For many years, I have struggled to understand Martin Luther and his motivations. I am an adult convert to the Catholic Church, one who had no religious faith before I was baptized. A key part of my journey occurred during my time in graduate school, of all places. Before I began to study the Protestant Reformation in my graduate courses, I am not sure I knew more than the name of Martin Luther or his place in history. I am certain I knew more (though not much more) about who Martin Luther King Jr. was than his namesake.
From the first time I read an account of how the Reformation began, of Luther’s Ninety-Five theses, his invention of sola fide and other Protestant ideas, I never took seriously his theological arguments against the Church. His rejection of the medieval Church always seemed motivated by more elemental concerns than formally defined doctrines.
Even as an atheist at that point, my intuition was that Luther came to those ideas as a means of getting around the anguish of having to obey what, by all accounts, was a corrupt authority in the papacy, rather than as being true in themselves.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Because the study of history was so crucial to my conversion, I did not stop thinking or learning about Luther after my baptism. I did not grow up in a religious home, but I did come to maturity in what is the southern tip of the Bible Belt, and I knew that I was consciously rejecting what passed for Christian faith among most of the people I had ever known, many of them wonderful people. I felt a need to justify, in the most exhaustive terms I could, why I had done so, though no one ever really asked me to.
One thing I wanted to be sure of when I did enter the Church was that I was doing it because I believed the things it taught were true and not because I hated or disliked Protestants. I knew that, at an existential level, I needed to be for rather than merely against something.
My work also kept me thinking about Luther, and it encouraged me to try to understand his revolt against the Church. For many years, I taught a “Great Books” Western Civilization course, in which Luther was a staple. Mostly we read excerpts from his Letter to the German Nobility and, later, The Bondage of the Will.
Luther’s polemics and gift for vituperation often offended students; the first semester I taught the course, a student of mine came to discuss Luther with me. She was a Lutheran (of the Missouri Synod, the more “conservative” Lutherans in the United States), but she was distraught over his treatment of those who disagreed with him.
I defended Luther in terms of historical context, noting that he lived before ideas of civility had taken hold, and people were less inhibited about what they wrote about things like religion. I felt a duty to defend all the authors I taught, since I love the past, and they are so often without defenders. I tried to put Luther’s vicious statements about Jews in perspective, noting that Catholic opponents sometimes said nasty things in that regard too. I discovered through my reading that he said much worse things about Jews than I had suspected, much to my regret.
The most helpful biography I read about him was Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet, by Lyndal Roper. Roper emphasized Luther’s upbringing in a mining family, where assertiveness was prized. Certainly, Luther’s subsequent career illustrates someone who reacted badly when he felt Rome or other authorities challenged his status within the Church. (Roper interestingly observes that he wrote almost nothing about the afterlife; his whole concern was the Church in this world.) Luther was someone who needed assurance that he was doing the right thing, and his need to assert himself seem tied to his need for validation.
This is probably why the reception of his Ninety-Five Theses, which made him a celebrity, pushed him toward the break with Rome. Luther had not intended his critique of the sale of indulgences to become a matter for the general public, and his stance only deviated from orthodoxy when challenged by Catholic opponents, who charged him with disobedience to Rome. His theology changed under the pressure of events; but his assertion that he was right and everyone else was wrong did not, even when this meant his fellow reformers.
For a long while, I was hesitant to “psychologize” Luther, since so many did this in frankly ridiculous ways. (The psychologist Erik Erikson famously wrote a book doing just that, Young Man Luther.) But, over time, I became convinced the key to him was his psychology, if only because he himself seemed to convey this in his writings.
I concluded this partly from teaching him in tandem with Erasmus and their debate over free will. In his reply to Erasmus, The Bondage of the Will, Luther charged the Dutch scholar with timidity, claiming that “assertions” were the mark of a true Christian. Only those who “assert twice as determined as the very Stoics” deserved that name, as if the genuineness of one’s faith depended on how shrilly one insisted upon it.
Luther was an angry man, as his polemical writings revealed. And he reveled in such anger, claiming that “anger refreshes all my blood, sharpens my mind, and drives away temptation.” The “temptation” he referred to might have been clinical depression. His biographers note periods where he was overwhelmed by a sense of despair, which he called Anfechtungen, even to the point of blacking out.
Having suffered from depression in my own life, Luther’s need for certainty was one of the things that led me to view him more charitably. His theological positions were disastrously wrong, but his anguished search for certainty of his own salvation humanized him for me, as much as his screeching diatribes against the Church repulsed me.
As he put it in The Bondage of the Will, his novel idea of justification by faith alone disentangled, for Luther, God’s actions in the world from our own. Without this, he could have no certainty as to what he must do to be saved. The Church’s belief that our works, under the influence of grace, could contribute something to this simply muddied the waters in his mind. Treating the human will as completely powerless solved this dilemma:
I frankly confess that I should not want free will to be given me, even if it could be, nor anything else left in my own hands to enable me to strive after salvation…because even though there were no dangers, adversities or devils, I should still be forced to labor with no guarantee of success…If I lived and worked to all eternity, my conscience would never reach comfortable certainty as to how much it must do to please God…I am certain that I please God, not by the merit of my works, but by reason of His merciful favor promised to me.
This desire for “comfortable certainty” about his own, particular salvation is something the Church has never promised its adherents. The historian Richard Rex notes the revolutionary nature of this idea of absolute certainty about one’s state of grace (which Luther called pax conscientia, “peace of conscience”). Once Luther saw faith, the Gospel, as something that should produce such certainty in its adherents, he turned on anyone and any institution that did not affirm him in this.
This explains much of the vehemence with which he attacked the Church. Paul Hacker, a former Lutheran and friend of Joseph Ratzinger, who termed this idea of Luther’s “reflexive faith,” described it this way: “what properly justifies is not simply faith in God or Christ. Only the reflection, qualified by certitude, that God’s salvific deed is meant ‘for me’ works salvation, and this reflection brings out its effect infallibly.”
What this means is not, as many Catholics suppose, that Luther’s theology was wholly subjective. He believed the Bible and the Church to be objective realities. The point was that true faith must produce this sort of subjective certainty. That is how you knew it was true, if it produced in you the right kind of experience. If it didn’t, it was false. Thus, when Cajetan or the pope told him he was wrong, Luther could not see this as a mere judgment on him personally but as an attack on faith as such.
My own reading of Scripture and history led me to the same conclusions as the Church: with St. Paul, I understood it was necessary to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” rather than expecting absolute certainty concerning one’s own individual salvation. Richard Rex noted, in The Making of Martin Luther, virtually no theologian before Luther thought one could have perfect assurance they were in a state of grace. How, then, was Luther able to conjure this “theological novum” into being, as the Evangelical theologian Alister McGrath once described his doctrine of justification?
Some blame this on the quite real corruption in the Church at the time, but I doubt that was the cause. Luther’s primary sin was not rebellion against authority, it was despair. It may sound counter intuitive, but I think it was the Church’s virtues, not its vices, that enabled him to make that theological leap.
The late-medieval Church is sometimes accused of being dour and sin-obsessed, but this is a misconception. The Church, with its ritual and sacramental system, proclaimed, rather, the dignity of human beings, who were now elevated, through the Church’s ministrations, to the glory of the Son of God.
The historian Heiko Oberman, a reformed Protestant, once referred to the proliferation of mystical writings in the late Middle Ages as “the democratization of mysticism.” His idea was that the great stress on the interior life within late-medieval piety was not a sign of failure on the part of the medieval Church but its success, as ordinary Christians internalized its beliefs.
Someone who was sensitive, but emotionally unstable, might well come to believe that such an exalted state should free him of any anxiety or internal conflict, as did Luther. When he found that nothing the Church taught or did could do this, he convinced himself the Church had lied about the Gospel for fifteen hundred years. Rather than accept that God would allow him to suffer horrible uncertainty about his salvation, Luther invented a new one in His stead—and a new Church.
These considerations make Luther’s rejection of the Church and its faith understandable. A desire for certainty is not a sign of weakness or immaturity. (I always roll my eyes when I hear someone say that “doubt is a good thing,” since no one who has experienced real, crippling, existential doubt could believe such nonsense.) But they cannot make it right or just. We are not guaranteed certainty about everything we would like in this life, and certainly not from Revelation.
Being made in the image and likeness of God, and engrafted into His divine life through baptism in Christ Jesus, does not magically safeguard us from terrible suffering. He allowed His only Son to be tortured to death, after all. God does not promise us everything we want, but what He promises, He fulfills. That is the difference between God and men: God always keeps His promises. And He has promised us that no suffering, however awful, can separate us from Him, who through Jesus Christ is our consolation, and our hope.
And so, I have read my last book on Martin Luther, I think; and I bid him adieu. I only hope I have become more charitable on the way because of my study of his life and that, by growing in charity, I may never be separated from the love of Christ, nor His Bride, no matter what suffering may befall me in this world.
[Image: Portrait of Martin Luther, by the workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder]