In the ‘70s I went on a three-week college study tour of the then Soviet Union and some Eastern European cities. In East Berlin, one stop was a history museum. Since we were from a Lutheran College (Concordia Senior College, Ft. Wayne, IN) the museum guide especially wanted us to see the displays on Martin Luther and the Reformation. The guide pointed out that Luther was lauded as precursor Marxist revolutionary as he stood against the ruling class.
Martin Luther has been lauded and hailed in other historical interpretations of the man which miss the mark:
In a similar fashion, hailed as a proto-Marxist revolutionary, Luther is understood as a populist leader and demagogue who rallied the masses against the tyranny of Rome and the prevailing ruling class. The accusation is he was an enemy of the Church and he was not. Luther was no populist/demagogue: when the masses started massive violent resistance under Thomas Muntzer, Luther wrote, “Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants” in which he wanted them stopped at all costs. The purpose of secular government, Biblically understood by the Reformers, was civil peace and tranquility. Luther’s aim was not to foment revolution.
When I was child I loved reading comic books, especially Superman. Our Sunday School gave us a comic book the life of Luther. It was one of my favorites because Luther was portrayed as a hero, a great man who believed in God. This is a 19th century understanding that “great men” move and shape history. Luther did not see himself as a hero at all. He called himself, “maggot fodder” and “food for worms”. He knew socially that he was of a lower class as he was a “son of miner” not raised in “great houses”. When those who were embraced by the true evangelical doctrine and so embraced the truth, started to be called Lutherans, Luther objected: “Better to be called Christians”. Further, Luther was not the sole ‘heroic’ Reformer. There were many other evangelical catholic reformers. For instance, Luther saw Robert Barnes in England as a hero as he was martyred for preaching and teaching Christ alone. Hermann Sasse cautioned in his book, Here We Stand (1938), “The more Luther’s teachings fade from the consciousness of the church, so much more foolishly the cult of his person is promoted.” Luther’s aim was not to be a hero.
Then there is the interpretation of Luther as culture warrior. He was the precursor of the modern era with the advent of the individual and his reason against the superstitions of the past. The famous German poet, Goethe, wrote approvingly of Luther,
“The more efficiently we Protestants make strides of noble progress, the more quickly the Catholics will follow. As soon as they are gripped by the great enlightenment of our times, which is reaching out more and more, they are bound to follow…For as soon as the pure teaching of love of Christ is apprehended and appropriated as it is, man will become aware of his greatness and freedom, and he will no longer lay particular to weight on slight deviations in external forms…Move over, we shall all gradually turn from a Christianity of works and beliefs to a Christianity of works and sentiments.”
Luther was the polar opposite from this Enlightenment understanding of culture of man. Man’s words and culture won’t perfect anyone. Man is a God damn sinner for whom He sent His Son to shed His blood upon the Cross to redeem. There is original sin. No wonder our age has let loose such horrors from genocide to virulent atheism, because Christianity is just a means of enlightenment because man is so good?! Luther’s aim was not to be the great enlightener.
So what was Luther’s aim? He did not wake up one day and say I will reform the Church. His call was not that, but to preach and teach the Word of God. His aim was given to him in the Word of God, Law and Gospel. He was not a culture warrior, enlightener, populist nor hero. He was a baptized Christian, Augustinian monk, pastor and professor of Scripture. He was a man of the Church. The Reformation is an episode in Church history. He saw that the preaching of the Word of God and of the Word made flesh was corrupted by works and spirituality for man to attain to God. He did not learn that from his enlightened, revolutionized, heroic conscience. He learned this from the Bible, God’s Word to him, not Martin’s words from him. Here in Virginia, every now and then a congregation will have a revival…that is, a revival of people. This was not Luther and the Reformers’ aim: it was the revival of the pure preaching of the doctrine of the Word which alone renews and builds the Church. Only preaching and teaching of the Gospel, in accordance with the Scriptures, without the taint of works as God’s good work alone can revive men and women.
The Reformation was and is not about Luther alone. In this 500th anniversary, the concentration is too much on Luther. Luther was not alone as he was part of the Church. There were so many others, his wife Katie to elector Frederick the Wise to the painter Lucas Cranach to Philip Melanchthon, etc. as part of the Reformation: you and I as well dear reader. Saved by faith alone, through grace alone, known by Scripture alone. Pastors and laymen faced martyrdom, plague, doubt, fightings and fears within and within, not because of Martin Luther but because of Jesus Christ taught in the true doctrine of Scripture.
The Church, even a corrupted one, still had the Scriptures. It was in the Scriptures, the Word of God that Luther and so many others, learned of the Lord who sets us free:
“I greatly longed to understand Paul’s epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression “the righteousness of God,” because I took it to mean that righteousness whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust.
My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage Him. Therefore I did not love a just angry God, but rather hated and murmured against Him. Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.
Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the righteousness of God and the statement that “the just shall live by faith.” Then I grasped that the righteousness of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before “the righteousness of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven…” – Martin Luther
O Spirit, who didst once restore
Thy church that it might be again the bringer of good news to men,
Breathe on Thy cloven Church once more,
That in these gray and latter days
There may be those whose life is praise, each life a high doxology
To Father, Son and unto Thee.
(N.B. I wish I could claim the insights above but they are simply my thumbnail sketch of the keen analysis by Reverend Professor Hermann Sasse in his 1938 book, Here We Stand)