Luther’s Human Sides
Opinions of Martin Luther tend toward extremes. One side will lionize him, mentioning few (if any) of his problems, while the other will oversimplify him as an anti-Semitic heretic. Two of Martin Luther’s contemporaries wrote biographies of him, first Philip Melanchthon, and then Johannes Cochlaeus in response to Melanchthon’s account. Melanchthon sang Luther’s praises, while Cochlaeus painted him as a perverted rebel. “Luther’s Lives,” published in 2003, contains both of those biographies. Despite opposite choices of adjectives and adverbs surrounding the facts, both Melanchthon and Cochlaeus are considered to have accurately recorded the events of Luther’s life.
An honest assessment of one of the most famous men in history lies somewhere in between Melanchthon’s and Cochlaeus’ perspectives. Antagonists can do a disservice when portraying Luther in the worst light, but so too do those who idealize a deeply flawed man. The following observations about the Reformer draw primarily from “Luther’s Lives,” from Luther’s own writings, and from correspondence between him and Desiderius Erasmus in the University of Toronto’s stellar series “Collected Works of Erasmus.” Martin Luther was a brave, brawling, and conflicted human being.
Beginning with his initial 95 Theses, Luther mustered the courage to assail the Pope himself. He said that the Pope should sell the Church’s most cherished cathedral to repay those who had donated to the Church in exchange for indulgences (thesis #51). He also claimed that the Pope was wealthier than the richest emperor in history, and asked why the Pope did not fund his own cathedral instead of using the money of the poor (#86). After these and other accusations in those first theses, he tempered his words as if they were aimed at unethical teachers who misrepresent the pope, rather than the pope himself.
I will not assume the role here of explaining the doctrine of “indulgences,” a term which many non-Catholics misunderstand as permission to sin. It is important to note however, that Luther attempted to discredit the Roman doctrine of indulgences in his 95 Theses, not just abuses of that doctrine. He specifically denied that indulgences were “temporal,” denied that they were “treasures,” and denied that the Pope had the power of the keys of the kingdom. Luther’s boldness made him more than a protester of church corruption. His 95 Theses placed him in open defiance of Roman teaching and authority.
Like our current president, Martin Luther thoroughly enjoyed a strong battle of words. He frequently used profanity–not just as a conversational slip of the tongue, but in printed publications. Modern attempts at excusing Luther’s profanity exemplify an embarrassing unwillingness to recognize his faults. Some claim that modern readers anachronistically misunderstand Luther as profane, due to later social developments, yet detractors in his own time often noted Luther’s crassness.1 Since Luther openly used profanity in printed publications (here for example), the presentation of this fact should not be misunderstood as an attempt to discredit him. Luther quite simply loved a good fight and used every available weapon when engaged in a battle of pens.
Luther not only used profanity, but frequently threatened physical violence, including murder. Less than 12 months after posting his 95 Theses, Luther called for the slaughter of Roman clergy:
“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?” 2
When a peasant rebellion broke out in 1525, Luther wrote “Against the Rioting Peasants,” which was salaciously retitled by the publisher as “Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants,” in which he instructed, “Stab, smite, slay, whoever can.” When his call for violence was fulfilled, Luther doubled down on his words without apology in “An Open Letter on the Harsh Book about the Peasants.”
The chief Reformer divided bitterly, not only from Rome, but also from many fellow Protestants. In “Against the Heavenly Prophets” in 1525 for example, he attacked his formerly close ally Andreas Karlstadt as a “perverted spirit” and an instrument of Satan whose teaching “destroys faith, profanes the blood of Christ, blasphemes the gospel, and sets all that Christ has won for us at nought, so that this Karlstadtian abomination is no less effective in destroying the kingdom of Christ and a good conscience, than the papacy …” Among others, he also attacked Zwingli, Müntzer, Oecolampadius, Bullinger, and the Anabaptists. Luther was not only brave. He was also a brawler, who frequently employed premeditated profanity and incitement of violence.3
CONFLICTED IN MARRIAGE
At the age of 21, with a master’s degree in hand and enrolled in a law school, Luther was frightened so badly in a lightning storm that he promised to become a monk if he should survive. As an Augustinian monk, Luther sought God wholeheartedly in fasting, prayer, excessive confession, and self-flagellation.4
As his critics at the time loved to point out,5 Luther later broke his monastic vow to God of chastity and married a former nun. Monastic celibacy and marriage then became a repeated theme of Luther’s writing. In 1522, he published “The Estate of Marriage,” in which he deems the “be fruitful and multiply” command in Genesis 1:28 to be a divine ordinance, binding on all humans, except for those listed in Matthew 19:12. Regarding the final category of Matthew 19:12 (those who make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom), Luther says that they are not true eunuchs who take a vow of chastity and afterward find themselves desiring to obey the divine ordinance to multiply. Such vow-makers are not bound by their vow of celibacy in Luther’s eyes, but are bound instead by God’s foremost command to multiply. His claim contradicts Numbers 30:2, Deuteronomy 23:21, and other Scriptures.
Luther further states in the same piece that if a spouse cannot fulfill his or her part of the divine ordinance to multiply, then the other spouse may take a lover, while allowing the infertile spouse to retain the title of spouse. Later in the book, he states that if a wife sexually deprives and avoids her husband, then that is grounds for the husband to divorce her, since a refusal of marital relations will cause him to fall into unchastity. The husband must first however, make their lack of intimate relations publicly known, so that their congregation will rebuke her. Then: “If she still refuses, get rid of her; take an Esther and let Vashti go, as King Ahasuerus did.” In the following paragraph, Luther clarifies that the wife’s penalty for refusing her spousal duties is for the civil government to “compel” or to execute her.
CONFLICTED BY SOVEREIGNTY
Martin Luther shaped his theology around the complete sovereignty of God, explicitly denying that free-will exists.6 The centrality of his belief in predestination hemmed him in so much, that he appeared to his critics to present himself as the inerrant representative of God. He presumably intended no arrogance when making the following claims; the words simply sprang from his pivotal belief that all things happen as God has predestined them to happen:
Regarding his 95 Theses or “articles”:
“I affirm by the entire pledge of my soul the articles condemned in the Bull, and I declare that they must be affirmed by all Christians on pain of eternal damnation…”7
“My doctrines are heavenly; therefore whoever contradicts my doctrines, exalts his own brazenness to Heaven, and blasphemes God. Now therefore it is my right, through the majesty of my God, to anathematize anyone – Pope, Emperor, Kings, Bishops, priests, laypeople [sic], and all in the highest estate – who contradict my doctrines. It is my right to anathematize them, to attack them with curses and reproaches, and to spew out from my mouth mud, filth, dung, shit over the crowns and heads of them all.”8
“Anyone who obeys me, beyond doubt obeys not me but Christ; and anyone who does not obey me, shows contempt not for me but for Christ.”9
Regarding his culpability in the slaughter of the peasant rebellion:
“I would wish to be left in peace; no one will gain anything from me, and it is necessary that whatever I teach and write should remain true, even if the whole world should be broken to pieces on its account.” 10
Luther translated the New Testament into German, as did the Roman Catholic Church after him. The Catholic Church forbade possession of Luther’s translation. So he wrote in 1523 in “On Temporal Authority” regarding people’s handing over his translation to authorities:
“Let them not hand over a single page, not a single letter, on peril of their salvation.”
The pen of a conflicted and brave brawler broke much the Roman Catholic Church’s partially corrupted power in Europe. Whatever the shortcomings of the Protestant Reformation may have been, even Luther’s fiercest foes admitted that he brought lay men and women into such a consistent study and memorization of Scripture that they often confounded the clergy members with whom they quarreled.
Yet if we celebrate Luther’s bravery, we should also refrain from placing him on too high a pedestal. The “father” of the Reformation taught Protestants all too well how to divide from one another in bitter quarrels. As a former monk and as the husband of a former nun, he also taught indefensible things regarding marriage. In none of these shortcomings did Luther bring himself to recant, due to his resolute rejection of free will. In his mind, whatever Martin Luther did was what simply had to be done.
“I, Martin Luther, have during the rebellion slain all the peasants, for it was I who ordered them to be struck dead. All their blood is upon my head. But I put it all on our Lord God: for he commanded me to speak thus.” 11