Appeared in Fall 1996, Vol. XXII, No. 3 Download PDF here

Four hundred fifty years ago one of the most important men in Western history died. However, his ideas, his convictions, his words had much less effect on our culture and civilization than did their evolution, especially under the impact of the First Enlightenment 350 years later.

G. P. Gooch was very right when he wrote that “the true nature of the Reformation is not found in its intention, but in its results,1and that “not only is the Reformer not the doctrine, but the doctrine itself is found to contain much that its author never could or never cared to find in it.”2Hence in order to judge Luther nothing could be more erroneous than to apply to him the tendency to project the present character of the Reformation faiths on the Reformers. Just imagine how Luther or Calvin would react to the World Council of Churches, the late Norman Vincent Peale, or the “social gospel” advocates of Union Theological Seminary.

About Luther we have two legends and these are not too far apart: according to one, popular among rightist Catholics, there is a straight line from Luther to the French Revolution, Marx, and Lenin; the other one, enthusiastically affirmed by many Reformed Christians, claims that Luther and Calvin are responsible for democracy, republicanism, freedom, Enlightenment, progress, individualism, and perhaps also socialized medicine, psychoanalysis, “freelove” and the Manchester School of Economics. These concepts are not so different because mutually the one is the caricature of the other.3

In my younger years I met fellow Catholics who saw Luther’s Reformation in a way which I am tempted to satirize thus: There were the wonderful, wonderful Middle Ages, the “Ages of Faith,” but then, after the fall of Constantinople, came these degenerate Greek scholars with suitcases full of evil books and statues of naked women. They poisoned the spirit of the Middle Ages, preached individualism and license, and launched the wicked Renaissance. People suddenly wanted to be free politically, socially, economically, and on the crest of freedom there appeared magically Martin Luther saying that freedom in all these domains was perfectly right, but what about religious freedom? People applauded him and thus the Reformation was on its way.

Needless to say, this sort of picture is blatant nonsense, because the Renaissance starts well before the arrival of the refugees from the East: it had its roots in the fourteenth, if not in the thirteenth century. Petrarch and Boccaccio (who died in the odor of sanctity) were early Renaissance men. Yet in Northern Europe the Middle Ages continued longer than in the South:there Humanism4was a purely literary, not a general cultural, phenomenon. When, therefore, Martin Luther, Doctor of Theology and priest of the Order of the Augustinian Hermits, came to Rome late in 1510, he was for the first time in his life confronted with the Renaissance-and this gave him a decisive trauma. He was not (as a pious legend likes to have it) shocked by profligacy and promiscuity, since the Middle Ages put very little emphasis on carnal vices:temperentia was, according to St. Thomas, the lowliest virtue. The German scene, moreover, was in this respect no better than the Italian. What really gave this truly pious monk a jolt was the revival of Antiquity-financed, abetted, and fostered by the Papacy. Of paganism Luther had until his dying days a real profound horror. After three days of hotly debating with Martin Luther in Marburg the nature of the Eucharist, Huldreich Zwingli, the Swiss Reformer, gripped Luther’s hands and said: “Here we’re fighting, Doctor Martinus, but, thank God, one nice day we both will be dead and then in Heaven we shall know the Truth, walking with the great sages, with Socrates, Plato, Aristotle . . .”

“Doctor Zwingli,” Luther interrupted him rudely, “They were pagans; they were not baptized; they are roasting in the everlasting fires of Hell.”

“But they were good men, were virtuous and followed their consciences.”

“If you talk like this, you’re not a Christian-and I regret to have wasted my time with you,” Luther snapped back. This put an end to the discussion.

The battle with Tetzel about the Indulgences was surely only the straw that broke the camel’s back. Luther’s critique of the Church was primarily based on her anthropocentric this-worldliness, her rationalistic intellectualism, her being drunk with art and beauty, her veneration of Saints and contempt for secular power. Luther’s religiosity, after all, came from the great German mystics, but he was also a young professor in a brand-new, small university on the very confines of Germanic civilization: from the walls of Wittenberg one could see the thatched roofs of the Wendic peasants huts-and nobody in Wittenberg who had a Slav grandparent could be a member of the guilds. The Germans there were pioneers.


Martin Luther

Luther, who had read little of the Schoolmen, was, as a profoundly religious and pious person, an enemy of Scholasticism which had greatly profited from Aristotelian philosophy. Reason to him was a whore, a donkey one could drive in this or that direction. That battle-cry of Calvin was Soli Deo Gloria, “Glory to God alone,” but it also could have been Luther’s to whom Faith, a blind Faith if you like, was everything. We will be saved, he argued not by reason, not by good works, but sola fide, by Faith alone-by a Faith based on God’s revealed word, on the Bible, which he translated into the most beautiful German. Thus he made the idiom of Thuringia-Saxony the standard language of the Germanies, just as Dante made Tuscan the language of the Apennine Peninsula. It is a fairy tale, however, that he gave the Bible to “the people”; many German translations had been made and printed before him.5

It is equally a legend that Luther (or other Reformers) created our “individualism,” that Luther made the exegesis of the Bible a purely personal matter (so-called “private interpretation”), that he introduced the “priesthood of all believers,” that he abolished auricular confession, approved of divorce, promoted liberalism and democracy, fulminated against the veneration of the Virgin Mary, or opposed the Latin liturgy. Luther believed sacredly in Infallibility-not of the pope, but his own. “He who does not follow my doctrine cannot be saved,” was his dictum, and “Not even the angels have a right to judge my teachings.” The priesthood of all believers is an old Catholic tenet, clearly expressed in the basileion hierateuma, the royal priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:9), reaffirmed by Thomas Aquinas who called all Christians “Kings and Priests.” The Christian, according to Catholic conviction, is per se a noble person, weakened by Original Sin, but not a total wretch. Any Catholic can baptize, impart the Sacrament of Marriage, and, in an emergency, distribute Holy Communion. We had in Japan an underground Church for more than 260 years without a single priest, existing on two Sacraments only: Baptism and Marriage.

Still, Luther went to auricular Confession every week of his life; confessionals were removed from Lutheran churches only towards the end of the eighteenth century. Luther was no “Anti-Marianist” (as some Catholics seem to be today). And prefacing the Deutsche Messe, he wrote in 1525 that he translated the Mass into German because some young people and the country folk understood no Latin, but he was convinced that the Lati