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Martin Luther's Basic Theological Writings

edited by Timothy F. Lull and William R. Russell

Publication Year: 2012

Martin Luther's Basic Theological Writings, a single-volume introduction to Luther's most influential, noted, and important writings in the modern translations—including excerpts of his sermons and letters—presents Luther the theologian "steeped in the word of God, speaking to the whole church," even as it takes the reader straight to Luther the man, to his controversial Reformation insights, to his strongest convictions about God and Scripture and the life of the church, and most importantly to his theology—a still-exciting encounter with the meaning of Jesus Christ for each age.

The third edition includes revised introductions, updated bibliography, index, and the addition of "A Meditation on Christ's Passion" (1519), "Treatise on the Blessed Sacrament" (1519), "Sermon on the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ—Against the Fanatics" (1526), "Sermon in Castle Pleissenburg" (1539), and "Consolation to Women Whose Pregnancies Have Not Gone Well" (1542), as well as new translations of "A Practical Way to Pray" (1535) and "On the Freedom of a Christian" (1520).


Published by: Augsburg Fortress Publishers


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-5


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pp. v-viii

Chronology of Luther’s Writings in This Volume

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pp. ix-xi


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pp. xii-13

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pp. xiii-xiv

In January 1989, Timothy F. Lull and I sat in a room full of theologians and church historians at the Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia. He casually asked me, “So what writings of Luther would you put in a one-volume collection of his works?” ...

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Preface to the First Edition

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pp. xv-xviii

Martin Luther has been much discussed in recent years, especially during the five hundredth anniversary of his birth in 1983. Many splendid new books about Luther have recently been published. But there is still need for a new one-volume anthology of Luther’s basic theological writings. ...

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pp. xix-xxiv

This volume concentrates unapologetically on Luther’s theological writings.1 Such a focus aligns with Luther’s self-understanding of his life’s work as a pastor and theologian. For the Reformer, theology helps the church speak about God— specifically about the God revealed in Jesus Christ. ...

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Part 1. Luther on Theology

The documents of Part I, written over a twenty-two year period, indicate both the Reformer’s basic theological method and his basic theological priorities. As a medieval Roman Catholic, Luther sought the surest path to salvation offered by the Church: he became a Priest, an Augustinian Friar, and a Doctor of Theology. ...

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1. Disputation against Scholastic Theology (1517)

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pp. 3-7

In this crucial document from the early fall of 1517, Luther offers a set of topics for debate (“theses”) at the University of Wittenberg. They sharply criticize the currently reigning method of scholastic theology (with its high confidence in human reason and free will). ...

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2. The Ninety-Five Theses (1517)

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pp. 8-13

This famous document, officially The Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, shows the Reformer’s early concern about the right formulation of the gospel message. For Luther, the distinctive character of God’s gracious action in Jesus Christ lies at the center of the church’s proclamation. ...

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3. Heidelberg Disputation (1518)

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pp. 14-25

In April 1518, the German Augustinian order held its General Chapter meeting in the southwestern German city of Heidelberg. By this time (six months after the publication of The Ninety-Five Theses), Luther was under a great cloud of controversy. ...

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4. Confession concerning Christ’s Supper—Part III (1528)

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pp. 26-32

When Luther wrote this major essay, he was ill, grieving the death of a newborn child, worrying about the plague in Wittenberg, and trying to stem a growing rift between Protestants. As part of his critique of Zwingli’s views, he argues against theologies of free will, merit, and monasticism. ...

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5. A Practical Way to Pray (1535)

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pp. 33-38

This document represents Luther’s mature catechetical piety. Written late in his career, it shows his long-standing attention to the practical concerns of the Christian life. Luther wanted to reform how the church prays. His response to the earnest question of Peter Beskendorf, his barber, shows how Luther viewed this kind of practical Reformation— ...

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6. Preface to the Wittenberg Edition of Luther’s German Writings (1539)

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pp. 39-42

Luther wrote this preface for the 1539 publication of his German writings. He was not enthusiastic about this project because he did not want his words to distract students from the Word (that is, Jesus Christ). Even as he weaves profound insight with self-deprecating irony and polemical wordplay, ...

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7. Sermon in Castle Pleissenburg, Leipzig (1539)

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pp. 43-50

Luther preaches here on the eve of Pentecost at festivities marking the official establishment of Lutheranism in Leipzig, Saxony. Though ill, the Reformer preached to a crowded chapel before Duke Henry, who had recently succeeded his Roman Catholic brother, George. ...

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Part 2. Luther on Scripture

Luther derived his grace-centered theology from his professorial work on Scripture (lecturing, 1513–1518, on Psalms, Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews). He concluded that the standard, received biblical interpretations of his day misunderstood the righteousness of God in Christ at the heart of Scripture. ...

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8. "Concerning the Letter and the Spirit” (1521)

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pp. 53-70

An early opponent, Hieronymous or Jerome Emser of Leipzig (1478–1527) attacked Luther for his failure to heed papal authority and for what Emser saw as Luther’s simplistic or literal approach to Scripture. Emser took Luther to task using the Pauline distinction from 2 Corinthians 3:6: ...

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9. A Brief Instruction on What to Look for and Expect in the Gospels (1521)

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pp. 71-75

Luther here describes his understanding of the gospel, revealed in the Scriptures: “A story about Christ, God’s and David’s Son, who dies and was raised and is established as Lord.” This gospel message establishes the church and gives Christians their hope. ...

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10. Preface to the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans (1522, Revised 1546)

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pp. 76-85

The Reformer composed this most important Preface to the Epistle to the Romans immediately before the publication of his September Testament of 1522. In back of this famous preface stands his thorough study of the epistle reflected in his 1515–1516 lectures on Romans, ...

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11. Lectures on Galations (1535)

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pp. 86-92

Luther called Paul’s letter to the Galatians “my dear epistle. I have put my confidence in it. It is my Katy von Bora.” He lectured on it often and extensively—no fewer than six times. The following opens the 1535 publication of lectures Luther presented during the 1531–1532 academic year at Wittenberg. ...

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12. Preface to the New Testament (1522, Revised 1546)

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pp. 93-96

Luther opens his translation of the New Testament1 with his sharpest interpretative tool: the distinction between law and gospel. For the Reformer, this dialectic provides access to the heart of the Biblical story—the story of God’s grace-filled intervention, preeminently in Jesus Christ. ...

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13. Preface to the Old Testament (1523, Revised 1545)

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pp. 97-106

Justifiably known for his gospel-centered theology, Luther spent most of his career lecturing on the Old Testament (particularly Genesis and Psalms).1 In the Old Testament, says the Reformer here, one finds “the very words, works, judgments, and deeds of the majesty, power, and wisdom of the most high God.” ...

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14. How Christians Should Regard Moses (1525)

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pp. 107-116

Originally a sermon, Luther directed this piece against those who thought they could and should remake society modeled on the law of Moses. The Reformer maintains that “the law of Moses binds only the Jews and not the Gentiles.” He cites Galatians and celebrates the freedom from dependence on the law that the gospel brings. ...

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Part 3. Luther on the Gospel

The first two parts of this anthology show Luther’s passion for the gospel, understood as a grace-centered theology of the cross—and his confidence that this gospel is the basic message of Scripture. ...

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15. Two Kinds of Righteousness (1519)

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pp. 119-125

Luther maintained that the righteousness of God1 revealed in Christ comes to sinful humankind only by divine grace, from “the outside in.” This “alien” righteousness, given through preaching and the sacraments, creates faith and brings to the believer Christ’s justifying work on the cross. ...

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16. A Meditation on Christ’s Passion (1519)

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pp. 126-131

Luther speaks here to Christians long-accustomed to a Good Friday vigil at the cross, an extended period of liturgical contemplation to commemorate Christ’s suffering and death. Unfortunately, many in Luther’s day did it for the wrong reasons and in the wrong way—both of which the Reformer does not hesitate to critique. ...

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17. A Sermon on the Three Kinds of Good Life for the Instruction of Consciences (1521)

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pp. 132-137

In this sermon Luther addresses people confused by the proclamation of justification by faith alone. They found it difficult to disengage from the theologies of good works with which they were familiar—and the accompanying ceremonies, fast days, holy days, and so on, that followed from them. ...

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18. The Bondage of the Will—Introduction, Part VI, and Conclusion (1525)

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pp. 138-170

In his efforts to recover a Pauline-Augustinian understanding of grace, Luther emphasized the giftedness of faith: Believers are saved by God’s grace alone and receive the gift of salvation through faith alone. Christians merely respond to God’s initiating grace—and this faithful response is itself engendered by grace. ...

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19. Sermon on the Afternoon of Christmas Day (1530)

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pp. 171-175

Luther loved Christmas and preached extensively on it as another way in which the story of God’s love for humanity could be brought home to the listener in its radically gracious form. The Reformer believed the great christological confession of the church’s creed that the one who was born of Mary is simultaneously true God and true human. ...

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20. Against the Antinomians (1539)

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pp. 176-182

In the 1530s, Lutherans debated among themselves the relationship of law to gospel in the Christian life. The “Antinomians” (Greek: anti- [against] and -nomos [law]), taught that the best inducement to repentance is not the law but preaching the gospel of God’s immeasurable grace in Christ. ...

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Part 4. Luther on the Sacraments

In baptism and holy communion, Luther’s commitments to theological method, Scripture, and the proclamation of the gospel drive his formulations—both negatively, in his criticisms of foes, and positively in his constructive proposals. However, the Reformer’s full views emerged over time, in response to the debates of the age. ...

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21. The Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ (1519)

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pp. 185-195

Significantly, the Reformer does not raise here controversial issues, such as the sacrifice of the mass or the mode of the Real Presence. In fact, he seems to suggest that he still accepts the doctrine of transubstantiation. The main thing is that he offers here a practical interpretation of what the body of Christ means in the life of those who would seek to die as well as to live like Christians. ...

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22. The Babylonian Captivity of the Church—Part I (1520)

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pp. 196-223

Luther ties a biblical image to an infamous period in the history of the papacy: as the Babylonians captured the Jews and took them from Jerusalem into exile, so the papacy captured Christendom and took it from the Scriptures. Moreover, the papacy, says Luther, has a track record of such tyranny: ...

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23. The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ—Against the Fanatics (1526)

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pp. 224-239

This collection of three sermons was not compiled or published by the Reformer. Although the editor introduced some inconsistencies, when Luther learned of its publication, he approved. Negatively, he criticizes Zwingli’s “symbolic” view of the Lord’s Supper. ...

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24. Concerning Rebaptism (1528)

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pp. 240-261

Early in the Reformation, the Swiss Anabaptists (a pejorative term, literally, “Re-baptizers”) occasionally cited Luther as a source of their ideas. Regardless, they were persecuted as subversive heretics by both the Reformers and the defenders of Rome. ...

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25. Confession concerning Christ’s Supper—From Part I (1528)

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pp. 262-279

In this pre-Marburg Colloquy writing, Luther directly confronts the theology of Ulrich Zwingli, the Swiss Reformed theologian. The issue at stake is the mode of Christ’s presence in the Sacrament of the Altar. Luther posits the “ubiquity” of the ascended Christ, while he simultaneously connects Christ’s presence in the sacrament ...

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26. The Marburg Articles (1529)

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pp. 280-282

Prior to the Augsburg Diet of 1530, Swiss Reformed theologians (headed by Ulrich Zwingli) and German Evangelical theologians (headed by Luther) met to work out their theological differences. The colloquy, held at the Marburg Castle in Hesse, Germany, sought to forge enough doctrinal consensus to present a united front to Emperor Charles V. ...

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27. Consolation for Women Whose Pregnancies Have Not Gone Well (1542)

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pp. 283-286

Luther writes here for pastors to help them console grieving parents whose children were born abnormally (a relatively common occurrence in Reformation Europe). The Reformer maintains that miscarriages, difficult and premature births, and so on are not signs of God’s anger. God’s promise is sure, even in the midst of inexplicable tragedy. ...

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Part 5. Luther on Reform

As a reform-minded professor and pastor, Luther needed to think about the concrete structuring of church life—that is, the actual, practical application of his gospel-centered theology. This task was complicated for the Reformer by leaders of the Roman Catholic Church who opposed his proposals, ...

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28. Eight Sermons at Wittenberg (1522)

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pp. 289-306

This document reflects the struggle over the nature of reform within the Wittenberg congregation itself. After his appearance before the Diet of Worms in 1521, Luther went into hiding at the Wartburg Castle and did not return to Wittenberg for some time. ...

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29. Concerning the Order of Public Worship (1523)

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pp. 307-310

This short treatise offers general principles for the reform of worship. At the beginning, Luther states three goals: (1) the recovery of the Word; (2) the elimination of “un-Christian fables and lies, in legends, hymns and sermons”; (3) and the elimination of the sense of the “divine service . . . performed as a work ...

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30. An Order of Mass and Communion for the Church at Wittenberg (1523)

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pp. 311-321

In his reform of the mass, the Reformer emphasizes a number of important themes. First, the lessons and sermon need to be in the language of the people. Second, he insisted on a thorough reform of the communion liturgy to eliminate suggestions of sacrifice or human work. ...

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31. The Small Catechism (1529)

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pp. 322-339

Before Luther came to public notice with the posting of The Ninety-Five Theses, he preached regularly in Wittenberg’s city church, where he delivered sermons on basic Christian teaching (that is, the “catechism,” broadly defined). In 1522 these sermons appeared as a collection in his Personal Prayer Book. ...

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32. The Smalcald Articles (1537)

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pp. 340-362

In June 1536, Pope Paul III called for a general council to meet in Mantua, Italy, in May 1537; however, political and ecclesiastical politics delayed the council until December 1545, when it was convened in the episcopal city of Trent. ...

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33. On the Councils and the Church—Part III (1539)

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pp. 363-384

Luther describes here the seven “marks” of the church— the distinctive characteristics that make the church, “the church.” He defines it neither as a building nor an institution, but as the gathered people of God, centered on the Word of Christ. In many ways, Luther tried to rally the church around the gospel, ...

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Part 6. Luther on Ethics

In some respects, Luther is a one-issue theologian. He consistently asks the question of how God relates to humankind. For Luther, the gospel of the grace of God in Jesus Christ is such a surprisingly wonderful reality that it stands out above all other concerns. ...

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34. A Sermon on the Estate of Marriage (1519)

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pp. 387-391

This piece, published six years before Luther’s own marriage, exemplifies Luther’s pastoral realism about applied Christian ethics—and how believers can faithfully participate in God’s created orders of family, civil society, and the church. In contrast to the ascetic traditions of medieval theology, the Reformer affirms that the vocation of marriage, ...

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35. A Sermon on Preparing to Die (1519)

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pp. 392-402

Luther published this sermon offering a combination of spiritual and practical advice to troubled people in response to the request of a parishioner who could not shake his fear of death. The Reformer suggests that Christians take the affairs of this life seriously. ...

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36. The Freedom of a Christian (1520)

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pp. 403-427

In this classic definition of Christian freedom, Luther presents his core ethical convictions. The Reformer builds upon the writings of the Apostle Paul and especially on his own earlier Galatians lectures to claim an ethical paradox at the heart of the Christian life: freedom and service. ...

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37. Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed (1523)

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pp. 428-455

In this piece, originally a 1522 sermon, Luther argues against attempts to subordinate the power of the government to that of the church (especially the papacy). He valued the civil realm and saw the political order as one of God’s gifts—a way to maintain healthy human community in a violent, sinful world. ...

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38. To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany That They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools (1524)

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pp. 456-474

This document demonstrates Luther’s deep concern for a political and social issue and his willingness to argue vehemently with the authorities to make his case—here, that quality education for children plays a vital role in promoting the common good. ...

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39. Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague (1527)

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pp. 475-488

The bubonic plague (or Black Death) swept through Europe numerous times after its initial terrible outbreak in 1350. When the plague appeared in Wittenberg on August 2, 1527, the university closed. The students were sent home, but Luther remained to provide pastoral and practical care of the sick. ...

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Part 7. Luther the Man

At various points in his career and in various settings, Luther and his companions provided information about his origins, influences, friendships, and personal priorities. These occasional references, spoken, written, recorded, and observed throughout Luther’s adult life, provide a sort of collage of his personality, ...

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40–47. Letters and Fragments

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pp. 491-506

Early in his public career, Luther proposed that both the bread and the wine be administered in the Lord’s Supper. Immediately, his adversaries linked him with the Bohemian reformer John Hus (1369?–1415), who had made the same assertion a century earlier. After a hearing before the Council of Constance, Hus was burnt at the stake as a heretic in 1415. ...

Chronology of Martin Luther’s Life

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pp. 507-510


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pp. 511-516

Select Bibliography

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pp. 517-524


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pp. 525-530

E-ISBN-13: 9781451419221
E-ISBN-10: 1451419228
Print-ISBN-13: 9780800698836
Print-ISBN-10: 0800698835

Page Count: 560
Publication Year: 2012

Edition: 3