Martin Luther: Prophet of God?

Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death

Richard Marius. 1999. Belknap Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 542 pages.

Martin Luther's Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development

Bernhard Lohse. 1999. Fortress Press, Minneapolis. 393 pages.

Martin Luther—a prophet of God or a self-motivated theologian? This question has challenged researchers for 500 years. Two recent books explore the development of Luther’s beliefs from different perspectives, providing insight into a man whose teachings have had an undeniably profound effect on the world.

Richard Marius, noted Reformation scholar and emeritus professor at Harvard University until his death late last year, claimed that in writing Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death, he tried to “see Luther in the broader light of an entire culture that produced melancholy poems, hideous icons of death, and a secularism that is sometimes rowdy and sometimes immensely sad but whose spirit stood against both Catholic and Protestant piety.”

Describing his approach to writing about Luther as “essentially nonreligious,” Marius stated that while he didn’t share Luther’s beliefs, he tried “to write about him both sympathetically and critically without distorting the evidence and with neither malice nor partisanship toward any religious confession.”

A skilled writer of historical fiction and the author of various volumes on church history, Marius earned a bachelor of divinity degree from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and both a master of arts degree and a doctorate in church history from Yale University.

Bernhard Lohse, late professor of church history and historical theology at the University of Hamburg, took a very different approach in Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development. Like Marius, he sought to study Luther in a new light. He noted that most scholars have approached Luther’s theology systematically—methodically arranging and examining his teachings according to a predetermined process, but often disregarding the historical setting. On the other hand, a few writers have examined Luther’s writings only in their historical context, without any attempt to systematize.

Lohse recognized that both approaches have benefits and limits. He therefore set forth a synthesis of the two to create what he considered to be a more complete picture of Luther’s theology. As he surveyed and analyzed the development of that theology, he evaluated it in the context of the crises and controversies that Luther faced throughout his life.

Lohse also wrote Martin Luther: An Introduction to His Life and Work (1986) and A Short History of Christian Doctrine: From the First Century to the Present (1978).

Environmental Issues

Our modern understanding of Luther’s ideas reflects various attempts to come to grips with early-16th-century thought. Marius begins his book with a discussion of the environment in which the young Luther’s mind developed.

Luther’s Europe, he points out, was an authoritarian world emerging from the Dark Ages, a world beset with intellectual and theological restlessness on one hand and fearsome calamity on the other. “Recurring plague seems to have been only the most intense of many terrors in an age that felt change and uncertainty everywhere,” says Marius. Coupled with this was the moral degradation of the Roman Catholic Church: “Protests against the evils of the church were common in Christian Europe when Luther came into the world.”

Traditional thinking has been that the state of the church prepared the way for Luther’s theology. However, Marius reveals additional details about Luther that may also have contributed. Throughout his volume, Marius refers consistently to Luther’s obsessive fear of death. Not the natural fear common to many, but a fear developed by religious concepts. He feared what would happen to the soul that faced God and was found wanting.

Luther feared what would happen to the soul that faced God and was found wanting.

The root of this fear lay in multifaceted developments taking place in late-15th-century Europe. As Marius puts it, “Luther’s superstitions and fears were in part born of his time and place.”

The success of the sale of indulgences bears testimony to the kind of fear created in people by church teachings: the church, having already assured penitent sinners of God’s forgiveness, taught that they would nonetheless have to endure some punishment. This punishment, according to a concept that the Roman Catholic Church had introduced, would take place in purgatory—a state between this life and eternity. To lessen time to be spent in purgatory, one could buy an indulgence—a pardon—in return for a good deed (such as a financial contribution to the church). Marius notes that “the fourteenth and the fifteenth centuries witnessed the expansion and trivialization of indulgences. Perhaps the onset of the great plague cycles made people more anxious to prepare their souls for sudden death that could strike those who seemed young and healthy.”

Together with this theologically based dread, says Marius, Luther’s fear of witchcraft—highlighting a battle between the forces of darkness and light—his tendency toward depression and melancholy, a severe childhood, a high-strung temperament and a brilliant mind all combined to create Luther the man. Place this mix into the intellectual melting pot of scholasticism, humanism, nominalism and rationalism, and we have the basis for the development of ideas that would rock the establishment to its very foundations.

Death and Life

Marius points out that Luther’s fear of death was a major factor in determining the direction of his life. When caught in an electrical storm in a village near Erfurt, Germany, his terror led him to make a vow: “Help, St Anne, and I will become a monk.” His training to this point in his life had led him to see the storm as some kind of divine summons, and he saw his vow as one made to God Himself. In spite of his father’s opposition, Luther felt he had to honor this commitment, and so he entered the monastic world instead of realizing his father’s dream that he would study law.

Marius points out that Luther’s fear of death was a major factor in determining the direction of his life. 

Whether Luther fully embraced the monastic life or had regrets, he was dedicated to the task at hand. “Judging from Luther’s later remarks about himself in this period,” Marius writes, “we may picture a zealous young monk, caught up in the implacable routines of the monastery, following them scrupulously, trying to prove to himself that he was doing his best to please God.”

Luther’s devotion as a monk indicates the depth of his Roman Catholic roots, yet he wanted to be freed from the anxiety and guilt created by these roots. “We have no reason to believe that Luther was not depressed,” remarks Marius. “The greater problem is the source or even the object of this depression. The testimony of his own words later on is that he was afflicted with an acute and extreme fear of death that translated into [the apostle] Paul’s sense of sin and its punishment, the fatal destiny of the body and the soul without the miraculous intervention of God.”

Marius concludes that this inner wrestling of a high-strung personality produced a great deal of anger, and that this in turn appears to have motivated his responses and reactions to views that challenged his own. His desire for inner peace was strong, and as Luther proceeded down his theological path, he began to question specific texts that he could not reconcile with church teaching. “I raged in a furious and stormy conscience,” Luther wrote; “a rudely demanding man, I beat upon that place of Paul’s, ardently thirsting to know what Saint Paul might wish.” Luther had been taught to equate God’s righteousness with punishment of the unrighteous, and to Luther this meant death, since humanity had fallen into sin. As a result, he could not bring together in his mind the righteousness of God and the righteousness of the Christian.

Marius writes that Luther “meditated on the forbidding text both night and day” and eventually concluded that God’s righteousness was His justice (iustitia) and that it was something God gave to Christians rather than something He did to them. He concluded that God uses the Ten Commandments not as the grounds of judging a person, but as a stark contrast to the favorable verdict He freely gives in response to faith and submission. Thus God’s righteousness is passive for the person who receives it; there is nothing that person can or should do to merit divine mercy.

A review of the Scriptures, however, reveals that while the Bible states clearly that divine mercy is a gift of God, righteousness is based on God’s law, which is summarized in the Ten Commandments: “Then it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to observe all these commandments before the Lord our God, as He has commanded us” (Deuteronomy 6:25). Christ built on this by proclaiming, “Do not think that I came to destroy the law” (Matthew 5:17). Luther embraced the one concept—grace and mercy as a free gift—at the expense of the other—responsibility to obey the commandments.

Luther embraced the one concept—grace and mercy as a free gift—at the expense of the other—responsibility to obey the commandments. 

Faith vs Works

Luther’s conclusions brought him to a major turning point in his life. As a result, his view of the church began to deteriorate, ultimately leading to his famous battle over indulgences and the nailing of his 95 theses to the north door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg in 1517.

Luther came to believe that people should move from a focus of trying to please God by doing good works (in accordance with church teachings about indulgences and monasticism, for example), to the idea that God’s righteousness is in us by faith alone (sola fide). As Marius explains, “Luther declared that since the just shall live by faith, all righteousness resides in faith and that faith alone fulfills all God’s commands and makes all its works righteous. . . . The ritual good works encouraged by the Roman Church . . . were not bad in themselves, but they were fatal to piety if they became rules.” This naturally led Luther to increasingly challenge the authority of the pope and therefore to reject the Roman Catholic Church, which was erected on that authority.

The concluding picture of Luther painted by Marius is of a man who achieved inner peace by the manipulation of religion. “For Luther,” he observes, “religion was primarily the means of conquering death, a collection of true doctrines that must be believed if the Christian was to be victorious over death.” Marius believes that “Luther’s temperament was his tragedy.”

Another Perspective

Lohse’s book, Martin Luther’s Theology, tends to bypass Luther the man, focusing—as the title suggests—more on his theology. According to Lohse, this theology developed as Luther argued and thought about it, without any specific end in mind. Lohse specifically outlines the religious and intellectual factors of the late 15th and early 16th centuries that impacted Luther.

Lohse approaches Luther’s ideas from a different perspective than Marius does, yet when he touches on the man, what he writes agrees in large part with what Marius portrays. In a chapter on Luther’s personal development, Lohse has a similar sense of Luther’s inner conflict, though his view is more positive. He comments that “prior to his decision to enter the monastery, Luther underwent severe inner conflicts that were to afflict him later in the cloister and in a sense throughout his life. . . . Their chief cause . . . lay in the anxious question as to how he could appear before God at the last judgment.”

At this point, Lohse dons the theologian’s hat and systematically pursues Luther’s progression of thought. He believes Luther had no early concept of what later became known as Reformation theology.

According to Lohse, sin, grace and faith occupied much of Luther’s thinking. In the beginning stages of his theological development, sin became a variation on the “original sin” theme of Roman Catholic theology. Luther’s exposition of Psalm 51 in a series of lectures on the book of Psalms illuminates his evolving thoughts about sin. Luther stated, “All men are in sin before God and commit sin, that is, they are sinners in fact.”

Lohse comments that “Luther identified this genuine, hidden sin in Psalm 51 with original sin.” From this developed his concept of grace: “Statements of the knowledge and confession of sin, or of the acceptance of divine judgment, determine the ideas about grace.” Thus, according to Luther, since we are born in sin, the more we acknowledge our condition, the greater is God’s righteousness.

For Luther, grace was to be understood as a “justifying grace.” As he put it, “The more we condemn, confound, and curse ourselves, the more richly the grace of God flows into us.” From this conclusion grew the concept that to have faith is to accept the judgment of God in order to share the righteousness of God. All this was leading away from the idea that there might be anything a person actually has to do to be righteous before God.

Thou Shalt Not Try to Obey

The more Luther wrote and spoke, the more his ideas on these themes developed. His thoughts on sin began to depart radically from existing church teaching. He rejected the notion that one’s natural but sinful condition could be improved through grace, and he strongly resisted the view that people could keep the commandments of God by any natural human power.

Luther gave more precise definition to the nature of sin in respect of content and in doing so abandoned scholastic distinctions,” Lohse writes. “By its nature sin is the attempt to establish one’s own righteousness before God.”

In this regard, Luther’s view of God’s law is instructive. “The law of God,” Lohse paraphrases, “in itself a salutary doctrine for life, cannot, however, lead to righteousness, but rather inhibits it.” Luther concluded that the sinful man cannot improve himself—neither by grace nor by obedience. Unwittingly, he thus provided a base upon which future generations of theologians would build their case for the complete abolition of God’s law—a position not supported by Scripture, nor even endorsed by Luther himself.

In concluding his discussion of Luther’s theological development, Lohse reveals the basis of Reformation theology: “If in opposition to Rome Luther had accented the gospel as God’s gracious condescension toward humankind, now, against the Antinomians [those against law] he accented the abiding significance of the law. . . . The law is, of course, not necessary for justification. It is of no use and incapable for that, but it does not at all follow that it is to be rejected.”

In other words, Luther reinterpreted the law, teaching that it serves simply to reveal a knowledge of sin, and that once sin is acknowledged, grace takes over. Thus Christ, living in a person through faith, makes the law irrelevant. Lohse notes that “Augustine had written: ‘The law is given that grace might be sought; grace is given that the law might be fulfilled.’” Lohse then quotes Luther as saying that “the Law is the Word of Moses to us, while the Gospel is the Word of God into us.” It is clear from Luther’s writings that he believed a Christian is not bound to keep the law once it identifies sin.

Unfortunately his focus failed to include admonitions such as this one from the apostle John: “Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, ‘I know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:3–4). The apostle James, too, urged his readers, “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22). He went on to ask, “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? . . . Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. . . . Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:14–18).

Too Far or Not Far Enough?

Marius leaves us with a melancholy view of a man who went too far in reacting to an institution in need of reform. In his view, Luther should have worked from within and, in so doing, maintained “one enduring communion.”

Therein lies an irony, however: Luther took what he saw as a corrupt church and indeed radically modified its theology to offset errors that had infested it as early as the fourth century. In so doing, he cleansed the new church of some error, but he left it heir to a 300-year accumulation of dubious doctrines predating the fourth century. In the end, therefore, he did not fully depart from the system of beliefs that the Roman Catholic Church had cultivated.

Marius also accuses Luther and his followers of being responsible for creating unrest and instability. “Luther’s uncompromising rhetoric,” he remarks, “reeks of sadness and futility and of bloodshed to come in rivers of anguish throughout Europe and the Americas.” It seems Marius lays at Luther’s feet the responsibility for those who have died unnecessarily in the name of religion, whether as martyrs or in religious wars. He believes that Luther’s defiance against the authority of the church in Rome served as a negative role model for “zealots of all sorts.”

Lohse, on the other hand, views Luther’s ideas more as a basis for theological freedom. “Luther’s attitude toward death and judgment is the touchstone for the truth and authenticity of everything said or written. A theology that does not reflect on this horizon of the end time misses both the truth of the gospel and the reality of human existence.”

Clearly Luther produced a tension between those who held to the authority of the pope and church tradition to establish doctrine, and those “freer spirits” who saw Protestantism as an outgrowth of that system, wrestling itself free from the bondage of outdated ideas.

The Protestant world of today has to varying degrees followed Luther’s lead and has unshackled itself from God’s law and any authority that might seek to impose dogmatic beliefs, whether sacraments or commandments.

The Roman Catholic Church, on the other hand, continues to walk an uncompromising path of papal authority and traditional dogma.

Marius and Lohse paint a picture of a man who formed theology from a personal perspective in an attempt to salve a troubled mind. 

A Personal Matter

Although Marius and Lohse approach Luther from very different perspectives, they arrive at remarkably similar conclusions. Both paint a picture of a man who formed theology from a personal perspective in an attempt to salve a troubled mind. Throughout that process, Luther’s challenge against papal authority grew in significant dimensions, elevating his cause in a way that perhaps surprised even him. The fuel was the corruption of the church hierarchy, which helped mask the very personal nature of his theological development.

In the epilogue of his book, Marius sums up by saying that Luther “wanted to follow his own ideas about a religion of the heart so that he might protest the deceit and futility of a religious practice that was scarcely more than magic.”

Neither Marius nor Lohse attempts to analyze Luther’s theological conclusions in light of the Bible itself. Yet a close examination of the Scriptures—just a few passages of which are highlighted in this review—indicates that Luther promulgated both error and truth. Thus he was not a prophet of God. He may have been correct in addressing corruption in the church; but his assertion that obedience to the law of God is not a requirement for true Christians, while it may have helped him conquer his own fears, is a very unfortunate misinterpretation of the Scriptures he devoted his life to studying.