Tag Archives: Martin Luther

Martin “Eleutherius” Luther

I learnt a great deal while preparing my paper for the recent Luther@500 Conference at Vose Seminary. None of it was original, of course, but a harvesting of the fruits of others’ scholarship informing my own engagement with Luther’s writings. The point most significant for me was the dawning recognition that Martin Luther was not always Martin Luther. This is one of those “obvious” facts, that sits on the edge of awareness but then the penny drops.

I had known that young Martin was born to Hans and Margarete Luder. In biographies and other Reformation sources, the family name is always applied to Luther’s parents. Yet, somehow, I had never gone on to ask the question, How and when and why did Martin Luder become Martin Luther?

In my research it became clear that the change had already occurred by the time Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses, for the superscription for the Theses uses the name, although spelt Lutther. Whether this was intentional or a printer’s mistake in the facsimile I examined, I do not know. We know, too, that Luther sent a copy of his Theses to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz on October 31, 1517, in the name of “Luther” (see Wengert, ed., The Annotated Luther Volume 1:The Roots of Reform, 34, 47-55). Bernard Lohse suggests that this was the first time that Luder adopted and used this name (Martin Luther’s Theology, 101).

Historians note that it was not unusual for humanists to adopt a Greek form of their name to produce a scholarly pseudonym. For example, the brilliant young humanist Philip Schwarzerd, who entered the University of Heidelberg at the tender age of twelve, is better known by his Greek name: Philip Melanchthon (Evans, The Roots of the Reformation, 273).

Around this time Luther also began using a Greek name when he signed his letters: eleutherius – the free one. Heinz Schilling suggests that as Luder’s work took him out of the academy and into the world of the common folk among whom the Greek name would be meaningless, “he preserved a reminder of the freedom that was at the heart of reformed theology: the central th in the Greek form of his name was carried over into his family name. Martin Luder became Martin Luther” (Martin Luther: Rebel in an Age of Upheaval, 139).

It is possible that Luther wanted to change his name for other reasons. Marcus Wriedt suggests that “Luder” bore the connotation as such words as ‘dirt’ or ‘garbage’ (“Luther’s Theology,” in Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther, 86). Whether in the sixteenth century the word had the colloquial connotations it does in the modern period—i.e. as a reference to a “common” woman considered an immoral “hussy”—I cannot say.

What is significant, I believe, is that Luther used his new name—indicative of a new identity?—in his first foray into the public sphere with the new theology that he had been developing and teaching at the Wittenberg University for several years. In his letter addressed to Albrecht, and in his Ninety-Five Theses, Luther was identifying as one freed by Christ and the gospel; freed from scholastic theology, freed from the fear of judgement, freed in order to help others find similar freedom.

Luther’s very name is itself testimony to the heart of his theological and pastoral vision: a theology of freedom issuing from the free grace of the free God who makes his people free. Scott Hendrix concurs: “From this point on [here, 1521], freedom for Luther meant living bound to Christ, and that freedom made him much more than a protester against indulgences or a critic of the pope. Now he was a man with a larger vision of what religion could be and a mission to realize that vision by making other people free” (Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer, 115).

Of course, Luther’s freedom is the paradoxical freedom of the one who has been found and bound in Christ. This is worlds away from libertarian concepts of personal and individual autonomy common today. It is the freedom of one so free they become free even from themselves, even from their own will to be free: they become servants of Christ and of others. This is the genius of Luther’s little tractate The Freedom of a Christian.

Luther@500

Last week Vose Seminary conducted a half-day Luther@500 Conference, around the theme of The Pastoral Luther. Although the event was only pulled together in the last couple of months, for much of the year I was keen to see the Seminary mark this anniversary of the Reformation.

For me, there were several highlights: first, the strength and quality of the four papers. Peter Elliott started proceedings with an historical account of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, and insight into the pastoral concerns that formed a significant motivation for Luther’s action. My paper on Luther’s pastoral theology followed, in which I examined two documents from Luther’s early career: a sermon entitled A Meditation on Christ’s Passion (1519) and his justly renowned The Freedom of a Christian (1520). I argued that Luther sought to free salvation from the model of human religious performance that prevailed in the late medieval period, and that he also viewed it as a salvation that frees. Matthew Bishop’s paper explored the phenomenon of depression, and analysed a number of Luther’s letters to the depressed in order to ascertain insights and principles to guide pastoral care in the present. While not everything from the sixteenth-century context is transferrable to the present, there is still much to learn from the one sometimes referred to as “Christianity’s most famous depressive.” Finally, Brian Harris explored several aspects of Luther’s leadership, noting first that there appears to be little written on this subject. He noted Luther’s character and courage, his strategic use of the latest technologies, his work ethic, and his popularising of the message. Brian also highlighted some less savoury aspects of Luther’s leadership, especially his rhetoric with respect to the Jews, which, while not out of character for the times, was out of character with Christ, and which also had devastating consequences in later centuries.

The second highlight was the ecumenical nature of the event. About forty people gathered for the conference, coming from a variety of denominations and backgrounds, and included ministers, students, and lay persons. I am grateful that the Seminary had and seized this opportunity to serve the church in a way for which it is uniquely qualified. I am grateful, too,  for Peter Elliott and Perth Bible College for joining us in this endeavour.

The third and perhaps most special highlight was having Matthew Bishop join us for the conference. Matthew is a Lutheran pastor in a local congregation. Not only did Matthew bring a great deal of knowledge of Luther, but also an ecumenical openness and warmth, together with a substantial pastoral integrity. His being a Lutheran also lent a certain authenticity to the gathering. To make new friends, and to see bridges of fellowship strengthened across denominational and institutional lines is a blessing indeed, and made this seminar well worthwhile, and not only for remembering Luther’s achievement.

Luther@500: The Pastoral Luther

Almost ten years ago, internationally regarded Luther scholar Timothy Wengert said,

As Luther fans the world over are already gearing up for the celebration in 2017 of the 500th anniversary of their posting [i.e. the Ninety-Five Theses] on 31 October 1517, too often the celebrations will focus on Luther’s break with Rome or his Reformation breakthrough rather than on Luther’s own stated reason for the dispute: pastoral care for his flock in Wittenberg (“Introducing the Pastoral Luther” in Wengert (ed.), The Pastoral Luther: Essays on Martin Luther’s Practical Theology (Lutheran Quarterly Books; Eerdmans, p. 5).

Vose Seminary will commemorate this anniversary with a mini-Conference on The Pastoral Luther. Conducted on October 30, four papers will be presented as follows:

  1. Dr Peter Elliott (Perth Bible College): The Pastoral Roots of Luther’s Reformation
  2. Dr Michael O’Neil (Vose Seminary): Freeing Salvation: Luther’s Pastoral Theology
  3. Ps Matthew Bishop (Bethlehem Lutheran Church Morley): Of Good Comfort: Luther’s Pastoral Letters to the Depressed
  4. Dr Brian Harris (Vose Seminary): Luther as Leader

I am very much looking forward to this event. If you are in Perth, perhaps you can make it along.

For details and registration, go to:
https://www.trybooking.com/book/event?eid=321641  

A Prayer on Sunday

Painting by Elizabeth Polfus. See elizabethpolfus.com

Behold, Lord, an empty vessel that needs to be filled.
My Lord, fill it.
I am weak in the faith; strengthen me.
I am cold in love; warm me and make me fervent,
that my love may go out to my neighbour.

I do not have a strong and firm faith;
At times I doubt and am unable to trust you altogether.
O Lord, help me. Strengthen my faith and trust in you.

In you I have sealed the treasure of all I have.
I am poor; you are rich and came to be merciful to the poor.

I am a sinner; you are upright.
With me, there is an abundance of sin;
in you is the fullness of righteousness.
Therefore I will remain with you,
of whom I can receive, but to whom I may not give.

Amen.

(Martin Luther)

Luther, Scripture and Conscience

Scott Hendrix’s comment on Luther’s declaration at Worms is worth repeating:

Although Luther was aware that different interpretations of scripture could be valid, he did not waver. His answer to Von der Ecken was the long version of a blunt statement he had made to Cardinal Cajetan three years earlier: “Divine truth is lord also over the pope, and I do not await human judgment when I have learned the judgment of God.” For Luther, the issue at stake in Worms was not how to interpret scripture but who could interpret scripture and discern the timely truth it contained. His “incontestable arguments” were based on what a text said and not on who offered the interpretation, that is, not on the pope’s interpretation because he was pope. And that his ‘conscience was captive to the word of God’ was not an internal moral meter that measured right or wrong, but loyalty to the highest authority on which one depended for the truth. For Luther in 1521, that authority was the gospel found in scripture.

Luther was a theology professor at an institution that did not promise freedom of speech. He had sworn allegiance both to the Roman Church and to holy scripture, which he was obligated to teach. Initially he saw no contradiction between them. The indulgence controversy, however, forced him to choose, and he confessed to Cajetan that his loyalty to scripture was higher than his loyalty to the pope. His conscience was now captive to scripture and not to papal interpretations of scripture… (106).

Hendrix, Martin Luther, Visionary Reformer (Review)

Hendrix, Scott H., Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015). Xxiv + 341pp. ISBN: 978-0-300-16669-9

Scott Hendrix, Emeritus Professor of Reformation History at Princeton Theological Seminary, has written an articulate, detailed, and highly readable story of the remarkable life of Martin Luther. The book is divided into two parts. Part one, “Pathways to Reform,” covers the period 1483–1521, while part two, “Pursuit of a Vision” treats 1522–1546. The first part consists of eight chapters that introduce Luther and set him firmly in the context of late medieval Germany. Hendrix’s Luther is very much a normal (sixteenth-century) man, “neither a hero nor a villain, but a human being with both merits and faults” (xi). Drawing on a lifetime of learning, and extensively referencing German, Latin, and English-language sources, Hendrix rejects the “popular version” of the “cliché” or “myth of Luther the hero” (33, 39). Luther did join the monastery against his father’s wishes but whether solely as a result of the storm is doubtful. Although we know he posted his ninety-five theses to Archbishop Albert of Mainz, we cannot be quite as certain that he posted them on the doors of Castle Church. He was not a solitary or isolated figure, but embedded in communities and friendships which functioned as networks of support during the Reformation. Although he did struggle with his conscience, his psychological state must not be over-emphasised. His theological breakthrough was not simply the result of a monk’s desperate search for a gracious God, but also of many years of intellectual and academic development, accompanied with pastoral reflection.

Although by 1517 Luther was “pushing reform on two fronts: academic theology and popular piety” (68), he was not yet the “visionary Reformer” he later became. Only in 1520 did he “turn a corner,” believing that the time had come to “speak out” (89). The decisive change occurred while holed up in the Wartburg. Cast out of the church, released from his monastic vows, officially an outlaw, and in hiding for his life, Luther faced, to put it mildly, an uncertain future which neither he nor his friends nor his protector could fathom (112-113). It was in this liminal space, suggests Hendrix, that Luther became then a man possessed of a new identity, vision and purpose, based on a vision of what Christianity could become – a vision he was now intent on pursuing (115).

In the second part of the book the pace slows a little as Hendrix explores the developments of the Reformation’s progress, and Luther’s role and responses in them. Chapters nine and ten treat the early reforms at Wittenberg, initially without Luther, and later stabilised by his presence. Luther’s reforming movement is presented as a “massive campaign of reeducation” (138), equipping the laity with sufficient theological and devotional frameworks, and knowledge so that their consciences and consequent religious practice were formed and reformed. He was concerned also for marriage as one of the goods of creation given by God, and for the education of children and well-run schools. Thus Luther’s vision included cultural as well as spiritual and ecclesial renewal. It was for these reasons that Luther resisted what he considered false initiatives and directions taken by some of his own associates such Karlstadt and Müntzer. According to Hendrix, the tragedy of the Peasant’s War arose because “Müntzer had his own vision of what Christianity should be” (151)—a radical, politicised and apocalyptic vision of the kingdom of God realised in a purified Christian state. Luther believed the movement stirred by Müntzer was threatening to undo not just the Reformation but the whole social order.

Hendrix identifies 1525 as a pivotal year during which the profile of the German Reformation began to change from a populist movement driven from the bottom up, to a more formal institutional movement of renewal with momentum coming from the top down. That is, after 1525 the civil authorities began to bring the reforming energies under control. “As a rule, historians have lamented the shift from populist movement to government-authorized reforms, but for the most part Luther did not” (173): the Reformation required the support and protection of the civil authorities if it were not to be put down by its powerful opponents.

Luther wanted release from hierarchical control and false beliefs, but not from worship, order, faith, sacraments, and word. Evangelical worship would be “informal and spontaneous,” arising from the communal experience itself and not imposed from above. Religion would not be confined to churchgoing but would spill over into daily life. Hendrix acknowledges that Luther’s vision resembled the ideal of monastic life stripped of celibacy and the demand for perfection: “Luther never completely abandoned the monastic ideal. The man left the monastery, but the monastery never left the man” (176).

Luther, of course, did not pursue his vision alone. Without Staupitz, Philip of Hesse, his many associates and those who took up the cause in other towns and regions, his Reformation would not have succeeded. In particular, Hendrix notes the crucial role played by Melanchthon—even in Luther’s mind:

For this I was born: to fight and take the field against mobs and devils. Therefore many of my books are stormy and war-like. I must pull out the stumps and roots, hack away at thorns and thistles, drain the swamps [!]. I am the coarse woodsman who must blaze a new trail. But Master Philip comes neatly and quietly behind me, cultivates and plants, sows and waters with joy, according to the gifts that God has richly given him (215).

“Luther was the bushwhacker willing to reject and condemn everything contrary to the gospel and let God take care of the consequences. Melanchthon was the gardener willing to cultivate an agreement between opposing sides so long as it did not silence the gospel” (219). In the end, both were needed and both played their part.

The issue that dominated Luther’s thought in the final years of his life concerned the identity of the true church. In Luther’s view, the rise of Protestantism was not a split from the Roman Catholic Church, but the preservation of the true church which had always existed. It was the Roman hierarchy which had betrayed true Christianity and as such had become a false church (268). In reality, however, Hendrix argues that it was practical issues—the lived spirituality—of the different groups that hindered reconciliation, rather than the politics or theology of the day. Even when some rapprochement appeared possible, neither Catholics nor Protestants were “willing to budge on the same practical issues that had divided them since the ninety-five theses of 1517: indulgences, celibacy of priests, enumerating sins at private confession, private masses, and so forth” (262). “Doctrines were discussable because they were concepts that mattered mainly to theologians; but religious practices were not negotiable because they gave access to the presence and power of the divine, and that access was the reason religion existed” (221). Where the divine is concerned, where everything is at stake, compromise becomes impossible.

In his Martin Luther’s Theology Bernhard Lohse remarks that attempts to characterise Luther typically reflect the theology and values of the interpreter as much as those of Luther himself (3, 6). Hendrix locates the centre of Luther’s theology and reforming vision in the idea of freedom. “Freedom for Luther meant living bound to Christ, and that freedom made him much more than a protester against indulgences or a critic of the pope. Now he was a man with a larger vision of what religion could be and a mission to realize that vision by making other people free” (115). While other interpreters might locate this centre elsewhere, Hendrix’s proposal at least has substantial warrant from Luther’s own works and words. This is an excellent biography that not only introduces Luther the reformer but also humanises Luther the man. It is likely that all interested persons, from Luther scholars to laity, will find here much to consider, inform, and inspire.

Martin Luther, Visionary Reformer (3)

Luther’s Reformation never settled during his lifetime; his vision was never realised. In the 1530s the movement faced questions and opposition on three sides, from the Anabaptists, the Catholics, and the Zwinglians. Of these, a rapprochement was possible only with the third, and this was the work of the princes in the formation of the Smalcald League, which sought to unify Protestants and Protestant territories. Indeed, as he aged, Luther remained or even grew more polemical, especially toward the papacy, but also toward Anabaptists and Jews. His hope that the true church would emerge and thrive at the preaching of the gospel was not to be. Even Wittenberg was “home to no more true Christians than any other place” (282).

For himself, however, Luther did not doubt. On the evening of his death he was asked by one of his associates whether he was ready to die trusting in Christ and standing by what he had taught. “A distinct ‘yes’ emerged from his mouth before Luther turned on his right side and went to sleep.” He died later that night without priest, confession of sins, or anointing with oil (284).

No doubt Luther never imagined some of the results which would spring from his activity. He gave the Germans a Bible in their own language, and many read it in their own way, some “enslaving themselves verse by verse to a paper pope” (228). His emphasis on Christian freedom was taken by some in antinomian directions, while others insisted on obedience to the law.

Separating religion from moralism was Luther’s revolutionary innovation and simultaneously the reason why he was often misunderstood and rejected. It defied the age-old purpose of religion: to gain access to the divine and then to please the gods in order to obtain their blessing and reward. … Christianity had mostly fit that template and Luther’s attempt to alter it was bound to meet enormous resistance, even though he was able to sum up his view in one sentence: “True religion demands the heart and the soul, not deeds and other externals, although these follow if you have the right heart. For where the heart is, everything else is also there” (233-234).

True religion is not and cannot be grounded in law and works: in accord with his vision of the gospel, it is faith that frees. True religion is not morality. Faith, and the life that issues from it, is all the work of the Holy Spirit. This did not mean, however, that Luther had no place for the law. Against his long-time associate and friend John Agricola who argued that the law should not be preached or taught lest people think that faith is insufficient for salvation, Luther said, “I myself, as old and as learned as I am, recite the commandments daily word for word like a child” (257). Hendrix notes that being Luther’s friend could be a precarious relation. His rejections of Karlstadt and Agricola suggested that Luther tied collegial friendships to like-mindedness and deference.

Since 1521, Luther believed he was subject only to the Lord himself, who had shown him the genuine gospel and entrusted him with its propagation. Feeling the weight of that divine sanction, Luther would do almost anything to ensure that the reformation prospered, and that included adapting the evangelical message to a shifting audience. Agricola could not accept the adaptation, and Luther’s heartless behavior drove Agricola away. … For Luther, the “adversary” was any person or group who would not cooperate with his mission to restore a purified Christianity to Germany (258, 264).

The issue that dominated Luther’s thought in the final years of his life concerned the identity of the true church. In Luther’s view, the rise of Protestantism was not a split from the Roman Catholic Church, but the preservation of the true church which had always existed. It was the Roman hierarchy which had betrayed true Christianity and as such had become a false church (268). The true church is never the institution but the gathering of believers to hear, believe and keep the “pure” Word of God.

True Christendom, like true religion, consisted only of people who conveyed to one another the word of God, believed it, and kept it with all the freedom, charity, crosses, and shortfalls that it brought. Religious institutions served only as facilitators of that true religion (262).

In reality, however, Hendrix argues that it was practical issues—the lived spirituality—of the different groups that hindered reconciliation, rather than the politics or theology of the day. Even when some rapprochement appeared possible, neither Catholics nor Protestants were “willing to budge on the same practical issues that had divided them since the ninety-five theses of 1517: indulgences, celibacy of priests, enumerating sins at private confession, private masses, and so forth” (262). “Doctrines were discussable because they were concepts that mattered mainly to theologians; but religious practices were not negotiable because they gave access to the presence and power of the divine, and that access was the reason religion existed” (221). Where the divine is concerned, where everything is at stake, compromise becomes impossible:

History is always a reconstruction of the past that reflects the bias and the unavoidable short-sightedness of those who write it. And when religion is the subject, there is no way to verify what was true or false. One person’s true religion was the other person’s heresy or fanaticism. Religious colloquies did not succeed in reconciling Catholics and Lutherans—not to mention other Protestants, Muslims, and Jews—because hidden beneath the differences about what was true and what was false were the stakes identified by Luther: mercy and life, or wrath and death. Tradition, customs, injustices, and ethnic loyalties also played their parts, as they still do in the choice and exercise of religion. In sixteenth-century Europe, however, religious conflicts were so bitter and conciliation so rare because, for most people involved, including Martin Luther, everything was at stake (269).

Martin Luther, Visionary Reformer (2)

In an initial post, I provided an overview of the first part of this book by Scott Hendrix.

The second part of the book is comprised of ten chapters covering the period from 1522-1546. Here the pace of the book slows a little as Hendrix explores the developments of the Reformation’s progress, and Luther’s role and responses in them. Chapters nine and ten treat the early reforms at Wittenberg, initially without Luther, and later stabilised by his presence. Luther’s reforming movement is presented as a “massive campaign of reeducation” (138), equipping the laity with sufficient theological and devotional frameworks, and knowledge so that their consciences and consequent religious practice were formed and reformed. Luther steadfastly resisted rigorist developments which either enforced reform on unwilling participants or bound their conscience with all kinds of rules. Instead he sought to liberate consciences and counter “unthinking piety.”

Nor was Luther’s concern limited to spiritual matters. He was concerned also for marriage as one of the goods of creation given by God, and for the education of children and well-run schools. In Luther’s view, God’s word and grace had given Germany an opportunity which it dare not refuse lest it fall back into misery and darkness, as had happened to the Jews, the Greeks, and now Rome and the Latins. Thus Luther’s vision included cultural as well as ecclesial renewal. It was for these reasons that Luther resisted what he considered false initiatives and directions taken by some of his own associates such Karlstadt and Müntzer. According to Hendrix, the tragedy of the Peasant’s War arose because “Müntzer had his own vision of what Christianity should be” (151)—a radical, politicised and apocalyptic vision of the kingdom of God realised in a purified Christian state. Luther believed the movement stirred by Müntzer was threatening to undo not just the Reformation but the whole social order.

Hendrix identifies 1525 as a pivotal year during which the profile of the German Reformation began to change from a populist movement driven from the bottom up, to a more formal institutional movement of renewal with momentum coming from the top down. That is, after 1525 the civil authorities began to bring the reforming energies under control. “As a rule, historians have lamented the shift from populist movement to government-authorized reforms, but for the most part Luther did not” (173): the Reformation required the support and protection of the civil authorities if it were not to be put down by its powerful opponents. Hendrix details formative ecclesiastical developments, especially the German mass, the new church order, and formal parish visitations for quality-control and oversight which together facilitated the establishing of a new form of (Evangelical) church. Luther wanted release from hierarchical control and false beliefs, but not from worship, order, faith, sacraments, and word. Evangelical worship would be “informal and spontaneous,” arising from the communal experience itself and not imposed from above. Religion would not be confined to churchgoing but would spill over into daily life. Hendrix acknowledges,

If all of that resembles the ideal monastic life of common prayer and work—although stripped of celibacy and the demand for perfection, and adapted for all “earnest Christians” outside the cloister—it is no coincidence. Luther never completely abandoned the monastic ideal. The man left the monastery, but the monastery never left the man (176).

Nonetheless, Luther’s refusal to limit the church to the “faithful,” faith-filled or fully-devoted is of a piece with his theology: we are ever sinners in need of grace. Thus Luther rejected the perfectionism of the monastery while retaining other aspects of its ideal of a life devoted to God. His Small Catechism sought to instil the fear and love of God as the manner of Christian life such that God’s people were free but did not “misuse” their freedom ((196-197).

Luther, of course, did not pursue his vision alone. Without Staupitz, Philip of Hesse, his many associates and those who took up the cause in other towns and regions, his Reformation would not have succeeded. In particular, Hendrix notes the crucial role played by Melanchthon—even in Luther’s mind:

For this I was born: to fight and take the field against mobs and devils. Therefore many of my books are stormy and war-like. I must pull out the stumps and roots, hack away at thorns and thistles, drain the swamps. I am the coarse woodsman who must blaze a new trail. But Master Philip comes neatly and quietly behind me, cultivates and plants, sows and waters with joy, according to the gifts that God has richly given him (215).

“Luther was the bushwhacker willing to reject and condemn everything contrary to the gospel and let God take care of the consequences. Melanchthon was the gardener willing to cultivate an agreement between opposing sides so long as it did not silence the gospel” (219). In the end, both were needed and both played their part.

Martin Luther, Visionary Reformer (1)

Scott Hendrix, Emeritus Professor of Reformation History at Princeton Theological Seminary, has written an articulate, detailed and highly readable story of the remarkable life of Martin Luther. Subtitled Visionary Reformer, we catch a glimpse of Hendrix’s purpose on page 115:

From this point on, freedom for Luther meant living bound to Christ, and that freedom made him much more than a protester against indulgences or a critic of the pope. Now he was a man with a larger vision of what religion could be and a mission to realize that vision by making other people free. The decisive turning point in his life was not the ninety-five theses or the Diet of Worms. It happened at the Wartburg, where he adopted a new identity and a new purpose that he believed to have come from God. It was based on a vision of what Christianity could become – a vision he was intent on pursuing.

Hendrix has divided his book into two parts. Part one, “Pathways to Reform,” covers the period 1483–1521, while part two, “Pursuit of a Vision” treats 1522–1546. The first part consists of eight chapters that introduce Luther and set him firmly in the context of late medieval Germany. Hendrix’s Luther is very much a normal (sixteenth-century) man, “neither a hero nor a villain, but a human being with both merits and faults” (xi). Drawing on a lifetime of learning, and extensively referencing German, Latin, and English-language sources, Hendrix rejects the “popular version” of the “cliché” or “myth of Luther the hero” (33, 39). Luther did join the monastery against his father’s wishes but whether solely as a result of the storm is doubtful. Although we know he posted his ninety-five theses to Archbishop Albert of Mainz, we cannot be quite as certain that he posted them on the doors of Castle Church. He was not a solitary or isolated figure, but embedded in communities and friendships which functioned as networks of support during the Reformation. Although he did struggle with his conscience, his psychological state must not be over-emphasised. His theological breakthrough was not simply the result of a monk’s desperate search for a gracious God, but also many years of intellectual and academic development, accompanied with pastoral reflection.

Hendrix details Luther’s demanding schedule in the years prior to 1517 as a cleric, professor and administrator. “When the ninety-five theses made their splash, their author was not an insignificant Augustinian monk. Rather, Brother Martin belonged to the senior management of the Reformed Congregation” (46). His initial aim was reform of the curriculum at Wittenberg University, along humanist rather than scholastic lines, emphasising the study of Scripture and the early teachers of the church, especially Augustine. But the indulgence controversy caused the reforming impulse to move beyond the university. Here a pastoral motive emerges alongside the theological; this was theology applied for the nature of the gospel and the salvation of the people was at stake. Thus theological, pastoral, hermeneutical—and financial and political—factors combined to spark the Reformation.

Although by 1517 Luther was “pushing reform on two fronts: academic theology and popular piety” (68), he was not yet the “visionary Reformer” he later became. His disputations at Heidelberg, and with Cajetan and Eck were apologetic attempts to commend his new theology. Only in 1520 did he “turn a corner,” believing that the time had come to “speak out” (89). By now he had given up on the clergy taking up the call to reform the church, and so turned to the German nobility to reform the practice of religion in Christendom. The papal bull Exsurge Domine, the edict of ex-communication, and the summons to appear before the emperor at Worms issued in Luther’s determination to recognise the authority of scripture as greater than that of the papacy. Cast out of the church, released from his monastic vows, officially an outlaw, and in hiding for his life, Luther faced, to put it mildly, an uncertain future which neither he nor his friends nor his protector could fathom (112-113). It was in this liminal space, suggests Hendrix, holed up in the Wartburg, that Luther became then a man possessed of a new identity, vision and purpose, a “visionary Reformer.”

Sin Boldly!

luther-statueAfter his trial at Worms in April 1521, Martin Luther went into hiding for almost a year. During that time his associates at Wittenberg began implementing practical reforms in the church there. One of Luther’s closest associates, the young Philip Melanchthon, was reluctant to proceed on some matters in case the changes led to sin. Luther wrote to him on August 1, 1521 urging decisive action:

If you are a preacher of grace, then preach a true and not a fictitious grace; if grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world. As long as we are in this world we have to sin. This life is not the dwelling place of righteousness but, as Peter says, we look for a new heaven and a new earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:13). It is enough that by the riches of God’s glory we have come to know the Lamb that takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). No sin will separate us from the Lamb, even though we commit fornication and murder a thousand times a day (cited in Hendrix, Martin Luther, 121-122).

We must be careful to interpret Luther’s words correctly lest we suggest he intends us to go on sinning deliberately and flagrantly after conversion. Although it is true he is pessimistic about humanity’s ability to rise above sinful behaviours, even amongst the most devout Christians, his words to Melanchthon are about his reforming activities. If Melanchthon decided to do nothing, chances are he would sin; if he decided to act, chances are he would sin. Luther was encouraging proper action even when a perfect result could not be guaranteed.

Not only does this exhortation provide a useful principle in moral deliberation, it also reveals the depth of Luther’s trust in divine grace, his realistic rather than optimistic view of the human condition, and his understanding of Christian spirituality.

To be a Christian is to be a sinner. If we pretend we are not sinners we cannot be saved because Christ gives his grace to sinners. A Christian is someone who acknowledges their sin, owning rather than hiding or denying it. When his protector, Elector John, died in August 1532 Luther refused to deliver a eulogy: “I will not now praise the Elector for his great virtues but let him remain a sinner like the rest of us” (in Hendrix, 236).

Luther said as much to his friend Spalatin, who brooded over his sins and errors:

Now join with us prodigious and hardened sinners lest you diminish Christ for us. He is not a savior of fictitious or petty sinners but of genuine ones, not only the lowly but also the big and powerful ones; indeed he is the savior of all sinners. My Staupitz consoled me this way when I was downhearted. You can be a bogus sinner and have Christ for a fictitious savior. Instead, get used to the fact that Christ is a genuine savior and that you are a real sinner (in Hendrix, 281).

I find something realistic and comforting in Luther’s approach. He did not go out looking for opportunities to sin: he did not need to. And neither do I. But nor did he shrink away from the reality of his own brokenness, but trusted more heartily in Christ—and found him truly a saviour.