Martin Luther cut a figure of such massive importance that reflections on him are a Rorschach test for theologians and historians alike. In few instances have personality and principle been so melded. If the Dominican Aquinas argued contra and sed contra, the former Augustinian would settle his case by slapping the table: “Dr. Martin Luther will have it so!” Aquinas spoke syllogisms while Luther shouted slurs. Interpreting the Rorschach blots his own way, Chesterton, no lightweight himself, resented that though Luther’s intellect was negligible in comparison with that of the Angelic Doctor, “his broad and burly figure has been big enough to block out for four centuries the distant human mountain of Aquinas.” With new attention focusing on Luther for the fifth centenary of his revolution, he still looms in Chesterton’s summary as “one of those great elemental barbarians, to whom it is indeed given to change the world.”
This barbarism consists in a proto-modern confusion of conscience with ego which, as Maritain wrote in his “Three Reformers,” is “something much subtler, much deeper, and much more serious, than egoism; a metaphysical egoism. Luther’s self becomes practically the center of gravity of everything, especially in the spiritual order.” Those sparring partners, Calvin and Luther, were both young when they made their mark: Calvin wrote his Institutes at the age of 25 and Luther was 33 when he advertised his 95 theses. And the emperor Charles V was 21 when he faced Luther at the Diet of Worms. But the personality of Calvin does not loom over his works as in the case of Luther. The difference shapes hasty caricatures of Calvin as a Pecksniffian ectomorph and Luther a Rabelaisian endomorph. Saint Thomas More parodied Luther’s scatological diction when he called him a “buffoon … (who will) carry nothing in his mouth other than cesspools, sewers, latrines…” But on the whole, the Catholic humanist reformers distinguished themselves from Luther by the astringency of their Aristotelian disdain, More’s friend Erasmus being a prime example of this protocol, along with such as Cajetan, Caisius, and Giberti.
One of Luther’s Ninety-Five denunciations of Rome was, “Those who believe that they can be certain of their salvation because they have letters of indulgence will be eternally damned, along with their teachers.” Obviously Luther was not the sort to ask, “Who am I to judge?” But his judgment courted an equation of the authentic teaching of the Church on indulgences with the corruption of those who crassly sold indulgences. The theses, many of which were reasonable in themselves, risked faulting not just the disease of the limb, but the limb itself. This is awkward as the 500th commemoration of Luther’s movement follows upon the Holy Year of Mercy for which Pope Francis announced various ways to receive indulgences. Francis has said with measured diplomacy: “I think that the intentions of Martin Luther were not mistaken. He was a reformer. Perhaps some methods were not correct.”
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If the intentions were honest, it is a fact that, even apart from psychoanalysis of Luther’s immoderate temperament, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” That aphorism is a variant of Vergil: facilis descensus Averno. According to Johannes Aurifaber, the last words penned by Luther on February 17 in 1546, the day before he died, were in praise of Vergil’s Aeneid. Luther wrote his lines in the same dactylic hexameters Vergil used; but more poignantly, the warning about good intentions paving the road to Hell was given by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux who was a moral hero and spiritual giant in Luther’s estimation. As a profound scholar of the Wittenberg reformer, Pope Benedict XVI gave Luther his due especially for parts of the German catechisms, but, he also held, as Father Aidan Nichols has written in his The Theology of Joseph Ratzinger, that Luther was a “radical theologian and polemicist whose particular version of the doctrine of justification by faith is incompatible with a Catholic understanding of faith as co-believing with the whole Church, within a Christian existence composed equally of faith, hope, and charity.”
Luther’s attitudes toward Jews degenerated from his 1523 defense of them against “Romanist” oppression. By 1543, he was ranting “On the Jews and Their Lies.” While others have dismissed the “Luther to Hitler” connection as in William L. Shirer’s journalistic study The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Goebbels and other Nazi propagandists freely quoted much of Luther’s diatribes against Jews which, even out of context, are lurid as read from this side of Kristallnacht, such as: “Eject them forever from this country…. First to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or a cinder of them.”
Lest the critic be smug, the first real Counter-Reformation pope, the Carafa pope Paul IV, so bungled his zealous reforms, which only reluctantly were applied to his own degenerate nephews, that Catholics more than Lutherans rejoiced at his death. He was another type of the well-intentioned reformer who had lost sight of the form. Just a decade after Luther’s death, Pope Paul sequestered the Jews of Rome in a ghetto with a gate locked at night, and required that they wear yellow stars on their clothing—a humiliation first imposed in 1215 by Pope Innocent III and not forgotten when Reinhard Heydrich imposed it on the Reich in 1941. Luther’s case against the Jews was theological, but his counsel to the German nobility Against the Robbing and Murderous Horde of Peasants in 1525 was strictly a civil exercise of cold calculation: “Therefore let everyone who can, smite, slay, and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful or devilish than a rebel. It is just as when one must kill a mad dog; if you do not strike him, he will strike you, and a whole land with you.”
What then of Luther’s attitude toward Islam panting at the trembling borders of Europe, before Europe even thought of itself as Europe rather than as Christendom? Here is where his personality, as animated by circumstance, defines policy. In Luther’s thoughts on Islam, there is an increasing censoriousness similar to the intensification of his condemnations of Judaism. At first, he had more pressing matters on his plate and, to the degree that the Turks were a threat to the pope and the Romanists, there was the kind of counter-crusade that might serve the purposes of the reformers. In his Explanation of the Ninety-Five Theses in 1518, he had argued against warring with the Turks, and was called a compromiser for it. Ten years later he defensively claimed that the popes “never seriously intended to make war on the Turks, but used the Turkish war as a conjurer’s hat… Thus they condemned my article not because it prevented the Turkish war, but because it tore off this conjurer’s hat and blocked the path along which the money went to Rome.”
Initially, Luther took a position not unlike that of Erasmus in his Considerations for a War against the Turks, which said that a renewal of faith in the hearts of Christians would be a stronger weapon than any sword. Luther had declared: “To fight against the Turk is the same as resisting God, who visits our sin upon us with this rod.” Luther and Erasmus used almost identical language in comparing Islam with the punishing plagues of Egypt, but Luther disdained the Muslims as hopeless enemies and seducers of Christians, while Erasmus hoped for their conversion. The German heresiarch and the Dutch confessor, one a defrocked priestly son of a devout layman and the other a priestly natural son of a wayward priest, were confederates in their perception that Islam does not mean peace for Christians. As an ancillary and unintended benefit of fighting the Turks, it has been estimated that the Turkish distraction reduced intra-European fighting between Catholics and Protestants by about twenty-five per cent.
Quite as there is no evidence that he actually nailed the Ninety-Five Theses to the mute and mordant castle chapel door—the description is a later one by Melancthon—no research has been able to certify the remark attributed to Luther: “I’d rather be ruled by a wise Turk than by a foolish Christian.” But it sounds like a variant of the Orthodox protest in Constantinople when it was menaced: “We would rather be ruled by the Ottoman turban than the Latin mitre!” That defiance crumbled when Constantinople fell and the Greek Orthodox learned that the Muslims were not an improvement over the Venetians. On one drunken day, the Muslim conqueror Mehmet II publicly raped the fourteen-year-old son of the Orthodox Grand Duke Notaras at a banquet and then beheaded the boy’s father and entire family. But as with Luther’s initial defense of Jews, finding a good word for the Muslims was effective anti-Roman propaganda. The Turks might be a God-sent scourge against the Roman Church that was the “Antichrist.”
Luther thought that a Holy War against the Ottomans would be “absolutely contrary to Christ’s doctrine and name.” However, Turkish assaults on Buda and Pest and the Siege of Vienna in 1529 brought the Crescent too close for comfort to the Cross and Luther urged Emperor Charles V to fight a war against the Turk—not a religious war but a secular one in respect of his “Two Kingdoms” theory. One year later Erasmus wrote to Johann Rinck words about the Muslim invaders not without application to the Germany of today, although Angela Merkel is not the Emperor Charles V: “I have more than once been abashed by the nonchalance of other Christian lands, and especially of Germany herself, as if these things in no way affected the rest of us. We become tight fisted, and spend on pleasures and trivialities what we do not want to spend on rescuing Christians.”
In various ways, Islam and the Protestant schools had some affinities. Recognizing Islam as an Arian heresy, Luther thought that any Pope of Rome was worse than the Prophet of Medina. Theologically, Allah as pure will had a certain cogency for Luther who called Reason “that pretty whore.” After Luther, once marriage was described as a non-sacramental civil union, divorce could be a reasonable solution, albeit with more strictures than in Islam. Luther saw no problem with Henry VIII taking a second wife, just as he had advised Philip of Hesse. There was something of a scandal when it was found out that Luther had told Philip to lie about his bigamy, but the logic was consistent with the Shi’a practice of “taqiyya,” or lying to promote the faith.
The successor of Suleiman, Murad III, one of whose allies had been the Unitarian, John Sigismund, appreciated the affinities between Islam and Lutherans vis-a-vis Catholicism and in 1574 he wrote to the “Members of the Lutheran Sect in Flanders and Spain”:
As you, for your part, do not worship idols, you have banished the idols and portraits and bells from churches, and declared your faith by stating that God Almighty is one and Holy Jesus is His Prophet and Servant, and now, with heart and soul, are seeking and desirous of the true faith; but the faithless alone they call Papa does not recognize his Creator as one, ascribing divinity to Holy Jesus (upon Him be peace!), and worshipping idols and pictures which he has made with his own hands, thus casting doubt upon the oneness of God…
Luther would have been appalled at the misrepresentation of his Trinitarianism, but Lutherans and Calvinists from Holland and England joined the Ottoman forces at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. In 1683 at Vienna, the Hungarian leader of the Lutherans, the traitorous Imre Thokoly, fought on the side of the Turks. But even Louis XIV, king of the “Eldest Daughter of the Church,” cynically refused to help the heroic Polish king Jan Sobieski: not for theological reasons but because of his enmity with the Habsburgs, and in this he was sustaining the 1536 Franco—Ottoman Alliance of Francis I and Suleiman. French engineers actually helped the Muslims to besiege Vienna. After his defeat, Thokoly had the temerity to ask Sobieski to reconcile him with the emperor. Failing at that, Thokoly eventually lived off an Ottoman pension in Turkey. Better a Turk than a Papist. Between 1541 and 1699, Hungary suffered Ottoman occupation and the scars of atrocities from that period remain.
In 2015, the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban specifically referred to that century and a half of suffering when he banned Islamic immigration and sealed the Serbian border, and was criticized by condescending European Union bureaucrats, ignorant as they were of that country’s cultural crucifixion. The Washington Post (September 4, 2015) uncomprehendingly reacted: “But it is somewhat bizarre to think this rather distant past of warlords and rival empires ought to influence how a 21st century nation addresses the needs of refugees.”
Unlike his summonses to eradicate the Jews, Luther was indifferent to the free practice of “Mohammedism” and to the end he allowed: “Let the Turk believe and live as he will, just as one lets the papacy and other false Christians live.” It is said, based on the meaning of “in cloaca” in his own disputed description, that Luther was inspired in his interpretation of the Epistle to the Romans during a bowel movement on his commode, which was just recently excavated in time for the 500th commemoration of the Reformation. One imagines the torrent of commentary he might have bestowed upon the world after a modern colonic irrigation. But setting aside the tragic consequences of those years for the Church and the whole world, Luther began a fracture that now has become an opening for an assault upon civilization from Mecca. All because of his obsession: “As the pope is Antichrist, so the Turk is the very devil. The prayer of Christendom is against both. Both shall go down to hell, even though it may take the Last Day to end them there; and I hope it will not be long.”
When asked about the Church lifting her excommunication of Luther, Cardinal Ratzinger said that the question is moot since he is dead and the Church has passed her judgment over to the Eternal Judge. Five hundred years later, astute men commemorate the passions of those times as a trauma but cannot celebrate them as a triumph. Yet there are prodigies we can celebrate and among them is Saint Thomas More sequestered in the Tower of London in the days of King Henry’s second wife whom the Imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys said, with possible overstatement, was “more Lutheran than Luther.” That “Man for All Seasons” wrote: “For there is no born Turk, so cruel to Christian folk, as is the false Christian that falleth from the Faith.”
Editor’s note: The image above is a portrait of Martin Luther painted by Lucas Cranach.