “He who receives you receives me, and he who rejects you rejects me.” Why this? Because holding thus with his messengers, those who bring his word, is the same as holding with Christ himself and with his word.[6]

So, in this latter sense Dr. Martin Luther could tolerate and even charge, that his name be used like a seal and trademark for the recovered and unadulterated gospel.[7]Therefore, today we unanimously hold, teach and confess “this blessed doctrine, the beloved, holy Gospel”, which our enemies reject as partisan, heretic and just plain “Lutherisch”[8]. We, however, are confident that it holds true and puts forth the very essence of the gospel of Him,  who is faithful and gave it to us first through His apostles and prophets of old, but then again and also very clearly and abundantly and delightful clarity through his servant, pastor, teacher and bishop Dr. Martin Luther. Nobody, who puts his trust in Him and the Christian Gospel, will be put to shame. That is why, we gladly pick up the cue from Luther in the last verse of his evangelical hymn: “Dear Christians, one and all, rejoice…”[9]

“What I have done and taught, teach thou, My ways forsake thou never; So shall My kingdom flourish now And God be praised forever. Take heed lest men with base alloy The heavenly treasure should destroy; This counsel I bequeath thee.”  (Martin Luther 1523)

[1]Today their reconstructed house can be visited there at Lutherstraße 15.

[2]Taking the cue from Malcolm Gladwell “Outliers”, who has pointed out, that outstanding performers were often born early in the year and thus became the older and bigger children in their respective school classes, we could ask, what further great things the reformer would have achieved over and above his already mind boggling achievements, if he had been born earlier on in the year.

[3]Very much like Philipp Schwarzerd (Blackrock – no, I´m joking – Blackearth) changing his name into the Greek: Melanchthon.

[4]One of Luther´s many opponents – Dr. Johannes Eck – played this name-calling game in their ongoing controversies addressing the venerable Doctor as the stinking “Luder”. Luther was not slow to fire back at the opposing Doctor – Dr. Eck – using the abbreviated “Dreck” (Dirt).

[5]Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 45 : The Christian in Society II. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 45, pp. 70–71). Philadelphia: Fortress Press. (Pg. 70-71)

[6]Luther, M. (1999).Luther’s works, vol. 36: Word and Sacrament II. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 36, pp. 265–266). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

[7]Friedrich Wilhelm Hopf illustrates this point in his programmatic essay: “Lutherische Kirche treibt Lutherische Mission” in his FS for the 75thanniversary of the Bleckmar mission in 1967 bearing that title translated roughly as “Lutheran Church does Lutheran Mission”. See the pages 16-17.

[8]The original German text in the 15thArticle of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession uses the term “lütherisch” with the “Umlaut”. Cf. BSLK 305, 51f in the §43-44.


About Wilhelm Weber

Pastor at the Old Latin School in the Lutherstadt Wittenberg
This entry was posted in Lutheran Confessions, Lutheran World, Old Latin School in Wittenberg, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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