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Overrated: Martin Luther
December/January 2016/17

Exaggerated influence: Martin Luther (Illustration by Michael Daley)

Martin Luther was the first man of the modern era to create his own myth. Much of what we think we know about him may never have happened. He probably never told the Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms: “Here I stand. I can do no other.” He probably didn’t nail his Ninety-five Theses to the church door in Wittenberg — the quincentenary of which will be celebrated in 2017. And he almost certainly never threw an inkwell at the Devil; the stain on the wall of his room at the Wartburg that tourists are shown to this day is a fake.

What is true about Luther is that he was a theologian: even by the standards of German professors, he was extraordinarily prolific. The Weimar edition of his works was begun in 1883 and only completed in 2009, by which time it had run to 121 volumes. His unparalleled verbosity has fuelled countless biographies, several more of which have been occasioned by this anniversary. So large does he loom in historiography that he almost defies objectivity — but like so many “great men” his influence has been exaggerated.

First, Luther’s Reformation was neither necessary nor sufficient for the rise of Western civilisation. The “freedom of a Christian” he preached was certainly not political liberty — he was brutally vindictive towards the peasants who took him literally — nor did it have much to do with religious toleration. There was no contradiction in Luther’s mind between Reformation and authority; indeed Protestant Germany remained a bastion of absolutism for the next three centuries. Christendom, already divided between the Catholic West and the Orthodox East, was severely weakened in its existential struggle with the Ottoman Empire by the schism provoked by Luther.

That schism rendered impossible the more moderate reform programme of humanist scholars such as Erasmus and More. Nor did Luther care much about science or the arts (except music): it was the Renaissance, not the Reformation, that inaugurated modernity. Luther’s most creative (as opposed to polemical) contribution to European culture, his German translation of the Bible, would justify his place in history — but if he had not defied the pope and emperor he might have gained their support for the vernacular Bible.

Second, Luther’s Reformation was not a prerequisite for the rise of capitalism in Europe. That process was already well under way and the wars of religion of the 16th and 17th centuries only delayed it. The economic ideas that Max Weber attributed to the Reformation were more highly developed in the Catholic school of Salamanca.

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November 20th, 2017
2:11 PM
Martin Luther probably would have become a saint had his followers not spazzed out and started killing people.

February 22nd, 2017
1:02 AM
He was his era's Pope Francis, except his reforms worked and he actually had a gift for language.

Richard A
February 21st, 2017
6:02 PM
"For Luther ..." Well, we don't bind ourselves to human traditions. "... salvation is totally by God’s grace alone ..." True. "... through faith alone ..." False. You must know as well as anyone that "alone" is not Biblical. If faith is necessary and sufficient for salvation, why is love greater? If faith alone saves, why does EVERY SINGLE discussion by our Lord in the gospels about who will enter Heaven and who will not, or who has eternal life and who does not, is ALWAYS determined by who does good works and who does not, not who has faith and who does not? (Correction: in one instance, eternal life is conditioned on who eats the flesh of the Son of Man and drinks His blood, and who does not.) "... in Jesus Christ alone ..." True. "... there is no good in us that can merit it or cooperate with God to gain it [salvation]." If that be the case, how could St. Paul write that in his own flesh he fills up what is lacking in Christ's sacrifice on behalf of the Church? "People are saved from the consequences of their sins not because they avail themselves of the papal church's ..." It is not Peter's church, it is Christ's. Remember, "on this rock (Peter) I (Jesus Christ) will build MY church"? "... sacramental system ..." Peter did not institute or command baptism. Christ did. Peter did not establish or command the Eucharist. Christ did. Peter did not grant the apostles authority to forgive sins. Christ did. Peter did not choose, nor did he commission, the apostles. Christ did. Peter did not institute marriage or bless it with his presence. Christ did (in Eden, and then at Cana). Peter did not send the Holy Spirit upon all the disciples with grace for the mission of the Church. Christ did. Peter did not bestow upon the disciples the grace to pray for healing. Christ did. The sacramental system that you are so ready to disparage was instituted by Christ, and gives grace because He fills them and He is faithful, even when we are faithless.

Gabriel Bonnar
February 6th, 2017
6:02 PM
At a Catholic school (Roman variety)my Dominican RE teacher once told his class that after death any person, regardless of religious beliefs, would be judged according to how he has behaved when approaching the Pearly Gates. I think that is a balanced view of whether we are justified by faith or good works. Polonius' final words to a departing Laertes sums it up: This above all- to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man. Shakespeare was an ecumenical, humanist commenter on faith and moral matters.

December 28th, 2016
5:12 PM
Thank you Mr Johnson. An interesting piece. I have tremendous love and admiration for the many Protestants, unapologetic or not, that I know, but perhaps it is time to puncture a few myths re Luther and Co. I was reminded of this recently while watching a programme hosted by Melvyn Bragg on the bible's translation. In many ways it was excellent, although it was accompanied by a few of the usual anti-Catholic digs that one had hoped, time, reality and Eamonn Duffy had put to bed. The most striking scene was the last, where Bragg was standing in St. Paul's loudly declaring that post-Luther et al., 'now every ploughboy could read the Word of God.' The utter irony of the fact that he was standing in a completely empty cathedral appears to have been lost on him. The Reformation as reaction to the Renaissance is spot-on and worthy of far greater study. Protestantism was an earth-staggeringly reactionary movement,and more than anything else contributed to the destruction of a European cultural and spiritual unity, that had existed imperfectly for 1500 years, and the consequences of which are arguably still with us today.

An Gíogóir
December 6th, 2016
4:12 PM
I've never understood the "Faith alone" argument. Jesus was pretty clear that actions also mattered.

Kenneth Brownell
November 29th, 2016
9:11 AM
As an unapologetic Protestant I cannot let Daniel Johnson's piece on Martin Luther pass without comment. I agree with him that contrary to what both his many admirers and enemies have claimed, albeit for different reasons, Luther was not primarily responsible for 'Western civilisation, capitalism or the nation state'. Along with Protestantism in general his impact has been enormous, but there have been many other contributions. There were also many aspects of Luther's character that were less than admirable, but that can also be said of such Roman Catholic luminaries as Sir Thomas More and not a few popes. However, I must disagree with Johnson on Luther's importance as a theologian. Of course he owed much to Augustine of Hippo, Wycliffe, Hus, the Theologia Germanica, Erasmus and many others. In reference to Erasmus he was open about his admiration. Nevertheless he thought that Erasmus had an inadequate understanding of sinful human nature and therefore and inadequate understanding of not only of the reform that was needed in the church, but even more the nature of salvation. Like many Johnson may find Luther's dark view of fallen human nature as expressed in his riposte to Erasmus in the Bondage of the Will too pessimistic, but with many conservative Protestants (or classical evangelicals) I would argue that it is more biblical and makes sense of the way of salvation revealed in the gospel. For Luther salvation is totally by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone because there is no good in us that can merit it or cooperate with God to gain it. And what Luther was beginning to discover around 1517 was that the penitential system of the Roman Catholic Church had nothing to do with the saving grace of Jesus Christ offered to sinners in the gospel and that in the form of indulgences was a corrupt money making scam. But in the end the big issue for Luther was not, as it was with Erasmus, clearing up the corruption of the church, but rather the more fundamental issue of the nature of salvation. For that reason he is the towering figure he is. With all his flaws he saw clearly how much the church of his day had lost what he called, in the 62nd of the famous 95 Theses, 'the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God' which is its 'true treasure' and had substituted something that at best was confusing and at worst contradictory. People are saved from the consequences of their sins not because they avail themselves of the papal church's sacramental system, but simply because they have faith (in the sense of trust) in Jesus Christ, the evidence of which is the good works they do in life and in communion with his church as they continue to trust in him and are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. It is not, as Johnson suggests Luther taught, faith that saves but Jesus Christ whom sinners trust for salvation. At the heart of this salvation is the biblical doctrine of justification through faith alone - that God forgives sinners who trust in Jesus Christ and declares them to be righteous in his sight not because of anything they have done but because of what Jesus Christ has done in his life, death and resurrection. That message resonated with many people in Luther's day as it has done so ever since. Sadly that is not something,as far as we know, that Johnson’s underrated Benedict XVI, great theologian that he is, understands along with his church.

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