This coming Sunday will be marked in many Evangelical churches by sermons on the topic of the Reformation, sermons in praise of Martin Luther. Certainly the celebration of Martin Luther’s stand against the authority of the Catholic Church makes sense in a Lutheran context; after all, if Lutherans won’t get excited about the founder of their belief system, why should anyone else? But Evangelicals too wax eloquent on the greatness of the man, praising his life and works, his faith, and his refusal to bend his knee to the authority of the Catholic Church. If they could, many an Evangelical congregation would gladly issue an invite to the Great Reformer, asking him to do them the honor of gracing their pulpit on Reformation Sunday morning. Of course, that might not turn out exactly the way they envision it….
As most people know, Luther was a man of strong opinions. He insisted that HIS interpretation of the Bible and HIS teachings were not only correct, but “God’s teaching,” and went so far as to say that “whoever does not accept my teaching may not be saved,” so certain was he that he was preaching the pure Gospel.
This bodes ill for the Evangelical congregation that invites Luther to preach on Reformation Sunday. Luther was an unwavering proponent of infant baptism and baptismal regeneration. His views on Holy Communion were also pretty inflexible. He insisted that Jesus was actually present alongside the bread and the wine. Other Reformers thought differently. The Reformer Ulrich Zwingli famously set forth his opinion on communion: that the bread and the wine are mere symbols of the body and blood of Christ. Luther minced no words – the beliefs of the Zwinglians were a “pestiferous teaching.” Zwingli was promulgating the doctrines of baptism as a symbol and Holy Communion as a symbol and, of course, so do Evangelicals….
Evangelicals subscribe to Luther’s doctrine of sola Scriptura, “the Bible alone,” so that should be a point of agreement. Luther championed this belief, which allowed him to simultaneously reject Church authority over him and set himself up as a theological authority. So set was he on the principle of “the Bible, and nothing but the Bible” that he came to the conclusion that bigamy could not be prevented. “My faithful warning and advice is that no man, Christians in particular, should have more than one wife” he wrote, but he was careful to spell out that this was his personal preference and opinion, not the teaching of Scripture. “If a man wishes to marry more than one wife, he should be asked whether he is satisfied in his conscience that he may do so in accordance with the word of God.” Luther felt that there were certain cases which necessitated taking a second wife: “if the wife develops leprosy or becomes otherwise unfit to live with her husband… But this permission is always to be restricted to such cases as severe necessity.” This would probably be hard to explain to the poor wife afflicted with leprosy that this was a case of “severe necessity,” that not only was she forced to suffer from a dread disease, but that her husband, who vowed to care for her “in sickness and in health” felt that in this “necessity” he just had to take unto himself a second wife. Were Luther to preach in an Evangelical pulpit this Sunday, perhaps he could encourage sola-Scriptura Evangelicals to have the courage of their convictions, as he did: “I confess that I cannot forbid a person to marry several wives, for it does not contradict the Scripture.” Evangelicals, of course, not taking sola Scriptura to its natural conclusion, believe that the Bible teaches that marriage is between one man and one woman, leprosy or no leprosy….
While he was in the pulpit, Reverend Luther might explain to Evangelicals the deal about the word he ADDED to his translation of Holy Scripture to make it read the way he thought it should read. Since St. Paul hadn’t expressed himself quite clearly enough in Romans 3:28, Luther succumbed to temptation and helped the apostle state his case a little more cogently, translating this verse to read:
We hold that a man is justified without the works of the law, by faith ALONE.
The Reformer could pass out copies of his first Bible translation to eager Evangelicals, although when they noticed that he had taken James, Hebrews, Jude and Revelation out of their rightful places and shunted them to an appendix in the back, he would have some more ‘splaining to do, probably something along the lines of “Let everyone think of it as his own spirit leads him. My spirit cannot accommodate itself to these books….” Evangelicals, of course, take quite seriously the curses pronounced in the books of Deuteronomy and Revelation on anyone who fiddles with Holy Scripture….
One verse that Luther seems to have missed in his Bible reading is the admonition in Ephesians 4:29: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths.” The Reformer was known for his potty mouth. “Everyone talked that way back then,” his defenders will claim, as if poor Luther were a victim of his times. Yet Luther’s fellow reformer, Heinrich Bullinger, begged to differ:
It is as clear as daylight and undeniable that no one has ever written more vulgarly, more coarsely, more unbecomingly in matters of faith and Christian chastity and modesty and all serious matters than Luther. There are writings of Luther which would not be excused if they were written by a shepherd of swine and not by a distinguished shepherd of souls.
An odd thing to say if such profanity as Luther’s was commonplace. Even one of Luther’s Protestant biographers admits that Luther had a “special talent for obscenity.” Undoubtably, Evangelicals would learn a few new words from the man in the pulpit, for Evangelicals pride themselves on their adherence to Ephesians 5:4: Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place….
Very often Evangelicals will make the excuse that Luther “got saved” as an adult, and therefore a few “rough edges” are to be expected. Hey, nobody’s perfect! Luther lived for 29 long years after he nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, dying at age 63. According to his Protestant biographers (see below), his behavior became more objectionable the longer he lived. In his last sermon, preached three days before he died, Luther was spewing hatred against the Jewish people. Hopefully he would not choose to broach this topic from an Evangelical pulpit, as Evangelicals consider themselves staunch friends of God’s chosen people….
This coming Sunday all kinds of wackiness will be preached in honor of Herr Doktor Luther; it’s just strange that some of it will be preached by Evangelicals. The only hope for Evangelicals inviting the great Reformer to their pulpit this Sunday would be the “Luther” of Protestant hagiography and partisan fiction – a Luther of their own creation….
On the memorial of St. John Roberts
Deo omnis gloria!
The following books, all written by Protestant authors, give further information on the subjects mentioned above. Martin Marty, one of the sources cited, is a Lutheran minister of over 50 years.
Luther, Martin. Against the Spiritual Estate of the Pope and the Bishops Falsely So-Called, July 1522.
Marius, Richard. Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death. Belknap Press, Cambridge, 1999, p. 256. Marty, Martin. Martin Luther. Viking Penguin, 2004, pp. 134-136.
Cowie, Leonard W., Martin Luther, Leader of the Reformation. Frederick A. Praeger, Inc., 1969, pg. 110. Oberman, Heiko A. Luther, Man Between God and the Devil, Yale University Press, 1989, pp. 284-289. Marty, Martin. Martin Luther. Viking Penguin, 2004, pp. 108, 159-160. Marius, Richard. Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death. Belknap Press, Cambridge, 1999, p. 260, 391, 440.
Marius, Richard. Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death. Belknap Press, Cambridge, 1999, pp. 353-359. O’Connor, Henry. Letter to Wenceslaus Link in Luther’s Own Statements. 3rd edition; New York, Benziger Bros. 1884.
Oberman, Heiko A. Luther, Man Between God and the Devil, Yale University Press, 1989, pp. 106-109. Marius, Richard. Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death. Belknap Press, Cambridge, 1999, pp. 86-87. Marty, Martin. Martin Luther. Viking Penguin, 2004, pg. 172.
Marty, Martin. Martin Luther. Viking Penguin, 2004, pg. 173. Oberman, Heiko A. Luther, Man Between God and the Devil, Yale University Press, 1989, pg. 290-295. Marius, Richard. Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death. Belknap Press, Cambridge, 1999, pp. 378-380.
Most likely available at your local library! This Reformation Sunday, why not do a little reading?