In his Requiem for a Nun William Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This is especially true when it comes to Church history, so it was predictable that to mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation (launched by Martin Luther in 1517) a plethora of books were published. Inevitably—given Luther’s personality and positions—interpretations varied widely and nothing approaching a consensus is possible. But I read and commend two works, beginning with Lyndal Roper’s Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet (New York: Random House Publishing Group, c. 2016, Kindle Edition). Roper is an Australian historian who did doctoral research at Tübingen University under Professor Heiko Oberman, the author of a notable study of Luther. Now the first woman to hold the prestigious Regius Chair at Oxford University, she is less interested in Luther’s theology than his personality, seeking “to explore his inner landscapes so as to better understand his ideas about flesh and spirit, formed in a time before our modern separation of mind and body. In particular,” she says, “I am interested in Luther’s contradictions” (#400). Thus she diligently mined a wealth of primary sources newly available in archives opened to scholars in the wake of East Germany’s demise.
Roper believes Luther’s “theology sprang from his character, a connection that Melanchthon, one of the first of his biographers and his closest co-worker, insisted upon: ‘His character was, almost, so to speak, the greatest proof’ of his doctrine. Luther’s theology becomes more alive as we connect it to his psychological conflicts, expressed in his letters, sermons, treatises, conversations, and biblical exegesis. Such a rereading of the original sources,” enhanced by psychoanalytical insights, will provide “a richer understanding not only of Luther the man but also of the revolutionary religious principles to which he dedicated his life, the legacies of which are still so powerful” (#405). His letters especially “give us a sense of the charisma he must have radiated, and the sheer delight his correspondents must have experienced in being his friends. It was Luther’s vivid friendships and enmities that convinced me that he had to be understood through his relationships, and not as the lone hero of Reformation myth” (#476).
Luther’s early beginnings took place in Mansfield, where his father was a prosperous miner, followed by scholarly instruction in the nearby cities, including Erfurt, where he attended the university. Though the university specified strict rules of behavior, “Luther acidly remembered, ‘Erfurt is a whorehouse and beerhouse’ . . . . Founded in 1392, the university was the oldest German institution to have a charter, and in the early sixteenth century it boasted an outstanding collection of humanists, interested in the revival of ancient learning and in returning to the sources” (#1029). Luther was only an “average student,” but he absorbed much of Erfurt’s weltgeist—both “the via moderna and nominalism, a direction in philosophy that reached back to William of Ockham in the fourteenth century. Luther’s teachers included cutting-edge nominalists” who promoted the via moderna rather than the via antiqua evident in Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus. Luther especially became committed to “critical thinking” and “empirical evidence,” i.e. primary sources.
Then came his famous awakening in the 1505 thunderstorm! Fearing he might die, he consecrated himself to the religious life, joined the Augustinian order, and entered its monastery in Erfurt. Here he followed a normal course of studies but also struggled with what seems to have been an inexplicable “sense of overwhelming guilt.” Strangely enough: “Luther seems almost to have luxuriated in feelings of guilt, as if, by driving them to their extreme, he could experience a heightened devotional state of self-hatred that would bring him as close as possible to God” (#1241). Conversely, his mentor, Johan von Staupitz, “had a relaxed attitude to sin—he once joked that he had given up making vows, for he was simply unable to keep them—but what worried Luther were not the usual sins but the ‘real knots’: his lack of love of God and his fear of judgment” (#1336). He would ultimately solve this conundrum by replacing the obligation to love with faith alone as the touchstone of salvation.
In 1511 Luther was sent to Wittenberg, a town of some 2000 residents, the site of a new university, a castle, and a magnificent cathedral—all thanks to the Elector Friedrich. Here he became a professor and found the academic life fully suited him, plunging into it with gusto, reading and writing and thinking deeply about the Gospel. By 1517, when he posted his famous 95 Theses, he had discarded scholasticism and declared that Aristotle (whose works were basic to the medieval university curriculum) “was not only unnecessary for the study of theology, but positively harmful” (#1958). Indeed, Greek philosophy in toto—given its celebration of reason—had no value since it “was just a distraction from the meaning of Scripture, and one must give up on attempting to find God through ‘the whore’ of reason, for the point of faith is that it exceeds rationality and reveals the distance between God and man” (#338). So: “‘No one can become a theologian unless he becomes one without Aristotle’” (#1965). Claiming instead to follow St. Augustine, Luther said: “‘The truth therefore is that man, made from a bad tree, can do nothing but want and do evil;’” consequently: “‘Man is by nature unable to want God to be God. Indeed, he himself wants to be God, and does not want God to be God’” (#1968). Thus Sola Scriptura became a Reformation dicta.
Yet another dicta was justification by faith alone. In 1545, the year before he died, Luther recalled how Paul’s Letter to the Romans proved central to the Reformation: “‘At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates’” (#275).
Luther’s paradise included increasing sensual indulgence! Thus he encouraged monks and nuns to marry and himself wedded Katherina von Bora, a “poor noblewoman” who “was, by all accounts, attractive, feisty, and passionate” (#5455). In a fascinating chapter entitled “Marriage and the Flesh,” Roper describes and analyzes the importance of Luther’s marriage. Katherine was a valuable helpmate, effectively running the household and allowing Martin to focus on his studies. She bought and farmed some land and “was famed for her beer brewing, a necessity in a period when water was not safe to drink” (#5579). But to his friend Melanchthon this step indicated “that something had changed in Luther by 1525, and he did not like it. The ascetic was becoming a sensualist” (#5498). And, indeed, Luther entertained “remarkably uninhibited views about sexuality—and consequently marriage” that accorded well with his “radical Augustinianism. If we can never do anything good, as all human acts are sinful, then sexual acts are no different or worse in kind than other types of sin. This gloomy anthropology paradoxically freed Luther to take a relaxed view of sexuality. Lust was part of human nature—it was how God had created mankind” (#5615).
Though Luther insisted he’d found the absolute truth proclaimed in the Scripture, his reformation quickly splintered. When the great humanist Erasmus differed from him regarding predestination, Luther excoriated him. Then Erasmus published A Discussion or Discourse Concerning Free Will, asserting man may cooperate with God in the salvation process and denying total depravity, and Luther responded with De servo arbitrio (On the Enslaved Will), arguing that God arbitrarily determines everything. We are so congenitally sinful that “only God’s grace can enable us to do anything good.” Indeed, speaking personally, he did “not wish to be given free will.” “His newfound relationship with God required there be no free will, because “‘I am certain and safe, because he is trustworthy and will not lie to me, and also because he is so powerful and great that no devils, no adversities could break him or snatch me from him’” (#5666).
Others joined Erasmus in dissenting from Luther. His Wittenberg collaborator and supporter, Andreas Karlstadt, began stressing the importance of Gelassenheit—a total surrender of one’s will to God’s Will, “a state of mystical receptivity and openness where the boundaries between oneself and God disappear—as if one were to return to the womb where there is no separation between mother and child” (#4430). He thus proclaimed the possibility of attaining a kind of Christian perfection Luther could not tolerate. Then, dressed in lay clothing while celebrating Mass, Karlstadt distributed both bread and wine, allowing anyone present to participate in Communion. Consequently, of the thousand parishioners present “many of those who took Communion had not kept the obligatory fast but had eaten and drunk beforehand” (#445). Such behavior outraged many in the community—including the Elector, whose support Luther surely needed!
Added to Karlstadt’s increasingly aberrant behavior, more radical reformers arrived in Wittenberg! Known as the Zwickau prophets, three zealous laymen claimed God directly spoke to them. No need for Bible or trained pastors! They could read the Bible—as Luther insisted—for themselves. And they could also—as Luther denied—interpret the Bible as they wished. “The Zwickau prophets represented a new kind of evangelical movement that owed little or nothing to universities. God’s spirit, it seemed, was being poured out onto laypeople to preach and prophesy, bypassing traditional authority” (#4534). Predictably, the radicals appealed to university students, and considerable chaos erupted. Soon, wherever the reformation took root, evangelicals were “interrupting sermons, destroying altarpieces, tearing up Mass books, urinating in chalices, or mocking the clergy—and they drew on the same repertoire of carnivalesque ritual and comedy that the Wittenberg students had developed” (#4227). Even more threatening was yet another reformer, Thomas Müntzer, who came to Wittenberg and took an apocalyptic approach to Scripture, saying he felt led to violently usher in the Kingdom of God. Consequently, the Peasants’ War erupted in 1524 and proved to be “the biggest social uprising in the German lands before the era of the French Revolution began” (#5113). Celebrating Reformation themes—“freedom,” “Christ alone,” Scripture alone”—peasants, armed “with pikes and swords had remarkable success” and briefly controlled “vast swathes of south and central Germany” (#5174).
In response, Luther determined to arrest and stabilize the movement he’d launched! Consistently aligning himself with secular authorities, he insisted only his version of Protestantism be allowed. So in 1524 he assailed Karlstadt in Against the Heavenly Prophets, and responded to the peasants’ uprisings by publishing Against the Robbing Murdering Thieving Hordes of Peasants. His attack on the peasants led to their repudiating him as the “Brother Fattened-swine and Brother Soft-life,” “Doctor Liar” and “the spiritless, soft-living flesh at Wittenberg.” Then he had to deal with deviants in Switzerland! Huldrych Zwingli had orchestrated a reformation in Zurich and shared many of Luther’s views. But he differed from him regarding the Eucharist. In 1529 the two men met at the colloquy of Marburg, where Luther insisted Christ’s words, “This is my body” be taken literally, insisting on the Real Presence of Christ in the bread and wine. “As it became clear that the two sides could not agree, Luther washed his hands of them, consigning them to the judgment of God, ‘who will certainly decide who is right,’ at which Zwingli burst into tears. At the end of the meeting, Oecolampadius and Zwingli, pleased that at least they had all now met in person, wanted to embrace their opponents as brothers and allow all of them to take Communion with one another, but Luther bitterly refused” (#6300).
In the final 15 years of his life, Luther continued to teach in Wittenberg and influence the Reformation he had launched. But his more eirenic associate, Melanchthon, presided over Lutheran theological developments, and secular rulers established essentially “magisterial” (i.e. state-controlled) churches. As Roper illustrates with Luther’s letters, he became increasingly bitter and routinely lashed out in anger against his many foes. Even Melanchthon experienced his wrath! And though he died with an assurance regarding his own salvation he seemed distressed by much of what the Reformation accomplished.
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For a thoughtful assessment of Luther and the Reformation I commend Brad S. Gregory’s Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and Conflicts that Continue to Our World (New York: Harper One, c. 2017). Gregory is a history professor at Notre Dame who writes with clarity and authority. The subject is important, he thinks, for “anyone who wants to understand how and why we have the Western ideas and institutions we have today must understand the Reformation and all that followed in its wake” (p. 13). Though fascinated with Luther, Gregory is more interested in the unexpected consequences of his reformation, which “had the long-term impact of gradually and unintentionally transforming Europe from a world permeated by Christianity to one in which religion would be separate from public life, becoming instead a matter of individual preference” (p. 8). There had in fact been many “reformers” over the centuries—such as the Cluniacs—calling for the restoration of morality, but Luther and his followers were distinguished by “asserting that many of the Church’s teachings were themselves false. The problem wasn’t just bad behavior; it was also erroneous doctrine” (p. 9). “Taken together, these new ideas, practices, and institutions became the foundations for the modern world. They led eventually to the modern secularization of Western life—an unintended outcome of a sixteenth-century religious revolution” (p. 10).
After retelling Luther’s story, emphasizing the familiar themes of his reformation—sola scriptura, sola fides, etc.—Gregory turns to his central concern, the “fractious” nature of Protestantism, revealing the deeply political aspects of the movement. Within a decade of its inception, Protestants divided into rival camps, including the despised Anabaptists as well as the officially supported Lutheran and Reformed churches. Especially in Reformed regions political powers asserted themselves and there occurred a “reversal of clerical and lay roles: local magistrates are asserting religious authority—and not just in matters of jurisdiction, as in the late Middle Ages, but in matters of doctrine” (p. 100). Thenceforth Protestants divided and subdivided: “Lutheranism in Denmark, Sweden, and much of Germany; Reformed Protestantism in Scotland, England (in some respects), the Netherlands, and parts of Germany and Switzerland” (p. 145).
Then the Protestant churches themselves fractured. For example, Lutherans soon differed in their understanding of Luther. “A rift opens between Philippists, named after their leader, Philip Melanchthon,” and “the self-described Genuine Lutherans” who “think Melanchthon and the Philippists are betraying Luther’s views with mistaken interpretations of scripture on a whole range of doctrines concerning faith, grace, and works, among other issues” (p.151). Reformed Protestants in the Netherlands split between “orthodox” Calvinists and Arminians. “At the heart of this conflict are theological disagreements about human nature, will, sin, and grace derived from differing interpretations of scripture.” “Jacob Arminius (1560–1609), a theology professor at the Dutch Republic’s new University of Leiden, arrives at conclusions about core Protestant doctrines that are at odds with those of Calvin (and Luther). According to Arminius, original sin does not completely corrupt human nature; human beings do have some free will and so can cooperate with God’s grace in salvation. To card-carrying Calvinists, this is crypto-Catholic backsliding, like taking Erasmus’s position against Luther in their debate about free will and salvation.” Tensions escalated and led to the Synod of Dort (1618-19), which approved a strong version of Calvinism while dramatically demonstrating “that the principle on which the Reformation rests—‘scripture alone’—is powerful enough to generate rival assertions about what the Bible actually says and therefore rival views about how it is to be applied” (p. 159).
The reformation in England followed the same trajectory. Though the Tudor and Stuart monarchs tried to control the Church of England, they failed to restrain internal dissent—as was evident in the growing power of the Puritans and their violent revolution in the 1640s, culminating with the beheading of the king. “Radical Protestants in the English Revolution really come into their own after the execution of Charles I and the proclamation of the Republic in 1649. Gerrard Winstanley and his Diggers champion a biblical vision similar to the Hutterites: an agrarian, communitarian Christian commonwealth without private property. The radically different George Fox and other early Quakers are spiritualists who claim illumination by the same ‘inner light’ that they believe inspired Jesus’s first apostles. Utterly different again are the Fifth Monarchists: their Christian duty, as they understand it, is to take up arms against Oliver Cromwell’s regime in their own country, hastening the Second Coming of Christ. Seventh-Day Baptists depart from the already existing General (Arminian) and Particular (Calvinist) Baptists by insisting, as do some other groups, that the Sabbath be celebrated on Saturday rather than Sunday. And Ranters, like Ebiezer Copp, allegedly take Christian freedom and rejection of the Old Testament law to mean complete sexual permissiveness—for, as scripture says, “To the pure all things are pure” (Titus 1:15). If you don’t think something is sinful, it’s not sinful for you. If this all sounds confusing and complicated, that’s because it was—much more chaotic and complex than any brief account can convey. Like the early German Reformation, the English Revolution shows that scripture interpreted through the Spirit, as Luther emphasized, could come to mean almost anything” (pp. 165-166).
Such unexpected (and unintended) consequences of the Reformation were thoroughly analyzed in Gregory’s earlier, much more detailed Unintended Reformations, wherein he documented, in successive chapters, first, how God was progressively ignored as a non-material and thus unknowable reality. Secondly, he shows how Christian doctrines were relativized by contentious theologians; as Erasmus lamented, in 1524: “What am I to do when many persons allege different interpretations, each one of who swears to have the Spirit?” Thirdly, Gregory demonstrates how the nation states increasingly controlled the churches, for “no Protestant regime was even possible save through dependence on secular rulers” (p. 152). By 1555 it had been decided: “cuius region, emus religio—whose kingdom, his religion.” Fourthly, as a result of the reformations, rival moral authorities presided over diverse moral communities, and in time everyone became not only his own priest and theologian but ethicist. Fifthly, Gregory notes how the “good life” became increasingly defined as the acquisition of good things. “The earliest New England Puritans rail against greed and endeavor to punish it in ways that would have made Calvin proud. By the late seventeenth century, however,” various Christians viewed “material prosperity, including the highly profitable participation in the Atlantic slave trade, as part of God’s benevolent plan for the chosen people of England, his elect imperial nation. In a dramatic reversal, the pursuit of profit is being aligned with religion, not regarded as a deadly sin or a grave danger to your soul or the common good”(p. 234). Finally, knowledge became deeply secularized, reduced to describing material entities as a result of powerful prejudices favoring methodological naturalism and evidentiary empiricism. Metaphysical or theological views were excluded from making any truth claims about anything more than one’s inner feelings.
More celebratory treatments of the Reformation are easily available, but Gregory’s arguments deserve careful thought and reflection, for the fragmentation of Christendom and the secularization of society cannot be ignored. And his yoking the Reformation to these developments has much merit. Rooted in his longing for a “world we have lost,” his works provide a deeply Catholic critique of the Reformation—but they are sorrowful rather than scathing in tone. As Lucy Wooding says: “This book is truly breathtaking in its scope, erudition and sheer nerve . . . There may yet be tie to fix some of what went wrong in the Reformation.” Understanding it is a place to start!