Bits of Books - Books by Title

Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet

by Lyndal Roper

On the afternoon of April 17, 1521, the princes and great nobles of the Holy Roman Empire, summoned by the Emperor Charles V, met in the Rhineland city of Worms. At the centre of the glittering assembly stood a 37-year-old monk in a plain black cassock. His name was Martin Luther, and he was there to be questioned about a series of debating points, known as the 95 Theses, that he had made public four years previously. The theses sought to discredit the Catholic church’s sale of 'indulgences', which purported to grant remission from periods of suffering in purgatory. So they were, in effect, an attack on the authority and economic structure of Catholic Christendom.

As Lyndal Roper stresses in this formidably learned biography, Luther was a nobody when he wrote the theses. The son of a master-smelter in a small German mining town, he had never meant to be a monk. His father sent him to university hoping he would become a lawyer. But, caught out in a thunderstorm, and terrified of being struck by lightning, he promised St Anna that he would enter a monastery if he survived. He joined the Augustinian order aged 22. He was not a very good monk, and Wittenberg, where he taught, and published the Theses, was a second-rate university. Yet within weeks his revolutionary message had spread through Germany, shattering the unity of the Catholic church and inaugurating the Protestant Reformation.

Roper draws into her study not just Luther and his prodigious, 120-volume theological output, but the lives and fortunes of friends and foes — and of friends who became foes, which, given his temperament, was a large category. Her approach is avowedly new, in that she attempts to trace Luther's theology to his psychology. The danger, as she admits, is that this can make religious beliefs seem to be just the outcome of our unconscious wishes and conflicts. However, it can also be enlightening. She argues, for example, that Luther's relationship with his father combined resentment and guilt, and that this oedipal mix transferred to his relationship with God. He hated and feared God's judgment, until St Paul's assurance that salvation comes not by anything we can do to deserve it, but by faith alone, struck him 'like a thunderbolt'.

Another psychological trait that affected his theology, Roper believes, was his acceptance of the naturalness of sexuality. He wrote to nuns telling them they had powerful sexual urges that they should not resist, and he married an ex-nun himself, despite his monastic vows. He rejected the idea of a celibate clergy, proclaiming sex needful for health. As Roper develops this line of argument, Luther starts to sound startlingly like DH Lawrence. However, she quickly adds a corrective. Luther believed that human nature is utterly corrupt and enslaved to Satan, and sexual intercourse, though natural, is sinful like all human acts. The scatological images of excrement and bodily fluids that flood his prose when he is engaged in invective suggest that he was less at ease with physicality than might appear. He enjoyed sexist jokes and considered women natural inferiors. They were less intelligent than men and their right place was at home having babies. They needed motherhood, and if a woman's husband could not give her a child she should have sex with another man until she conceived.

An unexpected feature of his theology was his belief in the Real Presence - that is, that Christ's body is actually present in the Eucharist. His reformist colleagues tended to dismiss this idea as papist magic. But Luther insisted with, as Roper puts it, “grisly realism” that Christ’s body really is taken into the mouth and chewed, and she sees this as a manifestation of the same psychological leaning towards physicality that Luther showed in his attitude to sex. She might be right, but the connection seems tenuous. Many Christians throughout the world still believe in the Real Presence, but it seems improbable that they share Luther’s ideas about sex.

His belief in the Real Presence divided him from most other reformers. So did his politics. In German towns and villages the peasantry, urged on by local preachers, eagerly joined the reformation movement. Churches were broken into, statues and paintings smashed. When the Peasants' War broke out in 1524, the peasants demanded the abolition of serfdom and the end of church taxation. Luther, though of peasant stock, sided firmly with the authorities. He urged everyone who could bear arms to 'smite, slay and stab' the peasants, destroying them like 'mad dogs', and the peasants were duly slaughtered. But Luther's insistence that Christians should obey the secular authorities, even if they act unjustly, provided, Roper notes, the theological underpinning of the accommodation that many Lutherans would reach, centuries later, with the Nazi regime.

Luther is, Roper concedes, a 'difficult hero'. He was coarse, vulgar-minded, bigoted and dogmatic. Anger and hatred were his commonest motives. It seems questionable whether he could actually think, in the usually accepted meaning of the word. He dismissed reason as a 'whore', and trusted, instead, his deep prejudices. A rabid anti-semite, he called on the civic authorities to burn down all synagogues, destroy Jewish schools and houses, and ban Jews from using the roads. He insisted endlessly on the truth of scripture without allowing that it could be interpreted in many ways. He denied, in controversy with Erasmus, that human beings had free will, yet he spent half his life telling people what to do which, if they were not free, would be pointless.

Set against all this was his courage. The lone monk who defied Catholic Europe at the Diet of Worms was, as Roper says, 'breathtakingly' courageous. He was outlawed and excommunicated, and seemed likely to burn at the stake like other reformers. He said he yearned for martyrdom, and compared himself to Christ. But friends in the court of the Elector of Saxony hid him away until the furore abated, and he died peacefully in 1546, having split Europe in two.

How it all began

It is a given that the Reformation began when Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg’s Castle Church in 1517. But there is no direct evidence this happened. Luther himself never mentioned the event, and said only that he sent the letters to Archbishop Albrecht. The story comes to us via two followers, neither of them there at the time, and some suggest that glue was used, rather than nails.

More books on Religion

Books by Title

Books by Author

Books by Topic

Bits of Books To Impress