By T. J. Lang
This year is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, so of course we are hearing a great deal about Martin Luther, including what a great theologian and scriptural scholar he was. There is also a lot of discussion about what a great moral leader he was and how it was always his intention to simply "reform" the Church. The popular legend of Martin Luther has always portrayed him in a very positive light. However, the legend of Luther is, in fact, very different from the Luther of actual history. As an example, let us explore the portion of his legend which depicts him as wanting to reform the Catholic Church.
The Church is always in need of reform and, in fact, is always in the process of being reformed in many different ways. However, a legitimate reformer does not have the goal of destroying the Church and replacing it with something of their own choosing.
At the very beginning of his conflict with the Catholic Church, Luther criticized the Church regarding the way in which indulgences were dispensed. However, his 95 Theses, which formally initiated his disagreements with the Church, dealt with far greater issues than indulgences, such as the authority of the Bishop of Rome. It was that issue that drew out Luther's early opponents, including some people who were highly placed within the hierarchy of the Church. Even though he was rebuked and opposed by several dozen (much better) theologians and scholars, their opposition only caused him to step up his efforts, claiming that he was right about what was correct and historical Catholic teaching and that they were all wrong.
Right from the beginning of his conflict with the Church, Luther believed it was his role to correct the abuses within the Church and return it to some sort of earlier and purer form. As opposed to the legend created from his 29-year career (1517–1546), however, he rapidly became a theological revolutionary bent on destroying the Church that refused to be guided by his radical opinions.
In the spring of 1518, just a few months after he posted the 95 Theses, Luther wrote to one of his most beloved and respected professors, Dr. Jodocus Trutfetter, who had warned him about the direction he had taken. Luther replied to Trutfetter, "To speak plainly, my firm belief is that the reform of the Church is impossible unless the ecclesiastical laws, the papal regulations, scholastic theology, philosophy and logic as they at present exist are thoroughly uprooted."
Such uprooting, he said, had now become his fixed purpose, ... This is one of the most important letters of the thousands of letters Luther wrote in his long, full lifetime. It reveals that as early as May 1518, he was essentially committed to the destruction of the Church as he knew it, though he had not yet committed to total public defiance of all Church authority. It shows his revolutionary temper, his purpose to "uproot" rather than simply to reform, which is the goal of every revolutionary. It provides our first evidence that the upheaval to come was rightly to be called a revolt or a revolution not a "reformation."
It should be noted that Luther wrote this letter 18 months before he was finally and justifiably excommunicated. His correspondence with Dr. Trutfetter and what it reveals are not included in the popular legend of Luther because it is in direct conflict with the portrayal of him as a valid reformer.
There are dozens of other actions and writings of Luther that also are directly opposed to the legend, which have been manufactured over the centuries in an effort to lend credibility to the idea of him as a reformer.
In 1520, in speaking of the leaders of the Church, Martin Luther wrote:
[W]hy do we not turn with force of arms against these teachers of iniquity, these cardinals, these popes and the whole collection of filth of the Roman Sodom which unceasingly lays waste to the Church? Why do we not wash our hands in their blood, so that we and all who are ours can be free from a general conflagration that will be extremely dangerous for everyone?
Other notable quotes, which are more than a little underreported by those who defend Luther's legend: In March 1519, almost two years prior to his excommunication, Luther wrote, "I do not know whether the Pope is Antichrist himself or is his apostle ... ." Luther developed this idea much further over the years, eventually including many others and Catholics in general under some form of his "Antichrist" accusation. In fact, Lutheran theologian Mark U. Edwards has written that "Luther hated the pope as Antichrist, and Catholics as the agents of Satan."
In fact, the idea of the Bishop of Rome as the Antichrist was so thoroughly conveyed from Luther to his followers that it became part of required formal beliefs. There it still resides in the Lutheran Formula of Concord of 1537, still considered required dogma by the more conservative of Lutheran communions such as the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. In addition, the formula describes the adherents of the Roman pontiff, meaning lay Catholics, as bearing the marks (all the vices) of the Antichrist.
Martin Luther was not at all interested in reforming the Church, but rather destroying it. He wrote that the Catholic Church was a "false church," the "devil's whore," and that it should not "possess church property," which of course was seen as being Luther's permission to loot the Church, as subsequently occurred wholesale. He also believed it was up to the Church to prove that it was a valid Church and that "it is for them to prove that they are" rather than for Lutherans to prove that they weren't. Rather than the upstart Lutherans proving their claim to being a valid expression of Christianity, it somehow was supposedly the responsibility of the then-1,500-year-old Church to prove that it was valid. This is a perfect example of the quality of logic that served as the foundation for the Reformation.
Luther also wrote that it would be "better if all the bishops would be murdered and all religious foundations and monasteries razed to the ground ... ." He insisted that he would not allow anyone to judge his teaching, not even an angel, but that he would judge the teachings of all others. In fact, he actually said that if you didn't accept his teaching, "you may not be saved" and "must be a child of Hell."
Luther was so confident in the validity of his radical teachings that he believed that God had appointed him the prophet for Germany, and that when you obeyed him you were actually obeying Christ. If you didn't obey him then you were really proving that you despised Christ. In addition, Luther believed that God had revealed the true Gospel first to Luther so that he could bring it to Germany:
Therefore, dear brethren, follow me; I have never been a destroyer. And I was also the very first whom God called to this work. I cannot run away, but will remain as long as God allows. I was also the one to whom God first revealed that His Word should be preached to you. I am also sure that you have the pure Word of God. (Sermon in Wittenberg, March 9, 1522)
The Catholics of his day didn't exactly obey him, so Luther found it necessary to judge whether Catholics are Christians. As found in Luther's works, at least those who "zealously defend Rome" do not qualify:
I've been asked from time to time if I think Roman Catholics are fellow Christians. It certainly is possible that God has preserved a remnant of believers within the Roman Church despite Trent's anathematizing the Gospel. On the other hand, of those who zealously defend Rome, I do not consider these people to be Christians. I think such people are those who need to be either evangelized or refuted.
Luther refers to Rome's defenders as a "breed of men condemned long ago, with corrupted minds" (1 Tim. 6:5).
The reason these things — and hundreds and hundreds of others — are not part of the popular legend of Luther and are absolutely never taught in Lutheran Sunday School is that they reveal him to be nothing like a true reformer at all. How can we look at the things he said and did and believe he was actually doing God's work, especially since that work resulted in the destruction of the unity of Western Christianity?
The Church has a long history of reformers who stayed in the Church and worked diligently to purify it. None of them split the Church and destroyed the unity mandated by Christ and the Apostles.