Monday, July 5, 2010

The Reformation – and Martin Luther

October 28, 2001

Rewrite of
October 26, 1958, Akron
Also: Rochester 10/29/61, Revised 10/25/64

This is Reformation Sunday, marking the birthday of the Protestant Church and the revolt from Roman Catholicism. Next Wednesday marks the four hundred and eighty-fourth anniversary of the day Martin Luther tacked the 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral. The religious, political, economic, and social changes effected by the Protestant Reformation represent [some] of the most important, if not the most important, changes in the history of the Western world. I would like to discuss the leading person of the Reformation, one of the most controversial persons in history, Martin Luther. He was a saint, sinner, vulgarian, or anti-Semitic bigot, depending on the point of view from which he is seen. His followers hailed him as a true prophet of the Lord. Roman Catholics called him a child of the devil and accused him of demolishing Christianity. The agrarian reformers of that turbulent sixteenth century said he was the toady, tool, and supporter of the feudal lords and princes. Religious radicals, Carlstadt and Muenster, for example, compared him to Moses, who led the way out of captivity in Egypt, but then deserted his followers, leaving them to perish in the wilderness. Those who have looked at this personal life with critical eye have thought him to be a coarse libertine who broke with his Roman Catholic tradition so that he might marry a nun and rear children in sin and vulgarity. The critics submit Luther’s own writings, TABLE TALK, as evidence of his degraded personality.

This we know, the history of the world was altered because Martin Luther lived. In abolishing the authority of the Pope, Martin Luther established the freedom of the Christian. When this principle became established, the administration of the religious institution became the responsibility of the parish, a congregation of lay people. Martin Luther did not anticipate, and actually opposed, some of the consequences of the Reformation he spearheaded. The principle of the authority of the lay congregation had extreme political as well as religious effects. The self-administration of religion pointed the way to worldly self-government as well. Therefore, it is of particular importance to the liberal groups whose guiding principle of freedom is the most uninhibited, to try to understand Martin Luther. This presentation divides into

1) the setting,
2) the Augustinian priest,
3) the reformer and supporter of princes, and
4) the man, Martin Luther.

Although Martin Luther is the most notable figure of the Reformation, he was not born when the Reformation began. To know the Reformation, we need to understand that the Renaissance, the revival of learning, the recovery of the ancient Greek belief in the worth of the humans, had been in progress for at least two centuries. Petrarch and Boccaccio had notably advanced Humanist studies. The Medici family, also of Florence, had been the greatest patrons of art, sculpture, literature, and philosophy that the European world had known. Under their patronage, Michelangelo, DaVinci, Mirandola, Raphael and others had created arts and letters that still summon our wonder at their genius. In 1453, the world’s greatest cultural center, Constantinople, had fallen to the Turks. The scholars there who had preserved the manuscripts and art objects of Hellenism fled to Italy and other parts of Europe. 12 Universities were founded in Germany between 1409 and 1506.

Not only did the Renaissance signal the revival of arts and learning, but a most important political movement was beginning to make its strong eddies felt in the ebb and flow of the Holy Roman Empire. Although Germany lagged somewhat, England, France and Spain had assumed form as nations. The mass of people had no share in the political rewards or freedoms, although they were the objects of the most severe hardships and sufferings. Their unquestioned place was serfdom.

The Roman Catholic was the authoritarian church. There was no toleration of heresy, but the seeds that were to bear fruit in Luther’s time had already been sown. John Wyclif of England, opposed to the wealth of the church and clerical interference in all walks of life, believed that the Bible should be the possession of the people and had translated the scriptures into English. Wyclif was executed for heresy, his ashes scattered on Thames, but neither his convictions nor his bravery were forgotten. 1373 marked the birth of John Hus, a Bohemian priest, who was influenced by Wyclif’s teachings and Hus preached an evangelical doctrine which was anathema to the Roman Catholic church. John Hus avowed publicly that the head of the Church was Christ, not the Pope. The unprincipled church gave him safe conduct to the Council of Constance, but broke faith and burned him at the stake, July 6, 1415, but neither was his memory forgotten nor his principles rejected by his followers. In 1498, the austere monk of Florence, Savonarola denounced the Pope. After a succession of temporary triumphs and then humiliating defeat, Savonarola was burned at the stake. But even as smoke and smell from the burning flesh and faggots were dispersed to the winds, so the knowledge of his revolt became widely perceived by later reformers, including Martin Luther, who was but a fifteen-year-old student when Savonarola was executed.

Something else had happened which was to make the world different than it had ever been before. Moveable type printing had been invented – the peoples of the world would not only become more literate, but the printed word was to bring them the wisdom of scripture in their own language, and they read the protesting pamphlets of the reformers.

In this seething caldron of social change, a baby boy was born to a peasant miner, Hans Luther and his wife, Marguerite, in 1483. November 10 was St. Martin’s day, and the infant was named Martin after the patron saint. Martin’s parents were peasants, but Hans Luther was not content to accept the poverty and misery of the miner’s lot. By individual effort he labored to make his lot better and his family more comfortable and privileged. In these beginning times of individualism, his efforts brought some rewards. Martin was able to go to school and University to be prepared for the practice of law, which was his father’s wish for his eldest son.

The schools at that time were organized, administered, and taught by the Church and its various orders. Martin’s early schooling was directed by the Brethren of the Common Life, an order dedicated to education. Then, in the University, he was influenced by the Augustinian order. Under the strong influence of the monks, together with his personality, which was unusually sensitive to supernaturalism and mystery, along with his fine mind, which was capable of wrestling with the intricate language of philosophy and theology, Martin Luther found his hopes turning toward the Church and away from the Law. Although Hans Luther was deeply religious, his wish that Martin be a Doctor of Law was so strong that when Martin announced that he was to become an Augustinian monk, his father was deeply hurt. Years were to pass before he really forgave the son who was frustrating the parent’s deepest wish.

After a farewell party, Martin’s friends escorted him to the Augustinian cloister at Erfurt on the 17th of July 1505. He entered its gates there to endure the privation of the order and to know the religious joy of humbling his passions, following the tedious routine of prayer and study, eventually, when ordained to know the mystery or celebrating the Mass, in which the wafer and wine became the body and blood of Christ.

As a monk, Martin Luther was conscientious to a degree we would believe to be unnatural. He fasted for days at a time, went night after night without sleep so that he might devote himself to prayer unceasingly (and in so doing permanently injured his health). He whipped himself to subdue the desires of the flesh. Although he was a model of holiness to his brother monks, his personal anxiety increased. He became increasingly morbid. Luther, a child of his times, feared the devil and believed the arts of witchcraft could have a dreadful effect on him. The iron discipline of the Augustine order had the natural effect of subduing his outward expressions of feeling and intensifying the inward fires of human passions.

Following his ordination as a priest, he turned to teaching at the University and soon became a most popular teacher. His large following of students was drawn for several reasons. His peasant inheritance gave him the common touch, plain talk, and natural illustration which reached the core of subjects. To a lesser degree than monks of more aristocratic background, was he bound to narrow conventions and traditional formulas. Following his master’s degree, he earned the degree of Doctor of Theology, a scholastic honor rare in those days.

His talents and drive soon won greater recognition. When only 31 years old, in 1515, he was appointed District-Vicar of the Augustinian order. Thus, in addition to his devotional duties as a monk, his university responsibilities as a teacher of philosophy, he had the additional duty of administrative responsibility, superintending the 10 Augustinian monasteries in his district.

This devout Augustinian monk was obsessed not only with neurotic fears for his salvation, but also he was upset by dishonesty and corruption readily discovered in the church of that day, which was dominated by the Renaissance Popes, who had a high degree of sensitivity to artistic beauty and an insensitive attitude toward personal and organizational corruption.

Martin Luther and another monk made a pilgrimage to Rome. He had hopes that this would be a high experience in his life, but [it] resulted in considerable disillusion. In Rome he could not help observing the corruption, hypocrisy, and political knavery of the hierarchy. The irreverence of the priesthood shocked this simple, devout German peasant priest. It is said that while climbing the sacred stairs on his knees, that Paul’s words to the Romans fixed themselves in Luther’s brain, “the just shall live by faith.” He realized that acts of piety like climbing stairs on his knees were of little effect. The extent to which the Rome visit influenced his revolt, we do not know. Perhaps it was a small but significant episode in his life.

The real spark of the Reformation was ignited when the Roman hierarchy decided that in order to build magnificent St. Peter’s Basilica, much money had to be raised. So the sale of indulgences was authorized. The doctrine was that by their purity the saints had built up a bank account (so to speak) of piety, on which the sinful could draw to lessen their years in Purgatory. So, Tetzel, a monk went through the countryside urging the peasants to buy indulgences so that their dead relatives might be released from Purgatory sooner. It is said that Pope Leo X, who was the son of Lorenzo de Medici, said cynically about the response of the believing peasants, “This story of Jesus has helped us a lot.”

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther tacked a manuscript to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral. 95 propositions for debate were listed. Luther questioned the indulgences with a series of logical propositions, the most telling of which proposed that if the Pope had the power to release souls from Purgatory, then he should do so at once, not for money, but out of the spirit of love and charity.

Although years were to elapse between the nailing of the theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral and the actual formation of the Reformed Church, that date is historically looked upon as the birthday of Protestantism.

Luther’s theses were formal statements, but his vernacular comment was, “God will not tolerate this flea market.”

News of the opposition of this Augustinian monk to the plans of the hierarchy soon reached Rome, and action followed. There were years of ecclesiastical maneuvering. Luther refused to recant. He had a famous debate with John Eck and undoubtedly would have been executed except for a new historical tide. Nationalism was dawning; and the feudal lords and princes of Germany were very much opposed to the Roman Church drawing off large sums of money from the homeland for St. Peter’s or any other foreign enterprise.

Luther began to write and his statements pointed unquestionably to strong differences with the Church at Rome. He proposed the priesthood of all believers, and that there were only two sacraments authorized by scripture: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These statements were heretical, unquestionably, and Luther was summoned to appear before the Diet of Worms (“Here I stand”). Luther was excommunicated, and would have been seized, except Frederick, elector of Saxony, had him spirited away to Wartburg Castle. But the printing press was pounding out Luther’s writings, [which] were distributed widely, and the people responded. When Luther emerged from Wartburg, he found himself organizing a Reformed Church.

Then occurred one of the more puzzling aspects of Luther’s strange character: The impetus to religious freedom had other consequences. The peasants revolted against the landlords and princes. It was somewhat natural, but unexpected that they should seek to throw off political and economic oppression when the way to religious freedom had been pointed out. From our perspective we know this is one of the glories of religious freedom – other benefits to humankind are natural consequences. But Luther proved to be the the toady, the tool, the supporter of the princes. Neither the implications of religious freedom nor love for the peasant people from which he sprang mitigated the severity of his condemnation of the Peasants’ Revolt. To the aristocratic Lords and Princes, Luther offered these words of encouragement, “Hearken dear Lords... Let him who can stab, strike, and strangle... These are such times that a prince can go to heaven more easily by spilling blood than others through prayer.”

The peasants were crushed, murdered, tortured, starved.

Luther was not a tolerant man. Even admitting that like all persons, he was a child of his own age, we find it difficult to reconcile this devout man who professed the Lordship of the gentle Christ with the Luther who was savage not only with the Peasants’ War, but also had a bigoted hatred of Jews, and was unremitting in his urgings to destroy and persecute them.

Luther could not get along with other reformers. He refused to shake hands with Zwingli, because the latter would not accept Luther’s interpretation of the Lord’s Supper.

But Martin Luther was not only an Augustinian priest, a reformer of strange and devious as well as noble ways, he was also a man. When the reformers were celebrating freedom from the Roman Catholic church, the monasteries and convents were opened, the monks and nuns sought marriage and Christian homes, sometimes marrying each other. Catherine von Bora was a nun jilted by a suitor shortly after her release from the convent. Martin Luther tried to be a marriage broker for her and find a suitable husband. However, when it was reported to him that Catherine von Bora would marry only Dr. Amsdorf or Dr. Luther, he investigated further, he checked it out, with the result shortly after, Martin Luther and ex-nun Catherine von Bora were married. They established their home in the Augustinian cloister where Luther formerly had led the monastic life.

Theirs was a busy home with much affection, the ex-nun soon became “my Katie” to Luther. Not only were children born to them, but also they were hospitable and generous to the homeless. At one time not less than eleven orphans shared their home and table. The reminiscences of this home life are found in Luther’s TABLE TALK, remarkable for the insight it gives into the personality of this father. He was gentle, but at times objectionably vulgar and rude.

When illness or the plague struck, as it did frequently in those days, the hand of death entered the home. Of the children, Elizabeth died in infancy. When little Hans was ill, Martin Luther composed and to comfort him sang the famous childrens’ Christmas carol, “Away in a Manger”. Hans and Paul lived to maturity. Marguerite lived to girlhood, but in a agonizing time of trial for the busy parents, she died of illness. In the grief of that occasion, Luther formed the tune and words of his greatest hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” [CJW note: based on Psalm 46]

This aging father had innumerable organization details of the reformed church. He was called to settle disputes between princes. His health, never good since his monastic days, grew worse. After a winter journey under difficult conditions, he died after attempting to resolve a conflict between two Lords.

What shall we say of this man? He was a leading reformer. He was a reactionary who was unbelievably harsh with his fellow peasants. He was intolerant. He was an anti-Semite. He was coarse and vulgar. But also, he was a great preacher and scholar. He translated the Bible into German, giving the people the Scripture. His courage sparked the Reformation, giving birth to the numerous free Christian groups, among which in later years our own was to be numbered. He was the Reformation’s greatest hymn writer. Albert Schweitzer, who had a doctorate in music as well as doctorates in medicine and theology, remarked that the only person who really understood Martin Luther was Johann Sebastian Bach. He was a kind and loving but financially embarrassed father. He was a teacher who won the respect of his students.

But the most affectionate and most human epitaph that the Reformer earned was written by the ex-nun who became his wife and the mother of their children. A month after his death, Catherine von Bora Luther, writing to her sister, Christina, said, “Who would not be sorrowful and mourn for so noble a man as my dear Lord, who served not only one city or land, but the whole world? Truly I am so distressed that I cannot tell my sorrow to anyone. If I had a principality or an empire, it would never have cost me so much pain to lose them as I have now that our Lord God has taken from me, and not from me only, but from the whole world, this dear and precious man.”

Religion must be not only in a person’s heart as an inward loyalty to that which he or she believes true and righteous, convictions must become known in the world. And no reformation is ever complete until justice is accomplished and the world of persons ruled by all persons, because equally they are entitled to the human dignity and worth which should be the birthright of all souls. Those who are devoted to such religious values will discover in their own experience that the cause of reform is never jaded, its goals ever re-defined.

Not because we would endorse the theology of Luther’s greatest hymn, but because a tribute to him is fitting on this 484th anniversary of Protestantism, may we join in singing #104, “A Mighty Fortress is our God.”

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