To defend Martin Luther — whose courage in the face of overwhelming religious and secular attack has become a byword in world history — may well seem a superfluous if not presumptive task. One is reminded of the exchange between an eager young man and the great 19th-century evangelist Charles Finney. Young man: “Mr. Finney, how can I defend the Bible?” Finney: “How would you defend a lion? Let it out of its cage and it will defend itself!”
In a very real sense, Finney’s reply is applicable to Luther. Since the monumental and as yet uncompleted labor of the Weimarer Ausgabe began in 1888 and the so-called Luther-research movement commenced in the labors of Karl Holl at Tubingen, the Reformer has been “let out of the cage” of secondary and tertiary interpretations to speak for himself; and his own writings are a magnificent vindication of his person and work.
Yet just as the reading of Scripture does not automatically cause all criticisms of it to evaporate, so Luther’s writings do not in themselves eliminate superficial or perverse analyses of him. The poetical ideal expressed by Horace, De mortuis nihil nisi bonum, or “Of the dead say nothing but good,” has seldom been followed, particularly in the treatment of men like Luther whose controversial ideas and acts have elicited violent opposition. In point of fact, the dead — even those who were most adroit in defending their interests while alive — are pitifully at the mercy of their critics after their demise. What our Lord said to Peter concerning old age applies with equal force to death: “When thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself, and walkedst wither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee wither thou wouldest not.” Little study of the history of Luther interpretation is needed to demonstrate beyond all question that the Reformer, powerful enough in life to intimidate popes and emperors, has been “girded” again and again with viewpoints appallingly inimical to his true beliefs and has continually been “carried whither he wouldest not” since his death.
Students and playgoers in our day have been introduced to a Luther who has only the vaguest connection with the actual Wittenberg Reformer.
The extent to which even today such interpretative tyrannizing grossly corrupts a Luther no longer able to defend his own interests is sufficiently illustrated by a single example: John Osborne’s dramatic hit “Luther,” in which Albert Finney presented a coherent (and hopelessly unhistorical) portrait of the Reformer as one driven by unconscious psychological motivations outside of his volitional control. Osborne derived his picture of Luther from the influential psychoanalytical study of the Reformer by the distinguished Harvard lecturer Erik Erikson: Young Man Luther, whose translations into European languages have made it equally known on the continent. On the ground of Luther’s supposed hatred for a father whom he wished unconsciously to repudiate, Erikson claims that the young Reformer successfully worked through his personal “identity crisis” by transferring the attributes of his father to the Pope and all spiritual authority; once he had dealt with his own unsolved problem of self-hate and intolerance of disobedience by destroying these prime authority symbols, Luther “was at last able to forgive God for being a Father, and grant Him justification.”
Thus through an indecisive modicum of historical data concerning Luther’s relations with childhood authority figures, together with a liberal and uncritical dose of aprioristic Freudian scientism, students and playgoers in our day have been introduced to a Luther who has only the vaguest connection with the actual Wittenberg Reformer. Can we imagine what Luther himself while alive would have done to an interpretation of his cardinal doctrine of justification (the justification of the sinner by God’s grace through faith) which asserted that God was the recipient of Luther’s forgiveness and justification? But victories over the dead are easy conquests; and it is the purpose of this volume to render them considerably less facile where the greatest of the Reformers is concerned.
Hopefully, the present work will serve, in the afterglow of the 450th anniversary of the Reformation, to reinforce lines written by 19th century English poet Robert Montgomery:
Chief o’er all the galaxy of lights
Which stud the firmament of Christian fame.
Shone Luther forth—that miracle of men!
A Gospel Hero, who with faith sublime Fulmined the lightnings of God’s flaming Word Full on the towers of superstitions’ home,
Till lo! they crumbled; and his withering flash Yet sears the ruin with victorious play.