VIII. LUTHER’S THEOLOGY

Though his theology was founded with trusting literalness on the Scriptures, his interpretation unconsciously retained late medieval traditions. His nationalism made him a modern, his theology belonged to the Age of Faith, His rebellion was far more against Catholic organization and ritual than against Catholic doctrine; most of this remained with him to the end. Even in his rebellion he followed Wyclif and Huss rather than any new scheme: like theirs his revolt lay in rejecting the papacy, the councils, the hierarchy, and any other guide to faith than the Bible; like them he called the pope Antichrist; and like them he found protection in the state. The line from Wyclif to Huss to Luther is the main thread of religious development from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century. Theologically the line was anchored on Augustine’s notions of predestination and grace, which in turn were rooted in the Epistles of Paul, who had never known Christ. Nearly all the pagan elements in Christianity fell away as Protestantism took form; the Judaic contribution triumphed over the Greek; the Prophets won against the Aristotle of the Scholastics and the Plato of the humanists; Paul—in the line of the Prophets rather than that of the Apostles—transformed Jesus into an atonement for Adam; the Old Testament overshadowed the New; Yahweh darkened the face of Christ.

Luther’s conception of God was Judaic. He could speak with eloquence of the divine mercy and grace, but more basic in him was the old picture of God as the avenger, and therefore of Christ as the final judge. He believed, without recorded protest, that God had drowned nearly all mankind in a flood, had set fire to Sodom, and had destroyed lands, peoples, and empires with a breath of His wrath and a wave of His hand. Luther reckoned that “few are saved, infinitely many are damned.”113 The mitigating myth of Mary as intercessor dropped out of the story, and left the Last Judgment in all its stark terror for naturally sinful men. Meanwhile God had appointed wild beasts, vermin, and wicked women to punish men for their sins. Occasionally Luther reminded himself that we know nothing about God except that a cosmic intelligence exists. When one troublesome young theologian asked him where God had been before the world was created, he answered, in his blunt Johnsonian way: “He was building hell for such presumptuous, fluttering, and inquisitive spirits as you.”114

He took heaven and hell for granted, and believed in an early end of the world.115 He described a heaven of many delights, including pet dogs “with golden hair shining like precious stones”—a genial concession to his children, who had expressed concern over the damnation of their pets.116 He spoke as confidently as Aquinas about angels as bodiless and beneficent spirits. Sometimes he represented man as an endless bone of contention between good and bad angels, to whose differing dispositions and efforts were to be ascribed all the circumstances of man’s fate—a Zoroastrian intrusion into his theology. He accepted fully the medieval conception of devils wandering about the earth, bringing temptation, sin, and misfortune to men, and easing man’s way into hell. “Many devils are in woods, in waters, in wilderness, and in dark, pooly places, ready to hurt .... people; some are also in the thick black clouds.”117 Some of this may have been conscious pedagogical invention of helpful supernatural terrors; but Luther spoke so familiarly of devils that he seems to have believed all he said of them. “I know Satan very well,” he said, and detailed their conversations with each other.118 Sometimes he charmed the Devil by playing the flute;119 sometimes he frightened the poor Devil away by calling him filthy names.120 He became so accustomed to ascribing to the Devil the eerie sounds of walls contracting in the cold of the night that when he was awakened by such noises, and could confidently conclude that they were made by Satan rambling about, he could resume his sleep in peace.121 He attributed to diabolical agency various unpleasant phenomena —hail, thunder, war, plague—and to divine action all beneficent events;122 he could hardly conceive of what we call natural law. All the Teutonic folklore about the poltergeist, or noise-making spirit, was apparently credited by Luther at its face value. Snakes and monkeys were favorite incarnations of the Devil.123 The old notion that devils could lie with women and beget children seemed plausible to him; in one such case he recommended that the resultant child should be drowned.124 He accepted magic and witchcraft as realities, and thought it a simple Christian duty to burn witches at the stake.125 Most of these ideas were shared by his contemporaries, Catholic or Protestant. The belief in the power and ubiquity of devils attained in the sixteenth century an intensity not recorded in any other age; and this preoccupation with Satan bedeviled much of Protestant theology.

Luther’s philosophy was further darkened by the conviction that man is by nature wicked and prone to sin.* As punishment for the disobedience of Adam and Eve the divine image was torn from the human heart, leaving only natural inclinations. “No one is by nature Christian or pious .... the world and the masses are and always will be unchristian.... . The wicked always outnumber the good.”126 Even in the good man evil actions outnumber the good, for he cannot escape from his nature; as Paul said, “There is none righteous, no, not one.” “We are the children of wrath,” Luther felt, “and all our works, intentions, and thoughts are nothing at all in the balance against our sins.”127 So far as good works go, every one of us would merit damnation. By “good works” Luther meant especially those forms of ritual piety recommended by the Church—fasting, pilgrimages, prayers to the saints, Masses for the dead, indulgences, processions, gifts to the Church; but he also included all “works, whatever their character.”128 He did not question the need of charity and love for a healthy social life, but he felt that even a life blessed with such virtues could not earn an eternity of bliss. “The Gospel preaches nothing of the merit of works; he that says the Gospel requires works for salvation, I say flat and plain he is a liar.”129 No amount of good works could atone for the sins—each an insult to an infinite deity—committed by the best of men. Only the redeeming sacrifice of Christ—the suffering and death of the Son of God—could atone for man’s sins; and only belief in that divine atonement can save us from hell. As Paul said to the Romans, “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.”130 It is this faith that “justifies”—makes a man just despite his sins, and eligible for salvation. Christ Himself said: “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved, but he that believeth not shall be damned.”131 “Wherefore,” reasoned Luther, “it ought to be the first concern of every Christian to lay aside all trust in works, and more and more strengthen faith alone.”132 And he proceeded, in a passage that disturbed some theologians but comforted many sinners:

Jesus Christ stoops and lets the sinner jump on His back, and so saves him from death.... What a consolation for pious souls to put Him on like this and wrap Him in my sins, your sins, the sins of the whole universe, and consider Him thus bearing all our sins! .... When you see that your sins cleave to Him, then you will be safe from sin, death, and hell. Christianity is nothing but a continual exercise in feeling that you have no sin although you sin, but that your sins are thrown on Christ. It is enough to know the Lamb that bears the sins of the world; sin cannot detach us from Him, were we to commit a thousand fornications a day, or as many murders. Is not that good news if, when some one is full of sins, the Gospel comes and tells him: Have confidence and believe, and henceforth your sins are remitted? Once this stop is pulled out, the sins are forgiven; there is nothing more to work for.133

This may have been intended to comfort and revive some sensitive souls who were taking their sins too much to heart; Luther could recall how he too had once magnified the majestic unforgivability of his sins. But to some it sounded very much like Tetzel’s alleged “drop the coin in the box and all your sins fly away”; faith was now to do all the wonders formerly claimed for confession, absolution, contribution, and indulgence. Still more arresting was a passage in which the hearty and ebullient Luther found a good word to say for sin itself. When the Devil tempts us with annoying persistency, he said, it may be wise to yield him a sin or two.

Seek out the society of your boon companions, drink, play, talk bawdy, and amuse yourself. One must sometimes commit a sin out of hate and contempt for the Devil, so as not to give him the chance to make one scrupulous over mere nothings; if one is too frightened of sinning, one is lost.... Oh, if I could find some really good sin that would give the Devil a toss!134

Such lusty and humorous obiter dicta invited misconstruction. Some of Luther’s followers interpreted him as condoning fornication, adultery, murder. A Lutheran professor had to caution Lutheran preachers to say as little as possible about justification by faith alone.135 However, by faith Luther meant no merely intellectual assent to a proposition, but vital, personal selfcommittal to a practical belief; and he was confident that complete belief in God’s grace given because of Christ’s redeeming death would make a man so basically good that an occasional frolic with the flesh would do no lasting harm; faith would soon bring the sinner back to spiritual health. He heartily approved of good works;136 what he denied was their efficacy for salvation. “Good works,” he said, “do not make a good man, but a good man does good works.”137 And what makes a man good? Faith in God and Christ.

How does a man come to such saving faith? Not through his merits, but as a divine gift granted, regardless of merits, to those whom God has chosen to save. As St. Paul put it, remembering the case of Pharaoh, “God has mercy on whom He will have mercy; and whom He wills He hardens.”138 By divine predestination the elect are chosen for eternal happiness, the rest are left graceless and damned to everlasting hell.139

This is the acme of faith, to believe that God, Who saves so few and condemns so many, is merciful; that He is just Who has made us necessarily doomed to damnation, so that ...... He seems to delight in the tortures of the wretched, and to be more deserving of hatred than of love. If by any effort of reason I could conceive how God, Who shows so much anger and iniquity, could be merciful and just, there would be no need of faith.140

So Luther, in his medieval reaction against a paganizing Renaissance Church, went back not only to Augustine but to Tertullian: Credo quia incredibile; it seemed to him a merit to believe in predestination because it was, to reason, unbelievable. Yet it was, he thought, by hard logic that he was driven to this incredibility. The theologian who had written so eloquently about the “freedom of a Christian man” now (1525), in a treatise De servo arbitrio, argued that if God is omnipotent He must be the sole cause of all actions, including man’s; that if God is omniscient He foresees everything, and everything must happen as He has foreseen it; that therefore all events, through all time, have been predetermined in His mind, and are forever fated to be. Luther concluded, like Spinoza, that man is as “unfree as a block of wood, a rock, a lump of clay, or a pillar of salt.”141 More strangely still, the same divine foresight deprives the angels, nay, God Himself, of freedom; He too must act as He has foreseen; His foresight is His fate. A lunatic fringeinterpreted this doctrine ad libitum: a youth beheaded his brother and attributed the act to God, of Whom he was merely the helpless agent; and another logician stamped his wife to death with his heels, crying, “Now is the Father’s will accomplished.”142

Most of these conclusions lay annoyingly implicit in medieval theology, and were deduced by Luther from Paul and Augustine with irrefutable consistency. He seemed willing to accept medieval theology if he might disown the Renaissance Church; he could tolerate the predestination of the multitudinous damned more easily than the authority of scandalous tax gathering popes. He rejected the ecclesiastical definition of the Church as the prelacy; he defined it as the community of believers in the divinity and redeeming passion of Christ; but he echoed papal doctrine when he wrote: “All people who seek and labor to come to God through any other means than only through Christ (as Jews, Turks, Papists, false saints, heretics, etc.) walk in horrible darkness and error, and so at last must die and be lost in their sins.”143 Here, reborn in Wittenberg, was the teaching of Boniface VIII and the Council of Rome (1302) that extra ecclesiam nulla salus—” no salvation outside the Church.”

The most revolutionary item in Luther’s theology was his dethronement of the priest. He allowed for priests not as indispensable dispensers of the sacraments, nor as privileged mediators with God, but only as servants chosen by each congregation to minister to its spiritual wants. By marrying and raising a family these ministers would shed the aura of sanctity that had made the priesthood awesomely powerful; they would be “first among equals,” but any man might at need perform their functions, even to absolving a penitent from sin. Monks should abandon their selfish and often idle isolation, should marry and labor with the rest; the man at the plow, the woman in the kitchen, serve God better than the monk mumbling in stupefying repetition unintelligible prayers. And prayers should be the direct communion of the soul with God, not appeals to half-legendary saints. The adoration of the saints, in Luther’s judgment, was not a friendly and consoling intercourse of the lonely living with the holy dead; it was a relapse into primitive polytheistic idolatry.144

As for the sacraments, viewed as priestly ceremonies conferring divine grace, Luther severely reduced their role. They involve no miraculous powers, and their efficacy depends, not on their forms and formulas, but on the faith of the recipient. Confirmation, matrimony, episcopal ordination of priests, and extreme unction of the dying are rites to which no special promise of divine grace is attached in Scripture; the new religion could dispense with them. Baptism has the warrant of St. John the Baptist’s example. Auricular confession may be retained as a sacrament, despite some doubt as to its Scriptural basis.* The supreme sacrament is the Lord’s Supper, or Eucharist. The notion that a priest, by the incantation of his words, can change bread into Christ seemed to Luther absurd and blasphemous; nevertheless, he argued, Christ of His own will comes down from heaven to be present consubstantially with the bread and wine of the sacrament. The Eucharist is no priestly magic, but a divine and perpetual miracle.145

Luther’s doctrine of the sacraments, his replacement of the Mass by the Lord’s Supper, and his theory of salvation by faith rather than by good works, undermined the authority of the clergy in northern Germany, Furthering this process, Luther rejected episcopal courts and canon law. In Lutheran Europe civil courts became the only courts, secular power the only legal power. Secular rulers appointed Church personnel, appropriated Church property, took over Church schools and monastic charities. Theoretically Church and state remained independent; actually the Church became subject to the state. The Lutheran movement, which thought to submit all life to theology, unwittingly, unwillingly, advanced that pervasive secularization which is a basic theme of modern life.

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