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Bishop Peter Elliott: The life and times of Martin Luther, Part 1

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Ferdinand Pauwels’ depition of Martin Luther putatively nailing his 95 Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany on 31 October 1517. PHOTO: Commons

In my final year at school, 1961, I was introduced to Martin Luther by Mr Thwaites, our enthusiastic Modern History master, who brought out the extraordinary influence of this Christian leader. Seven years later, even after conversion to Catholicism, my interest in him continued and has never faded. One factor is the Lutheran side of my family.

My maternal grandmother was Lutheran, until she married an Anglican, and later my cousin married back into the family and became a Lutheran. Martin remains a favoured family name. Our people were Slavic Germans, Wends, from Luther’s region in Eastern Germany. These conservative Lutherans fled Germany after the Prussian State forced a union between Lutherans and Calvinists and they settled as wheat farmers in the Wimmera, Northern Victoria.

The other side of the family was not sympathetic. Anglicans tend to distance themselves from Luther, even though “Lutheran” may describe the religion of Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII. Anglo Catholics like my father regarded Luther as highly gifted, but noisy and somewhat vulgar – and he was German. Evangelicals dislike his taste for “popish” liturgy, altars and images and they prefer the austerity and clarity of John Calvin.

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His Life

Luther students are familiar with vivid legends about the Reformer. Did young Father Martin stand up during a prayerful ascent of the Holy Steps in Rome and proclaim “The just will live by faith!”? No. Did he literally nail his theses against indulgences to the minster door in Wittenberg in 1517? Doubtful. In 1521, at the Diet of Worms did he say, “Here I stand and I can do no other” and did he throw an inkwell at the devil one night in the Wartburg castle?

Myths and legends reveal five hundred years of Lutheran reverence for a unique and complex man. This year a Vatican stamp bears his face, ecumenical generosity indeed, and this year Pope Francis visited Lund in Sweden for the Luther celebrations. But when some enthusiasts demand that Luther be canonized, I can hear the man who called the Pope “anti-Christ” roaring with laughter. He was not a saint.

Research into his early years raises questions about his entrance into the religious life, allegedly based on a vow to St Anne during a storm in 1505. It is not clear what motivated a successful law student to follow a monastic vocation, ultimately derailed by personal problems and his rebellion against Rome.

As an Augustinian canon in Erfurt and Wittenberg, his religious life was shaped by a spiritual and theological tradition going back to St Augustine (354-430). In the Augustinian community he emerged as a priest scholar and professor, however it was not the theology of Augustine rather the Bible itself that guided Luther. John Calvin was better read in Augustine and he was a more systematic and consistent thinker. Luther focused on interpreting the Bible, particularly Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans. In the light of his reading, he came to the conclusion that Christian faith and life must rest on Christ alone, on the Word of God alone, that is, only on the living voice of God in the Scriptures.

The Boar in the Vineyard

Then, in October 1517, came his revolt against Rome, occasioned by a justifiable denunciation of the sale of indulgences or “pardons” to raise money for the new St Peter’s basilica in Rome. Luther rejected the selling of indulgences and he denounced the Dominican preacher, Tetzel, who held the Vatican franchise for this project. Luther set out his demand for reform in ninety-five theses, or doctrinal points.

Martin Luther: Reformer or revolutionary – or both?

Printed pamphlets spread his challenging ideas across Europe. In spite of attempts at a reconciliation that might have succeeded, the break with Rome ensued. Pope Leo X condemned forty-one of his doctrinal points and threatened excommunication in Exurge Domine, including an ironic reference to God’s vineyard devastated by a wild boar. In Rome they were told that this rebel priest was not particularly handsome. Luther burnt the papal condemnation, was excommunicated, and his revolt turned into a growing schism.

Across Germany thousands followed him, men and women seeking a reformed Catholicism and a simpler and more personal faith. Compared to the vigorous English Catholicism of that time, the decadent Church in Germany was vulnerable to the colourful messages of a popular reform movement that promised to “drain the swamp”. But politics also pushed Luther’s Reformation forward.

“Germany” was a patchwork of princedoms under the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor. Political complexities engulfed Luther. Many German princes were not exemplary Catholics, as much part of the problem as peddlers of relics and indulgences or wayward monks and nuns, but some of them backed Luther, with mixed motives. Ever the pragmatist, Luther put himself under their protection, thus saving himself from a heretic’s death by fire, yet he was a courageous man.

He regarded celibacy as a gift granted by God to very few people. Perhaps out of respect for his own religious vows, he was reluctant to marry. Then he changed his mind and married Katharina von Bora, a nun he had helped to escape from a convent. She was an excellent wife and mother just as he became a good father and husband. She was also the gifted administrator of the Wittenberg property transferred to him once the Augustinian community disbanded. Some Catholics whispered that one of his six children would surely be the anti-Christ, but the four who survived did well.

Reformer and Leader

In but a few years, Luther found himself leader of the growing Reformation movement, made up of the people who “protested” against Catholic decadence, which is why some Catholics called them “Protestants”. He was forced into the role of a kind of German “pope”. He did not seek this role but once he had rejected papal authority, in the eyes of his followers he virtually replaced the Pope.

He was now obliged to take on a series of projects and called make decisions that formed and shaped the new reformed Church. Here the “religious genius” emerges, a man of extraordinary talent, opinionated, stubborn and aggressive, but pastorally imaginative and not to be ignored. He communicated clearly and people understood what he was saying, especially about the authority of the Bible.

The Bible Alone?

Luther insisted on “the Bible alone”, sola scriptura, as the source of all doctrine. That is not Catholic teaching. As the Council of Trent and the Second Vatican Council (cf. Dei Verbum 7-10) testify, the word of God is found in two sources: scripture and tradition. But the sources are not separate. Scripture relies on the living tradition of the Church and is interpreted through tradition. Much tradition is passed on in the Scriptures, so the Bible holds a priority. While the Church was founded before the Bible took its final shape, the Church lives “under the word of God”, predominantly guided by her inspired library, the Bible. (Pope Emeritus Benedict insists on a thoroughly biblical Catholicism.)

Before Luther was born, the Bible had been translated into German. So it is a myth, based on his assertions, that literate Germans did not have access to the Scriptures. However, once completed in 1534, Luther’s translation was available everywhere. Here we see the power of printing in the expanding Reformation network. In German literature Luther’s Bible has had an abiding influence like the King James English Bible.

A lithograph by Pierre-Antoine Labouchère of Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, Pomeranus and Crucicer around a table, translating the Bible. PHOTO: Commons

Luther is supposed to be the main source of asserting the right, not only for everyone to read the Bible (or to have the Bible read to them), but to interpret it for themselves. “Private interpretation leads to error” is still a prudent Catholic principle. Yet I doubt whether Luther believed in the private interpretation of Scripture. He was dogmatic about his own interpretations of the Bible and he confronted and contradicted anyone with differing views. There were some good reasons for him taking this determined stand.

As the Reformation expanded in Middle Europe, it also attracted not a few religious eccentrics, cranks and some fanatics, so Luther was often involved in disputes, not only with learned Catholic theologians, but with vocal people who claimed to be divinely inspired in their interpretations of scriptural texts. A radical side of the Reformation emerged, the Anabaptists, some led by “prophets” determined to set up the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, even through violence. Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists agreed that Anabaptists were a “bad thing”, to be persecuted and stamped out. So began the tragic era of Christian fighting Christian over interpretations.

During the early years of his revolt I believe Luther perceived what soon became the besetting weakness of the Reformation denominations: a lack of authority and endless schisms over what various scriptural texts might mean. His Liberty of the Christian (1520) is really about Justification by faith and the spiritual freedom of true believers, not so much their right to choose and interpret at will. So to grasp the heart of his beliefs and teachings we need to understand what he meant by “Justification by faith alone”.

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