By any measurement, Martin Luther was a theological genius. a man of occasionally stunning courage, a man to whom the church owes an un repayable debt.
He could also be a foul mouthed, mean spirited, hypocrite of stunning proportion.
To learn all that Luther has to teach us, we must examine those matters as well.
The Peasant Rebellion
Luther was a hero to the common man of Germany, to the peasant who had endured centuries of economic oppression at the hand of the ruling classes. In 1525, two men, one a tanner and one a pastor, wrote the peasant grievances down in a document called “The Twelve Articles of Memmingen” laced with biblical proof texts and principles. Luther responded favorably with an article called “Admonition to Peace” that sided with the peasants against the landowners with one caveat…there could be no active rebellion against the rulers and certainly no violence.
Violence did break out however, and Luther responded with a vicious book,“Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants” in which he encouraged the landowners to “smite, slay, and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful or devilish than a rebel”.
An estimated 100,000 peasants died in the war.
The Bigamy of Prince Phillip
Luthers very life and the burgeoning Reformation of the church depended on having political support from the princes.
None was more important than Philip of Hesse.
To make a long story short, Philip wanted to marry a woman other than his wife, and divorce was impossible because of political considerations.
That left bigamy as the only option.
Luther gave his approval, with an admonition that if the wickedness was discovered that Philip should “tell a big lie”.
It was discovered, and in an ironic twist, the ramifications almost destroyed the Reformation.
In 1543 Luther penned one of the darkest documents of the 16th century, “On the Jews and Their Lies”.
The German people were urged to burn Jewish synagogues and homes, burn their writings, and prevent rabbis from teaching upon threat of execution.
The Jew was to be the slave of the German, if he were to be in Germany at all.
It is a horrific and indefensible document, a blight on the life and works of Luther.
Why did he write it?
He was not always an enemy of the Jews…in earlier writings he had been (contrary to the spirit of the age) tolerant of the Jews and advised tolerance toward them.
I believe it was two issues…
One, efforts to evangelize the Jews had been a failure, indeed the Jews had been as successful in winning converts from Lutheranism.
This was intolerable rebellion to Luther.
Second, Luther believed he was living the last days…the Anti-Christ was in Rome, the Turks were at the door, and Christ was coming at any moment.
There was no time to waste on rebels and their rejection of Christ left them already condemned.
In his mind, their condemnation was just.
The tragic effects of his writings have rippled down through the centuries…we can try to understand the motives, but we can never defend it.
As Luther approached the end of his life, he was beset with many physical maladies, anxiety attacks, and the wear of having a price on your head for twenty five years.
He disputed harshly with friend and foe alike with only his beloved Katie and his friend Melancthon exempt from his rage.
He died of heart failure on Feb 18, 1546.
What say you of Luther?
What can we learn from a man so greatly used of God…yet so prone to the sins that beset us all?