Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther

Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther

Halloween 2017 is the 500th anniversary of a turning point in Western history. Although few actions have changed the world as much as Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg, it was barely mentioned in my formal education. Bainton's "Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther" filled an important gap in my understanding of the world. Bainton introduced me to the complex issues of religion, politics, and history needed to comprehend the daring and the significance of Luther's rebellion against the Catholic Church. Before reading this book, I had a completely inadequate appreciation for the unfathomable bravery and conviction Luther must have had to stand alone against the enormous power of the Church. But German being German, there's a word for this:

The word he used was Anfechtung, for which there is no English equivalent. It may be a trial sent by God to test man, or an assault by the Devil to destroy man.

The story of Luther is at heart a religious and intellectual one. As Bainton writes, "Luther was above all else a man of religion. The great outward crises of his life which bedazzle the eyes of dramatic biographers were to Luther himself trivial in comparison with the inner upheavals of his questing after God." The book explains how the early 1500's saw the primacy of Christianity contending with the challenge of Erasmian Humanism and the birth of nationalism. I was surprised to learn that Luther and Erasmus were correspondents and enjoyed Bainton's exploration of their perspectives on rationality and religion. Luther's religious fundamentalism and unshakeable faith was core to everything about him - simultaneously admirable and a bit disturbing. How are we to judge Luther in our modern age of religious fundamentalism? And yet, Luther was clearly not one to blindly trust in authority - his disposition was ferociously rational as he pointed out the hypocrisies in the Church. Bainton helped me wrap my mind about this seeming contradiction between Luther's faith and his rationality:

The reason why faith is so hard and reason so inadequate is a problem far deeper than logic. Luther often railed at reason, and he has been portrayed in consequence as a complete irrationalist in religion. This is quite to mistake his meaning. Reason in the sense of logic he employed to the uttermost limits.

Luther himself is a fascinating personality. Even more than his famous defense of himself at the Diet of Worms, what really struck me about Luther is what he didn't do. He never advocated for violence and although his Protestant theology got caught up in the waves of religious/nationalist wars that roiled Europe thereafter, he himself was completely nonviolent. I was astounded by his willingness to risk his life - completely defenseless - in the service of his ideas - even while enduring the constant refrain, “Are you alone wise and all the ages in error?”

And while the serious side of Luther's life gets a full treatment, Bainton doesn't neglect his lighter side either. I particularly enjoyed the sections about Luther's marriage and his influence on German domestic life. His humor shines through in such passage as:

When Luther looked at his family in 1538, he remarked, “Christ said we must become as little children to enter the kingdom of heaven. Dear God, this is too much. Have we got to become such idiots?”

Bainton's book filled a major gap in my understanding of the Western history of ideas. He made me feel the inner struggle of Luther as he wrestled with Scripture - carefully explaining the subtle points of doctrine and enlivening the issues with historical context and Luther's own pointed commentary. Given Luther's enormous impact, Bainton's book deserves a read by anyone seeking to understand how the West thinks about religion, authority, and faith.

My highlights below:


His demolition was the more devastating because it reinforced disintegrations already in progress. Nationalism was in process of breaking the political unities when the Reformation destroyed the religious. Yet this paradoxical figure revived the Christian consciousness of Europe. In his day, as Catholic historians all agree, the popes of the Renaissance were secularized, flippant, frivolous, sensual, magnificent, and unscrupulous. The intelligentsia did not revolt against the Church because the Church was so much of their mind and mood as scarcely to warrant a revolt. Politics were emancipated from any concern for the faith to such a degree that the Most Christian King of France and His Holiness the Pope did not disdain a military alliance with the Sultan against the Holy Roman Emperor. Luther changed all this. Religion became again a dominant factor even in politics for another century and a half. Men cared enough for the faith to die for it and to kill for it. If there is any sense remaining of Christian civilization in the West, this man Luther in no small measure deserves the credit.

The first endeavor must be to understand the man. One will not move far in this direction unless one recognizes at the outset that Luther was above all else a man of religion. The great outward crises of his life which bedazzle the eyes of dramatic biographers were to Luther himself trivial in comparison with the inner upheavals of his questing after God.

Luther always exhibited an extraordinary devotion to his father and was grievously disturbed over parental disapproval of his entry into the monastery. When his father died, Luther was too unnerved to work for several days.

The poorest scholar in the class every noon was given a donkey mask, hence called the asinus, which he wore until he caught another talking German.

The teachers were no brutes. One of them, Trebonius, on entering the classroom always bared his head in the presence of so many future burgomasters, chancellors, doctors, and regents.

Yet Luther was at times severely depressed, and the reason lay not in any personal frictions but in the malaise of existence intensified by religion. This man was no son of the Italian Renaissance, but a German born in remote Thuringia, where men of piety still reared churches with arches and spires straining after the illimitable. Luther was himself so much a gothic figure that his faith may be called the last great flowering of the religion of the Middle Ages. And he came from the most religiously conservative element of the population, the peasants.

There is just one respect in which Luther appears to have been different from other youths of his time, namely, in that he was extraordinarily sensitive and subject to recurrent periods of exaltation and depression of spirit.

Neither can one blithely write off the case as an example of manic depression, since the patient exhibited a prodigious and continuous capacity for work of a high order. The explanation lies rather in the tensions which medieval religion deliberately induced, playing alternately upon fear and hope.

The man who was later to revolt against monasticism became a monk for exactly the same reason as thousands of others, namely, in order to save his soul.


LUTHER in later life remarked that during the first year in the monastery the Devil is very quiet.

The occasion was always an ordeal because the mass is the focal point of the Church’s means of grace. Here on the altar bread and wine become the flesh and blood of God, and the sacrifice of Calvary is re-enacted. The priest who performs the miracle of transforming the elements enjoys a power and privilege denied even to angels. The whole difference between the clergy and the laity rests on this. The superiority of the Church over the state likewise is rooted here, for what king or emperor ever conferred upon mankind a boon comparable to that bestowed by the humblest minister at the altar?

Before God the high and God the holy Luther was stupefied. For such an experience he had a word which has as much right to be carried over into English as Blitzkrieg. The word he used was Anfechtung, for which there is no English equivalent. It may be a trial sent by God to test man, or an assault by the Devil to destroy man.

“God grant,” said the old Hans, “it was not an apparition of the Devil.” There was the weak spot of all medieval religion. In this day of skepticism we look back with nostalgia to the age of faith. How fair it would have been to have lived in an atmosphere of naïve assurance, where heaven lay about the infancy of man, and doubt had not arisen to torment the spirit! Such a picture of the Middle Ages is sheer romanticism. The medieval man entertained no doubt of the supernatural world, but that world itself was divided. There were saints, and there were demons. There was God, and there was the Devil. And the Devil could disguise himself as an angel of light. Had Luther, then, been right to follow a vision which might after all have been of the arch fiend, in preference to the plain clear word of Scripture to honor father and mother? The day which began with the ringing of the cloister chime and the psalm “O sing unto the Lord a new song” ended with the horror of the Holy and doubt whether that first thunderstorm had been a vision of God or an apparition of Satan.

In fact he continued to wear the monastic habit for three years after his excommunication. Altogether he was garbed as a monk for nineteen years.

The trouble was that he could not satisfy God at any point. Commenting in later life on the Sermon on the Mount, Luther gave searching expression to his disillusionment. Referring to the precepts of Jesus he said: This word is too high and too hard that anyone should fulfil it. This is proved, not merely by our Lord’s word, but by our own experience and feeling. Take any upright man or woman. He will get along very nicely with those who do not provoke him, but let someone proffer only the slightest irritation and he will flare up in anger... if not against friends, then against enemies. Flesh and blood cannot rise above it.

Disillusionments of various sorts set in at once. Some of them were irrelevant to his immediate problem but were concomitants in his total distress. On making his general confession he was dismayed by the incompetence of the confessor. The abysmal ignorance, frivolity, and levity of the Italian priests stupefied him.

The stairs were climbed, the Pater Nosters were repeated, the steps were kissed. At the top Luther raised himself and exclaimed, not as legend would have it, “The just shall live by faith!” — he was not yet that far advanced. What he said was, “Who knows whether it is so?” That was the truly disconcerting doubt. The priests might be guilty of levity and the popes of lechery — all this would not matter so long as the Church had valid means of grace. But if crawling up the very stairs on which Christ stood and repeating all the prescribed prayers would be of no avail, then another of the great grounds of hope had proved to be illusory. Luther commented that he had gone to Rome with onions and had returned with garlic.


In comparison with Erfurt, Wittenberg was but a village with a population of only 2,000 to 2,500. The whole length of the town was only nine tenths of a mile.

Every sin in order to be absolved was to be confessed. Therefore the soul must be searched and the memory ransacked and the motives probed. As an aid the penitent ran through the seven deadly sins and the Ten Commandments. Luther would repeat a confession and, to be sure of including everything, would review his entire life until the confessor grew weary and exclaimed, “Man, God is not angry with you. You are angry with God. Don’t you know that God commands you to hope?”

Staupitz tried to bring Luther to see that he was making religion altogether too difficult. There is just one thing needful, and that is to love God. This was another favorite counsel of the mystics, but the intended word of comfort pierced like an arrow. How could anyone love a God who is a consuming fire? The psalm says, “Serve the Lord with fear.” Who, then, can love a God angry, judging, and damning?

Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that “the just shall live by his faith.” Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise.


The center about which all the petals clustered was the affirmation of the forgiveness of sins through the utterly unmerited grace of God made possible by the cross of Christ, which reconciled wrath and mercy, routed the hosts of hell, triumphed over sin and death, and by the resurrection manifested that power which enables man to die to sin and rise to newness of life. This was of course the theology of Paul, heightened, intensified, and clarified. Beyond these cardinal tenets Luther was never to go.

the Castle Church at Wittenberg was the recipient of a very unusual concession granting full remission of all sins.

To assert that the pope can deliver souls from purgatory is audacious. If he can do so, then he is cruel not to release them all.

The indulgences dispensed at Wittenberg served to support the Castle Church and the university. Luther’s attack, in other words, struck at the revenue of his own institution.

The pontiff at the moment was Leo X, of the house of Medici, as elegant and as indolent as a Persian cat. His chief pre-eminence lay in his ability to squander the resources of the Holy See on carnivals, war, gambling, and the chase. The duties of his holy office were seldom suffered to interfere with sport. He wore long hunting boots which impeded the kissing of his toe. The resources of three papacies were dissipated by his profligacy: the goods of his predecessors, himself, and his successor. The Catholic historian Ludwig von Pastor declared that the ascent of this man in an hour of crisis to the chair of St. Peter, “a man who scarcely so much as understood the obligations of his high office, was one of the most severe trials to which God ever subjected his Church.”

The negotiations of Albert with the pope were conducted through the mediation of the German banking house of Fugger, which had a monopoly on papal finances in Germany. When the Church needed funds in advance of her revenues, she borrowed at usurious rates from the sixteenth-century Rothschilds or Morgans. Indulgences were issued in order to repay the debts, and the Fuggers supervised the collection.

Remember that you are able to release them, for As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, The soul from purgatory springs.

Luther’s Theses differed from the ordinary propositions for debate because they were forged in anger. The ninety-five affirmations are crisp, bold, unqualified. In the ensuing discussion he explained his meaning more fully. The following summary draws alike on the Theses and the subsequent explications. There were three main points: an objection to the avowed object of the expenditure, a denial of the powers of the pope over purgatory, and a consideration of the welfare of the sinner.

But he had a more devastating word: Indulgences are positively harmful to the recipient because they impede salvation by diverting charity and inducing a false sense of security. Christians should be taught that he who gives to the poor is better than he who receives a pardon. He who spends his money for indulgences instead of relieving want receives not the indulgence of the pope but the indignation of God.

What Karl Barth said of his own unexpected emergence as a reformer could be said equally of Luther, that he was like a man climbing in the darkness a winding staircase in the steeple of an ancient cathedral. In the blackness he reached out to steady himself, and his hand laid hold of a rope. He was startled to hear the clanging of a bell.


Albert forwarded the theses to Rome. Pope Leo is credited with two comments. In all likelihood neither is authentic, yet each is revealing. The first was this: “Luther is a drunken German. He will feel different when he is sober.” And the second: “Friar Martin is a brilliant chap. The whole row is due to the envy of the monks.”

The radicalism of this tract lies not in its invective but in its affirmation that the pope might err and a council might err and that only Scripture is the final authority.

Even more disconcerting was the recurring doubt whether the taunt of his critics might after all be right, “Are you alone wise and all the ages in error?”


In the inns on the way he questioned the people and discovered that for every one in favor of the pope there were three for Luther. He frankly confessed that no case had so plagued the Church in a thousand years, and Rome would gladly pay ten thousand ducats to have it out of the way.

In March, Luther confided to Spalatin: I am sending Eck’s letters in which he already boasts of having won the Olympic. I am studying the papal decretals for my debate. I whisper this in your ear, “I do not know whether the pope is Antichrist or his apostle, so does he in his decretals corrupt and crucify Christ, that is, the truth.”

The suspicion which Luther did not yet dare breathe in the open links him unwittingly with the medieval sectaries who had revived and transformed the theme of Antichrist, a figure invented by the Jews in their captivity to derive comfort from calamity on the ground that the coming of Messiah is retarded by the machinations of an Anti-Messiah, whose raging must reach a peak before the Saviour should come.

Luther held that every pope was Antichrist even though personally exemplary, because Antichrist is collective: an institution, the papacy, a system which corrupts the truth of Christ.

On the subject of penance, however, Eck kept pressing Luther with the query, “Are you the only one that knows anything? Except for you is all the Church in error?” “I answer,” replied Luther, “that God once spoke through the mouth of an ass. I will tell you straight what I think. I am a Christian theologian; and I am bound, not only to assert, but to defend the truth with my blood and death. I want to believe freely and be a slave to the authority of no one, whether council, university, or pope. I will confidently confess what appears to me to be true, whether it has been asserted by a Catholic or a heretic, whether it has been approved or reproved by a council.”


A more important factor, however, may have been the dissemination of Luther’s writings. John Froben, that hardy printer of Basel, had collected and brought out in a single edition the Ninety-Five Theses, the Resolutions, the Answer to Prierias, the sermon On Penitence, and the sermon On the Eucharist. In February, 1519, he was able to report to Luther that only ten copies were left, and that no issue from his press had ever been so quickly exhausted. The copies had gone not only to Germany but also to other lands, making of Luther not only a national but also an international figure. Six hundred had been sent to France and to Spain, others to Brabant and England. Zwingli, the reformer of Switzerland, ordered several hundred in order that a colporteur on horseback might circulate them among the people. Even from Rome came a letter to Luther written by a former fellow student, informing him that disciples at the peril of their lives were spreading his tracts under the shadow of the Vatican. He deserved a statue as the father of his country.

Such acclaim speedily made Luther the head of a movement which has come to be known as the Reformation. As it took on shape, it was bound to come into relation with the two other great movements of the day, the Renaissance and nationalism.

The Renaissance was a many-sided phenomenon in which a central place was occupied by the ideal commonly called Humanism. It was basically an attitude to life, the view that the proper interest of mankind is man, who should bring every area of the earth within his compass, every domain of knowledge within his ken, and every discipline of life within his rational control.

This program entailed no overt breach with the Church, since the secularized popes of the Renaissance became its patrons, and because a synthesis between the classical and the Christian had already been achieved by St. Augustine.

Luther’s exposure of the spuriousness of papal documents appeared to the Humanists as to him to be entirely on a par with Lorenzo Valla’s demonstration that the Donation of Constantine was a forgery. For different reasons Humanism as well as the Reformation attacked indulgences. What the one called blasphemy the other ridiculed as silly superstition.

The first letter of Luther to Erasmus was adulatory. The prince of the Humanists was called “Our delight and our hope. Who has not learned from him?” In the years 1517-1519 Luther was so sensible of his affinity with the Humanists as to adopt their fad of Hellenizing vernacular names. He called himself Eleutherius, the free man.

But there were differences; and the most fundamental was that Erasmus was after all a man of the Renaissance, desirous of bringing religion itself within the compass of man’s understanding. He sought to do so, not like the scholastics by rearing an imposing edifice of rationally integrated theology, but rather by relegating to the judgment day the discussion of difficult points and couching Christian teaching in terms simple enough to be understood by the Aztecs, for whom his devotional tracts were translated. His patron saint was ever the penitent thief because he was saved with so little theology. For another reason also Erasmus was diffident of unreserved support to Luther. Erasmus was nostalgic for the vanishing unities of Europe. His dream was that Christian Humanism might serve as a check upon nationalism.

No government, and no class, was able to weld Germany into one. Dismembered and retarded, she was derided by the Italians and treated by the papacy as a private cow. Resentment against Rome was more intense than in countries where national governments curbed papal exploitation.

In 1516 Luther had discovered an anonymous manuscript emanating from the Friends of God and had published it under the title of A German Theology, declaring in the preface that he had learned from it more than from any writing save the Bible and the works of St. Augustine.

The most intrepid revolutionary is the one who has a fear greater than anything his opponents can inflict upon him. Luther, who had so trembled before the face of God, had no fear before the face of man.

I am not willing to fight for the gospel with bloodshed. In this sense I have written to him. The world is conquered by the Word, and by the Word the Church is served and rebuilt.


Luther availed himself feverishly of the respite, not knowing of course how long it would last. During the summer of 1520 he delivered to the printer a sheaf of tracts which are still often referred to as his primary works: The Sermon on Good Works in May, The Papacy at Rome in June, and The Address to the German Nobility in August, The Babylonian Captivity in September, and The Freedom of the Christian Man in November.

The most radical of them all in the eyes of contemporaries was the one dealing with the sacraments, entitled The Babylonian Captivity, with reference to the enslavement of the sacraments by the Church. This assault on Catholic teaching was more devastating than anything that had preceded; and when Erasmus read the tract, he ejaculated, “The breach is irreparable.” The reason was that the pretensions of the Roman Catholic Church rest so completely upon the sacraments as the exclusive channels of grace and upon the prerogatives of the clergy, by whom the sacraments are exclusively administered. If sacramentalism is undercut, then sacerdotalism is bound to fall. Luther with one stroke reduced the number of the sacraments from seven to two. Confirmation, marriage, ordination, penance, and extreme unction were eliminated. The Lord’s Supper and baptism alone remained. The principle which dictated this reduction was that a sacrament must have been directly instituted by Christ and must be distinctively Christian.

Every soul, insisted Luther, stands in naked confrontation before its Maker. No one can die in the place of another; everyone must wrestle with the pangs of death for himself alone. “Then I shall not be with you, nor you with me. Everyone must answer for himself.” Similarly, “The mass is a divine promise which can help no one, be applied for no one, intercede for no one, and be communicated to none save him only who believes with a faith of his own. Who can accept or apply for another the promise of God which requires faith of each individually?” Here we are introduced to the very core of Luther’s individualism. It is not the individualism of the Renaissance, seeking the fulfillment of the individual’s capacities; it is not the individualism of the late scholastics, who on metaphysical grounds declared that reality consists only of individuals, and that aggregates like Church and state are not entities but simply the sum of their components. Luther was not concerned to philosophize about the structure of Church and state; his insistence was simply that every man must answer for himself to God. That was the extent of his individualism.

Especially in his earlier lectures he had delineated a view of the Church as a remnant because the elect are few. This must be so, he held, because the Word of God goes counter to all the desires of the natural man, abasing pride, crushing arrogance, and leaving all human pretensions in dust and ashes. Such a work is unpalatable, and few will receive it. Those who do will be stones rejected by the builders. Derision and persecution will be their lot. Every Abel is bound to have his Cain, and every Christ his Caiaphas. Therefore the true Church will be despised and rejected of men and will lie hidden in the midst of the world.

The greatness and the tragedy of Luther was that he could never relinquish either the individualism of the eucharistic cup or the corporateness of the baptismal font.

This bull is known by its opening words, which are Exsurge Domine.


One thing I ask, that neither truth nor error be condemned unheard and unrefuted.

The clergy should be permitted to marry because they need housekeepers, and to place man and woman together under such circumstances is like setting straw beside fire and expecting it not to burn.

Again and again the pope was shamed by a comparison with Christ. This theme went back through Hus to Wyclif. An illustrated work in Bohemian on the disparity of Christ and the pope was in the library of Frederick the Wise. A similar work was later issued in Wittenberg with annotations by Melanchthon and woodcuts by Cranach. The idea was already present in the Address to the German Nobility, where reference was made to Christ on foot, the pope in a palanquin with a retinue of three or four thousand mule drivers; Christ washing the disciples’ feet, the pope having his feet kissed;

You then, Leo X, you cardinals and the rest of you at Rome, I tell you to your faces: “If this bull has come out in your name, then I will use the power which has been given me in baptism whereby I became a son of God and co-heir with Christ, established upon the rock against which the gates of hell cannot prevail. I call upon you to renounce your diabolical blasphemy and audacious impiety, and, if you will not, we shall all hold your seat as possessed and oppressed by Satan, the damned seat of Antichrist, in the name of Jesus Christ, whom you persecute.”

And as they excommunicated me for the sacrilege of heresy, so I excommunicate them in the name of the sacred truth of God. Christ will judge whose excommunication will stand.

The pretense that the attack was directed, not against the pope, but against the curia is the device commonly employed by constitutionally-minded revolutionaries who do not like to admit to themselves that they are rebelling against the head of a government.

On the twenty-ninth of November he came out with the Assertion of All the Articles Wrongly Condemned in the Roman Bull. The tone may be inferred from the two following: No. 18. The proposition condemned was that “indulgences are the pious defrauding of the faithful.” Luther commented: I was wrong, I admit it, when I said that indulgences were “the pious defrauding of the faithful.” I recant and I say, “Indulgences are the most impious frauds and imposters of the most rascally pontiffs, by which they deceive the souls and destroy the goods of the faithful.


“Do you suppose,” demanded Hutten, “that through an edict extracted by guile from the emperor you will be able to separate Germany from liberty, faith, religion, and truth? Do you think you can intimidate us by burning books? This question will not be settled by the pen but by the sword.”

Frederick instead called in Erasmus, the leader of the moderates, and asked his judgment. Erasmus pursed his lips. Frederick strained forward for the weighty answer. “Two crimes Luther has committed,” came the verdict. “He has attacked the crown of the pope and the bellies of the monks.” Frederick laughed.

The estates demanded time, and on the nineteenth answered that Luther’s teaching was already so firmly rooted among the people that a condemnation without a hearing would occasion grave danger of insurrection.

No good could come of public controversy, and only the Devil would profit from Luther’s appearance at Worms. The appeal was most ingratiating because it was so true. Had Luther been willing to abandon the attack on the sacraments, he might have rallied a united German nation for the reduction of papal power and extortion. The diet might have wrung from the pope the sort of concessions already granted to the strong national states of France, Spain, and England. Schism might have been avoided, and religious war could have been averted.

The scene lends itself to dramatic portrayal. Here was Charles, heir of a long line of Catholic sovereigns — of Maximilian the romantic, of Ferdinand the Catholic, of Isabella the orthodox — scion of the house of Hapsburg, lord of Austria, Burgundy, the Low Countries, Spain, and Naples, Holy Roman Emperor, ruling over a vaster domain than any save Charlemagne, symbol of the medieval unities, incarnation of a glorious if vanishing heritage; and here before him a simple monk, a miner’s son, with nothing to sustain him save his own faith in the Word of God. Here the past and the future were met. Some would see at this point the beginning of modern times.

Martin, how can you assume that you are the only one to understand the sense of Scripture? Would you put your judgment above that of so many famous men and claim that you know more than they all? You have no right to call into question the most holy orthodox faith, instituted by Christ the perfect lawgiver, proclaimed throughout the world by the apostles, sealed by the red blood of the martyrs, confirmed by the sacred councils, defined by the Church in which all our fathers believed until death and gave to us as an inheritance, and which now we are forbidden by the pope and the emperor to discuss lest there be no end of debate. I ask you, Martin — answer candidly and without horns — do you or do you not repudiate your books and the errors which they contain?” Luther replied, “Since then Your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason — I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other — my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.” The earliest printed version added the words: “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.” The words, though not recorded on the spot, may nevertheless be genuine, because the listeners at the moment may have been too moved to write.

The emperor felt now that he had sufficient backing to proceed with the edict, but during the night there was posted on the door of the town hall and elsewhere in Worms a placard stamped with the Bundschuh. This was the symbol of the peasants’ revolt, the sandal clog of the workingman in contrast to the high boot of the noble. For a century Germany had been distraught by peasant unrest. This poster strongly implied that if Luther were condemned, the peasants would rise.

The Church of Rome, which had so strenuously sought to prevent turning the Diet of Worms into an ecclesiastical council, became in the light of the outcome the great vindicator of the pronouncement of a secular tribunal on heresy.


While still at Worms he had been overtaken by acute attacks of constipation, due perhaps to nervous depletion after the crucial days. The restricted diet and the sedentary ways at the Wartburg made the case worse. He was minded to risk his life by forsaking his concealment in order to procure medical assistance at Erfurt. Complaints continued from May until October, when Spalatin was able to send in laxatives.

During convalescence the prayer book revolted him, and he fell in arrears a quarter of a year. Then he gave up. This was one of the stages in his weaning from monasticism. The permanent residue of the experience was insomnia.


Luther’s ideas on social reform were implemented. Begging was forbidden. Those genuinely poor should be maintained from a common fund. Prostitutes should be banned.

The return to Wittenberg was incomparably brave. Never before had Luther stood in such peril.


Whatever would foster the understanding, dissemination, and practice of God’s Word should be encouraged, and whatever impeded must be opposed. This is why it is futile to inquire whether Luther was a democrat, aristocrat, autocrat, or anything else. Religion was for him the chief end of man, and all else peripheral.

“If thou couldst understand a single grain of wheat, thou wouldst die for wonder.”

The trouble with Erasmus is that he is not stupefied with wonder at the child in the womb. He does not contemplate marriage with reverent amazement, nor praise and thank God for the marvel of a flower or the bursting of a peach stone by the swelling seed. He beholds these wonders like a cow staring at a new door. The deficiency of faith is made evident by a lack of wonder, for nature is a revelation only to those to whom God has already been revealed.

There is no escaping from the horrors of darkness because God is such a God “that before he can be God he must first appear to be the Devil. We cannot reach heaven until we first descend into hell. We cannot be God’s children unless first we are the Devil’s children. Again before the world can be seen to be a lie it must first appear to be the truth.”

The reason why faith is so hard and reason so inadequate is a problem far deeper than logic. Luther often railed at reason, and he has been portrayed in consequence as a complete irrationalist in religion. This is quite to mistake his meaning. Reason in the sense of logic he employed to the uttermost limits. At Worms and often elsewhere he asked to be instructed from Scripture and reason. In this sense reason meant logical deduction from known premises; and when Luther railed against the harlot reason, he meant something else. Common sense is perhaps a better translation. He had in mind the way in which man ordinarily behaves, feels, and thinks. It is not what God says that is a foreign tongue, but what God does that is utterly incomprehensible.

“No one is taught through much reading and thinking. There is a much higher school where one learns God’s Word. One must go into the wilderness. Then Christ comes and one becomes able to judge the world.”

Still further consequences of a less tangible sort were implicit. If religion is so central, then all human relations must be conditioned by it. Alliances, friendships, and matings will be secure only if grounded in a common faith. Contemporaries were sometimes appalled that Luther would disrupt human relations or churchly unities over a single point of doctrine. To which he replied that he might as well be told it was unreasonable to sever friendship over the single point of strangling his wife or child. To deny God in one point is to attack God in all.

This is a point which Luther did make at times, that one sin is needed as medicine to cure another. An unblemished record engenders the worst of all sins, pride. Hence a failure now and then is conducive to humility. But the only sins which Luther actually recommended as record spoilers were a little overeating, overdrinking, and oversleeping.

Sometimes he would say that all morality is gratitude. It is the irrepressible expression of thankfulness for food and raiment, for earth and sky, and for the inestimable gift of redemption.

As there is no need to tell lovers what to do and say, so is there no need for any rules to those who are in love with Christ.

This is the word which ought to be placarded as the epitome of Luther’s ethic, that a Christian must be a Christ to his neighbor.


The Sermon on Good Works is built, not around the Beatitudes, but around the Ten Commandments, the core of the law of Moses equated with the law of nature. Like those before him Luther extended the command to honor father and mother to include reverence for all in authority, such as bishops, teachers, and magistrates. His domestic ethic was Pauline and patriarchal, the economic ethic Thomistic and mainly agrarian, the political ethic Augustinian and small town.

The soldier boasts that it is hard work to ride in armor and endure heat, frost, dust, and thirst. But I’d like to see a horseman who could sit the whole day and look into a book. It is no great trick to hang two legs over a horse.

As for schoolteaching, it is so strenuous that no one ought to be bound to it for more than ten years.

In the age of the Renaissance, however, adventurers preferred a higher stake and bankers a more assured though lower return. The Church was ready to accommodate them both because she herself was so intimately involved in the whole process of the rise of capitalism, with banking, bookkeeping, credit, and loans. The Fuggers were not begrudged the services of the theologian John Eck to defend for a subsidy all the casuistic devices for evading the medieval and Thomistic restrictions on interest.

Obviously Luther was opposed to the spirit of capitalism, and naïvely attributed the rise of prices to the rapacity of the capitalists. At the same time he contributed himself unwittingly to the developments which he deplored. The abolition of monasticism and the expropriation of ecclesiastical goods, the branding of poverty as either a sin or at least a misfortune if not a disgrace, and the exaltation of work as the imitation of God stimulated distinctly the spirit of economic enterprise.

The point of departure for all Christian political thinking has been the thirteenth chapter of Romans, where obedience is enjoined to the higher powers because they are ordained of God and bear not the sword in vain that as ministers of God they may execute wrath upon evildoers.

The world and the masses are and always will be unchristian, although they are baptized and nominally Christian. Hence a man who would venture to govern an entire community or the world with the gospel would be like a shepherd who should place in one fold wolves, lions, eagles, and sheep. The sheep would keep the peace, but they would not last long. The world cannot be ruled with a rosary.

This is the sense in which the Sermon on the Mount applies in all relations, even in war, because the killing of the body in the eyes of Augustine and Luther was not incompatible with love. Slaying and robbing in war are to be compared to the amputation of a limb to save a life. Since the exercise of the sword is necessary for the maintenance of peace, war may be regarded as a small misfortune designed to prevent a greater.

Force may avail either to strengthen alike faith and heresy, or to break down integrity and turn a heretic into a hypocrite who confesses with his lips what he does not believe in his heart. Better to let men err than to drive them to lie.

The magistrate should be the nursing father of the Church. Such a parallelism is reminiscent of the dream of Dante, never actually realized in practice, because, where Church and state are allied, one always dominates, and the outcome is either theocracy or caesaropapism. Luther declined to separate Church and state, repudiated theocracy, and thereby left the door open for caesaropapism, however remote this was from his intent.

In most unqualified terms Luther repudiated rebellion because if the mob breaks loose, instead of one tyrant there will be a hundred.

There is a big difference between suffering injustice and keeping still. We should suffer. We should not keep still. The Christian must bear testimony for the truth and die for the truth.


Luther’s fundamental break with the Catholic Church was over the nature and destiny of man, and much more over the destiny than the nature. That was why he and Erasmus did not come altogether to grips. Erasmus was interested primarily in morals, whereas Luther’s question was whether doing right, even if it is possible, can affect man’s fate.

The real menace of Müntzer in Luther’s eyes was that he destroyed the uniqueness of Christian revelation in the past by his elevation of revelation in the present. Luther for himself had had absolutely no experience of any contemporary revelation, and in times of despondency the advice to rely upon the spirit was for him a counsel of despair, since within he could find only utter blackness.


The law was being unified by displacing the diverse local codes in favor of Roman law, whereby the peasant again suffered, since the Roman law knew only private property and therefore imperiled the commons — the woods, streams, and meadows shared by the community in old Germanic tradition. The Roman law knew also only free men, freedmen, and slaves; and did not have a category which quite fitted the medieval serf.

This uprising used the symbol characteristic of the great Peasants’ War of 1525, the Bundschuh. The name came from the leather shoe of the peasant. The long thong with which it was laced was called a Bund. The word had a double meaning because a Bund was also an association, a covenant. Müntzer had used this word for his covenant of the elect. Before him the peasants had adopted the term for a compact of revolution.

The Peasants’ War lacked the cohesion of the Puritan revolution because there was no clear-cut program and no coherent leadership.

Excessive fines were imposed, yet the peasants as a class were not exterminated; the nobles could not afford to wipe out the tillers of the soil. Neither was their prosperity destroyed, for they were able to pay the fines, but their hope for a share in the political life of Germany was at an end. For three centuries they became hornless oxen.


This was no love match. “I am not infatuated,” said Luther, “though I cherish my wife.” On another occasion he declared, “I would not exchange Katie for France or for Venice, because God has given her to me and other women have worse faults.” He summed up by giving three reasons for his marriage: to please his father, to spite the pope and the Devil, and to seal his witness before martyrdom.

He took never a penny from his books, and his university stipend was not enough for matrimony.

Looking after him was the more of a task because he was so often sick. He suffered at one time or another from gout, insomnia, catarrh, hemorrhoids, constipation, stone, dizziness, and ringing in the ears like all the bells of Halle, Leipzig, Erfurt, and Wittenberg. Katie was a master of herbs, poultices, and massage.

There were six children in all. Their names and birthdays are as follows: Hans, June 7, 1526; Elizabeth, December 10, 1527; Magdalena, December 17, 1529; Martin, November 9, 1531; Paul, January 28, 1533; Margaretha, December 17, 1534.

When asked why he was so violent, Luther replied, “A twig can be cut with a bread knife, but an oak calls for an ax.”

God uses lust to impel men to marriage, ambition to office, avarice to earning, and fear to faith.

The volume of coarseness, however, in his total output is slight. Detractors have sifted from the pitchblende of his ninety tomes a few pages of radioactive vulgarity.

A word may be said at this point also about Luther’s drinking. He imbibed and took some pride in his capacity. He had a mug around which were three rings. The first he said represented the Ten Commandments, the second the Apostles’ Creed, and the third the Lord’s Prayer. Luther was highly amused that he was able to drain the glass of wine through the Lord’s Prayer, whereas his friend Agricola could not get beyond the Ten Commandments. But Luther is not recorded ever to have exceeded a state of hilarity.

The Luther who got married in order to testify to his faith actually founded a home and did more than any other person to determine the tone of German domestic relations for the next four centuries.

Disrespect for parents is a breach of the Ten Commandments. On one occasion Luther refused to forgive his son for three days, although the boy begged his pardon and Katie and others interceded. The point was that the boy in disobeying his father had offended the majesty of God. If only Luther could have left God out of it now and then, he would have been more humane. Yet it must be remembered that in his judgment the apple should always lie alongside of the rod.

This whole picture was carried directly over from the Middle Ages, in which Catholic sacramentalism and agrarian society tended to make of marriage an institution for the perpetuation of families and the preservation of properties. The romantic revolution of the Courts of Love in France was at first extramatrimonial, and the combination of romance and marriage was effected only during the Renaissance.

But after his own wedding the emphasis shifted, and he began to portray marriage as a school for character. In this sense it displaces the monastery, which had been regarded by the Church as the training ground of virtue and the surest way to heaven. Luther in rejecting all earning of salvation did not exclude exercise in fortitude, patience, charity, and humility. Family life is exacting.

The rearing of children is a trial for both parents. To one of his youngsters Luther said, “Child, what have you done that I should love you so?

Part of the difficulty was that the rhythm of work and rest did not coincide for Luther and his wife. After a day with children, animals, and servants, she wanted to talk with an equal; and he, after preaching four times, lecturing and conversing with students at meals, wanted to drop into a chair and sink into a book. Then Katie would start in, “Herr Doktor, is the prime minister of Prussia the Duke’s brother?” “All my life is patience,” said Luther. “I have to have patience with the pope, the heretics, my family, and Katie.” But he recognized that it was good for him.

When Luther looked at his family in 1538, he remarked, “Christ said we must become as little children to enter the kingdom of heaven. Dear God, this is too much. Have we got to become such idiots?”


Feverish missionary activity was to win most of northern Germany within a decade for the Reform. This success was achieved through a wave of propaganda unequaled hitherto and in its precise form never repeated. The primary tools were the tract and the cartoon.

Luther had unwittingly started down the road which was to lead to the territorial church under the authority of the prince.

As late as June, 1528, Luther replied to an inquiry as follows: You ask whether the magistrate may kill false prophets. I am slow in a judgment of blood even when it is deserved. In this matter I am terrified by the example of the papists and the Jews before Christ, for when there was a statute for the killing of false prophets and heretics, in time it came about that only the most saintly and innocent were killed... I cannot admit that false teachers are to be put to death. It is enough to banish.

In all this Luther never dreamed that he was subordinating the Church to the state. The system later introduced in England which made the king the head of the Church was hardly to his taste. But Christian princes in his view were certainly responsible for fostering the true religion.

Yet despite these divergences in the Evangelical ranks, **the Augsburg Confession did much to consolidate Protestantism **and to set it over against Catholicism. One might take the date June 25, 1530, the day when the Augsburg Confession was publicly read, as the death day of the Holy Roman Empire. From this day forward the two confessions stood over against each other, poised for conflict.


For the translation of the Bible, Luther availed himself of the enforced leisure at the Wartburg to produce in three months a rendering of the complete New Testament. The Old Testament came later. The German Bible is Luther’s noblest achievement, unfortunately untranslatable because every nation has its own direct version. For the Germans, Luther’s rendering was incomparable. He leaped beyond the tradition of a thousand years.

The Middle Ages supplied little by way of models because the catechisms had been for adults. The Humanists had made a beginning, as in the Colloquies of Erasmus, and the Bohemian Brethren had a question book for children; but the material was so scant that one can without exaggeration ascribe to the Reformation the creation of the first body of religious literature for the young.

But these smart folk in one reading want to be doctors of doctors. Therefore I beg these wise saints to be persuaded that they are not such great doctors as they think.

In 1526 he came out with the German mass. Everything was in German save for the Greek refrain, “Kyrie eleison.”

Certainly he knew how to compose simple melodies, to harmonize and arrange. Above all else he was able to inspire, because his enthusiasm for music was so great. He said: Music is a fair and lovely gift of God which has often wakened and moved me to the joy of preaching. St. Augustine was troubled in conscience whenever he caught himself delighting in music, which he took to be sinful. He was a choice spirit, and were he living today would agree with us. I have no use for cranks who despise music, because it is a gift of God.

Perhaps the fact that Dürer was old and Luther young when each embraced the reform may explain in a measure why in German Lutheranism pictorial art declined in favor of the musical expression of the faith.

Erasmus sought to preserve the European unities in politics; Luther conserved them in music.


DISTINGUISHED alike in the translation of the Bible, the composition of the catechism, the reform of the liturgy, and the creation of the hymnbook, Luther was equally great in the sermons preached from the pulpit, the lectures delivered in the class hall, and the prayers voiced in the upper room. His versatility is genuinely amazing. No one in his own generation was able to vie with him.

There was a staff of the clergy, but Luther’s share was prodigious. Including family devotions he spoke often four times on Sundays and quarterly undertook a two-week series four days a week on the catechism. The sum of his extant sermons is 2,300. The highest count is for the year 1528, for which there are 195 sermons distributed over 145 days.

Crawling is something, even if one is unable to walk. Do your best. If you cannot preach an hour, then preach half an hour or a quarter of an hour. Do not try to imitate other people. Center on the shortest and simplest points, which are the very heart of the matter, and leave the rest to God. Look solely to his honor and not to applause. Pray that God will give you a mouth and to your audience ears. I can tell you preaching is not a work of man.

Luther comments that there is no loneliness like the loneliness of a traitor since even his confederates give him no sympathy.

From this we see that there are two kinds of forgiveness. The first is that which we receive from God; the second is that which we exercise by bearing no ill will to any upon earth. But we must not overlook the two administrations, the civil and the spiritual, because the prince cannot and should not forgive. He has a different administration than Christ, who rules over crushed and broken hearts. The Kaiser rules over scoundrels who do not recognize their sins and mock and carry their heads high. That is why the emperor carries a sword, a sign of blood and not of peace. But Christ’s kingdom is for the troubled conscience.

I am not saying this for myself. I receive nothing from you. I am the prince’s beggar. But I am sorry I ever freed you from the tyrants and the papists. You ungrateful beasts, you are not worthy of the treasure of the gospel. If you don’t improve, I will stop preaching rather than cast pearls before swine.

To me there is no greater consolation given to mankind than this, that Christ became man, a child, a babe, playing in the lap and at the breasts of his most gracious mother. Who is there whom this sight would not comfort? Now is overcome the power of sin, death, hell, conscience, and guilt, if you come to this gurgling Babe and believe that he is come, not to judge you, but to save.

“And Jonah prayed unto the Lord from the belly of the whale.” I do not believe he could compose such a fine psalm while he was down there, but this shows what he was thinking. He was not expecting his salvation. He thought he must die, yet he prayed, “I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the Lord.” This shows that we must always pray to God. If you can just cry, your agony is over. Hell is not hell any more if you can cry to God. But no one can believe how hard this is. We can understand wailing, trembling, sighing, doubting, but to cry out, this is what we cannot do. Conscience, sin, and the wrath of God are about our necks. Nature cannot cry out. When Jonah reached the point that he could cry, he had won.


If I live longer, I would like to write a book about Anfechtungen, for without them no man can understand Scripture, faith, the fear or the love of God. He does not know the meaning of hope who was never subject to temptations. David must have been plagued by a very fearful devil. He could not have had such profound insights if he had not experienced great assaults.

Sometimes he would engage in direct encounter with the Devil. This particular mise en scène may amuse the modern reader and incline him not to take Luther seriously; but it is noteworthy that what the Devil says to Luther is only what one says to oneself in moments of introspection, and, what is still more significant, only the minor difficulties were referred to the Devil. In all the major encounters, God himself was the assailant. The Devil was something of a relief.

Once Luther gave three rules for dispelling despondency: the first is faith in Christ; the second is to get downright angry; the third is the love of a woman.

All the external aids of religion are to be prized. Luther attached great importance to his baptism. When the Devil assailed him, he would answer, “I am baptized.” In his conflicts with the Catholics and the radicals he reassured himself similarly by making appeal to his doctorate. This gave him authority and the right to speak.

But always and above all else the one great objective aid for Luther was the Scriptures, because this is the written record of the revelation of God in Christ.

Nothing so amazed him in all the biblical record as the faith of the participants: that Mary credited the annunciation of the angel Gabriel; that Joseph gave credence to the dream which allayed his misgivings; that the shepherds believed the opening of the heavens and the angels’ song; that the Wise Men were ready to go to Bethlehem at the word of the prophet. There were three miracles of the Nativity: that God became man, that a virgin conceived, and that Mary believed. And the greatest of these was the last.

Such is the nature of our trials that while they last we cannot see to the end.

The father raised his knife; the boy did not wince. The angel cried, “Abraham, Abraham!” See how divine majesty is at hand in the hour of death. We say, “In the midst of life we die.” God answers, “Nay, in the midst of death we live.”


This exile from the public scene chafed him the more because the conflicts and the labors of the dramatic years had impaired his health and made him prematurely an irascible old man, petulant, peevish, unrestrained, and at times positively coarse.

Goaded by ten years of incessant persecution, bands of fanatics in 1536 received a revelation from the Lord that they should no more be as sheep for the slaughter but rather as the angel with the sickle to reap the harvest. By forcible measures they took over the city of Münster in Westphalia and there inaugurated the reign of the saints, of which Thomas Müntzer had dreamed. Catholics and Protestants alike conjoined to suppress the reign of the new Daniels and Elijahs. The whole episode did incalculable damage to the reputation of the Anabaptists, who before and after were peaceable folk. But this one instance of rebellion engendered the fear that sheep’s clothing concealed wolves who might better be dealt with before they threw off the disguise.

Another dissenting group to attract Luther’s concern was the Jews. He had early believed that they are a stiff-necked people to have rejected Christ, but contemporary Jews could not be blamed for the sins of their fathers and might readily be excused for their rejection of Christianity by reason of the corruptions of the papacy. He said: If I were a Jew, I would suffer the rack ten times before I would go over to the pope. The papists have so demeaned themselves that a good Christian would rather be a Jew than one of them, and a Jew would rather be a sow than a Christian. What good can we do the Jews when we constrain them, malign them, and hate them as dogs? When we deny them work and force them to usury, how can that help? We should use toward the Jews not the pope’s but Christ’s law of love. If some are stiff-necked, what does that matter? We are not all good Christians.

In Luther’s latter days, when he was often sorely frayed, news came that in Moravia, Christians were being induced to Judaize. Then he came out with a vulgar blast in which he recommended that all the Jews be deported to Palestine. Failing that, they should be forbidden to practice usury, should be compelled to earn their living on the land, their synagogues should be burned, and their books including the Bible should be taken away from them. One could wish that Luther had died before ever this tract was written. Yet one must be clear as to what he was recommending and why. His position was entirely religious and in no respect racial. The supreme sin for him was the persistent rejection of God’s revelation of himself in Christ. The centuries of Jewish suffering were themselves a mark of the divine displeasure. The territorial principle should be applied to the Jews. They should be compelled to leave and go to a land of their own. This was a program of enforced Zionism.

One other word must be added: if similar tracts did not appear in England, France, and Spain in Luther’s day, it was because the Jews had already been completely expelled from these countries.

To all the obligations of university and parish he gave himself unremittingly. To the end he was preaching, lecturing, counseling, and writing. However much the superb defiance of the earlier days might degenerate into the peevishness of one racked by disease, labor, and discouragement, yet a case of genuine need would always restore his sense of proportion and bring him into the breach.

The first is his own Germany. He called himself the German prophet, saying that against the papist asses he must assume so presumptuous a title, and he addressed himself to his beloved Germans. The claim is frequent that no man did so much to fashion the character of the German people. Their indifference to politics and their passion for music were already present in him. Their language was so far fashioned by his hand that the extent of their indebtedness is difficult to recognize. If a German is asked whether a passage of Luther’s Bible is not remarkable, he may answer that this is precisely the way in which any German would speak. But the reason is simply that every German has been reared on Luther’s version. The influence of the man on his people was deepest in the home. In fact the home was the only sphere of life which the Reformation profoundly affected. Economics went the way of capitalism and politics the way of absolutism. But the home took on that quality of affectionate and godly patriarchalism which Luther had set as the pattern in his own household. The most profound impact of Luther on his people was in their religion. His sermons were read to the congregations, his liturgy was sung, his catechism was rehearsed by the father with the household, his Bible cheered the fainthearted and consoled the dying. If no Englishman occupies a similar place in the religious life of his people, it is because no Englishman had anything like Luther’s range. The Bible translation in England was the work of Tyndale, the prayer book of Cranmer, the catechism of the Westminster divines. The sermonic style stemmed from Latimer; the hymnbook came from Watts. And not all of these lived in one century. Luther did the work of more than five men. And for sheer richness and exuberance of vocabulary and mastery of style he is to be compared only with Shakespeare.

In fact a German historian has said that in the course of three hundred years only one German ever really understood Luther, and that one was Johann Sebastian Bach. If one would discover parallels to Luther as the wrestler with the Lord, then one must turn to Paul the Jew, Augustine the Latin, Pascal the Frenchman, Kierkegaard the Dane, Unamuno the Spaniard, Dostoevski the Russian, Bunyan the Englishman, and Edwards the American.


PORTIONS of this book have been delivered as the Nathaniel Taylor lectures at the Yale Divinity School,

Extensive travel and borrowing for this work have not been necessary because the Yale library is so richly supplied and so generous in acquiring new material. Especially to Mr. Babb, Mr. Wing, and Mr. Tinker hearty thanks are tendered by Martin Luther.