Martin Luther: The Destructive Power of a Troubled Conscience
A review by John Davies
A lecture given by the Revd Dr Jonathan Trigg in the Hardy building at Bishop Grosseteste University on 29th of March 2017.
This was not a chronological retelling of Luther’s career, but an account of aspects of his thought and their results in theology and the life and politics of Germany from 1517 onwards. Almost single-handedly, but with some predecessors, Dr Trigg seemed to say, Luther began the destruction of late mediaeval Western Christendom’s unity. This in turn initiated persecution, warfare and atrocity. Despite his Bible-based theological rebellion against the the sale of indulgences (I am tempted to write “the indulgence racket”), Luther turned out to be a paradoxically conservative figure, seeing himself as in continuity with the Bible and the church fathers and encouraging the suppression of radical reform and of
peasant insurrection inspired by it.
But was Luther troubled in conscience by the consequences of what he had written and taught? Dr Trigg seemed to think not. He attributed the bursts of energy and of almost manic anger which made Luther so intransigent and abusive an opponent, not only of the Pope and the church but of other reformers, to psychological causes. The lecturer speculated that Luther had bipolar tendencies which also resulted in periods of deep depression. Luther was at times isolated and in danger. He sensed the world of demonic
opposition around him.
Out of this disturbing (and perhaps disturbed) personality came astonishing cultural and theological achievements. Luther’s translation of the Bible was at least as important for German language and culture as the King James Version is for the Anglophone world. His hymns are still sung today, some of them by us. The best known is Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, “A safe stronghold is our God”, based on Psalm 46 – and of course, most
famous of all are the 95 theses nailed by Luther to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg (where he was professor of biblical studies) on October 31 1517. This action the lecturer made a major key to understanding Luther.
Dr Trigg selected seven of the theses for particular mention and here, your reporter could have done with a handout or visual aid.
35 They who teach that contrition is not necessary on the part of those who intend to buy souls out of purgatory or to buy confessional privileges preach unchristian doctrine.
36 Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters.
37 Any true Christian, whether living or dead, participates in all the blessings of Christ and the church; and this is granted him by God, even without indulgence letters.
62 The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.
82 Such as: “Why does not the pope empty purgatory for the sake of holy love and the dire need of the souls that are there if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a church?” The former reason would be most just; the latter is most trivial.
94 Christians should be exhorted to be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, death and hell.
95 And thus be confident of entering into heaven through many tribulations rather than through the false security of peace (Acts 14:22)
And I think the lecturer could have added –
86 Again, “Why does not the pope, whose wealth is today greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build this one basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?”
Luther, already critical of aspects of the church, of which he was originally a devout, strictly observant monk, was goaded into drafting and nailing up the theses by the visit from Rome of Johann Tetzel, in 1516. Tetzel, a Dominican friar and papal
commissioner for indulgences, was sent to Germany to sell indulgences to raise money for the rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Luther disliked the high-pressure salesman tactics of spiritual blackmail which Tetzel used in selling indulgences for the living and the dead. Luther’s knowledge of scripture resulted in theses which emphasise justification by faith and salvation as entirely the initiative and gift of God. The lecturer summarised Luther’s theology as scripture only, faith only, grace only, Christ only.
Luther did not love all Scriptures equally. He did not care for the Book of Revelation or for St James’s Epistle, which he called “an epistle of straw”. James says that real faith is proved by works – love in action. Luther sees this as anti-Pauline, opposed
to justification by faith. But significantly James is one of the most Palestinian documents in the New Testament and Luther had a long-standing dislike of the Jews. After his overtures to them were rejected, he became a venomous denouncer of them, and his writings on this subject were used extensively by the Nazis in the
20th century. Whether Luther was an anti-Semite in a racial sense is debated among historians. The effects of this element in his writing have been deeply unfortunate in recent times.
If, as Dr Trigg suggests, we should not judge Luther on his attitude to the peasants’ revolt nor to the Jews, what is his legacy for us? Unlike other reformers, he believed in the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the communion, but this was for him not a sacrifice offered by the priest but a gift from God. Luther believed that the
Christian soul, like Christ himself, travelled through suffering to glory by God’s grace; and that by the cross of Christ, the baptised Christian is a truly free person. This surely helped anti-Nazi Lutherans, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Luther’s translation of scripture and liturgy into the vernacular, his composition and use of vernacular hymns for congregational singing fed into the music of J.S. Bach and other composers, as well as into worship today including ours. His insistence that the ordinary believer be brought into the centre of worship and of Christian life
potentially democratised the faith in the face of a controlling hierarchical church.
Paradoxically, if Luther did achieve this last he did it, as Dr Trigg said, as a control freak himself. The lecturer made clear the contradictions of a conservative reformer who preached love with anger and freedom which must be carefully controlled. It was an interesting evening.