[Note: this was written in 1992. I’ve learned tons of things about Martin Luther since that time; even in just the last few years, as I continue to do further research and reading. In several cases, I have changed my opinion on particular elements of his beliefs and behavior. Thus, I wouldn’t express several things in this article the way I did then, and I’ve discovered one definite inaccuracy; see the next note below. I have kept this article online, listed on my “Resume” because it was my first published article. But I don’t list it on my Luther web page, due to its outdated nature and relative lack of documentation. At the time I wrote it (before I was even online), I didn’t have nearly the resources available to me that I now have]
Martin Luther has, of course, been traditionally regarded as either a “Reformer of the True Church,” or the “Ultimate Heresiarch,” depending on one’s religious affiliation. Ironically, the first description of Luther seems to have taken hold among Catholics as well as Protestants in the current climate of ecumenism.
Arguably, however, the real Luther is far more fascinating and complex than his detractors or hagiographers have generally realized. There exists in “the Father of the Reformation” a curious mix of orthodoxy and heterodoxy which are part and parcel of his tempestuous and radically subjective temperament (a psychological trait acknowledged by serious biographers on all sides). It is worthwhile exploring this habit of both simultaneous contradiction and vacillation — a tendency easily documented from his own words — in attempting to understand this most controversial figure.
A striking example of Luther’s “doublespeak” occurs in a sequence of four letters – – all, incidentally, written after the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses (October 31, 1517):
Most Holy Father, prostrate at the feet of your Holiness, I offer myself with all that I am and have . . . I will acknowledge thy voice as the voice of Christ. (Letter to Pope Leo X, May 30, 1518)
The true Antichrist, according to Paul, reigns in the Roman Court: I think I am able to prove that he [the Pope] is now worse than the Turks. (Letter to Wenceslaus Link, December 11, 1518)
I never approved of a schism, nor will I approve of it for all eternity . . . That the Roman Church is more honored by God than all others is not to be doubted . . . It is not by separating from the Church that we can make her better. (Letter to Pope Leo X, January 6, 1519)
I do not know whether the Pope is Antichrist himself, or his Apostle: so miserably is Christ (that is, truth) corrupted and crucified by him in the decrees. (Letter to Georg Spalatin, March 13, 1519)
The most charitable and unassuming description of such clear equivocation might be “frequent profound mood changes!”
Some of Luther’s most shocking opinions are regarding celibacy, chastity, and marriage. One might expect from Luther a certain disdain of Tradition, but not such a wanton disrespect of the moral teachings of the Bible. The most famous sexual scandal of the Protestant Revolt was the bigamy of the Prince (“Landgrave”) Philip of Hesse. Philip was married, but continually engaged in adultery, and petitioned Luther for permission to take another wife. Although bigamy was punishable by death in German law, Philip Melanchthon, Luther’s right-hand man and successor, wrote a document sanctioning bigamy, signed by Luther and six other “reformers,” including Martin Bucer. It reads in part:
We declare under an oath that it ought to be done secretly . . . It is nothing unusual for princes to have concubines . . . and this modest way of living would please more than adultery. (Document dated December 10, 1539 / Luther’s Letters, De Wette — Seidemann, Berlin, 1828, vol. 6, 255-265)
The secret soon became public, whereupon Melanchthon “sickened almost to death with remorse.” Luther, unabashed, acted as if he was totally unaware of the illegal and immoral transaction, and confided to friends:
A secret yes must remain a public no and vice versa. (De Wette, vol. 6, 263)
What would it matter if, for the sake of greater good and of the Christian Church, one were to tell a good, downright lie? (Lenz, Luther’s Letters, Leipzig, 1891, vol. 1, 382)
Luther believed that polygamy was sanctioned in Scripture:
I cannot forbid a person to marry several wives, for it does not contradict the Scripture. (De Wette, vol. 2, 459)
On the contrary, Jesus Christ (Matt 19:6-9) and St. Paul (Rom 7:3; I Cor 7:2; Eph 5:32-33) presupposed monogamy as normative for the Christian.
Celibacy was also supposedly impossible, an idea fraught with many dangers and implications:
Chastity is not in our power. All are created for marriage. God does not permit that one be alone. (De Wette, vol. 2, 637 ff.)
This is expressly denied by Our Lord (Matt 19:12). According to Luther, both men and women are utterly unable to abstain from sex, and indeed,
Libidinousness cannot be cured by anything, not even by marriage; for the greater part of the married live in adultery. (Luther’s Works, Erlangen, 1868, “Opp. Exeg. Lat.,” I, 212)
Despite all this (many similarly shocking utterances could be brought forth on a variety of topics), Luther’s softer and more reflective side can be surprisingly orthodox and even tender, especially when he teaches on the Blessed Virgin Mary. He believed in the Immaculate Conception, Mary’s perpetual virginity,and in the usage of the title Mother of God (in the latter two beliefs he is joined by Calvin, Zwingli, and other Protestants). Luther’s own words:
Christ . . . was the only Son of Mary, and the Virgin Mary bore no children besides Him . . . ‘brothers’ really means ‘cousins’ here, for Holy Writ and the Jews always call cousins brothers.(Sermons on John, chapters 1-4, 1537-39)
God says . . . :’Mary’s Son is My only Son.’ Thus Mary is the Mother of God. (Ibid.)
The infusion of Mary’s soul was effected without original sin . . . From the first moment she began to live she was free from all sin. (Sermon: “On the Day of the Conception of the Mother of God,” 1527)
The eminent Lutheran theologian Arthur Carl Piepkorn (1907-73), of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, after years of study, confirmed Luther’s unswerving acceptance of the Immaculate Conception until his death.
Luther uttered many praises of Our Lady in several contexts:
Mary is the Mother of Jesus and the Mother of all of us . . . There where He is, we ought also to be and all that He has ought to be ours, and His Mother is also our Mother. (Sermon, Christmas, 1529)
The veneration of Mary is inscribed in the very depths of the human heart. (Sermon, September 1, 1522)
We can never honor her enough. Still honor and praise must be given to her in such a way as to injure neither Christ nor the Scriptures. (Sermon, Christmas, 1531)
Whoever possesses a good faith, says the Hail Mary without danger. (Sermon, March 11, 1523)
Luther’s view of the Eucharist was also, in many ways, orthodox (he believed the bread and wine remained after the consecration [consubstantiation] and denied the Sacrifice of the Mass). Here there is irony and inconsistency in Luther’s reasoning as well. He based his conclusion not only on Christ’s clear words at the Last Supper, but also on Church Tradition (!), writing to Melanchthon: “It was very dangerous to assume that the Church which had existed for so many centuries . . . should not have taught the true doctrine of the Sacraments.” Luther deemed more radical Protestants such as Zwingli and Oecolampadius as “damned . . . out of the Church . . . offspring of hell . . . heretics,” largely based on their symbolic views of the Eucharist.
Furthermore, we know Luther allowed those who still believed in Transubstantiation to join his party in 1543, only three years before he died (Letter to the Evangelicals at Venice, June 13, 1543). Writing about the Elevation of the Host in 1544, Luther stated:
If Christ is truly present in the Bread, why should He not be treated with the utmost respect and even be adored?” Joachim, a friend, added: “We saw how Luther bowed low at the Elevation with great devotion and reverently worshiped Christ. (Mathesius, Table Talk, Leipzig, 1903, 341)
In 1545 he described the Eucharist as the “adorable Sacrament,” which caused Calvin to accuse him of “raising up an idol in God’s temple,” and of being “half-papist.” Luther, in later years, lamented often about the actual course of his “Reformation” in Germany, thus perhaps revealing a sense of failure and guilt:
Who would have wanted to begin preaching, had we known beforehand that so much disaster, riotousness, scandal, sacrilege, ingratitude [i.e., towards himself], and wickedness were to follow. But now . . . we have to pay for it. (Works, Erlangen, 50,74; in 1538)
I have well nigh given up all hope for Germany, for . . . wickedness and roguery are reigning everywhere . . . and added to all else contempt of the Word. (Letter to Anton Lauterbach, November 1541)
Even so, despite frequent bouts of self-condemnation, he did not renounce his supposed absolute certainty concerning the “Gospel” which he felt he had restored from the ashes.
Perhaps the ultimate tragic contradiction in Luther is his simultaneous assertion of private judgment over against Church Tradition, and denial of the same right to his fellow Protestant sectarians, consigning all of them to damnation for not accepting his “clear” dogmatic statements of the truths of Christianity. In so doing, he had absurdly evolved full circle from “Here I stand – – I can do no other” to “This I declare – – you can believe no other,” and made himself an intolerant autocrat unequaled by any other major and important figure in Church history (with the possible exception of Calvin). He sanctioned censorship of non-Lutheran works, forcible suppression of the Mass, and capital punishment for wide-ranging theological errors determined by his magisterium of one (e.g., the Anabaptists).
Whatever one thinks of Martin Luther, however, he possessed beyond doubt one of the most interesting personalities in history, providing a lifetime of challenge for any theologically-minded amateur psychologist.
Two explanatory notes (in blue and brackets) added on 14 June 2008.
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Meta Description: Introduction to Martin Luther, founder of Protestantism, from a Catholic perspective.
Meta Keywords: Martin Luther, Luther, Protestant Reformation, founder of Protestantism