In Defense of Martin Luther (part 1)
|August 19, 2011||Posted by Joseph Keysor under Blog|
For some time now I have been reading through Martin Luther: Selections from his Writings (John Dillenberger, ed.). I have been not merely impressed by the depth of Luther’s spiritual insight, but have also been helped to a better understanding of Christ’s work, and to new insights about what it means to be saved from God’s anger by Christ’s righteousness and work rather than by my own righteousness and works.
Nevertheless, Luther at times made comments I find misguided, even wrong. His dismissal of the book of James, for example, was a bad mistake, and his defense of infant baptism seems to me at any rate to be very lame. At times Luther made statements that were true in themselves, but were expressed with excessive rhetorical force. In spite of his undeniable faults, however, I esteem him in his best writings as a burning and a shining light, mightily used of God to establish liberty of conscience and to re-emphasize the centrality of Christ, and of the bible.
All of this being so, I have been disappointed by criticisms of Luther that often seem to me to be inaccurate and unfair – many of them from people who are hostile to and or ignorant of Christianity; who have no understanding of Luther’s teaching and no appreciation of his achievements; and who are only too eager to discredit Christianity, and the essential teachings Luther emphasized. So, I thought I would like to respond to some common criticisms (writing not as a Lutheran, which I am not, but as a Christian, which I am still learning to be).
For example, one alleged fault is Luther’s violence. In particular, his urging the German princes to crush the peasant rebellion is taken as proof that he was a hateful, cruel, bloodthirsty man – but this is, as are so many criticisms of Luther, wide of the mark. For one thing, prior to the outbreak of fighting, Luther wrote an “Admonition to Peace,” in which he appealed to both sides to avoid violence. His preference was for a peaceful solution to undeniable injustices and oppression.
Secondly, once the rebellion exploded in blind violence, Luther was in my view right and correct in urging the authorities to put down the rebellion swiftly and severely, without delay. Not only was it necessary for Luther to distance himself from radicals who appealed to his writings for justification; he also understood that violent revolution only created more evil than what it purported to remove. If he did err, it was in rhetorical excess, stating a valid point too heatedly.
Would that the attempt to overthrow the Russian Provisional Government by the Bolsheviks in 1917 had been crushed, and Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin had been put to death. Would that Hitler and the participants in the 1923 putsch had been put to death. In both of these cases, untold millions of lives would have been saved as a result. Sometimes modern softness, spinelessness, and fake “compassion” only lead to more suffering in the long run. According to the bible, the authorities have the power of the sword given to them by God to keep the peace (Romans chapt. 13).
2. Unclean language
Another frequently made criticism of Luther is his use of scatological language. Some examples can be fished out of his multi-volume complete works (how many of them in letters dashed off in the heat of the moment and not intended for publication?), but this is not true of his most famous and influential Reformation writings. His 95 Theses; The Babylonian Captivity of the Church; Address to the German Nobility; Preface to Romans; Bondage of the Will – in none of his important writings that I have read (not merely in the edited collection mentioned above, but in their complete form) are there any such excesses. I recall one reference in Bondage of the Will, comparing Erasmus’ poor ideas eloquently expressed to dung served on fine plates, or something to that effect, but occasional references to dung or dunghills can be found in the bible as well. David Daniell’s William Tyndale: A Biography contains some such rhetoric from Thomas More much worse than anything I have seen in Luther (and that from a book published by More, his Responsio ad Lutherum).
I have not read all of Luther’s writings by any means, but most of what I have read shows a brilliant mind with a deep knowledge of scripture. Luther was a university professor, skilled in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and fully abreast of contemporary trends. Cartoon characterizations of him as being coarse, ignorant, and brutal are false. People who are overeager to find fault with him cannot possibly be expected to see or understand the significance of his contribution to the emergence of modern civilization. Many comments about him are misguided (for example, the 95 Theses was not an “attack” on the Catholic Church).