For the past five hundred years, Martin Luther, the former Augustinian monk and Professor of Theology who triggered the Reformation, has been demonised by many Catholic writers, and revered as a saint by his followers. A famous 16th century painting in the parish church in Wittenberg, where Luther lived, shows him conversing with Jesus at the Last Supper.
A more balanced assessment of this extraordinary man will help us to understand his faith, and our own faith, better.
Many biographies have been written about Luther, and some of these are still in print. Two which I have found particularly useful are the famous Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther by Professor Roland Bainton, and Luther: Man between God and the Devil by Professor Heiko Oberman.
Both are Protestant historians of the Reformation, are sympathetic to Luther and highly critical of the Medieval Catholic Church. They provide us with detailed accounts of the thoughts and actions of this extraordinary man.
Additionally, it is useful to read at least some of Luther’s own writings, including the prologue of his famous 95 theses, written to Albert of Brandenburg, Archbishop of Magdeburg and Maintz.
Even a casual reader of Luther’s writings will be struck by the fact that Luther’s concerns in his early writings revolve around controversies in the Catholic faith. He showed a deep attachment to Jesus Christ crucified, spoke with gentleness about “the Mother of God”, and was obsessed with the presence of the Devil in the world and in the hearts of men.
In his 95 Theses, he challenged the idea that the Church could release souls from Purgatory (although he did not question the existence of Purgatory itself).
During his life, he resorted to the most violent attacks on those he condemned, including the Pope (whom he called the anti-Christ), the German peasants whom he said should be slaughtered during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1525, and the Jews, whom he wrote should be exterminated.
Some of these attacks laid the foundation for the bitter wars of religion that convulsed Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries.
How can one explain these astonishing contradictions which have contributed to the radically different views of Luther taken by people in his own day, and by later generations?
It is generally accepted that Luther was a volatile and even violent man. At least some of the views he expressed were extreme, even for his own time.
Although Martin Luther was a doctor of theology, his theological training was actually quite limited by today’s standards.
He originally enrolled at the University of Erfurt in 1501, with a view to studying jurisprudence at the request of his father, but quickly abandoned it in favour of philosophy.
The following year, he received the degree of Bachelor of Philosophy, and in January, 1505 he was awarded the master's degree. Later that year, he unexpectedly joined the Augustinian monastery in this town, for reasons that are still obscure.
He was ordained just two years later, and in 1508, was invited to study at the new University of Wittenberg which became his home for the rest of his life. The door of the church is Wittenberg is pictured left.
As often happens in newly established universities, promotion was rapid, arguably too rapid.
He became a lecturer in theology, was then awarded the degree of Doctor of Theology in 1512, and in the same year, was appointed Professor of Theology, having lectured on the Book of Psalms and on St Paul’s Letter to the Romans.
In a long-established university, he would have studied for years under men of deep learning. Here, he was simply promoted to higher positions, both in the university and in his order.
The Augustinians appointed him regional provincial in 1515, only 8 years after his ordination, putting him in charge of 11 Augustinian monasteries in the states of Saxony and Thuringia.
Despite all his activities, Luther was deeply unhappy.
It seems that he suffered from both depression and an extreme form of scruples, believing that his sins were so great that God could not forgive them.
In his biography Here I Stand, Professor Bainton describes the state of Luther’s mind at this time.
“Not merely at the hour of death but daily at the altar, the priest stood in the presence of the All High and the All Holy. How could man abide God’s presence unless he were himself holy? Luther set himself in the pursuit of holiness...
“One of the privileges of the monastic life was that it emancipated the sinner from all distractions and freed him to save his soul by practising the counsels of perfection, not simply charity, sobriety and love, but poverty, chastity, obedience, fastings, vigils and mortification of the flesh.
“Whatever good works a man might do to save himself, these Luther was resolved to do.
“He fasted sometimes three days without a crumb. The seasons of fasting were more consoling to him than those of feasting. Lent was more comforting than Easter. He laid upon himself vigils and prayers in excess of those stipulated by the rule. He cast off the blankets permitted him and well-nigh froze himself to death.” (Here I Stand, Penguin edition, p44-45.)
And yet his mind was never at peace.
He concluded that man was in his fallen state wicked, and cannot become worthy through his own efforts. He rejected the fundamental concept that the Church is the mediator appointed by Jesus Christ, between God and man.
From his reading of St Paul’s letter to the Romans, he resolved his spiritual crisis by concluding that man can only reach heaven through faith alone, and that God, the all powerful and all Merciful, absolves a repentant sinner.
Once accepted, it was no longer necessary to seek forgiveness through the sacrament of confession, for man is forgiven through his faith in God.
Luther then rejected the Church’s teaching that even after absolution, there remained some temporal punishment due to sin, which needed to be expiated, like the obligation to make restitution. The Church had long taught that people were able to obtain remission through Indulgences, associated with authorised pious practices including prayers, alms-giving and visits to the shrines of saints.
Now it happened that at that very time, Pope Leo X had authorised a Dominican friar, Johann Tetzel, to offer a Plenary Indulgence to people in Germany who contributed to the appeal for the rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Luther wrote to his archbishop seeking a dialogue on the issue, and he published his challenge to other theologians to debate him.
The issue of the Pope’s Indulgence was a trigger issue in Germany at the time. A prominent Protestant scholar, Professor Arthur Dickens, referred to it in his book, The German Nation and Martin Luther.
He wrote that there was a strong undercurrent of both German nationalism and anti-clericalism at the time, exacerbated by the conflicts between the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire over centuries, the poor formation of the clergy, and the often wide gap between the precepts of Christianity and its practice by the clergy.
In any case, when Martin Luther, a respected leader of the Augustinian order and a professor of Theology challenged the new Indulgence, he was immediately supported by many of the local nobles and the local hierarchy who resented the flow of money from Germany to rebuild St Peter’s.
Luther provided the theological rationale for a rejection of the Indulgence. He was supported by other theologians at Wittenberg, but opposed by theologians from other cities who debated Luther, including Johann Eck, who demanded that the Pope excommunicate him.
As the debate raged, Luther’s opponents pointed to the implications of Luther’s teaching which was an attack on the authority of the church, the sacraments, the hierarchy and the church’s teaching on redemption.
All this pushed Luther further away from the teachings of the church which he believed had strayed from the simple teaching and structure of the early church. Many people, particularly in Germany, believed him.
Faced with this growing crisis in Germany, just three years after Luther had sought to debate the issue, Pope Leo issued a Papal Bull demanding that Luther recant within 60 days or face excommunication, and ordering the burning of his books.
In response, Martin Luther publicly burned a copy of the Papal Bull, and denounced the Pope. The Reformation had begun.