Monday, December 15, 2014

Martin Luther

Second in a Series on the Protestant Reformation

Fr. Charles Coppens, S.J.

Martin Luther, ca. 1525
Martin Luther, the leading spirit of the Protestant Reformation, was born at Eisleben, in Saxony, on the 10th of November, 1483, nine years before Columbus discovered America. His parents were not blessed with the goods of earth, but his father seemed to have been a good man, and his mother certainly was a pious Catholic woman. Both strove to raise their boy in the knowledge and fear of God, and in the practice of the moral and the Christian virtues. This was no easy task. They gave him the best intellectual education their means allowed, and they did not spare the rod to subdue his very refractory spirit. Much of a man's character through life depends on the way he has profited by his early opportunities. Luther profited by his chances to acquire knowledge, but not docility and Christian humility. He himself relates that his mother once whipped him till he bled, and he adds ironically that it was about a miserable nut. It matters little what the occasion was; the reason of the severity was no doubt his stubbornness. This is apparent from another statement of his, namely, that when his father had one day punished him cruelly, as he calls it, he was filled with hatred against his parent, and came very near running away from home. That he was an unusually stubborn boy is clear from the fact that, when at school, he once got fifteen thrashings in one morning.

Once broken in, he worked hard to get an education. Schools were mostly free for poor students in those Catholic times, and he managed to eke out a sparing subsistence by various devices, one of which was to sing in the streets and collect alms from the kindly disposed among his hearers. The Lord had given him a charming voice; and this, together with his devout demeanor at the Holy Mass, which he attended daily, brought him, in his sixteenth year, an unexpected and considerable blessing. For he thus attracted the favorable attention of a rich, charitable lady, Frau Cotta, who received him as a permanent guest in her family, till at eighteen he went to pursue higher studies at Erfuhrt University.

There he read Virgil, Livy, Cicero, Plautus, etc.; he also studied law and philosophy under the tuition of the Augustinian monks. The whole university soon wondered at his intellectual powers. At nineteen, he was made a Bachelor, and at 22 a Doctor of Philosophy. During these years, his piety appears to have been sincere, and, in keeping with his natural character, deeply earnest.

But it was the period of history when the Humanist movement, aroused by the migration westward of Greek scholars flying from Moslems, had turned the attention of the educated in Europe rather to the classical pagan models than to Christian ideals of perfection. Luther was seized with this spirit to such an extent that his highest ambition was to attain distinction in secular learning. Whereas the university at Erfurt contained an eight years' course of the study of Holy Scripture, he seems to have ignored it entirely, giving all his attention to profane letters. Thus it may well be that, when later on he took to the reading of the Holy Bible, he found this precious treasure almost a new book to him, though it had been the most familiar of all books during the preceding centuries. So there are today thousands of Christian literateurs and scientists who have never read the Holy Gospels. The late historian Joannes Janssen, in his monumental work The History of the German People, has forever dispelled the mist that used to surround the life of Luther with a halo of glory. The main facts narrated in the present rapid sketch are taken from his pages. He writes with great impartiality, giving to each historical personage all the credit he deserves.

We naturally ask ourselves, how was it that Luther, with his head full of secular ambition and already highly distinguished by his learning, and honored so early in life with the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, how was it that he abandoned the world to become a humble Augustinian friar? Janssen narrates the facts as follows:
Among the younger Humanists whose circle he (Luther) joined, Crotus Rubianus and Joannes Lange were his special friends, but he himself passed among his associates as a musician and a learned philosopher rather than as a poet. he joined heartily in all their social pleasures, and delighted them with his singing and music. But he would often pass suddenly from mirth and cheerfulness to a gloomy, despondent state of mind, in which he was tormented by searchings of conscience. In the year 1505, he sustained a great shock in the sudden death of a friend, who was stabbed in a duel; and in the same year, he was caught in a terrific thunder storm, during which his life was in danger. "As I hurried along with the anguish and fear of death upon me," he wrote later on, "I vowed a vow that was wrung from me by terror." Soon after, he gathered his friends together at a supper, which was enlivened by lute-playing and singing, and then informed them of the resolve he had made to renounce the world and become an Augustinian monk. "Today you see me," he said, "but afterwards no more." All the entreaties of his friends were useless. They accompanied him weeping to the door of the monastery. It was characteristic of Luther that the only books which he took with him into his retreat were the pagan poets Virgil and Plautus. (Janssen, Vol. III, p. 81)
Luther himself admits that he was driven by despair, rather than the love of higher perfection, into a religious career. He wrote: "I entered the monastery and renounced the world, despairing of myself all the while." He fell a victim to excessive scrupulousness of conscience. The only remedy for such an abnormal state of mind is perfect obedience to a wise director. But obedience and docility were uncongenial virtues to his stubborn mind. He soon yielded to despondency to such an extent as to neglect for weeks together the recitation of the Divine Office, to which after his vows he was bound under sin. Following his own notions, he would fast and discipline himself and bury himself in solitude till he nearly lost his reason.

He saw more sin in himself than he felt he could atone for by his works of penance; and instead of trusting in the merits of Christ, as the Church has always taught her children to do, he gave himself up to black despair. Here is the picture he draws of his sad condition at the time:
From misplaced reliance on my own righteousness, my heart became full of distrust, doubt, fear, hatred, and blasphemy of God. I was such an enemy of Christ that whenever I saw an image or a picture of Him hanging on His Cross, I loathed the sight and I shut my eyes and felt that I would rather have seen the devil. My spirit was completely broken, and I was always in a state of melancholy; for, do what I would, my 'righteousness' and my 'good works' brought me no help or consolation. (Janssen, Vol. III, p. 84)
It is a common experience to see scrupulous souls, if they are self-opinionated, rush from extreme timidity to excessive rashness. It was so with Luther. He made up his mind that, by reason of inherited sin, man was become totally depraved, and possessed no liberty of the will. Here was the root of the Lutheran heresy. He concluded that all human action whatever, even that which is directed towards good, being an emanation from our corrupt nature, is, in the sight of God, nothing more nor less than deadly sin; therefore our actions have no influence on our salvation; we are saved by faith alone without good works. "When we believe in Christ," he said, "we make His merit our own possession. The garment of His righteousness covers all our guilt." He wrote some years later to a friend: "Be a sinner, if you will, and sin right lustily; but believe still more lustily, and rejoice in Christ, who is the vanquisher of sin." Again: "From the Lamb that takes away the sin of the world sin will not separate men, even though they should commit fornication a thousand times a day, or murders as frequently." This is Lutheranism full-blown, carried to its logical consequences, not probably as he understood it as yet; but it was conceived by him at the time in embryo and elaborated later on. He needed only time to mature and opportunity and stubborn resolve to propagate these errors and establish a new religion.

After one year of novitiate, Luther had been ordained priest in 1506. Two years later, he was promoted to a professorship at the recently founded University of Wittenberg. His novel system of justification was meanwhile maturing in his active brain. His Protestant eulogist, Mathesius, says that as early as 1515 he was denounced as a heretic. But he spoke so eloquently in defense of his original views that he gained over to his side almost the entire student body and most members of the faculty at the young university. He aroused the admiration and enthusiasm of the faithful in the city, and he became a special favorite of Frederick the Elector of Saxony. His mind was big with projects, and the Reformation was ready to leap forth from his brain armed cap-à-pie, as Minerva did from the head of thundering Jove.

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