Today is Reformation Day, commemorating the day in 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenburg. I thought to mark the occasion I would do a blog the man who started it all, Martin Luther. Instead of writing a long-winded blog about how important he was and his legacy within Protestant Christian, I though instead I would share some information on Luther most people might not know. Luther: The good, the bad, and the ugly!
Luther Hated School: Despite the fact that he would later become a doctor of theology at the University of Wittenberg, Luther described his own early education as either hell or purgatory. He hated the University of Erfurt where he got his masters and called it a beerhall and whorehouse. Even before fraternities apparently, college life was much the same as it is today.
Luther’s Fart Jokes: The image we have of Luther is usually some sour-faced prude. But in actual fact, Luther was not without a sense of humor and his humor would probably be considered low-brow to us today. In many of Luther’s writings he often uses the German term for a “fart”, to refer to the arguments of his opponents which he considered a bunch of “hot air”. In his work Against The Roman Papacy an Institution of the Devil (subtly was not one of Luther’s gifts) he refers to the Pope several times as “Ass-Pope Fart”. Possibly Luther’s brand of toilet humor might have been a result of his well-documented gastrointestinal issues which caused him to have to spend more time on the toilet than most. Persistent legend has it that he formulated his famous doctrine of sola fides while on the commode. His fellow monks probably just thought he’d fallen in.
Sola Scriptura Indeed: Luther is credited with coining the term sola scriptura (scripture alone) which many Protestants use today. But Luther actually understood sola scriptura differently than we might think. Luther believed church doctrine should always conform to scripture, however, he did not believe Christians should treat all scripture as equally authoritative. Luther did exactly what most fundamentalists will tell you never to do: pick and choose which scriptures to follow. Luther had his favorites among scripture (Romans was clearly Number 1) and those he considered works “of straw” that shouldn’t even be in the Bible (sorry James). Generally Luther measured a particular book or piece of the Bible by how well it appeared to conform to those books he already considered most authoritative, which generally meant Paul and the Gospels. Unfortunately for Luther many Protestants considered Luther’s preferences around scripture to be just that, Luther’s own preferences. We’re just supposed to take Luther’s word because he thinks this or that verse is more important? Who does he think he is, the Pope? Don’t say Erasmus didn’t warn you, Martin.
Luther Wasn’t Antinomian: Luther has been accused of being antinominian due to his emphasis on the role of faith over works in salvation. His instructions to Christians not to try to tempt their own salvation and even “sin boldly” might sound like something an antinomian would say, but a closer look at Luther’s writings show he did believe in the importance of legitimate acts of justice and mercy. In fact this was one of the underlining concerns in his 95 Theses. Here’s just a few of those theses:
- “Yet it means not inward repentance only; nay, there is no inward repentance which does not outwardly work divers mortifications of the flesh.”
- “Apostolic pardons are to be preached with caution, lest the people may falsely think them preferable to other good works of love.”
- “Christians are to be taught that the pope does not intend the buying of pardons to be compared in any way to works of mercy.”
- “Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better work than buying pardons;”
- “Because love grows by works of love, and man becomes better; but by pardons man does not grow better, only more free from penalty.”
- “Christians are to be taught that he who sees a man in need, and passes him by, and gives for pardons, purchases not the indulgences of the pope, but the indignation of God.”
- “Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the pardon-preachers, he would rather that St. Peter’s church should go to ashes, than that it should be built up with the skin, flesh and bones of his sheep.”
Basically, Luther appears to have been in favor of good works done for the right reasons and in the right way. What did concern Luther were shallow works done in some vain attempt to earn God’s favor. Mostly he thought works were good when done humbly without concern for one’s self. He also believed that works should require real effort and that acts of mercy should provide real assistance to those in need. This was one of the reasons he was so angry over indulgences, because they directed money and energy away from the actual welfare of the people toward superstitious blessings and enrichment of the Church and clergy.
Luther and Anti-Semitism: Luther was a notorious anti-Semite, even by the standards of his own day. Earlier in life Luther had called for humane treatment of Jews, but this was because he thought they would soon be converted to Protestantism. When that didn’t happen, Luther’s attitude changed and his writings became increasingly harsh. He even openly advocated for violence against Jews in some writings. Luther’s own negative opinions of Jews were one of the many things that would eventually fuel the Holocaust in Nazi Germany and helped allow certain Nazi ideas to gain traction among the overall population. Though the Holocaust might still have happened without Luther, there is little doubt his writings kept a spirit of anti-Semitism alive for centuries that the Nazi could tap into. Without a doubt, Luther’s attitude toward the Jews is greatest stain on his legacy.
No Friend to Liberty: Unlike Muntzer and Karlstadt who would find themselves advocating increasingly revolutionary activity in the name of God and the common man, Luther was a conservative by the standards of his day who supported what he considered “the natural order” of society. He supported feudalism, believed governments had to be strict and sometimes cruel with their subjects, and that God ordained most men to servitude. Even though his movement in part benefited from the deterioration of feudalism and expansion of basic education beyond the nobility, Luther believed the masses were not meant to be free. When the Peasants War broke out Luther wrote tracts encouraging the nobility to utterly destroy them. To be fair Muntzer’s peasants carried out many atrocities themselves and planned to murder most of the nobility as part of what their leader saw as a heralding of the apocalypse. Luther even late in life kept a foot in the Middle Ages and never accepted the concept of free society.
Luther and Bigamy: We always give the Anglicans such a hard time over the fact that their Reformation began with their king getting tired of his wife and wanting to remarry. But Henry’s demand for an annulment seems like small potatoes in comparison to a situation Luther entangled himself in 1539. Philip I was the Landgrave of Hesse and one of the most powerful Protestant princes in the early years of the Reformation. Unfortunately, Philip’s personal life was a bit complicated. Philip had married Christine of Saxony, cousin to Luther’s protector Frederick the Wise. The marriage was meant to cement an alliance between two of the most prominent Protestant states which would in turn strengthen the cause of German Protestantism. Unfortunately, the marriage was an unhappy one with Philip taking little interest in his new wife and being much more interested in her lady-in-waiting Margarethe von der Saale. Unlike his counterpart in England however, Philip didn’t want to risk offending Saxony by divorcing Christine. Instead he proposed an alternative by marrying Margarethe as his second wife. What’s even more amazing than Philip’s suggestion was how amiable all parties involved were to the idea. Christine and her family in Saxony consented without protest and when Margarethe insisted on getting the blessing of the leading Protestant theologians Luther, Melanchthon, and Bucer all agreed to the proposal, citing the presence of polygamy in the Old Testament. On March 4, 1540 Philip married Margarethe making her his second wife with Melanchthon and Bucer serving as witnesses. Luther was either not invited or chose not to attend, possibly having second thoughts on his blessing of the union. The only person who strongly disproved of the arrangement was Philip’s sister Elisabeth who made it a public scandal hurting the reputation of Philip’s court and causing many of his allies to revoke their support. What’s perhaps most shocking is that Luther tried to hide his involvement in the matter and encouraged Philip to lie about his second marriage, hoping the scandal would blow over. Say what you will about the Anglicans, but Luther could get in way over his head too.
Luther the Brewer: One disadvantage of the Reformation is that Luther gave up the security the monastery had offered him and had to make a living to support himself, his wife, and their growing family. Just like today, however, writing didn’t tend to pay the bills. Luther needed a secondary job in order to provide for his household. He and his wife decided to try their hand at brewing beer. We don’t really know how successful the operation was, but Luther seemed to enjoy the beer enough himself to write to his wife how much he missed it while traveling. Luther would have been appalled by the idea of prohibition.
Luther the Geo-Centric: The Catholic Church always gets a hard-time for its treatment of Galileo, but of course Galileo himself was merely following up the theories of Nicholas Copernicius who published the first documented work arguing that the earth revolves around the sun rather than the visa-versa. Surprisingly Copernicius’ theory was presented to Pope Clement VII in Rome years before the trial of Galileo and was well-received. Copernicius’ theory however was not well-received by Martin Luther in Germany who called the astronomer a “fool [who] wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside-down.” Luther believed that scripture, particularly the account of Joshua praying for God to stop the sun proved that man lived in a geo-centric universe. As far as we know Luther’s belief on the issue never changed.
Happy Belated Reformation Day everyone!