Luther Burns the Papal Bull

Dr. Martin Luther: Persuader–and Not Simply a Humble German Monk

Filmed in Wiesbaden, West Germany, this month’s movie, Martin Luther (Pichel, 1953), received Oscar nominations in 1954 for Best Cinematography, Black and White, and Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black and White.

As one of the producers of this movie, the Lutheran Church in America’s presence suggests a protestant bias, although we expect an unbiased historical accounting from its statement as part of the credits at the beginning of the movie,

This dramatization of a decisive moment in human history is the result of careful research of facts and conditions in the 16th century as reported by historians of many faiths.

Martin Luther, Augustinian priest
Dr. Martin Luther, Augustinian Priest

Often described as “a humble German monk,” Dr. Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) was also a gifted scholar, having attained the highest level of university education. He served as Professor of Theology at the University of Wittenberg for his entire career, and as a Catholic Augustinian Priest until his excommunication by Pope Leo X in 1521.

After Luther received his master’s degree in 1505 (age 22) from the University of Erfurt, he entered the law school but quickly dropped out. His subsequent tutelage in philosophy taught him “to be suspicious of even the greatest thinkers and to test everything himself by experience” (Martin, 2004, p. 5). Since Luther was drawn to theology more than reason, that same year he chose to enter St. Augustine’s Monastery, also in Erfurt.

In 1507, Luther was ordained to the priesthood in Erfurt Cathedral. In 1508, he received a bachelor’s degree in Biblical Studies from the newly-founded University of Wittenberg, and in 1509, another bachelor’s degree in the Sentences (Lombard, 1472). The Book of Sentences is a systematic compilation of theology, written by Peter Lombard when he was professor at the school of Notre Dame in Paris (1145-51). According to an unofficial online source (Sentences, 2017, Sep 2),

A commentary on the Sentences was required of every master of theology, and was part of the examination system. At the end of lectures on Lombard’s work, a student could apply for bachelor status within the theology faculty.

In 1512, Martin Luther was awarded a doctorate in Theology from the University of Wittenberg and received into the senate of the theological faculty, where he spent the rest of his career as Chair.

Dr. Martin Luther Challenges Catholic Doctrine in a Scholarly Disputation

A reviewer on iMDb describes the singular act said to have sparked the Protestant Revolution (theowinthrop, 2004, Nov 6),

In 1517 a young monk nailed a long paper to the door of Wittenberg’s Cathedral containing 95 theses – they were 95 different questions that the current Roman Catholic Church failed to settle in it’s [sic] accounting of the Christian faith.

It is commonly believed that on 31 October 1517, the eve of All Saints’ Day, Dr. Martin Luther, at age 34, posted his Ninety-five Theses on the doors of All Saints’ Church in an act of defiance. While this event is included in the movie, it is uncertain that the dramatic act actually occurred, neither certain that it was “in defiance.”

Castle Church, Wittenberg
Castle Church, Wittenberg

Martin Luther’s writing, commonly viewed as a catalyst for the Protestant Reformation, was likely intended to promote a disputation (a scholarly objection to church practices) on the sale of indulgences. The above-named “Wittenberg’s Cathedral,” more commonly called “the castle church” (now All Saints’ Church, Wittenberg), was incorporated to serve as a chapel to the University of Wittenberg following its founding in 1502 by Elector Frederick III. Since the main portal was often used by university staff to pin up messages and notices, it is certainly conceivable that Martin Luther may have posted his theses there. While this cannot be conclusively established as having actually taken place, regardless, Luther sent this same information in a letter to Archbishop Albert of Mainz on the same day.

Disputations in Medieval Academia

In the scholastic system of education of the Middle Ages, disputations offered a formalized method of debate designed to uncover and establish new knowledge in theology and philosophy as well as in the sciences. Defined rules governed the process, which required a thorough understanding of the claims in dispute from traditional written authorities.

In the course of intellectual inquiry, the discourse among researchers featured questions and answers, conducted according to the meaning of the concepts used in the given field of inquiry. Called a “dialectic,” the discourse between two (or more) people holding different points of view about a subject, sought to establish an explanation through reasoned arguments. These were the circumstances under which Dr. Luther sought to challenge the actions and belief systems of the Catholic church.

A thesis (or hypothesis) is a proposed explanation for a phenomenon; therefore, it seems likely that Luther proposed answers, rather than questions, for his concerns about Catholic practices that would then be challenged according to a dialectical method. Even though Luther concurred with the dialectic method that was the accepted manner of academia; and, he believed that human beings could question men and institutions through reason, he would go on to argue that to learn about God required “divine revelation” and scripture.

Historical Characters in the Drama

It has occurred to me that, because of the changes over time in political boundaries and cultures, dramatizations of early history are often difficult to understand completely without some knowledge of the context of people, places, and events. Therefore, to aid in understanding the story in this month’s movie, I present below a “cast characters” that may be helpful to read before watching the movie.

Further, a viewer who aspires to gain more understanding would do well to watch the excellent documentary called This Changed Everything (Peters & Mohan, n.d.) alongside Irving Pichel’s drama. In my opinion, it is a worthy companion for this movie.

Johann Tetzel A German Dominican friar, the Grand Commissioner for indulgences in Germany, known for granting indulgences on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church in exchange for money.  This activity contributed to the Protestant Reformation.
Andreas Karlstadt A secular cleric, educated at the University of Erfurt and the University of Cologne, he received his doctorate of theology in 1510 from the University of Wittenberg, where he became Chancellor in 1511. He earned a double degree in civil and canon Law from Sapienza University in Rome in 1516, where he then wrote a series of 151 theses regarding alleged corruption in the Roman Catholic Church.
John Eck At Freiburg University, Eck was first a student of theology and law and later a teacher. He entered the priesthood in Strasbourg in 1508, and within two years earned his doctorate in Theology. He championed the cause of the papacy, and in 1519, Eck challenged Karlstadt to the Leipzig Debate. There, he debated with Luther as well as Karlstadt.
Philip Melanchthon Along with Luther, a reformer, theologian and a primary founder of Lutheranism. A professor of Greek at the University of Wittenberg, he transferred to the Theology faculty after achieving a bachelor of Theology.
Jan Hus A Czech (Bohemian) priest, philosopher, dean and rector at Charles University in Prague.  Considered the first Catholic reformist, he was executed in 1415 because of this views, despite a promise of safe conduct from the Diet of Worms.
Charles V Ruler of both the Spanish Empire as Charles I from 1516 and the Holy Roman Empire as Charles V from 1519, as well as of the lands of the former Duchy of Burgundy from 1506.
Frederick III, Elector of Saxony Known as Frederick the Wise, he was Elector of Saxony  from 1486 to 1525. A collector of relics in his castle church, his inventory of 1518 listed 17,443 items, including a thumb from St. Anne, a twig from Moses’ burning bush, hay of the holy manger, and milk from the Virgin Mary.
Huldrych Zwingli A priest in Switzerland who sparked his own spiritual and social revolution. Luther and Zwingli shared much in common but their differences  led to a legacy of discord.



An indulgence is a remission of temporal punishment due to sin, the guilt of which has been forgiven (Indulgence, 2017, Oct 14).


A disputation is a scholarly objection (Disputation, 2017, Sep 30), a formalized method of debate designed to uncover and establish new knowledge in theology and philosophy as well as in the sciences.


A thesis is a proposed explanation for a problem or phenomenon, according to a method of inquiry that is commonly based on empirical or measurable evidence. An explanation either has not yet been proved to be true or it has been proven but new evidence has been found that questions it.

Diet of Worms 1521

A formal deliberative assembly of the entire Holy Roman Empire held in Worms, Germany in 1521.


All Saints’ Church, Wittenberg. (2017, Oct 17). Wikipedia. Retrieved from,_Wittenberg

Disputation. (2017, Sep 30). Wikipedia. Retrieved from

Ghellinck, J. (1911). Peter Lombard. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved from New Advent:

Indulgence. (2017, Oct 14). Wikipedia. Retrieved from

The Lutheran Cyclopedia (H. E. Jacobs; J. A. W Haas, Eds.). (1899). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. Retrieved from

Kent, W. (1910). Indulgences. In New York: The Catholic Encyclopedia.

Martin, M. E. (2004). Martin Luther. Viking Penguin.

Martin Luther. (2017, Oct 20 ). Wikipedia.  Retrieved from

Peters, D; Mohan, TN. [Directors]. (n.d.). This Changed Everything [Motion Picture]. Amazon Digital Services LLC. Retrieved from

Pichel, I. [Director]. (1993). Martin Luther [Motion Picture]. USA: R. S. Entertainment.

Sentences. (2017, Sep 2). Wikipedia.  Retrieved from

theowinthrop. (2004, Nov 6). The Great Heretic. Retrieved from

2 thoughts on “Dr. Martin Luther: Persuader–and Not Simply a Humble German Monk”

  1. Having trudged through Diarmaid MacCulloch’s detailed and comprehensive tome, “The REFORMATION, A History”, and listening to my local Pastor, and watching the movie above, your commentary wraps a nice bow around a huge present of religious history. Wish I had started with your commentary first as it is like reading a map before venturing down the highway.

    1. Thank you so much for the compliment. We do our best to make our articles helpful and readable. Great to hear that we are succeeding!

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