1 A 3 O R N

Martin Luther

by Eric Metaxas

Created: 2020-12-30
Wordcount: 4k

Eric Metaxas really really likes Luther. So you find out about Luther's less-attractive parts through the shadow of Metaxas' apologia for them. We know he was antisemitic at the end of his life, because Metaxas assures us how uncharacteristic this was of Luther. We can guess that someone has probably accused Luther of being cruel to his wife, because Metaxas' is at pains to repeatedly point out that Luther's jests about her are all in good fun. We find out that Luther's vigorous invective ocurred only after others had yet more vigorously invectified him, so he was only responding in kind. And so on and so forth.

Even so, it's an enjoyable book, which was a good refresher for me about a lot of the Reformation.

The Reformation occurred as it occurred because of the printing press. Luther did not intend the 95 Theses to be widely known, but a publisher decided it would sell well. Father Luther and the Church, then, are swept away by movements they did not realize were possible, and which probably would not have been possible a century ago.

This is all known. I was a little surprised how much this great media shift from verbal to printed resembled the great media shift from printed to the internet. As with the internet, people do not realize how quickly their word spreads. As with the internet, people quickly become unreasonably heated. As with the internet, people even take stupid little nicknames -- at least, their Humanist latinate pen-names. And as with the internet, there are even funky typographical jokes like emojis; the Asterisks and Obelisks published by Luther and an opponent are named after typographical conventions for spurious or important text. And as with the internet, combined image-and-text memes begin spreading quickly; the boomer-esque political cartoons Cranach makes about how Luther's opponents are going to Hell are hilarious. And as with the internet, of course, all authorities disintegrate in the face of the new information-dissemination mechanisms.

One of the sad things in this book is it reminds you how steep the climb towards truth is. Over and over, theologians challenge other theologians to debate, because that was their fundamental process in the pursuit of truth. They didn't know anything better. It's like imagining that the process of science was forgotten except for peer review; the most acrimonious part of the current apparatus, that sets person against person almost inevitably, constituted the entirety of what the theologians and the philosophers did. I ask myself why no one realized it, and immediately the answer comes back -- to what would they point as a better example? There was no physics, no chemistry, no astronomy, not even a sociology or psychology to point to, to help guide them to a better way. So they challenge each other to debates, get heated, call each other names, and leave convinced that the other person is possessed by Satan, over and over and over again.

But more fundamentally, I think, it illustrates how much of the Protestant Reformation is, well, a simple economic process.

The monopolistic Catholic Church ostensibly provided a service, salvation. But the Catholic Church was corrupt. The religious service it provided was shit; things ostensibly existing for our salvation clearly existed only for the enrichment of the clergy. Luther pointed this out. The political atmosphere was such that the monopoly of the Church could not be maintained, over a particular geographic area. And immediately, people tried to provide competing religious services. Luther does indeed try to ground the new competing religious services in the scriptural text, but his new interpretations are absolutely causally behind the overflow of revolt he's unleashed. His careful readings of Romans in the early years are replaced by quick, instinctive choices of what to retain and what to reject from the Catholic Church, in later years. You can in retrospect judge these choices to have been inspired by God, of course. But, in the moment, they seem mostly to be choices made by someone who has accidentally created a startup which is growing at a breakneck pace; he needs to have some choices, because vacillating forever is the worst alternative.

(Of course, I want to be clear that, while Luther and the Catholic Church are both, in my current opinion, incorrect, Luther probably has the greater right upon his side in the moment. I cannot help but sympathize with the scruples of the Augustinian monk.)

One thing Metaxas is critical of, with fair reason, are the people at the time who believe that they've received revelations from God, or the people at the time who believe that they can perceive the "spirits” of the age. Metaxas applauds Luther when he rejects the former, in the form of the Anabaptists. And Metaxas is critical of Luther when he says that he perceives the "same spirit" as the Anabaptists in some people who are trying to reason and be friendly with him. Most mainline Christian groups are very suspicious of such claims of individual spiritual enlightenment, now, because it's hard to sustain any form of unity at all when anyone can invoke this most authoritative of sources all on one's own.

Which makes the fact that Metaxas himself invokes such personal, individual spiritual knowledge himself rather sad. And invokes it as knowledge that Trump had the election stolen from him, no less. It's a reminder, in a rather different realm, that knowing about biases in others often fails completely to help you identify them in yourself.


Family background: "...the Luther family diet was pork. The porcine fragments came principally from “young, fully grown” animals, whose meat was more expensive than that of older, less flavorful hogs. Thirty percent of the bones were from sheep and goats, and the remaining 10 percent from cattle. More than two thousand bones from domestic fowl were identified, most of them goose, also higher on the price scale than other options. Young chickens were also eaten regularly, “along with the occasional duck or pigeon.” Some of the goose bones discovered had been turned into pipes with drilled stops, indicating they had been used as birdcalls, to lure smaller songbirds, which were commonly part of the menu in German homes for many centuries. Finally, the local fishes carefully plucked and identified included freshwater species such as “carp, bream, roach, asp, pike, pike-perch, perch, and eel.” There was also a significant presence of imported saltwater fishes, including “herring, cod, and plaice,” which would have arrived at the Luther house either dried or salted."

Fun Popes: "Just prior to purchasing the papacy, Alexander at the age of fifty-nine ambitiously took as his mistress one Giulia Farnese, forty-three years his junior, who already at the age of sixteen was a celebrated beauty, most renowned for her cataract of golden tresses that tumbled to the marble floors of the Vatican. Some called her “the Pope’s whore,” while cleverer detractors referred to her as “the bride of Christ.”"

Luther on Rome: "But he later remarked that the immensity of this church, as well as of the Cologne Cathedral and St. Peter’s in Rome, rendered them appallingly unsuited to preaching, which for him, of course, was more than a mere pity; it was a fatal flaw and a monumental tragedy. Luther felt that the impressiveness of the structure sacrificed the spiritual lives of the people who would come there. If feeding the Word of God to hungry flocks was the point of it all, and not mere shock-and-awe splendor, then these cavernous interiors would never do. What was the point?"

"For Luther, who had revered the Mass to the point of awe and even terror, this cavalier attitude toward this holiest of privileges must have been a horror to behold. If ever one needed a picture of “dead religion” and “dead works,” here it was in all of its most legalistic ghastliness. Luther saw that these priests hadn’t the slightest reverence for the holy act in which they were participating but wished only to tick off the appropriate box and gallop off to something less demanding. The shortest time officially allowed in which a priest could hurry through the Mass was twelve minutes, but Luther recalled that at the basilica of St. Sebastian seven masses were said in an hour—in other words, in something less than nine minutes each. And when Luther himself said Mass, the next priest—fidgety with impatience—almost literally breathed down his neck. “Quick, quick!” he said to Luther, sarcastically adding, “And send our Lady back her Son!”—obviously a joke about the transubstantiated host. At St. Sebastian, Luther also recalled the freakish oddity of two masses being said simultaneously at the same altar, the priests merely separated by a painting."

Misc: "Masses were constantly being said in the Castle Church so that people could view these relics, which were also a healthy source of income. The number of masses recorded for 1517 was about nine thousand. The records also indicate that during these masses 40,932 candles were burned, amounting to some 7,000 pounds of wax. By 1520, there were 19,013 relics in Frederick’s collection, and it had been carefully calculated that those who visited these relics on the day appointed—and made whatever contributions were required—were able to shorten their own time in purgatory, or the time of a loved one, by nearly two million years."

Why is it always the end times? "Already in 1513, Luther was convinced that the church of Christ was in an advanced state of decrepitude that had been prophesied in the Bible, one in which the Antichrist would reveal himself and do battle with the saints of God. Luther had picked up much of his thinking along these lines from Saint Augustine, but Bernard of Clairvaux had also been an influence. Bernard had been canonized only twenty years after his 1153 death and while alive held that there were three ages of the church. The first had been the epoch of martyrs, in which Christians were persecuted and killed for their faith; the second had been the era of heretics, in which Christians perverted church teaching; and the third and most terrible would be the third epoch, the Last Days, in which the church itself would be so corrupt that the Antichrist himself would arise from within it. Luther believed the church had entered this third and final stage. He had been sickened by the sales of indulgences and even spoke about it to his students. He was convinced that this abuse was a clear sign of having entered the end-time spoken of by Christ. “The way I see it,” he had said, “the Gospel of St. Matthew counts such perversions as the selling of indulgences."

Tetzel on Indulgences: "Consider that all who are contrite and have confessed and made contribution will receive complete remission of all their sins. Listen to the voices of your dear dead relatives and friends, beseeching you and saying, “Pity us, pity us. We are in dire torment from which you can redeem us for a pittance.” Do you not wish to? Open your ears. Hear the father saying to his son, the mother to her daughter, “We bore you, nourished you, brought you up, left you our fortunes, and you are so cruel and hard that now you are not willing for so little to set us free. Will you let us lie here in flames? Will you delay our promised glory?”"

Luther's original intend with Theses: "Nor have we mentioned that the point of posting these theses on the Castle Church doors was not to alert the world to what he was saying but simply to let the academic community of Wittenberg know that he was proposing a scholarly debate—or disputation, as they were called—on the subject of these theses. So it was a declaration not to the world—most of whom could not read the Latin in which the theses were written anyway—nor even to Rome or to the pope. It was but a declaration to other theologians, all of whom read Latin, and it meant to say that this was a very important subject worthy of debate. But surely posting this ultimately incendiary document on the very doors of the Wittenberg Castle Church was itself a bold and dramatic act, was it not? Luther was after all posting theses denouncing indulgences on the door of the very church that his own prince, Frederick the Wise, had built to house his almost innumerable relics, whose viewing entitled the viewer to indulgences! Surely his posting them on these very doors was this upstart monk’s none-too-subtle way of commenting on the hypocrisy of what went on inside those doors, was it not? Could there be any other way of seeing it? Alas, for those invested in seeing great drama in this action, there certainly could be. For it so happens that because the Castle Church was very much at the center of life in the community of Wittenberg, the huge wooden doors through which everyone entered the church were the best place to post anything of any community interest, making them the all-purpose bulletin board for the small city."

Luther's original intend with Theses: "These were academic allies and friends he respected, and Luther doubtless thought sending the theses to them would help stir a debate and would lead toward dealing with the issues at hand more generally. The Nuremberg Humanist and printer Christopher Scheurl was impressed with what he read and thought that the theses should be reprinted, and without the fussy legality of needing to obtain copyright permissions, he simply printed them himself, right there in his own town of Nuremberg, instantly ensuring that they would have a dramatically wider reading. In this way, the horse snuck out of the barn, because once the theses were circulating, the whole controversy would take on a life of its own. But Luther did not realize this at the time, having never lived through anything like this before—and who had? After Scheurl had the theses reprinted in Nuremberg, other editions were soon printed in Basel and Leipzig too. In fact, the Basel edition was produced in an elegant pamphlet form, which promptly catapulted it into the intellectual jet stream and guaranteed it a far speedier and wider circulation."

Luther on unforunately fast spread of news: "But now that they are printed and circulated far beyond my expectation, I feel anxious about what they may bring forth: not that I am unfavorable to spreading known truth abroad—rather this is what I seek—but because this method is not that best adapted to instruct the public. I have certain doubts about them myself, and should have spoken far differently and more distinctly had I known what was going to happen."

Prieras, contra Luther: "Third foundation: He who does not accept the doctrine of the Church of Rome and pontiff of Rome, as an infallible rule of faith, from which the Holy Scriptures, too, draw their strength and authority, is a heretic. Fourth foundation: The Church of Rome can make decisions both in word and deed concerning faith and morals. And there is no difference except that words are better suited. In this sense habit acquires the force of law, for the will of a prince expresses itself in deeds which he allows or himself arranges to have done. Consequently: as he who thinks incorrectly concerning the truth of Scriptures is a heretic, so too he who thinks incorrectly concerning the doctrines and deeds of the Church in matters of faith and morals is a heretic."

Local Duke on Uses of Politicians: "When the local bishop opposed the debate too, Duke George roared, “What good is a soldier if he is not allowed to fight, a sheep dog if he may not bark, and a theologian if he may not debate?”1 He fulminated against the lot of them as gluttonous and lazy and declared, “If the theologians at Leipzig cannot stomach these debates and are afraid of losing them, they should be replaced by old women who are paid to sing and spin yarn for us!”2 In the end, the theologians complied."

Description of Luther during debate: "Mosselanus has given us this indelible portrait of the actors: Martin is of medium height with a gaunt body that has been so exhausted by studies and worries that one can almost count the bones under his skin; yet he is manly and vigorous, with a high, clear voice. He is full of learning and has an excellent knowledge of the Scriptures, so that he can refer to facts as if they were at his fingers’ tips. He knows enough Greek and Hebrew to enable him to pass judgments on interpretations. He is also not lacking in subject material and has a large store of words and ideas. In his life and behavior he is very courteous and friendly, and there is nothing of the stern stoic or grumpy fellow about him. He can adjust to all occasions. In a social gathering he is gay, witty, lively, ever full of joy, always has a bright and happy face, no matter how seriously his adversaries threaten him. One can see in him that God’s strength is with him in his difficult undertaking. The only fault everyone criticizes in him is that he is somewhat too violent and cutting in his reprimands, in fact more than is proper for one seeking to find new trails in theology, and certainly also for a divine; this is probably a weakness of all those who have gained their learning somewhat late.12 Much the same can be said of Karlstadt, though in a lesser degree. He is smaller than Luther, with a complexion of smoked herring. His voice is thick and unpleasant. He is slower in memory and quicker in anger.13 Someone else in attendance remarked that Karlstadt possessed a “repulsive, unbearded face.” Mosselanus’s description of Eck is the most detailed: Eck, in contrast, is a great, tall fellow, solidly and robustly built. The full, genuinely German voice that resounds from his powerful chest sounds like that of a town crier or a tragic actor. But it is more harsh than distinct. The euphony of the Latin language, so highly praised by Fabius and Cicero, is never heard in his mode of speech. His mouth and eyes, or rather his whole physiognomy, are such that one would sooner think him a butcher or common soldier than a theologian. As far as his mind is concerned, he has a phenomenal memory. If he had an equally acute understanding, he would be the image of a perfect man. He lacks quickness of comprehension and acuteness of judgment, qualities without which all the other talents are vain. And this is the reason that, in debating, he throws everything together promiscuously and without selection—arguments from reason, Scripture texts, citations from the fathers—without considering how inept, meaningless and sophistical is most of what he says. He is concerned only with showing off as much knowledge as possible, so as to throw dust in the eyes of the audience, most of whom are incapable of judging, and make them believe that he is superior."

Luther the Existentialist: "“The summons of death comes to us all,” he said, “and no one can die for another.” Who could fail to be drawn in by that, whatever the speaker’s “cephalic structure”? How these first startling words from the man thought dead himself must have echoed in the ears of the congregation. “Everyone,” he went on, “must fight his own battle with death by himself alone. We can shout into another’s ears, but everyone must himself be prepared for the time of death, for I will not be with you then, nor you with me."

Fucking Chesterton-like stuff: "Christian truth was eleven parts paradox out of ten. This was its essentially mysterious."

Luther on Owning the Libs: "we know that Luther took an especial delight in the scandalous outrage that marrying a nun was bound to occasion. He spoke of wanting to spite the devil—and the pope too—by doing such a thing. And yet he did not do it only out of spite. To someone for whom spiritual warfare was quite real, the act of marrying a nun was as though he had delivered a whirling roundhouse kick to the devil’s own snout. He knew that this act would have meaning and very real power in the spiritual realm. It was an act of worship to God as much as anything anyone could ever do, and its spiritual significance was tremendous."

Marriage Customs Peculiar to Us: Odder far than the idea that these marriages were consummated before the weddings was the idea that they must be consummated in full view of a witness. So after the small ceremony, the couple were escorted to their bedroom in the cloister, where Jonas did the curious honors, watching the two become one flesh literally and figuratively. He wept to see it, knowing the huge significance of it all on every level. There was often an observation deck above the bed, though this detail seems not to have been observed in this case.

Erasmus on Free Will: "With typical élan and nuance, Erasmus eloquently laid out every aspect of the arguments. In even more classically Erasmian fashion, he took a firm stand against taking a firm stand, asserting that the question of whether free will existed could never truly be settled. He said that the idea that Luther had demonstrated free will did not exist was simply wrong. Besides, there was enough in the Old Testament to make the case for free will, and the church fathers—whose points of view were further recommended by their lives of great holiness (he said pointedly)—had also believed free will existed. So there. Also, there was no way of saying exactly whether free will might not play at least some role in our salvation, however small—although Erasmus rightly qualified this by saying that no matter what we did that could be construed as good, we would nonetheless be obliged to give the glory to God and to ascribe whatever good we did to God’s grace. But did this actually mean there was no such thing as free will? He doubted it. This was the mystery of it all, but Erasmus was not uncomfortable with that mystery. If there was a mystery, there was a mystery. Why force an inscrutable text to say something because we were uncomfortable with its inscrutability?"

Luther, the (kinda) moron: "Luther was so busy when De libero arbitrio was published that he did not read any of it until November. Usually, Luther only read bits of works that attacked him, lest their untruths and confused arguments affect him too much."

Luther on Religious Ed.: "Dear God, what misery I beheld! The ordinary person, especially in the villages, knows absolutely nothing about the Christian faith, and unfortunately many pastors are completely unskilled and incompetent teachers. Yet supposedly they all bear the name Christian, are baptized, and receive the holy sacrament, even though they do not know the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, or the Ten Commandments! As a result they live like simple cattle or irrational pigs and, despite the fact that the gospel has returned, have mastered the fine art of misusing all their freedom."