“Luther” by W.H. Auden
With conscience cocked to listen for the thunder,
He saw the Devil busy in the wind,
Over the chiming steeples and then under
The doors of nuns and doctors who had sinned.
What apparatus could stave off disaster
Or cut the brambles of man’s error down?
Flesh was a silent dog that bites its master,
World a still pond in which its children drown.
The fuse of Judgement sputtered in his head:
“Lord smoke these honeyed insects from their hives.
All Works, Great Men, Societies are bad,
The Just shall live by Faith. . .” he cried in dread.
And men and women of the world were glad,
Who’d never cared or trembled in their lives.
In a few weeks we will mark the 500th anniversary of an event which, dependent upon your point of view, was either the greatest tragedy that ever befell Christendom or the most heroic moment in its long history. While the rest of the world is celebrating Halloween—somewhat appropriately–some of us will remember that it was on the eve of the Feast of All Saints in the year 1517 that an obscure monk in a remote town in what is now Germany nailed ninety-five subjects for theological debate to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. The Ninety-Five Theses constituted a direct challenge to the authority of the Roman Catholic Church, the most powerful institution of the time, and their publication set in motion what is narrowly called the Lutheran Reformation. More broadly, however, that dramatic moment marked the end of the medieval world and the beginning the long Halloween we call the Modern Age, the fright night through which we are now living, beloved.
“Cometh the hour, cometh the man,” the scriptures say. And in this case the man was Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and professor of New Testament at the University of Wittenberg. Martin was a scrupulous monk and a brilliant teacher, but he was obsessed with doubts about his own relationship to God. His conscience condemned him, and he was tormented by feelings of unworthiness and guilt. How could all-holy God have anything to do with a man as profoundly sinful as Luther thought himself to be? He tried hard to be the perfect monk, and he struggled to follow the rules which the Church had laid out as the road to salvation. He confessed with exaggerated care every trivial fault and received absolution for his sins, real and imagined. But every attempt at obedience to the rules ended in abject failure and despair. And Luther could find no reason in himself why the all-powerful and all-holy God should not cast him into the eternal nothingness of hell.
His superiors in the monastery offered him what comfort the Church could give, but he still lived in constant dread of God’s righteous judgment. He knew that in Jesus Christ God was supposed to have revealed himself as a God of love, but all that Luther could feel was God’s hatred. That is the reason he was drawn to the manifestations of a God of weakness and vulnerability—the baby in the manger, the dying Christ on the cross. But the question remained: How can a sinner find his or her way to the God of love, who often hides his face and then reveals himself a God of wrath?
The medieval world was a world of barriers–social barriers, barriers to travel, exploration, and thought. In his search for a loving God, Luther faced the greatest barrier of all, the Church itself. In the medieval Church authority flowed down from above, from the risen Christ, through the pope, his representative on earth, through the hierarchy of the Church and its priests, to ordinary believers, and that authority extended from this world into purgatory in the next. Through its seven sacraments—baptism, Holy Communion, penance, marriage, holy orders, confirmation, and the anointing of the sick—the Church followed the believer from the womb to the tomb and beyond. And through the sacraments it offered heaven to those who believed its doctrines, followed its precepts, and performed such good works as it prescribed, and threatened damnation to those who did not.
Salvation was its sole possession; it could come only through the ministration of its ordained priesthood. Ordinary men and women could not approach God directly nor discover his saving grace without the mediation of the clergy. Access to the Holy Scriptures, which were available only in Latin, was confined to the literate few, priests mostly. Vernacular translations of the Bible were forbidden.
In the realm of the spirit, the authority of the Church was absolute. It was an all-embracing universal community of believers which forbade opposition and burned dissenters. This is the Church into which Luther was baptized and ordained a priest, and in which he struggled with his questionings and doubts. And it was within the Church that the brilliantly gifted Luther was given the post of professor of New Testament at the newly created University of Wittenberg. There he searched the scriptures, especially the letters of St. Paul, to find a basis for the church’s claims to absolute authority and could find none. What he did find was a verse from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “The righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith’” (1:17).
The revelation that salvation came through faith alone by grace alone was like a thunderclap. It woke Luther out of his tormented dreams into the vocation of a prophet and reformer. Now it became clear to him that salvation was a pure gift, an individual experience achieved through a direct encounter with the Word of God, not a commodity to be purchased with good works. Faith answered Luther’s need to find a way to God not through the mediation of the Church, but by the simple trust in God’s forgiveness. Luther came to understand that every individual man and woman could approach God directly as a member of the priesthood of all believers. And freedom came through free access to the God of grace whose love is manifest to all in the cross of Jesus Christ his Son.
Luther’s was a time of great excitement and ferment. Bold explorers were discovering continents. Humanists were uncovering long lost classical texts. Artists were breaking free of medieval constraints. Scientists were challenging the established ways in which the world and the universe had been viewed. New ideas were everywhere, spread by the newly invented printing press. And there was wide dissatisfaction among educated people with a corrupt and autocratic church. In this heady atmosphere Luther’s Reformation spread like wildfire through Germany and its surrounding countries, eventually dividing Europe between Catholic and Protestant lands. The Roman Catholic Church went on to counter-reformation glory and to spread its faith through new discovered worlds, but it could never again claim absolute, sole authority over the European heart and mind. There would always be other competing voices. It was still a long ways to what we call religious freedom, but Luther offered each individual man and woman freedom to question, to doubt, to search, to find and to be found by God.
Luther was an ambivalent character. In his lifetime and ever since he has called forth both uncritical adoration and virulent hatred. But no one has ever denied that he was a powerful force to be reckoned with. He still is. He was a vastly prolific writer in the German vernacular. He was the brilliant translator of the Bible who gave a voice and identity to an entire German nation. He was undoubtedly a man of great personal bravery and conviction, who proved that one ordinary person can stand up to authority and change the world. In later life he became a loving husband and tender father. But Luther could also be racist, violent, and profane. But he has never ceased to fascinate people of all kinds with his complexity and his humanity.
But Luther’s greatest accomplishment was that he broke the barriers, barriers he never intended to break, barriers he would have been horrified to see broken. Luther unleashed a hurricane. He was never a social reformer, and like many of us with regard to politics Luther became more and more conservative as grew older. He regarded order as a gift of God and condemned in the most violent terms revolt against secular authorities, whom he considered God’s representatives on earth. He never intended to tear Christendom into Protestant and Catholic halves or inspire revolutionaries to violence. What he wanted was to reform the Church so that it would preach the Word of God in its purity and administer the sacraments rightfully. What he did—unwittingly–was lay the groundwork for modern secular democracy.
But the influence of Luther and his Reformation goes further than that. I heard a character on the television drama the other night say: “I don’t know the meaning of barriers.” He was a sociopath, as it turned out, but those words stuck with me—I don’t know the meaning of barriers. This too is part of the legacy of the Lutheran Reformation. Luther’s teaching that every man and woman is responsible for his or her own salvation evolved into political freedom. After all, if in the most central aspect of human life, his or her relationship to God, faith could set a person free, why should he or she not be free in other matters?
And political freedom has evolved into that rampant individualism of modern society in which every man and woman is his or her own pope. So Luther became the pioneer and patron saint of those who push the frontiers of freedom in directions he would never have dreamt of. And those who “never cared for trembled in their lives” as the poet puts it, are granted unexampled liberty and rights that he would never thought of granting.
So the Lutheran Reformation is the spiritual source of the great struggle of our times, between the rights of the individual and the rightful demands of the community. Where do individual rights end and the rights of the community begin? Luther struggled with that problem too, the tension between the freedom of the Christian man and woman and good order in the world and the church. Luther fiercely advocated obedience to the secular authorities. But the direction of his teaching is clear, and from the beginning people saw its implications—in the greatest matter, the person’s relationship to God, the Individual the New Man and the New Woman, the sole sovereign over his or her own body and soul. And if barriers exist, they are there only to be overcome or ignored. If independence becomes egoism and selfishness, is that not to be expected? “Men and women of the world” do not know much if anything about Brother Martin’s struggle for faith, let alone share it. But from his “dread,” he gave them freedom of choice, and if they take it and are “glad,” who can blame them.