500 years ago, on October 31, 1517, the undercurrents of a Protestant Reformation grew into a tidal wave, one that would rip through the church of the state and shake it to its core, indeed, paving the way for Protestant faith. As we celebrate the event’s 500th anniversary, celebrants regard one German as the Man of the Hour (but he would hate to know that).
There are all-too-familiar stories we remember about the man Martin Luther: the lightning strike, the published Ninety-Five Theses, the legend of “Here I stand!” exclaimed at Worms. Doubtless, you’ve likely read or heard something about these stories given the droves of recent articles and books on Luther. But there are other anecdotes from the life of Luther that, while lesser known, help us gain a more well-rounded and accurate picture of Luther.
In anticipation for Reformation Day, I have spent the past few weeks reading various works of Luther’s, along with two biographies, by Bainton and Selderhuis (all quotes taken from these books). Of course these biographies, like their peers, share about these pivotal moments. But it is the valleys, not the peaks, of Luther’s story that I have taken an interest in for this season. It is the music of Luther’s legacy, the “space in between the notes” as Debussy defined it, that I want to discover. Below are some brief, random “tidbits” from Luther’s life. They are not as well-remembered by most, but I believe they help us begin to understand the kind of man Luther was in the space in between the mountains from his legacy.
Approaching the Doors of Wittenberg
When Hans Luther received word of his son’s decision to join the monastery (prompted by an oath he swore out of fear of being struck by lightning), he was furious. How could Martin abandon his parents, in their old age, not providing for them? Was he so selfish to care more about his spiritual journey than his parents? His father’s eventual blessing was described as “grudging and grieving” at best, and Luther was hurt that he disappointed his parents. This was not a simple act of rebelling or leaving home. Luther needed to find God, for real. He knew this, whatever it took, no matter how painful to him and to those he loved. Jesus told his disciples, “Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life” (Mt. 19:29). Christ kept his promise for Martin Luther, too. Martin Luther lived a modest, even describing his life as impoverished at times, but the hundredfold he received in time would not be in the form of earthly things.
What drove Luther to nailing the theses to university doors, challenging Catholicism over the issue of indulgences? It was not an act of spite or a desperate attempt for attention. It was not even in his mind an act of protest at the time. Prior to the event, Luther was fighting his own spiritual battle to find favor with God. Raised with an image of God as full of rage and viewing himself as contemptible, “Luther probed every resource of contemporary Catholicism for assuaging the anguish of a spirit alienated from God. He tried the way of good works and discovered that he could never do enough to save himself.” His spirit was nearly crushed under the weight of guilt. “These were the torments which Luther repeatedly testified were far worse than any physical ailment that he had ever endured.” For those not familiar, Luther had many significant digestive issues and other physical problems. He was a man depressed, beset by insecurity, exhausted by his insufficiency, haunted by God and the Devil. He was a man in need of grace, like you and I.
He would eventually make two discoveries. First, Luther saw for the first time the real meaning of Christ’s righteousness as making us righteous. The gates of Paradise themselves swung open, and Martin entered into a new understanding of the gospel, one that gave him green pastures to lie down in. Second, he saw for the first time the abuse of indulgences taking place. His gripe was not so much with indulgences itself at the time, but that churches were using them in an abusive, manipulative, and harmful way. He called the church simply to disavow abusive uses of indulgences. And so the avalanche began with one small nudge. Eventually, he would single-handedly shatter medieval Catholicism as it was known.
The Man Martin Luther: A Brief Sketch
Martin Luther was a man of boldness and declaration, of course. Anyone who has seen the pictures of him can tell. As one put it, “his face is like his books; his eyes are penetrating and glitter almost fearfully, as you sometimes see with lunatics.” But Luther was also a man described as having “a marvelous graciousness in response and unconquerable patience in listening. In argument he shows the acumen of the apostle Paul.” In debate, he was always bold, hilarious, and competent (tip: read On the Bondage of the Will for evidence. You will laugh out loud, gasp with shock, and marvel at the arguments).
Martin Luther faced intense backlash for accusing the pope and the Catholic church of not knowing its place, in submission to Scripture. Threatened with excommunication, exile, the burning of his books, public humiliation, and even death, the deck was stacked against Luther. To Spalatin he wrote, “I am expecting the curses of Rome any day. I have everything in readiness. When they come, I am girded like Abraham to go I know not where, but sure of this, that God is everywhere.”
Martin Luther journeyed to the diet of Worms, face to face with his worst nightmares, eerily similar to the road Jesus walked on Palm Sunday: “Along the streets approximately two thousand people greeted him loudly, much to the annoyance of the papal delegation. People wanted to touch him, as if he were an image of the saints or a relic.”
Martin Luther did not see this as an opportunity to become a grandstanding hero of the faith, a chance to be remembered 500 years later in the 21st century. “I am always ready to step down as long as the truth of the gospel does not have to step down!” Luther retorted. “They can get anything they want from me as long as they keep the way of salvation open for Christians. That is the only thing I request, nothing more. And otherwise, let them relieve me of my office, and let me live and die in a small corner.” To his fearful friends in Wittenberg, Luther reminded them, “Even if Martin dies, as long as Christ lives.” Luther wrote to Von Staupitz, a mentor-turned-Catholic-sympathizer, that “[my] doctrine is this: that people should not trust in anything else than in Jesus Christ alone, not in prayers, merit, or one’s own works, because we are saved not by “our running” (Rom 9:16) but through God, who is merciful. But I did not set out to acquire a good name or a bad name, and that will not deter me either. God will see it.” Luther (somehow) found God to be merciful in these spiritually exhausting moments. He personified counting it all joy when facing trials of various kinds.
Martin Luther did not believe this Reformation of the Christian faith depended on him. In fact, he didn’t want to be at the center of the controversy to begin with. He, like the apostle Paul, felt it depended on the next generation. Melanchthon. Brenz. Bucer. “I have great hope that as Christ, when rejected by the Jews, went over to the Gentiles, so this true theology, rejected by opinionated old men, will pass over to the younger generation.”
Martin Luther believed in the priesthood of believers – that calling in vocation is not reserved to ministers, but for all men and women, whether farmers or tailors or cooks. He did not consider himself special. He would probably be ashamed to think of the amounts of books written commemorating his own life. In fact, he was disturbed that his followers were calling themselves “Lutherans”:
“[I ask that all men] must be silent concerning my name and should not call [themselves] Lutheran but Christian. What is Luther? Does the doctrine belong to me I have not been crucified for anyone….How would I as a poor, sinful bag of maggots allow people, the children of Christ, to bear my unwholesome name? I am no master and don’t want to be one either. Together with the congregation I share in the universal doctrine of Christ, and he alone is our master.”
Martin Luther did not believe that theology should remain in the academic, bookish realm, where only the educated and clergymen could receive the Word to pass down to others. He believed theology was for everyone. Yes, Luther wrote treatises like On The Bondage of the Will and Two Kinds of Righteousness, but he also wrote other works, such as his Small Catechism for children, or booklets like On Marital Issues to help counsel laypeople asking for his guidance. He wrote hymns for congregations, his most memorable being “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” – a hymn he wrote in the year of his deepest and darkest depression. He helped to author the Augsburg Confession. He put together his own Bible translation in German in an attempt to help more of his countrymen have the Bible in a language they could understand. He cared so much about translating it right; according to Bainton, Luther examined the court jewels of the elector of Saxony in order to figure out the best way to name the precious stones in Revelation 21.
Martin Luther was a man who hated sin, but grateful for its ability to drive him to humility in Christ. He was known giving himself to a little overeating, overdrinking, and oversleeping, calling such episodes “record spoilers” and arguing that “such excesses might by utilized as the antidote to arrogance.” Classic Luther.
Martin Luther liked to have fun with friends. He prided himself on his prized mug for beer, touting three rings that represented the Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer (he was amused that he could drink to the last ring unlike some of his friends). He had a bowling lane installed at his home, where he and guests would compete, with Luther showing off his bowling tricks.
Martin Luther was eventually married to Katherine Von Bora, after unsuccessfully attempting to help her find another suitor. To Leonard Kopp he wrote, “I am going to get married. God likes to work miracles and to make a fool of the world.” Luther was not head over heels at first. “I do not love my wife,” he said of Katherine, “but I do appreciate her.” He would go on to say of his wife, “My Katie is in all things so obliging and pleasing to me that I would not exchange my poverty for the riches of Croesus…I give more credit to Katherine than to Christ, who has done so much more for me.”
Martin Luther loved his children dearly. He wrote his children often, his letter dripping with affection and the heart of a father who longs to be home and pick up his kids again. He prayed for them endlessly. When his daughter Elizabeth died at eight months old, he lamented, “I would never have believed that the heart of a father could become so tender when it concerns his own child.” He remarked that there was “no greater harm to Christendom than the neglect of children.” When away from home, he received a picture of his daughter Lena, which he would hang near the dining room table, “so that during meals he could constantly see her and then forget many of his worries.” A man of the family, to be sure.
On his deathbed, a body battered by decades of physical and emotional torment, some of Luther’s final words were uttered: “I will go in peace and joy. Amen.” As he entered the monastery in his youth, he was asked what he sought, to which he replied, “God’s grace and thy mercy.” He received his wish, in time, as he passed into Glory.
The Ordinary Reformer
To the common man, Martin Luther is pictured standing at the mighty doors of the University of Wittenberg that fateful, wonderful 31st day in October 1517. Various pictures retelling the scene depict the Luther we know and remember – a man with a hammer in his hand nailing theses to the door. Quite a depiction of the life he led. He was tenacious and determined with the truth. He was brash and brazen with his delivery. Hammering words. He was a living contradiction, oscillating between grace and wrath, holiness and humanity. He questioned the pope’s level of authority, and also the Epistle of James’s. He commended the Catholic Church to “receive Jews cordially,” and also suggested “sharp mercy” in the form of burning their schools, struggling with sinful anti-Semitism later in life. He found his righteousness in Christ, and was given over to cocky self-righteousness. He pursued peace, and battled fits of rage. He became a monk in hopes of saving his soul, and would later riot against monasticism. He was begrudgingly married to a woman he almost ended up cherishing more than Christ himself. “Eccentric” doesn’t even begin to cover it. Found tucked away in the middle of Bainton’s biography is a truth that I believe describes Luther’s life poetically: “God is a God who works through contraries.”
The truth is, Martin Luther was so much more than a protestor, a reformer, a revolutionary, a hothead. He was extraordinary, and yet, so strikingly ordinary. He was a human who tried to live a life for Christ. What I love about Luther is that his life seems real, that it makes sense when I think about my own life of faith. It wavers, it makes mistakes. It speaks before it thinks. It reckons with a mighty God and knows it. It is willing to die for Christ, and at the same time unbearable, and at the same time the thing that gets one out of bed to face it all again. I am challenged by Luther to hold my conscience captive to the Word of God, to stand for truth even if it means I stand alone, to be honest about my sinfulness, to love my family, to consider light and momentary afflictions as preparing me for glory, to privately seek the face of Christ when no one watches, and to do no other than to stand.
There are thousands more anecdotes from the life of the German Reformer, many lost to antiquity or generally forgotten. But these are the moments that made up the space between the notes. May the spirit of Luther, a reformer we can believe in, live on.