The Many Sins of Martin Luther

Someone on Quora wanted to know if Martin Luther was the most evil German of all time. And while he’s certainly not up there with Adolf Hitler, I think the question deserves some serious consideration.

It is safe to say that Martin Luther was and is a controversial figure. To radical Protestants of the Calvinist persuasion, he was a milksop who essentially clung to his Roman Catholic roots, calling for only minimal reform of a church they felt was far too far gone in sin and usury to be capable of real reform, so they wanted to get rid of it altogether. To Catholics, of course, he is evil incarnate and deserves to roast in hell forever.

Personally, I think a more nuanced view is called for.

Martin Luther personally started the Reformation with his 95 theses in 1517, but all he really wanted to do was discuss the obvious and serious abuses within the Roman Church of the time. He was particularly outraged by the scandalous sale of indulgences, which Pope Leo X (1475-1521), who was notoriously on the verge of bankruptcy, used to finance his lavish lifestyle. By ostentatiously contributing to the rebuilding of St Peter’s in Rome, sinners could buy their way out of purgatory. A common slogan at the time was: „When the coin rings in the box, the soul jumps up into heaven“ („Wenn die Münze im Kasten klingt, die Seele in den Himmel springt“).

Over time, Luther defined four pillars on which he believed the Christian faith should be based:

  1. The Bible, as the Word of God, is the only guide for human action and the only path to salvation – and not, as propagated by the Church of Rome, the many, sometimes contradictory and above all man-made decisions of Popes and Councils.
  2. Man becomes righteous only by the grace of God, without any merit of his own. The sale of indulgences, which gives sinners a kind of „get out of jail free“ card, is an abomination to him.
  3. By dying on the cross and taking upon himself the sins of mankind, Jesus Christ made himself the only bridge between mankind and God.
  4. „By faith alone“. The whole Christian life is based on this. „Through faith in him, the righteousness of Christ becomes our righteousness, and all that is his, even he himself, becomes ours.

With these insights, Luther raised the relationship between man and God to a new level. Man can now turn directly to his Creator, without needing the Church, priests, or saints as intermediaries. He is thus free from any paternalism on the part of the church. This basic thesis, that the relationship between God and the believer does not need a moderator such as a pastor, fundamentally changed Christian Europe.

Luther’s teaching was a frontal attack on the power position of the church hierarchy. For Luther, the pope’s claim to be above the Bible as a teaching authority is also false. Luther’s insights are revolutionary because they upset the entire moral compass of the Middle Ages. Luther himself did not believe that he had created anything new, but that he had merely uncovered the truth that had been lost.

Had Luther confined himself to passing on these insights in his sermons to laymen and his lectures to his students, he would probably have become nothing more than one of many, many irritants protesting the corruption and heresies in the Roman Church of his day, whom Rome thought it could safely ignore, like Jan Huss, who had taught similar things a century earlier and whom the Roman Church had burned for his troubles.

But Luther had a new tool to make himself and his ideas heard – one as powerful as the Internet is today: the printing press. With it, he reached and inflamed hundreds of thousands of people, including highly influential ones like kings and princes, who saw his teachings as an effective means of freeing themselves from the yoke of the church.

Of course, none of this should distract us from Luther’s darker side. For example, he was a rabid anti-Semite who launched into diatribes against people of other faiths.

Worse, he was a sycophant of authority: When the peasants, incited by his theses, rose up against extortion and serfdom, burning castles, forcibly dissolving monasteries, and expelling nobles, Luther clearly sided with the powers that be. In his writing „Against the Robbery and Murderous Peasant Gangs,“ he called for the violent suppression of the peasants. The poorly equipped serfs soon succumbed to the battle-hardened mercenary troops of the Holy Roman Empire. Luther’s image suffered greatly among the poor and simple.

And third, he was a witch hunter. Because Luther took the Bible literally, which says, in part, „You shall not let a sorceress live“ (Ex. 22:17), he advocated witch trials in which an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 people in Europe were burned, drowned, beheaded, driven out, or died of torture between 1400 and 1800.

Nevertheless, Luther’s teachings spread rapidly across the European continent. On the other hand, the conflict with the „Catholic Church,“ as the Pope’s Roman Church was now called, became increasingly violent. Both sides took up arms. This religious conflict culminated in the Thirty Years‘ War (1618-1648), at the end of which religious freedom in Germany and Europe was sealed by treaty.

So was Luther evil? Is he in the same league as, say, Adolf Hitler? I say no. But Martin Luther was human, warts and all. Let those of us who are without sin cast the first stone.


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