He is open to criticism—and has of late on social media. But he wasn’t all bad—not worse than you or I, especially when we live in the background. But he stepped boldly into the foreground and fought for what he believed in, in dangerous times.
Here are some observations and, yes, some defenses (or explanations) of his actions. We don’t discuss in detail theological differences, here, however.
1. Luther taught “heretical” doctrines.
They were heretical only from his religious opponents’ point of view. After years of studying and teaching Paul’s two greatest epistles—Romans and Galatians—Luther reached the conclusion that some church dogma was off-kilter. At first he merely wanted to open a dialogue. That was the purpose of nailing the Ninety-Five Theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenburg, a new university town. The theses were debate topics.
However, he didn’t reckon with the printing press, for someone printed them and they caught on like wildfire. Yet how could they spread like wildfire if there was no fuel?
Clerical misconduct and remote ecclesiastical hierarchy and anti-clericalism were the fuel.
2. He used harsh rhetoric.
The late Medieval Age and the Renaissance were times of inflammatory rhetoric. Luther wrote a piece titled the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, a reference to Rome, the Babylon of the Book of Revelation. The pope who propped up that system was the anti-Christ. The Catholics replied with such terms as a “wild boar” running loose in the vineyard and “heretics.”
Nowadays, thankfully, after Vatican II, informed Catholics refer to Protestants as “separated brothers,” while the unlyrical term “heretic” should be set aside. And most Protestant leaders—not individual bloggers—have dropped the anti-Christ label.
3. He broke his vows of being a monk.
He did break his vows to the Hermits of St. Augustine, but only because he developed a new conviction. A deeper knowledge of the Bible meant that no secular or religious ruler could compel obedience to worship God in a certain way that was contrary to a man’s conscience informed by Scripture. His newly informed conscience led him to leave. He outgrew his outdated, obsolete beliefs. In other words, he quit one company and joined another company started by him. He discovered, however, that the real owner was God.
And for good measure his new conviction led him to marry Katherina von Bora, a former nun, in 1525. It is admirable to follow one’s educated good conscience to the end.
4. He rebelled against the Church.
He was willing to die for his beliefs. In his day, kings and emperors of Europe were connected to the Roman Catholic Church. In 1519 Charles V was elected emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and he opposed reform from the upstart monk.
In April 1521 Luther was summoned to a hearing at the Diet in Worms, with the guarantee of safe conduct. He was fearful of assassination, but he was determined to present his case to the emperor. In the great hall of the bishop’s palace (remote ecclesiastical hierarchy again), he entered with his lawyer and supporters, facing 200 of the most powerful men in Germany. The imperial prosecutor showed him books on the table and asked him whether they were his. Dr. Schurl, Luther’s advocate, requested the titles to be read. Luther said they were his. Then the prosecutor asked him to renounce them.
Luther was caught off guard, for he had thought this was a hearing in which he could discuss Scripture. He asked for time. He got twenty-four hours. He spent a sleepless night consulting with his team. He told them, “I will not retract one iota, so Christ help me” (qtd. in John D. Woodbridge and Frank A. James, Church History: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual and Political Contexts, vol. 2, [Zondervan, 2103]).
The next day his voice was not shaky as it had been yesterday. It was firm. Luther gave his famous reply in Latin:
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted, and my conscience is captive to the word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor wise to go against conscience (Woodbridge and James)
He was reported to have added the words, “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.” Spanish soldiers shouted, “To the flames!” But Charles V kept his word. Luther and his team walked out the palace doors.
For many of us, he is a hero on this fourth point.
5. Luther wrote harshly about peasants.
Luther wrote that he was reforming only theology:
But when it comes to whether one teaches correctly the Word of God, there I take my stand and fight …. To contest doctrine has never happened until now. Others have fought over life, but to take on doctrine—that is to grab the goose by the neck! (Woodbridge and James)
Luther never counted on knights and peasants using his theological reform to implement social reform. But the need for it surged. Landlords were oppressing peasants, taking common land and forbidding firewood from trees, for example. One historian calculated that Germany saw sixty peasant uprisings from 1336 to 1525. A large-scale peasant revolt broke out from 1524 to 1525.
At first Martin Luther encouraged the peasants. They wrote the Twelve Articles that laid out their reasonable demands. Luther responded with Admonition to Peace in May 1525. He placed most of the blame on the secular and ecclesiastical landowners. They were greedy and pressed the peasants to revolt. He wrote to the oppressors: “You are the cause of this wrath of God … it will undoubtedly come upon you, unless your mend your ways in time” (Woodbridge and James). However, he also criticized the peasants. No matter how just their cause, rebellion was inexcusable.
Then the revolt took a turn. Peasants destroyed castles and monasteries and seized several towns. Thomas Muentzer (c. 1489-1525) manipulated the crowds, referring to himself as the so-called “hammer and sickle” (note the old Soviet flag) of God. He advocated violent social reform.
As he was prone to do, Luther exploded with outrage at the violence, with another book, Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants. He told the landlords to “smite, slay, and stab secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful or devilish than a rebel.”
Catholics and Protestants slaughtered 70,000 to 100,000 peasants (whether Luther wrote his latter book or not). The Reformation uncovered social injustice but failed to correct it.
6. He hated Jews.
At first he broke with his culture and honored the Jewish community. Before and in his day, people blamed Jews for plagues and ritual murders of Christian youths and profanation of the Eucharist hosts. In contrast, he wrote a tract with the provocative title (only provocative for his times) Jesus Was Born a Jew (1523). Against prevailing anti-Semitism of the day, he urged Christians to see the Jews as God’s chosen people and treat them cordially and brotherly. Then in his old age, the inflammatory rhetoric flared up. In 1543 (he died in 1546), he wrote On Jews and Their Lies.
What explains the about-face? He was unsuccessful in his outreach to them. He had naively believed that if he could simplify Christian doctrine, many would convert (a few did). And he had heard rumors that Jews had converted some Lutherans to Judaism. Scholarly research nowadays shows that Luther was concerned mainly with theological differences. Call it theological anti-Semitism. He was also losing his health on various painful issues, like gallstones.
However, his zeal clouded his sound judgment. In the end: No excuses.
Martin Luther was a flawed hero. He spent years hiding from persecution and trials and personal attacks from the massive Roman Church and the emperor and kings. This was bound to affect his soul. His personality, however, could take it—lesser men would have wilted and recanted. But he stood his ground.
How far has the Reformation generally and Luther specifically reached?
To speak personally, from 2004 to 2007, as I was writing my articles exposing the other side of Islam, I got regular death threats. At the time I figured if Luther could take it, so could I (on a small scale).
Luther wrote in the Freedom of the Christian Man (1520) that a “Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant, subject to all.”
Willingness to break with the old ways is the cornerstone of the Reformation. An individual must have religious liberty and freedom of conscience. And so it is easy to see how the eighteenth-century Founders of our nation, who signed the Declaration of Independence (cf. the Ninety-Five Theses), all of them with a close or distant Protestant background, followed this conviction to the very end, even if their conviction were to lead to their deaths or the destruction and confiscation of their property. Then England sent an invasion force, so the colonies had to scramble and fight a defensive war.
Surely Luther inspired them, in part.
In my view Luther deserves our respect. I certainly respect him as a man, and especially his theology. Just one tidbit on the differences between grace alone and faith alone as opposed to good works adding to one’s salvation (paraphrased):
God does not need my good works. My neighbor does.
As one guy on social media commented: Boom!