When I was attending my seminary’s reunion September 21-23 up in the Catskill Mountains of New York, one of my classmates, a regular at the Café, said to me: “Are we ever going to get back to Luther?” Over the past two months events in the American Church and elsewhere have stolen the Thursday Reformation stream from its regular focus, and poor Martin Luther has suffered the most neglect. This is most unfortunate, because the strengths and weaknesses of Luther’s vision for the Church throws considerable light on our predicaments in the twenty-first century. Again, my primary source is Martin Luther: The Man who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (2017) by Eric Metaxas.
[If you would like to meet Metaxas and hear him talk about how he came to write Luther’s biography, click here.]
We left Luther at age 21 after he completed his bachelor’s and first master’s degree and preparing for the final leg of his matriculation, the completion of a degree in civil law. The general idea was his eventual assumption of his father’s mining business. Biographers over the centuries have reported at this juncture how Luther was caught in a violent lightning storm and made an immediate vow to St. Ann to enter a monastery were he to live through the storm. But one might ask how came to make such a dramatic vow in these circumstances, given that his future was pretty much laid out before him.
If you look back to the August 2 Thursday posting on the blog, you can get a quick refresher on the various academic forces battling each other in 1500. Luther was naturally instructed in “scholasticism,” the philosophical worldview of the Western Catholic Church most famously advocated by St. Thomas Aquinas. Scholastic thinking brought logic and reason to the understanding of God’s saving plan, and Luther would have been taught the roadmap to Church life and salvation. The internal logic of scholasticism rested upon the authority invested in St. Peter by Christ himself, making the pope both the final arbiter of all that is true and the ultimate guardian of the purity and holiness of the Church.
The Scholastic Method did not go unchallenged, however, and Luther would have encountered another school of Catholic thinking, humanism. Humanists found the logical assurances of the Church overreaching, claiming too much. Luther read Aristotle, William of Ockham, and Gabriel Biel during his college years, and two of his humanist professors had profound influence upon his thinking in college and for many years thereafter. Humanists were not heretics; they understood that Church scholarship suffered deficiencies. Again, from an earlier post, some Catholic intellectuals introduced the method of Ressourcement, a return to original documents and Church practices. Inevitably the role of Sacred Scripture itself would come into play. Medieval Catholicism preferred a system of logic and reason against the complex and profoundly human narrative of the Bible. Catholicism’s most famous humanist of Luther’s time was Erasmus of Rotterdam [1469-1536], who discovered that even when the Church turned to the Bible in search of “proof texts,” the translations in use at the time were poor and at times faulty Latin translations. Erasmus would translate the Scripture into its original languages, primarily Greek and Hebrew.
Luther, a highly sensitive man and deeply sensitive to the high stakes of salvation, found himself at age 21 in a profound quandary. He depended upon the certainties promised by the scholastic description of Church life and salvation—that a worthy confession would save him from hell fire, for example—and the humanist emphasis upon mystery and the untapped powers of the literal Word of God. Few people had access to Scripture, and monks, ironically, were forbidden regular study of Biblical texts except those assigned to the Divine Office of daily prayer. Luther’s growing preoccupation with theology and his own eternal destiny was taking him far afield from his father’s legal career plans. It is little wonder, then, that faced with the first true life and death circumstance of his life, a violent storm, he would spontaneously opt for the life of a monk, where he could pursue his questions further and save his soul in the process.
There were four monasteries in Luther’s region, the Dominicans, the Franciscans, the Franciscans, and the Augustinians. No one knows exactly why Luther chose the Augustinians; the best theory is the reputation of that order for strictness and austerity. He could not bring himself to inform his father of his plans, the latter having spent a small fortune on his son’s education to date. On July 16, 1505, Martin Luther entered the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt, Germany.
Luther approached the challenge of monastic living determined to do anything required to achieve perfection and salvation. He would work his way into heaven, driven by a fear of hell fire and a desire to please God by his works. There is great irony that his attitude of salvation through works was condemned by his order’s fifth century icon, St. Augustine himself, in the great saint’s assault against the heresy of Pelagianism, the idea that man can earn grace and salvation by his own efforts. Humanists turned to the method of Ressourcement precisely to uncover such contradictions, but in his early monastic years Luther chose the safer path of guaranteed outcomes.
The fly in the ointment, however, was the nagging fear on Luther’s part that despite his efforts, he did not sense a religious peace or tranquility, which led him to press further in his efforts. Along with physical symptoms, he developed a profound case of scrupulosity, spiritual OCD if you will. Metaxas devotes a chapter to Luther’s scrupulous confessions with his confessor Johannes Staupitz. Luther could not bring himself to believe he had made a worthy confession. On one occasion he confessed to Staupitz for six hours, searching for any psychological reluctance of intention that might render his confession ineffective, or worse, blasphemous. As Metaxas puts it, “His struggles usually had to do with his own doubts that he could ever be good, no matter how he tried, that he could ever be worthy of God’s mercy, grace, and salvation.” [p. 48]
It was a sorry state to endure, and Luther might have lived in his scrupulous prison until death except for the momentous interventions about to come his way.