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How Bad Was Martin Luther?

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In my Church History (late medieval to modern) lectures this semester, I recently finished the unit on Martin Luther and the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation.  While teaching about Luther, I was reminded of the many commemorations that took place last year on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the 95 Theses (October 31, 1517).  It seems that nearly everyone interested in church history, including yours truly, was obliged to comment on the legacy of Luther and the Reformation. 

One of the overarching themes in many of the contributions, Roman Catholic and Protestant alike, was the tragedy of the schism, which was also my point of departure in a previous blog post.  Not surprisingly, the assessments of Luther were varied across the range of bloggers and columnists.  What did surprise me, however, was how unjustly dismissive and even contemptuous some writers were toward Luther.

It is one thing to try to understand the man in his own context and then to find some aspect(s) of him wanting.  It is another thing to attempt no historical contextualization and, apparently before seeking to understand, skip straight to evaluation.  This error can happen in both directions, by the way.  On the one hand, those who see Luther as the unadulterated hero probably have not done justice to the man, even by his own admission.  On the other hand, those who see Luther as the Platonic form of the heretic also have not done him justice.  Of the two errors, as if to head off any unnecessary glorying by uncritical Lutherophiles, examples of the latter—high on rhetoric but low on quality—seemed more prevalent this Reformation Day.

The column that caught my attention on Reformation Day itself was by Charlotte Allen, writing at The Catholic Thing.  It is titled “Lamenting Luther’s Reformation.”  To be fair, the short and diverting piece is something of a burlesque and over the top (intentionally, I believe).  But it does seem to attempt some serious points, and I suppose the author actually believes most of the things she writes about Luther.

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First of all, like other offerings in this genre, her column trades in dumping on Luther and on the schism that he initiated.  Such articles tend to cast all the blame for the schism on Luther and Protestants.  That is, there is rarely any recognition that the Roman Church shared any blame and became, after the Council of Trent (1545–63), a very different church than it had been in the previous centuries, when most of the well-known Protestant positions (for example, on Scripture and tradition, justification, and eucharist) had been acceptable positions.  But it was Pope Leo X who excommunicated Luther.  It was the Roman Church that anathematized all who disagreed with its narrowed positions. 

From the Protestant perspective, it was the Roman Church that instigated the schism by introducing innovations in doctrine and practice and then dogmatizing these innovations.  This perspective is, historically and theologically, just as legitimate as the other.  But, on the evidence of articles like Allen’s, the whole Protestant Reformation was a one-sided affair, simply dreamed up and executed by Luther.  Note in the article’s title, “Luther’s Reformation.”  The Roman Church is portrayed as the victim.  (In the article under consideration, the only criticism offered of the Roman Church is that “selling indulgences really was a bad idea.”  This is an interesting admission, since the Roman Church still endorses indulgences and obtaining them through financial contribution, even for the dead in purgatory.  One wonders which part was so bad—the selling or the indulgences.

Second, in addition to blaming the schism entirely on Luther, there is a tendency to impugn Luther’s character.  Don’t get me wrong.  As I indicated in my own post about Reformation Day, if I were inviting sixteenth-century figures to gather in a council and work out their differences, Luther would not be on my short list.  To his foes he was, by all accounts, boorish and incorrigible.  Especially for a modern person, but also for his contemporaries, there is much not to like about Luther’s personality. 

But most of the things that Allen points out are caricatures or were simply not all that unusual in the early sixteenth century.  She begins by noting that “Luther was a mess,” for he was “arrogant, self-absorbed, self-dramatizing.”  And it gets worse from there.  In fact, about the only thing missing from the typical lists of criticisms is the old saw about how crazy Luther was because he believed in demons.  (I guess Allen probably believes in demons, so Luther is off the hook on that one.)  In the interest of time, I’ll mention just one of her examples.  She writes: “He [Luther] also had a weird scatological fixation, with quite the bathroom mouth when it came to insulting his enemies.”  For those not acquainted with the Greek etymology of “scatology,” she is claiming that Luther was fixated on excrement.

This claim is not unique to Allen, of course.  Many moderns have pointed out the same thing and used it as evidence that Luther was psychotic.  He did use terms for excrement in his humor and his insults, which sometimes made for humorous insults.  And he used it more frequently than his more refined colleagues in the church and university.  But to say that he was fixated on feces is to show ignorance of the premodern context. 

After indoor plumbing for everyone, we have mostly removed the unpleasantness from our common experience.  Before indoor plumbing, though, dung was a constant and public reality of everyday life, especially in the increasingly crowded cities.  In early modern cities, people put their buckets of “night soil” outside their doors to be collected.  Cardinal Wolsey, and others like him of sensitive nose, carried pomanders around with them—in Wolsey’s case, an orange peel—to put to their nose because of the constant stench.  Not 200 years ago in this country, it wasn’t considered rude—but funny and playful—to pelt a friend with dried dog poop.  (For more on this, see Persels and Ganim, Fecal Matters in Early Modern Literature and Art.  I won’t judge.)  And, as I recall, when you become a parent, the topic becomes common table talk. 

Everyone in Luther’s day used scatological language.  It was rarely done for the purpose of simply grossing people out, but more often for comic, satirical, political, or, in Luther’s case, religious purposes.  And, though it is obscured in many translations, the apostle Paul was not above scatological language, who counted all things as “excrement” so that he may gain Christ (Phil. 3:8).  For Luther, such language was intentional and connected to his scorn for the devil and anyone who opposed the gospel; that kind of language, he thought, could and should be used against the enemies of God. 

One reason behind the common criticisms of Luther is the historical problem of periodization.  That is, we tend to divide history into successions of discrete periods and then place historical figures and their ideas into a particular period (for example, the sixteenth century, or early modernity).  Most popular-level history thinks of the most recent period as modern, which is preceded by medieval.  That is overly simplistic but fine enough.  The real problem comes when Luther is assumed to be a modern man.  This is a category mistake.  Luther was not a modern man.  He was a medieval man, closer in time and outlook to Anselm and Aquinas than to us.


As an alleged modern man, sort of like us, Luther is out of step and not like us.  Building off the category mistake, critics (mis)judge him by modern standards.  By modern standards, I suppose Luther indeed was, as Allen said, “a mess.”  But I also suppose that, if Luther time traveled to our day, he would think that our society is a mess.  He would find people who pepper their speech with words for excrement and even have an emoji for it, though actual excrement is almost completely out of sight and mind…and smell.  He might think we are the ones who have a “weird scatological fixation.”

Not everyone made such mistakes last Reformation Day.  If I’m going to give a negative example, I should give a positive one, too.  Carlos Eire, as would be expected, does a much better job in a column at the First Things website.  He contextualizes and explains Luther’s intensity and the insults.  The best historical contextualization of Luther is still that by Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil.  If only everyone who comments on Luther would bother to read Oberman or at least have enough historical perspective to realize that people and their world were a bit different five centuries ago.

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