Luther as populist and freedom fighter

Luther as populist and freedom fighter March 22, 2017

Luther_(Wislicenus)Much of Europe, including Catholics, will be celebrating the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting the 95 theses.  But Great Britain, not so much.

The founder of the Church of England, King Henry VIII, hated Luther (who opposed his multiple marriages) and martyred his followers.  Later, when Anglicans became distinctly Protestant, they threw in with John Calvin and the Reformed tradition.

Even though the church followed Luther in adopting the Liturgy and emphasizing the Sacraments–thanks to Wittenberg student Thomas Cranmer–the Anglicans don’t do much with Luther.  So they are mostly skipping the October 31 celebration.

British journalist Peter Stanford, writing in the left-of-center Guardian, thinks that’s a shame.  He says Luther deserves to be celebrated as a populist, a champion of the poor, and the seminal defender of the freedom of speech and the freedom of conscience.  He also says Luther is a key founder of the modern era.  He was also unimaginably brave.

Now I’m not sure Mr. Stanford fully understands the religious significance of Luther, particularly, his recovery of the Gospel, and there are other things he gets wrong.  But you should read his article for an interesting secular perspective on Luther’s cultural influence.

From Peter Stanford, Five centuries on, Martin Luther should be feted as hero of liberty and free speech | World news | The Guardian:

In the English version of the Reformation, Martin Luther’s role amounts to little more than noises off. First, he attracted the hostility of Henry VIII, aided and abetted by Thomas More, as they flung barbs at “this venomous serpent” challenging the Catholic church’s stranglehold over Europe. Then, just over a decade later, the king exploited the breach in Rome’s defences that Luther had created to launch a national church.

But Henry was always keen to stress that he was no Lutheran, and the German reformer’s new take on Christianity did not survive intact when crossing the Channel. So the celebrations this year of the 500th anniversary of Luther issuing his 95 theses – the key text in his onslaught against the pope’s abuse of power and scripture – is set to largely pass us by.

The “joint fest for Jesus Christ”, organised by the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican, is a remarkable act of togetherness after half a millennium of enmity and bloodshed. It will be getting into gear this Easter across continental Europe, but there is no party happening here. Which is mighty unfair on Luther.

When the new Protestantism – a word invented by Luther’s enemies at the Diet of Speyer in 1529 – did arrive on these shores once Henry had shut out Rome, it might not have been specifically Lutheran, but it would not have existed at all had it not been for Luther. Once he had argued that you could worship God by following the scriptures not the pope, others such as Zwingli and Calvin followed in his wake, setting up their own churches as Protestantism quickly fragmented.

We live today in secular, sceptical, scientific times, when religion itself is regularly branded irrelevant. So Luther, if considered at all, tends to be dismissed as dour, distant and two-dimensional, better suited to the dusty pages of history books than the 21st century. So much so that he is often confused with Martin Luther King, whose continuing importance is much more readily understood.

Yet as one of the makers of modern Europe, and a populist who rose to prominence on a wave of anti-establishment discontent among those who felt themselves shut out and forgotten (sound familiar?), his story has never had a more immediate resonance.

[Keep reading. . .]

Painting of Luther at the Diet of Worms by Hermann Wislicenus (1880).  Photo by James Steakley.James Steakley at de.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

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