• Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Flickr
  • YouTube
Thinking Out Loud

Martin Luther Meets Jesus

by Michael Jinkins | Oct 31, 2017

Luther RoseMartin Luther came to a religious calling via a thunderstorm on a sultry day in 1505. He was then, as the great church historian Roland Bainton has explained, a student of twenty-one years returning to the University of Erfurt following a visit home.

Suddenly, a bolt of "lightning struck him to earth," Bainton writes. "In that single flash he saw the denouement of the drama of existence. There was God the all-terrible, Christ the inexorable, and all the leering fiends springing from their lurking places in pond and wood that with sardonic cachinnations they might seize his shock of curly hair and bolt him into hell." In a flash, Luther cried out to his father's patron saint (the patron saint of miners), "St. Anne help me! I will become a monk."*

Luther's terror was driven by a conception of God that many of us will find strange.

For Luther, God the Father is wrathful and vengeful, a God of fury and anger, and Jesus Christ is the inexorably righteous judge sitting upon the covenant rainbow, sword in hand. Even after Luther became a monk, he could not shake his terror at the thought of such a God.

I suspect that he nearly drove his Confessor nuts. Dr. David Johnson, the distinguished historical theologian and friend, once told me that a priest responsible for hearing the confessions of nuns complained to him that it was like being stoned to death by popcorn. I imagine Luther was exactly the same with his Confessor. He was terrified that if he died with a sin - no matter how small - on his conscience, God would take pleasure in tossing him into hell. He confessed everything he could remember but was terrified his memory would fail him.

Luther desperately tried to earn his salvation, shackled as he was to a strict understanding of "works-righteousness." And, yet, he saw the hopelessness of this approach. No matter how hard you try, you just can't do enough to make yourself good enough to deserve salvation, not if the God you believe in is an obsessive monster whose bloodthirst drives him to hate eternally those who fail to be absolutely, perfectly righteous.

Luther had some wonderful teachers, such as John Staupitz, who tried in vain to teach him that God is love and that the response God desires from his creatures is love. But Luther, convinced of his concept of God the almighty and unmerciful, just couldn't believe it. And he surely couldn't love and adore the God he believed in. Who could?

Even the sight of the crucifix frightened Luther. He fled from the vengeful Son of God hanging upon the cross and sought protection from the Blessed Virgin, the merciful mother of Jesus. In light of his understanding of the character of God, it is not surprising that Luther grew more and more depressed. He believed that all humanity deserved to be damned because all are sinners. Luther's scheme of redemption was based on the idea that God demonstrates his capacity to "love" by arbitrarily choosing a few sinners to go to heaven. On the other hand, God demonstrates his capacity for justice by sending all the rest of the sinners to everlasting hell. Luther himself bears witness to the injustice and cruelty of this scheme, saying that the God behind such a plan of salvation must be "iniquitous, cruel and intolerable," and, yet, Luther also believed that this God is God. Thus he says, "I was myself more than once driven to the very abyss of despair so that I wished I had never been created. Love God? I hated him!"**

It was about this time that Luther was assigned the job of teaching the Bible. He began to study scriptures very closely, lecturing on the Psalms in 1513, on the Epistle to the Romans in 1515, and on Galatians throughout 1516 and 1517. These studies proved transformative to Luther.

Gradually he came to see that his understanding of God was at odds with scripture. Jesus Christ, for Luther, had assumed a pre-assigned role in his theology, but Luther had not really seen Jesus as he was in the Gospels. Even God had played merely a pre-assigned role in Luther's theological scheme. But Luther had never sought to understand God in terms of God's own self-revelation in Jesus Christ as presented in the Bible.

Luther came to realize that God is love, as his teacher John Staupitz had insisted, and that the God of the Bible revealed himself as love in his coming to earth in Christ, living, teaching, healing, and ultimately dying at the hands of human beings without seeking vengeance upon those who killed him. In time, Luther would believe that we can only say about God that which God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. As Luther said in 1518, a person deserves to be called a theologian who seeks to understand God, not through flighty speculation, but through the life and death of Jesus.*** In other contexts Luther said that if you want to know what God is like, run to the foot of the cross; run to the manger in Bethlehem.

Martin Luther has probably spent more time on the couch of modern psychotherapy than perhaps any other theological figure. This can easily be overdone. But his crisis of faith, the personal-religious conflict he suffered for so long, the self-loathing and guilt he bore without relief, and the despair and depression that wore upon him because of his gruesome concept of God all likely played a part in his eventual break from Rome. There is no way to extricate his theological perspective from his personal. He and his theology changed together. As Paul Althaus once observed, "the knowledge of God is not theoretical knowledge but rather a matter of [a person's] entire existence."**** This is nowhere more true than with Martin Luther.

When in October of 1517 Luther confronted his church, the Roman Catholic Church, with a series of arguments he wished to debate, one is struck by the energy of this remarkable man, by his passion and his creativity. The treatises he penned over just the next few years shaped the Protestant Reformation for generations after him (including the work of a young Frenchman named John Calvin); his translation of the Bible into vernacular German not only inspired the piety of a people, it helped forge a nation. Luther is a giant of a figure, taking huge strides across history. His mistakes are as enormous as his virtues. But it is impossible to imagine Christian Faith today without him.

Irony upon irony meets us in the history of the church. Few ironies are stranger than the realization that the conception of God and the scheme of redemption that plagued Luther before his study of scripture was largely reproduced in the scholastic versions of Lutheranism and Calvinism that set in by the close of the sixteenth century. It is ironic that even the great motto of the Lutheran Reformation ("The just shall live by faith") would be truncated into a slogan that either excused the excesses of enthusiastic and pious antinomians or the lack of responsibility of those who wanted merely to excuse their knowingly unrighteous behavior. And, of course, it is ironic that the Reformation turned into an excuse to split the church again and again and again, although the reformers had intended to restore the one holy and apostolic church to its primitive purity.

There's no way to go back, but there may be ways forward.

Recently I was riding my bicycle past a Catholic Church in our neighborhood. The church's bells were playing a selection of sacred hymns. I stopped to listen. Some tunes I did not recognize. But one stood out. I knew it well.

As the evening shadows lengthened that day, I stood amazed to hear Luther's hymn, "A Mighty Fortress is our God," ringing out from the bell tower of the Catholic Church.

Strangely, I felt a surge of hope.

*This story is told with unsurpassed color by Roland Bainton in his classic life of Luther, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville, 1950), p. 25.
** Bainton, p. 44.
*** E.G. Rupp and Benjamin Drewery, eds. "The Heidelberg Disputation," in Martin Luther: Documents of Modern History (London, 1978), 28.
**** Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther (Philadelphia, 1966), p. 28.

Leave a comment

  • 1044 Alta Vista Road |
  • Louisville, KY 40205 |
  • 800.264.1839 |
  • Fax: 502.895.1096 |
  • Site Map
© Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary