Martin Luther the Man

Martin Luther at the age of 50 by Lucas Cranach the Elder , via Wikimedia Commons

On October 31, 1517, in the little hamlet of Wittenberg, the world was set on fire when Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to a church door. The timing was perfect to instigate a change even though Luther was just a lone monk who, through his own personal struggles and experiences, came to a new understanding that thrust him into action. Martin Luther was a human being with human motivations and concerns that nevertheless sparked the Reformation.

Kirsi Stjerna of California Lutheran University presented “Luther for the Future: The Reformation Revisited” at the Westar Institute’s Spring 2017 national meeting in Santa Rosa, California, on Wednesday, March 22nd. This is an informal report on her presentation for the benefit of members and friends of the institute. Thanks for helping us with our mission of religious literacy by sharing and discussing!

Did Luther actually nail the 95 theses to a door, or did he only mail them out to people? While we cannot be sure of the exact actions he took, the more pressing question we could ask is, What bothered Luther so much that he felt he had to go public with his complaint? Much of what he attacked and questioned followed along these lines:

  • Selling forgiveness assurances, or, as Stjerna paraphrased it, “Why does forgiveness have a price tag? Last I checked, grace was free.”
  • Theology that keeps people in fear: Luther lived in fear himself, was released from it and didn’t want to be part of something that kept people in this state.
Luther: "Why does forgiveness have a price tag? Last I checked, grace was free." #westarS17— Westar Institute (@WestarInstitute) March 22,2017

Additional practical concerns emerged from Luther’s questions about assurances:

  • Unchecked papal authority
  • False authority in faith matters
  • The clergy’s and pope’s compromised power to forgive
  • Poor people’s money used to build St Peter’s Basilika (This really irked Luther!)
  • Interpretations of the scriptures

Luther’s concerns were driven by the well-being of his neighbors and the relevance of the day’s theology. He worried about the abuse of power and the effectiveness of his church’s methods for meeting real needs. Luther’s personal stimulus for this was his sense of never meeting the expectations of himself, his parents, and his God. His personal religious experience in response to an encounter with his least favorite verse in the Bible, Romans 1:17, gave him the crazy courage to do what he did. In fact, it started a theological avalanche.

Reformation scholars have been dreading 2017, Stjerna joked, because the whole world is looking at them and asking them to say something new. “I can’t take it for granted that people already value him,” she explained. “I want to stay as close to Luther as I can. Is there something on a human level that leads us to care about what he had to say?”

The 500th anniversary of the Reformation is a stimulus to…

  • Remember the past, critically and compassionately.
  • Rewrite the narratives of “what, why, who – to whom and for whose benefit”

Perhaps Luther should be understood as a freedom fighter. When he did what he was supposed to do—read the Scriptures, with permission from the humanists and scholastics to ask new questions—he began to see something new that became bedrock for him: “One is saved by faith, alone, because of Christ, in grace, as a gift.” Stjerna didn’t necessarily agree with Luther’s interpretation, particularly about this word “alone”—did Luther add something to the Bible?—but this was more or less a “born again” experience for him.

Luther then went back to the Psalms. He liked to find Christ in the New Testament then go back and find Christ in the Psalms and the rest of the Old Testament. That methodology is problematic, of course, and can’t be accepted today, but it might help us to remember that Luther was a hunted man who did not believe he would live to old age. He was not working at his leisure. Much of what he said was flurried, written under fire. This isn’t an excuse, but it’s good context.

Experience and compassion are at the heart of Luther’s priorities. He believed “grace is free. Christians are free. Christians are free to free others also. There is no greater gift of freedom. There is no greater freedom than freedom of conscience,” Stjerna explained. Luther’s addresses to specific people are more reflective of his beliefs than the 95 Theses alone. His first wrote to the German nobility, the people with secular power to protect “in defense of the gospel,” then he wrote an impassioned attack to the church (“On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church”) in which he criticized what he saw as wrong teaching. Stjerna discovered almost by accident that this is one of the most articulate Christian arguments for the right to marry. Finally, another key written work of Luther’s was “On the Freedom of a Christian” because it was written for common people. Although just a small treatise, it is very compassionate with solid, clear theology, and very appealing. This fired up people because they could understand and access it.

Stjerna described Luther’s theology as embracing “freedom as an existential status,” that is, freedom of conscience and freedom from oppression, at the same time bound to one’s neighbors and fearful for their well-being. Luther’s hermeneutic was the “law and gospel” in a nutshell … but what does that mean? He believed we should read the Bible via a Law-Gospel lens: What is the liberating message? That is the task of each preacher, theologian, and any reader of the Bible. The human experience of bondage is the context for reading the gospel. We still live often in a state of servitude, even in the sense of debt, death and sickness, failure and regret. This is the golden statement of Luther from Stjerna’s perspective: “I want to instruct and console consciences, and advise them as much as I can” (LW 30 III, 266–67). Stjerna summed it up, “The theologian’s task is freedom, not doctrine but freedom.”

Some have critiqued Luther’s failures for women and for the peasants. Even though he did not employ his theology the way we would have liked, Stjerna still views him as a “freedom fighter” with a different focus, specifically on freedom of spirituality, freedom of the gospel, equality of all vocations driven by the belief that all people are spiritual people. The seed for radical equality and freedom is there. “We must care for our neighbors. We must eradicate poverty and educate our children, including the girls. We’ve got to read our Bible again.”

As has often been observed, the Reformation was a “Word event,” Stjerna said. It put Bibles into the hands of the people and translated scripture into the languages of the people. Luther also strove to eradicate poverty because “no one among us should be a beggar.” In this period, hymns were written that actually resonated with people’s experience and served as a means of proclamation, centering on Word as the primary source. Also, two new features appeared in churches: the pulpit began to be used more intentionally for sermons to elevate the importance of the Word, and a welfare chest (recognizable by having at least three locks because of original sin, so no one could steal from it) for the community’s benefit.

The reforms had to do with what spirituality is understood to be. In Lutheran theology, God is ubiquitous, including in the female body, the impact being that simultaneously God is brought down to earth and people are spirited up. This came to impact the sacraments, too: the common people could receive communion, and Luther actively published catechisms detailing ritual and practice. Luther really had to work with peasant parents to explain why girls need to go to school. The holiness of all aspects of life and all vocations was another difficult teaching for people: “Am I, a milkmaid, equally holy to a priest?” That was a radically liberating feature. The wife who suckles her child, rocks and bathes it, accomplished “truly golden” works, according to Luther. God “is smiling” when the father changes his child’s diaper!

Luther was delighted by the experience of marital love and protective of the right to marry for all. He focused on men and women, though we can expand that today to match our own modern understandings of sexuality.

To incite so many exciting and challenging transformations, Luther had to…

  • Begin to read his Bible differently
  • Take some liberties in interpretation
  • Look at the times (context)
  • Listen to the people
  • Listen to the Spirit (experience)
  • Think again about the meaning of gospel (freedom)

Luther gave Paul “his own best shot,” even if today we might argue that he didn’t get Paul “right.” One of Luther's curses was that he only knew German Christians in Wittenberg. He didn't know any Jews, only converts. “There’s a big difference when Luther writes about things in abstract versus about a person who has actually shaken hands with him and shared a beer.” It’s easy to demonize what we don’t know, and this is true of Luther.

By looking at letters, diaries, cookbooks, and other elements of material culture, it is possible to see how women played a critical role in the Reformation. In fact, this is one of the most exciting new development for Luther scholars because the narrative is changing dramatically.

CD cover for Lecture of Luther for the Future

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When we begin to approach the text from gender, it changes what sources we prioritize and take seriously. There was a patriarchal order in church and society, and in fact may even have helped the Reformation move along, but women were not powerless. They simply exercised all kinds and forms of power from the margins. Those women who choose to participate in the new movements (Anabaptist, Zwinglian, etc.) took a risk, especially if they differed from their husbands, as in the case of Elizabeth von Braunschweig.

Equality of all vocations included motherhood and being a spouse. This was very powerful for women and seemed to promise more than what actually happened. Luther chose not to talk about the “wandering womb” but rather the “holy womb.” Luther saw Eve as receiving the first gospel and all the women down the generations nested or held

the gospel within her. We can consider, somewhat anachronistically, that Luther did have a feminist streak in the sense that he wanted to understand why the women of the Bible did what they did, often in defiance of male figures.

Luther’s female-friendly biblical interpretation and attentiveness to women’s concerns and the holiness of the female body did not lead him to actively pursue women’s leadership and public speaking, but women still found what he said exciting. It was the next generation that pushed this further. There is a dissonance between his honoring and interest in women of the Bible, and how he imagined their role in the Church. The same can be said of his attitude toward the Jews. This isn’t consistent and needs to be understood in its messy context: Luther wrote in his will that his wife Katharina should inherit Luther and become the head of the household. The Saxon lawyers disputed this. He strongly supported Argula von Grumbach in taking on an all-male Catholic faculty. Likewise, power did not follow along simple lines, either. Argula’s writings were even combined in expensive volumes to be read alongside Luther’s! Women may have been “in the margins,” yet one could observe cases like Elizabeth I, who even as a powerful women leader struggled, and part of that was not marrying to stay in power.

As helpful as it was that motherhood became a glorified role, at the same time this teaching led to sisters in convent or prostitutes in brothels both being pushed out slowly but surely from previously accepted spaces for women. Luther resented and rejected the monastic lifestyle for men and women, but the loss was more tremendous for women. A 16th-century nun would have felt differently than a mother and wife about the Reformation, perhaps. She might not want to rush out of a convent. Where would she go? Women had little to no financial resources outside of marriage, which could entail the risk of childbirth and death during childbirth. Furthermore, convents were the nurturing ground for women’s spiritual leadership. Women’s visionary activity all but stopped during the Reformation, yet this was the pedigree that allowed them to speak. Without it, they couldn’t. Reformation teachers pushed out that kind of “private talk” with God in favor of “the Word” and the liturgy.

The Reformation means the gradual loss of convents...this is tremendous, narrows vocational example to the role of mother #westarS17

—Collin Glavac (@CollinGlavac) March 22, 2017

Direct accessibility to God in Reformation thought caused a decline of women visionary mystics, who were common in medieval era. #WestarS17

— Chance Bonar (@ChanceBonar) March 22, 2017

The debate around women and the Reformation centers around women’s agency as active participants in the Reformation. They were not passive recipients. They all had to make a choice, such as do we in our family eat fish or meat on Fridays—a theological decision! This is often hidden in history.

Among the women who did write or speak in public, they were empowered by these principles:

  • Sola scriptura – the authorization
  • Compassion – the acting out of
  • Anti-injustice – the activating stimulus

They would carry out exegesis of texts, e.g. the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, in defense of women. This is why education was so critical, because it empowered women to read and write and respond. Many sources about this activity were suppressed, e.g. the presence of Argula’s works with Luther’s in 16th-century bound books. She was a best-selling author among both men and women. A woman wrote the first Lutheran hymn. Kathe, Luther’s wife, is another important figure to understand, not “only” as a housewife but as a person who had strong opinions about how she would live her life.

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Cassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing Director of Westar and Editor of Polebridge Press. Her poetic retelling of the Nag Hammadi text "On the Origin of the World" is forthcoming in Gender Violence, Rape Culture, and Religion (Palgrave McMillan). A US-UK Fulbright Scholar with more than ten years' experience with cross-cultural and interfaith engagement, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.

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