Monday, January 9, 2017

The Economist on the Influence of Martin Luther

The Jan 7 issue of the Economist contains a brief piece about Martin Luther's influence on German culture, a topic that will likely be the focus of further public reflections during this important anniversary year. (This article is based in part on Christine Eichel's interesting Deutschland, Lutherland [Karl Blessing, 2015]). To read the article, go here.

One hopes that other secular newspapers and magazines, even when reporting about Luther's influence on today's saeculum, will depict his basic theological themes more accurately than is the case in the above feature.

Portrait of Martin Luther (1532) - From the Workshop of Lucas Cranach
"In silence and hope will be your strength"

To be sure, the Economist article rightly notes Luther's influence on German music, the German book industry, German literacy, and German attitudes about money, and it notes Luther's anti-Semitism and the decline of both major streams of Christianity in twentieth-century Germany (especially in the northeast, where Wittenberg is located), which can be (tenuously) linked to unintended consequences of the Protestant Reformation. Those connections between old Wittenberg and modern Germany seem straight-forward and noteworthy.

But the article gets some things wrong, actually quite wrong. Start with justification by faith alone, a teaching that became the central issue in the crisis that developed after the publication of the Ninety-Five Theses. The article asserts that the Wittenberg professor "believed that Christians were guaranteed salvation through Jesus but had a duty to live in such a way as to deserve it." Anyone familiar with Luther's basic teachings would see the flaws in the language here. Luther held that no one "deserves" salvation, not even the Christian. All human beings are sinners through and through, who deserve nothing but God's wrath and judgment. Of themselves they can do nothing to change this condition. Salvation rests solely on God's forgiveness and grace, on account of Christ alone. The gift of forgiveness and salvation is received by faith alone in Christ alone, apart from any human action. While Christians are called to thank and praise God, and to serve and obey him, they do these actions in response to God's gift of salvation, not because they could ever "live in such a way as to deserve it."

What about Luther's views toward the visual arts? The article states that for Luther "this was, like everything else, a serious matter.... Ostentation was thus a disgraceful distraction from the asceticism required to examine one’s own conscience...." Thus, according to the article, Luther had a "distaste for visual ornament," in common with other Protestant reformers. Really? I don't think so. While Luther certainly emphasized the ears as the proper organ of faith ("so faith comes from hearing, and what is heard comes from the preaching about Christ" [Rom. 10.17]), he took a neutral attitude when it came to images in the church. Against the iconoclastic incitement and violent actions of his one-time colleague Andreas Bodenstein v. Karlstadt, Luther held that images and statues need not be destroyed, as if they were inherently dangerous to the faith, but should be subordinated to the more effective preaching of the justifying gospel. In any case, such preaching itself gives rise to mental images, as Luther himself acknowledged. "When I hear of Christ, an image of a man hanging on a cross takes form in my heart, just as the reflection of my face naturally appears in the water when I look into it" ("Against the Heavenly Prophets," LW 40.99-100). Thus, Luther was not troubled by such mental images, as were Karlstadt and some of the Swiss reformers. Luther had a different spirit from Zwingli. The later Luther (post-Karlstadt and after the 1525 "heavenly prophets") took a more positive position with respect to what we today would call the visual arts. While admitting that anything that's imaged can become idolatrous, he held that the incarnation itself legitimates the visual representation of that Word and his deeds. Images can serve the Word. So Luther was never an iconoclast, and, at least after the early 1520s, he cannot be accurately described as a "devout ascetic." For a helpful summary of Luther's views toward images, see John Dillenberger, A Theology of Artistic Sensibility (Crossroad, 1986), 61-66.

Besides, the material culture of Luther's Reformation includes artistic artifacts (prints, woodcuts, medals, paintings, altars) by Luther's mayor, friend, pharmacist, and drinking buddy: the artist Lucas Cranach Sr. He and unnamed artists from his workshop visually represented key emphases from Luther's teaching and preaching, e.g., theology of the cross, infant baptism, distribution of both kinds in the sacrament, the proper distinction between the law and the gospel. And just where did those portraits of the Great Reformer, and of his wife Katherine, originate? (I should add that the depicted visages on those Cranach roundels can hardly be described as "dour.") And what of the woodcuts and engravings of that Luther-inspired Dürer? Not to mention the symbolism of Luther's seal, the Cranach Sr. woodcuts in the various editions of the Luther Bible, and the paintings and altar pieces by Cranach's Lutheran son (including especially the "Law and Gospel" one in Weimar that was begun by the father and finished by the son)?

Lucas Cranach's Portrait of Martin Luther - 1525

Lucas Cranach's Portrait of Katherine v. Bora - 1525

Frankly, I would rather read Luther's actual sermons--and develop a mental image of the five-foot-two-inch preacher delivering them as he knelt in that little wooden pulpit in Wittenberg--than to listen to any finger-wagging, goody-two-shoes moralist from our era. "Humourless"? "Rigid moralism"? These are not the words or images that come to mind when reading the famous Thüringer's homilies or when pondering the many anecdotes and sayings that surfaced in conversations with friends and students over food and drink at his dinner table. Imagine having been a fly on that wall!

Luther's role in the development of modern Germany is crucial, if also quite complicated and ambiguous. (BTW, he probably didn't nail the theses to the Castle Church door but mailed them to his superiors.) However, one stretches the connections beyond the breaking point when one tries to link him to Bauhaus or IKEA. While his words and actions certainly fit with aspects of contemporary German concerns for Ordnung, Autorität, and Grundprinzipien, these seem more the result of eighteenth-century Prussian militarism than anything the sixteenth-century friar and rebel said or did.

In any case, perhaps the growing public attention on Luther and his Ninety-Five Theses will lead some to work their way through a good biography of the reformer or, even better, to begin reading a volume or two of his sermons. Perhaps a few will even do what some of us are doing this year, namely, reading through all of the volumes (old and new) in the American Edition of his works (1955--present).


  1. You're changing up your writing style a bit. I like it. However, your old writing style was also good.

  2. Thanks, Matt, for setting the record straight about Luther and justification by faith, Culture tends to lump Luther in the category that so much of current Protestantism does by assuming that humans are somewhat permentantly changed and on the path of being less than complete sinners. In Christ we are forgiven, yet sinners we nonetheless are. Since from our side original sin remains until death.. But since God has called us into his marvelous light through Christ, from God’s side we sinners are forgiven and set right because of Christ in both his death and his resurrection, who is now for us and not against us. Christ, the living person, actually takes our sin upon himself and is nailed to the cross. There is a pietistic strain running through much faith culture which operates on a know-better-than-others basis. Somehow by pretending we are becoming more holy because of Christ we act as if we can jettison Christ and his benefits-for-others and seek to save the lost with our own tools and agenda. All of us are sinners who are set in a dangerous and tragic situation unless “found” in Christ.