Martin Luther
Martin Luther; drawing by David Levine

On only two things about Martin Luther is there general agreement. He was a man of immense personal force and great magnetism whose work was a necessary condition of the Reformation schism; and his translation of the Bible and the great chorales and hymns that he wrote are constituents of modern German culture. He has been the subject of much Protestant hagiography. “Here I stand, I can do no other” (something, Peter Manns tells us, he never said) is as famous as Galileo’s “But it does move” and Archbishop Cranmer’s reported gesture of putting first into the flames the hand that had signed the recantation.

There are, it is true, many Luthers in the portrait gallery. There is the tormented Augustinian friar and dedicated professor of Scripture who lectured on Romans and Galatians and, out of his experience of religious dread and of deliverance from this dread, drew his characteristic doctrines: the sola fide and the simul justus et peccator: justification is by faith alone and he to whom justice is imputed remains, nevertheless, a sinner. There is the defender of social order and princely authority who exhorted the armies of the princes to treat the rebellious peasants as though they were wild beasts and kill them without mercy. There is the Luther who in 1523 wrote a pamphlet, “Jesus Christ was born a Jew,” in which he denounced hatred and ill-treatment of the Jews. “We are but gentiles,” he wrote, “while the Jews… are blood relatives, cousins and brothers of our Lord.” Twenty years later he attacked the Jews as ritual murderers, usurers, and parasites, and called for the suppression of their synagogues.

There is the Luther whose devotion to Christ crucified still lives for us in the religious music of the Lutheran tradition, most of all, perhaps, in the St.Matthew Passion of J.S. Bach. There is the domestic Luther of the Table Talk, solid and earthy, the indubitably married man—“grand rough old Martin Luther,” as Browning put it—though it would have seemed odd to the Victorians, had they allowed themselves to advert to it, that he should have risen from the table to write a polemic in which shitting, pissing, and farting are the favored forms of obloquy. To this Luther conceived as a spiritual Falstaff we may counterpose the Luther of the first years of the Reformation, still very much a monk, who, when so many of his fellows are putting off the habit and taking wives, affirms the possibility and usefulness of the celibate life. And so one might continue.

It is hard for modern men to admire Luther. We find it easier to sympathize with More and Erasmus, Colet and Fisher, with Melanchthon (surely the archetype of all ecumenical fixers), even with Thomas Müntzer, than with Luther. Luther is a hero of the kind admired by Carlyle and Froude, a man who knows only what the next step is, not what the grand design is, who moves through his life like a sleep-walker. Another such Protestant hero was Cromwell, caught up in paradoxes just as Luther was. Luther had a passion, almost an ignoble passion, for authority, but did more to shake authorities in church and state, and the very notion of authority, than any other man of his period. Cromwell took arms against Charles I on the ground of his tyranny in meddling with the rights of Parliament, and then dispersed the same Parliament with a vigor Charles never had. Of course, one of the reasons why we (unless we are whiggish neo-Marxian English historians) find it hard to like the great somnambulists of history is that the man of our own time who most readily falls under this description is Adolf Hitler. There are other reasons. Most modern intellectual workers would find the learned, polished, half-skeptical Rome of Leo X more congenial than Luther’s Wittenberg. If they praise Luther, it is only because he is a demigod in the mythology of progress.

A key to the puzzle of Luther, and also an element that constitutes the puzzle, is the fidelity of so many men of different characters and views. Many who remained Catholics, or returned to the Church, continued in their affection and admiration for Luther. The example of Erasmus is well known; but the fidelity of Staupitz, who had been Luther’s superior and spiritual director, is more remarkable. Even the archbishop of Mainz, a notorious pluralist and a great profiteer of the traffic in indulgences, sent Luther some money as a wedding present when he married Katharina von Bora. (Luther wanted to send it back but the prudent Katharina wouldn’t let him.) Personal magnetism accounts for much; the bad conscience many Catholics had on account of the financial rackets, the acquiescence in gross superstitions and bogus relics, sloth and lechery among the religious, the apparently immovable corrupt bureaucracy of the papal court, accounts for more.


It isn’t then altogether a surprise that some of the best and most cordial studies of Luther in recent years have been by Roman Catholics rather than by Protestants.1 It is easy for Protestant theologians to claim him for themselves; but in fact Luther is in some respects more easily handled by Catholics. The issues that preoccupied him, the great themes of grace and glory, the Lutheran theme so much emphasized by Kierkegaard (who had as many Catholic admirers as Protestant ones) that before God man is always in the wrong: these are real issues for many Catholic theologians, whereas they have been pushed to the margin of concern among liberal Protestants in the English-speaking countries; and conservative evangelical Protestants are not very interested in historical questions or in theological speculation. Luther is in some respects a much more “Catholic” figure than most later Protestants. He was not an iconoclast, retained some of the medieval rituals, had a robust faith in the sacrament of the altar, valued private confession, was attached to the cult of Mary, and was above all a believer in infant baptism, the most evident sign in that period of a determination to preserve public ecclesiastical institutions.

In the books under review, we have two harbingers of the flock of literary tributes that will no doubt descend upon us in this year, when we celebrate the fifth centenary of Luther’s birth on November 10, 1483. Both are by Roman Catholics. John Todd is a well-known English Catholic layman who has written on Luther before, and on John Wesley; and Father Peter Manns is a German theologian who followed the great Catholic historian of the Reformation, Joseph Lortz, at the University of Mainz; and they have, respectively, given us a sound popular biography of Luther and a biographical narrative, with much theological comment, to accompany a set of fine reproductions of sixteenth-century pictures and of photographs of buildings and places to illustrate the story of Luther.

The biography by Peter Manns presents a clear outline, without a lot of detail, of Luther’s career, and excels in giving us an account of the religious situation out of which Luther came and in summarizing the theological questions at issue in the successive crises of the German Reformation. John Todd wants to give us the man, one who is “rather less than the hero and rather more than the mere villain of some older biographies,” and he therefore makes much use of the correspondence between Luther and his friends and colleagues, and other reformers, and his wife Katharina. Todd’s book is extraordinarily interesting, but at times has about it—so much is he consciously writing an account to correct earlier Catholic work on Luther—a touch of the hagiographical. In its efforts to expound Luther sympathetically it presents us with a Luther who would have been a kind of Vatican II theologian had he been given the advantages of modern Scripture scholarship and modern psychological theory.

For instance, in discussing Luther’s violent hostility to the Jews, he writes: “Without the benefit of modern psychology he was unable to see how the Jews simply became a scapegoat on to whom were projected every bitter emotion of misery and revenge.” This notion that modern psychology is a prophylactic against anti-Semitism strikes me as preposterous and against all experience. Luther’s anti-Semitic passions only prevailed in him toward the end of his life and, whatever the psychological mechanisms involved, rested upon arguments with theological premises. In modern times, Christian anti-Semitism has been largely extinguished by an abandonment of these premises or a change in their interpretation, not by any theses of modern psychology. And those ecclesiastics who have tried to moderate anti-Semitic fanaticism among Christians have done so without the benefit of psychological learning.

Peter Manns is also somewhat surprising on this topic. He states—no doubt as a German he feels this acutely—that there will be many in the centenary year who will try rather too easily to make amends for the past and to portray Luther as a forerunner of the Final Solution. He thinks this extremely unjust to Luther on the grounds that Luther’s anti-Semitism was not founded on a “racial” theory, that he always repudiated the view that the Jews (as distinct from the human race in general) were guilty of deicide, that his attacks upon the Jewish community are accounted for by the “eschatological” intensification of the situation as Luther saw it. I suppose this last point means that Luther perceived the political and social chaos of Europe as a sign that the last days had come and that the Jews had a great but malign role in the drama. Manns should tell us more. To leave it like that is to reduce Luther’s stature to that of a modern Protestant ranter scrutinizing the dispatches from Israel and Lebanon for signs of the fulfillment of the prophecy. Perhaps there was such a side to Luther.2


On other matters Manns is severe enough, more severe than Todd. He thinks that Luther made a great mistake in having anything to do with Philip of Hesse’s bigamous marriage, whereas Todd rather glides over it, saying that the reformers were “manipulated.” No doubt they were; but they knew what was happening and even allowed themselves to be drawn into a foolish scheme to keep the marriage secret. As to Luther’s attitude to the rebellious peasants and to the Anabaptists and other such canaille (as he thought them to be), neither writer seems to me to discuss it satisfactorily. They don’t defend the savagery of his response to the rising of the peasants against their lords, but they seem to think it relatively unimportant as an element in the intellectual and spiritual portrait of Luther. Manns, though, sees that it was a turning point in the history of the Lutheran Reformation. The judgment that Luther, in writing Against the Robbing and Murderous Gangs of Peasants—and in celebrating his marriage in the middle of the situation—

gambled his immense prestige and lost is historically correct. The Reformation was no longer a popular movement. The authorities began taking up the cause of Luther and the princes’ Reformation began. Instead of a congregational Christianity and the free election of pastors [this is what the peasants had been demanding], we see the rise of the territorial and national church from which demanding and alert Christians suffer to this day.

The tensions and contradictions between the elements of Luther’s conception of the Church account for much that repels us in the practice of Luther and his followers and scandalizes even the Protestant historian. The regime set up in Wittenberg (as later by Calvin in Geneva) was cruel and persecuting in its conduct toward Zwinglians, Anabaptists, and other sectarians. Luther never doubted that membership of the Church carried with it membership of a public institution, that men and women were brought within the Church prior to their own personal decision, by the administering of the sacrament of baptism. It also seemed plain to him that once the pure word of God was expounded and the sacraments duly administered in particular places, then there would be a common agreement between all such places on the content and meaning of the Christian religion.

Further, it was the duty of the godly prince to safeguard and protect the pure, reformed religion. Therefore if there was dissent from Luther’s teaching on faith, on justification, and on the sacraments, this could only mean that good Christians and loyal subjects of the prince had been seduced from their faith and allegiance by the devil; that is, the state of the Zwinglian or the Anabaptist was as desperate as that of the Papist. There is a touch of megalomania here, for the assumption is that Luther’s personal pronouncements constitute the rule of faith. This would have been rejected with great anger by Luther, for he always thought of himself as subject to the Word he expounded. That after all his inward agony and self-doubt, after his fearful struggles with religious melancholy, he could have fallen into grievous error in essential matters—this he never could have accepted.

The common Lutheran (and Calvinist) conception of the Church is set out in the nineteenth of the Anglican Articles of Religion: “The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly administered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.” This statement has a political dimension—it is so drafted that anyone from a Catholic to an Anabaptist could assent to it. But the ambiguity over what is to count as the pure as distinct from the adulterated word of God, and over “those things that of necessity are requisite,” is not merely something calculated with a view to a blurring of dogmatic distinctions. It is an ambiguity that belongs to the Lutheran, as also to the Calvinist, idea of the Church. Over against the Lutheran or Calvinist, territorial churches in the German countries, in Scandinavia, in Switzerland, in Scotland, there is a quite different ecclesiastical model, one that is free of the logical difficulties that come of combining Lutheran premises about faith with a practice that leads to the establishment of public ecclesiastical institutions that are in principle to embrace the entire population of a given territory.

This is the model provided by the Anabaptists. Adult baptism, as distinct from infant baptism, symbolizes the adult choice by which a mature Christian adheres to the gathered community of the saints, a body that is inserted into the worldly institutions of society, but as a foreign body, having its inner life in a space that lies outside the public space ruled over by the prince. Such a body gives up, as it were, on the world. But so, in a different way, does Luther. His view of the political authority is drawn from a rather labored exegesis of Romans 13:1–7. Paul writes that the Christian must be subject to the political authority, not simply because this authority bears the sword, and is “the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer,” “but also for the sake of conscience.”

This is understood by Luther as meaning that the given political order is a part of the divinely established order, an order within which and under which the Christian must fearfully work out his own salvation. Certainly, Luther didn’t doubt that the Christian is bound to refuse obedience to the state when he is commanded to sin; but his resistance must be passive, not active. The logic of the sola fide and the sola Scriptura, and of the central Lutheran doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, is taken by the Anabaptists and other sectarians as requiring a withdrawal from the world and its filthiness, a withdrawal that not only entails the exclusion of worldly authorities from the inner affairs of the little community of gathered believers but also certain symbolic refusals of obedience, especially the refusal of military service.

Todd and Manns don’t discuss the question whether or not Anabaptism, and the sectarian principle in general, can be logically derived from Lutheran premises, notwithstanding Luther’s persecution of such dissenters. It is one of some importance, for that allegiance of throne and altar which brought about the failure within one generation of the Lutheran territorial churches as spiritual forces was in part strengthened by the general fear of the Anabaptists. Articles 37, 38, and 39 of the Anglican Articles are directed against the feared and hated Anabaptists (I do not argue that Anglicanism is Lutheranism, but that its legal and political theory is of a Lutheran type). “The Laws of the Realm may punish Christian men with death…. It is lawful for Christian men, at the commandment of the Magistrate, to wear weapons, and serve in the wars…. The Riches and Goods of Christians are not common…as certain Anabaptists do falsely boast.” But just as Calvinism, with a different attitude to the state, may be said to have kept a spiritual vitality the Lutheran churches quickly lost, so too the representatives of what Professor G.H. Williams has called “the radical reformation,” including the Anabaptists and the Zwinglians, were transforming forces in society, a leaven within that body politic whose claims they had cast off.3

Luther’s novel doctrines may have had the power to explode the old ecclesiastical order. On the whole, though, he saw himself as conservative, even as leaning on tradition. He had no notion of throwing off the authority of the ancient creeds, the so-called Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. He thought highly of the early Church Fathers, especially Augustine. It never occurred to him, nor would he have believed it, that the See of Rome was organically connected with Christian traditions. But he accepted, though with some misgivings—perhaps because he was not directly involved in drawing it up—the Augsburg Confession of 1530, a document now taken seriously in modern ecumenical work as a possible meeting place for Catholics and Protestants.

Above all, he remains a man of the Middle Ages in his view of the right relation between the life of faith and the life of the world. In his Short Catechism of 1529 he writes of those who refuse to learn the catechism or to accept its teaching: “[L]et them be told that they deny Christ and are not Christians, and let them not be admitted to the Sacrament, be sponsors to any child, or enjoy any of the liberty of Christians, but be handed over simply to the Pope and his officers, yea, to the devil himself. Besides this, let their parents or masters refuse them food and drink, and tell them that the prince will have such rude people driven from the land.”

Fortunately, it is not this Luther who attracts us still. The man who draws our curiosity and affection now is the Luther of inward agonies and desperate prayers, the man who made religion a serious matter once again, not a matter of external observances and profit-and-loss calculations, and who is in this respect a more deeply serious man than Erasmus. It is this Luther that Todd and Manns want to make better known.

The translation of Manns’s biography is very clumsy. One can usually make out what is meant but not always. Some of it is laughable—“the story according to which the irate mother thrashed the poor boy for having stolen a nut until she drew blood,” some of it just depressing—“It would now have to be shown that Luther read the secret of the question about love which was agitating him off the cross of Christ…”; all of it unnecessary. The proof-reading and checking are not very careful. Professor Pelikan’s fine introduction suffers from this: a crucial “not” is missing on page 8; and the Book of Common Prayer is misquoted on page 7. The Book of Common Prayer’s rendering of the sentence (from the Te Deum) in question is not the bland version printed but “…thou didst not abhor the Virgin’s womb.”

This Issue

February 17, 1983