Fathom Mag

In the Footsteps of Luther

Five hundred years after the Reformation, one scholar takes a pilgrimage to Germany.

Published on:
July 17, 2017
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14 min.
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As a novelist and sometimes travel writer, I love exploring the places God has chosen for the setting of so many of his stories, recovering the senses I miss when I limit myself to reading. I’ve eaten falafel while visiting the sites of Revelation’s seven churches in modern Turkey; savored olives in Jordan, where Moses looked into the Promised Land; felt the wind on my face on the Sea of Galilee; and raised my hands to celebrate an empty tomb in Jerusalem. 

In an era in which international travel is increasingly accessible, many Christians are returning to the practice of pilgrimage so popular in the Middle Ages. Why not combine inspiration and vacation, we reason—coming home renewed in both body and soul? 

Something about the physicality of such places helps us more strongly forge connections with the past, helping us view in full color what was formerly black and white. These spaces can feel like what the Celts called “thin places,” where it seems that only the thinnest of veils separates heaven from earth. 

But it’s not only the biblical sites where that veil can seem hair-thin. It’s also in places where the faithful of previous generations have lived exemplary lives. The winding curves up to Italy’s Abbey on Monte Cassino, founded by Saint Benedict in AD 529, lead to a breathtaking view that evokes worship as travelers hear monks chant. Ravenna, Italy, has millennium-old still-sparkling mosaics of bucks and does drinking from waters that depict how the soul pants for God like a deer thirsty for drink (Psalm 42:1). And this year there’s Germany.

Sure, I enjoyed the strudel, bratwurst, and roast duck. But I didn’t go for my taste buds. Rather, I visited five cities that we don’t usually associate with pilgrimage—Eisenach, Eisleben, Erfurt, Torgau, and Wittenberg. I walked the streets of those five cities because October 31, 1517, is the date many consider the start of the Protestant Reformation. And the five-hundredth anniversary is coming up this fall.

The Reformer before Wittenberg

On the eve of All Saints’ Day in 1517, Martin Luther is said to have nailed his ninety-five theses, or talking points, to the doors of the castle church, All Saints’, in Wittenberg. The story goes that he defiantly nailed his list of ninety-five beefs, defacing the door with his outburst for all to read. Of course, that’s the fabled version. At the time public doors often served as a sort of pre-IM, pre-email, pre-photocopy announcement venue for course discussion topics. And Dr. Luther, professor of theology at the university in Wittenberg, had plenty of students and colleagues with whom to discuss his ninety-five concerns about the Roman Catholic Church—of which he was an ordained priest. 

Dr. Luther wrote his statements in Latin, so it wasn’t like just any passer-by could digest them. But still, people nailed talking points to such doors all the time—especially professors. And whether Luther mailed them or nailed them, no one knows. But either way, he certainly could not have anticipated what a ruckus he would raise.

Many of us, Protestant or otherwise, have heard of the nailing, but we don’t know much about Luther’s story. So allow me to review it. 

Martin Luder—his surname at birth—spent much of his youth in German towns having names starting with an “E”—Eisleben, Eisenach, and Erfurt. He was born in Eisleben in 1483, the son of peasants who worked their way up to becoming a middle-class mining family. The next day, which was the feast day of Martin of Tours, his parents took him to Sts. Peter and Paul Church and had him baptized as “Martin.” 

His family soon moved to nearby Eisenach. And there he spent his childhood and adolescence. In an era in which congregational singing was not yet a thing, Martin sang as a choir boy in St. George’s Church. He and the other choir boys roamed the streets singing for scraps of bread. And the music left an impression—he loved learning theology through song.

A bright student, Martin finished school in Eisenach and went off to Erfurt to attend the university there—considered the most eminent after that of Prague—at the command of his father. He earned both his baccalaureate and his master’s degree. And having done well, he proceeded to law school, establishing himself as one who excelled at philosophy and drinking beer.

On his way back to Erfurt one day after visiting his parents, he was caught in a thunderstorm. Lightning threw him to the ground, and he cried out to St. Anne, mother of the Virgin Mary, promising her that he would become a monk. Defying his father’s wishes, Martin kept this commitment. After selling all his possessions, including the expensive law volume his father had purchased for him, he left the university and entered Erfurt’s most austere—Augustinian—monastery.

There he kept his confessor quite busy, fearing he might forget some minor infraction and thus lack the forgiveness to stand before God as judge—the tortured Martin. Conscious of his own lack of perfection, he struggled to believe God is merciful. 

In the pecking order of those in the afterlife whom Luther asked for help in his prayers, Jesus ranked twenty-fourth, because Luther considered Christ the Judge to be scary and mean. 

Martin’s mentor encouraged the bright monk to return to academic life. So he went to the new University of Wittenberg, studied for his doctorate, and taught part-time there. During that time, Martin and a fellow monk were sent to Rome on business for the Augustinian order. So, they walked the 875 miles needed to get there. In Rome, Martin got an eyeful of corruption.

This monk who often refused a blanket in the frigid German wintertime that he might bring his flesh under control felt sickened by the wealth and corruption of Pope Junius II’s lavish Vatican City makeover. Seeing that it was financed in part by the selling of indulgences to poor people with the promise of reduced time in purgatory for themselves or their loved ones, Luther joined a long list of believers who saw such actions as a corruption of true Christianity. 

But this time, though he didn’t know it, Martin had the means to do something about it. 

After returning to Frederick the Wise’s university in Wittenberg, Martin received his doctorate and became the full-time Doctor of Bible there. Frederick, the Elector[1] based in nearby Torgau, proved a powerful ally. What Wittenberg offered in academic and spiritual power, Torgau offered in political protection. Proud of the university he had created in Wittenberg, the Elector often leveraged his power to protect his star professor. In fact, it is said that if Wittenberg was the mother of the Reformation, Torgau was the wet-nurse.

Some of the fine art Lucas Cranach the Elder used to outfit Frederick’s palace is still being discovered today.

Frederick was busy turning tiny Wittenberg into his royal seat, with a great castle, a church, and a university filled with marvelous thinkers. He hired the brilliant Greek professor Philip Melanchthon, who knew eleven languages. The Wittenberg-based Saxon court painter, Lucas Cranach the Elder, populated Frederick’s palace in Torgau with excellent art and operated a print shop. Cranach was sympathetic to the reformers’ ideas and eventually his print shop would come in handy.

The Stories of the Solas

As Martin continued to teach theology and debate its finer points with savvy colleagues—he and Melanchthon became the best of friends—he spoke and wrote of his concerns that the church in which he was ordained had invented doctrines that contradicted holy writ. Purgatory, indulgences, buying grace . . . these did not sit well.

Still, Luther had no intention of withdrawing from the Roman Catholic Church, let alone starting a new branch of Christianity. He only wanted a return to the sources, rather than relying on tradition. Luther would later recall, “When I was twenty years old, I had not yet seen a Bible.” This he considered unacceptable. He wanted every person to have access to the the Word of God. 

As this doctor of theology preached in Wittenberg’s Church of St. Mary’s, the twin towers of which still stand above the town’s Marktplatz, his messages revealed an increasing disparity between Church dogma and the biblical text. Such disparities led to “scripture alone” being one of the five “alones” or “solas” of the Reformation.

In the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, an indulgence is “a way to reduce the amount of punishment one has to undergo for sins.”

Then Leo X, the new pope in Rome who belonged to Florence’s powerful Medici family, made the mistake of sending a representative to Wittenberg to sell the promise of forgiveness at half price—in the form of indulgences. But Martin reasoned that if the pope had the power to reduce time in purgatory for the sake of money, why for the sake of holy love would he not free everyone at no cost? Enter another “sola”—grace alone.

Luther had lectured on the book of Romans the year before he posted his talking points. And by the time two years had passed, he was in trouble with the pope. Years later, he looked back on that time and described what was going on in his heart.[2]

I, blameless monk that I was, felt that before God I was a sinner with an extremely troubled conscience. I couldn’t be sure that God was appeased by my satisfaction. I did not love, no, rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners. In silence, if I did not blaspheme, then certainly I grumbled vehemently and got angry at God. I said, “Isn’t it enough that we miserable sinners, lost for all eternity because of original sin, are oppressed by every kind of calamity through the Ten Commandments? Why does God heap sorrow upon sorrow through the Gospel and through the Gospel threaten us with his justice and his wrath?” This was how I was raging with wild and disturbed conscience. I constantly badgered St. Paul about that spot in Romans [about the justice of God], and anxiously wanted to know what he meant. . . .
I began to understand that this verse means that the justice of God is revealed through the Gospel, but it is a passive justice, i.e. that by which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: “The just person lives by faith.” All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates. Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light. . . .
I exalted this sweetest word of mine, “the justice of God,” with as much love as before I had hated it with hate. This phrase of Paul was for me the very gate of paradise. Afterward I read Augustine’s “On the Spirit and the Letter,” in which I found what I had not dared hope for. I discovered that he too interpreted “the justice of God” in a similar way, namely, as that with which God clothes us when he justifies us. Although Augustine had said it imperfectly and did not explain in detail how God imputes justice to us, still it pleased me that he taught the justice of God by which we are justified. 

Justification by faith alone became another of the five “solas” of the Reformation.

Grace alone. Faith alone. Scripture alone. These freeing ideas required discussion. So, he nailed his ninety-five theses to the door. And what Luther planned as a semi-debate among the highly educated became very public, thanks to social media in the form of the printing press. Someone quickly translated his ninety-five theses from Latin into German and took them to the local printer. Within two weeks all of Germany had copies, and within two months, all of Europe.

The Fallout and the Fighting of Satan

The press had made accessible what eventually became known as the “five Solas” of the Reformation.

Sola Scriptura, “scripture alone”: The Bible alone is the believer’s highest authority. Not counsels, popes, or Christian celebrities. Not scripture + tradition, but scripture alone.

Sola Fide, “faith alone”: Humans are saved through faith in Jesus Christ. Justification comes not by faith + sacrament, but by faith alone.

Sola Gratia, “grace alone”: People are saved by the grace of God alone, not grace + works. Justification is the gift of God mediated through the mercy of Christ by the Spirit of God. Works flow from a heart of gratitude as a result of salvation.

Solus Christus, “Christ alone”: Jesus Christ alone is Lord, Savior, and King.

Soli Deo Gloria, “to the glory of God alone”: Humans have one purpose: to live for the glory of God alone.

The protesters who supported Luther in Rome came to be known as “protestants.”

The continued publishing and teaching of such ideas led Leo X formally to excommunicate what he considered a renegade priest. He ordered Luther to Rome to face charges, but Luther refused to go. So, the devoutly Roman Catholic emperor Charles V called a congress (“diet”) at Worms. This time Luther went, and supportive crowds hailed him, doubtless annoying his accusers. And of course his conscience would not allow him to recant.

The emperor condemned Luther and banished his writings. But helped again by his powerful political ally Frederick the Wise, Luther lived under the alias “Junker Jorge” (“Squire George”) hiding out near Eisenach in Wartburg Castle.

For ten months locked away there, Luther battled depression and translated the New Testament from its original Greek into German. Called the “September Testament” because of the month it was printed in, this revolutionary work was followed three months later with a second edition, “The December Testament.” 

This translation not only brought the Bible to the masses, but it shaped the standard written German language. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “Held up to Luther’s Bible, nearly everything else is merely ‘literature.’” Friedrich Engels, who with Karl Marx founded Marxist theory, said, “Luther cleaned out the Augean stables of not only the church but also the German language, created modern German prose, and penned the lyrics and melody of that triumphal chorale [“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” based on Psalm 46] that became the Marseillaise of the sixteenth century.”

The goal for Luther was for all literate people to read the Bible on their own. He was also aided by a team of experts in biblical languages, Jewish and Christian exegesis of the Bible, and Middle Eastern history and culture. And in his translation work, which he considered never to be finished, he insisted on “listening to what people say” to find apt phrases. Where the existing language lacked idiomatic expressions to parallel those in the text, he created a new vocabulary. 

That is not to say he employed casual speech. Rather, he created a language that was both understandable and appropriate for worship. And although not intending to standardize the German language, that was exactly his result. 

Of his time in Wartburg Castle, Luther said that he fought the devil with ink. Many visitors to the castle have chipped off pieces of his chamber walls, assuming its wood contained ink from pots of it thrown at the devil—let it never be said that Protestants “don’t do relics.” It’s more likely, however, that Luther meant he fought the devil through his pen translating the Word of God and the printing presses that advertised its themes.

A Marriage Born of the Reformation

As mentioned, Luther wasn’t seeking a revolution, but reform. Yet many of his followers were much more radical. And they caused enough trouble in Wittenberg to convince Luther to come out of hiding to settle them down. Nevertheless, five thousand peasants died in rebellions in which peasants demanded more political power using methods Luther did not condone.

At this point Luther was still a celibate monk. But in 1523, he helped fulfill the request of twelve Reformation-minded nuns to escape from a Torgau convent, actions considered punishable by damnation had he not already been excommunicated. One of the nuns spirited out by a barrel-bearing fish merchant was Katie von Bora. And eventually the forty-one-year-old ex-priest married this twenty-six-year-old ex-nun. Luther said of his marriage to her that it would “please my father, rile the pope, cause the angels to laugh, and the devils to weep.”

The couple moved into what was by then the emptied-due-to-Protestantism Augustinian monastery at the university. They rented rooms to students, and at home here Luther held his “Table Talks,” lively discussions at the hearth of one of the only Christian married couples on earth in which both husband and wife had formal theological training.

Katie Luther was a master administrator. And one of her many gifts that Martin appreciated was beer-making. Water flowed openly through troughs in town, and it is said that Wittenberg’s town crier would announce, “Don’t piss in the water tomorrow—Katie’s making beer.”

In addition to lodging students, the Luthers raised their own six children and eleven orphans, with Katie managing accounts. Luther called her “Herr Käthe”—“Lord” or “Sir” Katie, intending the masculinization as a compliment for her excellent skills.

Under the earthly protection of Frederick the Wise’s brother-successor, John the Steadfast, Luther traveled and preached about Christ, the Savior whom he now understood to be both just and loving. 

Eleven years into his marriage, Luther had added the Old Testament to his translation of the New. And Lucas Cranach the Elder illustrated it with woodcuts and published it on his printing presses.

Luther the Hymnist, the Confessor, and the Bitter

The most famous of Luther’s hymns is “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

Luther also recalled the value of learning theology through music, so he wrote thirty-seven hymns for congregational singing. Before the sixteenth century, only priests and choirs sang. But Luther believed that the most important thing after theology was music, and today hymn books for use by congregations are considered one of the Reformation’s great contributions. Also, later reformers would haul the art out of churches, but Luther himself wrote, “I would fain see all the arts, and music in particular, used in the service of Him who hath given and created them.” 

As the emperor needed the political support of German rulers and free cities, he asked them to present a summary of their beliefs, which led to the creation of “The Augsburg Confession,” a document explaining the primary beliefs of the Lutheran Church. It was written in both German and Latin and is attributed to Philip Melanchthon’s pen. Along with the German Bible, this work is considered one of the most important documents of the Lutheran Reformation.

Eventually the opposition took its toll, and Luther—by no means a perfect figure—grew bitter in his last years. Writings against the papacy and the Jews tarnish his final works. And centuries later, the Nazis used the writings of this son of Germany to justify their hateful rhetoric.

At age sixty-three, Luther was summoned back to Eisleben, the town of his birth, to reconcile a dispute among the counts of nearby Mansfeld. Their castles featured three separate entrances to one Late Gothic chapel atop a rock overlooking the town, as these brothers shared real estate yet could not seem to speak civilly to each other. They asked Luther to mediate, and he worked out an agreement among them to share chapel space, holding both Roman Catholic and Protestant services on the same day, but at different times.

In Eisleben’s nearby St. Andrew’s Church, Luther preached his last sermons. While still in Eisleben, he passed away—presumably from a heart attack. His body lay in state at St. Andrew’s before being transported back to Wittenberg for burial.

Remembering the Reformation with Mixed Feelings

This is an especially good time to visit Germany. The related houses, monasteries, and museums—even restaurants—that highlight Luther’s life are in top form for welcoming tourists in any season. Displays include content that appeals to all ages, information presented through the five senses, creativity that incorporates the latest technology, recognition of women often neglected in history, and honest explorations of Luther’s flaws. Travel is dependable, on fast, clean trains, with internet access everywhere, and fantastic guides who go out of their way to welcome and inform. 

But more importantly, reflection on five hundred years since the big break-up, which includes visiting places where people wrestled to the point of danger and death, invites a soul cleansing—which is the point of pilgrimage. And some questioning too. 

Even though I am a Protestant, I have mixed feelings about the Protestant Reformation. With it came access to the text and an emphasis on literacy for all, for which I’m grateful. But we, the children of the church’s divorce, have also lost much.

Some of my family members belong to the Orthodox Church. They look at the thousands of ways in which Protestants have splintered into separate denominations over fine points of doctrine and rightly point to the Protestant Reformation as the starting point. 

Protestants pride ourselves in valuing the biblical text. Yet when I was in Roman Catholic churches in Italy recently, I heard readings straight from both Testaments and an extra reading from the Gospels in every service; yet I virtually never hear scripture read publicly in Protestant settings without an accompanying human commentary. 

It also struck me that in my circles, Jesus Calling is a best seller. In fact, such devotionals have virtually replaced daily readings in the Psalms and Proverbs offered in the daily office. How then can we claim “Sola Scriptura”?

And for all our emphasis on personal freedom and priesthood with individual access, we’re not so great at community. And often we label as “liberals” those who minister to the most vulnerable, as many Protestants—especially those outside of mainline denominations—consider the message of sin and salvation the only priority (versus feeding the hungry, helping the poor, offering water to those who thirst, in the name of Christ). 

Read “Meet Luther”

Max Diener reviewed a new documentary on Luther called Luther: Life and Legacy.

If we say reform is always the task of the church, we need to do a better job of uncritically examining all of church history and tradition. Why, for example, does so much of the church fail to distinguish between Augustine’s solid theology on, say, the Trinity, yet look so uncritically at his Aristotelian views of women? If we can separate Luther’s theology on grace from his latter writings on the Jews, why not exercise similar discernment with the church fathers? 

Additionally, making such a big deal about five hundred years in a sense discounts the testimony of reformers such as John Hus, who was burned at the stake a hundred years before Luther for holding similar views. But what about the Waldensians, Wycliffe, Calvin, and Zwingli? Not to mention the Spanish reformers. Don’t they count too? 

In The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer recounted how a diverse cast of Christians in the Late Middle Ages made a pilgrimage to places intended to aid their spiritual contemplations. And like them, we have the opportunity to journey to places physical and spiritual that reaffirm our faith. This year is a great time to reexamine our commitment to faith alone, grace alone, scripture alone, Christ alone, and God’s glory alone. And as we reflect on these, now is as good a time as any to assess what practices in our churches, spheres of influence, and our own lives need a fresh visit from the Holy Spirit and an invitation for cleansing with the breath of reform.

[1] From the thirteenth century onward, primogeniture did not determine who would be the King of the Romans. Rather, Prince-Electors had the privilege of electing who would be crowned by the pope as Holy Roman Emperor. Being an Elector carried great prestige and was considered to be second only to that of King or Emperor. Electors continued to hold their original titles alongside that of Elector. Charles V, who opposed the Protestant Reformation, was the last crowned emperor (elected 1519, crowned 1530). 

[2] This translation was made by Bro. Andrew Thornton, OSB, for the Saint Anselm College Humanities Program. It is distributed by Project Wittenberg with the permission of the author. © by Saint Anselm Abbey.

Cover image by Roman Kraft.

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