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Luther, Martin (1483-1546)


Martin Luther, the originator of the Protestant Reformation, might be described as an impressionable man. This seems evident from the fact that his first intention was to attend law school, but being terrified during a lightening storm he decided to devote his life to God. Fear, especially fear of the Devil, seemed to persist throughout Luther's life because he devote more of his theology and personal concern to the Devil than anyone since the desert fathers. Although he broke from the Catholic Church he retained most of the assumptions of nominalist scholasticism that he had acquired at the house of Augustinian canons at Erfurt. After Pope Leo X proclaimed the sale of indulgences in 1513 Luther, a professor of scripture since 1511 at Wittenberg, began questioning the direction that the church was taking. Simultaneously he questioned his worthiness as a priest. About the year 1515 he experienced a personal conversion that lead him to believe that good works and efforts are worthless without faith; it was sola fides, faith alone, which brought one to salvation.

Luther, like Augustine before him, experienced religious torment. When in the monastery he was plagued by the feeling of the wrath of God. This continued over years, as a monk he did everything he knew how to overcome this terror, neither daily confession nor ascetic exercises helped. Luther, the monk, cried out to God for relief because he felt God was putting demands upon him that no human could fulfill. He suffered infernal terrors, after which his bones felt as if they had been burned to ashes. As he described it in these moments of dread he saw not the slightest gleam of light. One might think his religious struggle had brought Luther to a verge of madness. But, such a conclusion would have vanished the meaning of an important event in his life.

This event was a religious or mystical experience in Luther's life, which took the form of an illumination. It occurred in the tower room of the monastery when he was reading the first chapter of the Epistle to the Romans. While reading Luther suddenly saw that Paul was describing a merciful justice, and not a punitive one, which is conferred upon men through Christ and which in no way can be separated from the Redeemer. Because of this revelation Luther was like a man for whom paradise had been reopened. With the selfsame intensity with which he has previously hated God, he now drank in the exceedingly sweet pledge. It was not that Luther found God, but rather God found him. From then on he was oriented more toward the Pauline epistles than toward the Gospel.

In 1517, he issued his ninety-five treatises and was referring to the papacy as corrupt. He eventually adopted the Bible as his only authority, thus rejecting the additional authority of tradition, the popes, and councils. Luther's excommunication came in 1521. Some moderates within the church tried to effect a reconciliation that failed, so the schism began.

After finally being excommunicated Luther was on his own, a personal experience which many experienced during the Reformation. There was no longer the mother church, the communion of saints, the long tradition of the church and its councils. Luther and those following him were severed from their past; or, they abandoned it, depending on one's viewpoint. What was left was man, God, and the Devil. God and the Devil each played important parts in Luther's life. His sole basis of belief was the Bible from which his faith rested. Luther's second source, next to the Bible, was Augustine, but he compared what he called the true Augustine against the Augustinian scholasticism, which he considered overextended the range of reason. Luther's view was that reason without grace got one nowhere, and grace instructs best when one combines it with reading the Bible in the light of faith. Reason must be used within its proper sphere, which is as an aid for comprehending the truth that has already been learned from the Bible.

The fundamental truth, for Luther, was the omnipotence of God, and its corollary, predestination. Luther embraced absolute predestination, claiming, as he did, that anything else was an illogical, almost blasphemous limitation on the sovereign will of God. In this sense Luther forsake the faculty on man's free will. Man has no control over his personal salvation. Man is always under the control of God or the Devil. However, God controls everything. He chooses who he wants to save, and turns he rest over to the Devil. Therefore, in this scheme of total predestination Christ did not die for all men, but just for those who God determined would be saved. In making such a declaration Luther was aware that he had eliminated the necessity of the sacraments, sermons, and even incarnation itself. He attempted resolving these difficulties but was never successful in doing so because he would never submit to any limitation upon the will of God in his teachings. Luther's declaration that that God determined whom he would save made little difference among his followers because they, like Luther, knew God had chosen to save them.

For Luther the omnipotence of God was twofold. First, God possesses natural omnipotence, meaning God is the originator, or creator, of the cosmos, and has absolute freedom to make everything as he chooses. God wills the substance and functioning of the cosmos; if he did not, it would not exist. Second, God possesses theological omnipotence; he is both the remote and immediate cause of everything that is. There is no such thing as the absence of God; according to Luther this is a phenomenal impossibility since God directs everything, heaven and earth, hell, the Devil, and all creatures. Here Luther differed from previous theologians such as Augustine and Aquinas who had nominally affirmed free will while describing the cosmos as predestined in fact. Luther denied free will, declaring it incompatible with God's omnipotence; therefore, nothing is achieved without God's natural and theological will.

To Luther God was complete within himself. God is apparently composed of antinomies, a concept that Luther seemed to take from the mystics. God is wrath and love, repudiation, grace, law, mercy; he wills wickedness but hates the wicked. The natural and unaided reason of man is unable to comprehend the mystery of God; and without grace people see God as stupid, imprudent, terrifying, or cruel. Since man's notions of good and evil are different and infinitely inferior to God's we do not always see the good in his purposes. We see God as possessing a double will, Luther stated, willing both good and evil. His good will was revealed in Christ. The will of God, said Luther, is present in all evil, in hell, and transforms all evil into ultimate good. Luther has to include this in his teachings because he firmly held that absolutely nothing could limit the omnipotence of God.

Although to Luther the Devil was a tool of God, in his teachings it is often difficult to distinguish the workings of God from the workings of the Devil. Some even believe that this distinction was even difficult for Luther to make at times. The hidden, stern will of God can appear to be the Devil's will. Luther refrained from going as far as to state that the Devil was the manifestation of one side of God, but instead said, the Devil's will is only apparently God's will; while the Devil and God may will the same thing, their purpose is never the same. God has an ultimately benevolent purpose in every act, while the Devil's purpose is to destroy. To understand this with the inferior intellect faith and grace are required.

Luther's account of the Devil's role in the making of the cosmos is identical to that of medieval tradition. God had created Lucifer good, and the highest of angels. But, because of pride, he chose to betray his creator by presuming to imitate God, and envied humankind because God chose to become a man instead of an angel which set human nature over the angelic nature. For this the Devil was thrust out of heaven, and eager for revenge he corrupted Adam and Eve as a result of their original sin. God then turned humanity over to him, making him lord of the world; and, therefore, he who caused the first evil has power over humanity. He constantly tempts us daily causing all worldly evils. To each person he assigns an individual demon to encourage each vice; he and his demons can appear anywhere and in any form, even that of Christ himself. All human sinners, stated Luther, are servants of the Devil.

To many Luther's view would seem extreme; but the fact is, that it was not. This was the orthodox theological thinking of the medieval times. After God thrust the Devil from heaven they were archenemies; within their battleground were the souls of humankind, each soul was fought for. According to Luther, the individual man had no control over this fight, God or the Devil either possessed the soul. Luther once compared the soul to a horse, saying either God or the Devil rode it, and the horse had no choice but to obey whoever was in the saddle.

Luther felt such a struggle within his own soul, as he frequently felt the Devil's presence. As it has been stated previously Luther's first intention was to attend law school, but being terrified during a lightening storm he decided to devout his life to God. Fear dominated his life. Some have wondered if his fear or obsession with the Devil did not direct Luther's life more than God. In evaluation, Luther's theology did not develop from just scripture and tradition but from personal experience too. Luther felt the Devil often detoured him in doing God's work. From descriptions it might be said that Luther frequently thought of the Devil as his constant companion. At times he rattled around Luther's stove; pelted nuts at the roof, and rolled casts down the stairway; once appeared in the form of a serpent, another time a star; he grunted audibly like a pig, and emitted stenches; he sometimes lodged in Luther's bowels and was closely associated in the Reformer's mind with feces and flatus. The Devil eagerness for Luther's soul kept him so near that he seemed to sleep with him more that Katie (Luther's wife). Luther believed, like the desert fathers and medieval saints, that the more one advances in faith the more intense the Devil attacks become.

Some suggest, and probably justly so, his mother, neighbors, and teachers established that Luther's fixation upon the Devil in childhood. The idea of the Devil trying to capture the soul of man was not Luther's personal conception, no, he barrowed it and perhaps put more emphasis on it. This fixation cannot be considered strictly an obsession when one recognizes such an association was a characteristic of the medieval tradition. The fixation was connected with Luther's chronic constipation, no doubt, but also it had to do with tradition, with his desire to communicate forcefully with the common people on a concrete level, and his tendency to be invective. Also, there is a theological justification; the human body is considered the temple of God, yet is frail and ridiculous, excretion perhaps being its most absurd function. Luther contrasts the divinity of the human body, which Jesus dignified, with its ridiculous aspects, which Satan apes and mocks to our shame. In his attempt to do this Luther thought Satan was attempting to prevent him from doing God's work and if he gave up his efforts, then the Devil would leave him alone.

Luther is called a reformer, and rightly so because he started the Reformation; but this initially was not his objective. His objective was to right the wrongs which he saw within his church. He like Pelagius before him took on the papacy of the Catholic Church. Both men saw the wrongs that had become inherent with the papacy. But, still with the zeal which he had acquired from his earlier religious experience Luther went much further than Pelagius in denouncing the Pope as the Antichrist. This was Luther's irreversible step.

To fully understand this one must comprehend the medieval church. Such a church was the center of most people's lives in Europe. Many people did not disregard the pope as they do today, but he was respected as the spiritual leader among many. In some incidences he was not only the spiritual leader but a temporal leader as well with many allegiances with governmental leaders and dignitaries. A member of the clergy of the church of this dignified and respected leader one just does not call him the Antichrist and not suffer the consequences. Luther had attacked the very foundation of the Catholic Faith with his posting of the ninety-five theses on the door of the church at Wittenberg. The pope's selling of indulgences was what triggered Luther's action, but his real desire was to bring about change or the end to the corruption which he saw within the papacy itself. But, by attacking the pope as viciously and he did Luther became a heretic instead of a reformer. Within the Catholic Church he was now considered a heretic. Immediately after Luther had nailed up the theses Johann Tetzel (1465-1519), a preacher of indulgences, exclaimed, "I want that heretic thrown into the flames within three weeks." The emperor, Charles V (1500-1558), decided that Luther was "like the Wicked Fiend in monkish garb collects old and new heresies." He was excommunicated from the church before he could help to exact the improvements that he called for.

Initially, Luther did not considered himself a heretic; in fact, he protested the charge on the basis of the gospel; but his contemporaries called him heretical. Something can be said on the behalf of his contemporaries for considering him a heretic. They thought he had demonstrated it by his personal action. As a monk the rule of celibacy began appearing increasingly unnatural to him and contrary to the divine order of creation. Luther felt that Christian truthfulness demanded the recognition on man's biological constitution. He not only preached the relinquishment of celibacy on that principle, but after considerable inner resistance he took a wife who had been a nun. This act was extremely shocking to those who knew him.

The acknowledgement of the fact that he was a heretic had to gradually grow on Luther because he desired to change his church. The fact was that he could not because he found himself outside of it. He eventually used the word heretic in several different ways as he accustomed himself to the term. His first usage assumed the customary meaning of heresy, "to be a heretic meaneth not to believe the things which are needful and commanded to be believed." Later he spoke with contempt about heresy. "All heresy floweth thence and hath its source therein that reason will master Holy Writ and turn it head over heels." Then his comfort came when remembering Paul's words concerning inevitable heresy, "Suma, there must be heresies, one cannot prevent them, do what one will. So it was in the time of the Apostles; we shall not have nor do better than our forefathers! If tyranny and prosecution cease, heresies follow." With this outlook Luther attempted to see the positive side of heresy, indirectly: "If heresies and offenses come, Christendom will only profit thereby, for they make Christians to read diligently the Holy Writ and ponder the same with industry. … Thus through heretics and offenses we are kept alert and stouthearted and amid wrangles and battles understand God's word better than before."

Luther's traditional conception of heresy, or rather the heretic, was supplanted with a more gentler view; he had viewed all heretics as being wrong in their Christian beliefs, but after reviewing the ideas of many of those who the pope had burned and killed, such as John Hus and Jerome of Prague, Luther concluded that many had demonstrated that they sincerely possessed the love of the cross. Now holding this view Luther began taking issue with the practice of burning heretics, which he thought to be a violation of the Gospel. In protest he voiced, "Let the weeds grow until harvest;" and, "To burn heretics is against the will of the Holy Ghost."

The historical tragedy is that Luther's newfound insight failed to develop and continue with Protestantism; the burnings, beheadings, and drownings continued and thus dishonored the newly resurrected Gospel. Luther's later actions as a religious leader proved how difficult it is to accomplish Christian non-violence. He returned to the old habits of suppression and coercion when opposed by the Anabaptists, for example. Like many strong and defiant personalities Luther desired to see his ideas stretch forth, and did not want others to oppose them. Partly, this was out of the necessity for the growth of his church; and, this seems to be the paradox in most religions, the preaching of love and the intolerance of the enemy. But, it should be remembered, that without Luther's religious or mystical experience the world might not know Protestantism as it does today. A.G.H.


Sources: 6, 290-307; 82, 34-45.