Celebrating with Luther the moderate

With this year’s 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses and the beginning of the Reformation, there is a flood of biographies and histories, perhaps in emulation of the overworked printing presses of Luther’s day.

For Catholics, celebrating this event might seem like Indigenous Australians celebrating the arrival of Captain Cook, but since the Second Vatican Council there has been a steady reconciliation of the Lutheran and Catholic Churches, and this year Catholics and Lutherans around the world are participating in joint thanksgiving services and other commemorations.

Peter Stanford, a regular contributor to the UK’s Tablet, in his sympathetic Martin Luther: Catholic Dissident, argues that Catholics should applaud Luther, and points to Pope Benedict’s statement that essentially Luther was right in his proclamation of ‘faith alone’, and to the way Pope Francis, building on Vatican II, has channelled Luther by taking a broom to the Vatican and giving more power to the people. Indeed, Stanford points out that Vatican II echoed Luther’s emphasis on the ‘priesthood of all baptised believers’ when it declared that the laity and clergy make for a ‘shared priesthood’.

Further back, the Council of Trent, ostensibly anti-Lutheran, actually followed Luther in laying down a program for reducing corruption and educating the clergy. Heinz Schilling, in probably the most comprehensive of recent Luther biographies, Martin Luther: Rebel in an Age of Upheaval, writes that Luther’s emphasis on sermons led to a smartening up of preaching within the Catholic Church. Luther also led the way to the modern emphasis on education, generally and in religious institutions.

Luther thought he was scraping the barnacles off the ship of the Church (his opponents accused him of putting holes in the hull), but he was not the first to rock the boat. Carlos Eire in his massive but gripping history, Reformations, suggests that Luther simply put the torch to the bonfire others had compiled. The conciliarist movement and the rising power of states were challenging papal authority. Humanism renewed focus on the Bible in its original languages, contributing to the Protestant emphasis on the authority of Scripture. Reform from below had flared in Spain and there were renewed movements of popular piety and mysticism. According to Heinz Schilling, the worldly, dynastic, nepotistic papacy had lost the people already. He writes that Catholics should be thankful that Luther restored faith to its prominent place, over allegiance to the pope.

Historians pick various points where Luther broke away, including the indulgences controversy that provides this year’s anniversary, but another strong candidate would be his eventual realisation that the papacy of his day, rather than being misled, was the root of the problem. Actually, says Stanford, the Catholic Church rejected Luther, not the other way around. Luther himself always hoped for reform, and a place within the Church. And he certainly retained much of Catholic practice, unlike the more radical Calvinist or Anabaptist reformers. He didn’t reject infant baptism, and he disagreed only slightly on the Eucharist, not going down the Reformed track of the Lord’s Supper as mere remembrance (which led eventually to its complete disappearance in some Pentecostal churches). He had no problem with Mary, fasting or confession.

The Reformation took hold partly because of Luther’s bravery – or what some might term stubbornness – but also because in many ways he was a moderate, both in his theology and the way he hoped his reforms would proceed. He decried the harassment of priests by overzealous students. He made provisions for nuns who didn’t want to leave convents. Schilling writes that Luther didn’t want to ‘unsettle’ parishioners. He was not an isolated monk, as is sometimes suggested, but an Augustinian lecturer who worked amongst the people and had a feel for them. He criticised the iconoclasm of the Swiss who literally whitewashed churches. He understood the value of music and painting in the proclamation of the Gospel.

Then again, he was a hothead when it came to his theological rivals. He fiercely denounced as heretics those who disagreed with him. But there were many, and it was partly his fault. His Reformation ran away from him and he was largely powerless to stop it, mainly because he had put into people’s heads the idea that they were free to interpret the Scriptures without the interference of earthly church authorities. Or at least, that is how they read him, and Luther would protest that this was a misreading. He said that Scripture was clear in its message and able to be read by the people, but he also insisted that clergy were needed to interpret, preach and educate.

The prioritisation of individual faith led to the religious wars and an eventual compromise of the separation of church and state, writes Schilling, the legacy of which being our modern, pluralist society where even the right of the Church to speak in public debate is questioned. He might be partly responsible, but this is not a development Luther would be celebrating.

Heinz Schilling Martin Luther: Rebel in an Age of Upheaval Oxford University Press
Peter Stanford Martin Luther: Catholic Dissident Hodder and Stoughton
Carlos Eire Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650 Yale University Press.

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Nick Mattiske

Nick Mattiske is an editor and bookseller who lives in Melbourne with his wife, son and not enough bookshelves. He writes more on books at coburgreviewofbooks.wordpress.com.

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