To Luther, God always remained a stern and majestic judge and he a snivelling sinner. The mystic was not for him, and so, ultimately, his path led to the 95 Theses being nailed to the door of Wittenberg church on this day five centuries ago
A spiritual lobotomy that plunged people into ignorance and cut them off from the warm and comforting embrace of the Church, is that what the Reformation was? Or was it an overdue rebellion that liberated people from superstition, exploitation and corruption, gave birth to modern individualism, and laid the foundations of modern Western civilization?
The Reformation has always attracted extreme interpretations. Indeed, historians have struggled for 500 years to make sense of this cataclysmic epoch. Much of their work was dominated by ‘confessional histories’ that celebrated or defended the roles played by particular churches, e.g., Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist, etc. Eventually the very concept of ‘The Reformation’ was criticised as being a value-laden Protestant pre-judgement of history and it is now common to speak also of the ‘Catholic’ and ‘Radical’ Reformations that accompanied or responded to the religious revolution sparked by Martin Luther.
Luther had no idea what he was starting as he nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church on All Hallows Eve, October 31, 1517. Provoked by deep spiritual concerns, he was inviting debate over some esoteric theological issues, but soon he was fighting for his life against charges of heresy, while all around him society seethed with religious and revolutionary fervour as the millennia-old foundations of Christendom were undermined and began to give way.
With hindsight it is possible to see how massive religious, intellectual, political, economic, and social forces had been building up for decades or even centuries, but nobody at the time had any idea how violent the convulsion would be once these forces were unleashed – least of all Luther, as he contemplated his Theses and wondered at the response he would get to this theological challenge.
Before he knew it, his critique was translated from scholarly Latin into the vernacular, printed up as a pamphlet and widely distributed throughout Germany, where it inflamed passions already raw with resentment at clerical abuses. Initially dismissed by the Church hierarchy as yet another irascible monk who would be soon brought to heel or sent to the stake, he proved a reluctant but also resourceful opponent who enjoyed crucial support in just the right places.
Moreover, Luther proved to be vital inspiration for religious revolutionaries driven by their own fierce enthusiasms, many of whom went far beyond anything Luther could have envisaged. Within a few short decades a fissure opened in European society as war and persecution tore the continent apart. Indeed, it was not until the end of the Thirty Years War in 1648 that Europe was able to re-establish some equilibrium, while the tensions and hatreds festered for centuries to come.
To understand the Reformation we need to understand Luther, and to understand both we need to enter another world alien to our secular age – a world saturated with religion and superstition, where God and his angels battle Satan’s hordes for the souls of the faithful. We begin with Luther’s background and his decision to become a monk. We note the crisis of scholastic theology and the collapse of the medieval synthesis that bound society together, and the burden this collapse placed upon Luther, especially given his dread fear of a wrathful God, death, hell, and the devil. We also explore the key concept of Anfechtungen, the spiritual crises faced by Luther, what they reveal about him, and how their resolution opened the path to the Reformation.
THE EARLY LUTHER
Luther was born in 1483 in Eisleben in central Germany. His father, Hans, was a well-off copper miner — a no-nonsense self-made man who had risen from a peasant background — while his mother, Margaret, came from the professional middle class. He went to school in Mansfeld and Eisenach (where he was treated with the usual brutality) and was later admitted to the University of Erfurt, graduating with a Masters of Arts in January 1505. The intention was to become a lawyer, an ambition close to his father’s heart. At Erfurt he trained philosophically as a nominalist and was influenced by Humanism, especially its study of ancient texts in the original language. However, he never shared the Humanist optimism about the innate goodness and capabilities of man – far from it.
A pivotal event in Luther’s life occurred in July, 1505. He was caught outside in a ferocious thunderstorm and was thrown to the ground by a bolt of lightning, leaving him mortally afraid. Death was already a vivid reality for Luther, as he had recently lost a close friend and had himself nearly died from an accidental knife-wound to his groin.
Death, usually unspeakably grim and painful, was ever-present in the Middle Ages. Moreover, it had assumed an even more dreadful visage in the shadow of the Black Death that killed nearly half the population of Europe between 1347 and 1353, and had broken out several times since. A painful death was a near certainty and on the other side lay aeons of torment in Purgatory, even for the faithful, while unredeemed sinners were delivered into the Hellmouth and an eternity of suffering. Consequently, amongst the best-sellers of the new age of printing were handbooks on death, like Ars moriendi (‘On the Art of Dying’). Illustrated with graphic woodcuts, this focussed on how the mortally ill must, in their final agonized moments, retain their faith in a God’s mercy. Above all, they must resist the demonic fiends who came to torment them, ridicule their hope of deliverance, and drive them to despair and eternal damnation. Another book offered a history of the world, emphasizing the brevity of human life and ending with the Day of Judgement, with Christ seated upon a rainbow. From one ear extends a lily, symbolizing the saved who are shown below rising from their graves and being ushered by angels into paradise. From the other ear extends a sword, symbolizing the fate of the damned who are shown being dragged by demons to their infernal fate
Petrified at such visions, and with the thunder and lightning closing in on him, Luther called upon St Anne (the mother of Mary and patron saint of miners) to protect him, promising that he would become a monk if she delivered him from death. He survived, and a fortnight later he sought entry to the Observant Augustinians, the strictest religious order available to him. In a matter of days, Luther sold the very expensive law books his father had just bought for him and threw a farewell party for his friends. He then went to live in the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt, setting out on the monastic path of spiritual purgation, cleansing, and illumination towards true holiness and unity with the divine mystery of God. This decision perplexed and appalled his father, who was above all a practical man and had counted on Luther becoming a lawyer and supporting his parents in their old age (as was customary).
Luther was ordained in 1507 in Erfurt Cathedral, and a second pivotal event in his life occurred when he conducted his first Mass. This was a very special event that his father attended, bringing with him a large retinue and a handsome donation for the monastery. Martin however was terror-struck as he took his place before the altar, overwhelmed that he was addressing Almighty God:
“With what tongue shall I address such Majesty, seeing that all men tremble in the presence of even an earthly prince? … Shall I, a miserable little pygmy, say ‘I want this, I ask for that’? For I am dust and ashes and full of sin and am speaking to the living, eternal and true God.”
Moreover, he was about to perform the miracle of the Mass – transubstantiation – whereby the bread and wine became literally the body and blood of Christ. As Luther’s leading biographer observes:
“The terror of the Holy, the horrors of Infinitude, smote him like a new lightning bolt, and only through a fearful restraint could he hold himself at the altar to the end.” (Roland Bainton, Here I Stand, 1955, p.30)
Nor did the agony and self-doubt stop there. After the Mass he approached his father, who remained wounded and disappointed that Luther had not pursued a legal career and been able to provide for his parents in their old age:
“But father, I could do you more good by prayers than if I had stayed in the world”, he argued, reminding Hans that he had felt a call to become a monk.
“God grant,” replied Hans, “it was not an apparition of the Devil”, that had led Martin onto this path.
His father’s words haunted Luther, as the devil was very real to him, as it was to all people of the time. This was especially true in the monasteries, where Satan appeared as the Great Fiend, the Evil One, and above all as the Tempter and the Father of Lies, committed to disrupting and derailing the monks as they pursued their quest for spiritual perfection. Luther recalled how Satan himself told him bluntly: “God doesn’t want to forgive you”, while lesser demons ridiculed his efforts: “Behold, you’re weak. How do you know that God is gracious to you?” When Luther replied that by baptism he had been incorporated into Christ, the demons quoted the Bible: “That’s nothing, for many are called, but few are chosen.” (Mt.22:14)
Dealing always with intense introspection and doubt, and swinging always between exaltation and despair, Luther nevertheless persisted in the Augustinians while studying at Erfurt, where he excelled at biblical studies and theology. In 1508 he was invited by his mentor, Johann von Staupitz, to teach theology at the recently founded University of Wittenberg. In 1512, he was awarded his Doctor of Theology and succeeded Staupitz in the chair of theology, from which he lectured on the Psalms and the New Testament. He was also made provincial vicar of the Augustinians for Saxony and Thuringia in 1515, overseeing the complex affairs of 11 monasteries. He remained in the monk’s habit for 19 years and despite his spiritual turmoil he was efficient and immensely productive.
As events like the thunderstorm and the first mass reveal, Luther had a profound sense of living under the judgement of an almighty and wrathful God. He had become a monk above all else to attain a level of holiness that would deliver him into God’s good graces. From the outset, seeking purgation of his sins, he devoted himself to a strict regime of fasting, long hours in prayer, pilgrimage, and frequent periods of lengthy confession (stretching out to 6 hours!). This bordered on the obsessional, and drove Staupitz, who served as his confessor, to complain that if he wanted to bother God so often, he should come along with some really serious sins, like murder or adultery, instead of just petty misdemeanours. God is not angry with you, Luther was told, you are angry with God!
Here we arrive at the psychological key to Luther’s theology. At times Luther was utterly terror-stricken with anxiety about his own perceived sinfulness and inability to live up to God’s demands. The word he used to describe these attacks, Anfechtungen, has no exact English equivalent. It refers to devastating onslaughts of spiritual crisis, isolation, terror, despair, desolation, and desperation. These were, he said, literally mortifying, as is recorded in his Collected Works:
“So great and so much like hell that no tongue could adequately express them, no pen could describe them, and one who had not himself experienced them could believe them. And so great were they that, if they had been sustained or had lasted for half an hour, even for one tenth of an hour, he would have perished completely and all of his bones would have been reduced to ashes.”
The central experience was of utter forsakenness:
“At such a time, God seems so terribly angry, and with him the whole creation. At such a time, there is no flight, no comfort, within or without, but all things accuse … In this moment … the soul cannot believe that it can ever be redeemed.”
These attacks were so psychologically and physically debilitating that Luther at times wished for annihilation to escape them.
Even the impeccable life of a devout monk failed to quieten his anguished soul and deliver him from this terror. As Luther later observed: if anyone could have gotten into Heaven on the basis of their devout ‘monkishness’ it was him, and yet he always felt he had failed. What then was the path to salvation?
THE MEDIEVAL SYNTHESIS
The answer had been provided for over a millennium by the Catholic Church with a very carefully worked out scheme of salvation based on various components: recognition of the fallen state of humanity, but faith in the saving mission of Christ; observance of the seven sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Confession, Ordination, Matrimony, and Extreme Unction, understood as spiritual signs and channels through which the grace of God manifests itself in the world; belief in God’s providential role in history; and conscientious Christian living and good works. All this is augmented in various observances, including pilgrimages, devotion to the saints and holy relics, donations, etc.
This scheme of salvation was underpinned institutionally by the Medieval Synthesis that held society together in a virtual theocracy for centuries. This was based on the all-pervasive presence of the Church, and the conviction that the essential areas of life of Christendom should be united together in a mutually reinforcing structure, binding together Church & State, Reason & Revelation, Church Membership & State Citizenship, and Theology & Culture. Theologically this was sustained by the various grand scholastic systems, exemplified by the work of Thomas Aquinas. These purported to unite faith with reason and tie God and all of creation together in one enormous, all-encompassing
Luther’s predicament was that this grand synthesis was falling apart. Institutionally, he was witnessing its disintegration all around him. Powerful nations and empires were vying for dominance (e.g., France vs the Holy Roman Empire); the mighty Ottoman Empire was approaching the gates of Vienna; the Church had slipped into corruption and a general malaise (as Luther witnessed on his trip to Rome in 1510); and various heretical movements were emerging (e.g., the Albigensians, Waldensians, Lollards, and Hussites).
Theologically, Luther faced an unprecedented catastrophe. Scholastic theology — fine-tuned over centuries – simply didn’t work for him or for many others. Indeed, its heroic attempt to use reason to grasp the nature and purposes of God had failed. For example, the rationalism of Aquinas, despite its powerful proofs of God as the pinnacle of Reason holding the universe together, had found its way into a theological cul-de-sac and apparently heretical conclusions that attracted official condemnation. Meanwhile, the voluntarism of his great rival, John Duns Scotus, had produced a vision of God as Pure Will – arbitrary and almighty – and of the universe as entirely contingent upon that Will with reason itself reigning only while God willed it! And then, cutting across all this was the nominalism of William of Ockham, which obliterated the philosophical foundations of scholasticism and rendered futile any attempt philosophically to grasp the nature or purposes of God, and leaving only faith and revelation.
In his decade of intense study and contemplation Luther had witnessed the deconstruction of the vast edifice of medieval theology. Desperately he had explored it, searching for answers, but it had fallen apart around him. Theologically he had found himself at a dead-end and in profound despair.
There was one alternative left. His mentor, Staupitz, was a mystic and he revealed the mystical path to Luther: instead of striving heroically to win God’s approval, or trying to reach Him through reason, Luther should just surrender. Negate the ego, shed all pride, arrogance, assertiveness, self-seeking, and everything that gave expression to the I, the me, the self. He should throw oneself onto the mercy of God, submerging the self in the Absolute like a drop of water in the ocean. Find final peace in the abyss of Being, Luther was advised. And he did explore this path and even edited and published the mystic masterpiece, The German Theology.
Luther, however, could never understand God as any sort of abyss; rather God always remained a stern and majestic judge confronting Luther as a snivelling sinner. The mystic path was not for him. And so, ultimately, Luther had nowhere to go.
THE REFORMATION BREAKTHROUGH
At the heart of Luther’s dilemma was the collision between the infinite and unapproachable majesty of God and the total sinfulness of humanity – that ‘mass of damnation’, as St Augustine, the father of his order, called it. Luther was convinced that there was literally nothing that human beings could do to contribute to their own salvation. He reasoned that a just and righteous God could only condemn him and everyone else to damnation. He believed he saw the horror of his sinful nature as God saw it and even felt his own conscience damning him. As a recent historian observes:
“It was an unbearable, unending dark night of the soul in which every attempt to please and love God led away from Him.” – Carlos Eire, Reformations, 2016, p.141
Faced with damnation, Luther often gave up hope of salvation and longed for annihilation. His studies reinforced this despair. Between 1510 and 1517, he lectured on the Psalms, Hebrews, Romans, and Galatians, and he was acutely aware of the scriptural passages concerning the absolute righteousness of God. At one point he was studying Romans 1:17:
“For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’”
And he lamented:
“I greatly longed to understand Paul’s epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression ‘the righteousness of God’, because I took it to mean that righteousness whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust.”
He was filled with dread at the implications of this for his own fate:
“My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage Him. Therefore I did not love a just angry God, but rather hated and murmured against Him. Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.”
And then, around 1517, the answer came to him, revealed to him through his close reading of the scriptures. Firstly, he found himself meditating on the agonized words of Jesus on the Cross, quoting Psalm 22:
“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
And he realized that Jesus was expressing here the same sense of utter spiritual forsakenness – the same agonizing Anfechtungen – that had assailed Luther throughout his life. So totally had Christ become human, Luther concluded, that he even shared the same dread-filled alienation from God that afflicted all humanity. Luther felt himself united with Christ at the most fundamental existential level. Secondly, in what became known as the ‘Tower Experience’, Luther achieved the theological breakthrough that laid the foundation for the Reformation consciousness that was to sweep the continent:
“Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the righteousness of God and the statement that ‘the just shall live by faith’. Then I grasped that the righteousness of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise.
“The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before ‘the righteousness of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven.”
In this one flash of insight, Luther was released from his torment. This was a defining experience of metanoia: a transformative change of heart and a spiritual conversion, after which everything looks different and nothing can ever be the same. It is an event found in many religious traditions.
Immediately, Luther was convinced that the Church had lost sight of the central truth of Christianity. This was the doctrine of justification by faith alone, by which God declared a sinner righteous through the latter’s faith in Jesus Christ. As Luther later insisted in the first of the Smalcald Articles of 1537:
“The first and chief article [of Protestantism] is this: Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins and was raised again for our justification (Romans 3:24–25). He alone is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29), and God has laid on Him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6). All have sinned and are justified freely, without their own works and merits, by His grace (Eph 2:8-9), through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood (Romans 3:23–28). This is necessary to believe.”
Luther was adamant that salvation (justification) cannot be achieved actively by the sinner who strives towards God, nor can it be delivered by the Church, e.g., through the sacraments; rather, it is a free gift of a gracious God, received passively by the humble believer.
“This cannot be otherwise acquired or grasped by any work, law, or merit. Therefore, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us… Nothing of this article can be yielded or surrendered, even though heaven and earth and everything else falls (Mark 13:31).”
“This one and firm rock, which we call the doctrine of justification”, he declared elsewhere, “is the chief article of the whole Christian doctrine, which comprehends the understanding of all godliness.” It is the core of the Christian faith around which all other Christian doctrines revolve, he insisted. And it is upon this doctrine alone that the Church would stand or fall.
In this fashion, by late 1517 Luther had developed a radical new theological perspective out of an extended period of intense spiritual malaise and its resolution. And it was all based on the principle of ‘justification by faith alone’.
In one stroke Luther’s twin realizations liberated him from the massive spiritual and psychological burden that had afflicted him throughout his life. He felt himself at one with Christ at the most fundamental – existential – level, and reconciled with God through an unconquerable faith. This underpinned a certainty about his theology that rendered it impregnable, and that gave his supporters great hope and confidence as they followed Luther into an epoch-shaping battle with the Church. However, it also fuelled an arrogance and impatience that Luther’s enemies found insufferable and took as evidence that he spoke not of the true faith but of something diabolical. But above all, Luther could never retreat, because that way would separate him from Christ, alienate him from God, and deliver him back into the dread clutches of Anfechtungen. From here on, throughout his life, he never wavered from his convictions.
The doctrine of ‘justification by faith alone’ had profound implications for virtually every aspect of Church theology and practice. As quickly became obvious, it was to be the theological solvent that dissolved the structure of Christian orthodoxy as it had reigned for over a 1000 years, attacking it on virtually every front, especially the sacramental system.
But it also laid the foundations of a new theology based on the principles of Sola scriptura, Sola fide, Sola gratia, Solus Christus, and the ‘priesthood of all believers’. This revolutionary power would be realized, explored, and applied not only by Luther, but also by militants far more radical than he. Breathlessly, these fanatics declared war on the teachings, institutions and traditions of the Church. Although Luther hadn’t realized it yet, his insight would become the driving force of the Reformation as it tore Europe apart.
And this began with his 95 Theses on Indulgences, posted 500 years ago today.