What to Do about Martin Luther?

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Reformation Day (October 31) is upon us. This 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing up the 95 theses on the castle church door in Wittenberg, commentators have been looking for interesting things to say. Luther gives them no end of material.

How are Christians, and especially Protestant Christians who look back to “Father Luther” with gratitude, supposed to deal with all the terrible things said about him, about the terrible things he is supposed to have said?

Luther had his admirable points, of course. He looms over the Reformation as its most vivid figure: the monk who took on the pope and survived; the Saxon bumpkin who dazzled Rome’s finest debaters; the nobody teaching at Backward U in Nowheresville who held his own with the prince of humanists, Desiderius Erasmus.

Luther’s voluminous writings gave the initial shape to the Reformation. Just as Einstein had his annus mirabilis, 1905, during which he published four papers in the Annalen der Physik scientific journal any one of which would qualify him for the Nobel Prize, Luther published “Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation,” “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” and “The Freedom of the Christian Man” in 1520-21, which together outlined his vision of the church as a distinctly different kind of Christianity.

And Luther was a congenial symbol for the Reformation, a Falstaff with a theological doctorate whose “table talk” was so memorable that volumes of it appear in the giant collections of Luther’s works. John Calvin might have had the more orderly and capacious theological mind; Thomas Cranmer the greater gift for liturgical phrasing; Menno Simons an even more impressive courage under fire; and Luther’s own lieutenant Philip Melanchthon the superior political ability—but Luther was the one you wanted to dine and drink with.

Yet the Jews.

Luther originally wrote some unusually positive things about the Jews, who by the sixteenth century had already suffered numerous times at the hands of his fellow Germans. Luther thought that the Jews had refused to convert because they were faced with a form of Christianity that he himself thought badly needed reform.

When, however, the Jews proved themselves to be equally uninterested in what Luther thought was his new, improved Christianity, his attitude swung from kindliness to severity. Three years before his death, he published two tracts, one bearing the unambiguous title, “On the Jews and Their Lies.” Perhaps, he advised, burning their synagogues would force a few Jews to rethink their position and avoid eternal flames. Perhaps wrecking their homes and disrupting their businesses would cause them to humble themselves before God and seek his forgiveness.

Note, however, that Luther was still interested in their conversion. Contrary to popular belief, Luther wasn’t an anti-Semite. He was instead anti-Jewish.

His was a religious rage, not a racist one. The Jews had shown themselves to be spiritually stubborn, not genetically inferior. As such, they had committed the worst of sins, refusal to accept the gospel. And so they deserved…well, what Luther thought all the enemies of the gospel deserved: invective (such as what he fired also at the pope) and coercion (such as what he recommended also for rebellious peasants).

Yes, the peasants.

Luther’s writings were often translated and published widely. His pamphlets against the pope and his princely supporters led many peasants to believe he would support an attack on the upper classes in general. Revolts broke out in 1524, even drawing support from disaffected (and indebted) nobles.

Luther sympathized with some of the peasants’ grievances, but he reminded them to obey the legitimate political authorities. When he saw widespread burning of convents, monasteries, and libraries, however, he published his infamous tract, “Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants,” condemning the violence as the devil’s work and calling for the nobility to put down the rebels like mad dogs.

Luther stands, therefore, not only as the inspiration for a reformed church, but also as a hero of anti-Semitic racists and a chaplain to the rich and powerful. Can he possibly be excused?

We have seen that Luther was not in fact a racist, nor an apologist for the powerful. He was, instead, ruthlessly focused on what he understood to be the gospel and the renewal of a recalcitrant church. Those issues mattered most, and anyone who would impede, distract from, or resist that reformation felt his ire.

His ire, furthermore, was the dark extreme of a highly volatile personality, so changeable as to make moderns wonder about bipolar or similar disorders. Luther’s “highs” were very high, but his “lows” were deep indeed.

Such lows would have been exacerbated, moreover, by his terrible health. Early portraits of Luther show him as a monk with a model’s sharp cheekbones, while later paintings depict him as corpulent. Luther ruined his digestion in the monastery, and throughout his adult life almost always suffered at least one, if not several, maladies—from gout to gastro-intestinal distress and more. We get the word “cranky” from the German word Krankenheit—illness—and Luther certainly could be understood as cranky indeed.

But “cranky” really won’t suffice to explain, let alone excuse, his ferocity against his opponents. What could possibly excuse all that verbal violence?

Nothing. Such sin would have to be forgiven, not excused. It would have to be placed where Luther himself said all sins should go: the foot of the Cross of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world—including the sins of his most famous, and notorious, followers.

On this Reformation Day, I am sure Martin Luther himself would refuse to accept any tributes and would acknowledge, with tears, all the criticisms. And he would point away from himself to the Saviour no one doubts he loved, and in whose righteousness, not his own, he put his trust.

Luther, that is, in good and in ill, points us to the gospel.

John Stackhouse teaches at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick, and is the author of Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World (published by Oxford University Press on November 1).

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 700 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book is scheduled for release later this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).