Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Happy Birthday, Martin Luther!

Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach Sr.
Today marks the 527th or 528th birthday of Martin Luther. (We don't know for sure in which year, 1483 or 1482, he was born.) This anniversary has led me to reflect back on my two years in Germany (2007-9), when I regularly taught a semester-long course on Luther that included a week-long trip to places connected with the Great Reformer's life and work. In four different semesters (and in the summer before the first group of students arrived), I traveled east, through Thüringen, Saxony (Sachsen), and Saxony-Anhalt (Sachsen-Anhalt). Along the way we visited Erfurt, where Luther attended university; Eisenach, where he lived for a time as a young boy; Wittenberg, where he lived in the Augustinian monastery and taught theology in the university; Weimar, where he occasionally preached; and Leipzig, where he held his famous debate with Dr. Eck.

Prior to our trip, the students and I had worked our way through several key texts, read the slim biography by Martin Marty, viewed segments from the excellent PBS documentary, Empires: Martin Luther, and discussed aspects of the Reformer's work and world. After examining Luther's childhood and early education in Mansfeld, we immersed ourselves in Erfurt 1501-05, where and when he had studied philosophy and the liberal arts and, briefly, law, and analyzed his religious crisis (i.e., the cut artery in his leg, the deaths of several friends from the plague, his guilt and fear before God, and finally the storm near Stotternheim). We then explored his decision to become an Augustinian monk, his life as a friar and priest, and his reluctant agreement to become a doctor of Holy Scripture. We sought to understand the terrible Anfechtungen ("spiritual crises," depressions, panic attacks?) that overwhelmed him, and how his mentor, Staupitz, and the theology of humility that he had learned from the Psalms, had helped to calm his troubled soul.

A major goal of ours was to understand how this preacher-theologian became such a fierce critic of the Roman Catholic Church and its sacramental system. We thus studied his early biblical commentaries, his anti-scholastic writings, and his 95 theses against certain abuses in the sale of indulgences, which reveal his struggle with the true nature of repentance and thus with the proper relationship of sinners before God. The so-called Indulgence Controversy, which intensified as Luther's widely-published scholarly theses were attacked by established church authorities and ultimately by the pope, in turn contributed to his so-called "Reformation breakthrough," sometime between December 1517 and the following summer. This Durchbruch gradually occurred as he came to understand the righteousness of God as that by which the righteous lives as a gift of God, i.e., as righteousness received by faith alone. The gospel reveals this passive righteousness of God through which the merciful God justifies us by faith, for Christ's sake. God does not punish, but he gives, and he makes us right with himself by our trusting in the good news about Jesus.

After engaging materials related to this breakthrough, the students and I traveled several paths: to the theology of the cross, the freedom of the Christian, Luther's sacramental theology and reforms, his critiques of monasticism and forced celibacy, the bondage of the will, his political theology and reaction to the peasants' uprisings, and finally to his apocalyptic outlook, his marriage and family life, and his troubling views toward the Jews and Muslims.

But the fieldtrip really made the course:

Hans-Peter Ahr as Luther in Erfurt
Day One included a very informative walking tour of Erfurt, which focused especially on the churches, the university, and the Augustinian monastery, whose library is undergoing renovation. (It suffered damage from Allied bombs during the Second World War.) Our guide was dressed as Luther would have looked in 1505. Hans-Peter Ahr, a retired high school teacher, even looked a bit like the Mansfelder: short (Luther was only five feet five), round face, sparkling eyes, full of sharp wit and earthy humor. Day Three included another walking tour, this time with Katja Koehler, a recent university graduate, whose fluent English carefully conveyed her extensive knowledge of Wittenberg and its history. (She is from the region, but had studied for a time at Emory University in Atlanta.) She took us from the small train station, past the spot where Luther burned the papal bull of excommunication, into the Augustinian Monastery/Lutherhaus, and then on to the Castle Church at the other end of town. Along the way we stopped for comments and questions at the Melanchthonhaus, the Cranachhaus, and the Town Church.

At the Castle Church, wherein Luther and his friend and colleague, Philipp Melanchthon, are buried (along with Elector Frederick the Wise and his brother, Elector John the Steadfast), we posed for a group photo in front of the doors that are now bronzed and engraved with the 95 Theses. (The original doors were destroyed in October 1760, during the so-called Seven Years War, when the church was heavily damaged. The new doors were completed a century later.) Standing in front of the new portal, I couldn't help but think about that fateful October-November nearly five hundred years ago, and to the impact that this one little monk has had on our world.

VU Students and I at the Castle Church Doors
We still cannot be sure that he actually posted his theses to the door of the Castle Church on October 31, 1517. He never referred to such an action. We do know that he mailed the theses on that date to his archbishop, Albrecht of Mainz, and to his diocesan bishop, Jerome Schulze of Brandenburg. Later, perhaps in mid-November, he invited scholars, probably via mail, to a disputation about the theses. The initial report about their being "posted" came from Melanchthon, who was not present in Wittenberg in 1517, and who made this comment only after his elder colleague's death. Nevertheless, whether "nailed" or mailed, the theses, originally written in Latin for a scholarly audience, were relatively quickly translated into German--against Luther's wishes--and printed and distributed far and wide--again, contrary to the author's initial plan. The theses took on a life of their own, catapulted their author onto the center stage of world history, and marked a turning point whose effects are still experienced today. He remarked later that had he known his theses would have been printed and distributed as they were, he would have been more careful with his language and the organization of his ideas. Although the heading of the theses called for a public debate in Wittenberg, no such disputation ever took place. No one took the trouble to show up.

Whereas several of the theses are rather difficult to understand, the first one is famous and sets forth the principal theme of the document as a whole: "When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, 'Repent,' he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance." True repentance does not consist in medieval confessional satisfactions; rather, it entails the mortification of the flesh. The penalty of sin remains as long as the sinner's hatred of himself remains, that is, until death ends the sinner's life. The pope has no power to remit divine punishments for any sin. He can merely declare the remission of guilt in God's name. Most annoying to papal traditionalists, Luther asserted that the pope and the church have no jurisdiction over the dead in purgatory. (He himself would continue to believe in purgatory until the early 1520s.) Indulgence preachers are therefore wrong to boast, "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings" (that is, as soon as people pay their money to buy a papal indulgence or "kindness") "the soul from purgatory springs." Because true remission of sins is just as rare as true repentance, all those who believe they are certain of their salvation because of indulgence letters are damned, along with their teachers. Implicit in Luther's critique is the opinion that sellers of papal indulgences are really swindlers. Turning the tables, he declared: Anyone who is truly contrite has perfect remission of guilt and penalty, even without indulgence letters. It is better to give to the poor and to do works of mercy than to purchase indulgences. A person becomes better through works of love (here Luther reveals that he had not yet undergone his evangelical breakthrough), while a person does not become better through indulgences. The final theses are also justly famous:

      94. Christians should be exhorted to be diligent in following Christ, their head, through penalties, death, and hell;
            95. And thus be confident of entering into heaven through many tribulations rather than through the false security of peace [Acts 14:22].
Despite the fact that the theological content of the theses is not yet fully evangelical, at least in light of his later Reformatory discovery or "gospel breakthrough" (and here the scholarly works of Martin Brecht and Bernhard Lohse have solidly established that the breakthrough postdates the theses), October 31st has become the traditional date on which to celebrate what has come to be called the Protestant Reformation. Luther himself apparently celebrated the ten-year anniversary of the theses. In a letter to his drinking buddy, Nicolas von Amsdorf, he mentions that he had raised his glass of wine (he preferred wine to beer) on Nov 1, recalling that this was the anniversary of the day on which indulgences were trampled under foot. The official designation of October 31st as the Festival of the Reformation came 140 years later (1667), when Johann Georg II, then Elector of Saxony, issued a proclamation to that effect. Since the 150th anniversary of the theses the observance of Reformationsfest has spread far and wide among most Lutheran and many other Protestant churches. (Growing up in Salem, Oregon, my brother and I were always troubled that our "Halloween trick-or-treating" was cut short because we had to go to church that night at 7:00 to hear about Martin Luther. More recently, St. John Church, like most other American Lutheran congregations, observes the festival on the Sunday before October 31. Lutheran trick-or-treaters today no longer have the angst my brother and I did in the early 1970s, at least with respect to Halloween.)

The best place to learn about Luther the man is in the former Wittenberg Augustinian monastery that became Luther's home and is now a very interesting museum. What used to be a rather simple exhibit (I last visited in 1996), with displays mostly in German, now is state-of-the-art and includes interpretive materials in both German and English. The VU students and I spent more than two hours there, and we still did not see everything. Presenting artifacts and detailed information about Luther, his wife Katharina, their family, and extended household, the museum also gives the visitor an interesting glimpse into late-medieval life and the early history of the Reformation. Highlights include the tiny pulpit in which Luther kneeled or sat to preach his more than 2000 sermons in the Town Church, his habit, the cellars (these now contain very informative displays on Luther's domestic life, e.g., how Katarina made beer and wine and how meals were prepared--a large number of cookware and utensils have been unearthed since 2004), the Großer Hörsaal in which Luther lectured, portraits and "The Ten Commandments Panel" by Cranach Sr. and Jr. (and members of his artists school), a room full of first editions of Luther's writings, the completed German Bible (probably the most valuable and historically-important object in the museum), and of course the dark, wood-paneled Lutherstube (with oven, table, and decorated ceiling). In the summer of 2004 masonry bricks were discovered in what has come to be called "the Luthergarten." This news turned into a sensation when it became clear that these were not merely the remains of a foundation but a lofty basement storey standing in a trench. Other evidence has led scholars to conclude that these are the remains of Luther's study, used by him from 1522 onwards and which was near the monastery's latrine. (Luther frequently mentioned the fact that his study was near to a "cloaca," a latrine--which functioned only until 1540.) This archeological discovery puts to an end the false notion that Luther's Reformation Discovery occurred while he was actually "in the latrine," ala psycho-biographical speculations about Luther's constipation and other intestinal problems. Luther's discovery occurred in his study "near a latrine."

Luther's sins and weaknesses are not avoided in the present museum, nor should they be. There are critical displays on his harsh words during the peasants' uprisings, his equally harsh writings against the Jews, and his troublesome counsel to Philipp of Hesse. (The sex-crazed Philipp, who wanted to divorce his wife in order to marry another for strictly fleshly reasons, was told not to divorce his wife but to allow the other woman to live with him as well.) Still other displays address the negative use of Luther by later groups and movements. For example, Wittenberg was one of the "Brownest" (i.e., most Nazified) towns during the so-called Third Reich. As at the Wartburg, so also at the Lutherhaus, the Nazi swastika was hung with pride. The anti-Semitic caricature monument ("Jewish Pig"), placed on the corner of the Town Church in A.D. 1304, when the town's Jews were expelled, has now been off-set by a contemporary memorial to the Jews who died in the Holocaust. The new plaque, located on the ground beneath the old memorial, stresses that the filth and muck of the past cannot be ignored or forgotten.

Despite Luther's very real and serious faults, his sixteenth-century gospel insights cannot help but be relevant to the contemporary Christian who shares the same task that he had for his age: to understand the Holy Scriptures for the sake of the gospel and its impact on real people.

Luther’s final words, written on a scrap of paper two days before he died, ought to give pause to everyone who is called to take up that task:

No one can understand Virgil in the Bucolics and the Georgics unless he has been a shepherd or a farmer for five years.  No one can understand Cicero in his letters—so I feel—unless he has spent forty years in a prominent office of state.  No one should suppose that he has even an inkling of an understanding of the authors of Holy Scripture, unless he has governed the churches for a hundred years, together with the prophets.  Thus John the Baptist, Christ and the apostles represent an immense miracle.  “Do not lay hands upon the divine Aeneid, but bow down and honor its tracks” [the Latin poet Statius].  We are beggars.  That is true.

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