Jul 252014

220px-DHM_-_Luther_auf_TotenbettThe Dark Side Of Luther

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.

The Jews

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?

  23 Responses to “Church History: Martin Luther, Part 4”

  1. Thank you again Michael for this excellent post. Dark indeed.

  2. “What can we learn from a man so greatly used of God…yet so prone to the sins that beset us all?”

    Why should he be different than the rest of us would be a better question.

    As to Luther’s so called crudeness, one must remember that Luther lived 300 yrs before the Victorian era, when people were told to be nice and not fart in public.

  3. Obviously I am not a fan of Luther.

  4. Xenia,

    I knew that… 🙂

  5. There is much to glean here…about how politics and religion can make a deadly stew…about how an over emphasis on eschatology can lead to ungodly actions and attitudes…how we all are both saint and sinner at the same time…about the grace of God…

  6. Sounds like Ted Haggard is a saint by comparison and Calvary Chapel Moses model authoritarianism is kindergarten stuff.

  7. I wonder if the genesis of German nationalist fascism has seeds in Luther’s reform. Thoughts?

  8. BD,

    It’s crucial to understand Luther (or any other historical figure) in the context of their times.
    While I don’t believe that German fascism is indebted to Luther it is without question that some of his writings were used for propaganda hundreds of years later.

  9. Michael #8 is correct and the 2 kingdoms theology was at the heart of it. Karl Barth critiqued Luther and the Nazis on that topic probably as well as anyone.

  10. Jean,

    Good call on Barth.

  11. And in this coverage of the dark side of Luther’s sojourning we see the mystery, again, of the incarnational nature of God’s Kingdom. God was truly there working in and through Luther-divinely: Luther’s humanity was truly there working in and through Luther-humanly. Frankly–I see this pattern throughout church history in every denomination without exception, within the Scriptural narrative , in my own self, and exemplified perfectly (and uniquely) through
    Christ. Christ being the perfect testimony, and the rest of my examples are simply shadows of that same story which speaks of the miracle of the Incarnation continuing in and through God’s Kingdom.
    I appreciate your willingness to tell it like it is. When we attempt to cover the messiness up, we might end up distorting the magnitude of what God is doing in spite of us.

  12. Ps40,

    Good stuff!
    Mainly because I agree with you and you said it better than I can. 🙂

    It’s only when we recognize the mess that the magnitude of His grace is truly known…

  13. Michael, Barth wrote at the limit of my compression, so I hope no one asks me to explain him 🙂

  14. Maybe we would see out contemporaries more generously if we consider the context of our times.

  15. Jean,

    You and me both…I get asked about Barth occasionally and I send them a link to someone who understands him. 🙂

  16. BD,

    Perhaps…but I’d need something a bit more specific.

  17. Just for a heads up….next article will be on Zwingli…then we will rock the blog with Anabaptists. 🙂

  18. Contextually the great error that glares at us is the devaluing of life in the name of a focus upon eternal destinies. Those who were perceived as leading others astray were expendable because they were causing others to go to hell with themselves.

    Seems to me the anabaptists ideas will ultimately shape history… possibly in a way that mitigates against faith but certainly in a way that honors individuals and conscience.

  19. BD,

    I haven’t started working on it yet, but I do know that piece will be much more sympathetic than what I’ve written in the past…

  20. Michael
    Really a great little series. Thank you! I must admit, I find it hard to “warm up” to Luther. Phillip Melanchthon, however, really incorporated the best of the Catholic past with Reformation ideals… a personal hero of mine.

  21. On Luther possibly influencing Nazis…..interesting to think of another Lutheran of those times….Dietrich Bonhoeffer

    I just read a short book(let) by Bonhoeffer and the only guy he bothers to quote is Luther (and does a few times).

  22. I appreciate the post. Too many Evangelicals are quick to gloss over some of the very dark, indeed Satanic, elements of Luther’s work and writings. Even to the end of his life, Luther was exhorting the German nobles to expel the Jews from their territories.

  23. Great series on Luther Michael. I for one have been greatly impacted by Luther and the doctrinal emphasis you highlighted in a previous post. He was flawed, which makes him all the more attractive to me. But isn’t it our heroes flaws that make them real and accessible. Too often we’re looking for a functional savior and we all know where that leads…

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