Sunday October 29, 2017

Martin Luther's powerful, dangerous idea

500 years ago, the monk theologian Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle church in Wittenberg, sparking the Reformation movement.

500 years ago, the monk theologian Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle church in Wittenberg, sparking the Reformation movement. (biography.com)

Listen 35:39

The Protestant Reformation is not as mythologized as the American or French revolutions. It's not as freighted with foreboding as the Russian Revolution. 

It was led not by a swashbuckling warrior given to heroic feats of strength, bravery and military daring, but by an obscure, sickly, intemperate German monk.

But that monk did have a ferocious intellect and an unshakeable sense of mission. He stared down the threat of death and grappled with the most powerful men in Europe on the grounds of theological argument.

That monk was Martin Luther. He may well have had a bigger impact on more people than any other revolutionary leader in history. 

Five hundred years ago this Tuesday, on October 31, 1517, Luther fired the first salvo in what would become the Protestant Reformation — when he is said to have nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg.

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Pilgrims attend a service in the Town and Parish Church of St. Mary's in Wittenberg, Germany, where reformer Martin Luther used to preach. The 500th anniversary of the Reformation is being commemorated throughout the Protestant world this year, particularly in Germany. (Steffi Loos/Getty Images)

The Theses protested abuses by the Catholic Church, particularly in the lucrative, but theologically dodgy, practice of selling indulgences. 

The revolution Luther instigated utterly changed the course of history and human affairs. It had a profound influence on how hundreds of millions of people think of themselves and their relationship with the divine.

There arose a new Christian theology. The Catholic Church splintered and lost its grip on much of Europe. Protestantism flowered with a myriad sects and denominations. And the Thirty Years War turned Europe into a slaughterhouse, with Protestants and Catholics butchering each other.

Christendom was a very different place after Martin Luther.

Martin Luther and the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is being commemorated throughout the Protestant world this year, particularly in Germany. 

Considering he lived five centuries ago, we know an unusually large amount about Martin Luther, his personal and public life and his thoughts, because he left such extensive written records.

Lyndal Roper

Lyndal Roper's biography of Martin Luther won her the 2016 Gerda Henkel Prize for History, worth €100,000. (Random House)

Luther is also the subject of a raft of new books. One of the most acclaimed is Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet by Lyndal Roper, which won the 2016 Gerda Henkel Prize for History, worth €100,000.

Roper describes Luther as a "difficult hero."

In her account, Luther was a brilliant and very creative thinker, and he was gregarious and warm in his friendships. But he also had an uncompromising and authoritarian streak, and could be ill-tempered and bitterly vindictive toward people with whom he disagreed. 

"I think great people are often people who have complex personalities, and I think the kind of courage that he showed also came with a certain rigidity and with a certain suspicion of people who didn't espouse the same views as he did. And that problem with his character, if you like, proved a difficult legacy for the Reformation."

One of the more troubling aspects of Martin Luther's character and writings is his anti-Semitism. Anti-Jewish sentiment was, indeed, widespread in the Europe of his time, but even by the standards the 16th Century, Luther was virulently anti-Semitic.

"I think it's connected with the whole identity of the new Lutheran church. And I think for Luther, what he wants to claim is that the Lutherans are God's chosen people — that is, that the Jews are not the chosen people. And I think that's where a lot of this vicious anti-Semitism comes from," Roper says.

Roper also talked to Michael Enright about Luther's writings after his Theses. 

The Ninety-Five Theses may be the act Luther is most famous for, but they weren't his boldest challenge to Rome and the Pope's authority, nor his most radical theological departure from Church doctrine.

"The Ninety-Five Theses don't really contain a fully worked out theology," Roper says, "but they do contain absolutely unforgettable lines, like the way it opens: 'When our lord and master Jesus Christ said, "Repent," he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.' It's a wonderful sentence, which you just can't forget, and it's certainly not a dry, old academic thesis for debate.

"So, he's a brilliant writer, and after 1517, he moves very, very rapidly. He attacks one thing after another, and I think that extraordinary intellectual and theological creativity is remarkable and helps explain some of the impetus of the early Reformation."

Martin Luther bible

A 1642 edition of Martin Luther's German translation of the Bible at the Lutherhaus museum in Eisenach, Germany. Following his excommunication, Martin Luther lived at nearby Wartburg Castle under protection and translated the Bible into German there. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Roper also describes Luther's view of human nature. 

Luther taught that humans were intrinsically and irretrievably sinful and depraved — so much so that no act of contrition or good works, let alone the buying of indulgences, could lead to salvation or a reduction of time in Purgatory. Humans were completely dependent on God's grace for salvation.

"He thinks that every human action has a sinful component, that there's nothing that we can do that is a really great act that would help us earn salvation because salvation can't be earned. It has to a gift of God," Roper says. 

"It sounds like a really dreadful idea, doesn't it, that every act is full of sin. And yet, there's another way of looking at it, because if everything we do is in some way sinful, it also means that there aren't particular acts we do that are particularly sinful.

"And I think you can see that as also freeing Luther up to a much more positive understanding of sexuality and of human pleasures in general, because he doesn't see them as uniquely sinful."

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.