happy 490th birthday, protestantism (a few days late…)

It’s easy to forget—what with that other holiday that falls on October 31… last Wednesday marked 490 years since a hefty German monk posted his 95 Theses (apparently, this title was preferable to “Nearly 100 Reasons Not to Like Those Pointy-Headed Romans”). He nailed them (his theses, not the pointy-headed Romans) to the door of the church in Wittenberg (which, as all good theology students—and Germans—know, is pronounced with a V, not a W.)

luther.jpgSome Protestants have attempted to reclaim the last day of October in honor of their forefather Martin Luther, christening it “Reformation Day.” I even saw a poster at work advertising a Reformation Day Hymn Sing (which seems like the perfect way to threaten would-be trick-or-treaters if they misbehave).

Luther was one of the most fascinating theologians I studied in seminary, mostly because of his raw humanity. Luther was a hothead. He was a reactionary. He probably flailed his arms and spat when he talked. The man drank and cursed—while preaching, no less. (Well, the cursing, anyway.) He had a twisted sense of humor which he kept to the end. (On his deathbed Luther announced that the worms were about to get a very fat doctor to feast on.)

And I haven’t even gotten to his dark side yet. The man who ignited the Reformation was anti-Semitic. (Back then, a lot of people were anti-Semeitic, but that’s no excuse, especially when the object of your worship is a Jewish rabbi.)

When European peasants rebelled against the nobility (being on the butt end of feudalism apparently wasn’t all it was cracked up to be), Luther didn’t just fail to counsel the nobles to show restraint. He did the opposite, urging the ruling class to “smite, slay, and stab, secretly or openly.” Luther compared peasants to a “mad dog” that must be struck down before it strikes.

Luther also had his quirks, like arguing with the devil—out loud. In one of his writings, he claimed that once the devil started prowling in the kitchen below his room, making all kinds of racket just to distract him. (I hate it when that happens.)

One of my favorite things about Luther was his personal journey—especially the way he encountered God’s love. Luther spent much of his young adult life in terror, convinced that God, angry and vengeful, was about to strike him down at any moment for some unknown sin. Luther was an obsessive-compulsive confessor, badgering his priest and mentor, Johann von Stauptitz, who finally told Luther to come back when he had some real sins to confess. Luther admitted to hating God. But when he finally discovered the implications of grace—that God is for us, not against us—he was transformed. Previously consumed by his fear of God, he was now consumed by his love for God.

Mostly I wonder what Luther would make of the Reformation he started, almost 500 years on. It’s no secret that Luther meant to reform the Roman Church, not break from it. It wasn’t until being excommunicated in 1521 that reformation turned into revolt. Luther thought he was doing the Pope a favor by writing the 95 Theses—alerting a benevolent but naive ruler to the abuses being perpetrated in his name. (Little did he know at the time that indulgences being sold to Germany’s pious peasants were funding the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.)

Luther distanced himself from what he considered the more extreme elements of the Reformation. He condemned one of his colleagues, Andreas Karlstadt, for rejecting infant baptism and claiming the bread and wine of the Eucharist were nothing more than symbols of Christ and not a means of grace.

Still, perhaps thanks to his rediscovery of grace, sometimes Luther exhibited an amazing ability to share it with others—even those he disagreed with. (Luther was neither perfect or consistent in this regard, which makes the bright spots in his story even more amazing.)

A year after denouncing Karlstadt, Luther took in the former colleague in his moment of need. After publicly excoriating Johannes Tetzel, Europe’s most famous indulgence salesman, Luther comforted him on his deathbed, writing, “Don’t take it too hard. You didn’t start this racket.” Six years after being alienated from his spiritual mentor, Luther maintained that Staupitz was his “most beloved father in Christ.” Luther even said, “If it had not been for Dr. Staupitz, I should have sunk in hell.”

That’s the Martin Luther I like best.

Then again, I almost forgot to mention the ex-monk’s profound thoughts on matrimony. “There is a lot to get used to in the first year of marriage,” he wrote. “One wakes up in the morning and finds a pair of pigtails which were not there before.”

Dr. Phil, eat your heart out.

2 thoughts on “happy 490th birthday, protestantism (a few days late…)

  1. Ha ha

    It is funny how me create hagiographies for our favorites isn’t it. Luther was a drunkard anti-Semite; Calvin relentlessly persecuted those who opposed him; a little later on Wesley was a legalist who ignored his family (yet still a bit of a hero of mine); Wilberfoce resisted the universal suffrage.

    It isn’t that people are great – it is that regular messed up people may do great things.


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