*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 10th of November 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.
It was on the 10th of November in 1483 that Martin Luder was born to Hans and Margaret Luder in Eisleben, in Saxony in the Holy Roman Empire. You may have heard of him, maybe a lot about him. And you know him, of course, as Martin Luther. But did you know that he changed his name? He did it twice.
Today on the show I want to look at Martin Luther with some fresh eyes and to maybe tease out a little bit of his context. Unfortunately, Luther has become something like a mascot for Protestant Churches around Reformation Sunday. Or a convenient lout to pin the blame for the break up of the church. Or perhaps as one of Hitler’s favorite anti-Semites. Or as a saint who spoke infallibly. Or perhaps as a troubled youth with body function obsession whose theological thought was inspired by his own troubled relationship with his father. All of these caricatures exist, and more.
But whatever Martin Luther you do know he has likely been flattened on the page, or made into a straw man or hailed as the hero that he would not want to see himself as (at least, he wouldn’t on his better days- he didn’t mind the spotlight).
Today I’d like to point out a few things about the Reformer that are probably less known and then recommend a few books about the Reformer who was born 538 years ago on this date.
You might know that Luther entered the church as a monk after having made a vow to St. Anne that if she would keep him safe in a storm, he would become a monk. This is a good place to start. Why did he pray to St. Anne? She was the patron saint of miners, and Hans Luder was a mine owner. In fact, Martin was coming home from school where he was training to be a lawyer to then return and work as a lawyer to his father's mining company. This tells us two things about young Martin.
First, he wasn’t a peasant. His father was what we might think of today as upper-middle class. But his upper-middle-class upbringing just happened to be in the rough and tumble world of Saxon mining. Luther was not a renaissance Humanist like Erasmus or Phillip Melanchthon. Luther got his hands dirty- used earthy and bawdy language and was seen by his opponents as a kind of backcountry kid but with the right connections.
His father needed him to become a lawyer so that he could settle the many disputes which would have arisen in the mining world of late Medieval Saxony. The contracts were vague and tenuous and unless you had a lawyer your mines could be swindled or seized from you. And so when Martin decided to become a monk his relationship with his father went sour. And we see Luther reacting to this by changing his name. In the fashion of some academics of the day he took a greek name “Eleutherius”. This came from the Greek word for “free”. Luther was free of the demands of his family and of course freedom would become a theme of his theology. Lucky for us he simplified Eleutherius to a cognate of his old name and became “Martin Luther”.
The genius of Luther was what historian Andrew Pettegree refers to as his “branding”. He is the first protestant to have a cult develop around his likeness. We’ve told the story about the incombustible Luther before on this show. His face became the face of a new Theology that stressed freedom against what he thought of as improper authorities.
One of Luther’s most important contributions to Christian theology is the sinner/saint dichotomy. All Christians live in a state wherein we are both of these until death. And Luther’s own keen awareness of his own sin was part of this discovery. Was he anti-semitic? Yes, very much so. And unfortunately more than even many in his own day.
Did he have psychological issues with his dad and then, by extension, his dad in heaven? I don’t even know how to begin to explain that historians are not wizards and there is no way we could know if this was the case.
Let me finish with something I don’t normally do- suggest a few books. My earliest graduate work was on Luther under Andrew Pettegree- so obviously I recommend his work “Brand Luther: How an Unheralded Monk Turned His Small Town into a Center of Publishing, Made Himself the Most Famous Man in Europe--and Started the Protestant Reformation”.
For a one-volume, readable and responsible biography I still recommend Heiko Oberman’s “Luther: Man Between God and the Devil”.
And then if you are looking especially for a refutation of some of the Luther myths- I highly recommend the work by 1517’s own, and a dear personal friend, Uwe Siemon Netto. It is “The Fabricated Luther.”
Today we remember the birth of the troubled icon, myth, and rebel: Martin Luther.
The last word for today comes from Galatians 3:
6 Understand that in the same way that Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness, 7 those who believe are the children of Abraham. 8 But when it saw ahead of time that God would make the Gentiles righteous on the basis of faith, scripture preached the gospel in advance to Abraham: All the Gentiles will be blessed in you. 9 Therefore, those who believe are blessed together with Abraham who believed.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 10th of November 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man who is a Lutheran who attributes his rough language to growing up near the mines of West Lafayette, Indiana. He is Christoper Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man who grew up near zero mines so has no excuse for his rough language. I am Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.