I have become increasingly sensitive to the character of the reformers. This comes, in part, because I have become increasingly interested in the character of the early and medieval Christian saints. I have also become more sensitive to how bad is my own character, and yet how easy it is for me to be hypocritical and judgmental.
Martin Luther was a hero of mine for many years. I love that scene at the Diet of Worms when he stands up to the “bad guys” and declares he will not recant. There is something powerful in standing up for one’s convictions. But my views on Luther have changed. I no longer see him as a hero, but as a deeply problematic figure in the history of Christianity, perhaps even someone who has caused far more harm than good. And though I am still terribly ignorant of Luther’s teaching, I have grown to distrust his gospel−not all of it, but some important parts. Perhaps that’s my fault. But more than doctrine, my perspective on Luther has come about because of what I’ve learned about Luther’s character. And tell me if I am wrong, if I am.
In reading some of Erasmus’ letters, and other accounts of Luther’s life, I get the idea that Luther tended to be petty, mean, and prone to vindictiveness. He too frequently lacked graciousness and humility, and that this is often overlooked by Protestants. He tends to typify something opposite of what we see in the Apostles, even though one could say Luther was merely fighting heresy like the Apostles did. But he did not fight like the Apostles. He didn’t fight for truth with love. Paul says the greatest of these (of faith, hope, and love) is love. I think Luther turned Paul’s saying on its head. That, at least, is the impression I get in the little I have studied of Luther. I say this and I still love some of his quotes, and he wrote some provocative essays, and I’m all for closely examining one’s beliefs and raising objections to falsehood. In some ways he was a brilliant man. But I don’t like him like I did. Tell me if I should.
And then I came across Luther’s Small Catechism (see below) and my negative opinion of him deepened. When I read the introductory paragraphs I was somewhat shocked at his approach. Rather than lifting up, he tears down. He berates and openly (rather than privately) chastises. And he lacks pity on the bishops while he entreats them to have pity on their flocks. Certainly he might have been right in his assessment, but what he does not own up to is the reality that what he saw wrong with other Protestants was the direct result of what he created, the inevitable result of fomenting rebellion, of applying an innovative progressive “man is the measure” philosophy to Christian faith. He makes every man a pope and then berates them for not following pope Luther. Though I believe he was not as bad in this regard as John Calvin.
Just as I would have a very difficult time in being an Anglican because they established their rebellion, in part, by murdering Saint Thomas More and Saint John Fisher, I cannot be a Lutheran because their hero is Luther. Of course, I lack all generosity myself much of the time. And I’ve been in rebellion most of my life. So, really, I’m no better. God have mercy. Fortunately there are no churches named after me. I do hope to see Luther in God’s kingdom someday (as long as it is God’s will that I get there too) and I hope to get to know him. Still, for now at least, he and his legacy trouble me.
Luther’s Small Catechism: Introduction
Martin Luther to All Faithful and Godly Pastors and Preachers:
Grace, Mercy, and Peace in Jesus Christ, our Lord.
The deplorable, miserable condition which I discovered lately when I, too, was a visitor, has forced and urged me to prepare [publish] this Catechism, or Christian doctrine, in this small, plain, simple form. Mercy! Good God! what manifold misery I beheld! The common people, especially in the villages, have no knowledge whatever of Christian doctrine, and, alas! many pastors are altogether incapable and incompetent to teach [so much so, that one is ashamed to speak of it]. Nevertheless, all maintain that they are Christians, have been baptized and receive the [common] holy Sacraments. Yet they [do not understand and] cannot [even] recite either the Lord’s Prayer, or the Creed, or the Ten Commandments; they live like dumb brutes and irrational hogs; and yet, now that the Gospel has come, they have nicely learned to abuse all liberty like experts.
O ye bishops! [to whom this charge has been committed by God,] what will ye ever answer to Christ for having so shamefully neglected the people and never for a moment discharged your office? [You are the persons to whom alone this ruin of the Christian religion is due. You have permitted men to err so shamefully; yours is the guilt; for you have ever done anything rather than what your office required you to do.] May all misfortune flee you! [I do not wish at this place to invoke evil on your heads.] You command the Sacrament in one form [but is not this the highest ungodliness coupled with the greatest impudence that you are insisting on the administration of the Sacrament in one form only, and on your traditions] and insist on your human laws, and yet at the same time you do not care in the least [while you are utterly without scruple and concern] whether the people know the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, the Ten Commandments, or any part of the Word of God. Woe, woe, unto you forever!
Therefore I entreat [and adjure] you all for God’s sake, my dear sirs and brethren, who are pastors or preachers, to devote yourselves heartily to your office, to have pity on the people who are entrusted to you, and to help us inculcate the Catechism upon the people, and especially upon the young. And let those of you who cannot do better [If any of you are so unskilled that you have absolutely no knowledge of these matters, let them not be ashamed to] take these tables and forms and impress them, word for word, on the people, as follows…