I am pleased to tell you that Eric Metaxas’ Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (2017) is proving to be an excellent read and is worth your time and money if you are interested in examining Luther’s life more intensely than I can do in the weekly post. I will be consulting Metaxas frequently along with Reformations (2016) by Carlos M.N. Eire. Both Metaxas and Eire bring forth the issues, philosophies, and persons I have tried to cover over the past six months—and much more—so if you take up one of these works you will not be out of your league, at least where Luther’s own life is concerned.
One of the stranger bits of history is that there is no certainty about when Luther was born. Luther himself said 1484, but documentary examination puts the year of his birth as either 1482 or more likely 1483. His baptism certificate indicates that Martin was his given name, after St. Martin of Tours, the third century Roman soldier and pacifist who defied a command to engage in active combat. Nearly executed, the third century Martin went on to engage in monastic life. There is no little irony in the fact that the saint made his solemn declaration of Christian pacifism in a Germanic town which in Martin Luther’s day was called Worms. In 1521, over a millennium hence at the famous Diet [or Assembly] of Worms, Luther would one day declare “Here I stand; I can do no other.”
Luther’s family name was Luder or Ludher. At some point in his college years Martin changed his last name to Luther. The best guess is that like many young Renaissance intellectuals engrossed in the ancient classics, Luther took for himself a classical last name, Eleutherius, and shortened it. Given that his friends would include Desiderius Erasmus, Philipp Melanchthon, and Johann Oecolampadius (who probably should have shortened his name), this explanation may have some merit. When Ludher/Luther became famous, his parents took the same last name for themselves.
Luther was not born into poverty. His father, Johannes or Hans, owned mining and smelting interests and developed rich veins of copper in the family’s residence, Eisleben, in the German region of Saxony. The family took its Catholicism seriously, including intense devotion to St. Anne, the mother of Mary, and the patron saint of miners; in late medieval thinking, both Anne’s and Mary’s wombs had borne jewels of eternal treasures, which made them fitting protectoresses of men who mined the riches of the earth. Speaking of mining, archaeologists have discovered that the diet of the Ludher family was rich in the better meats of the time, such as pork. In 2008 more household items were found, including cooking ware of such high value that it was often mentioned in wills.
Luther and his family lived during a serious decline of the papacy. The six popes of Luther’s youth and early adulthood were of such poor character that the twentieth century author Barbara Tuchman discusses them as a group in her 1984 work, The March of Folly. In truth, the identity of the reigning pontiff was not known, or of little interest, to Catholics of Luther’s time, as church life was highly localized with many variations of devotion and rite. Later, as a traveling young monk/priest, Luther was unable to offer Mass in Milan because he was unfamiliar with the Ambrosian rite of the Mass.
Much has been made of Luther’s relationship with his father, particularly after the 1958 work Young Man Luther, an attempt by the noted psychoanalyst Erik Erikson to pry into Luther’s inner motivations. Erikson maintained that Luther conflated a grim, judging God with his own father, resulting in an “Oedipal spasm” that tore the Church apart. (Metaxas, pp. 13-14) Historical analyses of discovered documentation since 1958 provides much evidence that Luther loved his father, to the degree that their relationship survived Martin’s later entry into monastic life, much against his father’s wishes that he enter the legal profession and assume the family’s copper mining interests. One needs to look elsewhere for Luther’s psychological crisis with religion, which more accurately accounts for Luther’s thinking and preaching after 1517.
For a window on Luther’s school day experiences we are indebted to several volumes of his story telling to students and boarders in his home, an unedited collection written by his young admirers in the 1530’s and 1540’s when Luther was getting on in years. Metaxas summarizes Luther’s recollections: “One gets the general impression that childhood for an exceedingly sensitive and intelligent boy such as the young Martin Luther must have been an endless, fear-filled trial from which he could hardly wait to escape.” (p. 15) In the Renaissance era the Latin language was promoted in the homes of the rich and cultured. Luther’s father never learned the language, and thus Martin went to school—where Latin was the only permitted language—with a pronounced disadvantage.
Luther would recall later that his fear of authority would become chronic throughout his life. In his teen years he came to suspect that that the physical and psychological punishments of his school might be a cause for the irrational fear of a good God, which in turn poisoned both the academic and pastoral dimensions of the Church. Scholars do underscore the difficulties of sorting out Luther’s old man remembrances from his actual thoughts at, say, age 16. But it is certain that in his college years at Eisenach Luther learned of an elderly Franciscan monk named Johannes Hilten, at that time imprisoned in the Eisenach monastery for his pronounced criticisms of the Church. Hilten died imprisoned in 1500 when Luther was 16. Hilten was something of a mystery to Luther as a Franciscan advocating reform; it is not certain if Luther recognized him as a successor to medieval reformers John Wycliffe and Jan Hus, both of whom came to bad ends in official Church conclaves. [Later Luther would read Hus’s work in a monastery library, even though the Czechoslovakian’s works were officially banned.]
Luther’s father continued to prosper, and by the time Martin Luther was ready for college at age 17, his father was able to afford to send his son to the University of Erfurt, to major in law. But now Luther found himself submerged in Renaissance Humanism, with the opportunity to study both classical pagan authors and the earliest Christian writings. He must have found this environment stimulating and fascinating, for at Erfurt his own considerable scholarly talents began to break their bonds.
The next time I post on this stream we will begin to enter the life and works of Martin Luther himself and the events we know collectively as The Protestant Reformation. As we close the build-up to October 31, 1517, there is a legitimate question of whether the break-up of the Roman-Latin Western Church was an inevitability. My opinion: the explosion in learning and science would have triggered some sort of intellectual revolution in matters of Church doctrine and discipline: linguists and Church scholars would have eventually questioned the literal nature and egregiously poor translations of the official Vulgate Latin text of the Bible, for example, in the fashion of the Renaissance Catholic scholar Erasmus [1469-1536].
It was Luther’s claim that the Church needed reform in capite et membris, [Latin, “in head and members.”], that is, at the top and the bottom. Our last several posts examined the “membris” and found many of them anxious for reform, if somewhat disorganized and disjointed. The failure of the last century before Luther was primarily a matter of the “capite,” the papacy and the college of bishops. By the early 1400’s the papacy was in shambles, with three separate men claiming the Chair of Peter. During this period, as the Church wrestled with a solution, the ancient concept of bishops’ exercising a collective authority over the Church returned to the forum of university thought. Termed Conciliarism, the legal concept of universal bishops exercising an ultimate authority in the Church was the guiding principle for the Council of Constance [1414-1418]. How well did the last three Councils address reform of the capite before 1517?
The Council of Constance was a wild and woolly affair, involving the discrediting and exiling of all three claimants to the papacy. The Council finally elected Martin V as valid successor of Peter but exercised its conciliar power to extract a commitment from Martin and presumably his successors to call a church-wide council of bishops periodically, at intervals of five or ten years. Having concluded the Great Schism of multiple popes, the Council turned its attention to reform, or at least its perception of what reform looked like. It attacked the ideas of John Wycliffe (England) and Jan Hus (Czechoslovakia); Wycliffe was the father of the “Lollards” and Hus the champion of the chalice for the faithful at Mass. Wycliffe was long dead; Hus had been invited to the Council under safe passage, which was revoked by the Council, and he was burned alive. This did not augur well for future advocates of Church reform.
Martin V was anxious to restore the papacy to its previous preeminence and delayed calling another Council until near death in 1431. It is a measure of its disarray and poor attendance that the Council of Basel-Ferara-Florence [1431-1449] lingered nearly two decades and divided into at least two distinct councils, one of which attempted to excommunicate the pope over the issues of Conciliarism and reunion with the Eastern Orthodox Church. At the very least, this council soured the thought of another one for six decades.
Of more interest is the Fifth Council of the Lateran [1512-1517]. The very dates of this Council speak volumes; it dissolved in the same year that Luther came to prominence. As a Council, Lateran V did little. The historian Carlos Eire put it this way: “In essence, all that the Fifth Lateran Council seemed to accomplish was to confirm the death of Conciliarism and the weakness of the high clergy, leaving nothing in its wake but missed opportunities for reform, along with censure and dissent.” (Carlos M.N. Eire, Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650, p. 115) In fairness, Lateran V did address standards for pawnshops.
Eire, in his conclusion of the state of Catholicism on the eve of Luther, summarizes conditions well: “At the end of the Middle Ages, then, Catholic reformers were more or less on their own. This is not to say that reform could not take place, but rather that it was difficult to for any reformer to have an impact beyond a local level. Without papal or conciliar support, the best anyone could do was to focus on one’s immediate environment.” [p. 115]
It is no accident that most of the medieval reformers adopted some degree of poverty into their religious agendas, i.e., the absolute poverty of Jesus, who had “no place to lay his head.” Laity, religious, and a fair number of clergy longed for a Church whose leaders, structures, and preoccupations spoke of Jesus as he appeared in the newly printed Bibles that were now circulating through all levels of society in local translations. Were the leaders of the Church oblivious to this?
I would say that the hierarchical Church of late medieval times carried a different paradigm or model from local soul seekers. Way back in this stream I described the papacy of Boniface VIII and his encyclical Unam Sanctam in 1302, which claimed that all spiritual and secular power ultimately resided with the Bishop of Rome. It is easy to scoff at such a claim today, but Boniface saw himself and his office as a protector of world order, a role that a few of his predecessors had necessarily assumed, such as St. Gregory the Great in the 500’s. His mistake, I believe, was identifying himself as the Vicar of the Trinity and not the vicar of Christ, who saved by serving others to the point of giving up his very life. The claim to ultimate worldly supremacy was discredited in Boniface’s own lifetime, but his successors understood themselves as enjoying supreme spiritual authority and rigorously protecting Church practice and thought. If this involved the suppression of pious practice and original writing and thought on the natures and health of the Church, such was the price of doing business.
It is also true that a “follow the money” factor played into the separation of leaders from laity. Popes were elected from among the richest families of the day, such as the Borgias and the Medici’s. Bishops—often appointed by kings and regional sovereigns--depended heavily upon the benefices or wealth of their dioceses, often holding multiple dioceses at the same time they worked for the popes in the legal work of the Church. To reform in the fashion of the return to Christ’s poverty would mean financial and social ruin for the upper tiers of the hierarchy.
As noted above, Catholic reformers were generally locally based and attempts by the Inquisition to censor their views sorely limited their influence. What makes the Lutheran Reformation different is the perfect storm of a scholarly Catholic monk, torn by his own doubts about salvation, scandalized by the Rome of his day and its questionable practices [e.g., the sale of indulgences], deeply influenced by his reading of the Bible [notably St. Paul], and protected by local German princes by the reach of the Inquisition. Next week we will begin walking in Luther’s shoes to understand his motives and actions intended to reform the Catholic Church.
There are thousands of books written about Luther, and for our purposes here I am recommending Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (2017) as well as the Reformations work by Dr. Eire cited above.