The suggestions that Luther had unresolved “father issues” which poisoned his ability to respect authority, or PTSD from a brush with lightning, or a neurotic scrupulosity which led him to despair of salvation are all enhanced by frequent repetition and, admittedly, because they make for interesting story-telling. My guess is that even the most casual follower of Luther has heard the tale that the monk had his most significant psycho-religious-digestive breakthrough while seated on the throne of the outhouse in the library tower of his monastery.
For those who subscribe to family theory, what are we to make of Luther’s family? As I have posted earlier, Luther’s parents were devout Catholics. Martin’s father directed mining operations in his town and had achieved enough upward mobility to long for the day when he would have a son who graduated from college. Martin’s success in college fed his father’s hope that as an accomplished gentleman his son would assume and expand the family operations, not to mention continue and enhance the family name.
For reasons I will explain in a moment, Martin made a volte face and entered the Augustinian monastery, embracing the studious cloistered life of a monk. Knowing that his vocation would deeply upset his father, the younger Luther entered the monastery surreptitiously. It would be several years before they spoke again, and the occasion was Martin Luther’s ordination to the priesthood. His father agreed to attend and even spent a fair amount of money on the celebration with the Augustinians. In his 2017 biography of Luther, Eric Metaxas does make note of the exchange of toasts between the new priest and his father, citing a certain edginess which laced the humor. That said, when the name of Martin Luther achieved fame and notoriety throughout Europe, his parents did change their last names from Ludher to Luther. [In the custom of the day among Renaissance intellectuals, Martin Ludher had changed his last name to the ancient Eleutherius, which he then shortened to Luther.]
Historians note that during the consecration of the bread and wine during his first Mass, the new priest froze and could not immediately recite the words. Metaxas attributes this to a spirituality and belief system which bordered on the neurotic. I tend to agree in part, but this “neurosis of religion” was quite common at the time. In the closing paragraph of his treatment of Medieval Christianity (2015), Kevin Madigan writes that “Luther spoke for many northerners in his anxiety of not knowing how many masses, how many confessions, how many prayers, novenas, pilgrimages, and pious actions were sufficient for salvation? How could one know?” (p. 434)
As a young monk, Luther confessed to his spiritual director, Johann von Staupitz, so frequently and at great length—up to six hours—that Staupitz finally had to address the entire penitential situation with Luther. It does not appear that Luther was a particularly ruthless sinner; on the contrary, he applied himself arduously to monastic responsibilities and study, as his body of academic work would attest to later. The problem appears to be more of a pressing insecurity that his contrition was inadequate, that a failure to mention even the smallest failure would render his sacramental encounter a “bad confession” and make matters even worse. In my own training I learned to recognize the “scrupulous” penitent and encountering the sufferings of a scrupulous penitent in the confessional even today is painful to behold.
But Luther was also engaged in another internal wrestling match which Metaxas describes vividly in his biography. As a young monk-priest Luther was assigned a journey to Rome to tend to bureaucratic matters for his order. Like all first-time visitors to Rome, he strove to take advantage of the blessings and indulgences available to pilgrims. He sought to offer Mass at St. John Lateran, where common practice had it that he could gain full or plenary indulgences for his parents if he said Mass in that church. Much as he tried, the press of crowds and the large number of priests made it impossible for him to do so. After several such experiences in the Eternal City, he began to reflect upon the unfairness of ecclesiastical arrangement, and then to question whether the good work under consideration actually “worked.” Cynicism of Church law and practice was common in the Renaissance era, but Luther was no typical cynic. That there might be cleavage between the laws of God and the laws of man—or more specifically, that the Vicar of Christ might not be a man of unadulterated virtue—was a thought too fearful to contemplate.
For a man who confessed as often as he ate, such a realization would have been devastating. What saved his life—and ultimately began the Reformation—was his inspiration from St. Paul that salvation and grace from God was a gift exclusive of human effort. Luther undertook his Pauline studies in a library tower with a privy at its base, and hence the legend that the inspiration came to him while seated there and released him from chronic stress-induced constipation. But it is true that Luther, psychologically speaking, became a changed man when he untangled himself from the excessive legalisms of redemption which had attached themselves to the Church and “placed burdens upon men too great to bear.”
Luther was not an excessively angry man for his times. This does not mean he was consistently above the fray, and scatological insult and humor were not unknown to him. The excessive rage and violence of his followers and enemies alike would become a great worry to him over the years. In some ways he could be naïve and shocked at the venality of churchmen who derided his theological concerns about indulgences with the simple retort that Luther was disobedient to the pope. I read his 95 Theses, his statements of theological debate on the matter of indulgences and salvation issued in 1517. They are, essentially, an invitation to conversation addressed to theologians and, most respectfully to his bishop. The 95 Theses were not nailed to the Cathedral door; they were mailed to his bishop. While critical of certain practices and attitudes, there is no indication here of a man blinded by anger or set upon destruction of his Church.
Luther’s mental state of mind throughout his life was “hyper” in the sense that he devoted his being to high stakes in this world and the next. But were his theological concerns distorted by mental impairment? Not a chance.