The Luther Legacy

| February 3, 2014

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THE LUTHER LEGACY Wilson, Derek . History Today 57. 5 (May 2007): 34-39. Turn on hit highlighting for speaking browsers Abstract (summary) For centuries the Church had held the monopoly of propaganda: its murals, stained glass, the polychromed paraphernalia of shrines and altars, the pastoral and educational activities of the clergy, all spoke of the awesome need for people to prepare for the world to come. In his preaching and teaching – but above all in his public confrontations with spiritual and temporal leaders – he gave people permission to doubt everything the Catholic hierarchy taught; to judge it for themselves against the testimony of the Bible. Full Text Headnote Derek Wilson looks at the great religious reformer and asks why his life and work have seemed so significant to so many diverse people for almost 500 years. OVER THE CENTURIES Luther (1483-1546) has been variously identified as an advocate of absolute monarchy, democracy, individual freedom, intellectual repression, nationalism, internationalism, spirituality and secularism. The fact that so many later ‘movers and shakers’ have claimed the monk of Wittenberg as a progenitor of their own convictions is testimony to the stature of the man. Indeed, it would be difficult to identify any other individual who, without wielding political power or leading armies, more decisively changed the course of history. Even our supposedly post-Christian age cannot write him out of the record. Yet, we have to resist the temptation to recreate him in our own image. He was a religious figure; his battles were fought over theological issues that may seem to us obscure but whose implications touched every area of life, individual and corporate. Jakob Burckhardt was essentially right in identifying the Reformation as an escape from discipline. For centuries the Church had held the monopoly of propaganda: its murals, stained glass, the polychromed paraphernalia of shrines and altars, the pastoral and educational activities of the clergy, all spoke of the awesome need for people to prepare for the world to come. That meant availing themselves of the prescribed means of grace entrusted to their spiritual superiors. The clergy held the keys to eternal bliss or torment. Any who did air doubts or proclaim a rival programme were heretics and were dealt with severely. The only spiritual authority emanated from Rome. Luther, however, insisted that there was another, higher, source of authority: the word of God written in the Bible. In his preaching and teaching – but above all in his public confrontations with spiritual and temporal leaders – he gave people permission to doubt everything the Catholic hierarchy taught; to judge it for themselves against the testimony of the Bible. Any attempt to assess Luther’s impact must begin with his redefining of the individual. His spiritual journey was an intensely personal one. In 1505 he forsook the legal career for which he had been destined and entered the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt, in order to save his own immortal soul. He was following the path of self-denial and holiness as prescribed by the Church for centuries. For at least eight years he gave it his best shot. He failed to find the consolation he sought because, as well as a sensitive conscience, he was blessed with a sharp, logical mind. He could see the flaw in the system of penitence that the Church preached: if contrition and abnegation were practised in the interests of self-preservation then they were selfish, hence sinful. His was not the first earnest soul to find itself on the treadmill of sin, confession, absolution, doubt, confession. It was a terrifying, never-ending predicament. Ever-present was the ‘doom’ image of Christ separating the sheep and the goats and consigning the latter to the torments of hell. Famously, Luther discovered in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (Romans 1.17) the sword to sever the Gordian knot: ‘the righteousness (justice) of God is revealed from faith to faith… the just man will live by faith’. Like countless Christians before and since, he experienced an ecstasy of release. He might have left it there and, as a good monk, preached justification by faith alone as a truth that could somehow be made to fit with the Church’s traditional penitential system. But it could not. The maze of scholastic theology seemed to prevent access to the great central truth which he had discovered. His relentless logic persuaded him to suggest, in the 95 Theses by which he publicly challenged the Church in 1517, that the practice of selling indulgences – by which the buyers could secure remission from the penalties of sin in the next world – was a matter for urgent theological debate. When the papal regime refused to grant this debate, the real problem began. Luther defied the Pope, the Inquisition and the corps of Catholic theologians. Called before the Imperial Diet by the Emperor Charles V at Worms in April 1521, Luther refused to recant insisting, ‘my conscience is captive to the word of God … Unless I am convinced by Scripture and reason [my emphasis], I will not recant’. It is scarcely possible to exaggerate what those words implied. Luther was not just challenging the accumulated teaching of the Church; he was saying that any man or woman possessed of the open Bible could be his or her own theologian. If God had provided the Bible as a lamp to the believer’s path, then as many people as possible should be encouraged to read it. So he translated it into German, and had his translation printed (New Testament, 1522, Old Testament, 1534). Within a few years hundreds of untrained lay people were writing devotional and polemical books and pamphlets. Gone was the assumption that people only needed those skills that enabled them to perform their God-given calling in a hierarchical society. Learning was now something to be valued for its own sake. In 1524, Luther wrote to the municipal authorities throughout Germany urging them to establish elementary schools for all children, including girls. The response was not dramatic but by 1580 half the parishes in Electoral Saxony had schools for boys and 10 per cent had made similar provision for girls. As the American historian Steven Ozment has suggested, ‘It is not too much to call the early Protestant movement the first Western enlightenment’. Luther replaced the authority of the Church with that of the Bible. But it was always the Bible and reason. With the plain text in his hand everyone could work out his own salvation and no longer needed the ministrations of an intermediary priesthood. This had far-reaching consequences. If truth is the exclusive preserve of a priesdy caste, any system built on this foundation will be autocratic. But, if truth is to be found in a book which anyone can read, then authority can be challenged with divine sanction. The way lies open for the development of alternative polities, even democracy. To be sure, Luther himself drew back from the more revolutionary implications of the open Bible. He did not personally initiate debates on such issues as how to establish a godly commonwealth, whether tyrants might be deposed or the balancing of crown and parliament. But his courageous stand against the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, the political embodiments of traditional authority, fired the imagination and stiffened the resolve of more radical spirits throughout western Christendom. Yet Luther never set out to challenge the establishment. That marks him out from most other religious reformers of his day. Wycliffe, Savonarola, Hus and other rebels and charismatic preachers usually had begun from a starting point of popular grievances – oppression, corruption, extortion. Many clothed their message in gaudy apocalyptic language, claiming they had been sent to cleanse the world in preparation for the second Coming. Not so Luther. He wanted to restore the Church to its New Testament purity. In that desire he was at one with a large swathe of public opinion, including humanist scholars, kings and even the Emperor. There was a clamour for a general council of the Church to initiate reform. It wa
s only when successive popes refused to concede anything which might weaken the power of Rome, that Luther concluded that the papacy must be the Antichrist, subverting the Christian community from within. In terms of secular politics, an anachronistic but perhaps appropriate label for him is ‘right-wing reactionary’. The political theory he found in the New Testament was that God ordained kings to maintain order and that all subjects (including clergy) were to render due obedience to them. It followed that secular rulers were charged with the reformation of the churches in their domains. He therefore advocated such measures as the ending of ecclesiastical jurisdiction in matters matrimonial and the restoration of ex-monastic property to lay ownership. Luther had an abhorrence of anarchy. He shared the fear of rebellion and chaos that lay close to the surface of medieval life, but for him public disorder was a particularly sensitive issue because politicoreligious upheaval in Germany gave his enemies a stick to beat him with. This explains why he reacted so violently to the Peasants’ War of 1524-25, a widespread popular rising against secular princes by ordinary people some of whom drew socially radical conclusions from Luther’s teaching. By doing so Luther forfeited the support of most of the populace. His notorious invocation of the German nobility to ‘smite, slay and stab’ any rebel, just as ‘one might kill a mad dog’ gave rise to the accusation that he was in the pocket of the princes, a taunt that was in large measure justified. Having already enlisted the aid of the German warlords to protect him from the Church and the Emperor, Luther could not prevent his movement becoming hijacked by these men of power, who banded together in 1530 to form the Schmalkaldic League. Over and again Luther warned them not to wage war against the Emperor. If they did, they would have ‘no good conscience before God, no legal ground before the Empire, and no honour before the world. This would be dreadful and terrifying.’ (1528) But few people were listening. The new Protestant establishment had taken what it wanted from Luther and his politically non-confrontational agenda seemed to them hopelessly out of touch. This raises the question of whether Luther should be seen as an apostle of absolutism. Some later autocrats certainly claimed him as a founding father. It is no coincidence that memorial statues of the reformer were erected in Worms and Wittenberg during the nineteenth century, a time of German empirebuilding; nor that Hitler, scrabbling around for anything that would justify his manifesto, claimed Luther as a fellow-traveller in Mein Kampf. But what would the man who had set his face against militarism in the service of the Protestant state have had to say to pickelhaubed soldiers who, in 1914, marched to the front singing his own hymn, Ein feste Burg? This same ‘apostle of absolutism’ was also lauded by the German philosopher Johann Fichte in 1793 as the ‘patron saint of freedom’ who ‘broke humanity’s chain’ and whose shade raised his hand in benediction over Frenchmen overthrowing the ancien regime. Luther was certainly a German patriot. A basic element in his opposition to Rome was his loathing of ‘effete Italians’. He shared the resentment of many of his countrymen at benefices and senior clerical appointments held by absentee shepherds who cared not a whit for their flocks and who creamed off Church revenues to finance a luxurious transalpine lifestyle. When Pope Julius II (1503-13) initiated an indulgence to pay for the building of his new basilica of St Peter’s in Rome (1506), it was always going to be unpopular in the German states and his successor Leo X (1513-21) waited four years after Julius’s death in 1513 before dispatching his agents thither. When Luther expressed his opposition to the project in the 95 Theses, he was echoing a complaint heard in every bierhaus and marketplace: Why does not the pope, whose wealth is today greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build this one basilica of St Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers? This resentment expressed itself in official protest at the highest level. At the very Diet of Worms where Luther was examined and condemned by the Emperor, the German estates also presented a catalogue of 102 Oppressive burdens and abuses imposed upon… the German Empire by the Holy see of Rome’. But a fissure had already appeared two years earlier in 1519 when the Austrian-born Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I had been succeeded by the Spanish-born Charles V, giving Germany’s political leaders another foreign entity against which to define themselves. In the early sixteenth century the ‘Holy Roman Empire of the German conforms to no rule and resembles a monster’, was a hotch-potch of electoral, princely and ecclesiastical states and free cities that possessed only the vaguest of yearnings for a cultural identity. But the Reformation set its scholars, artists and historians on a quest for what marked the heirs of Charlemagne as a people distinct from others. Luther himself made one massive contribution to this. Between 1520 and 1546 he was personally responsible for a third of all the vernacular publications that emerged from German print-shops. He wrote in a vigorous vernacular which could be, by turns vulgar and poetic. His greatest achievement was the German Bible (published in 1534), which did more than anything else to merge regional identities. Scarcely less influential were the catechisms Luther wrote for his ‘dear German people’, which gave them shared versions of the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. If 1517 and 1521 are important dates in the life of Luther, 1525 is just as significant. In the midst of the Peasants’ War and at a time when he was engaged in a theological contest with Erasmus, Luther astonished all his friends and distressed some of them: he got married. When asked why he was taking this step at the age of almost forty-three, he explained that since he had been advising monks and nuns who had left the cloister to espouse matrimony he should set an example. It may have been nearer the truth that the lady made the running. Katharina von Bora was a strong-willed and determined woman, a Catholic nun seventeen years his junior whom Luther helped escape from a convent. The event divided Luther’s mature life into two equal halves: it was twenty years since he had entered the cloister and he had just over twenty years left to enjoy family life. But he did not retire into humdrum domesticity. His new status was as much a demonstration of biblical truth as his opposition to indulgences had been. It declared that virginity and celibacy were not superior vocations. It exalted the nuclear family as the essential building block of society. It emphasized the importance of the home for the nurturing of children in the Christian way and for the exercise of hospitality. It involved him in that little world of intimate relationships with its joys and griefs where lay people actually spent their lives. In short, the Luther family which grew up in the old Augustinian convent at Wittenberg became the model Protestant paternalistic m?nage, a microcosm of the Church, where the head of the household was its bishop, gathering his children and servants around him for daily prayers and leading them to the church building for worship on Sundays. Over the years scores of university students lodged with the Luthers and it is thanks to some of them that we have the celebrated Table Talk, a collection of obiter dicta on all manner of subjects with which the great man regaled his guests at meal times. Since the end of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, Germany has endured successive identity crises that have impacted disastrously on the rest of Europe. The old northsouth divide was resolved by Bismarck’s Prussification of the new empire but resulted in a nationalist euphoria which the Iron Chancellor was powerless to control. So too the disasters of 1914-18 and 1939-45, which we can now see as a single conflict at the end of which Germany was once mo
re divided, this time between east and west. The achievement of nationhood has cost Germany and her neighbours dear. It is inevitable that partisans of a greater reich have wanted to enlist to their cause one of the greatest and most patriotic of Germans. At the turn of the twentieth century Lutheran leaders had to choose whether or not to support expansionist policies. Those who did so, such as the members of the German-Christian party, unhesitatingly used their founder’s name to persuade the electorate that the triumph of the master race was written into the marrow of the German people and that Luther had set the nation on its inevitable course by his defiance of foreign interference. Thus the Luther-to-Hitler myth was born. But the reformer was never a nationalist in the modern sense of the word. He was, above all, a pastor. Many of his convictions were expressed in books and pamphlets written to help people who consulted him about their problems. Thus, for example, when a mercenary soldier came to him with a troubled conscience the result was another pamphlet (1526): Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved. Although he lived to a good age, Luther worked himself to death. It is characteristic of the man that he hastened his end by travelling through atrocious weather to sort out a dispute between a landlord and his neighbours. Luther, then, touched life at every level – the individual, the family, the church, the state – and he did so not as a dry-as-dust philosopher but as a flesh-and-blood, fallible human being, agonising about the important issues which faced all his contemporaries. He was a theologian who lived his theology. He put the Bible at the centre of everything and, as well as applying it to every problem of prince and peasant, he tried to live it himself. Indeed, no one more than Martin Luther resembles the flawed hero of which the sacred text affords so many examples. If we do not, now, find him simpatico it is probably because we cannot share his biblical world view. Sidebar ‘The Pope offers his thanks to Caesar for his great gifts’: an illustration from a pamphlet by Luther published in 1545. Sidebar Left: Martin Luther (1483-1546), by Lucas Cranach. Below: The proclamation of the new German Empire in Versailles in 1871, an act that some saw as a fulfilment of Luther’s form of German nationalism. Sidebar Right: an autograph page of Luther’s translation of Psalm 23 into German, done in 1521 before embarking on his translation of the entire Bible. Below: ‘The Allegory of the Salvation of Humanity1 by Antonius Heusler (after 1530), a work which exemplifies the Lutheran emphasis on salvation by faith and on a direct relationship between a believer and his God. Sidebar Above: Katharina von Bora in 1525, the year she married Luther. Below: ‘Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen’: woodcut of Luther’s decisive stand at the Diet of Worms, April 18th, 1521. Sidebar In the pockets of the German princes? Luther (left) with leading Protestants in about 1530. Artist unknown. Sidebar A later German caricature of Luther and Katharina, with a barrowful of books by other reformers. Sidebar Luther’s story remains of enduring appeal: John Osborne’s play of 1961 was filmed in 2003 with Joseph Tiennes ni the title role. Mighty fallen? Luther’s statue felled by British bombers at Dresden, February 1945. References FOR FURTHER READING Jacob Burckhardt, Judgements on History and Historians, (Eng.Trs, 1958); Steven Ozment, The Reformation in the Cities, ( 1975) Luther’s Works (Eng. Trs, 55 vols, 1955-1986); R.H. Fife, The Revolt of Martin Luther (1957); H.A. Oberman, Luther, Man Between God and the Devil (Eng trs, 1989); M. Brecht, Martin Luther, 3 vols (Eng.Trs, 1985-93) See page 61 for related articles on this subject in the History Today archive and details of special offers at www.historytoday.com AuthorAffiliation Derek Wilson’s Out of the Storm: The Life and Legacy of Martin Luther is published this month by Hutchinson. Copyright History Today Ltd. May 2007 **** ? I need article analyses of the above posted article about The Luther Legacy. Each analysis should answer the following questions: 1) In one sentence, using your own words, state the main idea of the article. 2) In as many complete sentences as you feel is necessary, and using your own words, describe two significant points that the author makes to support his or her main idea. 3) In as many complete sentences as you feel is necessary, and using your own words, make two significant and interesting points evaluating how the article supplements your understanding of class lectures.
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