Luther’s legacy today
A new work analysing the work of Martin Luther
Next year sees the 500th anniversary of the event that is regarded as marking the start of the Reformation: Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses on the doors of churches in Wittenberg. Ecumenical celebrations in Germany and around the world are to commemorate the event. Actually, although there is no doubt that Luther did write his famous 95 theses, it is possible that he only mailed them to Archbishop Albert of Mainz and did not nail them to any church door.
Scott Hendrix considers the matter in his new biography of Luther and although he comes to no definite conclusion he quotes a handwritten note by Luther’s secretary that was only discovered in 2007 that says that Luther did post the theses on doors in Wittenberg on 31 October, 1517.
Whatever the truth about the theses there is no doubt about Luther’s significance in German and European history as well as in the history of Christianity and this new biography deserves a very wide readership.
In just under 300 pages Hendrix covers Luther’s life, outlines his thought and assesses his theology. Crucially theology is not allowed to dominate and we see Luther’s ideas against the background of his life and his personal relationships.
Living as we do through a communications revolution in which the internet and social media have transformed our lives it is easy to appreciate how an earlier revolution, the invention of printing, transformed life in the period in which Luther lived. Luther was well equipped to take advantage of the revolution. He rarely left Wittenberg where he enjoyed the protection of the local ruler but his books and pamphlets written in German were widely read.
His small catechism dominated the market and spread evangelical beliefs far and wide. He translated the scriptures into German and was firm in his belief that ‘brilliant and pompous’ preachers were not chosen to spread God’s word. “I thank God that I hear and find my God in the German tongue,” he wrote.
But as well as writing popular theology Luther also understood the importance of music in furthering his religious beliefs. He ranked music second to theology among God’s precious gifts. Hendrix estimates that by the time he died the number of people who sang Luther’s hymns would have far outnumbered those who read his pamphlets or heard his sermons. In 1620 a Jesuit claimed the Reformer’s hymns had led more souls astray than all his sermons and other writings.
One of the wonders of Luther’s life is that he managed to survive and to die of natural causes. He was protected by Elector John of Saxony and by his son who succeeded him and, as Hendrix makes clear, the Turkish threat meant the Emperor could not afford to alienate Protestants whose support he needed. After the Emperor failed to nip Lutheranism in the bud, the Turks gave it breathing space and in 1526 the imperial diet allowed each city and territory to temporarily implement its own religious policy.
Two stains on Luther’s reputation are his writings on the Peasants’ Revolt and on the Jews. Luther condemned the rebellion of 1525 and although he urged the rulers to show mercy he did condone the execution of rebels. Hendrix does his best to defend Luther and says that his words were quoted out of context. Communist historians especially have tried to make Thomas Muntzer the hero of the Peasants’ Revolt and Luther the villain.
Luther himself wrote that God’s word declared both divine wrath and divine mercy and it was hard to talk of mercy when peasants were murdering and plundering.
It is less easy to defend Luther against charges of antiSemitism. Hendrix speaks of the ‘harsh and contemptible polemics’ directed against Jews in Luther’s last years and admits that he was ‘a prisoner of his age and its prejudices’. Luther’s writings on the Jews were quoted by the Nazis and do not read well in the light of the Holocaust.
On one question Luther was undoubtedly well ahead of his age. In his final will of 1542 he circumvented provisions of Saxon law designed to ensure that a man’s estate went to his children and transferred all his property to Katherine, his wife. He did not want his wife to be dependent on their children and was confident she would look after the children even if she remarried.
One of the issues that will be discussed during the 500th anniversary celebrations is the impact of modern interpretations of Paul on Luther’s doctrine of Justification by Faith. Luther himself believed that Justification by Faith was taught not only by St Paul but by St Augustine as well. Was this doctrine the cause of the Reformation? Hendrix answers yes and no.
The way indulgences were marketed to gain money for the church was offensive in itself and even if Luther got Paul wrong he was surely right to argue ‘that God was beneficent rather than punitive and that Christianity was about trusting God and loving others instead of earning a ticket to heaven’.