Martin Luther in 1510

Posted on Posted in Ruminations

Martin Luther in 1510 is an intriguing figure.

Here we have a theologian who belongs to both of our churches, and as such is unsettling to both of our perceptions of who and what we are.

Scholars on both sides have tried to manage this Luther. Some on the Lutheran side have liked to emphasize his “Reformation breakthrough” to an extreme degree. There is supposed to be an absolute, abject break with his past, a lightning-bolt discovery of the true but long obscured gospel, a relentless rejection of all that came before—you see this even in certain kinds of paintings of Luther, where he hammers the 95 Theses to the door of the church with a strident certainty. This is the ultra-Protestant Luther who has no use for Rome, the Catholic church, or pretty much anything that came before him.

On the flip side, some Catholic scholars have portrayed Luther as an originally good Catholic who got it all wrong, stubbornly refused to see the truth, pursued his own destructive course, listened to no one else, distorted the faith, and probably came up with those ideas about priestly marriage to deal with his own out-of-control impulses. Luther up to the mid-1510s was a Catholic theologian for sure, but then he went bad. Everything after is distortion, falsehood, and betrayal.

The common feature in these inverse portrayals of Luther is that both of them need the other church as the bad guy. Lutherans need a corrupted Catholic church; Catholics need a heretical Lutheran church. The whole story falls apart if reality turns out to be more complicated than this.

You can probably guess by now that we don’t buy either of these stories. That’s exactly why we are intrigued by Luther in 1510. He belongs to both sides in this quarrel, but doesn’t quite fit into either mold. He’s the monk who prays the psalms, studies Augustine and the mystics, strives for righteousness, teaches Old Testament, struggles with nominalism, and out of these very Catholic experiences and sources becomes a reformer. In 1510 he had no idea that he was seven years away from what would become an “anniversary year” for future generations; certainly he was unaware that he was a mere decade away from excommunication. In 1510 he’s doing business for his order, the Augustinian hermit friars, and on his way to greatest city in the world.

To follow Luther in 1510 is to wonder if it all could have turned out differently. We are still hoping for a happy ending to this story.

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