Luther’s 95 Theses, 500 Years Later: A Mixed Legacy

Detail of engraving of Luther’s 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. (Reuters photo: Hannibal Hanschke)
The rapidly fragmenting American body politic might relearn the wisdom of the near-saintly Erasmus, Luther’s sparring partner.

As the Christian world today commemorates the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of his famous 95 Theses, it would do well to learn from Luther’s inability to control the revolution he somewhat unwittingly inspired.

It’s the sort of story that often repeats itself. The Lutherist reformers spurred the bloody peasant revolts; Burkean liberals yielded to radical revolutionaries; Girondins yielded to the Jacobins until in turn the Jacobins ate their own; the Mensheviks yielded to Bolsheviks and catalyzed the deaths of nearly 100 million people. And here on the American right, the Bannonites see our current “establishment” and vow to “burn it down,” without having any real idea how or what to build on the embers.

But that’s getting ahead of the story. First, let’s take a moment to marvel at what Luther wrought.

As Norman McCrummen, a scholar in Mobile, Ala., recently reminded his listeners in a three-part lecture, Luther originally posted his theses while expecting his mission to be within a long and honorable tradition of reform within the existing (Catholic) church. From the Council of Nicaea to the saintly ministries of Augustine and Francis (among many others), the sometimes-wayward church had repeatedly reoriented itself on truer paths.

In that spirit, Luther’s original Theses were focused, ranging very little afield from his protests against what had become the corrupt practice of the clergy’s selling spiritual “indulgences.” In these complaints, he actually achieved, in the long run, some successes: Before Luther died, the church’s own Council of Trent had begun its deliberations, which in effect led to acknowledgment that Luther had been right about the abuse of indulgences and other clerical corruptions. And 500 years later, what became his signature theological doctrine, “justification by faith,” was largely (if with slightly different emphases) affirmed by the Catholic Church itself.

Yet within four years of posting his Theses, Luther at the Diet of Worms was in open break from the church; within two more years, Andreas Karlstadt and others were already taking Luther’s “heresies” significantly farther and fomenting huge theological divisions within a movement so young and unformed that it was not even yet known as “Protestant” and had not even the semblance of formal structure.

(Luther, for example, believed that while the Eucharistic bread and wine did not physically change into the body and blood of Christ, it still contained, spiritually and fully, Christ’s “real presence.” Karlstadt went farther, saying that the Eucharist was merely symbolic.)

Luther brought to the masses a belief that individuals of any class were commissioned to think about the deepest questions for themselves, with the ‘freedom of a Christian’ leading inevitably to a popular taste for political freedom as well.

Meanwhile, just seven years after Luther’s 95 Theses, the German Peasants’ War erupted at least in part on the basis of Luther’s arguments for propositions that, for those times, were radical assertions of Christian liberty and equality. (The peasant unrest had roots predating Luther, but Luther’s theological matches clearly lit the kindling.)

Luther was appalled. While still fiercely denouncing the ruling class’s treatment of the peasants, he even more bitterly renounced the peasants’ resort to violent insurrection. When well over 100,000 peasants died in a fruitless quest for greater rights, Luther was aghast at what he had wrought (while strongly denying that he was the instigator).

For the last 30 years of his life, the disputatious Luther was in constant battles, largely unsuccessful, to control the forces both theological and cultural that he had unleashed. He argued not just against the pope’s hard-liners but against earnest reformers such as Erasmus who wanted to hold the church together; he argued on the other side against Protestant radicals such as (in addition to Karlstadt) Zwingli, Calvin, Muntzer, and the Anabaptists and, in some but not all ways, against Henry VIII’s shameful English version of “reform.”

On all fronts, the disputes were vitriolic (except from Erasmus, who met Luther’s vitriol with high-toned appeals to unity and reason). “You stabbed me before I stabbed you!” Luther, speaking figuratively, said to Karlstadt at one point. To Erasmus he wrote scathingly that “I felt profoundly sorry for you, defiling as you were your very elegant and ingenious style with such trash, and quite disgusted at the utterly unworthy matter that was being conveyed in such rich ornaments of eloquence, like refuse or ordure being carried in gold or silver vases.”

Besieged on all sides, despised by the Catholic Church but with his own theology already long outpaced (in terms of numbers of adherents) by the more radical Protestants, Luther found (as it was aptly put in one account) that “many of his ex-supporters did not want to help bear the burden of this thin line Luther was walking.”

He left behind a Christian world that was in some ways reinvigorated but that had also become hideously and multiply fragmented. He brought to the masses a belief that individuals of any class were commissioned to think about and understand the deepest questions for themselves, with the “freedom of a Christian” leading inevitably to a popular taste for, and later an insistence on, political freedom as well. (The political theories associated with the Enlightenment clearly owed much to seeds sown by Luther.) Yet Luther clearly was discomfited that those he considered radicals had bastardized what, even in his anti-Rome vituperations, he had intended as a painstaking but unitary rehabilitation of Christian faith, rather than a splintering of it.

(And his vicious late-life anti-Semitism, of course, planted horrid seeds as well.)

This was a man whose own excesses were in turn exceeded by others, leaving his own intended mission unrealized.

Today is a day to commemorate Luther’s seminal, transformational effect on world history, and perhaps to celebrate the salutary fruits of his better angels.

But when the commemoration is over, perhaps there will be time for a rapidly fragmenting American body politic to relearn the wisdom not of the virulent Luther but of the near-saintly Erasmus, now encrypted in a place of honor in the beautiful former cathedral in Basel, Switzerland. As Erasmus wrote to Luther, it is not “necessary so to fight with an enemy in front that incautiously you receive a wound in the back.”

“The result of this moderation,” Erasmus added, in describing the alternative to Luther’s intemperateness, “will be the achievement of some good work, albeit imperfect, from which no man can arrogate anything to himself: There will be some merit, but such that the sum is owed to God.”

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