We all have that one friend. You know, that guy. The one who shows up at your Halloween party dressed as John Calvin, wife reluctantly dressed as a tulip. You can smell the silver spray paint he used to touch up his fake beard.
He proceeds to very soberly debate the theological merits of predestination with a not-so-interested party-goer. You cringe.
This actually happened to me.
And it leaves me wondering what the deal is with this guy. Is he so locked in his ivory tower of theological theory that he can’t escape, even for an evening?
Or, is he rightly captivated by the reality that changed the world forever—the Protestant Reformation, led by a German monk named Martin Luther in the sixteenth century? Well, no. But he might be onto something.
A dead theologian changed your world.
In the newly released documentary Luther: Life and Legacy, filmmaker Stephen McCaskell embraces the controversy and the importance of the reformer.
Eschewing the spray paint and themed tweets, McCaskell chose an accessible academic approach to Luther’s story—a decision that’s rather Luther-esque in itself. A documentary on a man who’s been dead for centuries could easily become caricature or simply great background noise for a nap on the couch, but McCaskell struck the balance necessary to chisel a realistic representation of Luther and a convincing argument that the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is worth celebrating.
I can imagine some of you are already sold on the merit and importance of Luther as the leading figure of the Reformation. You may even have one of those Martin Luther bobble head dolls on your desk. For you, this documentary will clarify the ways we benefit from Luther’s fight on behalf of those who have put their hope in the gospel of grace alone by faith alone. And it’s likely to remind you of the humanity that resides in one of Protestant theology’s greatest heroes.
Others are asking, “Why should I care about this monk?”
Perhaps you shy away from a label of Reformed, associating it with inflexible and unloving doctrine. Maybe you’re a staunch Roman Catholic and have nothing but a negative connotation for Luther. Some of you may view the many denominations of the Christian faith as a reason to doubt the truth of its central message, the gospel.
Or maybe you simply don’t care about a German monk who lived in the sixteenth century.
While Luther himself and his Reformation actions are polarizing, it’s not hyperbole to say that Luther’s influence impacts all of western society. Regardless of your status as Reformation fan or foe, this documentary reveals surprising implications for his influence and what these implications may mean for us today.
The Theologian: The Role He’s Famous For
Martin Luther’s central theological contribution is his “discovery” that justification is not accomplished through good works mediated by the church. Instead, through reading the Bible, and especially the book of Romans, Luther was compelled by the idea that man and woman were reconciled to their creator by faith alone through a gift of grace.
To state that Martin Luther discovered this truth is always baffling to me. This is, after all, the heart of the Christian faith—how could such a central truth ever be lost?
Luther addresses that question through the testimony of various theologians and church historians. The documentary traces the Roman Catholic Church’s rise to power, the corruption of core doctrine, and the issues at hand during Luther’s time.
The documentary’s interviewees are able to portray Luther in response to the serious theological deficiencies and heresies of the day. In the spirit of Luther, they don’t shy away from proclaiming the truth of biblical doctrine as they explain the historical context.
In the end, Luther’s central debate came down to one of authority—does the authority of God come through the medium of the church, or is it revealed by his word? For Luther, the Bible itself—and not the pope—was to rule God’s people.
The implications of Luther’s reordered hierarchy transformed the very foundation of religious thought: it changed how we understand what is true.
Before the Reformation, truth was an objective reality that was meted out by those in authority, specifically priests and the pope. Luther’s appeal that humans can and should directly approach the word of God subverted this authority, and it implicitly stated that humans are able to determine for themselves what’s true and what’s false.
McCaskell’s documentary pulls directly from Luther’s journal entries to show specific instances in which he wrestled over these very questions. It’s able to paint a picture of life that’s often foreign to us—a life in which we don’t determine for ourselves what is true. In doing so, we’re pointed to Luther’s revolutionary nature as a thought leader of the Enlightenment, not just one of the church.
The Cultural Revolutionary: Ushering in the Separation of Church and State
The implications of challenging the church’s authority extended far beyond the religious.
The sixteenth century had no concept for the separation of church and state. Specifically, to be born was to adopt an ethnic and religious identity based on the rulers of that land. While people might consider themselves religious on an individual basis, the overall understanding was that a person participated in their communal identity first and foremost, and this communal identity certainly included a religion. To be a citizen in a European country prior to the Protestant Reformation essentially meant that these people were Roman Catholics.
The film’s historical insight of life before Luther’s Reformation invokes more than just a factual comparison you won’t bother remembering. The films experts allow you to embrace what life was like for the average person. The contrast of the then and now leaves little room to doubt that Luther was a catalyst propelling us into the world as we know it today.
Luther’s challenge to the authority of the church in Rome allowed for princes to claim power for themselves. With enough geographical distance between Germany and Rome and corruption in the church, and with Enlightenment-era thinking coming to fruition, suddenly the nation-state as we understand it in the modern sense had enough momentum to burst forth.
This new system of power didn’t rely explicitly upon a system of faith to claim authority over a group of people. When the civil organization of the day is upended, the societal shifts create the end, and beginning, of an era.
Ultimately, the Reformation would lead to the decline in the church’s political power, the rise of the modern nation, the concept of separating the state’s authority from an individual’s right to believe, and allowed man or woman to approach God through the word on his or her own terms—all for better or worse.
The experts cited are often so successful at making the story of Luther seem relevant and present that you forget there was a time in which you didn't know his great influence.
The Pastor: The First Protestant Worship Minister
As a pastor, Luther is known for establishing many norms that we take for granted today. Singing hymns, the sanctity of marriage, the dignity of all vocations—all of these in some way find their roots in the teachings of Luther.
In one sense, though, Luther’s main goal in the Protestant Reformation was to bring the people the message of the Bible in a pure, unadulterated way. Why settle for secondhand accounts when you could commune with God yourself?
However, although Luther certainly advocated for a person to be able to commune with God by the direct revelation of the Bible, he would certainly not advocate for a “me and my Bible” Christianity that divorces itself from community or authority. Even though the authority of the church is not necessary to rightly understand the word of God, there are certainly wrong understandings that someone can have without guidance or accountability.
In this lies a delicate paradox: Luther was challenging the established authority of the church, but his goal was not to say that we should have no authority at all. Instead, he said that the Bible ought to be our highest authority, without the perversion of its message through a broken institution.
While it was Luther’s goal to upset the established order, it was not to establish himself as a new pope. But who then would help the people interpret the word for themselves? A fallible man? A man whose life was, in some ways, noticeably marked by sin?
The Man: A Picture of Zeal Unfettered
While in the documentary professors and organizational presidents sit in mahogany boardrooms explaining the life and legacy of Luther, there are also short animated sections that depict in black and white a highly stylized Luther—sharp lines on his nose and face conveyed the drama of the changes in his life.
In each of these scenes, white flames dance around the screen. They often stand before Luther’s face, revealing lines of worry and sternness. In some settings they push back the darkness, fighting corruption in the church. In others, they threaten to consume the screen and all he’s fighting for.
In the midst of his greatness, Luther was a man controlled by his fierce emotion. Luther had a vitriolic tongue, doling out insults to all who disagreed with him. Imagine what he might have looked like in an age of social media. In fact, some of his commentary doesn’t seem too far from a certain president’s tweets.
What are we to do with such a revolutionary? In many ways he is admirable, but we certainly see the darkness of his humanity expressed toward the church in Rome, the Anabaptists, and especially the Jewish people.
In the end, and especially toward the end of his life, Luther held a hatred for those who could not embrace the truth as he saw it—those who relied on the law instead of on grace. I appreciate that McCaskell saw that this wasn’t an excuse for Luther. It instead explains why a man so pastoral could with the same tongue so harshly tear down entire groups of people.
McCaskell could have simply passed over the flaws of the Protestant hero, but he made a better choice and, I believe, is as fair with Luther’s flaws as he is his accomplishments.
The Legacy: The Encouragement and Responsibility of Luther’s Reformation
The detailed portrait of Luther left me asking what we should do with the complexities of his life.
The passing of five hundred years has a way of providing clarity. Perhaps the wisdom of centuries helps explain that Luther’s most admirable and dangerous quality was his passion for the truth.
In a day where the idea of absolute truth is offensive, Luther serves as a stark reminder of what we gain by standing up for a definitive view of who God is and how we relate to him in the gospel.
Simultaneously, Luther shows us that not all ways of fighting for truth are perfect: the battle for what’s right should not be done in a spirit of hatred.
Luther—like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and every other biblical hero—reminds us that Christ-likeness isn’t inherent. We need to remember, in a time where we seek dramatic world change, that world-changers are fallible.
Jesus is better.
As with the fathers of the faith and the heroes of a more modern era, Jesus is better.
Though Christ knew the truth of who God is and how we come to the Father through the Son and by the Spirit for salvation, he did not use our spiritual blindness to attack us. Instead, in a spirit of patience and timidity, he served us.
Luther’s example frees us to kindle a passion for the truth in an age of relativity, but it doesn’t alleviate us from our responsibility to emulate Christ and his meekness.
After viewing this documentary, I can say with confidence that I am thankful to Martin Luther. If not for him, and men and women like him, I don’t know what the church and the world would look like today.
However, I am even more grateful to the God of Luther, my God, the God who has for all time had love for and oversight of all things. He has been faithful in the last five hundred years. Surely, his faithfulness will continue.
Cover image by Marcus Singer.
Sign Up Today
You don’t have to miss anything. We send out weekly notifications when we publish a new issue. We like you—so we won’t sell your info to Google or the NSA or even advertisers, they probably already have it anyway.