October 31, 2017 marked the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. That’s the date that Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and professor of theology at the University of Wittenburg posted 95 theses, written in Latin, for “public discussion.” He was criticizing the theology behind selling indulgences to the German people, a practice he found to be rather exploitative. At the time when he posted his theses there was just the right combination new technology (the printing press), German nationalism, and resentment toward the ecclesiastical powers in Rome on the part of the German rulers to make Luther’s ideas highly attractive and easily distributable. He was also striking at the Roman church’s pocketbook. The ensuing Reformation completely re-shaped the western world at nearly every level of politics, religion, and culture.
Luther, who was born 534 years ago today, was a brilliant theologian with an equally fascinating personality. When you read his writings, you get a sense of both how intelligent and how tough he was. He produced a lot of material that is well reasoned and yet is much more accessible to readers than many modern theologians, in my opinion. He also wouldn’t easily back down and often went to extremes in his characterization of his enemies. Were he alive today, he would likely have his Twitter account taken down.
But Luther also had a compassionate side. His early years as an Augustinian monk were characterized by suffering from debilitating, obsessive preoccupation with his own sin. He knew what it was like to live in fear of eternal damnation and, as a result, was able to utilize his theology and experience to help other Christians going through similar experiences of anxiety and fear. Indeed, his understanding of justification by faith served to be very therapeutic to himself and to his followers.
One of my favorite passages from Luther that illustrates his compassionate, pastoral side is when he was counseling a young man named Jerome, who was apparently suffering from the same despair that Luther himself had. Luther wrote:
“Whenever this temptation of melancholy comes to you, beware not to dispute with the devil nor allow yourself to dwell on these lethal thoughts, for so doing is nothing less than giving place to the devil and so falling.
Try as hard as you can to despise these thoughts sent by Satan. In this sort of temptation and battle, contempt is the easiest road to victory; laugh your enemy to scorn and ask to whom you are talking. By all means flee solitude, for he lies in wait most for those alone. This devil is conquered by despising and mocking him, not by resisting and arguing. Therefore, Jerome, joke and play games with my wife and others, in which way you will drive out your diabolic thoughts and take courage.
Be strong and cheerful and cast out those monstrous thoughts. Whenever the devil harasses you thus, seek the company of men, or drink more, or joke and talk nonsense, or do some other merry thing. Sometimes we must drink more, sport, recreate ourselves, aye, and even sin a little to spite the devil, so that we leave him no place for troubling our consciences with trifles. We are conquered if we try too conscientiously not to sin at all. So when the devil says to you, “Do not drink,” answer him, “I will drink, and right freely, just because you tell me not to.” One must always do what Satan forbids. What other cause do you think that I have for drinking so much strong drink, talking so freely and making merry so often, except that I wish to mock and harass the devil who is wont to mock and harass me. Would that I could contrive some great sin to spite the devil, that he might understand that I would not even then acknowledge it and that I was conscious of no sin whatever. We, whom the devil thus seeks to annoy, should remove the whole Decalogue from our hearts and minds.”
This encapsulates so much of what I love about Luther’s theology. His theology is built on the foundation of God’s free grace and he takes human frailty seriously. His is not a theology that is overly speculative or other-worldly, but is rooted in the realities of life. His theology is deeply opposed to any sort of self-justification or facade of holiness. In fact, Luther rebelled against the predominant medieval theology that started with speculation from above, and instead argued for a theology from below, from earth. If you want to know about God, start by looking at the manger and at the cross.