Luther's Life: From Fear to Blind Trust
If we were to study a map of Europe tracing religious belief from the fourth century to the Reformation, we would discover a remarkable unity of thought, faith, and morals grounded in the Catholic Church and spreading over the civilized world.
A hundred years after Luther, a new edition of the same map would reveal a world profoundly divided in its belief. Any discussion of “Reformation” theology immediately brings up the father of the Reform. It has been rightly said of Luther that to know the doctrine is to know the man: his struggles became the root and foundation of his new theology. And a fairly accurate insight in the intricacies of the Protestant Reform is offered us by reviewing the itinerary—dare we call it spiritual?—followed by Luther’s personal struggles.
A Forceful Temperament
Martin Luther (1483-1546) was born of humble peasant stock. His pious Christian mother tended to see the devil everywhere while his father was the epitome of the cruel judge; he was never to pardon his son for abandoning the family to become a monk. After completing his studies in law, the 21-year-old Martin Luther vowed to consecrate himself to God after being caught in a storm and suddenly overcome with fear; he was accepted a fortnight later by the Augustinians at Erfurt, a university town of Saxony. Thereafter followed a lightning career as a monk and priest.
He made his perpetual vows the year following his entry and was ordained priest a few months later; only then did he apply himself to some short but serious theological studies. In 1508, he was transferred to his hometown university to become a lecturer. Within a few years, he became sub-prior at Wittenberg and doctor in theology and finally went to Rome as the legal representative for Augustinian convents in dispute.
His monastic studies brought him into contact with St. Augustine, which supposedly proved to him the vanity of reason and will, as well as the mystics, from whose writings he claimed to have drawn his rejection of exterior works. Luther also came to be familiar with decadent Scholasticism, particularly that of Ockham, the philosopher who taught that words are devoid of meaning and that Christ and Scripture are the only sources of life. Already in 1515, in his commentary on the Epistle to Romans, Brother Martin, only recently “doctor,” exposed his new theory on justification—that theory which was to become the foundation for all Lutheran theology. The Reformation was born.
How did Luther reach this point? Many historians have sidestepped the question and provided answers reflecting their own bias. Some say that one fine day he came upon a newly printed Bible in the library of Erfurt. Others see in Brother Martin a monk incapable of controlling his immoral passions. Yet, the only way to do justice to history is to try to look into the soul of this monk and follow him through the drama of those crucial years.
What was the personality of this Augustinian brother? Whereas the corpulence of St. Thomas hid a brilliant mind, Luther was a Hercules of the will, full of passion and fire, with an intelligence rather limited and mostly practical. Historians agree in painting him as the German par excellence; Martin Luther was a Christian Odin; a latter-day Thor. He was endowed with a nature at once realistic and poetical; courageous but impulsive; sentimental and hypersensitive. He was a living volcano and vehement in everything, including his generosity and kindness. Ardent and full of nervous energy, he was prone to sudden breakdown and moments of acute sadness. His depression was as profound as his joy was exuberant. Was his weakness the fruit of a poorly balanced education with too much emphasis on fear? Was he tormented by scruples or haunted by the constant thought of the mystery of predestination?
In his moments of natural optimism, just like his forefathers, his passions easily held sway over his reason. He had the fighting spirit and threw himself headlong into quarrels, which he relished. Contemporaries described him as bold and fiery in defending his own cause, which is why he was sent to Rome as a young master to plead the cause of his monastery. Practical and impatient, he was more anxious to argue down an opponent than to listen to his views. Luther was a remarkable preacher, if it were not for his crude language. Moreover, the power of his images and the flow of his words establish him as one of the most influential forces in the creation of modern German. His very words were battles. There was a strength in his genius and a vehemence in his language, with a lively and impetuous eloquence which enchanted the crowds and left them in transports of admiration—a speech waxing to extraordinary boldness under applause—all united to an air of authority such that his disciples trembled before him and dared not contradict his slightest nuance. This ascendance over his followers was to be his strength and his downfall.
From Luder to Lutherius
Having entered religion rather swept away than attracted, as he would later avow, Brother Martin began as a conscientious and dutiful monk, certainly eager to attain priestly perfection although tending toward anxiety and scruples. He was not slow in noticing that all of his pious actions, his “good works,” brought about no change in him, from which he concluded that nothing of what he did made any difference to God; or, in his own words, “When I was a monk, I used immediately to believe that it was all over with my salvation every time I experienced the concupiscence of the flesh, that is to say an evil movement against one of the brethren, of envy, of anger, of hatred, or of jealousy and so forth….I was everlastingly tormented with the thought… ‘all your good works are just useless.’”
It would seem that at this stage our monk made two errors on the principles of the spiritual life. In the first place, his sentimental temperament made him too anxious to feel sensible consolations. He had to feel that he was in the state of grace, as if grace were something to be felt! The doctrine that grace is infused into the soul when sin is effaced made him almost despair of God, for he had never tasted the perfect purity of grace. His second error was his desire to attain virtue and perfection by his own efforts rather than by the grace of God. This personal voluntarism was all the more dangerous because his scrupulosity made him take the least involuntary sensations for sins and made him want to attain a level of holiness which would betray no sign of human weakness. For ten years his soul was consumed with fear of eternal damnation. He was counseled to put all his trust in the Redeemer of the human race, who had not died in vain.
To escape this state of interior torment in which his scruples and his proud voluntarism held him captive, Luther threw himself into activism with his preaching and instruction. Then came the temptation to despair: be content to be what you are, a fallen angel, a deformed creature; your job is to do evil, for your very being is evil. Luther’s torment was the echo of the drama lived by St. Paul himself: “But I see another law in my members, fighting against the law of my mind, and captivating me in the law of sin, that is in my members. Unhappy man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death? The grace of God, by Jesus Christ our Lord.” Jesus Christ! Behold the sole response given for 1500 years to the agonizing question of personal salvation. Saul became St. Paul because he threw himself into the arms of his God. Behold all the difference between Luther and St. Paul. Instead of calling immediately upon his Savior, Luther resigned himself to his base passions: “Concupiscence is invincible.” Around this time he began signing his letters, “Luder, son of Adam the outcast.”
Up to this point, we have been following the story of a scrupulous monk on the brink of despair. Suddenly, the theme changes and we see emerge Luther the Reformer, who has found holiness in the face of despair and of perverse resignation. To put the seal on his transformation, he began to call himself Lutherius, Martin the Freedman. Thus, for ten years, Luther had been haunted by the question of salvation, seeking in vain how he might escape the fury of the just Judge. In 1516, reading St. Paul to the Romans, he finally hit upon the decisive argument: “For the justice of God is revealed therein, from faith unto faith, as it is written, ‘The just man lived by faith.’” Brother Martin explained that according to St. Paul, the justification of God means covering with a purely extrinsic mantle the accumulation of sin which is man. In order to be just, sinful man has but to believe.
Again from St. Paul, he would deduce that all of man’s efforts are sinful; that he is without freedom; that he is only a beast driven either by God or by the devil, whichever of the two is in the saddle. Depraved animal that he is, man can do nothing by himself to win his salvation. It is useless to perform good works since Christ has done everything in our place. Salvation comes to man only when he has put all his faith in Christ—faith here meaning blind trust. This confidence brought him to utter his Pecca fortiter et crede firmius—Sin heartily, but believe more heartily still! This axiom is not to be understood merely as the glorification of moral laxism. Whether we sin or not is of little consequence; what matters is that we believe. For Luther, to believe is to have a confidence as firm as it is blind. Thus, the life of a Christian is nothing but a continual exercise in feeling that we have not sinned even as we sin, confident that we have cast our sins upon Christ.
Belief Based on Experience
All of Luther’s doctrine is clearly the result of his personal experience. He transformed his needs into dogmatic truths. His inner feelings became theological principles and his particular case became universal law. Thirsting for moral security and spiritual freedom, he liberated himself from his scruples of conscience by despairing of any good work and by casting himself, sinner that he was, into the arms of Christ. He had been preaching this doctrine at the university for more than a year when the question of indulgences arose. Abuses in the granting of indulgences were indeed to become the spark which set all aflame but in reality they were only a pretext for revolt. As he nailed his Ninety-Five Theses on indulgences to the church door of Wittenberg in 1517, he had already refined his own teaching on the fundamental questions surrounding eternal salvation, the justice of God, faith, and good works.
The drama of Protestantism and Luther does not consist so much in his immorality and his blasphemy which arose from a warped theology. No; the whole tragedy of the revolt consists in the fact that a monk took it upon himself to erase fifteen centuries of tranquil possession of divine truth and that he gained an extraordinary influence over the masses by claiming to be directly inspired by God. The root of the problem is Luther’s boast to have understood St. Paul better than anyone else hitherto, better than the Church herself, interpreter and guardian of the divine word. Luther’s great victory is to have turned half of Christendom away from what it had accepted until then without dispute, as a brilliant orator holding out the attractive offer of a free and automatic paradise, and to have brought it to embrace this doctrine of a gratuitous salvation simply because he said he understood things better than anyone had before him. Private judgment therefore emerges as the source and origin of the Reformation, that upon which all else depends. Luther’s private judgment would do more to destroy what the Church held most dear than would any other point of doctrine. Private judgment signed the death warrant of the entire treasure of the Church.
Soon, men abandoned the faith of the Church and received the imperious dogmas of Luther, Calvin, Elizabeth, Gustav Adolphus, et alia. They were indeed imperious, in Geneva perhaps more than anywhere else, to the extent that wielding too freely one’s private judgment became a matter of life and death. Erasmus laments their fate with a touch of irony: “What a great defender of Evangelical freedom we have in Luther! Thanks to him, the yoke we bear becomes twice as heavy. Mere opinions become dogma.”
“Private judgment” is not a viable principle for any constituted group anymore than for the Catholic Church. Thus, at the very heart of Protestantism, there is solution of continuity, perfect illogic, and ultimate contradiction. All the irony of Protestantism’s inherent schizophrenia is captured by the Protestant scholar Adolph von Harnack:
“Protestantism suffers from an internal antinomy, derived from its very foundations. If you have no confession of faith, who are you? What society do you make up? Why do you exist? And if you do promulgate a confession of faith; if you wish to impose it on me by your authority and in spite of the resistance of my conscience, how are you still Protestant? What do you do any differently from the Catholic, and against what do you claim Luther and Calvin did well to revolt?” Likewise, Hausser, speaking of Calvin, states that he “did not see, or did not wish to see, the frightful antinomy at the very root of his own effort: to recreate an authority, a dogma, a Church, on the basis of private judgment.”
At the beginning of the 20th century, eminent Protestants of the German High Church, like Seeberg of Berlin and Braun, deplored the bitter fruits of the Reformation, considering that, rather than celebrate the fourth centenary of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, Protestants would be better off doing penance in sack-cloth and ashes.
“How small the Reformer has become according to the studies of our own Protestant investigators! How his merits have shriveled up! We believed that we owed to him the spirit of toleration and liberty of conscience. Not in the least! We recognized in his translation of the Bible a masterpiece stamped with the impress of originality—we may be happy now if it is not plainly called a ‘plagiarism’!…Looking upon the ‘results’ of their work thus gathered together, we cannot help asking the question: What, then, remains of Luther?”
Luther’s lifetime witnessed a substantial change of Europe. What had been one Christendom was suddenly a vase broken into a thousand pieces. In other aspects too, like morality, anthropology and theology, Luther’s ultimate legacy looks very much like a divided kingdom.
For more reference on Luther, see Philip Hughes, A Popular History of the Reformation (Garden City, NJ: Hanover House, 1957); O’Hare, Facts about Luther (Rockford, Ill: TAN Books and Publishers, 1987)