Everybody who knows me knows I’m a Baptist guy, so it’s not only strange for me to write about Protestant history, but stranger still for me, to write a piece about Martin Luther. To write on a 16th century European when my primary training is in Greco-Roman history may be ill-advised. Beyond the invitation to do so, what drove me to publicly accept a task to engage Martin Luther? It’s a fair question. The answer, I like Tabasco. If you like spice … any time, anywhere, in any amount … then you have to have at least a little taste for Luther.
Leo X famously said of Luther that, “a wild boar was loose in the vineyard of the Lord.” Leo was often wrong, but not that time. In the sturdy Luther, Christianity saw a prolific seasoning in the history of the faith. It was not always sweet. In fact, it was not always even palatable. If it is bland you seek, then Luther has to be hands off. But if you dare, there is much to take away.
Why in the world would an obscure German priest with a marginal job in a marginal theological school in a tiny village of no recognized consequence, barge up to the Castle Church door on the eve of All Saints’ Day and begin pounding? Have you ever read his 95 Theses? You really should. It’s spicy stuff. But it’s surprising stuff to most of the students I assign the task to. The Theses are not a brilliantly constructed critique of all things papal. Not in the slightest. Luther takes 95 swings at what is clearly under his skin. And there are no change-ups … it’s just fastball, fastball, fastball. Looking for theological purity? You too will be disappointed when you read Martin’s 95. There is near constant mention (read “acceptance”) of purgatory. There is repeated acquiescence of papal authority, though with limits. I think anybody under 25 who reads the Theses today would included the word “rant” when describing Luther’s door decor. He is obviously steaming mad, and I would be willing to suggest that his premeditation for the hammer job was pretty short. The Theses read as though they are virtually spontaneous – like a desperate undergrad trying to churn out a term paper on the night before it is due. It reminds me of a guy who takes a bite of a bland sandwich and then almost unconsciously reaches for hot sauce and gives it a good baptism under the lid. “Things are not ok, so here goes.” And Luther kept it flowing for 95 shots.
That’s what Luther did, but why? I’ve long heard Luther wanted to start public discussion about the abuses of the selling of indulgences. At the exact time of Luther’s 95 Theses, the Church of Rome was looking for money to finish the construction of St. Peter’s Basillica. Indulgences were raising good cash for the pope at a time when cash flow needed a shot in the arm. According to common theory, Luther, knowing a large crowd would file into the sanctuary the next morning for All Saints’ Day, was deliberating starting a reformation by putting a provocative notice on the church door on Halloween. But why then write and post the Theses in Latin, the language of academics, rather than in the German of the common man? I’ll repeat again that I am not a Lutheran historian by either training or inclination, but I would say the explanation is “Luther being Luther.” I don’t see any long range plan in October of 1517. I see somebody who has smelled a skunk and he lets out a 95-point shriek. The Theses are not beautiful prose, nor theologically symmetrical. The timing was purely a Luther explosion. Why nail this rant to the church door? So somebody, anybody, everybody would see it. Then what? Who could have ever imagined.
I’m neither fair nor honest if I do not mention that Martin Luther was a giant of intellect. He would eventually write prolific theological treatises even if the 95 Theses are no example of such. For heavens’ sake, the man hid in the Wartburg castle in 1521 under an assumed name and proceeded to produce the very first translation of the New Testament in German (actually creating grammar as he went!) and finish it all in 10 weeks. Let that sink in. In roughly the equivalent of a summer break between semesters, Luther, alone, under duress, and without adequate research tools, single-handedly put the New Testament in the hands of the common people. With a price on his head the whole time. Even when you cannot tolerate what Luther says, never doubt his cerebral capacity.
Luther also had piety. Just do a search for a few of his inspirational quotations.
“A religion that gives nothing, costs nothing, suffers nothing, is worth nothing.”
How about this?
“We need to hear the Gospel every day because we forget it every day.”
And one of my very favorite Lutherisms…
“To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.”
One more, that shows Luther’s thoughtfulness,
“There are some things about God that are more to be adored than to be pondered.”
Not only during his trial in Worms, or during the many years when threat to his life was a constant, but Martin regularly left footprints on the path of discipleship. His trek may not be predictable, at times not even acceptable, but his path is unmistakable.
But don’t run out and name your firstborn “Martin” just yet. That same patriarch of the Reformation who could courageously inspire, could be ruthless, vile, hateful, and I would say, even despicable. His anti-Semitism is so detestable that repeating it here gives me serious pause. Luther said, “What shall we do with…the Jews? …set fire to the synagogues or schools and bury or cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them.” Abominable language. Language that makes it easier to understand how the hellish blight of anti-Semitism could fester into genocide centuries later – the father of the German church could be freely quoted for backup. Luther was no better to my religious forebears, the Ana-Baptists. Luther hated them, literally. Any study of Luther’s considerable grammatical knowledge of Greek lexicographer is mind-numbing. He knew what New Testament practice was, yet he maligned and confronted those who faithfully adhered to the text he vigorously believed. Who knows what the Reformation might have looked like had Luther been even mildly consistent in his textual devotion. He was not only a ravaging boar in the vineyard, but he could and did frequently deviate from text – ravage it really – just as dramatically as did his papal nemeses.
Outlandish is yet another trademark of Luther. Anytime I send Boston students rummaging through the Luther archives for memorable quotations, several will dredge this one up…
“Whoever drinks beer, he is quick to sleep, whoever sleeps long does not sin; whoever does not sin enters Heaven! Thus, let us drink beer!”
Well, I’m wondering if Martin wasn’t almost to “sleep” when he spewed forth that little ditty. And finding a Luther quotation to spin your head won’t take much research. He could say just about anything at any given time. Often he did.
So the spice rack gets emptied quickly for the man with the 95 Theses in his hand. We are nearing the 500th anniversary of that harbinger Halloween night, and nobody can question that, in terms of influence, few in all of Christian history rival the impact and legacy of Katharina’s husband, the former priest of Rome. You can find something in Luther to suit your taste, and even encourage your disciplined pursuit of God. You can also find reasons to furrow your brow, or run away at breakneck speed. He is historic Tabasco. Sometimes that splash of spice refreshes the bland and energizes pitiful lethargy just as God used Luther in the quagmire of sixteenth century papal heresy. Yet other times, I would suggest that too much spice can ruin the meal and even sicken the diner. Luther is a saint, but only in the sense that all the redeemed are. He is a historical giant, but with giant-sized warts.
I would not have wanted to be Martin Luther’s colleague. He would have despised me, or worse. Yet, I think I would have had lunch with him, if invited, to a neutral site. But I would have seasoned my own food, for obvious reasons.