Pastor’s Perspective. . .
As offensive as this comparison might initially seem, in many ways it is an apt one. Luther was never a favorite of the elite, and though he was trained by the best teachers from the best universities and was considered to be an insider by many in the Catholic structure of his time, he was much more popular with the common people who read his papers and enthusiastically shared his vision for a true German Church freed from the shackles of Roman control.
Martin Luther could be considered the first nationalist and his reformation played a critical role in the fragmentation of the Holy Roman Empire and the subsequent rise of the Nation State. He brilliantly used the new media of his time (the printing press) in order to get his treatises and tracts into the hands of the middle class in Germany and in a world that published using the official language of Latin, Luther eventually used the language of the people in order to gain influence and authority in Germany.
Speaking of Martin Luther, Ryrie writes, “This man wouldn’t use the language the establishment expected or observe the etiquette they demanded. In fact, he’d be vulgar, foul-mouthed, vindictive, and cantankerous, with a very tasteless sense of humor. But he’d communicate with a vivid directness whose power couldn’t be denied, leaving half of Germany horrified, half of it delighted, and all of it paying attention.” It sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Five hundred years ago Martin Luther published a document that would start a brush fire that eventually consumed the Western world, yet his arguments barely seem controversial today. The 21st Century Roman Catholic Church would agree with a majority of them. Time softens the shock of new ideologies and sanitizes the controversies that so often lead men and women to make difficult and dangerous decisions. Historic victory makes risk seem natural and often turns what contemporaries would call reckless behavior into the courageous actions of inevitability.
Luther’s life has been studied and considered by historians, theologians, and psychologists, yet five hundred years later he remains a polarizing figure. Here is what we know. He had a domineering father (the owner of several copper mines and part of the growing middle class in the west) who wished him to be a lawyer. Luther’s father was a man with a plan to push his family toward lofty political and economic goals, but Martin stubbornly chose the Son of God over the legal work that his father intended for him. Whether his interest in eternity was prompted by a desire to serve the Lord or a fear of divine punishment is still debated to this day, with Luther’s own reflections placing fear at the forefront of his youthful theological pursuits.
Regardless of his intentions, Martin Luther quickly rose to prominence in his Augustinian community and soon gained a reputation as a scholar with a brilliant mind. His education in logic, which was intended to support a career as an attorney, helped him in his study of the scriptures and made him a popular lecturer at the university. A rising star in Germany he was soon called to take his talents to Rome, but his visits to Rome, while brief, were devastating. Instead of finding Rome to be populated by brilliant minds devoted to the work of the Lord, he found men and women who lived in decadence and open defiance of God’s law. Though the sale of plenary indulgences may have pushed Luther over the edge, he already had an axe to grind against Rome before Johann Tetzel ever sold his wares in Germany.
A righteous rebellion against great evil often allows us to ignore the unsavory aspects of a man’s life and like other great men of history Luther was very flawed. He was prone to fits of melancholy and rage. He would write great proclamations against his enemies in the Church and the State and then quickly turn on those disciples who took to the streets to bring about the change that Luther wrote about. His personal faith could be a toxic mixture of self-criticism and projection that allowed him to rest in the grace of God without ever offering forgiveness to his adversaries. The dark legacy of German anti-Semitism has deep connections to Luther’s own personal opinions and writings.
Great men are not necessarily good men. Greatness is conferred upon those whose capabilities and temperament allows them to rise to the historical occasion they face. Luther was a man for his time. The stubbornness that drove his father to fury served Martin well in his resilience against the entire Western world and the Roman Church. His formal education prepared him to write in both Latin and German. His days of monastic solitude prepared him for long periods of productive exile (where he would use his time to translate the scriptures into German). His curious and prolific mind made him a hard target for his opponents to attack, as by the time they had crafted a response to one of his arguments he had published a half dozen more with which they had to contend.
Luther’s biography however, is not why we remember him. His great breakthrough allowed us to look behind the curtain of the Church and into direct communication with God and God’s word. In doing so he allowed us to de-mystify the work of God and articulate new and incredible truths throughout the world. Once the mystery of the Roman Church was punctured by the scrutiny of logic and reason, then slowly but surely the authority of the Church and the Empire itself diminished. Luther’s work gave the German people access to the Bible and allowed them to discover for themselves the words of the Bible.
What began in the nation of Germany spilled into other regions, as nations slowly but surely established themselves apart from the collective known as the Holy Roman Empire. This fragmentation created possibilities for new ways of life and new freedoms, but it also created new divisions and controversies. An empire that gathered to fight against foreign ways of life and invasions from false religions now found themselves embroiled in domestic war for the first time in generations. France and Germany entered a period of generational war. The UK spiraled into sectarian violence that lasted hundreds of years and the religious movement that was behind the explosion of nationalism and reason found itself (eventually) blamed for the destruction of peace.
Regardless of whether we laud or criticize him, Luther’s rebellion created the path for the emergence of our modern age. What began as a new way of thinking soon became the norm. We now live in a world of great theological and intellectual choice, but little unity and harmony. Five hundred years later the legacy of the Protestant Reformation has borne the mixed fruit of freedom and chaos.
The theological and philosophical freedom that Luther bequeathed to us inadvertently opened the gateway to an unlimited access to that ancient and dangerous tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Today we all claim the right to analyze, to criticize, and to judge. We all boldly speak our truth no matter how frequently we change our minds or who it might offend. We may have defanged the power of the Papacy, but we have spent generations seeking to replace his authority with our own. Economic power has replaced theological authority as the new god of the world. Personal freedom has become the golden calf of an age of fractured communities and intellectual dishonesty. In an effort to stop the wars of religion we removed God from the public square, only to discover that the God who prayed for the unity of the Church was not the cause of our contention. The new economic gods of Communism, Fascism and Capitalism have proven to be even more destructive than the denominational debates of our bloody past. We have become that which we have rebelled against. Regardless of our denomination or faith we have all become Protestants. Now as we begin the next 500 year historical arch, we must relearn how to become followers of Jesus Christ and prepare for the next reformation of the Church.