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Pride, Pettiness, and Polemic: The Emotional Folly of Martin Luther


The following was a college essay written by Nick Jones. It has been edited and approved by Mary Boneno. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Clarifying Catholicism, nor of everyone affiliated with Clarifying Catholicism. We welcome respectful responses in the comments below.

(What follows began as a term paper for HIS 305, the Renaissance, in the Fall of 2018 at the University of Rhode Island. This article is not intended as a judgement of Luther’s soul. Neither does it attack Lutheran theology or adherents thereto. There is plenty on this blog to refute those claims which might run contrary to the truth of Catholicism. This article intends rather to examine the objective exterior actions of Luther and see how they led to the fracturing of the Church he once vowed to serve for life.)

            When studying figures of history, it is often the case that one examines the life of a historical figure solely in terms of what he or she did.  It is easy to forget the human side of a figure’s life and to focus excessively on his or her actions without regard to the emotions which govern and motivate all people. To be sure, there is great variance with regard to the degree in which emotions dominate each person’s life; however, this cannot and does not discount the fact that there has never been a human being not subject to his emotion. Some figures were documented as incredibly stoic, others are remembered as famously bombastic. In order to tease out truly all the implications of a historical phenomenon or a figure’s life, the motivating and oftentimes dominating emotional state of those involved must be known. 

            Oftentimes the aforementioned phenomenon can be applied to a much greater extent when the figure in question is a part of a group which is seen as particularly virtuous. It would tend to surprise people if, for example, a friar or religious guru were found to be very emotional. However, this is exactly the case of Martin Luther, the famed Father of the Protestant Reformation. Through critical study, it can be seen that Luther was a man of his emotions second only to his deep faith. His emotions frequently informed the steps he took to actualize the new faith he progenerated. An analysis of his life will show that the beginnings of Luther’s faith movement were rooted in his emotional responses to events which he deemed to be crises within the Catholic Church.  One could also argue that Luther’s eventual split with the Church could have been avoided entirely, had cooler heads prevailed on both sides of the conflict.  One thing is certain: Luther’s folly was to combine a sense of pettiness and polemic with his legitimate theological concerns, thereby making his vendetta personal for the Catholics who opposed him. 

            In order to see the full extent of the role of emotion in Martin Luther’s life, it is useful to go back to the very beginning. Having finished his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, Luther was prepared to begin his legal studies, much to the support and encouragement of his father. According to many accounts[1],[2], Luther, who was already deeply religious, then had an experience which motivated him to pursue religious priesthood. While riding through the woods during a thunderstorm, Luther was nearly struck by lightning. He cried out to God to be spared, promising to become a friar if he made it through the storm. This came to pass, and Luther survived. Though he had made this promise in the spur of the moment, he dedicated himself to it and entered the Augustinian Order in 1505.[3] This episode very clearly shows a sense of emotivism present in Luther’s religious experience. Instead of a typical period of discernment and prayer with regard to one’s vocation, Luther was shocked into his self-imposed religious vocation.  Having left his career and vocation on a fearful plea for clemency, it can be seen that Luther’s notion of God was one of frightened obligation. Rather than seeking out a sense of calm serenity when making a decision which would impact the rest of his life, Luther made his choice during a time when he was doubtlessly distressed and lacking full clarity of mind. This impulsiveness and sense of duty would not disappear and would remain a guiding part of Luther’s personality throughout the rest of his life.

            Two more events in Luther’s life would subsequently affect him and his thoughts on the faith he professed. Firstly, in 1511, he and some of his brother friars took a business trip to Rome. What he saw there was incredibly shocking to his sensibilities.[4] Having spent the past six years living every day in the austere, prayerful, and ascetic lifestyle of a friar, the decadence and seemingly godlessness of the city at the heart of Christendom truly shook him to his core. He could not fathom how the home of the Pope, to whom he still pledged loyalty could be so debauched, so wretched, so hedonistic. Additionally, amidst the decadence of the Roman clergy themselves, he encountered a city in grave disrepair. He intuited correctly that those who resided there cared more for their pleasure than the upkeep of the city and the ancient churches therein. This trip left Luther seriously disillusioned with the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church and the papacy in general. Despite this feeling of shock and disgust, Luther still remained faithful to the Church, and harbored no thoughts of separation .[5] Still, as a man so dedicated to a sense of moral righteousness, it was doubtlessly extremely difficult for him to persevere knowing that many, if not all, of his superior clergy were not practicing what they preached as absolute truth.

            The second episode which emotionally affected Luther and his theology is arguably the most important. In the year 1517, the priest Johann Tetzel arrived in Luther’s home of Wittenburg with the intention of selling indulgences. His mission was approved both by the Church and by the local Archbishop of Mainz. The intention was for half of the revenue to go to the Church, and for the other half to go to the Archbishop so that he could pay off the loan that enabled him to buy his office.[6][7] Luther had already bemoaned this practice in sermons and was seriously opposed to it, so it is not unreasonable to posit that this affected Luther emotionally as well. Bearing in mind his deep faith, which would include a strong sense of right and wrong, it can be understood why Luther would disagree with the sale of indulgences. For him, their sale was immoral, both because it fed into the system of corrupt prelates and because it gave the people a false sense of hope. Inasmuch as leadership must be as blameless as possible, it is understandable that Luther would be infuriated with selling false assurances of salvation, thereby potentially subjecting souls to unnecessary and avoidable post-mortem suffering. 

            Luther’s next step was by far the most radical and can be seen as a point of no return. In a departure from his former outward preaching, Luther posted his 95 Theses on a church in Wittenburg on October 31st, 1517.[8]  This document contained ninety-five points intended for debate by Luther with his contemporary scholars. Among them were several radical departures from established Catholic theology and thought, including: No. 86 “Again, “Why does not the pope, whose wealth is today greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build this one basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?””; No. 26 “The pope does very well when he grants remission to souls in purgatory, not by the power of the keys, which he does not have, but by way of intercession for them.”; and No. 27 “They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.”[9] Respectively, these three points represent an ad-hominem attack against the Pope, an attack on the doctrine of the papacy, and an ad hominem attack against Johann Tetzel. Many more of Luther’s points possess a similar tone and challenge other doctrines, such as that of Purgatory itself. This document bears the impression of an angry and irritated man tired of what he perceives to be injustices. Although he is very eloquent in his writing, Luther does not come across as conciliatory, and one must question if his cause was hindered or helped by his arrogant and accusatory tone. The 95 Theses were intentionally incendiary; Luther wrote them looking to be challenged, as was the practice of the day. Regardless, one must question whether he was truly looking for a true dialogue, or if he simply wanted to prove others wrong. That is to say, it must be asked if Luther was challenging a misuse of accepted customs or if he was looking to invalidate them totally. Whatever the case may be, it can be seen that his choice of tone did not help his efforts of fostering meaningful dialogue. 

            Luther’s obstinance continued the following year. In October of 1518, a papal legate was sent to try to convince Luther of the folly of his ways and to obtain from him a formal recantation of his views which were at odds with the Church. This endeavor proved unsuccessful. By his own account, Luther would accept no correction from the Church. He persisted obstinately in his views, even though he stated that he was a fallible man and open to correction. According to his own account, he would accept only scriptural repudiations of his claims, and appeals to past papal bulls were unacceptable to him.[10] This was a departure from Church teaching on the moral authority of the pope and shows a particular sort of arrogance in Luther. It must be stressed firstly that as an individual he had the intellectual right to hold any position, but it must be seen as arrogant and stubborn for Luther to agree to submit to the authority of the Church he claimed to love and then reject outright any appeals to said Church’s moral teaching office. The meetings ended inconclusively, without Luther recanting. He followed a similar path in 1519 at a meeting with the same purpose. In fact, in the time between the two meetings, he adopted seemingly more radical positions than those he previously had held. Among these more radical views was an unwillingness to totally distance himself from Jann Hus, a formal heretic of the previous century.[11] Once again, Luther proved himself unwilling to assent to the Church he claimed to love. 

            In response to these two episodes, Pope Leo XI issued the bull Exsurge Domine in 1520. This bull threatened Luther with excommunication on account of 41 counts of “pernicious poison[ous]” error. The document maintains a firm yet pastoral stance against Luther and his perceived errors. There is an overall hope that, prompted by the threat and out of love for God, Luther would return to the Church by recanting. The bull concludes “If they really will obey and certify to us by legal documents that they have obeyed, they will find in us the affection of a father’s love, the opening of the font of the effects of paternal charity and opening of the font of mercy and clemency.”[12] Luther responded with a bull of his own, the title of which translates to Against the Execrable Bull of Antichrist. Specifically, his repudiation of the bull reads “…whoever wrote this bull, he is Antichrist. I protest before God, our Lord Jesus, his sacred angels and the whole world that with my whole heart I dissent from the damnation of this bull, that I curse and execrate it as sacrilege and blasphemy of Christ, God’s Son and our Lord. This be my recantation, O bull, thou daughter of bulls.” [13] As has been seen to be the case in prior instances, Luther here responds to a call for filial correction with the utmost lack of respect or regard for the one offering it. Luther could have simply ignored the bull and thereby demonstrated the Christian virtue of temperance, but instead, he resorts to name calling and hateful invective. As his works were burned, Luther in turn publicly led a burning of his copy of Exsurge Domine. [14] None of these actions show the visage of a man sadly fighting for what he believes to be the truth; rather, they show a petulant preacher trying to prove above all else that he is right. 

            Martin Luther was formally excommunicated with the bull Decet Romanum Pontificem on January 1, 1521. The bull notes with great sorrow that Luther had left the Church with no tenable option but to excommunicate him, though there is a sense of hope for reconciliation, however unlikely it may be. [15]

            Luther was given one final chance to recant, at the insistence of the Holy Roman Emperor, the Diet of Worms in 1521. When Johann Eck compared his stances to other seemingly-biblical truths which had been heretical, he refused to renounce them. Luther further specified that while some of his previous works had been uncharitable, he was apologetic only for his tone, not for the substance therein. His final refusal reads: “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.”[16]With this final act, Luther conclusively and explicitly declared himself a heretic on the grounds of a denial of papal authority. Despite numerous cries for reconciliation, he refused, pridefully rejecting hundreds of years of traditions in favor of his own self-derived ideas. Luther escaped arrest only on account of a sympathetic prince. 

            The rest of the narrative of Luther’s life is not germane to the issues taken up here.  Due to political upheaval, he was able eventually to live out the rest of his life in peace. In his writings, he maintained a virulent and emotionally charged hatred for his enemies.[17]

            In summary and conclusion, a survey of the significant episodes of Luther’s life displays an emotional man of contradiction. On one hand, there is his professed and obvious love for God and His believers. On the other, there rests his uncharitable vitriol directed against his opponents, particularly those in positions of power. As the evidence here presented shows, what may have begun as a legitimate call for changes in the sinful lives of the Church’s leadership quickly became a personal vendetta against Catholicism. His initial desire for the good of the Church very quickly soured into a contempt for all who opposed his self-derived platitudes. 

Bibliography

Bagchi, David V. N. Luthers Earliest Opponents: Catholic Controversialists, 1518-1525. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991.

Bainton, Roland H. 2016. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers Marketing.

Brecht, Martin. 1985. Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation, 1483-1521. Translated by James L. Schaaf. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Hillerbrand, Hans J. “Martin Luther.” Encyclopædia Britannica. November 06, 2018. Accessed November 12, 2018. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Martin-Luther.

Jones, Barry. “L.” In Dictionary of World Biography, 528-529. Australia: ANU Press, 2017.  http://www.jstor.org.uri.idm.oclc.org/stable/j.ctt1rfsrst.16.

Martin Luther. “The 95 Theses.” Martin Luther’s Life: The Imperial Diet of Worms. Accessed November 12, 2018. https://www.luther.de/en/95thesen.html.

Pope Leo X. “Exsurge Domine.” Papal Encyclicals. April 27, 2017. Accessed November 12, 2018. http://www.papalencyclicals.net/leo10/l10exdom.htm.

Pope Leo X. “Decet Romanum Pontificem.” Papal Encyclicals. August 18, 2017. Accessed November 12, 2018. http://www.papalencyclicals.net/leo10/l10decet.htm.

Suzanne Hequet. “The 1518 Proceedings at Augsburg.” Lutheran Quarterly 32, no. 1 (2018): 60-70. https://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed November 13, 2018).

Wicks, Jared. “Roman Reactions to Luther: The First Year (1518).” The Catholic Historical Review 69, no. 4 (1983): 521-62. http://www.jstor.org.uri.idm.oclc.org        kkkkkk/stable/25021679.


[1] Martin Brecht and James Schaaf, Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation (Fortress Press, 1993)

[2] Hans J. Hillerbrand, “Martin Luther,” Encyclopædia Britannica, December 01, 2018, , accessed December 9, 2018, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Martin-Luther.

[3] Ibid

[4] Jones, Barry. “Luther, Martin.” In Dictionary of World Biography, 528-529. Australia: ANU Press, 2017. http://www.jstor.org.uri.idm.oclc.org/stable/j.ctt1rfsrst.16.

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Wicks, Jared. “Roman Reactions to Luther: The First Year (1518).” The Catholic Historical Review 69, no. 4 (1983): 521-62

[8] Jones, Barry. “Luther, Martin.” In Dictionary of World Biography, 528-529. Australia: ANU Press, 2017. http://www.jstor.org.uri.idm.oclc.org/stable/j.ctt1rfsrst.16.

[9] Martin Luther, “The 95 Theses,” Martin Luther’s Life: The Imperial Diet of Worms, , accessed December 5, 2018, https://www.luther.de/en/95thesen.html.

[10] Suzanne Hequet. “The 1518 Proceedings at Augsburg.” Lutheran Quarterly 32, no. 1 (2018): 60-70. https://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed November 13, 2018).

[11] Hans J. Hillerbrand, “Martin Luther,” Encyclopædia Britannica, December 01, 2018, , accessed December 9, 2018, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Martin-Luther.

[12] Pope Leo X. “Exsurge Domine.” Papal Encyclicals. April 27, 2017. Accessed November 12, 2018. http://www.papalencyclicals.net/leo10/l10exdom.htm.

[13] Bainton, Roland H. 2016. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers Marketing.

[14] Ibid

[15] Pope Leo X. “Decet Romanum Pontificem.” Papal Encyclicals. August 18, 2017. Accessed November 12, 2018. http://www.papalencyclicals.net/leo10/l10decet.htm.

[16] Brecht, Martin. 1985. Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation, 1483-1521. Translated by James L. Schaaf. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

[17] Hans J. Hillerbrand, “Martin Luther,” Encyclopædia Britannica, December 01, 2018, , accessed December 9, 2018, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Martin-Luther.

I’m a junior computer science major at Franciscan University of Steubenville. I enjoy computer programming, spending time with friends, and being with Jesus in front of the Blessed Sacrament. I am very charismatic and long to see the Body of Christ united and the Kingdom of God alive, as all pour out their praises to the One who is their Love.

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