In the run-up to the year 2000, the name Martin Luther continually showed up near the top of the many Person of the Millennium lists compiled by various sources, often in the top three. The rating certainly seemed appropriate, though it is likely that very few people had a particularly acute idea of exactly what he accomplished. Pollsters, in fact, have reported that 78 percent of Americans do not even know who he was. Martin Luther may have been one of the most puzzling and least-understood leaders of the past millennium.
Certainly he had an undeniably huge effect on Western civilization and indeed the world, but, more than five centuries after his birth, opinions remain divided over precisely what he accomplished and what where the real outcomes of his activities. Although it is by no means definitive, the recently released movie Luther
, directed surprisingly well by the British-born, journeyman filmmaker Eric Till, is a good place to start looking for a more accurate picture of the man and his effect on the world.
The film, which begins with the young lawyer’s decision to enter a monastery in 1507 and ends with the Augsburg Confession in 1530, includes a very early scene–invented by the filmmakers–seemingly calculated to puzzle and offend many viewers, although it should stimulate thought as well. In a very moving scene, the young monk Luther buries, in consecrated ground, the body of a young boy who has committed suicide. Luther then makes the point, from the pulpit of the local church, that we cannot presume to know how God will judge the boy’s life. Yes, he argues, God hates sin, but he sent a Redeemer to accept our punishment on our behalf. “Those who see God as [solely] angry,” he says, “do not see him rightly.” He reminds them, “We have a God of love.”
This, unlike the suicide aspect, is surely the central teaching of Luther’s life and ministry, and the fact that it ever created a controversy speaks only to the truth that the Church, although inspired by God, is and always has been made up entirely of flawed human beings. Luther never aimed to bring down the Catholic Church or replace it, only to restore to it, and to Christendom, a true understanding of the Good News of salvation through Christ.
It was a lesson that Luther learned the hard way for himself, as the film makes abundantly clear. In more than one instance, we see and hear him late at night in his bedchamber, screaming imprecations at the Devil, railing at the enemy to leave him alone. As a young monk, Luther is nearly mad with guilt over his many sins, even though an elder priest notes, “You know, in two years I’ve never heard you confess anything even remotely interesting.”
Luther recognizes that having any sin at all prevents us from entering the kingdom of Heaven, and he cannot imagine how God can possibly forgive him. If I have sinned, he thinks, I am not worthy of salvation. And that’s that.
He was right, of course, as far as that went. Luther was not worthy of salvation, nor is anybody else. We all fail to keep God’s commandments, and the penalty is death. Taking these ideas perfectly seriously, Luther cannot bear the thought of his sinfulness and is driven to seek “a merciful God,” as he puts it.
Unfortunately, all that he has been able to find around him is an angry God, one who ceaselessly demands payment for our sins–in part influence by some corrupt practices in the Church of his time. The movie depicts a priest, John Tetzel (brilliantly played by Alfred Molina), who slickly sells indulgences to poor peasants like a master huckster or, alas, a modern-day televangelist. Threatening his audience of poor peasants with the fires of Hell for themselves and their deceased loved ones if they should fail to buy sufficient indulgences, Tetzel sings,
When a coin in the coffer rings,
A soul from Purgatory springs!
To be sure, the Church uses these riches for much good (though be no means exclusively) in building institutions where people can be baptized and receive the sacrament of Holy Communion. Money, however, has its own corrupting dynamic, as Jesus noted when he said that one cannot serve both God and Mammon. That might explain why the Church of Luther’s time placed so much emphasis on God’s law and so little on the Gospel. At the time of his first service as a monk, even Luther, a priest of the church, has never had an opportunity to read the New Testament, astoundingly enough to us moderns.
Thus the Church has amply informed Luther and his contemporaries of God’s hatred of sin, but has badly failed to impart a full understanding of the abundance of God’s grace. An elder monk remedied this in Luther’s case by sending him to Wittenburg to study “the source,” the Scriptures. This study would eventually inspire a central part of Luther’s mission: bringing the Bible, in translation, to the common people.
First, however, came his fulminations against the selling of indulgences and the related trafficking in relics. The film treats the latter phenomenon as basically rather innocent and indeed risible. Luther quips, “Eighteen of the twelve apostles are buried in Spain alone!” He sees indulgences, however, as a direct offense against the Gospel: “[The congregants] have to pay Rome for the privilege of the Sacraments.”
The notion that one could buy one’s way into Heaven offended Luther greatly. Hence, shortly after the huckster-priest Tetzel’s appearance in town, an angry and determined Luther composes his 95 Theses and posts them on the front door of the church at Wittenburg. The filmmakers would have done well to present some discussion of Luther’s central thesis, justification by faith alone through Christ alone, but they chose to skip this central idea of his thought and the real issue on which the Reformation was based. This decision, while defensible from a dramatic perspective, will definitely hamper most people’s grasp of the issues presented in the film.
In any case, the Luther problem would probably have remained largely local, had not a new invention come into play: the printing press. Shortly after Luther’s posting of the Theses, a local printer mass-produces copies and distributes them widely. The controversy quickly expands from its origins as a simple argument with a stubborn local priest and rabble-rouser–something that would have been as easy to deal with as the earlier activities of John Winthrop, Savonarola, and Jan Hus, by simply burning the miscreant at the stake. Instead, the publication of the theses turns the argument into a full-fledged, international cause celebre and embarrassing scandal.
This leads, of course, to Luther’s trial for heresy, in 1521 before the Imperial Diet of Worms, which the film depicts in a quite dramatic and compelling manner. Facing death at the stake like his recent predecessors, Luther stands humble and frightened before the emperor and his court, having already been excommunicated. Holding his position firmly though he is nearly paralyzed by fear, Luther says that unless the authorities can show that his teachings contradict the Bible, he cannot disavow them: “My conscience is captive to the Word of God.” Pressed to recant his writings or face death, he responds with words that still ring heroic, regardless of one’s religious leanings: “I cannot and I will not recant. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.”
Saxony’s prince elector, Frederick the Wise, played charmingly by Sir Peter Ustinov, and other German princes help Luther escape the stake, and he goes on to produce the first translation of the Bible into German. The film shows the inspirational power of Luther’s courage in two other actions. At the Augsburg Diet of 1530, Emperor Charles V presses the German princes to outlaw the newly translated German Bible and stop their ministers from preaching. The princes offer their heads to be struck off rather than allow the Word of God to be taken away from the common people once again.
That is a powerful and moving moment, but Luther’s courageous stand also unleashes darker impulses which bring on the Great Leveling. The common people, emboldened by Luther’s stand, storm their local churches and ransack, loot, and burn them. Luther is appalled by all this mayhem, but his repudiation of the peasants’ violence only leads to even worse slaughter, against the peasants by the princes and their armies. Some 50-100,000 people were killed in the uprisings. This provides a bare hint of the madness that would ensue a couple centuries later during the so-called Enlightenment, which some historians trace directly to Luther but which I consider, along with Modernity itself, a detour of history from which we may only now be finally returning.
The film ends on a positive note, however, with Luther’s marriage to a “runaway nun,” Katharina von Bora. Although the film is a bit too episodic to be as dramatically coherent as A Man for All Seasons, it is certainly meaningful and compelling. As suggested earlier, Luther takes a few liberties with history, though no major ones, and it does not deal with the great man’s regrettable expressions of anti-Semitism in his later years of bitterness and ill health. Those came nearly a decade and a half after the events of the film, however, and are thankfully not part of his major teachings and in fact rather contradict them.
Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love) is excellent at presenting Luther’s weaknesses and worries, and also his humor, but far less effective at showing his strength. Nonetheless, regardless of one’s particular faith or lack of it, and regardless of one’s position on the Reformation, Luther is a fascinating look at a man who truly was one of the most influential figures of the previous millennium–and a model of courage for all seasons.
–S. T. Karnick, editor in chief of American Outlook magazine, published by the Hudson Institute, and an NRO contributor.