November 19, 2017
St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church, Dover, MA
Processional Hymn: Ein Feste Burg (“A Mighty Fortress is our God”, Unison, Martin Luther, 1527)
Old Testament: Jeremiah 31: 31-34 “I will put the law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.”
Psalm: 46 “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble….”
New Testament: Acts 5: 33-39 “If this…is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them….”—Gamaliel.
Recessional Hymn: Ein Feste Burg (words Martin Luther, harmonization Johann Sebastian Bach)
(by George McCully)
In preparing for this occasion, I did some crude market research, asking various members of our parish what you want to know about Martin Luther and the Reformation. Your answers were variations on the theme of “Martin Who?” and “the What?” So today we are going to have a basic introductory course: “Martin Luther 101.” Next year sometime you may expect a pop quiz.
When I was first teaching the Reformation years ago, I realized that the history of our Judeo-Christian religion has had continual difficulties with institutionalization. Whereas both religion and institutions are intended to order our lives, so that we naturally tend to combine them, this has produced recurring problems. We see this in the Old Testament in the dialectic between the laws and the prophets; in the time of Christ, Paul, and John, between the Pharisees and the Gospel; in the early Church, between lay Christians and monasticism; in St. Augustine’s City of God between the earthly and the heavenly “cities”; in medieval Christendom between the worldly powers of the popes and kings, and recurrent spiritual reformers; and most emphatically in the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, which is our subject this morning.
I noticed further that all religious “Reformations” (the designation was coined in the 12th century by Joachim of Flora), have consisted in simplifying institutional structures—pruning away the elaborations that normally occur in institutional histories. Luther’s “Reformation” followed that pattern, and so was not new in that respect; what was new was its permanence—that it stuck. I hope to clarify for you how that happened, but I think we should also note that this long dialectical tradition tells us something that I believe is true about Christianity, which is its essential spirituality.
Medieval Christianity, for better and worse, was instituted by monks, who sought to perfect their Christian lives by following rules. They were the only people who could read and write, in their common language of Latin, from hand-written manuscripts. Gradually over the centuries, the institutional Church, which was led by monks, arrogated to itself total control over religion, under the leadership of popes and administered by trained clergy. Religious life became thoroughly encrusted by regulations, governing every detail of daily life. When from time to time reformers opposed those stifling and often corrupt accretions, they were criminalized as heretics, who if they did not recant, were excommunicated and usually burnt. The most prominent late medieval example was Jan Hus in Bohemia a century before Luther, many of whose ideas Luther came to share.
Martin Luther was not just a “great man”, he was one of the greatest of men—what the 19th century German philosopher Hegel called a “world-historical individual”—someone whose life changed world history. Luther’s main accomplishment, though he did not originally intend it, was to shatter forever the purported unity of medieval Western Christendom under the leadership of the papacy in Rome. How did he do that?
First, what kind of person was he? To begin with, he had a huge and strong personality—enormously charismatic, passionate, intellectually brilliant and critical, totally determined, devoted to the whole range of human experience from practical to spiritual, and in rhetoric from scatological to eschatological. He was extremely learned in Biblical studies and Church history, but was also widely known, respected and loved as a man of the people, whose greatest pleasures he said were family, food, music, and beer. It is important that he was an accomplished lutenist and loved to sing. Once he began the Reformation, he became an extremely prolific and compelling, eloquent, often funny, writer and preacher. What historians have missed, until recent research has given us the data to discover it, was that he was also a highly skilled leader and strategist, who weaponized the technological revolution of printing to create a mass protest movement, overwhelming his hopelessly outmatched Catholic opponents. Though he was not an institution-builder of an alternative Church (he delegated that to others) he transformed spiritual life and worship, appealing beneath the Latinate clergy to reach the hearts and minds of the laity through his vernacular writings, preaching, and hymns, in German.
In 1517 he was already 34 years old—a locally prominent but otherwise unpublished and obscure Augustinian monk, preacher, and professor in Bible studies at the small and new (1502) University in the rural town of Wittenberg, in Saxony, northeastern Germany. His father, who owned a copper mining business, had sent his eldest son to the university at Erfurt to study law so that he could eventually help run the business. But Martin did not take to the law, and in a frightening experience with lightning in a thunderstorm, he pledged to St. Anne (the mother of Mary), that if he survived he would become a monk. He did survive, and kept his promise, in 1512 joining the Augustinian order in Wittenberg. There as a novitiate he was given his own Bible, which he was seeing for the first time at the age of 28.
This was hugely significant. Bibles were generally neither known nor used in the Middle Ages. In manuscript they were extremely costly to produce, so only a few institutions had them. Bible stories were depicted graphically in church windows and sculpture, but scriptural texts were known only in snippets, in Latin, as parts of liturgy, which only clerics and scholars could understand. Extremely few laypeople, therefore, knew even what books were in the Bible; chapters and verses only became numbered during the Reformation, to facilitate the citation of texts in debates.
So when Martin Luther was given his own Bible, he devoured it—read it cover to cover, over and over. There he discovered how very different the Christianity of his own time was from what it had been originally. Being a mature adult of acutely sharp critical intelligence, he wondered what justified the differences. This led him to study Church history from a critical perspective, and that led him to conclude that the most reliable criterion of truth and authenticity in Christian doctrine, institutions and practices, had to be Scripture alone—“sola scriptura.” Common practice, decisions of Church Councils, even declarations by the popes themselves, were chaotic and needed validation from Scripture, in which Luther was now supremely learned.
As a monk, Luther led a prodigiously disciplined and correct life. He said, “The ultimate and fundamental need of man is to be right with God.” But he did not feel “right with God”, no matter how hard he tried. Being thoroughly conscientious and perfectionist, he was tormented by a painful sense of his own sinfulness and personal unworthiness. He obeyed all the rules, confessed many times over every sin he could remember from his past life, but found no sense of redemption from God’s displeasure. Luckily he had a patient, sympathetic, and wise mentor in Johann von Staupitz, the head of the Augustinian order in Saxony, and professor of theology in the University. Staupitz persuaded Martin to help himself by pursuing graduate studies in theology, and then to earn a doctorate, to become a scholar and professor in Bible studies. Staupitz also sent him to Rome on a diplomatic mission for the Order, and in the reputed Holy City of Rome, filled with many of the holiest relics in Christian history, Luther made all the pilgrim observances seeking salvation, but again, with no relief from his Anfechtungen—assaults against his soul. “Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God…I could not believe He was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love…yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners. I hated the words “righteousness of God”.
“I beat importunately upon Paul (Romans 1:17), most ardently desiring to know what he wanted. “For in [the Gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed, through faith, for faith; as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live…. At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I … began to understand”—i.e., that the righteousness of the faithful is an extension to them of God’s righteousness, given to them in their faith, by God’s grace….”The merciful God justifies us by faith. Here I felt that I was altogether born again…. A totally other side of the Scriptures showed itself to me. I ran through them from memory: The work of God is that which God does in us; the power of God, with which He makes us strong; the wisdom of God, with which He makes us wise; likewise the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God…Thus that place in Paul was for me truly the gate to Paradise.”
In other words, he concluded that we do not—we cannot—save ourselves, by good works. To think we can is the utmost arrogance and blasphemy. Only God’s grace, conferred by Christ’s death and resurrection, can save us—make us “right with God…. The Church and its laws cannot save us.” This struck at the core of the institutionalized and hierarchical Church, and at the whole idea that priests, and even the pope, were mediators between ourselves and God. We are always and everywhere directly in the presence of God, coram Deo. “Oh, it is a great thing to be a Christian, and to have a hidden life, hidden in God himself, and thus to live in the things of the world, but to feed on Him who appears only in hearing the Word.”
Given his spiritual progress, the immediate and practical provocation of Luther’s rebellion was the doctrine and practice of “indulgences”—in which people could buy reduced time in Purgatory or Hell, for themselves or others, by contributing money to the Church, especially the papacy, for such projects as building St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. This led to deeply corrupt scandals—one of the sellers of indulgences in Germany was quoted as saying, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs.” Here was a conspicuous example of practice not grounded in Scripture, and offensively prominent and unpopular in northern Europe.
So Luther wrote his “95 Theses vs. Indulgences” for scholarly debate, addressed in Latin to fellow scholars and clergy. It was printed on a poster-sized broadsheet, suitable for nailing to a church door, as a public announcement to the university community. Scholars have quibbled over whether Luther actually nailed it to a door. I believe the evidence favors yes, though the point is contested.
Here enters the technological revolution of printing. In two months the 95 theses, because they were sensational, had been printed in 3 cities, and become quickly known throughout Germany. This was unprecedented. In Basel, Switzerland they were printed as a pamphlet, and in January 1518, in Leipzig, in German. By March Erasmus in England had a copy; he shared it with his friend Thomas More, who passed it on to King Henry VIII, who eventually wrote a reply. Overnight, Luther had become the world’s first media celebrity.
He must have been as surprised as anyone, but he quickly grasped the potential. In February he translated the 95 Theses into a “Sermon on Indulgences and Grace”, in German and directed to a lay audience, which was printed as the world’s first Flugschrift, or flier—20 paragraphs, of 3-4 sentences each, 1500 words, on 8 pages, which could be read aloud (to those who couldn’t read) in 10 minutes. Printers could produce 500 copies/day, which sold out for a quick profit at about the price of a hen. By the end of 1518 there were 13 printed editions and by 1520 there were 25 editions in all the major cities of Germany. Theology had become a public issue.
So Luther began energetically to write—his literary productivity is unequaled. In two years he had become Europe’s most published living author, producing 30 titles, printed in 370 editions (291 in Germany) of over 350,000 copies. In five years he was the most published author ever. By 1525 he had published almost twice as much—1,465 titles—as the next seventeen most prolific authors—807. Nearly half of his first 45 works were in German; 21 were Flugschriften, 8pp. or less. In the 30 years to his death in 1546, he produced 544 separate titles—about one every three weeks. In 1523, his most productive year, he published 55 titles—more than one per week—in 390 separate editions. He had become the spiritual leader of Germany.
This quantitative data was published only two years ago, with the contention that he himself led the organization and mobilization of a dedicated printing industry in Wittenberg and elsewhere. The sequence and content of his voluminous writings have been well known. What scholars have not done yet, but I think we can do now, is to connect those points—to see that, and how, Luther himself planned, strategized, and led both the medium and the messages that together overwhelmed his opponents and accomplished his Reformation.
He originally intended to reform the Church, beginning with a scholarly debate over one of its most conspicuous corruptions, the sale of indulgences. But because printing was entirely unregulated, and driven by profit motives of independent small-business publishers; and because Germany itself was completely decentralized and uncontrollable, in over 300 independent cities and principalities, the academic debate jumped the fence, got completely out of hand, and became a public issue, which Luther could then manage, as he did.
He soon discovered that the Church, from Germany to Rome, had no interest in reforming itself. To the authorities the only question was whether or not Luther was a heretic, an outlaw to be tried and convicted, and if he did not recant, to be burned. In his first debate, in 1518, he challenged his opponent simply to show him where he was wrong, and he would recant. He easily won that exchange. His next opponent skillfully drew him out on the theological ramifications of his position, which were clearly heretical. At that point Luther gave up on reforming the Church, concluding that it was hopelessly controlled by the Devil. So he decided to appeal instead to the lay public of ordinary Christians. Accordingly, in 1520 he published in rapid succession three major treatises, addressed to specific, strategically significant, constituencies.
In August, an Address to the Christian Nobility, written in German and based on Scripture, argued that since Popes and Councils had failed to reform the Church, secular governments had to step up and do it. Pitting the secular powers in Germany against the foreign powers of the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope, he reinforced that xenophobic argument with what he called the “priesthood of all believers”. The elaborate hierarchical, clerical structure of the Church, he said, was an arrogant pretense not found in the Bible. The first printing of 4,000 copies sold out in two weeks, an unprecedented effect, leading to 10 subsequent editions.
Two months later, in October, he published On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, addressed to the clergy in Latin, also based on Scripture, attacking the Church’s clerical hierarchy and ecclesiology, and asserting the “priesthood of all believers.” Christians originally and authentically approached God directly and individually, in faith. He explicitly denied transubstantiation—that priests miraculously transmute the eucharistic bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Christ. He also denied the validity of the entire penitential system.
The next month, in November, he published On the Freedom of a Christian, addressed to both clergy and laity, in both Latin and German, summarizing his new theology: sola fide (salvation is by faith alone), sola scriptura (that Scriptural authority alone can justify Christian principals and practices), and the priesthood of all believers. Christians are freed from reliance on works and all externalities; their salvation depends only on internal faith. Christ has justified us; we need only to accept his free and gracious gift. We are righteous because He was righteous. We are still sinners, and we seek to please God with our good works, out of gratitude. We are free, not to do as we please, but as God pleases. There needs to be no mediator between ourselves and God.
Within two months— January 3, 1521—Luther was formally declared a heretic and excommunicated. But as his danger increased, so—for that reason—did his confidence; he felt that he was dealing with the powers of Hell and Anti-Christ, that he was probably going to be martyred, and that he had nothing to lose.
The Emperor ordered him to appear, under a safe-conduct pass, at the next Diet in the city of Worms in April, to answer the charges against him. His progress to Worms was a triumphal procession, with huge supporting crowds cheering him all along the way. There he was asked if he had written about 40 publications (in the last three years!) stacked upon a table, and would he recant, yes or no? He replied, basically, Can I get back to you on that? And they gave him 24 hours. The following day, April 18,1521, he made his famous statement, “Here I stand, I can do no other. My conscience has been taken captive by the Word of God, and I am neither able nor willing to recant, since it is neither safe nor right to act against conscience. God help me, Amen.”
On his trip home he was asked how he felt, and he cited Gamaliel from the Book of Acts, our reading this morning: either this is God’s work, or man’s; if God’s, it will win, if man’s, nothing can save it. For his protection he was then “kidnapped” by some knights of Frederick the Wise, his prince the Elector of Saxony, and spirited away to the tower of a remote castle, the Wartburg, where he spent the next ten months in anonymity. He grew out his hair to eliminate his tonsure, grew a beard, and became known as “Knight George.”
While there, he took the next step, translating into German Erasmus’ recent critical edition of the New Testament in Greek, superseding the badly flawed 4th-century Latin text of St. Jerome. This was another sensation—the first printing of 3,000, and second printing of 2,000, sold out in weeks. Suddenly 5,000 printed editions of the New Testament were disseminated to churches and homes throughout Germany. The new authority on proper Christian belief and practice had become immediately and directly available to everyone.
Next, to help teach his alternative theology to the public, most of whom could not read, Luther mobilized music for worship services, introducing for the first time the practice of having congregations sing hymns in church—another technological innovation, this time original, to promote his Reformation. “Music is a gift of God. It drives away the Devil and makes people gay…Next after theology I give to music the highest place and the greatest honor…as the mistress and governess of the feelings of the human heart. We know that to the devils music is distasteful and insufferable. My heart bubbles up and overflows in response to music, which has so often refreshed me….” He wrote words and tunes to 36 hymns (most famously our Processional and Recessional this morning), and urged friends to translate the Psalms and other texts into hymns. In 1524 he published the first hymnal, of which there were over 1,000 editions and over a million copies in the 16th century.
He also mobilized the spoken word to teach theology, introducing to church services the practice of preaching sermons. Luther himself preached several times every week, and to guide parish clergy he published his sermons in German as Flugschriften.
In the mid-1520s various challenges arose, which continued off and on until his death twenty years later, in 1546. The first Lutheran martyrs were two boys burnt in Brussels; Luther composed a musical ballad to commemorate their witness. A massive rebellion of peasants, the largest until the French Revolution, claimed Luther as one of their inspirations, and he was forced to choose one side or the other. He opted to protect his own movement by siding with the principalities, and wrote a violent attack against the rebellion, invoking Scripture. Erasmus finally declared himself on the side of the Church and against Luther’s reforms, with a treatise “On Free Will” supporting the value of works for salvation, against which Luther responded. The papacy and the Empire finally joined forces, spurred by the increasing threat from Turkish invaders approaching Vienna. And the reformation itself spun wildly out of control, as strange new cults sprang up in northern Europe, featuring all manner of scandalous behavior such as weeklong “retreats”, of which it was said that more souls were begotten than were saved. Historians have designated these movements the “radical”, as distinct from the “magisterial” Reformations. Some of them (e.g. Mennonites) are with us today.
In 1526 some good news: Luther married Katarina von Bora, a former nun. They enjoyed an apparently wonderful domestic life—she was an excellent manager of his large household’s affairs, and they had six children. He wrote what a pleasure it was to wake up in the morning and see “pigtails on the pillow next to mine”.
1527 was a horrible year. The plague returned to Wittenberg, and Luther and Katie remained in town to care for the sick and dying. One friend was martyred and another was murdered; Luther’s own health deteriorated—one day he collapsed in the pulpit. His Anfechtungen returned, he felt he had lost Christ and was slipping into the Devil’s grasp, and that he was going to die. As a pastoral comfort to himself and his large body of endangered followers for whom he felt responsible, he wrote our main hymn this morning, Ein Feste Burg, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” When we sing it in our Recessional today, try to read the words and the music from Luther’s point of view, to understand what he was saying and why.
The remaining years of his life were difficult, as his health continued to deteriorate, and his troubles to multiply. In 1529 he published two Catechisms, teaching his theology—a long one for clergy and a short one for laity, including children. At a meeting of the Diet in Speyer in 1529, the Emperor and the Pope concluded an alliance against the Reformers, against which a number of princes declared their opposition, writing in response a “Protestation”—which gave to the Reformation its name, “Protestant”. In 1534 Luther completed his German translation of the Bible with the Old Testament, the publication a huge logistical undertaking, that shaped the future of the German language much as the King James Version of the Bible shaped modern English. In the 16th century there were 4,790 editions of his works, 90% of them in Germany, 80% in German.
So to summarize: Luther’s greatest accomplishments were: First, to struggle through his own spiritual crisis to achieve a profound insight, based on Scripture: that the Christian religion is essentially spiritual—grounded not in external works but in internal faith, as Paul Tillich phrased it in this century, “ultimate concern, which qualifies all other concerns”, extended to us by God as a gracious gift. Second, that we are directly connected to God with no need for institutional intermediaries. Third, he identified fundamental flaws and corruption in the Church of his time, based on Scriptural authority, and brought them to professional, and then public, attention. Fourth, when he learned that the Church did not care whether he was right or wrong, but only in whether he was a heretic, he conceived and executed a revolutionary strategy based on the technological revolution in printing, to defeat the Church despite the opposition of both pope and emperor, by appealing directly to the public—by his unprecedented volume of writing, by translating and disseminating the Bible itself in German, by preaching, and by singing of hymns, to teach his revolutionary theology and to renew the Christian faith among Christians. Fifth, he was victorious in Germany, his doctrines spread to the rest of Europe, and Christendom has never been the same since. Sixth, his shattering of the medieval unity of Christendom combined with other contemporaneous paradigm-shifts—the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, the global voyages of discovery, the rise of secular philosophy, national monarchies, and the Enlightenment—to produce modern Western cultural history. Today we are living in a second Age of Paradigm-Shifts, but our religious lives still persist in the wake of Luther’s leadership.
Eric Metaxas: Martin Luther:The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World, 496 pp., Viking, 2017.
Lyndal Roper: Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet, 576 pp., Random House, 2017.
Diarmid McCulloch: The Reformation: A History, 864 pp., Penguin, 2005.
Andrew Pettegree: Brand Luther, 400 pp., Penguin, 2016.
Alec Ryrie: Protestants: The Faith that Made the Modern World, 528 pp., Viking, 2017.
Martin Luther and Peter Reske: The Hymns of Martin Luther, 88 pp., Concordia, 2016.
Peter Marshall: Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation, 652 pp., Yale, 2017.
David Wooten: The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution, 769 pp., Harper, 2015.
Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna: Age of Discovery:… Our New Renaissance, 301pp., St. Martin’s, 2016.