Does Luther Matter?
Carl R. Trueman on the reformer’s legacy
Does Luther matter? And if so, why? In this 500th-anniversary year of Luther’s 95 Theses against Indulgences, the spate of Luther biographies, conferences, and celebrations clearly indicates that he is of interest to more than the members of the scholarly guild of Reformation historians. But, again, why? Of all the Reformers, Luther was without doubt the most medieval and the least modern. I remember the late, great Luther scholar, Heiko Oberman, commenting that unless one knew what it was like to walk through the woods at night and be worried that one might be kidnapped by goblins, one did not live in Luther’s world. His world was pervaded by the supernatural; it was the battleground for an elemental struggle between God and Satan. Luther feared the physical attacks of the Devil. He saw a bolt of lightning as a direct act of God’s judgment. He was no denizen of even the early modern age. And his theological sympathies were too pedantic and too passionately held for our more pluralist sensibilities. After all, he was willing to shatter the movement of Protestant reform over an abstruse metaphysical point with regard to the Lord’s Supper. His world is dead and gone forever. So why does he still matter?
I would suggest that Luther still matters because the sheer scope of his achievement in helping to shatter the medieval world—a world in which he himself belonged and never really left—has meant that many of the concerns and pathologies of modernity can claim in some way to find their source in his life and thought. Such claims may often involve distortions of his thought and certainly deviations from his intentions but they nonetheless have some basis in reality. Whether it is the authoritarianism of a Hitler or the anti-authoritarian individualism of the secular West, all find some tiny seed in his thought.
Luther has been a polarizing figure from the moment he nailed the Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church. For many ordinary people in his own day, he was a hero, a figure of near mythical proportions, the Saxon Hus, the German Hercules. For his Catholic contemporaries he was at best an arrogant upstart, at worst a sex-crazed lecher. For a later generation of Germans in the nineteenth century, Luther was the prophet of German nationalism. Indeed, one of the most unusual transformations wrought by Bismarck’s policy of unification was that whereby Luther the rotund and rather diminutive individual became Luther the tall and square-jawed titan. But his appropriation by German nationalists took an even darker turn when some of his writings became a source of propaganda for the Nazis. As a result, for men like the popular historian William J. Shirer he became a well-spring of German antisemitism and thus guilty of helping to cause the Holocaust. And in this anniversary year he has been portrayed (amongst other things) as an opponent of political tyranny, a strange, conflicted mix of chauvinism and feminism, a liberal ecumenist, and even as an Evangelical in the American mold.
Hitler’s Kampf und Luther’s Lehr Des deutschen Volkes gute Wehr (Hitler’s fight and Luther’s teaching are the best defense for the German people) Nazi propaganda poster 1933.
Given the cacophonous history of the reception and interpretation of Luther from his day to our own, how are we to understand him in this 500th-anniversary year of his unwitting arrival on the European stage. Is he a hero? The man who triggered the long and painful death of European Christianity? A fascinating psychiatric case study? A splenetic antisemite? Or all of the above and more?
The contemporary religious battle over the significance of Luther is intriguing. Take, for example, the large number of Evangelical celebrations of his 95 Theses this year. Luther is without doubt a hero to Evangelicals because of his repudiation of the magisterial authority of the church and his promotion of vernacular preaching and liturgy. No longer did the people need the pope to interpret scripture for them. Now they could learn to interpret it for themselves. The priesthood was redefined to embrace not just a religious elite but all those who were baptized and who trusted in Christ for their salvation. Given his Bible-centered, anti-hierarchical teaching, the democratizing, egalitarian thrust of Luther’s thought strikes obvious resonances with that of later Evangelicalism.
Yet even as Evangelicals laud Luther as hero, they tend to ignore the problems he himself encountered in the practical outworking of his thought. Luther was soon to discover the serious drawbacks to his notion of the priesthood of all believers. When violent peasant rebellions broke out all over the Empire in 1524/1525, the leading radicals used Luther’s rhetoric of freedom to justify their revolutionary cause. Luther, faced with chaos, distanced himself dramatically from their cause and the democratic language that had marked his earlier Reformation writings became decidedly muted.
Social revolution was not the only problem Luther faced. It soon became clear that simply preaching the gospel was not enough. A thorough visitation of all the Saxon parishes in 1527 revealed a sorry picture. The people seemed not to be as enthusiastic as Luther for learning good theology and putting it into practice in their lives. In the wake of the visitation, Luther wrote his Small Catechism as a means of clarifying and teaching both the essentials of the faith and making explicit how it should be applied to ordinary life. In the preface he lamented the continuing biblical illiteracy among the people and the fact that, despite good Reformation preaching, they still chose to live like “irrational pigs.” Abolishing hierarchy and giving people the Bible created a new world with which Luther himself was uncomfortable. The post-1527 Luther thus worked hard to counterbalance his earlier egalitarian exuberance with a reassertion of a modified church hierarchy.
In addition, scriptural interpretation even among the educated elite of the Protestant world proved a little more difficult than Luther had first anticipated. In 1529, the Protestants divided over the meaning of the four words—“This is my body”—that Christ spoke at the Last Supper and that priests repeated at the Eucharist. And this issue not only put huge pressure on Luther’s understanding of the basic clarity of the Bible’s meaning but also brought to the fore his view of the Lord’s Supper that emphasized the real presence of Christ’s humanity in the elements of bread and wine. Luther split Protestantism on this very point at the Marburg Colloquy in 1529 when he refused to reach agreement with Huldrych Zwingli and the Swiss Reformers.
Given this, it is clear that the Evangelical appropriation of Luther involves ignoring or sidestepping large swathes of Luther’s own life and teaching. Evangelicalism eschews hierarchy, at least in a formal sense, and is typically not interested in the sacraments and holds a view of the Lord’s Supper that Luther would have regarded as anti-Christian and not simply misguided. The later Luther also came to emphasize an educated, ordained ministry and the careful and respectful use of creeds and confessions as necessary for the preservation of the faith. Such high churchmanship, intellectualism, and self-conscious appreciation for tradition stand at some distance from the typical Biblicism, conversionism, and activism that mark the Evangelical movement. Yet Evangelicals see Luther as a hero. But not without a considerable amount of unconscious bowdlerization.
Evangelical Protestants are not the only ones interested in Luther, of course. He has always played the role of a villain to Roman Catholics. In his own day, he was the lecherous sex maniac of many a pornographic pamphlet and even a few plays. Today his crime is constructed in more subtle terms. The work of Charles Taylor, the Canadian philosopher, along with that of Brad Gregory, the Reformation historian, has made the case that the Reformation in general, and Luther in particular, let the secularizing genie out of the bottle and thus paved the way for the modernity.
This image depicts Martin Luther with seven heads, each of which bears a different title: Doctor, Martinus, Luther, Clergyman, Enthusiast, Visitor, and Barrabbas. It alludes to the seven-headed beast of the apocalypse, often termed the “anti-Christ.” Woodcut, c. 1529.
The case is a powerful one. Certainly Luther must take a significant portion of the blame for the division of the church in the sixteenth century. This was the precondition for the rise of religious choice, a basic element in what Taylor identifies as the spirit of the secular age. Luther also represented the dramatic conclusion to the medieval streams of nominalism and voluntarism, philosophical tendencies that attenuated the straightforward connection between God and his creation and also dramatically weakened the role of the sacraments. Luther may have lived in an enchanted world but, according to this scholarship, he set in motion trajectories of thought that would lead to a profoundly disenchanted – and ultimately disillusioned – view of the world. In this narrative, we find in Luther the great shift from seeing the world as something given by God and having an intimate connection to the divine to seeing it as something to be manipulated, exploited, and even in a sense created.
The arguments for this are complicated and often subtle, but again, as with the Evangelical appropriation of Luther, they contain elements of obvious truth and others that are far more debatable. Luther was in reality a Janus-faced figure; he did more than simply bring nominalism and voluntarism to their logical metaphysical and theological end term. He certainly did not desire to split the church and, had the pope listened to him, perhaps such would not have happened. So maybe it was the medieval papacy and not Luther who gave birth to religious choice. Then, recent work by Mark Mattes on Luther’s aesthetics has shown that his thinking was not simply characterized by an extreme nominalism but also embodied profoundly realist elements as well. His theology of incarnation and of the Real Presence in the Eucharist both rested upon realism. And the latter arguably sought to ground a realist view of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist on a more secure basis than had been the case for some of his predecessors in the late-medieval church. Scholars can thus look to Luther to see either a key culprit in the rise of modernity or one of the last attempts to stop medieval Catholicism from destroying itself.
The popular narrative of Luther offered by Evangelicalism and the sophisticated arguments of Taylor and Gregory certainly offer conclusions on whether Luther was, to put it bluntly, a good thing or a bad thing for Western culture. Yet the stakes in both accounts are also relatively small and almost matters of taste: Are the results of the Reformation things we like or dislike? But Luther’s legacy has also played a part in some of the more obviously extreme moral and political questions of modernity.
One obvious issue is that of the relationship between the individual and the secular authorities. It is well known that Luther argued for the God-given integrity of the Church and of the State. The Church rules her people by Word and sacrament and cannot resort to coercive means to impose her will. That was one of the great errors of the medieval papacy. By contrast, the State rules by the sword and is obliged to act to protect the innocent and the weak and to suppress and punish the wicked. So far, so uncontroversial. But Luther went further.
In a 1523 work, On Secular Authority, Luther argued that God established the secular magistrate. The latter was therefore put in place by the Lord and was not to be resisted in the civic sphere, for to do so would constitute a form of rebellion against God. What made this position so significant was that this divine authority was the case even if the magistrate was wicked and tyrannical. Such magistrates were sent by God to scourge the people for their sins. Resistance was thus inappropriate.
Fast forward to the twentieth century, specifically to Nazi Germany, and it would seem that one of the great figures of German history had provided the German people with an excellent argument for why they need not – indeed, why they must not – resist Hitler. When combined with Luther’s extreme anti-Jewish views (on which more below), it is easy to see how a tight causal connection between Luther and the Holocaust might seem plausible. “We were only obeying orders” may have been rejected as a defense at the Nuremberg Trials but it seems to cohere with a Lutheran view of civil obedience.
Yet the connection between Luther and abject submission to totalitarianism involves a significant oversimplification of his thought. Even in 1523 Luther did not regard the magistrate as being able to demand that Christians sin. If they commanded murder, the Christian should refuse, though then accept whatever punishment the magistrate meted out for disobedience. But Luther modified his views of 1523 after the failure of the Emperor to subscribe to Lutheran theology at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530. Then he came to argue that the Emperor’s power derived from the Electors who appointed him, and thus the Electors, as a group or singly, might resist him.
It is a small step but a significant one. It places Luther’s mature position close to the view of John Calvin whereby a lower magistrate might legitimately resist one higher up in the hierarchy. And thus Luther stands as a staging post on the way to the idea of justified rebellion. To decry him simply as a politically conservative reactionary would therefore be an overstatement.
But again we might note what we saw earlier with Evangelicalism and then with the narratives of Taylor and Gregory: there is enough in Luther to make the interpretation plausible. And once again we find that a key debate in the modern era – the nature, scope, and legitimacy of protesting power – finds its terms adumbrated in the life and thought of Luther.
Of course, reference to Hitler brings us to what is surely the most notorious and darkest element of Luther’s thinking: his attitude to the Jews. If there is one thing people know about the man, it is that he was a vicious antisemite. Indeed, his treatise On the Jews and Their Lies (1543) was riddled with long-established clichés about the Jews, but the sheer violence of its rhetoric made it one of the most memorable exemplars of a shameful tradition of Christian antisemitism. Luther’s gift of never writing a dull sentence could be a force for good but could also wreak havoc when allied to the wrong cause. This work was to have a disturbing afterlife when reprinted by the Nazis as a staple part of their own propaganda, and even today white supremacist websites often link to it.
Yet even here Luther is both more straightforward and more complicated than might appear. The 1543 treatise is indeed a vile production but also little more than the most notorious contribution to a dark and tragic tradition of that hatred without a cause that preceded Luther and long outlived him. Luther neither invented hatred of the Jews nor gave it a particularly original form.
What is more intriguing is the fact that Luther had written an earlier work, That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew. In this tract he had called for Christians to be kind to their Jewish neighbors in order to lay the groundwork for speaking to them about Christ. This work, and not the later one, is historically more interesting precisely because of its counter-cultural argument.
The existence of these two profoundly different works points to Luther as a man of the Middle Ages, not one of the Modern Age. The return of Christ was for him a very real expectation and likely to happen soon. He was living at the end of time and one of the signs of this was to be the mass conversion of the Jews to Christianity. Hence in 1523 Luther was eager to build bridges with the Jews to facilitate the spread of the gospel. But by 1543 disillusion and bitterness had set in. Jesus had not returned. Roman Catholicism was regrouping. The Ottomans were pressing in from the east. The Protestants were divided. And the Lutherans were corrupt. In such a time Luther looked for someone to blame and found it in the Christian communities’ longest-standing target: the Jews.
The switch from 1523 to 1543 also points to one other factor which renders complicated the relationship (too often simplistically drawn) between Luther and the Holocaust. Luther lived at a time when racial categories barely existed and certainly did not dominate discussions of identity. Judaism was for Luther a religious problem because it rejected Jesus as Messiah. It was not a racial problem because the Jews had the wrong blood. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 formed the legal basis for the Holocaust and made it very clear that conversion to Christianity did not solve the problem because a Jew remained racially a Jew regardless of religious conviction. For Luther, a Jew who converted was then a Christian. And while some evidence exists to suggest that sixteenth-century Jewish converts might still have been regarded on occasion as somewhat second-class, there is no elaborate racial theory underpinning a race-based antisemitism in the Reformation.
This is not to say there is no connection between Luther and Hitler. Luther’s 1543 treatise and his later views of the Jews are ignoble contributions to the tradition of European anti-Jewish culture that culminates in Auschwitz. But it is to say that the road from sixteenth-century Wittenberg to the Wannsee Conference is far more complicated than many have cared to make it. Again, one of the great questions of the modern age, how and why did the most culturally and technologically advanced nation in Europe become the agent of the most devastating genocide in history, cannot be addressed without wrestling at some level with Luther and his legacy.
I started this essay by saying that Luther was not a man of the modern age but of the Middle Ages. That is true. Our world is not his. But perhaps this statement does somewhat obscure the fact that modernity emerged from the complexity and conflicts that marked his age and his own life and work – whether we define modernity in light of its democratizing impulses or its disenchantment, or whether we look at it in terms of some of its major conflicts and dilemmas, such as totalitarianism and resistance, antisemitism and the Holocaust. 2017 has already produced more than its fair share of Luther fare, from scholarly books to amusing kitsch. But the real value of Luther lies not so much in nostalgic narratives of his life but rather in how he has been understood, transformed, misinterpreted, used and abused in the centuries since.
Carl R. Trueman is the William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life at Princeton University.