*This is the original version of the piece I wrote for RELEVANT about Martin Luther. I’m not a tremendous fan of lists, unless they’re for groceries or favorites. So, this is how I wrote it, and I would like you all to read it. Give it time, and I think you might enjoy it.*
Although I was raised in a traditional, organ-centric Lutheran Church in the Midwest, if you were to ask me a few years ago if I knew much about the German monk whose name still marks the denomination of my youth, I can’t say I would have been bursting with insight. Most of what I knew about the man came not from my church, but from a few units in a public school World History class, which typically offered little else than a brief and scathing critique of the medieval Catholic Church, and a casual mention of the German man who nailed some new rules to a door. And while these explanations of what transpired in Europe in the 1500’s may be loosely accurate, they, like any brief historical explanation, overlook the complexity of those events, and of the people who inspired them. From our perspective as Christians from a splintered, multi-cultural global Church, it’s hard to believe that something of such vast significance transpired on such a grassroots level. And as a result of this perspective, the people who sparked the changes cease to be people at all; they become names and nothing else. For a long time Martin Luther was, to me, just the bald guy in my history book who did a good thing a very long time ago. If Martin Luther were, say, the guy who invented the shoelace, rather than the man whose conviction and zeal sparked a religious and cultural revolution that rocked all of Europe from a hazy stupor, and in turn, changed the face our current society, I would be content for him to remain a bald head in a text book.
But Luther lived long before the dawn of the shoelace. And with even just a little bit of research about Martin Luther the man, and not merely the name, we learn that he was a man of great complexity. He was both zealous and uncertain. He was faithful and yet self-loathing; contemplative but combative. Luther’s life was one of stark contrast, full of both engrossing darkness and brilliant light. And for that reason, Luther remains a bit of a mystery. But if we look a little closer at the reformer’s life in its proper context, the mystery begins to make a little more sense, and in turn, his words and the events surrounding the Reformation take on a greater significance than any textbook could convey.
Martin Luther was born to parents of peasant decent in 1483 in the small agricultural town of Eiselben, Germany, which was then a part of the Holy Roman Empire. Considering his father Hans’s relative success as a miner and smelter, little Martin was sent to Magdeburg, Germany to begin his schooling as a lawyer at the ripe age of 14, thus beginning a tumultuous journey through academia. Luther begrudgingly endured the tedium of a traditional European education, earning a Master’s degree by the age of 19. On the surface, things were going swimmingly. He entered Law school at the same university in 1505, but the dissatisfaction that marked his early years as a student only intensified. Later, Luther would remark that school was for him a literal hell on earth. To study something as subjective and, as he called it, “uncertain” as Law and Ethics was frivolous. The academy’s obsession with Reason as an end unto itself was also useless. What Martin craved were answers to his deepest existential longings, and academic life was merely toil.
Considering Luther’s disdain for academics, it’s no surprise that the defining moment in his faith as a young man came not through diligent study, but in a moment of natural catastrophe; a moment so intense and sudden that he had no choice but to call it Divine Intervention. One stormy night in July, while Martin was returning on horseback to, where else, the University, a lightning bolt struck mere feet away from him. Fearing for his life, Luther cried out, “Help! Saint Anna (the patron Saint of carpenters), I will become a monk!” Within two weeks of that fateful, eerily Damascus-like event, Luther dropped out of law school, sold his books, and entered an Augustinian Monastery. From that day forward, he vowed to live a life of solitude. The story seems a fitting allegory for Luther’s life and faith: in the midst of tremendous darkness, God’s light shines less like a long, mellow glow, and more like a violent burst of electricity.
But as you probably guessed, Luther’s commitment to monastic life did not mean happily ever after. The regiment of fasting, pilgrimages, and penance only seemed to widen the gap between him and God. Years later, he declared: “If anyone could have gained heaven as a monk, then I would certainly have done so.” Despite his seeming obedience, guilt still plagued his consciousness, and with that guilt came the uncertainty of his own salvation. The term spiritual depression comes to mind, or perhaps, the dark night of the soul. Luther called it anfechtungen: the afflictions. If affliction were a prerequisite for Grace, Luther would have been swimming in it. But his commitment to Scripture, and to the Sacraments of the Eucharist and Baptism, revealed to him precisely what his sense of unworthiness had begun provoke—that salvation comes through faith, not works.
To us, it’s obvious. But how many times have you sat up at night and wondered if you were enough? Luther’s life was a constant battle of feeling like he never was. And it was in that tumultuous anfechtungen, in that dark affliction, where Grace finally made sense.
By 1508, Luther was ordained as a priest, and had been summoned to the University of Wittenberg to teach theology, and yet, his struggles with depression and doubt lingered on. He continued on the path of proper penance, but as a Professor, he began to set himself apart with his adamant teaching of justification by faith alone, despite the fact that it was indeed a central tenant of Roman Catholic doctrine.
It’s in 1517 where the story starts to sound familiar, where Luther’s life begins to ring a bell. Church officials began to venture out into the Empire to sell indulgences, or paid tickets to ensure a quicker exit from Purgatory, for the purpose of building St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It’s easy to picture Luther standing in the pulpit, preaching Grace to his faithful, pre-Protestant flock, when a crotchety Church official starts selling get-out-of-purgatory-free cards to the confused sheep in the back pews, and Luther drives them out like Jesus drove out the money-changers. And then I picture Luther creeping through the night to the chapel, his infamous 95 theses in hand and a Glorious Revolution on his mind. And then he nails the theses to the door, his hammer thundering through the night. Trumpets and drums resound.
But in reality, Luther approached his efforts with tremendous fear and trembling. In fact, before nailing the 95 theses to the chapel door, he sent a letter to his Church’s bishop with his argument, only to be quietly dismissed. And the door that he nailed the Theses to was more like a bulletin board, where academics and Church leaders posted papers and announcements, so to nail a theologically-based thesis to the door was hardly an act of menacing defiance. Luther’s training as a biblical scholar led him to dispute what, to him, were interpretive flaws of traditional Church doctrine.
To be sure, Luther acted out of fierce conviction, and that’s especially apparent in the zeal of his writing and preaching. But most historians agree that Luther was hardly marching towards Rome with a torch. And when we consider his tendency to doubt the merit of his actions, it comes as no surprise that he approached his acts of defiance with trepidation. Nevertheless, what Luther intended to spark conversation and debate, enflamed a tremendous controversy, thanks in large part to the recent advent of the printing press. As the 95 theses spread throughout the Empire, Luther’s fame began to grow, but so did his infamy. Pope Leo X employed a team of papal theologians to debunk his arguments. Later, appearing before a religious assembly called The Diet of Worms, they urged him to recant his writings, upon threat of excommunication. Luther would not, and is believed to have said, “Here I stand. I can do no other.” He was excommunicated and deemed a notorious heretic, which gave any person permission to kill him without punishment.
While returning to Wittenberg, Luther was taken by a group of men disguised as armed highwaymen, who, by order of Frederick III, escorted the reformer to Wartburg Castle, so he could hide in safety. He stayed in the castle for nearly a year, and wrote incessantly. He translated the Bible from Greek into German, pumped out doctrinal and polemical writings. From the confines of what he called “my Patmos” he wrote what had been his most zealous works to date, stressing grace by faith alone. It was while hiding at Wartburg Castle that Luther penned the infamous lines: “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.” And while this quote is just one among many others that demonstrate his theological zeal, the context from which it was born is an apt metaphor for Luther’s turbulent journey. At this point, Luther was essentially Public Enemy Number 1, and he knew it.
But what he knew of the Gospel, based on what he’d seen in Scripture, gave him no choice. Until the day he died, Luther wrestled with the thought that he was in the wrong. The violence that his words inspired, which eventually reached a Crusade-like crescendo across Europe, were to him, a tragedy he could not forgive himself for. The wounds that his own words had made would become his greatest anfechtungen, even if the fruit they’d grown was greater. But those words—Sin boldy, but believe and rejoice in Christ—would become his creed. Even if he could never forgive himself, he knew that God surely would.
Boldness was never much of a choice for Martin Luther. Conviction was all he knew, and for that reason, we know his name today. But when we get to know the man, we see that it was a complex boldness; a pendulum swinging from certainty to discontent, from light to darkness, and back again.