This “Essay” was presented at The Episcopal Cathedral of St. Peter here in St. Petersburg on Reformation Sunday, October 29, 2017—the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. Frank Casario portrayed Luther and Jack Clark portrayed Henry VIII. Pastor Bill Roen wrote and narrated the “Essay.”
WHY AREN’T WE ALL LUTHERANS?
Well, beloved, we might all have been–if we had played our cards right. But what might have happened–what perhaps should have happened got sidetracked by two dominating, indeed overwhelming personalities—a king and a monk—King Henry VIII of England and Brother Martin Luther of Wittenberg. They were almost exact contemporaries. But they never met—until today at least—and that is probably a good thing, because if they had they would not have liked each other.
They belonged to two different worlds. One looked backward to the medieval world, the other looked forward to the modern. On the most fundamental things they did not agree. But they both were possessed of an almost unlimited self-confidence and a sense of their own rightness. And their egos fill the enormous rooms in which history has placed them.
There are many events that have set the world on its ear—wars, crusades, and revolutions have altered the flow of history. Most of them were initiated by the great men and women—by kings, queens, generals, popes, dictators, presidents. This year, however, marks the 500th anniversary of an event arguably more important than any of them. And it was initiated not by a king, but—rather appropriately–by the son of a miner. Martin Luther came from a middling background. The Luthers were folks on the make, economically and socially.
And Luther’s revolution—for revolution it was—was a middle class movement. Nevertheless, it altered the very way in which Europeans of all classes would understand themselves ever after. And it informed the way modern people comprehend themselves, not as a community of believers, parts of a vast whole, but as individuals standing before God. And all of us, Protestants, Catholics, believers, unbelievers, searchers alike—are its heirs.
How do you know that something is true, beloved?
For people before Luther’s Reformation the answer would have been easy–someone in authority, someone higher than you on the spiritual or social scale, told you that it was true. And furthermore that it had always been true. In spiritual matters that authority was likely to be a priest, a bishop, or the pope—in ascending order. Authority in matters of faith and morals came down, through a hierarchy of the Church to the ordinary believer, woman or man.
In the same way secular authority and secular power descended from on high, from kings, ordained by divine right, through their nobles in a complex, interconnected system of sacred vows we call feudalism, to the vast majority of ordinary folks who drew the water and hewed the wood. For the medieval person truth and power came from above, ultimately from God himself. Those who did not accept that divinely established order were heretics and rebels—dry fuel for the burning.
Of course, there are still are medieval people out there in our world—fundamentalists of all kinds, citizens of totalitarian states and their fearless leaders. They can appear frightening and dangerous, but they are essentially fossils of an earlier time.
But how do you know that something is true?
For modern people when you ask them–How do you know that something is true?—they—and by this I mean we–are more likely to say–I experience it that way. We have faith in our own feelings, in our own conscience—such as it is–in our own reason—or lack of it—to guide us toward the truth. Authority comes up from the hearts of ordinary women or men. For the modern person certainty arises from individual experience. It comes from the self. That is the genius of modern democracy—authority and power ascend from every single enfranchised citizen to our elected leaders, however satisfactory or unsatisfactory they may be.
The Lutheran Reformation heralded that change. Therefore, it is not just something that happened 500 years ago. It changed things that are still changing and evolving. It gave us the idea of the sovereign self, of John Wayne riding off alone into the sunset, of the New Adam and the New Eve in the concrete and asphalt Eden of the modern world.
That is the legacy of Martin Luther—though not Luther alone, of course. But Luther was the first to think like a modern person in this way and get away with it. He began a movement that prophesied the modern world of individualism and democracy, and also of fragmentation and alienation, of disregard for any authority but the self.
(Incidentally, if you are looking for the seed of the disrespect for authority in our society, you need to look back at least as far as the Reformation and the new sense of self that it fostered.)
But back to Brother Martin. “Cometh the hour,” the scriptures say, “cometh the man.” Martin Luther was born in 1483 in Germany, before there was a Germany. He was a likely lad and his father hoped he would be a lawyer and sacrificed to send him to the university. As a student Luther liked to drink beer and made good company. But he was bored by the law.
His fellow students nick-named him “The Philosopher,” and as a young man he was tormented by deep questions—Is there a God? And if there is a God, is God a loving father or a God of wrath? The problem for young man Luther was first and foremost the personal problem of deep-seeded dread and profound terror. Luther feared the Almighty God to the bottom of his being. He lived in terror of judgment and hell, and he did everything he could think of to please God, but nothing worked….
LUTHER: “The most damnable and pernicious heresy that has ever plagued the mind of man was that somehow he could make himself good enough to deserve to live with an all-holy God.”
Luther always did have a problem with any authority other than his own. He defied his own father’s desire that he become a lawyer, and instead became an Augustinian friar in 1505. But despite the austerities of the monastic life, despite constant confession and self-punishing acts of penance, Luther found no peace of mind in the monastery until he experienced a life-shattering revelation which himself later described….
“As a monk I led an irreproachable life. Nevertheless, I felt I was a sinner before God. My conscience was restless, and I could not depend on God to be appeased by my satisfactions. Not only did I not love, but I actually hated the righteous God who punishes sinners. . . . Then finally God had mercy on me, and I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that gift of God by which a righteous man lives—namely faith—and that . . . the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’ Now I felt as though I had been reborn altogether and entered Paradise.”
He was teaching New Testament at the University of Wittenberg at the time of his epiphany. It happened while he was in the Tower Room, and reportedly in the WC. And it came as a tremendous sense of release. What can you say? It was the triumph of his own self-awareness. It was his born-again experience.
It was his reading of the letters of St. Paul particularly that brought Luther to this new understanding of the individual’s relationship to God, that that relationship does not depend upon the hierarchy of the church and its sacraments, but it comes to the individual heart unmediated and is received through grace alone by faith, which was Luther’s word for trust. We are saved by trust.
This set Luther thinking critically about other elements of the church’s teaching. What Biblical authority could be found for the seven sacraments that followed the Catholic believer from the cradle to the grave? Luther could find Biblical support for only three at the most—baptism, confession, and the Lord’s Supper. And where did the teaching about papal primacy come from? Not from scripture surely.
All this might have remained a purely academic issue if it had not been for the building of a church. Oh, beloved, nothing causes as much of a brouhaha as the building or remodeling of a church. And the rebuilding of the biggest church in Christendom caused the biggest brouhaha of all. It cost money—big money. In 1517 Pope Leo X authorized a new sale of indulgences, papal grants that were supposed to free souls from purgatory, in order to finance the rebuilding of St. Peter’s basilica at Rome. The cost was staggering. This called for the biggest capital funds appeal of all time. And a Dominican friar by the name of Johann Tetzel, master snake-oil salesman, was entrusted by the Holy See with the job of raising money in Germany through the sale of these indulgences, which Tetzel undertook with real style….
“It is incredible what this ignorant and impudent friar gave out. Tetzel said that if a Christian had slept with his mother, and placed the sum of money in the pope’s indulgence chest, the pope had power in heaven and earth to forgive the sin, and if he forgave it, God must do so also… As soon as the coin rang in the chest, the soul for whom the money was paid would go straightway to heaven. The indulgence was so highly prized that when Tetzel’s company entered a city the papal proclamation was borne on a satin or gold-embroidered cushion, and all the priests and monks, the town council, schoolmasters, scholars, men, women, maidens and children went out to meet him with banners and candles, with songs and in procession . . . In short, God himself could not have been welcomed and entertained with greater honor.”
Brother Martin, who through his reading of St. Paul’s letters had come to believe that salvation depended upon the grace of God alone, was appalled by the sale of indulgences. And he made his views known in 95 Theses–95 subjects for academic debate–which he posted on the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, five hundred years ago this Halloween. Reading them they don’t sound that earth shattering to us, but no one had dared to say anything like this before. And here is a sample….
“21. Those preachers of indulgences err who say that a papal pardon frees a man from all penalties and assures his salvation . . .
- It is certain that avarice is fostered by the money clinking in the chest, but to answer the prayers of the church is in the power of God alone . . .
- Those who believe themselves made sure of salvation by papal letters will be eternally damned, along with their teachers . . .
- Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the preachers of indulgences he would rather have St. Peter’s church in ashes than to have it built with the flesh and bones of his sheep . . .”
Luther’s great insight into salvation through grace alone by faith alone does not sound like a big deal to us. We are used to hearing it as a formula. In order to really “get” Luther, however, you have to experience the self-doubt and fear that brought him to it. In order to share his soul-freeing insight that the believer is saved by faith alone and not by indulgences or by any other good work you have to pass with Luther through soul-shattering suffering and personal anguish….
“God is the God of the humble, the miserable, the afflicted, the oppressed, the desperate, and those who have been brought to nothing.”
For Luther God is the God of those who have nothing else to hold onto. But once Luther had come to that life-transforming realization based upon what he understood as the clear teaching of the Holy Scriptures nothing could shake him from it. In the matter most crucial to the individual soul, its relationship to God, Luther would not accept any authority but his own. Venerable tradition, inherited wisdom, closely reasoned argument—nothing mattered to Luther but the Word of God and his own insight into it, often subjective, but fiercely held.
The 95 Theses were a world-changing, revolutionary document because of what they implied about the individual. They were a declaration of spiritual independence. They rendered meaningless a church hierarchy that forced ordinary people to find divine grace through the mediation of a priest. Now everyone could be his or her own priest, approaching God directly and ministering to the spiritual needs of others. Luther turned everything up-side-down and placed the individual in direct relationship to God. From now on every plowman and housewife would be his or her own pope.
But no Protestant Reformation, no Lutheran revolution–nothing would have happened, had not been for a new invention. The printing press of Johann Gutenberg in 1456 produced the first book printed in Europe with moveable type. By 1517 the presses were hungry for fresh meat, and Luther was just the man to feed them. Again–“Cometh the hour, cometh the man.” In his lifetime Luther never received a penny from any work he wrote, but he published more than any other human being ever has. The Lutheran Reformation was carried forward by an avalanche of books and pamphlets. Martin and his wife Katie, a former nun, had six children together, but one wonders when he had time for that considering his output.
“If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write.”
The problem is that everything that Luther thought, he published. And those of us who admire him, devoutly wish that some of his thoughts had never seen the light of day. But they did. Volumes on volumes on volumes. Commentaries on the scriptures, political diatribes, hymns, theological works, his great translation of the Bible into German, and sermons, sermons, sermons. Throughout his career Luther preached constantly, and his sermons went from the pulpit directly to the press. His works are not only vast but revealing, at times painfully so. Luther leaves us a record of his complex, profoundly individual self—extremely stubborn–as only Germans can be–unbelievably courageous in the face of the massive authority of church and state ranged against him, at times tender and sentimental, and at other times virulent and bigoted and profane and just plain nasty. To say that his style is “earthy” is a ridiculous understatement. But he was always what Matthew Arnold called him–that “Philistine of genius in religion—Luther.”
We don’t know exactly how it came about. Apparently no one wanted to debate the 95 Theses when they were posted on the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, but the printers got hold of them, translated them from Latin into German, and they went viral–as we would say. They struck a patriotic note in their readers; Germans of all ranks were sick and tired of being used as a cash cow for the papacy. Suddenly Luther was a celebrity and a local hero.
His works sold like hot tamales. By 1520 he had become pan-European phenomenon. In that year, Luther published his “Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” a pamphlet in which he attacked Papal authority and the doctrine of the seven sacraments. And in that same year, alarmed by Luther’s growing popularity among his subjects particularly among the students at Oxford and Cambridge, King Henry VIII—then 29 years of age–published a reply called the “Defense of the Seven Sacraments” in response to Luther, and it ends with these scorching words….
“Do not listen to the Insults and Detractions against the Vicar of Christ which the Fury of the little Monk spews up against the Pope; nor contaminate Breasts sacred to Christ with impious Heresies, for if one sows these he has no Charity, swells with vain Glory, loses his Reason, and burns with Envy. Finally with what Feelings they would stand together against the Turks, against the Saracens, against anything Infidel anywhere, with the same Feelings they should stand together against this one little Monk weak in Strength, but in Temper more harmful than all Turks, all Saracens, in short, all Infidels anywhere.”
Henry had a medieval mind dressed up for the Renaissance. Henry VIII was never a protestant, even after his break with Rome. He continued to believe in transubstantiation in the mass, priestly celibacy, and other Catholic doctrines. What he wanted was Catholicism without a pope, or rather with himself as pope. Henry was an equal opportunity tyrant. He had both Protestants and Roman Catholics executed in his reign—an astonishing 76,000 of them—anyone who did not acknowledge his spiritual authority as supreme head of the Church of England was dry fuel for the fire.
But in 1520 he was still a Roman Catholic, still anxious for the pope’s approval. For his “Defense” the pope awarded him a golden rose and the title “Defender of the Faith,” a title English sovereigns still carry. He was the first English King to be called “your Majesty.” He thought of himself as an emperor and not just a king. His pride was imperial.
That he looked down on the “little monk” as a social inferior is obvious throughout the “Defense.” Luther’s father was miner. Henry was a sovereign of the richest country in Europe. He represented something old, the medieval system of feudalism built upon class and authority—“the divine right of kings.” But a new idea was abroad. Luther had given it birth. Henry VIII did his best with blood and fire to stop that idea, but it was unstoppable. And Luther the monk gave back to Henry the King as good as he got. In his “Reply to Henry” Luther went overboard. He called the king a pig, a dolt, and a liar, who deserved, among other things, to be covered with excrement….
“The King of England, this Henry, clearly lies, and with his lies acts the part of a comic jester rather than that of a king. . . . I am speaking to a lying buffoon, hidden under a kingly title, and speaking concerning divine truths, which it is every Christian man’s duty to protect from lying abuse. If the foolish King so forgets his Kingship that he dares to come into public view with open lies, and does so while treating sacred subjects, why is it not a right and proper thing for me to throw his lies back in his face, so that if he derives any pleasure from lying against the divine Majesty, he may lose it when he hears the truth about his own majesty?
Nor is this an occasion when I ought to consider being patient when this frivolous buffoon attacks with lies not me and my life (which I could have borne) but my teaching itself which I am very certain is not mine but Christ’s. Let him blame himself and his lies if he is compelled to hear things unworthy of his Kingly name. His wicked mouth has deserved this; for he has blasphemed my King, Who is the King of glory.”
He also called Henry, always vain of his virility, “effeminate.” Well, you can imagine how this went down. You don’t have to wonder any more why we are not all Lutherans. But to give him his due, in the years that followed Luther did try to make nice. Hoping to reform the English church along evangelical lines, he made several attempts to win Henry’s friendship, even going so far as to offer to write a book in praise of the King. But his Majesty remained cool, suggesting Luther give up his wife and go back to the monastery. So in 1529 Luther got some of his own back. When he was asked for his learned opinion regarding whether it was permissible for Henry to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry to Anne Boleyn, Luther made a suggestion that was at least half serious:
“I would rather permit the king to marry still another woman and have, according to the examples of the patriarchs and kings of Scripture, two women and two queens at the same time.”
We don’t know what would have happened if Henry had taken Luther’s advice and committed bigamy. But he opted to divorce Catherine instead and marry Ann, and as they say, the rest is history. And here you are. And here I am. And here is the original question—Why aren’t we all Lutherans? Well, beloved, in certain ways we all are. As the poet says:
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.
Not that we all experience Luther’s anguish. Not that we all come to the same conclusion that he did—that the just shall live by faith. We don’t. But our conclusion comes from the same place Luther’s did—from the Self. The religious rituals of the medieval world were public and corporate—pilgrimages, gorgeous masses, processions with candles and incense—the religious rituals of the modern world are private—silent prayer, individual Bible reading. Which is better? You tell me. I go back and forth.
Sometimes I feel very Lutheran, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I have medieval moments. Right now I am feeling very Lutheran. When other people criticize Luther I get more Lutheran. When I criticize Luther I sometimes get carried away. It’s easy to do. No decent person’s admiration of Luther can be unqualified. He could be coarse, boastful, bigoted, profane, and occasionally in the heat of rhetoric a violent anti-Semite. But with all of that you have to admit that he was the real, authentic Luther—both saint and sinner, as he himself said–and the change that he made in the world was enormous. To his credit, he didn’t take credit for it….
“I simply taught, preached and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, and drank Wittenberg beer with my friends…, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.”
But when you set him next someone like Henry VIII you realize how prophetic Luther was in the fullest sense. Henry was a medieval man. He believed that authority came down from above, from God to himself as king and Head of the Church. Luther was also a medieval character in many senses—superstitious, conservative in the fullest sense, in his prejudices fully of his time. But he also represented something new—The New Man–the Individual in the Modern World where alternative life styles, alternative sexualities, endless political and religious diversities are not only tolerated but taken for granted.
When you order a hamburger and get it “your way.” When you register as a Republican or a Democrat or a nothing. When you decide who to vote for or whether not to vote. When they play the Star Spangled Banner and you choose to sit or stand or kneel down or sing along, you are firmly in the Lutheran tradition. When someone asks you if you have been saved, and you answer, yes, or no, or I’ve decided not to be saved or I am working out my salvation with fear and trembling, you are with Luther. The triumph of self-awareness—that’s what we are celebrating, that and courage—the prehensive courage to take hold of you own truth and growl. Let’s never forget Luther’s courage.
In 1521 he appeared before the Diet of Worms, which had been summoned by the newly elected Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, to deal with the problem of the Protestants. The emperor sent Luther a safe-conduct in the hope that he could be persuaded to recant his writings and return to the Roman church. His Majesty was disappointed:
“Since your serene majesty and your lordships demand a simple answer, you shall have it, without horns and without teeth. Unless I am shown by the testimony of the Scriptures or my plain reason—for I believe neither in popes nor in councils alone, since it is known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves—unless I am refuted by Scripture and my conscience is captured by God’s own word, I cannot and will not recant anything, for to act against the dictates of conscience is neither right nor safe. Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders. Gott helfe mir. [Here I stand. I can do nothing else. God help me.] Amen.
And God help us all, beloved, in this time of commotion and chaos in church and society. God help us all to find a little patch a truth and take a stand on it against all forms of fundamentalism, both political and religious, and against every variety of totalitarianism with whatever courage we can muster. And we can take comfort in this, that whatever happens, if we are brave, we will not be alone, beloved. In spirit, Bother Martin will be with us.