Closer Readings Commentary

Martin Luther: A Conversation Part II

Martin Luther (1483–1546) by Heirich Aldegrever
Photo caption

Martin Luther (1483–1546) by Heirich Aldegrever

Craig Harline, professor of history at Brigham Young University, received an NEH Public Scholar grant to write about Martin Luther between the years 1517 and 1522. His book, A World Ablaze: The Rise of Martin Luther and the Birth of the Reformation, was published by Oxford University Press in October 2017. Part II of a two-part conversation between Craig Harline and EDSITEment follows.

How did Luther’s ninety-five theses take hold so quickly?

Most people didn’t really get or care about the fine theology in the ninety-five theses against indulgences. What made them popular was that everybody except maybe Luther saw that if you criticized indulgences, you necessarily criticized the pope, because he was in charge of them. And in German lands there were all sorts of sentiment against the pope. Luther always wanted people to cheer justification by faith more than his criticism of indulgences. He never wanted a revolution against Rome, but instead a revolution in people’s hearts, but some German nobles held him up as the leader of their nationalistic and violent cause.

What aspects of Luther’s personality made it possible for him to resist so much pressure from the Church?

He was very stubborn, and precisely because he doubted his salvation I suppose that when he got an answer he was sure of he became even more stubborn than usual.

Did political circumstances in Germany in the early sixteenth century play a role in Luther’s rise as a prominent figure?

Yes, there was much sentiment that too many church taxes were going to Rome, and too many taxes for the emperor’s wars in Italy. When peasants heard Luther’s “Freedom of a Christian” they took that to mean freedom from their landlords, on the basis of the gospel, and took up their arms against them! Luther was furious about that, as, again, he said the gospel should never go along with violence.

What kind of ruler was Prince Frederick?

A very wise one—thus his eventual nickname. If Frederick violated various standards, if he harbored a heretic, for instance, other princes could be free to invade and remove him. So he had to walk a fine line. He didn’t want his star professor accused of heresy either. As time went on, enough other German princes respected Frederick’s sovereignty enough, or agreed enough with Luther, that they both survived.

How much of an influence on Luther’s impact was due to the relatively recent invention of the printing press?

Preachers imagined their biggest audience was their congregation, and professors their classroom. The printing press changed all that, and Luther saw that quickly. Scholars figure that Luther was responsible for about twenty percent of everything printed in Germany between 1500 and 1530.

How much impact did the work of Prince Frederick’s court artist, Lucas Cranach, have on Luther?

Plenty, because he added the nice design and look to Luther’s tracts, showing again Luther’s close involvement in them; he didn’t just want a bunch of words on the page, as his first printer had done.

In addition to his ninety-five theses, Luther wrote many other tracts and pastoral works and, of course, penned many sermons. Can we consider Luther to be a major world writer?

Oh, absolutely: again the first great bestselling author, really, with millions of copies in print by 1600.

How did Luther’s accomplishments as a composer of hymns influence the world of music, generally?

I think Luther scholars can pinpoint about twenty-three hymns that Luther wrote for sure; he might have written more. “A Mighty Fortress” is a major monument.

So, in the modern world what do we owe to Martin Luther and his work?

Some unintended consequences: the division of Christianity into various confessions, which would have appalled Luther. It came about in part because of his insistence that the Bible had to be the supreme authority, not the pope. In 1529, the leading reformers got together to hash out differences on fifteen points, and they agreed on fourteen—but not the Lord’s Supper. This prevented a strong political alliance. That division lasted to the present, and helped make it difficult for churches to have an official role in public life. This had huge consequences, and whether you think they’re good or bad depends on your perspective.