Learning From Luther

In the spring of 2018, I undertook a research project through the Department of Communication Studies at Kansas State University.

I studied the writings of the famed (or infamous?) pastor and protestant reformer, Martin Luther. After all, if the words of one German monk were able to spark a global revolution, it’s worth asking:

What can we learn from Luther, particularly as Christians, that would make us better communicators today?

Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk who lived during the 16th century. Often referred to as “the father of the Reformation,” many historians credit Luther as the seminal pioneer of the Protestant Reformation. 

In 1517, Luther published 95 theses denouncing the Catholic church’s practices of indulgences. His argument was originally intended for internal debate among the academics in Wittenberg, but Luther’s theses and subsequent writings would go on to leave an unmistakable imprint on nearly all of Christendom.

Five-hundred years later, Luther’s legacy remains relevant and influential. Among many other consequences of the Reformation, Luther’s act of defiance against the Catholic church is at least partly responsible for all of the following:

➢ Protestantism and the formation of Protestant denominations

➢ Bible translations that are accessible to the common person

➢ A return to orthodox, Biblical theology that rejects “earning salvation”

➢ Political protection and support for the freedom of religion

Additional Resources:

How Martin Luther Started a Religious Revolution (National Geographic)

How Martin Luther Changed the World (New Yorker Article)

The Forgotten Influence of Martin Luther (The Gospel Coalition)

In 2019, there was a substantially renewed interest in Martin Luther largely due to it being the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. One of the most interesting comparisons to Luther I found in the 21st century limelight was that of our animated President Donald Trump. Luther’s rhetorical prowess and flair certainly bear some resemblance to Trump’s style (as Ryrie notes in Foreign Policy). 

In an era very much characterized by controversy over the sort of rhetoric typified in Donald Trump, research on this kind of communication is warranted. The similarities between Trump and Luther in how they use metaphors that resonate with the people are clear. Both figures also write prolifically and incite conflicts between people and institutions. By contrast, however, Luther exemplifies religious self abasement that is notably absent in Trump’s rhetoric.

The importance of humility in communication, let alone Christian ministry, probably cannot be overstated. In a world filled with bold, outrageous claims and assertions made by egotistic characters, humility goes a long way in building credibility.

A humble countenance typically portrays a person as a trustworthy figure. Luther’s deferential language toward the German aristocracy was pervasive in his letters and it is hard to imagine how a lowly monk (as Luther describes himself) would be able to earn the favor of such political figures without declaring himself subordinate to them and their devices. As Christians, we ought to exercise and understand humility in our ministry and communication as one the most central values.

However, Luther also exercises humility even against his adversaries, which reveals a second utility to deferential language: often, you might find it softens the tone of arguments and makes an otherwise hostile recipient see your claims in a more favorable light. If a speaker begins their argument from a place of favor with the recipient, typically that person will at least hear out the argument. If we want people to hear what we have to say about matters of faith, we need to ensure that we are first grounded in a humble view of ourselves.


To better understand what made Luther such a persuasive figure, my research focused on 25 of Luther’s letters. In these letters, I studied how Luther used language and metaphors to advance his goals. Though he wrote to many different people over his life, Luther’s letters seemed to have metaphors and themes that were effectively tailored to individual situations.

Three main tactics (though many more existed) were identified: Luther’s masterfully compelling metaphors and religious imagery, his deep-seated humility in praising others while minimizing himself, and his empowering common people through decrying exploitation by religious elites. My implications and presentation for the K-State Communication Studies Department mostly focused on Luther’s humility as a tool to build ethos, or his rhetorical credibility.

My analysis relied on 25 letters from Margaret Currie’s compilation of The Letters of Martin Luther, each selected from different years over the course of Luther’s life while spanning a range of topics and recipients. 

Initially I used cluster criticism, which is a method of rhetorical criticism developed by Kenneth Burke that looks for clusters of key words within a rhetor’s work and then constructs the rhetor’s worldview using those clusters (see this link for a more detailed explanation of cluster criticism).

However, after identifying three individual clusters (metaphorical/religious, deferential, and socio-economic), I honed my focus specifically on the single cluster of Luther’s deferential language, and revisited academic literature to examine the broader context for this kind of language. Finally, I narrowed the research implications to the use of deferential language as a credibility-building tool.

Selected texts:

1. To John Braun, Vicar in Eisenach. April 22, 1507. [Invitation to ordination as priest]
2. To John Braun, Vicar in Eisenach. March 17, 1509. [Apology for leaving, expression of love]
3. Augustinians in Erfurt. September 22, 1512. [Upon reception of Doctor of Theology]
4. To George Spalatin. June 8, 1516. [On political advancement and godlessness in political leadership]
5. To Christoph Scheurl, Nurnberg. January 17, 1517. [A humble response to endorsement and exhortation to Christ-centeredness]
6. To Archbishop Albrecht of Mayence. October 31, 1517. [Day of theses nailing –justification by way of a case against indulgences]
7. To the Elector Fredrick III of Saxony. November or December 1517. [Concerning tax increase]
8. To George Spalatin. February 15, 1518. [Concerning indulgences and relationship to the Prince]
9. To Pope Leo X. May 30, 1518. [Writing to the Pope graciously and submissively]
10. To Philip Melanchthon. October 11, 1518. [Brief personal exhortation to Philip]
11. To the Elector Fredrick III. November 29, 1518. [Humbly pleading his case against the pope]
12. To Pope Leo X. March 3, 1519. [Another humble appeal to the Pope]

13. To Herr Wittiger, July 30, 1520. [Luther responds to his opponents who are putting out pamphlets]
14. To Nicholas Gerbel. March 18, 1522. [Personal letter to a friend who is a lawyer in Strassburg Germany]

15. To Elector Fredrick III. March 23, 1524. [Luther wishes Melanchthon to be set apart as a pastor, rather than a Greek teacher]

16. To Fredrick Myconius of Gotha. March or April, 1526. [Letter speaking against Catholic activity]
17. To George Spalatin. August 15, 1527. [Luther recounts the devastation of the plague]
18. To Leonhardt Beier. March 7, 1528. [Luther invites his friend to Wittenberg] 

19. To Jacob Montanus, a preacher. May 28, 1529. [Luther condemns Erasmus]
20. To Phillip Melanchthon. July 31, 1530. [Luther writes about poor health and Satan’s attacks against them]
21. To Hans von Loser. January 29, 1533. [Luther asks him to be a sponsor for his son]
22. To The King of Denmark. December 2, 1536. [Luther approves of Bishops being driven out of Denmark]
23. To John Agricola. January 6, 1538. [Luther withdraws permission for Agricola to teach]
24. To Philip Melanchthon. April 12, 1541. [Luther writes back after hearing Philip had an accident wherein he broke his arm]
25. To Johann Matthesius. December 14, 1543. [Luther writes of current events in the world]


“May your Electoral Highness graciously permit me, the least and most unworthy of men, to address you. The Lord Jesus is my witness that I have long hesitated, on account of my unworthiness to carry out what I now boldly do, moved thereto by a sense of the duty I owe you, right reverend father.” (To Archbishop Albrecht of Mayence. October 31, 1517)

“Martin Luther, Augustinian monk, desires everlasting salvation to the Most Holy Father, Leo X… But, most holy father, I must hasten to the point, hoping your Holiness will graciously listen to me, for I am as awkward as a child.” (To Pope Leo X. May 30, 1518)

  • “…To your Electoral Highness. I merely humbly plead that your Grace would graciously listen to an insignificant, despised mendicant brother, and take my uncouth relation in good part… I bless and greet your Electoral Grace, in deep humility, committing you to the merciful God, and thanking you with all my heart for the benefits you have bestowed upon me. And wherever my dwelling-place may be, I shall never to all eternity forget your Grace’s goodness to me, or cease to pray earnestly for your Highness’s salvation and prosperity. At present I am full of joy and gratitude to God, that His dear Son counted a poor sinner like me worthy to suffer tribulation and persecution for His good and sacred cause. May He maintain your Electoral Grace to all eternity. Amen. Your Grace’s unworthy chaplain, Martin Luther. (To the Elector Fredrick III. November 29, 1518)

Religious Imagery:

“You will perceive how Satan is at present raging among the Catholic priests, and we hear the godless bishops are conspiring together… Therefore, exhort the people to be steadfast in the faith, and pray earnestly to God to overcome the Wicked One, so that peace may be maintained.” (To Fredrick Myconius of Gotha. March or April, 1526)

“…and should I write [I] shall only refer to Erasmus in the third person…who ridicules all religion in his Lucian fashion.” (To Jacob Montanus. May 28, 1529)


“…Alms and kindness towards one’s neighbor are far higher than the Indulgences. Therefore, I admonish you to buy no Indulgences as long as you have poor neighbors to whom you can give the Indulgence money… I firmly believe that those who neglect the poor and purchase Indulgences merit condemnation.” (To George Spalatin. February 15, 1518)

“…I most humbly beg your Majesty to reserve sufficient funds out of the Church property belonging to the Crown…and if God had not given us such pious Princes, who conscientiously see to the welfare of their subjects, many churches and parishes would lie in waste.” (To the King of Denmark. December 2, 1536)

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