Martin Luther: What You Might Not Know About the Man Who Sparked the Reformation
Few people have punctuated history like Martin Luther, the man who spawned the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago, says author Eric Metaxas, whose latest book chronicles his life and legacy.
"I never wanted to write another biography," Metaxas said in an interview with The Christian Post in early September, noting that his previous biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, was a huge undertaking.
But two friends — to whom he dedicates his new work, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed World —convinced him that he was the man for the job given that this year marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and how much public attention would be paid to Luther. And the more Metaxas got to know his subject, the more he became personally convinced that this was indeed a story that needed to be captured and retold.
"I couldn't believe how important and seminal [Luther] was to everything in modern life. I never dreamt that the story would help me to see where we got almost everything from, it's almost funny because it sounds like hyperbole but it's true. In a funny way, it's like never having heard of Columbus or George Washington," Metaxas said of his writing journey.
Among evangelical and Pentecostal Christians, who are heirs of the Reformation, Luther is most well known for his recovery of the doctrine of justification — that salvation for the Christian is by God's grace through faith and not through any work of man.
On Oct. 31, 1517, the Augustinian monk is widely believed to have nailed 95 theses — containing objections to corrupt practices of the Roman Catholic Church, including the selling of papal indulgences — to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, launching the Reformation.
However, "the image in our collective minds of Luther audaciously pounding the truth onto that door for the world and the devil to see is a fiction," Metaxas explains in his new book, which was released Tuesday.
"It implies that the man doing this heroically understood that this could lead to his excommunication and probable horrific death by fire and that it was the first shot in a war to upend this devilish system that was deeply entrenched as a mountain range. But this is very far from the truth."
Metaxas explained to CP that it is only in retrospect that we can look back on this particular event as the pivotal moment it was when what Luther thought he was doing was "effectively tacking something to a bulletin board."
"It really was a very quiet, almost passive act," he said, and it was as if Luther was saying, "'I'm just going to put up this thing and we're going to have a debate.' It had nothing to do with grace. It had nothing to do with his future. It was just about an ugly practice that needed attention."
The 95 theses were written in Latin, intended only for fellow academics to see and generate discussion.
Throughout the book, Metaxas explores several other similar popular myths about Luther.
Despite Luther's penchant for hurling colorful verbal barbs at individuals and entities he disdained — that anyone can now see with a few clicks via the Luther Insult Generator online — this father of Protestantism had a soft side. He adoringly cherished and respected his wife, Catherine von Bora, who was 15 years his junior. He called her "my Lord Katie" and treated her with remarkable tenderness, a theme Metaxas explores considerably in chapter 17, "Love and Marriage."
"He loved his wife with the kind of a love that is so moving," Metaxas stated. "He was not initially attracted to her romantically or sexually. He just esteemed her, he revered her, he thought she was a quality woman and wanted to share his life with her."
"And you realize this was one of the most big-hearted people who has ever lived, and out of that you get tremendous passion which can be expressed as invective and ridicule and bitterness, or as love. And it really makes him the outsized figure that he was," he continued.
Martin Luther was also hilariously entertaining to read and was known for his rapier wit. His friend and fellow theologian Georg Spalatin, who was considering getting married, once inquired of him in a letter what he thought of long engagements. Luther replied: "When you're driving the piglet, you should hold the sack ready," urging him to not delay.
"Nobody could have done what he did unless they had this crazy personality that is very fiery, very passionate, very committed to truth, and committed to God. And when you put that all in a blender, you get Martin Luther," Metaxas said.
And he came right at a time when he was needed, the author maintains, changing the course of the river of world history like a stone that would not move.
Luther was offended by the term "Lutheran," repeatedly stating "I am nothing" and often likening himself to a "worm." Metaxas frequently notes in the book how Luther had a keen view of his own mortality and his own fallenness. Yet just as biblical characters were imperfect people and were nevertheless used by God, the story of His ongoing redemptive work in the world has continued through broken people even though the canon of Scripture is closed. And God used an imperfect Martin Luther.
While many Christians consider him heroic, he was indeed not without flaws, and Metaxas does not shy away from describing them. Luther is infamously known for his virulently anti-Semitic writings, most notably in his 1543 treatise, "On the Jews and Their Lies," wherein he recommends that, among other things, Jewish houses be "razed and destroyed," that their synagogues or schools be set on fire, and that their rabbis be forbidden to teach "on pain of life and limb."
Disgusting words though they are, that is only part of the story, Metaxas points out, as Luther had serious issues with just about everybody.
"We are the ones that have a problem with the Jews in the sense that we single them out as unique. And the reason for that, and it's not inappropriate, is because of the Holocaust," Metaxas said.
Hundreds of years following Luther, the Nazis would cherry-pick whatever they could from Luther's career and utilized it as though it was representative of him and a standard German response, the author explained. The other awful utterances he made about other groups and individuals receive much less attention, he said.
Luther was fiercely ruthless to Roman Catholics and in what he wrote about his fellow Protestants with whom he disagreed, saying vicious things about everyone. While he said indisputably horrible things about the Jews, it is unfair to ignore the larger context.
"So in order to be historically and intellectually honest, you have to put what he said, vile as it is, in context. Otherwise, you do violence to the truth. Similarly, you have to understand that earlier in his life, Luther went out of his way to say wonderful things about the Jews. So we are at least presented with a conundrum," Metaxas said.
Anyone who pretends that Luther was an anti-Semite pure and simple is missing that longer story, he added, noting that it is much easier in an era of mob rule in the intellectual world to jump on the bandwagon and brand him as such without dealing with the complications.
Perhaps just as many, if not more, complications arise when dealing with the Church Luther confronted.
CP asked Metaxas what he would like his biography on Luther to communicate to Roman Catholics today, given that they do not regard the 500th anniversary of the Reformation as an occasion for celebration even as a remarkable togetherness among Catholics and Protestants has transpired in recent decades. As Catholic philosopher and Boston College professor Peter Kreeft noted in a May 31 CP interview about his latest book, Catholics and Protestants, "more ecumenical progress has been made in the last 50 years than in the past 500," something he considers a work of the Spirit of God.
Metaxas, who is host of "The Eric Metaxas Show" and is listened to by millions daily, described himself to CP as a "very pro-Catholic evangelical" and mentioned that he gave advance copies of his biography to several Roman Catholic friends, including Kreeft, asking for their feedback.
"[Kreeft] gave me a very, effusively positive review," he said, adding that in writing Martin Luther, one of his main goals was to help both camps comprehend what happened more fully.
"Faithful Catholics in Luther's day, of which he was one, were horrified at what had happened. They were wanting not to break away. On the contrary, they were wanting to heal and reform the church," Metaxas explained.
And Luther himself never wanted to bring about a permanent break and start an entirely new church, Metaxas stressed, noting that he considered dedicating the book to Pope Francis as a way to underscore his desire for every one who is a Christian, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant evangelical, to understand their mutual history. He concurred with Kreeft that the two groups now have an ecumenism that was inconceivable a mere 50 years ago.
What Luther did at a most basic level was "rediscover" God, Metaxas maintained, highlighting his book's subtitle. The gospel truths the reformer brought to the surface and emphasized were not "new" revelations whatsoever, but timeless ones that had been buried under so much tradition that they had gotten lost.
The Reformation continues today and presently, Metaxas personally believes that the Church of Jesus Christ is not facing anything particularly new, just the same old sin and brokenness in a repackaged form.
"I think today, political correctness has emerged as the hidebound orthodoxy of the day which many are treating as the cruelest dictators of the past treated, agreeing with them. It has nothing to do with truth and everything to do with power. And the oldest battle is always between truth and power," he said, referencing Jesus declaring Himself the "the Way, the Truth, and the Life" in John 14.
"If you cling to the truth, you're going to come up against power. And today it takes real bravery to stand for the truth against the cultural power of political correctness, the cultural power of angry atheism, the cultural power of people who have a dim view of the biblical view of sexuality. All of these things attempt to bully their opponents into submission. And Luther stood against that and said 'You can burn me, you can kill me, you can threaten me, but the truth will never die.'"
Today, it is particularly important that zeal for the truth be reasserted, Metaxas said, even as we know Who prevails in the end.
"Just as Shakespeare said that 'truth will out,' that's the law of the universe. God created reality and the truth can never be defeated," he said.
"But that doesn't mean that we don't have to stand for it in our generation."
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