Martin Luther Is My Homeboy: The Life of Luther (Part 5)

If ex-lax existed in Luther’s day maybe the Reformation would never have happened. At least that’s a logical conclusion to be drawn from what psychologist Erik Erikson essentially theorizes in his book Young Man Luther (204-05). It is often popular to interpret Luther’s conversion and confrontation with the church in a way that downplays actual spiritual change. But Luther’s own words do not allow us this inane approach. Luther’s conversion actually did transform him, to the point that the was compelled to act! It wasn’t, mind you, that Luther was anti-church (as so many people are these days). The young man Luther was not a church-hater, but rather he loved the church. It was this love for the Bride of Christ which, thus, compelled him to call her to repentance. Love not hatred was a chief motivator in this often assumed angry monk.

Luther often gets a bad wrap. He is often cited as a drunk monk, a Jew-hater, a spiteful rebel, and a divisive preacher. Perhaps some of those characterizations are true on some level, but they are nuanced. None of those labels is a pure and totally accurate understanding of this complex man. But he was a man devoted to the will of God, a man who had been transformed by the grace of God. And Luther was not out to personally seek enemies. He was not, as Erikson theorized, merely rebelling against the church because he had daddy issues. The fact was that Luther loved the church. That love is most clearly seen on display at one of the pivotal moments in Luther’s battle with the Pope: The Diet of Worms

I always thought it funny that it was called the Diet of Worms. It makes me think of tha told grade school song: nobody likes me, everybody hates me, I guess I’ll go eat worms (I can’t tell if this is a historian’s joke or a pastors joke, either way I recognize it as the sort of lame joke I laugh at). It was clear that at this gathering there were very few ecclesiastics who liked Luther, and here he was being called to eat worms before the whole world (Diet in this case actually means a deliberative assembly). He had stirred up enough stink in the Empire that the church felt warranted in calling this meeting. It wasn’t, however, as though Luther was simply trying to cause problems. He had started with a simple step of protocol to call the church to discuss, rethink, and reevaluate its beliefs and practices. For a long time he held out that the Pope himself was innocent and ignorant of these errors within the church. But by 1518 he is known to have told papal legate Cardinal Cajetan that he did not believe the papacy itself could be supported Biblically. Surely we must admit that his animosity intensified over the three years that his case was being heard, and eventually become hostile after his excommunication. But Luther sought none of this.

In April of 1521 Luther entered Worms to defend his writings against the charge of heresy. Here he stood before not just leading officials within the church but before the Emperor as well. Roland Bainton is surely right to say it is a scene that lends itself to the dramatic. Archbishop Eck stood before Luther as prosecutor. A pile of his books were amassed on a table and Luther was asked, “Are these books all yours?” They were. “Do you defend them all, or do you care to reject a part?” Luther’s response is important here, for it denies that Luther was seeking merely to make enemies, stir up strife and discord. Roland Bainton gives Luther’s response as follows:

This touches God and his Word. This affects the salvation of souls. Of this Christ said, “He who denies me before men, him will I denjy before my father.” To say too little or too much would be dangerous. I beg you, give me time to think it over.” (Here I Stand, 141)

You see Luther did not take lightly what he was being asked. He did not take lightly the ramifications of his answer for himself or for others. His response was calculated to consider what was best for the church. He loved the church and was open to the possibility of being wrong. In fact could it be proven from Scripture that he was in error he would recant. Luther was not about making a name for himself. He says this in another place too.

In his dispute with Erasmus Luther reflected on his own grief over the rift that had been created between himself and the church. He loved this church and had never sought to be separated from her. His sorrow is worth quoting in full here:

I, too, thought it incredible that this Troy of ours, so often assaulted and so long unconquered, could ever be taken. And I call God witness against my soul, that I would have continued so, and would be under their influence today, had not constraint of conscience and evidence of facts forced me on to a different road. Doubtless you can appreciate that my heart is not made of stone; and that, had it been stone, it could not but have been softened by the buffeting received in my struggle with the waves and the storms, as I dared to do that which, once done, must, as I saw, bring down the whole weight of the authority of those whom you have listed like a deluge upon my head. (Bondage of the Will, 110)

Luther loved the church and it broke his heart to be at war with her. But it was because of his love that he could not stand idly by while the Bride of Christ was molested. Is it love that compels you to criticize the church where necessary?

It is very popular, especially among my generation, to “rebuke” the church. More books come out every year decrying the failure, sickness, and “death” of the church. But I fear for many of us it is not love that compels us to criticize. For many it gains us a hearing when we curse the church (after all its popular to be a “rebel Christian”). For some of us it is fun to mock and decry the silliness of Evangelicalism (and there is silliness). But Luther did all these things and more, but did it with a motive of love. He was not seeking fame, nor simply out to ruffle feathers (well not all the time anyways). He loved the church and because of that love sought to hold the church accountable to Scripture. Do you love the church? Is it evident in how you speak of Christ’s bride?

Comments

  1. Another good post on Luther. I’m enjoying these, bro. The question of “what is the church” always stands forth in my mind. When you use the word “church” in this article, what exactly are you referring to? Most of us are familiar with the words of Augustine: “The church may be a whore, but she is my mother.” This sounds noble, but you have to realize that Augustine was talking about an ecclesiastical hierarchy when he said that. And that is not the church. An institution of any form is not the church. People use that word so flippantly and apply it to so many things these days that it helps to lay down some kind of working definition, I think. To critiuqe an institution or religious system is not to critique the Bride of Christ. For whatever reason, there is a kind of double reaction taking place among evangelicals based upon this misapprehension, the likes of which is represented, for instance, by the two brothers who wrote the book “Why we love the church: In praise of institutions and organized religion.” The title alone is enough to bewilder me, for it is clearly an unbiblical identification of the church with something which is not the church. Oh well. I could go on and on. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

    • Pastor Dave Online says:

      Well the Greek term translated as “church,” which admittedly is a really bad translation, simply means “assembly.” It was a term often used to describe a gathering of citizens. In the New Testament it came to refer to particular assemblies of believers who met regularly for community and spiritual growth. In some cases that meant one “church” in a city, in other cases it meant multiple “churches” in a city. And in some Pauline letters it came to reprsent churches all over a region. But it does refer to a specific gathering, an actual gathering, in the New Testament. In terms of the “institutional” set up of the church, I can readialy agree that it has created all sorts of problems today. Churches today have professionalized ministry, have so much overhead that we can’t focus on actual ministry, etc. etc. Nonetheless it’s easy to critcize this and yet I am not sure what it would look like to go “back.” For the most part we aren’t even really sure what the early church looked like. The Scriptures are sparse on the details.And “institutionalization” happened very quickly in the church’s existence (in other words this “problem” has been around for nearly the church’s whole existence). So I think to some degree we must accept what we have, fight to make the necessary changes, committ to a regular gathering for our benefit and the benefit of others, and be willing to love all the assemblies of Christ. It’s nice to be an idealist, but it doesn’t help us or others in our present situation.

  2. Tis true that within the heart of every cynical person is a disappointed idealist. I’ve been down that road myself. Probably we all have to some degree. The church question is definitely one to consider, though, I’d say. Church history is strewn with examples of those who chose to take different paths in pursuit of God’s will, and there are many things, both good and bad, we can learn from their testimony.

    I appreciate your knowledge of reformation history. How much have you looked into the story of the believers known as Anabaptists? What are your impressions from that line of things?

    • Pastor Dave Online says:

      The Anabaptist tradition is as complex as is the rest of the Reformation. It’s not by any means a uniform group. Some were apocalyptic nut jobs (i.e. Melchior Hoffmann and Jan Mathijs), others were just theological radicals (i.e. Caspar Schwenckfeld), others were devout and faithful follwers of Christ seeking to take the reformation further than the magisterial reformers (i.e. Menno Simons). So in that sense, as with the other reformers, I have some things I love about them and some things I dont’ agree with them at all on.

  3. True that. There are few periods in church history that inspire me like the reformation era, in particular the testimony of the Anabaptists. Have you ever read The Pilgrim Church by E.H. Broadbent? It’s basically a history of Christians and churches from century one till now that have stood outside both Catholic and Protestant traditions. I’d be interested to hear your take on it if you have, or recommend it if you haven’t.

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