The number of books attributed to Martin Luther is nothing short of impressive. Luther's writings touch on a wide range of subjects, including theology, biblical studies, church life and administration and home life. He even wrote a hymn: the well-known "A Mighty Fortress is Our God."
The following article provides summaries of Luther's major works in chronological order of publication. To read the original text of these works, many of which are available online, see the Links and Books at the bottom of the page.
Introduction to Luther's Works
Luther's writing was very polemical, and when he was passionate about a subject he would often insult his opponents. In the preface to De Servo Arbitrio (The Bondage of the Will), a response to Erasmus's Diatribe seu collatio de libero arbitrio (Discussion, or Collation, concerning free will), Luther writes:
Your book... struck me as so worthless and poor that my heart went out to you for having defiled your lovely, brilliant flow of language with such vile stuff. I thought it outrageous to convey material of so low a quality in the trappings of such rare eloquence; it is like using gold or silver dishes to carry garden rubbish or dung.
Of course, it was more acceptable to debate with personal attacks in the 16th century than it is today. In any case, Luther was quite intolerant of others' beliefs, which may have exacerbated the German Reformation.
Luther's work also contains a number of statements that modern readers would consider rather crude (and/or humorous). It should be remembered that Luther received many communications from throughout Europe from people who could write anonymously, that is, without the spectre of mass media making their communications known. No public figure today could write in the manner of the correspondences Luther received or in the way Luther responded to them. Opinions today can be immediately shared electronically with a wide audience. At least one such statement would not be heard from most modern pastors: He regularly told the Devil to kiss his ass.
95 Theses (October 1517)
In 1517, incensed at the abuses of indulgence salesmen such as Tetzel, Martin Luther penned 95 statements against the practice of selling indulgences. On October 31, he nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenburg, a common method of initiating scholarly discussion. The actual title of the famous theses is Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences. Luther wrote them in Latin with an intended audience of his university colleagues, and could not have imagined the impact they would have on Christianity and on Europe.
Appeal to the German Nobility (July 1520)
In the Address to the German Nobility, dedicated to the emperor and German nobles, Luther described the ways in which the Roman Church had wronged Germany and all of Christendom. He began by describing three ways in which the Church sought make itself immune to reform and accountability:
The Romanists have, with great adroitness, drawn three walls round themselves, with which they have hitherto protected themselves, so that no one could reform them, whereby all Christendom has suffered terribly. First, if pressed by the temporal power, they have affirmed and maintained that the temporal power has no jurisdiction over them, but, on the contrary, that the spiritual power is above the temporal. Secondly, if it were proposed to admonish them with the Scriptures, they objected that no one may interpret the Scriptures but the Pope. Thirdly, if they are threatened with a council, they invented the notion that no one may call a council but the Pope.
Luther then urged the Germany people to put Rome in her proper place.
If we want to fight Turks, let us begin here - we cannot find worse ones. If we rightly hang thieves and behead robbers, why do we leave the greed of Rome unpunished? For Rome is the greatest thief and robber that has ever appeared on earth, or ever will.
It is time the glorious Teutonic people should cease to be the puppet of the Roman pontiff. Because the pope crowns the emperor, it does not follow that the pope is superior to the emperor. Samuel, who crowned Saul and David, was not above these kings, nor Nathan above Solomon, whom he consecrated.
Finally, Luther called for reforms to be made in Germany, including a reduction in rituals such as processions and saints' days, an increase in Biblical education and a minimum age of 30 to become a monk (Luther well knows how impulsively a young man can make that lifetime commitment!).
The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (October 1520)
The Address to the German Nobility outlined the ways in which the papacy had harmed Germany politically; The Babylonian Captivity of the Church described its religious failures. Written in Latin to fellow theologians, this work declared that the Papacy had carried the church into captivity, just as Babylon did to the Hebrews. Luther attacked the denial of the communion cup to the laity, the doctrine of transubstantiation, the idea of the mass as a sacrifice, and the system of seven sacraments (he argued that only two were to be found in the New Testament).
The Freedom of a Christian (November 1520)
The Freedom of a Christian is perhaps Luther's greatest theological work. In it he presented his influential doctrine of the "priesthood of all believers." Since the Bible teaches Christ is the only mediator between man and God, Luther declared, the average person can approach God directly without need of the church. This frees the Christian from everything but obedience to God, and results in an interesting paradox:
A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.
Luther's German Bible (1522)
Luther translated the New Testament into German to make it more accessible to the commoners and erode the influence of priests. He used the recent critical Greek edition of Erasmus, a text which was later called textus receptus. During his translation, he would make forays into the nearby towns and markets to hear people speak, so that he could write his translation in the language of the people. It was published in 1522.
Luther had a low view of Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation, and took the liberty of criticizing them. He called the epistle of James 'an epistle of straw', and could not reconcile the epistle with his belief in justification by 'faith alone'. He also had harsh words for the book of Revelation, saying that he could 'in no way detect that the Holy Spirit produced it.'
His first full Bible translation into German, including the Old Testament, was published in 1534. As mentioned above, Luther's translation work helped standardize the German language and are considered landmarks in German literature. Luther chose to omit parts of the Old Testament that were found in the Greek Septuagint but not in the Hebrew Masoretic texts then available. Those parts were eventually omitted by nearly all Protestants, and are known in Protestant circles as the Apocrypha. See Biblical canon.
On Secular Authority (January 1523)
Luther's Secular Authority: To What Extent It Should be Obeyed, published in January 1523, was a relatively non-controversial work on the subject of secular government. In it he defines the role of secular authority, the proper Christian attitude towards it, and the responsibilities of Christian princes. These were surely important topics in the rebellion, war, and power struggles between sacred and secular rulers that characterized the early Continental Reformation.
Luther's accompanying letter of dedication to John of Saxony explains the purpose and occasion of this work:
Necessity is laid upon me...to write concerning the secular authorities and the sword they bear; how it should be used in a Christian manner and in how far men are bound to obey it. For me are perplexed by the word of Christ in Matthew 5,"Thou shalt not resist evil, but agree with thine adversary; and if any man take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also," and Romans 12, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord."
In the prologue Luther goes on to describe the work as a necessary sequel to his Appeal to the German Nobility. While in that work he had laid out the duties of Christian princes, it is obvious from their deplorable behavior that they need also to be told what not to do.
Luther begins with strong words against those secular leaders who abuse their power. It can only be attributed to madness, he writes, that rulers would think they can command their people do their will and even tell them what to believe. He declares that "I can and will no longer look upon my ungracious lords and angry nobles, but must resist them at least with words."
Luther then treats the topic at hand; that is, the purpose of secular law and the proper role of Christian rulers. After outlining the scriptural support both for secular law upheld by the sword and for the principle of "turning the other cheek," he offers a solution to this paradox that echoes Augustine's City of God. He describes the world as two concurrent kingdoms: God's kingdom and the kingdom of the world. Those who are true Christians constitute the former; the vast majority of people make up the latter.
Those who belong to God's kingdom are ruled by the Spirit and do good works naturally - therefore they have no need of the law or the sword. But the remainder of humanity must be externally restrained from sin and evil, and therein lies the necessity of secular law. It has been established by God to keep safety and order in the world of nonbelievers.
Two questions arise from this explanation, which Luther answers in turn. First, if secular law is for Christians only, why should Christians obey the law? He answers that they should do for the same reason they do any other good work - not that they have need of it, but for the good of others. To do otherwise would be to dishonor God's established institution, set a bad example for those who would gladly disobey the law, and associate the Gospel with rebellion and self-will.
However, later in the work Luther qualifies this general principle with an important exception. The one time a Christian need not, and in fact ought not, obey secular authority is when it commands belief or demands books. In this case, "if you do not resist him but give him his way, and let him take your faith or your books, you have really denied God." [Part 2, p. 388]
The second question is whether it is proper for a Christian to take the sword of the secular law, especially given Christ's commandment to "resist not evil." Luther explains that Christ's teachings against resisting evil are directed at Christians in their personal relations. But for the good of others, it is proper that a Christian should assist in upholding the secular order and keep the world safe.
Therefore, should you see that there is a lack of hangmen, beadles, judges, lords or princes, and find that you are qualified, you should offer your services and seek the place, that necessary government may by no means be despised and become inefficient or perish. ... You would do it not to avenge yourself or to recompense evil for evil, but for the good of your neighbor and for the maintenance of the safety of others. As concerns yourself, you would abide by the Gospel and govern yourself according to Christ's word, gladly turning the other cheek and letting the mantle go with the coat, when the matter concerned you and your cause. [VI]
A similar principle applies to private Christian citizens:
No Christian shall wield or invoke the sword for himself and for his cause; but for another he can ought to wield and invoke it, so that wickedness may be hindered and godliness defended. [SA, VI]
Luther goes on to treat a very relevant topic: whether heresy should be kept in check by temporal power. He strongly affirms that "heresy can never be prevented by force." Heresy is a spiritual issue and must be dealt with accordingly: with God's word. Not only is the suppression of heresy by force inappropriate; it is ineffective. "Here God's word must strive; if that does not accomplish the end it will remain unaccomplished through secular power, though it fill the world with blood."
The Bondage of the Will (1525)
Luther wrote The Bondage of the Will in response to Erasmus' work The Freedom of the Will. Luther himself regarded this work as the only theological book worthy of publication (Dillenberger, 167).
For historians, The Bondage of the Will demonstrates the divergence of approach and opinion between Luther and the reformers on one hand and Erasmus and the humanists on the other. The latter group pressed for reforms in the church and a return to Scripture, but did not agree with much of Luther's theology and method.
Theologically, the work represents what would become the standard viewpoint of the Reformers on such issues as free will, grace and predestination. Although Calvin is remembered most for his doctrine of predestination, Luther's views are very similar. Both reformers based their thought on the views of Augustine, who held strong views of predestination as well.
Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants (1525)
This tract was written in response to the Twelve Articles of the Christian Union of Upper Swabia, a tract that justified peasant revolt on biblical and Lutheran principles and were being widely distributed throughout Germany. In response, he had published an Admonition to Peace, in which he argued that though many of the peasant grievances were justified, they should not resort to violence.
Soon after, during a preaching tour of Saxony and Thuringia Luther realized the full extent of peasant unrest. In response, he appended this text, which he titled Against the Rebelling Peasants, to the third Wittenberg edition of his Admonition to Peace. This was published on May 10.
Printers in other cities retitled it with the more radical title without Luther's approval, and sold it as a separate pamphlet. But Luther was widely criticized for the violent language he employed in this tract, both immediately after its publication and in years to come. In early July of the same year, Luther explained and defended his treatise in An Open Letter on the Harsh Book Against the Peasants. He said that the actions of the peasants were in direct violation of God's authority, making them instruments of the devil.
Small and Large Catechisms (c.1529)
In 1529, Frederick the Wise asked Luther to tour the local churches to determine the quality of the peasants' Christian education. Luther wrote in the preface to the Small Catechism, "Mercy! Good God! what manifold misery I beheld! The common people, especially in the villages, have no knowledge whatever of Christian doctrine, and, alas! many pastors are altogether incapable and incompetent to teach."
In response, Luther prepared the Small and Large Catechisms. They are instructional and devotional material on what Luther considered the fundamentals of the Christian faith, namely the Ten Commandments; the Apostle's Creed; the Lord's Prayer; Baptism; and the Eucharist. The two catechisms are still popular instructional materials among Lutherans.
On the Jews and Their Lies (1543)
Luther's On the Jews and Their Lies is a truly shocking treatise that denounces all Jews indiscriminately as, among other things, "poisonous envenomed worms" and calls for the burning of synagogues, destruction of houses, persecution of rabbis and expulsion of Jews from Christian cities. In the introduction, Luther states that he had not planned to write anything about the Jews, but he now believed it necessary to warn Christians against them - "since I learned that these miserable and accursed people do not cease to lure to themselves even us, that is, the Christians."
Scholarly views differ as to the amount of influence Luther's views had on the rise of Nazism in Germany, but this treatise was certainly used by the Nazi party as propaganda. A number of Lutheran groups have formally denounced and distanced themselves from Luther's anti-Jewish sentiments. (A more extensive treatment of Luther's views of the Jews will be provided in a forthcoming article on Luther's thought for this section.)Links to Luther's Writings
- Ninety-Five Theses (1517) (Latin) Source: Project Wittenberg
- Freedom of a Christian (1519) Modern History Sourcebook
- On Good Works (1520) Christian Classics Ethereal Library
- Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520) Project Wittenberg
- Address to the German Nobility (1520) Project Wittenberg
- Preface to Romans (1522) Christian Classics Ethereal Library
- German Mass (1526) Project Wittenberg
- Large Catechism (1529) Christian Classics Ethereal Library
- Augsburg Confession (1530) Project Wittenberg
- Commentary on Galatians (1531) Christian Classics Ethereal Library
- Smalcald Articles (1537) Project Wittenberg
- On the Jews and Their Lies (1543; excerpts) Medieval Sourcebook
- Small Catechism (1559) Christian Classics Ethereal Library
- A Mighty Fortress is Our God Project Wittenberg
- Selected sermons Christian Classics Ethereal Library
- Table Talk Christian Classics Ethereal Library
- Let Your Sins Be Strong Project Wittenberg
- Luther's last written words Project Wittenberg
Luther's Writings in Print
Collections of Luther's Works
- The Essential Luther: A Reader on Scripture, Redemption, and Society Jerry K. Robbins (Baker Book House, 1991).
- Martin Luther's Basic Theological Writings Timothy F. Lull (Fortress Press, 1989). A nice collection of 31 of Luther's theological writings, arranged topically.
- Martin Luther: Selections From His Writings John Dillenberger (Anchor, 1958). Along with a full-length introduction to Luther's writings, this paperback includes translations of 15 works and indexes of names, subjects, and scriptural references.
- Luther's Works, 55 vol. American edition edited by Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann (1955-76). All 55 volumes are also available on CD-ROM.
- The Bondage of the Will Translated by J.I. Packer (Flemming H. Revell, 1990).
- Commentary on Galatians: Modern English Edition Baker Books, 1998.