Is Martin Luther a Lutheran?

On Halloween, of all days to start a reformation, exactly 500 years ago, Martin Luther posted some theses for discussion. He was ticked off by the selling of indulgences, a fundraising scheme of the Pope at the time. Being a university professor, he attacked the thinking behind the idea, inviting scholarly theological debate on the subject.

From that modest beginning, a new wave washed over Europe, ultimately drowning the Middle Ages, with consequences and collateral damage, as well as some fresh insights, many still with us today. In some ways, the Reformation really began four years later when Luther, his theology developing as it was challenged, was pressed into a corner where he could do no other than confess the grace of God as his sole hope and salvation. Indulgences turned out to be only the initial thread which when pulled would eventually unravel the whole garment of medieval theology and practice.

As is known, it was never Luther’s plan to start a new church. He was steeped in the Fathers of the early centuries of Christianity, and his was a reformation to restore the one Catholic and Apostolic Church, cleansed of its medieval barnacles, guided by the Scriptures, and especially the New Testament. Perhaps in another time, it might have gone no further than a lively series of academic debates and some adjustments to church practice. The Church is always in process of reformation about something, and usually handles it without blowing up. But this time, Luther was a spark which fell on some very dry grass. Before long, it was an unstoppable wildfire.

The previous century had already seen significant attempts at reformation. Jan Hus might well have been the great reformer who history celebrates. But the Church at the time tried to suppress reformatory efforts, not learn from them. No Second Vatican Council “to let in some fresh air,” as Pope John XXIII put it, in that age. The difference between the failure of Hus and success of Luther was entirely due to the staunch and effective support Luther had from his Prince, protecting him from Church authorities who tried very hard to burn him away as they had Hus.

Despite Luther’s intentions to reform and restore, rather than reorganize, the Church, the rigid opposition to change on the one hand, and the intense clamor for it on the other, made a rational reformation impossible. In only a decade or two, the “Lutherans” had been excommunicated, the “Romans” denounced, and confessional documents drafted by theologians and signed by political rulers. By then, not only were Luther and his followers established, but multiple efforts were under way, some more or less sympathetic to Luther, others with no common ground with him except opposition to the Roman status quo. By Luther’s death in 1546, it was no longer simply a reformation of the Catholic West, but a multiple ferment of disgruntled monarchs, revolting peasants, radical theologians and budding anarchists alongside the weighty majority Lutheran constituency. In his later years, Luther found himself denouncing the opponents of Rome as often as its supporters.

To deal with the need to continue the Church among his followers after mutual anathemas made it clear the split was not going to be of short duration, Luther established an orderly church government and worship. He described the reorganization as driven by “Notstand,” a situation of need, never intended as permanent, and with no desire to institute a new form of ecclesiology. But we have passed five centuries in “Notstand.” Not only that, but Luther’s movement of reforming and restoring the Catholic Church has morphed into “the Lutheran Church,” a large collection of jurisdictions around the world looking very permanently institutional. Many of them bear little resemblance to Luther’s theology.

Those who follow Martin Luther’s thinking today are in several denominations, including Roman Catholics. Luther himself has been claimed by many movements, variously seen as the founder of modern democracy, the proponent of everyone interpreting the Bible for him- or her-self, the precursor of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, the founder of the Lutheran Church, the model for American anti-intellectual Christianity, the prophet of political freedom, the German intellectual seed from which Kant, Feurbach, Harnack and Schweitzer sprouted, and much else.

The best modern understanding of Luther has nothing in common with these notions. It is the Finnish school of theologians gathered around Professor Tuomo Mannermaa (in English, see “Union with Christ,” edited by Braaten and Jenson and published by Eerdmans). They have freed Luther from the captivity of the interpretations listed in the above paragraph and examined the man anew. When Luther is evaluated for himself and not through the lens of a long line of German philosophers and theologians, what emerges is a scholar of the Church Fathers and professor of Biblical Studies. By finding his guides among the Fathers, Luther reforms by trying to restore the theology and worldview of the early church, rather than scrapping everything and starting over, as some of the radical reformers like Zwingli, and Menno Simons did. Luther is also a humble man, profoundly aware of his own sin, and thereby profoundly moved by the joy of finding God’s unmerited grace.

The sum total of this resembles Eastern Christianity, since a journey back to the Fathers encounters exactly where the Eastern Church lives. In Luther’s day, however, communication with Eastern Christians was extremely difficult, so there was never a meeting of the minds between him and contemporary Eastern thought. The latter was itself not flourishing during those years, coping with an often primitive and oppressive environment. Later interpretations of Luther moved Lutheran thought away from the East, making subsequent encounters unproductive.

As we stand at the five hundredth year anniversary, what do we do with this? Many will celebrate the occasion with great gusto, a tribal milestone for the large Lutheran clan and even many of its Protestant cousins, followers of movements with which Luther disagreed and some which he vehemently condemned. It is questionable if Martin Luther would join the festivities. He would hardly recognize much of modern Lutheranism, whose mission drift has sailed far away from Augsburg. He would recognize much in modern Protestantism as that which he tried very hard to counteract. As for the secular claims regarding democracy, he would likely be appalled at his name being used.

The Reformation was necessary, given the deterioration and deviation of the medieval western Church. Nevertheless, it is a tragedy of major proportions by the time it is done. There is nothing here to celebrate. The Body of Christ has been brutally torn apart, with minimal interest in healing her together again. The issues of the Reformation have been at least partially resolved, but only to be replaced by new deviations further separating the Body, and done by local denominational fiat rather than conciliar consensus. It resembles the Gospel story of sweeping away one demon, only to have the vacuum filled by many more.

What can be immensely celebrated is the clear Gospel message of Martin Luther himself, shorn of later redactions. Go read the man himself if you want clarity in this sad event. There is no shortage of material. The excellent translation of his works requires 55 volumes. If that is too much, read the contemporary Finns about the man.

If you come away from that as a disciple of Martin Luther, all the better. Follow the thinking of St. Augustine’s House, a modern monastic community, which states, “we identify with the Lutheran tradition, understood as a movement within and for the one holy catholic and apostolic Church of Jesus Christ.” The next Reformation, long overdue, is the theology which will:
a) discover the earth is the Lord’s, and “secular” must be banished from our thinking, b) replace institutional survival instincts with humble discipleship in the Body of Christ, c) see the continuous Eucharistic prayer of offering all our life to God, who gives us his life in return, and d) refuse to accept the divisions of the Body of Christ, insisting on union among all orthodox Christians.

Once that is done, we will have something worth celebrating.