Luther

Martin Luther was born in 1483 in Eisleben, Germany and baptized into the Christian faith. According to his biographer, Roland Bainton, Luther lived during the ‘last great flowering of the religion of the Middle Ages.... Certain elements of old German paganism were blended with Christian mythology in the beliefs of these untutored folks.’ The citizens of Luther’s village believed that the woods and waters were people with elves, fairies, witches, mermaids. The material later collected by the Brothers Grimm was not fairy tales but local history.

 

Bainton writes,‘Luther himself was never emancipated from such beliefs.’ He never doubted that his native land was inhabited by devils, witches and demons. These fears were amplified within Luther by recurrent periods of exultation and depression of spirits. The medieval Church offered Christians hope of paradise, but made sure that perpetual fear of hell drove them back to the sacraments. A safeguard against paralyzing fear of hell was provided by Purgatory, which offered an alternate route to heaven.

 

It is important to remember that Augustinian/Catholic theology did not provide assurance of salvation even for baptized believers. Devils, witches and demons were constantly at work, luring Christians into temptation to commit mortal sin or neglect the sacraments until their salvation was eternally lost. The only security of salvation lay in calling upon every assistance the Church had to offer: sacraments, pilgrimages, intercession of the saints, indulgences, or taking monastic vows. 

 

Luther went off to university to study law. In 1505, he was returning to university at the end of summer when he was caught in a terrible storm that made him fear for his life. Luther felt that all the forces of hell had been unleashed and a single bolt of lightning would catapult his sinful soul into torment for all eternity.  Luther’s response was to make a bargain with God. In return for his life being spared, Luther vowed to become a monk.  It is noteworthy that Luther did not pray directly to God or Jesus or the Holy Spirit, or one of the Apostles or even to the Virgin Mary. Luther prayed to St Anne, the remote mother of the mother of the Son of the Father.    

 

Luther faithfully abandoned his Law studies and presented himself as a novice as a strict Augustinian monastery to the great displeasure of his father,  who wanted young Martin to become a wealthy lawyer to provide for his parents in their old age. Martin assured his father that he had received a divine calling in a voice from the thunder cloud. His father replied, ‘God grant it was not an apparition of the devil.’ The father could not be certain. Nor could Luther.   

 

During his first year at the monastery Luther at last found the inner peace he sought. It was temporary. He later remarked that ‘during the first year at monastery the devil is very quiet.’  

 

The next great storm in Luther’s life burst the first time he was asked to perform the sacrament of the mass, the focal point of transmitting grace to sinners. Luther’s father and friends were invited to attend the joyful ceremony. Standing at the altar, Luther felt the presence of Almighty God in the chapel and was crippled by terror.  Bainton offers an explanation. ‘There are indeed elements in the religion of Luther of a very primitive character, which hark back to the childhood of the race. He suffered from the savage’s fear of a malevolent deity, the enemy of men, capricious, and easily offended if sacred places be violated or magical formulas mispronounced.’ Luther’s terror was augmented by his deep feelings of unworthiness and sinfulness.

 

Luther devoted himself to the pursuit of perfect holiness in order to be worthy to enter into God’s divine presence.  He began to fast for days on end, cast of his blankets and shivered in winter, and engaged in marathon bouts of prayer, but nothing brought him the peace he craved.  Luther’s flesh betrayed him at every turn with its lusts, hungers and susceptibility to pain.

 

In1510 Luther was chosen to accompany a delegation of monks to the Eternal City of Rome. Luther did not encounter heaven on earth, but hell in all its lavish splendour. The trip to Rome was the beginning of Luther’s revolt. His new posting as theologian at Wittenburg University was to provide the ammunition.

 

Luther’s spirit originally rose up in indignation against the Pope for charging money to free the souls of deceased Christians from the torments of purgatory. Luther knew his Bible from translating it into the common language of the German folk. He knew that Jesus never taught that paradise could be purchased. Luther also knew that the Pope was using the money from Indulgences to erect a mega-church in Rome.

 

Reading Luther’s life story, it’s hard not to identify with his struggles as a young man. His early campaign against corruption cannot be reproached and the power of his logic cannot be resisted. Luther destroyed the entire Indulgence industry with a single question: If the Pope has the power to free souls from the torments of purgatory for money, why will he not do it for love? 

 

As a young priest, Luther struggled to understand a God of judgement and wrath. Trained as an Augustinian Monk, the theology of original sin caused young Martin to cringe in the face of a wrathful God whose demand for perfection could never be satisfied. If newborn babes could be condemned, Luther was terrified of the eternal torment a full-blown adult sinner so richly deserved.

 

During his studies and translations, Luther thought deeply about Paul’s Epistle to the Romans which described salvation as a free gift; unconditional, despite the lusts in the sinner’s heart and the rebellion in his soul. This was a revelation for Luther.   Was it possible he had lived his life in terror of a wrathful God who was actually a God of love?  Instead of merited condemnation, this God seemed to offer unconditional love and forgiveness.  But how was this possible? It contradicted everything Luther had been taught to believe. 

 

Luther was certain that Satan was leading his thoughts into heresy and blasphemy.  Jesus had taught a simply faith of love and forgiveness but the Church taught wrath and constant risk of damnation. Surely the accumulated wisdom of the Church must be inerrant? How could the entire Christian Church - from the Pope and generations of brilliant theologians on down to local Bishops, parish priests and devout parishioners – be wrong about the fundamental nature of Christianity? Surely these questions were placed in his mind by the devil and his demons?

 

Luther longed for a God of love and forgiveness. How could it be demonic to yearn for divine mercy and grace?  Was it not clear that Paul had taught that salvation is a free unconditional gift?  Why did the Church and the Pope place so many conditions on salvation? These thoughts were too great for a simple mind like Luther’s, too dangerous for a man terrified that a single sin could cost his eternal salvation.

 

Then Luther discovered the writings of Augustine in the library of his Augustinian monastery.  This is one of the greatest ironies and tragedies in Christian history.  Luther, who longed for the simple love of Jesus, would resurrect the complex wrath of Augustine. 

 

Augustine’s theology was easily adapted to meet Luther’s needs. First the tormented monk needed to abandon all notions of freewill and personal responsibility for salvation. God alone chooses who will be saved, without condition and without merit.  There was no explaining why a perfect God would shower mercy on a miserable sinner like Martin Luther. Yet Paul and Augustine agreed that salvation is an unmerited, unconditional gift.  God alone decides who will be saved.  And because no human participation is involved in salvation, no human sin can cause this perfect gift to be revoked.   

 

Finally Luther found the peace he had always craved.  Despite his doubts and fears and perpetual sins, God had chosen Luther for salvation. Neither popes nor sacraments nor penitence not purgatory were of the slightest significance. God alone decides who will be saved. No devils or witches or satanic power could alter God’s perfect will.  Once saved, always saved.  The loss of freewill was a small sacrifice for eternal happiness.  Luther would justify his renunciation of freewill by proclaiming that he would infinitely prefer his eternal destiny be in God’s Almighty hands than depend on his own treacherous, sinful nature. Luther was a teacher of theology but he was no theologian.  He would leave it to John Calvin to fully articulate the resurrection of Augutine’s Gospel of Wrath.

 

For a collection of quotes from Luther's writings, click here.

 

Martin Luther was not, like Augustine, a strategic thinker with a carefully constructed network of allies and an unassailable plan to impose his version of Christianity.  Luther was rough and rugged zealot who would fly into a rage and scribble scathing invectives against his enemies. He had both the good luck and misfortune to be born in the age of Guttenberg’s printing presses so his venom-laced pamphlets were loose in the world before his temper cooled, like a drunken blogger who fires his rage into cyber-space and then cannot take it back. Luther’s career should have ended quickly, like John the Baptist’s, with his severed head on one of the Pope’s silver platters. 

 

In 1517 Luther denounced extortion by agents of the Catholic Church in Germany. The next year he was summoned to Rome to explain himself but refused to go. In 1520 Luther was given 60 days to recant or be excommunicated. Luther responded with louder and increasingly incendiary accusations.  To silence Luther, the matter was handed over to the civil authorities in the person of the Holy Roman Emperor. Charles V called an assembly of nobles in 1521 which found Luther guilty as charged. ‘Luther is to be regarded as a convicted heretic. No one is to give him shelter. His followers are also to be condemned. His books are to be eradicated from the memory of man.’ This should have been the end of Luther. He should have disappeared from the face of the earth as suddenly and completely as Pelagius.  Fortunately for Luther, his persecutors were not in the same league as Augustine.

 

Pope Leo was the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent of the Medici dynasty of bankers. The Medicis had made themselves one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in Europe. One thing the Medicis didn’t control was the wealth and power of the Catholic Church, so Lorenzo the Magnificent had his son Giovanni take vows at an early age and then paved the way for his son to be named Pope Leo X in 1513. 

 

Leo Medici made no pretence at meekly shepherding the humble flock of Jesus; he was destined for greater work.  Plans for building a magnificent basilica in honour of St. Peter had begun under the previous Pope, but Leo made it his mission to erect a dwelling for God so spectacularly opulent that it would outshine the palaces of his own papa. This required vast sums of money.  Leo called it God’s work. Luther called it damnable extortion. 

 

What was this money raising scheme that offended Luther so mightily? Indulgences were a logical derivative of Purgatory. By the1600s, the penalty of purgation could extend over thousands and even tens of thousands of years. Luther did not question Purgatory or Rome’s authority to reduce purgatorial sentences. He had no thought of defending freewill or personal responsibility for salvation. Luther was outraged by the pernicious effects on local German parishes of the methods ‘pardoners’ were employing to peddle their wares.

 

Luther deplored that naive Christians were being manipulated by the Pope’s ‘pardoners’.  One popular sales pitch went, ‘As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from Purgatory springs.’ Indulgences were voluntary, but what hard-hearted soul would voluntarily permit his loved ones to suffer torment in Purgatory when he had it in his power to set them free for a pfennig? Luther was disturbed that money which should be invested in local charity was being siphoned off to build a pontifical palace in Rome. It also infuriated Luther that pardoners were assuring local reprobates they could ‘indulge’ their sinful nature and then wipe the slate clean by buying forgiveness of their sins. Pardoners encouraged vice because it was much better for their business than virtue.

 

Luther’s attack on Indulgences was applauded by many of his fellow Augustinian monks and the majority of the German people. His supporters refused to send him to Rome but they wanted to see a trial; not to hear the Pope’s charges against Luther, but to hear the Pope defend Indulgences.  German nobles had many questions and Luther was the man to dig down to the raw truth. During interrogations Luther convinced Germans that his denunciation of Indulgences was more scriptural than Rome’s defence.  Had Luther restricted his comments to Indulgences he may have been acquitted, but once the trial began his hot temper and sharp tongue lacerated the integrity of the Pope, the traditions of the Church, and the authority of scripture. A guilty verdict was inevitable.

 

Leo excommunicated Luther, but the Reformer had already declared the Pope to be the antichrist. Luther didn’t wait to be kicked out of the Church; he quit. Leo might claim to possess the keys to heaven and hell, but Luther held the keys to a new technology of mass communication in the printing press. It empowered him to outgun his adversary in a war of words.  In response to the order for his arrest Luther wrote a scathing tract, ‘I was wrong, I admit it, when I said that Indulgences were ‘the pious defrauding of the faithful.’  I recant and I say, ‘Indulgences are the most impious frauds of the most rascally pontiffs, by which they deceive the souls and destroy the property of the faithful’. ... ‘Previously I said the Pope is the Vicar of Christ. I recant. Now I say the Pope is the adversary of Christ and the Vicar of the devil.

 

The Pope would have loved nothing better than to burn Luther and his mass-produced screeds, but Leo needed approval from the Emperor.  As well as being Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V was heir to the Hapsburgs, the House of Valois-Burgundy and the Crown of Castile-Leon and Aragon, which made him the King of Spain, Duke of Burgundy, Archduke of Austria and ruler over extensive domains in Central, Western, and Southern Europe as well as the Spanish colonies in North, Central, and South America, the Caribbean, and Asia. The Hapsburgs were far wealthier and nobler than the Medicis. The two tribes were engaged in a bitter struggle for control of Europe.

 

During all the distraction Luther was safely hiding, protected by German nobles. Neither the Pope nor the Emperor dared disturb the balance of power by sending troops to force their Germans allies to hand over the heretic. Instead they cleaned out their own barns. If Leo and Charles hoped to quell the uproar in Germany by scapegoating the renegade pardoners, they were tragically mistaken. Dictators are always most vulnerable when they begin to admit their errors.  Each reform was an admission that Luther had been right.  Emboldened by weakness at the highest levels, German nobles challenged papal and imperial authority, German monks broke their vows and married their girlfriends, and then the German peasants began to revolt.

 

 In 1524 German peasants presented a petition to the Holy Roman Emperor asking for taxes to be reduced and to be allowed to hunt and fish on common lands. Their most revolutionary claim called for serfdom to be abolished and that they be allowed to rent land as free men. All of Europe held its breath. The entire social and economic system teetered on the brink.

 

German peasants expected Luther to champion their cause. He agreed, at least in part, with their claims but warned that nothing would ensue from armed revolution but murder and bloodshed. It was too late for sage advice. Luther’s virulent attacks on the Pope had already loosed revolution in the land. An army of 300,000 German peasants demanded reform and were ready to fight for it. Luther risked his own life to go out among the peasants to appeal for calm. They responded with derision. Luther responded with rage and a sulfurous tract ‘Against the Murderous and Thieving Hordes of Peasants’ which concluded with a blood-chilling exhortation. ‘Let everyone who can, smite, slay, and stab (them) secretly or openly. Remember that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel. It is just as one must kill a mad dog…

 

The Emperor sent out an army. By the time the revolt was crushed, 100,000 peasants had been stabbed, smitten and slain like mad dogs. The danger of open revolution was made clear to all. Conservative kings, archdukes, dukes, princes, marquises, margraves, counts, viscounts, barons, and earls rallied behind the traditional authority of the Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Emperor.  The fiasco of Indulgences could be blamed on Leo, who had conveniently died.  Rather than allow crazed zealots to lead a violent and chaotic reform of the Church, the Catholic States would carefully orchestrate an orderly Counter Reformation to restore the Church to health and dignity.

 

It was too late for the Germans to restore order; priests had renounced their vows and abandoned their flocks, crowds had robbed churches of their idolatrous icons and had vandalized the buildings. Rebels turned to Luther and his allies for leadership only to discover endless contradictions. Luther might have made a constructive contribution as a delegate to the Catholic Counter Reformation, but he had few consistent ideas of his own about reforming Church and State. His leadership was impossible to follow. 

 

Luther was like modern evangelical who wears a wristband saying, ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ as if the question provides every possible answer to life’s questions.  Great minds had studied the Bible and debated complex issues for 1,500 years. Why was Luther so certain he had a better idea of what Jesus would do than generations of Ecumenical Councils before him?  It is very simple, replied Luther, the Holy Scriptures tell me what Jesus would do

 

During Luther’s trial the Pope’s appointed examiner protested, ‘Your plea to be heard from scriptures is the one always made by heretics. You do nothing but renew the errors of Wyclif and Hus. How the Jews and the Turks will exult to hear Christians arguing whether they have been wrong all these years! Martin, how can you assume that you are the only one to understand the sense of scripture? Would you put your judgment above that of so many famous men and claim that you know more than all?’The debate was as futile as an agnostic asking a believer how he knows there is a God and receiving the reply, ‘I just know it, in my spirit.

 

Catholicism is a sprawling edifice of authority and tradition.  Great councils have made monumental errors but not without giving them serious thought and study.  Luther promoted a form of Protestantism in which his prevailing temper was interpreted as the voice of God. From year to year, month to month and hour to hour his temper could change and he would fire off a new tract to let the world know what God was telling him.  Catholic Conservatives quickly dismissed him as ranting, violent lout.  Luther’s allies slowly learned he was maddeningly unpredictable. 

 

The Peasants’ Revolt was not the first time that Luther passed within hours from proclaiming peace to advocating annihilation. Luther had initially appealed to the Pope as the Vicar of Christ and then condemned him as the antichrist. Initially Luther had sought to reform the Church; by the time he penned a tract entitled The Roman Trinity he ranted, ‘These three things I pray for Rome: pestilence, famine and war. This be my trinity.’ When the soldiers of Charles V sacked Rome a couple of years later, Luther made the self-important claim that his prayers had been answered and his accusation vindicated. "Christ reigns in such a way that the Emperor, who persecutes Luther for the Pope, is forced to destroy the Pope for Luther."

 

Luther initially appealed to the Pope and Holy Roman Emperor for a fair hearing and a peaceful resolution of their differences.  Six months later he wrote in rage, ‘If we punish thieves with the yoke, highwaymen with the sword, and heretics with fire, why do we not assault these cardinals, popes and the whole swarm of Roman Sodom who corrupt the Church of God? Why do we not assault them with weapons and wash our hands in their blood?’   Peasants can be forgiven for thinking that Luther would support their armed revolt.   

 

Early in his career Luther wrote attract entitled That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew with the intent of healing the ancient rift between Christians and Jews.  Luther fully understood why Jews refused to associate with the Catholic antichrist and offered them fellowship with Reformed Christianity. When the Jews remained skeptical about Luther and his methods, he became increasingly enraged by their refusal to convert to Reformed Christianity. Near the end of Luther’s life, Jews were no longer the chosen people but "the devil's people." Luther advocated setting fire to Jewish synagogues, destroying Jewish prayerbooks, forbidding rabbis from preaching, seizing Jews' property and money, and smashing up their homes.  The Nazis were fond of quoting Luther as the spiritual leader of the Holocaust.

 

Over the years, Luther turned against fellow Reformers Hutten, Sickingen, Carlstadt and Muntzer. When Zwingli and the Swiss Reformers attempted to unify, the two parties agreed on 14 key points of doctrine but failed to agree on consubstantiation.  This was sufficient cause for Luther to reject fellowship with the Swiss. Zwingli was so distraught that he burst into tears. He should not have been surprised. Years earlier, when Luther preached the need for absolute doctrinal purity, his friends had asked if he would break church unity over a single point of doctrine. Luther replied that they were asking if it is reasonable to condemn a man over a single act of murder. ‘To deny God on one point is to attack God in all.’

 

Luther’s theology was a caricature of Protestantism in which points of disagreement multiply until every believer defines his own theology, breaks fellowship with heretics, and becomes the sole member of his own self-righteous church. Luther’s hate-filled invective and calls for violence are dismissed as ‘unfortunate errors’ that should not tarnish the memory of a great man of God. Wherever the Gospel of Wrath is held in high esteem, Luther is lauded as a champion of the faith who stood firm against the Catholic antichrist, the abominable Jews and the demonic Turks. Once Protestants decided that Catholics were evil, Luther’s Reformation almost drowned his homeland in a sea of blood. Only Hitler would cause the death of more Germans.

 

Luther’s tragedy is twofold: in attempting to restore Jesus’ Gospel of Love he resurrected Augustine’s Gospel of Wrath; in his war to defend God’s divinity, Luther destroyed his own humanity.  

 

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