Round Table: Martin Luther
498 years ago tomorrow, a young Augustinian monk who taught at the University of Wittenberg nailed ninety-five theses on “The Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Though seemingly innocuous as the time, this event has since been hailed as the start of the Protestant Reformation, a theological shake up in the Western Church that has changed the face of Christianity and Western civilization. In response to the anniversary of this momentous occasion, this month’s Round Table discussion centers on the great instigator of the Reformation: Martin Luther.
Luther has been written about more than any other figure in history apart from Jesus Christ, or so it has been said. Although the world has had nearly five hundred years to make up their minds about Luther, there remain a wide variety of perceptions about the man and his work. For some, Luther stands as an arch-heretic, the corrupter of Christian unity in the West. For others, Luther represents the ideal Christian, captive only to God and his conscience. For still others, Luther was simply in need of a good antacid, an uncomfortable monk whose ideas never would have seen the light of day had poor Martin had access to modern medicine.
Whatever your perspective on Luther, one cannot escape the fact that the theological movement he (perhaps unwittingly) launched has changed the shape of Christianity during the past 498 years. To reflect on how Luther and his thought continues to impact contemporary Christianity, we asked our authors to respond to the following question: What do you (and your tradition) think of Martin Luther? We encourage you to consider the answers below—which are taken from a variety of Protestant and non-Protestant traditions—and to tell us what you think about Luther in the comments section below.
From the age of 22 until 40, I was a devoted Evangelical Protestant. I am now simply a Christian, embracing and learning from all five branches of the faith: Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy, and the Assyrian Church of the East. I bear no title except “Christian” due to 1Corinthians 1:10-13, but I acknowledge “post-Protestant” in order to give others an idea of how I think, both by my having a Protestant background and by my having laid aside that allegiance.
Martin Luther is the man who did the most to free me from Protestantism. Two years ago, at the age of forty, I began investigating both the historical origin of the Protestant gospel and the historic tradition behind the Protestant canon of scripture. For both of these purposes, I landed surprisingly in the actions and writings of Martin Luther. I spent a lot of time in his correspondence with Desiderius Erasmus. To my embarrassment, Luther went from praising Erasmus in the highest terms in 1519 to crassly insulting him six years later as a closet atheist whose eloquent writings were “vile trash . . . as if rubbish or dung should be carried in vessels of gold and silver.” I read Luther repeatedly calling the Pope of his day the antichrist, and read his call for the outright slaughter of the Roman hierarchy:
“If we punish thieves with the fork, robbers with the sword, heretics with fire, why do we not all the more, with all available weapons, fall upon these teachers of perdition, these Cardinals, these Popes, and all that conflux of the Roman Sodom, which continually corrupts the Church of God? Why do we not wash our hands in their blood?”1
I learned that Martin Luther rejected as holy Scripture the Epistle of James and the book of Revelation along with seven universally accepted books of the Old Testament. Most importantly, I learned that Martin Luther single handedly usurped the gospel of the Kingdom in his 1520 publication “A Treatise on the New Testament That is the Holy Mass,” replacing it with a gentler gospel of atonement. Now I bear a tragically low view of Martin Luther despite my previous 18 adult years of sincere evangelicalism. Luther set Europe in flames and would have done far better instead to follow in the footsteps of Desiderius Erasmus whom he rightfully revered in his earlier years.Show Sources
The Orthodox Church thinks remarkably little of Martin Luther. That is, we do not think of him often at all. The uprising in Luther’s soul, which later resulted in an uprising that permanently affected Christendom, was caused by issues in Western theology unknown to the theology of the East. St. Mark of Ephesus encountered such issues first hand at the council of Florence-Ferrara (about fifty years before Martin Luther). By Luther’s time, the Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Roman Catholic) churches had already been separated for five hundred years. With regard to this, there is a sense in which Orthodox Christians see the West, Roman Catholics and Protestants alike, as composing one realm of Christendom and the East another. Protestantism is a birth-child of the West; if you are a conservative Orthodox Christian, that is as far as the thought needs to go. But on a practical level, an Orthodox Christian living and interacting in the West cannot think this way.
I have great affection for my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, many of whom serve as writers and editors on this website. Our shared tradition causes us to sense, in some cases, a great camaraderie (which can be seen here at Conciliar post, as Jacob noted in a recent paper). With respect to the question at hand, I believe Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians might share a common sentiment: Martin Luther may have seen some problems in the Western Church at the time, but the outcome of his response (thousands of denominations) fractures Christian witness (cf. John 17:20-23). If the Great Schism grieved the Triune God, we can be sure that the state of Christendom today pains Him greatly.
As readers of this site may have read elsewhere, Orthodox theology is inextricably connected to Orthodox worship. Study and academic degrees do not determine who is, and who is not, a theologian; the theologian is the one who prays.1 A person who informs people in spiritual matters must be hallowed. He must constantly commune interiorly with the Triune God. People who live this way are often canonized as saints. Orthodox Christians, therefore, should listen only to those whose life reflects a life lived in God. And so, we listen to the witness of the saints. This way of thinking makes the overly burdensome “pot of information” (in Christian theology alone) much easier to wade through. Because Christianity is not about “information”; it is about union with Christ, who is the Truth.
When this framework is placed over the life of Martin Luther, who was called things like “irascible” by his contemporaries, it becomes clear that we should be careful in how we approach his teachings. Beyond engaging with other Christian Traditions, Orthodox Christians do not think of Martin Luther. He does not come up. Unless of course one is relating how Martin Luther in some way brought them to Orthodoxy. For me, the reality of a splintered Christianity became a cause of great sorrow. Certainly we cannot place all the blame on Martin Luther. Instead, we should bewail our own sins which fractures not only our own being but also of others. And in this way we too contribute to the splintering of Christendom. Truly, I am the chief of sinners. Forgive me.Show Sources
1 Popular adaptation of a saying by Evagrius of Pontus, Philokalia volume 1.
As a student of Reformed theology, it would not be surprising for me to say that Martin Luther stands as a hero of the Christian faith. He should be given due credit for his role in sparking the much-needed Reformation of the 1500s, and we should recognize and learn from his many theological and pastoral insights.1 But I would actually like to suggest that Protestants of all stripes would be wise to temper our enthusiasm for the legacy of Luther.
For one, we must recognize that Luther did not single-handedly usher in the Reformation. There were reformers before Luther—Wycliffe and Hus, to name only two—and there were many contemporaries of Luther—such as Zwingli and Calvin—without whom the Reformation would have made little progress. But in God’s providence, Luther arrived on the scene just as the Reformation was ripe to occur, and he helped tip the balance. Surely any number of other individuals could have taken Luther’s place had God so willed it, but Luther was God’s chosen instrument for catalyzing the Reformation.
At the same time, we should note that the Reformation which Luther helped trigger failed in an important sense. The intent was never to create a new schism in the Church; rather, Luther hoped to reform the Church and bring it back into conformity with and under the authority of the Scriptures from which it had wandered. While a counter-reformation within the Catholic Church produced meaningful change, to this day the Catholic Church holds the scriptural ideas which Luther and the Reformers fought for, namely sola fide and sola gratia, as anathema. So in this sense, even while the Reformation succeeded in establishing scripture as the ultimate authority for a Protestant church, the Reformation failed to reform the church at which it was aimed.
In addition, there have been negative fruits of some of Luther’s particular theological positions. Luther expressed skepticism over the canonicity of several key New Testament books. This skepticism led him to propose the dictum “whatever preaches Christ” as an external criterion for judging the canonicity of particular books of scripture. In subjecting scripture to an outside authority, this view helped pave the way for the rise of higher Biblical criticism (the foundation of theological liberalism) in Luther’s homeland of Germany during the 1800’s. In many ways, the church is still dealing with the consequences of this particular misstep of Luther’s.
All of what I have said serves a much broader, and indeed, more fundamental point: there is only one true hero of the faith and his name is Jesus. Luther is only a hero—and a flawed one, at that—insofar as he stood for the Gospel of our Lord in the face of great opposition. We must be careful not to give undue reverence to even so pivotal a figure as Luther. Ultimately, it is not to Luther, to the Church which he sought to reform, or to any of his fellow reformers that we owe our allegiance or our faith, but to Christ alone as he is revealed in the Scriptures alone to the glory of God alone.Show Sources
My tradition is quite appreciative of Martin Luther; I am more ambivalent.
Methodists and Wesleyans of every stripe are, directly or indirectly, indebted to the life, witness, and teaching of Martin Luther. John Wesley lived and died an Anglican priest, and much of our DNA goes back to the Anglican via media that was heavily influenced by the Reformers, Luther chief among them. Moreover, Wesley and Luther share a number of similarities. Both challenged the church of their birth in a time of spiritual decline and worked for renewal; both were learned preachers and teachers; both emphasized the role of the whole people of God, and argued and organized against a clergy-centered church; and, lastly, both became, unintentionally, the progenitors of new faith traditions in the course of reforming the churches in which they had been nurtured.
Heirs of the Methodist movement especially appreciate Luther for his involvement in John Wesley’s mysterious experience at Aldersgate–a paradigm for generations of Methodists–variously interpreted as a salvation experience or the realization of assurance. The debt to Luther here is more direct than one might imagine: Wesley’s heart was “strangely warmed” after attending a prayer meeting “most unwillingly,” and it occurred–oddly enough–during a reading of Luther’s Preface to his commentary on Romans. “I felt I did trust in Christ,” he later wrote, “Christ alone for salvation.” Even without the direct connection to Luther’s pen, it is not difficult to hear Luther’s influence in Wesley’s experience.
Methodist and Wesleyans have long appreciated Luther, though we find our roots much farther back than the Reformers. We draw both on the East and the West, and on the ancient church as well as Luther, Calvin, and their cohorts for our doctrine (a synthesis which is natural to us a daughter movement of Anglicanism). We emphasize the sola fide justification teaching of Luther and others, while also insisting that the fullness of salvation continues on in sanctification, even unto Christian perfection (and here we draw on deep wells of ancient soteriology). Nevertheless, Wesleyans are quick to affirm–with Luther–that the via salutis is always the way of grace, and grace alone. Salvation–even entire sanctification–is never our achievement but the gift of Christ working in us.
In 2009, the World Methodist Council (comprising a large number of Wesleyan/Methodist bodies from around the globe like the UMC, AME, and AME-Zion), signed on to the joint Catholic-Lutheran Declaration on Justification. Their rationale included, in part, a simple affirmation: “The Methodist Movement has always understood itself as deeply indebted to the biblical teaching on justification as it was understood by Luther and the other reformers and then again by the Wesleys.” It would not be too much to say that we believe in justification as Luther taught and sanctification as Macarius taught.
Representatives of the UMC, mostly bishops and ecumenical officers, are making plans to take part in the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in Germany, hosted by the Lutheran World Federation. I am a bit unenthusiastic about Luther, myself. The reasons are twofold. For one, Luther, for all his many gifts, remains a Christian firmly in the Western tradition. Eastern Christians regularly point out that Protestants and Catholics sound more alike than they would like to admit; for all the Protestant-Catholic infighting, we forget too easily how similar we truly are. Secondly, I am not sure that the Reformation should be celebrated. It should be remembered, of course. Brave folks like Luther, Hus, and Tyndale should be honored for their bravery. But can we say, in 2015, that the Reformation has been a net gain?
Luther was raised up in a time and place of particular corruption. His witness was necessary, even though he, of course, had his own failures (as did Wesley). But, speaking as a Mainline pastor dedicated both to classic Christian teaching and church unity, I am not sure if the Pandora’s Box was worth opening. I would probably trade a corrupted medieval German Church for the tens of thousands of Protestant denominations we have today. The more I see the ravages of the health and wealth gospel, the outrages of worship turned to entertainment, and the horrors of Christianity devolved into therapeutic self-help, the more I wish Luther had stayed a monk.
I am grateful for the life, witness, and teaching of Martin Luther. I am vexed, however, that seemingly every Protestant–fueled by the Enlightenment modernity and prideful individualism that we breathe as unthinkingly as oxygen–is now confident enough to be their own personal Luther, to turn every argument into a “here I stand,” and daily rewrite their own 95 Theses. Luther is why the term “slippery slope” was invented. His work was necessary for a particular time; the appropriation of his legacy has proven to be a horror.
May God have mercy on His church, and help us to extinguish the spirit of faction and division that persists in the church, a shame to Christ and a scandal to the world.
Martin Luther is a complicated figure, just as the Reformation was a complicated time period. In the Lutheran (and some mainline Protestant) tradition, Luther is upheld as the great reformer of the Church, the one who seized it out of medieval corruption and returned it to its apostolic roots. The historical Luther, on the other hand, differs significantly from how many Protestants remember him: irascible, stubborn, and intelligent.
The fact of the matter is, Luther was neither the first reformer nor the last, and thus many Catholics view him as one within the long history of schisms within the Church. Centuries before Luther, the Eastern Church and the Western Church parted separate ways. During the Middle Ages, the Cathars (Albigensians) and Waldensians broke off from the Church due to conflicting doctrines, while Jan Hus was burned at the stake for attempting to start a Reformation in the 14th century. Yes, the Protestant Reformation caused a significant schism that has endured for centuries, but we must remember that Luther was not the only reformer. In 1939, the Catholic theologian and church historian Joseph Lortz suggested that the Church bore some of the guilt for the Reformation, rather than solely Luther; Luther was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back. In fact, in comparison to Ulrich Zwingli, Thomas Munzter, John Calvin, and the Anabaptists of Munster, he was the most Catholic of the reformers in terms of his theology and one of the least violent in terms of his severance from the Church.
We must remember also that Luther was a product of his time. Many people in the 16th century, including Luther himself, believed that the apocalypse was swiftly approaching. Luther felt a spiritual compulsion to remedy the corruption rampant amongst the clergy of his day before the end of the world. While intentions are indeed different than actions, Luther never intended to leave the Church; he sought to reform it from within and then became swept up in the consequential mess of events.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI best articulated the Catholic stance on Martin Luther in his 2011 address to Lutheran leaders in Germany. Whether Catholic or Lutheran, we can all learn from the spirituality of Martin Luther, Benedict asserted. First, whether his actions were right or wrong, Luther was constantly motivated by the question “How do I receive the grace of God.” “The fact that this question was the driving force of his whole life never ceases to make an impression on me. For who is actually concerned about this today–even among Christians?” Benedict stated.
Due to the brevity of this article, I cannot do justice to the many excellent points expressed regarding Martin Luther in the Catholic and Lutheran joint document, “From Conflict to Communion: Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017.” Rather, I suggest you read this document on your own, particularly the sections that discuss Catholic research on Martin Luther.
Ut unum sint.
My perception of Luther arises from many experiences with the Luther’s legacy and his writings. I grew up in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod—attending both church and school until middle school—and learned much about Luther the Great Reformer there. Every fall we would talk about the Reformation, how Luther valorously stood up to the heresies of the Catholic Church. We would read stories about his life (mostly his post-Diet of Worms “capture” by Frederick the Wise), wait in eager anticipation for Thrivent Financial’s production of Luther, and talk about the central tenets of the Augsburg Confession. The picture of Luther painted at this stage of my life accorded with the idealizing of other great Christians, albeit with that special fervor which accompanied talking about Luther as a “Lutheran.”
From middle school through college a different picture of Luther emerged. For a variety of reasons, my family stopped attending Lutheran churches, which raised questions about just how correct Luther was if we did not have to attend a church bearing his name. Discussions with family and friends began to reveal some of Luther’s darker idiosyncrasies. Exposure to the world of Church History began to challenge first my conception of Luther as an ideal Christian and then began to undermine the narrative of his unique stand against medieval Catholicism. In college, I truly wrestled with Luther and his thought, taking numerous classes on the Luther and the Reformation, even writing my senior thesis on his two kingdoms ethics.
All of these experiences crafted a very different picture than the Luther I had grown up hearing about. Instead of a simple hero of faith, here now was a man of complexity, neither wholly saint nor wholly sinner (a reality I think Luther would affirm, himself being simul justus et peccator). More than anything else, I became pained by Luther’s polemic tone, his harsh and biting words that I cannot totally write off as a historical contextualization. Almost all Western Christians today—Protestant and Catholic alike—would say that some things needed to be changed in the Reformation-era Church. But even though Luther had the right things to say, he often said them the wrong way, resulting in schism and division that no follower of the Lord Jesus should enjoy. This is to say nothing about Luther’s views on other issues, such as his hatred of the Jews that helped foster a German state church that turned a blind eye to the Holocaust. Clearly, Luther was far from perfect.
And yet I still believe that there is much of value in Luther’s life and work. My faith and devotion are still strongly shaped by the Large and Small Catechisms, especially the evening and morning prayers which my family often says together. As I have recounted elsewhere, there remains much of value in Luther’s conception of the two kingdoms for today. His “Three Treatises” still stand as important reads for anyone who calls themselves a Protestant. Accounts of his statements at the Diet of Worms should enliven anyone who believes in the freedom of conscience. His engagement with Erasmus on Predestination and Freewill is well worth your read (even though I think he’s wrong). Luther has much to offer contemporary Christians—he is by no means a historical figure of the Church with nothing to offer the communion of saints today. Martin Luther was no perfect man, but he remains well worthy your consideration today.
There is no doubt that the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS) holds Martin Luther in high regard. If it didn’t, my denomination would hardly continue using his name. As it is, Luther’s Small Catechism remains a central part of ongoing catechetical education within the more conservative congregations of the LCMS today. Even though Luther was not the one who penned the formal Lutheran confessions, his writings and teachings are still evident in our confessions today.
However, while Luther and his legacy remain very relevant within the more traditional branches of the Lutheran church, we acknowledge he was also a sinful human being. Even though he was a great man, he was also just a man. Most of the Lutheran pastors I know do not hesitate to point out Luther’s flaws and errors. He is certainly not given the same weight as the apostles or any of the disciples. It is true that we treasure and value his theological teachings and writings, but we do not confess that he had the same divine inspiration as those who wrote Holy Scripture.
I have never viewed Luther as the founder of my faith or as anything close to the primary source of my church’s confession. His work is referenced from time to time in sermons or Bible classes, but he is referenced as an aid to understanding the Word of God and not as the ultimate authority. Instead, I view Martin Luther as an example of a faithful follower of Christ and occasionally a helpful guide, rather than a leader to be followed.
Ultimately, we regard Martin Luther with high esteem as an excellent pastor and a faithful preacher of the word. What sets Martin Luther apart from all of the other great teachers and preachers in the long history of the Church is not that he was right about everything. Instead, he is respected as a pastor who helped draw attention to major errors that were plaguing the Church of his day and drew attention back to the Word of God. The fact that Martin Luther encouraged the Church to turn its attention away from established earthly hierarchies and toward Christ is thing we respect him for the most.
Luther means many things to many people. As someone who was nourished in the bosom of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (you can find my story here), Luther played an essential role in my identity as a follower of Christ: Church history began with Luther, who jumped onto the scene at a time when the truth had been lost because the Catholic Church had fallen into error. In this brief reflection, I aim to show two “faces” of Luther. The first face corresponds to the narrative I learned as a child; it is the face of an ardent reformer with admirable pastoral goals. The second face is more dour; it is the face of a man unwilling to exercise charity in his conversations with other Christians.
Face #1: The Ninety-Five Theses. Without doubt, the proliferation of this text across Europe was a critical moment in Western history. Many of its items are scathingly accurate critiques of a corrupt system of indulgences: “It is certain that, when the money rattles in the chest, avarice and gain may be increased—but the suffrage of the Church depends on the will of God alone” (#27). Luther points out recent changes in the Church’s teachings on penance (#12) and downplays the role of the hierarchy in pardoning sins (#’s 49, 56, 82). At the same time, he clearly works within a system where the Church has a role to play in the salvation of each person (#’s 7, 26, 49, 69). Finally, the thrust is one of encouragement. Readers are instructed not to take their salvation for granted, and urged to increase their charity:
Theses 94 and 95: “Christians should be exhorted to strive to follow Christ their head through pains, deaths and hells, and thus trust to enter heaven through many tribulations, rather than in the security of peace.”
Thesis 44: “By a work of charity, charity increases, and the man becomes better.”
Face #2: The Bondage of the Will (a translation of this text is available online; but the version I cite from is here). The Luther of this text has become a demagogue, an uncharitable and pugnacious man who raises his opinions to the level of truth itself. He claims that “assertions” are the core of Christianity (Chapter 2, page 108), and continually slanders his interlocutor Erasmus for making the wrong ones. Perhaps worst, he removes the possibility of finding common ground with Erasmus by disparaging Church Fathers (Chapter 7, pages 114–15) and assuming that Catholics are “unwilling for souls to be redeemed” (ibid). Finally, the theological argument Luther puts forward is based on a perceived dichotomy between “God’s work” and “human work.” This dichotomy leads him to conclude that: “We must go to extremes, deny free will altogether and ascribe everything to God!” (Chapter 5, page 135).
To conclude, while there are many faces of Luther, the sharp contrast between these two shows a volatile—if brilliant—figure whose words should always be heard with critical judgment and caution. Speaking as a Catholic, I would like to affirm that Luther is not (and never was) an “enemy.” It may be fitting to end with Pope Leo X’s plea:
“Let Martin himself and all those adhering to him … through the merciful heart of our God and the sprinkling of the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ by which and through whom the redemption of the human race and the upbuilding of holy mother Church was accomplished, know that from our heart we exhort and beseech that he cease to disturb the peace, unity, and truth of the Church for which the Savior prayed so earnestly to the Father.” (Exsurge Domine)
Charity among Christians is exactly what we need today, in light of the proliferation of divisions which Luther, willingly or not, now serves as head and exemplar.