I’m willing to bet that if I asked our middle-school students who Martin Luther was, most would reply he was a famous civil rights leader.
While many of the kids in town will be dressing up as Harry Potter, Mirabel, Mandalorian, or ghosts, and parents will be shepherding them around in their search for candy, I’ll be reading the chapter in Roland Bainton’s biography of Luther, Here I Stand, in which he tells the story of the Augustinian monk nailing 95 theses — or topics for debate — on the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany 505 years ago: Oct. 31, 1517.
Well, actually Luther’s story is kind of exciting. It’s about a solitary guy who took on the two most powerful institutions of his day — The Holy Roman Empire and the Catholic Church — and dared to speak truth to power. The 95 theses were about the corrupt practice of indulgences, granting forgiveness of sins if the penitent paid an amount of money to the church.
In the 16th century church doors were the social media app of that day, and all Luther wanted to do was to have an “online” discussion about the topic. Well, the 95 theses went “viral,” and both the emperor and the archbishop decided to nip this troublemaking social media thing in the bud. What they did was command Luther to explain himself at a meeting in the town of Worms, Germany.
“Take back everything you’ve written and said,” they demanded of the monk standing before them, “and we’ll let you off easy.”
To which Luther famously replied, “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason — I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other — my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.”
Sounds very modern, doesn’t it? Sounds like Dr. King and Nelson Mandela and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Oscar Romero. Sounds like Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger and all those Republicans who testified at the Jan. 6 hearings.
In reality, Luther was a complicated spirit. In him, on the one hand, we see the dawning of individualism, a very modern phenomenon, and on the other hand, he was quite conservative and medieval in his piety.
He never wanted to divide the Church, much less destroy it. The unintended consequence, however, was that the Church was divided, and bloody wars were fought between Protestants and Catholics.
In other words, Luther was a progressive conservative. He wanted to reform the Church, not by starting something new but by going back to the roots, which in his case was the Bible. The English word “radical” comes from the Latin word radix or “roots”.
We often picture radicals as folks who want to innovate but, etymologically at least, it means going back to the source, the foundation, the origin.
No one — neither Catholic nor Protestant — has lobbied to canonize Luther as a saint. His was, let’s say, a salty personality, and oversensitive translators, for example, render the German word scheisse, which the reformer often used, into the English word “dung.” That’s not the exact sense of the word!
As we approach Halloween this year, I think the world needs a little less sugar in the form of candy and escaping into fantasy worlds and more stories about people like Martin Luther and, now that I think of it, his namesake Martin Luther King.
Like Dr. King, the church reformer knew how to throw out bathwater without throwing out the baby, i.e. he valued tradition and didn’t innovate for the sake of innovation. He understood that the most radical, foundational change happens by going back to the roots.
He wasn’t a drain-the-swamp, anti-government, libertarian, but at the same time he was not blindly obedient to authority, not even the authority of the Bible.
But along with his theological insights, the reason I resonate with Luther so much is that he was a genuinely human person with whom I can identify. He had strengths and weaknesses just like me. Following are some quotes that illustrate some of his many sides.
I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.
My heart, which is so full to overflowing, has often been solaced and refreshed by music when sick and weary.
Beer is made by men, wine by God.
Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.
God writes the gospel not in the Bible alone, but on trees and flowers and clouds and stars.
Let the wife make her husband glad to come home and let him make her sorry to see him leave.
Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved.