A Calamitous Man

Patrick Collinson

  • Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death by Richard Marius
    Harvard, 542 pp, £19.95, March 1999, ISBN 0 674 55090 0

Imagine a dream in which you are climbing a church tower in the dark. Stumbling, you reach out for something to hang on to and find that you are pulling at a bell rope, that the bell is waking up the entire town, and soon other towns far beyond. Within weeks you, the inadvertent bell-ringer, are both famous and infamous, and famous not for a few minutes but for ever. Three centuries later, Thomas Carlyle will write that but for you there would have been no French Revolution, no America.

This is what happened not in a dream but metaphorically to Martin Luther, a hitherto obscure monk and professor of theology in an undistinguished university recently founded in Wittenberg, a small town built on a sandbank in middle Germany. The first historian of what came to be known as the Reformation, Johann Sleidan, thought it remarkable that the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, could lay claim to be another Charles the Great because of what this insignificant man had done in a hole in a corner of his wide dominions. Luther became the incarnate legend of God’s strength made perfect in human weakness: the Bible story of Gideon, or of the shepherd boy David. For it was the religious anxieties and unanswered questions of this insignificant monk, not the great powers of the world against which elaborate diplomatic, legal and military defences had been erected, which brought ruin to the Pope, to the Church as it had been, and to Western Christendom. Luther was a ‘wonder man’, ‘incombustible Luther’, who not only escaped in person the fires the Church stoked for heretics but whose engraved portrait was again and again, in succeeding generations, found miraculously unharmed, the only object to have survived when fire destroyed a house or a church.

Nobody now writes the history of the Reformation, or indeed of anything else, in those terms. There are no wonder men in history, only myths of wonder men. The Protestant Reformation had a cast of thousands and a multiplicity of causes and forms, political and social as well as religious and theological. ‘The’ Reformation may be the greatest myth of all. Although ‘it’ was described, as recently as 1996, in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation, as a ‘world-historical event’, there turn out to have been all sorts of events, reformations in lower case, as the glaciers of historical revisionism grind away at what was once a mountainous watershed separating the Middle Ages from modernity. The idea of such a watershed now seems unhelpful, and we stress the many continuities (such as stories about a thaumaturgic Luther image) which connected the medieval mental world with what came next. It is almost a hundred years since Ernst Troeltsch argued that Luther’s Reformation had very little to do with progress towards the modern world.

And yet Martin Luther remains irresistible, love him or hate him. A remark of mine, made on a TV programme, that Luther was to religion what J.S. Bach was to music, brought the retort from Melvyn Bragg that Sir Thomas Beecham found that he could manage very well without Bach. Luther himself, and his followers, ensured that there would always be plenty to talk and argue about, so that hundreds of books and articles have been devoted to the subject in a single year. Luther himself wrote something like a book a fortnight for thirty years. His casual mealtime conversation alone, at once scatological, outrageously chauvinistic and sexist, and profoundly religious, fills six of more than ninety volumes of his collected works in a definitive edition which took the best part of a century to complete. We know more about Luther, certainly from his own mouth and pen, than about anyone who had lived before him.

The Weimar edition was a Post-Modern adventure playground for historical theologians long before Post-Modernism was invented. For Luther was a complexio oppositorum who wrote always to the occasion, as circumstances demanded, and whose currency, like that of the New Testament, was hyperbole and paradox. It was not only impossible to agree on an answer to the question, What was Luther saying, what did he mean? The question itself was badly put, if it expected a single, simple answer. It was no more possible to say what God meant when he made himself incarnate as a baby in a manger, hung on a cross and fed himself to men in the humble forms of bread and wine. Luther believed in these things, but the last thing he expected, or even wanted, was to understand them rationally.

So Luther has been reinvented in many different forms, from the half-devil fathered by Satan himself on a bath-house whore invented by Catholic polemicists, to the sturdy ‘Here I Stand’ figure at Worms only partly invented by Protestants, and on to the suitable case for treatment which Erik Erikson discovered in his neo-Freudian Young Man Luther. Heiko Oberman, in the best of recent studies in English, called Luther Man between God and the Devil. Richard Marius will have had Oberman’s title in mind when he chose to call his own Luther book The Christian between God and Death.

The notion that Luther was so afraid of death that he found it hard to believe in God is for Marius more than a clever variant on a motif. It dominates page after page, running through his book as an incessant ground bass, in a manner which becomes irritating and is risky, given the difficulty of reducing Luther to a single dominant idea or principle. ‘His fears early in life focused on death’. The terrifying thunderstorm which drove him to the monastery (he seems to have been struck to the ground by lightning, or thought that would happen) aroused instant fears, not of Hell – Luther does not say so – but of death. The famous Anfechtungen (more strenuous than ‘temptations’) were ‘nightmare moments fixed on the fear of death’. ‘Luther’s horror before death is a continual presence in his work – a presence seldom noticed by modern scholars, almost ignored by biographers.’ And why was it a horror? ‘Luther felt surrounded all his life by unbelief in the resurrection of the dead.’ He seems not to have believed in Hell either, except as a sort of nothingness, the Hebrew Sheol. ‘God’s judgment was death itself.’

I am not confident about these distinctions, on which Marius insists repeatedly. Without undertaking the kind of content analysis which modern technology makes so easy (is the Weimarer Ausgabe already on CD Rom?) I cannot of course be sure. But what if the word ‘death’ does occur more often than ‘judgment’ and ‘Hell’? Death is its ineluctable self. Yet it stands for much more besides, especially in the writings of St Paul. Marius should count the number of times that ‘death’ is mentioned in the Epistle to the Romans, and should consider its symbolic, religious meaning. Death meant sin. It was necessary to die to sin, to die with Christ (the meaning of baptism), to find new life. It is absurd to suggest that Luther, one of the greatest of all expositors of that epistle, should have understood Paul to mean by death only Dylan Thomas’s ‘dying of the light’.

Nurse Edith Cavell, contemplating Luther, might have said that theology is not enough, not enough to understand him. But he cannot be understood without theology, and he presents problems for someone who can say of Augustine of Hippo what Richard Marius says of him, that he was ‘one of the most fanatical, superstitious, and ugly-tempered men in the history of Christianity, a barbarous influence on Western civilisation’. George Tyrrell remarked of those liberal Protestants who wrote ‘lives’ of the ‘historical’ Jesus that they were looking down the deep well of history and seeing nothing but their own faces, reflected from the water at the bottom. It may be that that is what we are seeing in Marius’s characterisation of Luther. Since Marius does not himself believe, or like many of us retains only watered-down beliefs, he wants to persuade us, not only that Luther had difficulty in believing (which for such an intense soul is likely), but that the entire 16th century was hanging on to orthodox Christian belief by the skin of its teeth.

Marius has in his sights, particularly, the French historian Lucien Febvre and his Le Problème de l’incroyance au seizième siècle, which argued that atheism, even simple unbelief, was all but intellectually impossible in the age of Rabelais. For Marius, this was ‘a great but wrongheaded book’. Febvre can be challenged, and has been, although in the 16th century it is always easier to find the person who says of someone else ‘he is an atheist’ than the one who makes the admission, ‘I am an atheist.’ But to suggest that the entire edifice of Christianity was tottering on the edge of collapse, and that Luther was motivated in some way by a shared sense of that imminent collapse, which is to set him down on Dover Beach, seems to be no less wrongheaded, and dangerously anachronistic.

It is a pity to have to take such serious exception to one theme in a book which is in most respects admirably scholarly, thoroughly researched and helpful to the reader who may find much of this terrain inaccessible. It could not be more helpful to characterise Nominalism, the school of philosophical theology in which Luther was formed, as ‘the deconstructionism of its day’, although it does not necessarily follow that Luther was conditioned to doubt ‘all our beliefs about Jesus’, since, as Oberman and his pupils have taught us, and as Marius knows, the nominalist God was a God who made faithful covenants and stuck by his Word.

For the most part, Marius, in spite of being allergic to St Augustine, handles theology with professional competence and understanding. One of the small triumphs of his book is the way in which it keeps track of Luther’s evolving, degenerating relationship with his original spiritual mentor, Johannes von Staupitz, from which, it must be said, Staupitz emerges with the more credit.

Marius also tells very well the dramatic story of what the late Gordon Rupp, in one of the finest short books on the subject, called Luther’s Progress to the Diet of Worms. The story is dramatic not in the vulgar sense but because it consists of a series of acts, or scenes, or, to vary the metaphor, of a poker game in which the stakes were progressively raised, until the earnest monk who had begun with conventional views about the Papal primacy, and only some doubts about how it was being exercised, finished up denouncing the Papacy as a kind of Babylonish captivity of the Church, symbolically setting light to the bull which excommunicated him.

The story begins with 31 October 1517, when Luther, according to a legend which some have found it convenient to doubt, defiantly nailed to the church door at Wittenberg his Ninety-Five Theses, which denounced (or merely questioned?) the sale of Papal indulgences capable of relieving the pains of souls in Purgatory. Each dramatic episode which followed nudged Luther farther along a road of defiance: the talks with the haughty Cardinal Cajetan, the ill-judged diplomacy of the emollient and Italianate German, von Miltitz, and above all the critical encounter, day after day, with Johann Eck in the great debate at Leipzig. On that occasion, stung by Eck’s charge that he was all of a piece with Jan Hus, the Bohemian heretic whom all good Germans loved to hate, and who had been burned a century before at the Council of Constance and by its authority (Luther professed to believe in general councils), he returned from a little reading over lunch to declare that, yes, Hus had been right, on many things ‘most Christian and evangelical’. That meant that even councils could err. Only Scripture was inerrant. But the play would no doubt have been over long before this if Luther’s prince, that good Catholic but even better Saxon, Frederick the Wise, had not stuck by his favourite theologian, whom he never met face to face – the strangest part of the whole story.

The problem for Luther scholarship, insofar as it lays out the story chronologically, is where to insert the evangelical break-through, the discovery of justification by faith, although for theologians there is an even greater problem: to define what that discovery essentially was, and how it diverged from the Augustinian tradition. Was Protestantism a novel and original version of Christianity? This is a question more controversial than historical, especially in this age of ecumenicity. Luther himself has not helped by giving inconsistent accounts of the timing, and nature, of what has come to be known as the Turmerlebnis, an experience supposedly located in a little study in a tower, the perk which Luther enjoyed as a professor. An entire international conference was devoted to this problem, and ended inconclusively. This is not a trivial matter. If we give a very early date to Luther’s conviction that we are justified in the sight of God only by an act of God-given faith, and instantly, ‘auf einmal’, which is how Luther on one occasion remembered it, a moment even predating the Ninety-Five Theses, then his alienation from Rome was its logical consequence. But if the experience came two or three years later, then the mental, theological revolution was something to which he had been driven by the crisis which his attack on indulgences had provoked – was part of his progressive radicalisation. But it remains possible that there was no blinding flash of insight, and that in so describing it Luther was merely conforming to an old Augustinian conversion trope, a piece of self-fashioning which we find almost exacdy replicated in the experience of the English proto-Protestant, Thomas Bilney, whom Luther never knew, and who was burned at the stake 14 years before Luther publicly recorded his own.

Marius’s chapter on the ‘discovery of the Gospel’ is located after his account of Leipzig, a full year after the Ninety-Five Theses, which is to follow Luther’s statement in the preface to his selected Latin works (1545) that it was as he returned to the exposition of the Psalms, which we know to have happened in 1519, that he came properly to understand the righteousness of God as an active righteousness by which we become righteous in his sight, through Christ, while remaining sinners, simul justus et peccator. That appears to be Marius’s position, although in a chapter of 28 pages he gives exceptionally full and faithful treatment to the whole debate and suggests that the discovery was the culmination of a lengthy experience. And what was it that drove Luther on this absorbing quest? As the reader will not be surprised to learn, ‘his devouring fear of death’.

The full implications of what theologians call Luther’s ‘solifidianism’ were spelt out in three of the many tracts which he sent to the press in 1520, traditionally regarded as the three great Reformation treatises. The Prelude on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church was a declaration that his discovery of the Gospel had not turned Christianity upside down but, on the contrary, had put it right side up. It was Papal domination of the Church which had perverted its sacramental economy into a system of bondage, above all by turning the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ (which Luther would always believe to be really present in the eucharistic elements) into ‘the Mass’, a good work offered by priests to propitiate a God who was already fully propitiated by the death of Christ, so serving only to bind Christians in a kind of spiritual tyranny. In The Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, which preceded the Babylonica, Luther appealed to those leading Christians, the princes, to defend the Church against the Pope and to reform the Christian estate. There was irony for English history in these two publications, for Henry VIII first denounced the Babylonica in his Assertio Septem Sacramentorum, but then, ten years later, applied the lessons of The Address when he enacted the royal supremacy. In the third of these treatises, The Freedom of a Christian Man, which was offered to Pope Leo X as a somewhat spurious olive branch, Luther plumbed the spiritual depths of his doctrine. The Christian is utterly free, liberated by Christ. The Christian is totally enslaved, bound by his spiritual freedom to serve his fellow men: a typical Lutheran paradox. This, for Marius, was ‘perhaps the finest thing Luther ever wrote’.

And so, in April 1521, to what Marius calls ‘the great show’ of Luther’s ‘magnificent’ appearance before the Emperor at the Diet of Worms, where his refusal to repudiate the contents of the stack of books piled in front of him was in Carlyleian history, the defining moment which made the modern world possible. The words which counted were: ‘Unless I am convicted by scripture and by plain reason’ – not all commentators have noted ‘plain reason’ – ‘for my conscience is captive to the word of God, I cannot and I will not recant anything.’ Whether he added ‘Here I stand; I can do no other’ is not reliably documented.

If Pope and Emperor had had their house in order, that would have been that. The Spaniards present were shouting ‘To the fire! To the fire!’, and Luther and all his aiders and abetters were declared outlaws. Too bad for Luther, too bad for Carlyle’s modern world. But as events worked out, Martin Luther escaped death for 25 more years (and, pace Marius, it is not clear that this would-be martyr wanted that), during which the implications of his understanding of the Gospel were pursued in never-ending activity and publication, including a passionate engagement with all those radicals, or Stürmerei, who went beyond Luther’s reformation limits, his muddle-headed colleague Andreas Carlstadt, the fanatical Thomas Müntzer, and Huldreich Zwingli and the entire Swiss Reformation. There was also a gladiatorial combat with Erasmus on the theological heart of the matter, the freedom versus the bondage of the human will, which Marius calls ‘one of the great intellectual debates of Western civilisation’. This was a debate which Erasmus lost, mainly because he made the mistake of conducting it on Luther’s home ground, but clearly Marius would like him to have won, for Erasmus’s opponent was ‘insulting, vehement, monstrously unfair’, his rhetoric reeking of ‘sadness and futility’, and of all the bloodshed to come. Well, it was Coleridge who said that these men were perfect opposites. You cannot love both.

From some of Luther’s mature pronouncements, the modern, liberal world which he supposedly fathered averts its horrified gaze: his savage attack on the German peasants who had misinterpreted his doctrine as liberation theology (he admitted ‘all their blood is on my neck’), his no less remorseless anti-semitism, expressed in the vicious On the Jews and their Lies (1543), with worse to come. But against these embarrassments, Luther’s admirers can set his German Bible, the liturgies and the hymns which made the church music of Bach possible, his fruitful marriage to Katherine von Bora and his writings on marriage, the significance of which is that all of mankind is in the same boat, none can lay claim to a higher spiritual estate than any other. For the married man to have to wash nappies late at night was the last straw. But God and his angels were smiling, for that is what it is all about, all part of ‘the priesthood of all believers’. God finds us in the sordid stuff of life and nowhere else, which was the earthy reality of what has been called the key signature of all Luther’s religion, the Theology of the Cross, and his understanding of how the Kingdom of God relates to the kingdom of this world, which he sometimes called Teufelsreich, Satan’s kingdom: in truth a very conservative doctrine of vocation, not really the stuff of progress.

This is as far as Richard Marius takes the story. His last pages relate to the late 1520s and are full of darkness and black depression, proleptic of an end which was still twenty years off. This is a pity. As the excellent Australian scholar Ian Siggins has shown, Old Man Luther is just as interesting a subject as Erikson’s Young Man Luther. One of the fruits of his later years, the priceless Lectures on Genesis, are a distillation of his religious genius, not least in what they have to say about death.

Richard Marius does his best to be fair to Luther. But his verdict, as one might expect of a biographer of Thomas More, is that he ‘represents a catastrophe in the history of Western civilisation’. Whatever good he did was outweighed by ‘the calamities that came because of him’. I would like to be so sure, about anything.