Thursday, October 8, 2020

Martin Luther: The Good…and the Ugly

To cap off Ryan Reeves’ look at Martin Luther, he offers some thoughts on Luther’s legacy.  There are parts of Luther that are quite Catholic – certainly to modern Protestant ears; there are parts of Luther that are quite difficult – even relative to others in his time.

Most popular stories of Luther seem to end around 1531, going from the thunderstorm to the monk to the reformer.  These stories seem to end about 15 years before his death.  The issue is that a good amount of what follows is troubling.

Luther dies in February 1546.  Within a year, the armies of Charles V take on the Lutheran Schmalkaldic League, a military alliance of Lutheran princes within the Holy Roman Empire.  The imperial armies of Charles crushed the league, but by this time Lutheranism had spread sufficiently such that military victory would not stop or reverse it.  Eventually, of course, this would be followed by what are commonly referred to as wars of religion – albeit I believe better identified as wars for state control.

What of this Catholicism in Luther?  He believed in baptismal regeneration, that salvation is wrought in baptism.  Not exactly as the Church taught it, but nevertheless it sounds more Catholic than Protestant today.  He also believes in physical eating in the Eucharist – again, not exactly as the Church taught it, but try telling most Protestants (or Catholics) this today.

Luther’s views of Mary comport almost entirely with Catholic views of Mary.  In 1521, he would write his Commentary on Magnificat, the moment when the angel comes to Mary and tells her she is going to be with child.  He believed in her perpetual virginity; while doubting that she was assumed to heaven, he believed in many other medieval views on Mary.

Some strengths of Luther during these later years: in 1535, he published his commentary on Galatians; it remains viewed as a compelling commentary regarding his Reformation breakthrough.  Second is what is known as his tabletalk – informal conversations with his students, perhaps with a little beer involved.  Luther would discuss all manner of topics, formal and informal; notes would be taken, and this is how we know of these.  Finally, Luther wrote many hymns, one of the most well-known is A Mighty Fortress is Our God. 

Then, the weaknesses.  Two primary weaknesses are mentioned: Luther’s negativity and vitriol toward others; real anger.  It strikes many as unbearable.  There even exists today a website: Luther Insulter; some examples:

·         You deserve not only to be given no food to eat, but also to have the dogs set upon you and to be pelted with horse manure.

·         Your words are so foolishly and ignorantly composed that I cannot believe you understand them.

·         You foster in your heart a Lucian, or some other pig from Epicurus' sty.

·         Are you ignorant of what it means to be ignorant?

·         Perhaps you want me to die of unrelieved boredom while you keep on talking.

You get the idea.  Yes, he was attacking in his earlier days – but this has grown significantly by these later years.  He doesn’t just attack who the person is, but he attacks the conscience of the person – that the devil has deluded him.  To challenge Luther is to challenge Christianity – hence, the challenger must be of the devil.

Second, his anti-Semitism.  Even compared to others in his time, he is over-the-top.  In 1523, Luther thought he could win the Jews to Jesus, writing Jesus Was Born a Jew.  He did not meet with success.  Twenty years later, in 1543, he published On the Jews and Their Lies.  This one is about as strong as it gets.

His language isn’t racial, it is theological.  He doesn’t focus on the idea of Jews as the Messiah killer.   Instead: burn all synagogues to the ground; confiscate the personal property of Jews; expel them all from Germany.  The Jews, he would write, speak for the devil; they lie.  They were converting Christians to Judaism.  The Jews are not merely wrong, they are diabolical.

He bases his thoughts on Deuteronomy 13, where the Jews are commanded to kill idolaters, etc.  Well, given the Christian views on the Kingdom, I think the connection – as Luther sees it – is clear.  He continues along this path until the day he died: his very last sermon, given the day before he died, was another anti-Semitic “rant.”  Luther wasn’t a man of his times in this regard.  None of the other prominent Reformers published anything along these lines. 

Unlike the offspring of Calvin and the Reformed, for much of its history Lutheranism remained quite insular – without doctrinal or denominational deviation.  Unlike the Lutherans, the legacy of the Reformed tradition was one of compromise, spreading the faith into many countries and regions of Europe.

Until the twentieth century, to be Lutheran meant to follow precisely the teachings of Martin Luther.  I am struggling with a respectful way to say it…this sounds more problematic than that which Luther fought against regarding the Catholic Church.

In any case, all of this is wrapped up as Luther’s legacy: the good and the ugly.


  1. I must be bad. I thought quotes 2, 3 and 4 were funny, Churchillean:
    "Madam, I may be drunk but I will be sober in the morning and you will still be ugly."
    "If I was your husband I would drink it."

  2. I listened to a biography of Lutheran recently. What struck me as a Roman Catholic, especially in light of coronavirus, is that we have stopped having the Blood of Christ and congregational singing. These were two counter-reforms that Luther helped bring, with the Blood of Christ coming during Vatican II. My though was if we are going back, might as well turn the clock back fully!

  3. I disagree with Luther on most things but thanksful he spoke out for salvation through faith alone, against the infallibility of the pope and buying indulgences.

    He and other Reformers were aligned with something called Replacement Theology which is one of the reasons for his aggressiveness towards Jews.

  4. With respect to Luther’s “negativity and vitriol toward others“ recall that:

    (1) John the Baptist called the religious leaders of his day a “brood of vipers“ (Luke 3:7)

    (2) Jesus called the religious leaders of his day “fools and blind” (Mt 23:17,24)

    (3) Paul called the high priest a white washed wall. (Acts 23:3)

    (4) Paul called the Galatian Christians fools (Gal. 3:1)

    (5) Paul said that all Cretans were liars (Titus 1:12-13)

    (6) Paul expressed that the false teachers of the gospel should castrate themselves (Gal 5:12)

    Remember also that Jesus, speaking to Peter, said “get thee behind me, Satan.”

    With regard to anti-Semitism, I wonder what the Catholic Church’s response would have been to Jews seeking to undermine Christianity? I’m reminded of sicut judaeis non as explained by E Michael Jones and the specific prohibitions made against the Jews by the Catholic Church. Recall that Louis IX, upon discovery of what was in the Talmud, had the Talmuds in France burned. There wasn't much of an atmosphere of "tolerance" of Judaism or for anti-Christ agitation in those days.

    1. From this comment, I take away two things which I now believe are true:

      1) Ridicule has a long track record of success.
      2) Ridicule is Divinely sanctioned and can be employed as a Holy strategy.

      This is not meant as a challenge, but more of an "ah ha!" moment. Only a fool would dare challenge Bill the Magnificent!

    2. That is red letter Matthew 23.
      Hypocrisy ... bad, very bad, very bad no good bad.

  5. I'm of the opinion that for all of the good that Luther may have set into motion he was essentially a "company man" and helped to expose what the Catholic church wanted to expose and thereafter destroy. It gave them an excuse to circle the wagons and slay theological dragons