THIS year one of the most explosive letters ever put in the post is being commemorated: Luther’s protest against the abuse of indulgences, sent to his Archbishop on 31 October, 500 years ago. Despite recent attempts by scholars to focus attention on other, less well-known figures who contributed to the Reformation, it is hard to avoid the one man whose thinking and actions triggered the extraordinary movement that changed European society.
It is sometimes said that more books have been written about Luther than any other figure in Christian history apart from Christ himself, and he has certainly attracted many legends. It is often a disappointment for those new to Luther to discover that he did not actually do or say many of the things attributed to him. It is unlikely that he nailed the Ninety-five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg; he probably didn’t say “Here I stand, I can do no other”; and there is no evidence that he ever uttered another quotation often attributed to him: “If the world was to end tomorrow I would plant an apple tree.”
So, if some of the stories have little basis in history, what was the man really like? Unlike many figures from the past, it is not hard to pick up a sense of his character from his voluminous writings. Early in his career, while lecturing on the Bible in Wittenberg University and living in the town’s Augustinian monastery, he complained: “I am lecturer in the cloister, reader at meals, preach daily, and direct the students’ studies. I am the Prior’s Vicar, inspector of the fish ponds, expound the Psalms, all besides my daily letter-writing.” And he seldom let up from then on.
The Weimar Edition — the standard scholarly edition of Luther’s works — currently runs to 111 volumes and counting, including letters, sermons, translations, and a huge variety of occasional theological works. It is estimated that 30 per cent of all works published in German in the 1520s were written by Luther. He was a brilliant user of, and adapter to, the new social medium of the printed word. He could inspire intense loyalty among his friends, and hatred from his enemies. He enjoyed company, had a rich, earthy sense of humour, and was unafraid to discuss publicly his frequent bowel problems and constipation, or his forthright views. His voice was clear and steady, and he had a cultivated and affable manner.
He was certainly fiery. He recognised that the inspiration behind his best work, yet also his besetting sin, was anger: “If I wish to compose or write or pray or preach well, I must be angry. Then all the blood in my veins is stirred, and my understanding is sharpened.” That anger could be righteous, directed towards the shortcomings, misunderstandings, and abuses of the Church of his day; it could also be vindictive, using his biting gift of invective to abuse his enemies, whether the pope, the radicals, Zwingli’s sacramental theology, or, most notoriously and inexcusably, the Jews.
IN AN age when life was often short, eternity was long, and death was a constant presence, the question of salvation and the afterlife loomed large. Luther was particularly sensitive to the dilemmas it raised. Salvation was generally understood to be granted to those who, through the ministrations of the Church, acquired merit before God: in other words, those who grew in holiness, both in this life and the life of purgatory which followed, until the day when that holiness was complete, and salvation could be said to be fully merited. Mary and the saints were helpers, whose prayers assisted the sinner along the journey.
Christ, however, was often depicted in popular art and imagination as the Judge, waiting to see if the sinner could attain the end of the journey, impassively holding the scales of judgement under which the unholy were damned and the righteous were finally justified.
No one at the time, it has to be said, believed in justification by works, as if you could make it to heaven under your own steam. Every late-medieval theologians believed that God’s grace was necessary for salvation; but they also believed, in different ways, that sinners needed to co-operate actively with that grace for it to be effective. One typical formulation that Luther encountered in the works of Gabriel Biel while preparing for his priestly ordination said that “to those who do their best, God will not deny his grace.”
Yet Luther put his finger on a weakness of the system, especially to the sensitive soul: how do you know whether your best is good enough? What if you secretly enjoy your sins? What if your repentance is insincere, or your contrition too weak?
LUTHER’s monastic discipline both deepened the problem and provided a solution. His attempts to be as rigorous a monk as he could be, following the disciplines with as much sincerity as he could muster, failed to give him the serenity of conscience which he sought. The frequent recital of the psalms in the choir, however, followed by his decision, in 1513, to lecture on them as a fresh-faced theology professor in the new University of Wittenberg, began to hint at an answer.
As Luther read the psalmist’s prayers of despair and cries to God for mercy, he saw in them an echo of what was happening in his own soul. In these cries for help, Luther recognised the work of God, humbling these sinners and bringing them to the point where they know they have nothing left to offer.
In a secret, hidden, and surprising way, God works through their experience of anguish to bring about their salvation. They seem to be in the pit of despair, desperate crying out to God for mercy, despised by their friends and enemies; and yet in all this God is working to bring about the state of mind and heart needed to receive his gifts.
God achieves his purposes through suffering, pain, and anxiety. Yet of course these are not the things in which you expect to find God. As a result, most people do not recognise this as God’s work, because they expect God to be revealed only in glory and splendour. The way in which God works confounds human expectations; so faith is needed to see past the appearance of things to their true reality.
IF ONE of the tests of good theology is whether it still works in the depths of despair, this was good theology. This new approach, starting not with urging sinners to try harder to co-operate with grace, but rather to despair of their attempts to do so, began to gather force. Soon, Luther’s lecturing moved on to texts such as the epistles to the Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews, and another note began to be heard — the need for confidence in the word of God, embodied in Christ, offered in the words of preaching, absolution, and blessing, and in the consecrated bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper.
This was a reassuring word that announced that God was good, and that, despite our pathetic efforts to be holy, Christ was the gift of God rather than the impassive judge, the very righteousness that most believed had to be hard won through a life of rigorous spiritual effort.
Justification by faith is often misunderstood. It can imply that we are justified — or pronounced innocent of sin — by believing the right things, as if believing the articles of the creed was a minimum requirement for salvation. Or it can imply that we are justified by the power of our own faith, as if that were a kind of psychic power that, when exercised, deserves the gift of justification.
In many ways, faith (fides), as Luther understood it, is better translated as “trust”. We are brought into right relationship to God not by trying hard to be religious or pious, nor even by performing acts of goodness and kindness; instead, it happens when we simply trust that God is good, and that the righteousness required for salvation is not to be striven for through a life of spiritual effort, but is given to us in Christ.
Likewise, strictly speaking, Luther means that we are justified not by the power or strength of our own faith, nor by anything that we do, or believe, or achieve. We are not justified by any power of our own at all, but instead “we are justified by the merits of another.”
This is the heart of Luther’s insight: that we can never find peace, security, or a sense of worth through our own achievements, however meagre or grand they are. Instead, these things — peace, security, value — take root in us when we stop to listen; to hear God’s word that tells us that we are created, loved, forgiven in Christ, quite apart from our own achievements. This is given to us in Christ, and received simply by faith — by believing it to be true. This is where true transformation begins.
As Luther himself put it: “Sinners are not loved because they are attractive; they are attractive because they are loved.”
WAS Luther unique in saying this? Not entirely. There were others who were beginning to emphasise divine grace rather than human works, or even the importance of faith and trust, such as Gasparo Contarini, a young Venetian born in the same year as Luther, who, unknown to Luther, was exploring similar thoughts, many miles away in Italy.
Yet Contarini stayed within the Roman Catholic Church and became a Cardinal. Luther, on the other hand, became a notorious Reformer, expelled from the Church by the papal bull of Leo X and the empire at the Diet of Worms under Charles V.
Why, then, did the Reformation happen? In many ways, by accident. Luther’s protest against indulgences was fairly routine. At the time, he was not the only one scandalised by the way in which the indulgence trade had mushroomed, implying as it did that forgiveness could be bought by a financial donation to the Church. Yet the affair soon escalated beyond anything Luther intended.
Albrecht forwarded Luther’s fateful letter to Rome, since it threatened a financial deal that Albrecht had struck with the papal office, which, on the one hand, enabled him to gain income from a couple of ecclesiastical appointments, and, on the other, ensured a healthy flow of cash into the papal coffers to pay for the rebuilding of St Peter’s, in Rome. Papal officials were sent to argue Luther into submission.
Luther always claimed that, if he could be shown by clear reasoning from scripture that he was wrong, he would happily recant; but he was naïve in thinking that the papal Church would argue on an equal footing with an obscure German friar. Instead, quite predictably and perhaps understandably, they simply called on him to back down and accept the judgement of Mother Church.
IN RETROSPECT, with a greater openness to change on behalf of the papacy, and less intransigence and bullishness from Luther, the split might have been avoided. Luther’s famous anger may have helped him to write clearly; it also made compromise and reconciliation almost impossible. Most Roman Catholic theologians now recognise that Luther had a point.
For example, Raniero Cantalamessa (the present Preacher to the Papal Household), recently acknowledged that the early-15th-century Church had taken a wrong turn, and that “the free gift of justification through faith in Christ should be preached today by the whole Church and with more vigour than ever.”
Luther was never as systematic as Calvin, as sophisticated and urbane as Erasmus, or as nuanced or measured as Aquinas. He was a tempest, a fury, a man of extremes, capable of deep kindness and piercing spiritual insight, and yet also of raging anger and stubborn intransigence. With hindsight, we can perhaps appreciate his wisdom and acknowledge his weaknesses, even when we are blind to our own.
Yet his was a theology that could cope with the contradictions in human behaviour, the strange mixture of goodness and malice which makes up the human condition, because it says that we are judged not on our own merits but on the merits of Christ — which is why, for many, this seemed to be good news: the pure gospel itself.
Dr Graham Tomlin is the Bishop of Kensington.