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Martin Luther’s Vocation

Giancarlo Pani SJ-La Civiltá Cattolica - Wed, Sep 25th 2019


A topic like Luther’s vocation does not capture the attention of his biographers. It is taken for granted. Everyone talks about it, but only in a generic way. In truth, the facts are not so apparent.

Luther entered the monastery when he was 21 years old, after a storm. On July 2, 1505, while returning to Erfurt from Mansfeld where he was visiting some relatives, he was caught in a storm near Stotternheim, a few kilometers from home. Lightning struck nearby and he was terrified by the possibility of his imminent death. So he made a vow to St. Anne (the mother of Mary) that he would become a monk if he survived.[1] The saint was patroness of miners and he had heard her name many times at home as his father had worked as a miner. In any case, two weeks later, on July 17, Luther entered the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt and began the path of religious life as a novice.

His father had convinced him to study law. He came from a poor family and was dependent upon his father’s work in the mines. At about the same time, his father’s entrepreneurial spirit improved their position and he sought a good career for his son and a high position in society to help improve the family’s situation.

In 1501 Luther enrolled in Erfurt, obtaining a Bachelor of Arts degree. He continued his studies, eventually graduating as a Master of Arts (magister artium) in 1505. He then started to study Law. During these years he was removed from the domestic environment and immersed in the world of culture and of university studies which no doubt held great appeal for the enthusiastic young Luther. He did not, however, like the study of law. Perhaps when in July he found himself in the terrible storm, the young man – a poetic soul, lover of music, sensitive to the wonders of nature – felt an impulse toward the spiritual and contemplative life, but also toward religious life as a guarantee of salvation of the soul and inner peace. It certainly changed both his life and history.

His father was opposed to Luther’s decision to become a monk and did not consent even when he learned about the lightning-inspired vow, doubting the authenticity of the vocation and of the “sign from the heavens.” Luther spoke often about his father’s objections to his vocation, even recalling it on the occasion of his presbyteral ordination in 1507. In the preface of De votis monasticis, written a few years later in the form of a letter addressed to his father, he confesses: “I told you that I was called by the terror of the heavens. In fact, neither willingly, nor from my own desire, did I become a monk, much less from the desire for material advantage, but was persecuted by the terror and anguish of a sudden death. So, I took a vow, which was forced and not free.”[2] The decision to become a monk was experienced then as a sudden and unexpected event. In 1519 his friend Crotus Rubeanus compared the lightning strike of Stotternheim with the calling of St. Paul as an apostle: Luther had been struck down “like a second Paul on the road to Damascus.”[3]

An impulsive decision then? Not at all. Nothing legitimates such a conclusion. If it is true that Luther had some hesitation and perhaps even brief second thoughts,[4] he did not question his vow or attempt to undermine its legitimacy in any way. His conscience bound him. This would suggest that it was not the first time that Luther had thought about monastic life, and that in some way his decision was, even if not formed, at least considered as a hypothetical possibility for his future. It is true that a man in the Middle Ages was easily led to such promises, but this affirmation does not explain why a young law student, whether satisfied or not with his life, would suddenly make such a radical decision.

In any case, Luther had no doubts about the validity of his vow, even if it had been formulated in a moment of fear and danger. In fact, he knew very well, as did all Christians of that time, that any vow extorted in a moment of grave danger did not oblige, and perhaps he also knew it would have been unnecessary to ask for any dispensation, as stated by some biographers. What is more surprising is that the Augustinians who welcomed him in the monastery of Erfurt did not express any doubts as to the authenticity of his religious vocation. We also know that the monastery where he asked to be welcomed had many aspirants and was not actively seeking out new vocations. Luther’s decision, even if sudden, involved an interior serenity. In the first years of his life in the monastery, there is nothing we can observe that makes one think there was any constraint or reservation to the beginning of his monastic life.


The commentary on the ‘Letter to the Romans’

It would be interesting to enter Luther’s soul to know his thoughts and feelings. His biographers have developed the most diverse theories that would be impossible to summarize here. We want to focus our attention on a page of his commentary on the Letter to the Romans, a university course he offered in Wittenberg in 1515-1516, about 10 years after his religious profession. As pointed out by Giovanni Miegge in his biography of Luther: “In the lectures on the Letter to the Romans, he dedicates some beautiful language to the excellence of religious life and monastic vows.”[5] This is in the commentary on the final part of the Letter, on chapter 14, where Luther directly discusses the problem of religious vocation, in a clear and singularly concrete way, asking himself: “What does it mean to become a monk today?”[6]

The chapter is an exhortation on the Christian life, to welcome the weak in faith and to be a cause of their edification. The interpretation of the chapter spontaneously orients Luther to the practice in use in the Church of the early 16th century, so the question arises: how do such customs, regulated by ecclesiastical laws, agree with the principle of evangelical freedom reiterated with such force by Paul in this Letter?

The first answer seems to be one that could be given by theologians of our own day. Luther immediately admits the principle of Christian freedom, of the non-necessity of all customs and prescriptions opposed by the radicalism of his interlocutors. Paul spoke at length about the topic of Christian freedom in relation to very specific adversaries, the so-called “Judaizers.”[7] Outside such a context, concludes Luther, the legal observations are licit and useful.

As we can see, he looks for intermediate solutions: For the early Church, as for his own time, the external observations, even if licit, were marginal, and constitute risky distraction for those who find in them the guarantee of salvation while completely ignoring what is essential: faith and charity.

Therefore, in defining the relationship between what is essential and what seems to be marginal, Luther affirms that it is permissible to abide by the laws and ecclesiastical customs according to the conscience of each individual,[8] in accordance with the commitments undertaken personally with God and with inner aspirations. For him, however, the insistence on exterior behavior leads us to not take into account interior virtues, like faith and charity, which are necessary for salvation.

Luther here still considers the religious vow in traditional terms, even if such a concession involves a note of intransigent radicalism. He notes that whoever observes a vow without realizing the reasons of charity that motivated the vow commits the sin of sacrilege, renounces their own freedom and becomes a slave to the self because they act without love and against their will. It would be better for that person not to have taken the vow in the first place.[9]

At this point Luther realizes that he did not consider the most relevant aspect in the topic of freedom in the spirit: if the Christian life is purely and simply freedom in the spirit and if even the fundamental law of the Decalogue is reduced in the New Testament to charity alone and charity is full freedom, what use are the ecclesiastical laws, the general precepts, the prescribed fasting periods and the obligatory feast days? His answer is quick and decisive: “What is imposed by the ancient consensus of the universal Church, for the love of God and just motives, must be observed: not because it is necessary and immutable, but because the obedience inspired by love which is due to God and the Church is itself necessary.”[10] In other words, obedience is due to God and the Church and is essential for salvation. At the same time, the faithful find that this obedience to the Church out of love[11] is an operative image and an opportunity to exercise their fidelity to God.

At the heart of this, for Luther, is a pastoral consideration: that the norms of the Church should be few, indeed very few, and should always be directed toward the end of charity – since ecclesial communion is charity – and that they should be modified and redefined at the proper moment for this purpose.

The discussion now focuses on the painful reality of time. It emerges from the lack of appropriate intention in observing ecclesiastical laws, in the dangerous illusions generated by the abundant external practice of the precepts – both for the faithful and for the pastors – and above all in a religious practice that is often distant from any consideration of faith and charity.

Luther’s point of view, despite the polemical interpretation of the religious behaviors of the time, is in itself traditional. Besides, on the practical side he contents himself with just a few things: a liturgical reform that lightens the load of the ceremonial aspect of religious life.

The religious vocation

A contemporary issue pervades the conclusion of the discourse and has to do with the monastic vocation: “Today [nunc], does it still make sense to become a religious?” Here we should pay attention to the nunc because it concerns a defined historical situation and not an absolute evaluation of religious life.

In his discourse, in an irony of history, Luther starts with a common saying of his time, according to which desperatio facit monachum.[12] One becomes a monk because desperation leaves you no other choice in life. Luther strongly opposes this traditional proverb: he states that desperation only produces demons and not monks. One becomes a monk exclusively out of love: ex charitate,[13] that is, out of gratitude toward God and the desire to express this gratitude after the many sins by which one had previously expressed ingratitude.

The formula used by Luther, though traditional in its content, in its time – as both before and after – has a particular accent that reveals something especially interesting. Luther is struck not by the humility and the apparent insignificance of the tasks that are required of a monk, but by the lack of historical relevance of the monastic habit, by its lack of current meaning. And he returns to this topic several times without dramatization; on the contrary, he manages to recover some positivity for that habit in the name of Christian paradox.

Two hundred years previously, he says, the tunic of a monk or friar gave prestige and a kind of honor, with an intrinsic relevance linked to the spirit and the perspective of the times. Today instead it is an occasion of ridicule; this humiliation can be a good thing, but it should be sought ex charitate, for that love of God that continuously requires a large measure of self-emptying and self-love.

In the contemptuous opposition that bishops and priests display against religious, the lack of esteem is inspired by the senseless habit of the monks and the gratuitous humiliation that it inspires. Here there is an implicit assertion that bishops and priests dress rather opulently, conforming to the secular values and the customs of the early 1500s, and that they know how to take care of their own worldly dignity. Luther lingers on the polemical contrast since, by vocation, the religious wants to be despised and rejected for love of Christ who was the first to be rejected and despised in the extreme. Therefore Luther surprisingly recovers a value in the testimony to the faith in such strange clothing, which seemed to testify only to the ineptitude of monks and friars to live in wider society. But as Luther writes, there are few religious who rejoice because “they are exposed to shame and to the cross.”[14]

Between the lines there emerges a debate on the theme of right intention (bona intentio), that is, the act of orienting one’s will in conformity to God’s will. In monastic spirituality this is what was suggested to overcome the natural discontinuity of the motions of the will, which occur, for example, during prayer (forgetfulness, distraction, incoherence, etc.). At this point Luther poses a basic objection: the right intention, the good intention of will, cannot be given (cf. Rom 7:14-24). The traditional doctrine takes for granted that it is accessible to the human person, that God loves us and is always near and ready to give us all the good that we are willing to receive, that is, interior fidelity.

Against these certainties, Luther’s well-known tirade is hurled. We cannot speak of our fidelity if it is not accompanied by spontaneous and joyful adherence. According to him, the following criterion is decisive: if the Church were to abolish the obligatory nature of certain spiritual practices (rites, rules, prayers, fasting, etc.) and one immediately abandoned them, this would mean that one had not been expressing their own will, but on the contrary, they were practiced out of fear or habit. He concludes: “It would take a year for the churches and altars to become almost completely deserted. And so it should be, to be able to access them with freedom and joy, as people dedicated to the service of God, and not out of fear of conscience or punishment, nor for the hope of gain or honor.”[15]

From this page, paradoxically bright, it is clear that Luther’s judgment on monastic life is, at that moment, strongly positive. This ends the course on the Letter to the Romans, probably around the middle of 1516 when he had already been a monk for 11 years.

The authenticity of a vocation

This page also reveals the authenticity of the religious vocation of the future reformer. That is what we should keep in mind when we consider whether Luther had a real vocation to religious life, a matter debated several times even after the Dominican Heinrich Suso Denifle[16] and the Jesuit Hartmann Grisar[17] denied that Luther did.

The fundamental study on the youth and vocation of Luther has been made by Otto Scheel with his erudite biography Martin Luther.[18] He dismantles all the legends about the reformer, but he is very capable of maintaining the traditional story, eliminating obvious fabrications and absurdities. For the life of Luther in the monastery, he quotes a witness like Flacius Illyricus, in which the sincerity of the religious calling and his spiritual life are evident.[19]

It is important to recall several authors who, in the middle of the last century, contributed to the study and reevaluation of Luther’s vocation. First of all, the historian Joseph Lortz with the volume The Reformation in Germany, published in 1939-40, represents a turning point in the Catholic consideration of the reformer.[20] On one hand, he highlights the authenticity of Luther’s religious vocation and the intensity of his spiritual life, and on the other hand his passion for knowledge of the Bible. The reformer here looks like a “spiritual giant” and above all as a strongly religious man in his own profound and original way. The author also reiterates his prayer life, which is wonderfully reflected in his liturgical hymns and frequent confession. He identifies the central point of Luther’s theology, which is the theologia crucis.

Of course, there is no lack of criticism of Luther: for example, the fact that he had a deeply subjectivist personality, to the extent that this attitude would be the reason for his errors. Today, Lortz’s volume is in some respects dated, but it remains fundamental for several reasons, not least that it shows Luther as having an authentic vocation to monastic life.

Then there is Giovanni Miegge with his monograph Luther, published a few years later, in 1946. The Waldensian scholar speaks of Luther’s novitiate, which “was a period of relatively happy initiation. He brought to his new vocation the strength of a young man anxious for perfection. The beneficial influence of regular life, the continuous occupations of the spirit … participation in the divine office, frequent confession, spiritual conversations with his “pedagogue,” the edifying readings to which he dedicated himself by his own motivation, must all have given the young novice the impression of having truly found the way of peace for his soul.”[21]

Miegge’s affirmation is supported by several references. One of these is the following. Luther says: “I have been a pious monk, I dare to say so, and I have observed the rule so strictly, that I can say: if a monk had ever reached heaven in virtue of his way of living the monastic life, probably I would do so as well. All of my confreres, who knew me, can attest to it.”[22] Many other witnesses confirm that Luther entered the monastery to follow the way of evangelical perfection.

In the end of the volume, Miegge reaffirms his conviction: “We can affirm with certainty that the Reformation was not born out of a crisis of the monastic vocation of Luther, that on the contrary, this was a consequence, neither desired nor appreciated, of the Reformation.”[23]

Another scholar, M. Lienhard, also notes that, unlike many other monks of his time, Luther did not enter the monastery because he had no other means to live. His decision therefore was truly a religious choice. If this perspective were the meeting point of an anguished conscience before a demanding and majestic God, monastic life was the best that the Church could offer. Also his leanings toward Ockhamism (Nominalism), which he learned while studying philosophy, and toward the sovereignty of God offered him the possibility of being accepted in his commitment to the ascetic life. Finally, the monastery which Luther chose to enter was known for its strict observance.[24]

Also R.H. Bainton, in his biography of Luther, emphasizes that he “entered the monastery to seek, as others have done, and even more than most, to be at peace with God.”[25] He notes the abundance of conflicting judgments that have been issued on his vocation. “Those who deplore the fact that he later repudiated his vow explain this decision by saying that he should not have pronounced it in the first place. If he had been a real monk, they say, he would never have thrown off his habit. His critique of the monastic system has been like a burden on him, as he is depicted as a monk without vocation, and his vow is interpreted not as a true divine call but rather as the solution of an interior conflict.”[26]


The opinions of these scholars are confirmed by the analysis made in the pages of his commentary on the Letter to the Romans of 1516. The accuracy of certain formulae, the criticism of the traditional proverb according to which desperatio facit monachum, the problem of the validity of the vow, the conflictual relationship with his father, and the context in which it has been examined lead us to conclude that he had an authentic vocation. Luther was a good monk at the beginning of his religious life. There is nothing that could lead one to conclude it was a false vocation or that he chose the monastic life to escape the world as some of his contemporaries may have viewed it.

[1].Cf. M. Luther, Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe (Weimarer Ausgabe [WA]), Weimar: H. Böhlau, 1883 pp., Tischreden 4, 440, No. 4707 (July 16, 1539).

[2].De votis monasticis Martini Lutheri iudicium, 1521, in WA 8, 1889, 573 pp.

[3].WA Briefe 1, 543, 105 pp.

[4].Cf. O. Scheel, Martin Luther. Vom Katholizismus zur Reformation, vol. 1, Tübingen, Mohr, 1916, 237 pp.; 296 footnote 8.

[5].G. Miegge, Lutero giovane, Milan, Feltrinelli, 1977, 27; Ibid., Lutero: L’uomo e il pensiero fino alla Dieta di Worms (1843-1851). Turin: Claudiana, 2008 (original 1946), 51.

[6].WA 56, 497 pp.; M. Lutero, Lezioni sulla Lettera ai Romani, II, G. Pani, Ed., Genova, Marietti, 1992, 257.

[7].The Judaizers were Jewish-Christians, observant of the Mosaic Law, circumcision, kashrut, believing that these things are necessary for salvation. Christ’s baptism and the new economy would not be sufficient. For them, this was an imitation of the life of the Lord, since Jesus was circumcised and faithfully observed the Law.

[8].The Latin phrase is very precise and theologically exact: secundum uniuscuiusque votum (WA 56, 495, 27).

[9].The comment: “The fact is that, having left behind charity and the other duties necessary for salvation, we instead attach ourselves to those externals (as now happens everywhere among priests and religious, especially among the secular clergy) […] There is nothing strange if we return to Jewish superstition and reestablished slavery to the law of Moses. And we stick to these obligations not only willingly, but with the illusion that without them we cannot be saved.” (M. Luther, Lezioni sulla Lettera ai Romani, II, cit., 256).


[11].Ex charitate: The expression is repeated several times in this chapter.

[12].“Desperation makes the monk.” WA 56, 497, 20-21. Actually the proverb said: Militem aut monachum facit desperatio, “Desperation makes a soldier or a monk.”

[13].WA 56, 496, 14. 16.

[14].M. Luther, Lezioni sulla Lettera ai Romani, II, 257. He then comments: “But today – How sad! – there are no more arrogant people than they” (ibid).

[15].M. Luther, Lezioni sulla Lettera ai Romani, II, 259.

[16].H. S. Denifle, Luther und Luthertum in der ersten Entwicklung; quellenmäßig dargestellt, Mainz, F. Kircheim, 1904. Denifle, Vatican under-archivist, who had studied the decadence and corruption of religious orders in the 15th century, could trip up the future reformer in some of his statements. But he portrays a Luther dominated by lust, ignorance and lies. For him, it would have been better had Luther never entered the monastery. At the time, the work caused a scandal, even a provoking a parliamentary inquiry in Germany.

[17].H. Grisar, Luther, 3 vols., Freiburg i. Br., Herder, 1911-1912. Luther is considered by him, from the moment of his entering the monastery, as someone unsuitable for monastic life. The very vow he made and stubbornly held had no value. Entering into monastic life in such circumstances, he did not have the skills to remain. His was not a vocation. Grisar concludes that Luther had an unhappy and psychopathic character.

[18].O. Scheel, Martin Luther: Vom Katholizismus zur Reformation, vol. 2, Tübingen, Mohr, 1916, 6; 337, note 36.

[19].Ibid., Dokumente zu Luthers Entwicklung (bis 1519), Tübingen, Mohr, 1929, 201, note 534.

[20].Cf. J. Lortz, La Riforma in Germania, I, Premesse, inizio, primi risultati, Milan, Jaca Book, 1971 (or. 1939-40).

[21].G. Miegge, Lutero…, cit., 59.

[22].Ibid., 83. The author refers to the Kleine Antwort to Duke George in 1533. Cf. M. Brecht, Martin Luther. I. Sein Weg zur Reformation. 1483-1521, Stuttgart, Calwer, 1983, 76 pp.

[23].G. Miegge, Lutero…, cit., 460f; M. Miegge, Martin Lutero (1483-1546). La Riforma protestante e la nascita delle società moderne, Turin, Claudiana, 2013, 34.

[24].Cf. M. Lienhard, Martin Luther: La passion de Dieu, Paris, Bayard, 1999, 21-26.

[25].R.H. Bainton, Lutero, Turin, Einaudi, 1960, 15.

[26].Ibid., 5.

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