For all of Luther’s personal and spiritual difficulties, the young Augustinian monk was nothing short of a prodigy in the discipline of the sacred sciences, and his Augustinian superior Johannes Staupitz exercised his authority to situate Luther in university placements where he might expand his scholarship and original thought. For two years (1513-1515) Luther lectured at the Wittenberg university about the Psalms, that part of sacred revelation most familiar to a monk, as monasteries prayed all 150 psalms in a perpetual cycle (as would anyone today who prays the full Liturgy of the Hours.)
In this timeframe Luther came to understand that, as Eric Metaxas puts it, “the only way to read the Word of God properly involved seeing beyond the mere words.” (p. 77) To approach the text without nuance, as some fundamental approaches tend to do, is to limit the power of Scripture to the level of any other written book. Again, Metaxas summarizes this well: “Therefore, one must not merely see what the devil could see, which is to say the words on a page, but see what only God could see and would reveal to those who desired it, which was in the words and around them, too.”
Clearly Luther is drawing from his own experience, one that is common even today to any priest or religious bound to the daily recitation of the Hours. As a monk Luther had already recited or sung the Psalms in common with his monastic brothers for some years, but this recitation was obviously bringing him no religious peace of mind, most likely because the common prayer was a duty of monks and approached in routine fashion. As a duty, the recitation of the 150 Psalms that composed the Hours was viewed as an obligation to God, but no one expected to experience God or undergo anything resembling a profound religious experience except, perhaps, over the long run of a lifetime of fidelity. When I was in training and taking up the common praying of the Hours [or praying the “breviary” as it was called then], my superior told a story—most likely apocryphal—about a community of friars reciting the psalms in San Francisco when the great earthquake struck. The local superior supposedly halted the recitation and emotionally ordered the friars to start praying.]
Luther was putting forward the reality of a dynamic encounter with the written Word of God. His principle here is the power of every Scriptural encounter. The Bible was given to be experienced, not used. He came to regard the thoughtless routine of monastic recitation, for example, as blasphemous in the sense that constant repetition without a profound encounter of the divine would, over time, harden the heart against any future possibilities of being touched by God. He cited how the devil had quoted Scripture flawlessly for his nefarious purposes and he placed much greater emphasis upon the reader of sacred texts to approach the Bible with purity of heart and, equally important, the hope and expectation of being filled with God’s life.
Luther had history at his back. The medieval Church was not biblically oriented. In fact, history books will make the argument that most Christians were not aware that there was such a thing as the Bible at this juncture, at least until the invention of printing in the 1400’s when a peasant coming through town might actually see one, in the imperfect Latin translation of St. Jerome from 400 A.D. In the early thirteenth century, when Francis of Assisi wished to model his young community after the Gospel, he selected at random texts from the local church’s altar missal, which was as close to the Bible as anyone of that time could come.
Luther, in his reflections on the Psalms, was unconsciously pursuing the same route as Francis three centuries earlier, another tortured soul looking for an intense experience of God in a time when the Church was underperforming and in need of renewal. Curiously, Francis’s conversion involved mystical experience, direct inspiration from God, [“Rebuild my House”] that in turn made the Gospel understandable in its command to give up all riches and “come follow me.” The most powerful stirrings of faith and renewal in medieval times came through the experiences of mystics and the communities they inspired.
Luther’s true conversion moment came in his study and his class notes. Less dramatic than Francis’s, perhaps, but no less real and essential: salvation would come through a living encounter with the Word of God. It is hard to imagine how much hope Luther’s future preaching and writing would bring to a broad swath of Europe. I have posted on this stream at several points that Catholicism in 1500 was divided between those who despaired that any good works could save them, those who sought salvation by any means including monetary, and a growing class of cynics who turned to pagan classics and philosophers as more reliable source of discussion and speculation.
Luther would say that there is no chaining of the Word of God. He had rediscovered the depth and meaning of Hebrews 4:12, the famous “two-edged sword” biblical analogy. A struggling believer would hear three reasons for newfound optimism: (1) There is no limit to the forgiving power of God’s Word; anyone of pure intention who approached the Word in humility would be justified or saved by faith; (2) The heart of the salvation process rested in conscience, the good intention to live as guided by constant communion with the Word of God, and (3) there was now a clear roadmap for Church reform, conformity of practice to God’s living word.
I have simplified the Lutheran reformation here, and much discourse, contention, and bloodshed would follow from the implications of Luther’s thought as will be chronicled in future blog posts. But I can make this very personal, too. I read the bulk of Eric Metaxas’s biography of Luther [see home page] during the breaking scandals in the American Catholic Church and the anguishing division in our country during this recently concluded election campaign. When the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre took place, I was stunned that my own Church mumbled along in routine worship like the monks at choir in Luther’s monastery. I have many moments where I ask myself, “What kind of a game are we playing here?”
I have to say that following Luther’s life story and reflecting on his work has brought me back to reflective sanity. I realized afresh that the Bible is alive, and God is present there to sustain me and give me hope. I believe it was the twentieth-century Trappist monk and mystic Thomas Merton who observed that for all of us there is the great temptation to go out into the woods and build a one-man chapel. I could never do that as a lifestyle because I cannot pretend to know the mind of God on my own. I remain a Catholic because in my formative years I had the good fortune to learn the Scripture from giants just as Luther’s students had five centuries ago.
But yes, I can still take up the Bible and hold it close to my heart, in times of joy and times of pain, in the knowledge that the Promise of Israel and the Coming of the Christ wrap me up in a world that never ends. And I can move on constructively.