Who Was Martin Luther?
by Rev. Fr. Philippe Marcille
Luther! The name evokes a rupture never repaired in the history of Christianity, an exceptional personality. Rare talents. An astonishing impact on society. And the whole placed in service to revolt: it ravaged him within, and he spread it without. He was to die of it. Half of Europe was to remain bathed in blood, prostrate, sterile for two centuries.
1483. Birth of Luther. For more than a century, the historians who have dispassionately studied the documents have concluded that intellectual utopia alone cannot explain Luther, and that his words betray a pathological state. Some recent works1 remove all doubt.
The man's early years saw formed in him a neurotic anxiety which, becoming paroxysmal, was to become the motor of Martin Luther.
In his writings, especially the table talks piously recorded by his disciples, excrement, urine, and the like recur with a fierceness, a delectation, a frequency that already frightened his contemporaries, even the favorably disposed. "This man vomits s... by the mouthful," wrote his contemporary, the humanist Thomas More. Luther would even compose scurrilous doggerel, like one against the poet Lemmich, for example, in which in every line the four-letter word recurs...
With the same frequency, a growling hatred of the pope. That also recurs incessantly. Without reasoning: like the relief found in invective. It is not the indignation of a good man against impiety. In 1510, his superiors had sent him to Rome, and he had been filled with admiration at the piety, the charity and the humanity of the pontifical justice, and he compared it to the lamentable state of Germany. No; there is something mad, excessive in his hatred mixed with fear. At the time of his excommunication, the first movement was fear, then hatred: "The pontifical acts are sealed with devil's s... (reading a decretal). It is nothing but a ghastly fart of the pope. What energy, to set off such a clap of thunder. It is a miracle that he did not burst his behind and his guts."2
Dalbiez multiplies the examples. His theology turns round an obsession: "A child has diarrhea in his diaper or on his father's lap with impunity; he remains none the less the heir of his patrimony. Thus our justice is not in us. And if I am not pious, the Christ keeps none the less his piety."3
It undoubtedly began while he was still little, stemming from the way some children of strong personality have of confronting their parents. His parents were rough and brutal. Luther's revolt against the blows was expressed by dirtying his pants. He was beaten bloody for it. He ended by yielding, not from docility, but from fear - a fear as violent as his vitality. This fear of his father was projected on God. Beneath the fear, bound but quite alive, remained a grumbling hatred. Against God, the inhibition was too strong, but the day when the unstable equilibrium broke, this hatred fixed upon the pope.
His vocation? One day lightening struck near him. God was going to strike him like his father. He fled to the monastery in a reflex of terror. The terror abated, but the tension of fear and hatred developed in him a neurotic anxiety that never left him. In the monastery chapel, the Gospel of the possessed man was read. He suddenly rolled on the ground crying out, "It isn't me, it isn't me."
The religious life seemed to stabilize him, judging by the portraits of 1505, but the virus had infected his mind. Studying theology, he reread - in light of his neurotic anxiety - the epistles of St. Paul. And he clung to that like a talisman against madness and despair.
With that aspect of his personality, there were also a prodigious vitality, a memory, an intellect, a rhetorical talent that held the attention of his superiors. Five years after his entry, lo! he was a priest (he was to faint from fright during his first Mass) and professor at the University of Wittenberg.
In 1517, the Augustinians, jealous of the Dominicans who had obtained a monopoly on preaching the jubilee indulgences, charged their brilliant orator to break the Dominican Tetzel. They had no hint of the hurricane they were unleashing. Purgatory, for Luther, meant the dogma of merits and of expiation, the return of his terror and his anxieties, the phantom that must be killed. Thus he preached salvation by the merits of Christ independently of our works. His successes emboldened him, reassured him: Yes, that is indeed the doctrine of Christ! Every one listens to me!
Then came the headlong course: posters against indulgences, challenges against the pope and the emperor, the exhilaration at seeing Germany move at the sound of his voice. Luther is one of the rare cases where the neurosis does not consume vitality and energy. On the contrary, it gave him a power of incantation, an exaltation, a communicative passion, a boldness, a bellowing energy that subjugated and drew crowds.
In Germany, everything that sought to move attached its wagon to the locomotive Luther: the humanists wishing to remake the world on the model of antiquity, the high nobility no longer willing to brook submission to the ecclesiastical power, the poor petty nobility coveting the riches of the Church to profit the younger members of the family, the peasants weary of oppression, the pious folk weary of the scandals given by bad bishops. His excesses were deplored, but they needed him too much.
The excommunication (1520) occurred at the appointed moment. Hutten, a brigand, needed a prophet: he made advances. Luther, who was terrified and had just written a letter of submission, threw himself into [Hutten's] arms. Hatred then took the upper hand.
Just wait, my Lord Bishops, devil's larva, the Doctor Martin is going to have you read a bull that will offend your ears, a Lutheran bull. Whoever shall help by his arm, his fortune, his goods, to devastate the bishops and the episcopal hierarchy, is a good son of God, a true Christian who keeps the commandments of the Lord.4
The Catholic theologians pointed out to him the consequences of his new theory: by implication, it denies not only purgatory, but also confession, good works, the Mass as a sacrifice for our sins, the visibility of the Church. But it was too late; Luther was intoxicated by the sentiment of liberation that he experienced by shouting what he had repressed within him, and "the reproaches awaken my adversaries, and make me intelligent," he said. His doctrine was completed early on, from 1517-1520. Luther was to add to it divorce and the authorization of bigamy, once he had been domesticated by the princes. For the roaring lion was to be muzzled.
The turning point came in the midst of the Peasants' War. In 1524, he had met people crazier, more extreme, more demagogic, and fouler than he: the Anabaptists. They urged the pillaging of castles, integral communism, and the sharing of wives with the very same arguments as Luther. There was an about turn. Luther threw himself into the arms of the political power.
Come, my princes, strike! To arms! Thrust! The times have come, blessed times where with blood a prince can win heaven more easily that we can with our prayers; I, Martin Luther, I myself ordered their tortures, impalement, beheading, bludgeoning.
He was listened to: a massacre took place, 100,000 victims according to one Protestant historian, the beginning of a nightmare that was to bind Germany for two centuries.
Henceforth the outcome was fixed: since there must be a religious authority, since the Church had been rejected, it was the political power that was to decide what must be believed. The Protestant Menzel in his monumental history of Germany observes:
The most remarkable aspect of the religious pacification is undoubtedly that, once religion and the Church were wrested from the spiritual authority under whose control they had been until then, they were placed under the control of the princes and the State. The Palatine electors, by virtue of the right of reformation that the pacification had established in fact, and that the Peace of Westphalia declared to be an original right of the Empire, constrained their subjects to switch from Catholicism to Lutheranism, from Lutheranism to Calvinism, then back to Lutheranism, then to Calvinism, and finally they wanted to make them return to Catholicism.5
Henceforth, for Luther, it was a headlong pitch into drunkenness and debauchery. The successive portraits of the heretic testify to the progressive decline. At Wittenberg, the nuns listened to the master, left their convents, preached, and ended in loose living. Luther married one, Catherine Bora, but he had at least one child by another. His sermons describe his own morals: "My God, give us many women and few children ....[H]owever ugly the woman, one who has no water to extinguish the fire uses dung."
One is not surprised, then, that when the prince of Hesse consulted him in order to obtain a justification of his bigamy, the old lecher needed no persuasion to find for him good theological arguments.
His flight, though, did not bring Luther peace. His exaltation sometimes gave way to a terrible lucidity. One evening, Luther being in the garden with Kaliche (Catherine Bora), witnesses recorded their dialogue:
"Look, how beautiful the sky is, how the stars twinkle," murmured Catherine.
"Yes, but they do not shine for us."
A silence. "We left our convents."
"Then, we must return to our vows?"
"It is too late. The wagon is stuck too deep in the mud.”6
The last five years of Luther's life were sinister. His celebrity, which had exhilarated him, was waning. He well knew that he had been domesticated by the powerful. Catherine Bora became bitter and tyrannical. She had no more illusions about the prophet who had enthralled her. He was bitter. He vituperated, threatened, complained, drank. In his letters from this period, there recurs like a leitmotif, under different forms, the avowal: "I am drunk from morning till night."
His theology at this time reads like a desperate autobiography:
I know it: if someone has felt the terror and the weight of death, he would rather be a pig than suffer continually from such a crushing weight. In the street or on its dungheap, the pig imagines itself to be on a soft bed: it rests peacefully, snores delicately, sleeps deliciously. It fears neither king nor master, neither death nor hell, neither devil nor divine wrath. It has no worry, and it is not even troubled about what it will eat. If it is chased, it grunts. If it could speak, it would say: Fool! see how you let yourself be carried away by anger. You haven't the least part or parcel of my happiness; and were you very much more rich and powerful, you would never spend one hour that is as secure, sweet, and peaceful as are all of mine. Yes, the pig is not worried by death: it lives in perfect security, in the sweetness of living.
"I know longer know if God is the devil, or the devil God," he says.
1546. Luther was invited by the princes of Mansfeld to mediate a quarrel. He was treated magnificently. Everyone flocked to his sermons. Feast followed feast. During one drinking session, he rose and wrote on the wall an invective against the pope, amidst laughter and joking; suddenly, the old anguish overwhelmed him. The guests saw him return to his place, sinister, not opening his mouth. Not even drunkenness restored his usual loquacity.
His valets revealed later that on this night, February 18, 1546, they had carried the master dead drunk to his bed. Having returned the next morning to dress him, they found him hanged to the posts of his bed, strangled. The devil, with whom he boasted of having slept more often than with his wife, had communicated to him, with his hatred, his despair.7
How can the permanence of Protestantism be explained? After Luther's death, Melanchton hastened to reject the dogma of faith without works. But they could not turn back: the hatred of the pope was henceforth too ingrained, too visceral, in the Protestants. And then, there was the pillaging, and then the divorces, and then the ambition of princes, delighted to control religion: a wall that still separates the Protestants from the truth, from life, from salvation.
Rev. Fr. Philippe Marcille, formerly a Benedictine monk of Flavigny, France, joined the Society of St. Pius X in 1986 when his monastery accepted the novus ordo. He is an experienced retreat master of the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius.
1. L'angoisse de Luther, by Dalbiez (Tequi, 1974); Luther, by Ivan Gobry (L.T.R., 1991).
2. See Gobry, p. 451.
3. Table Talks, Vol. 2, No. 1712.
4. T. IL, Witt., fol. 120.
5. Rohbacher, Histoire de l'eglise, p. 10.
6. Audin, Histoire de Luther, Vol. 3 (Paris: 1846).
7. Ivan Gobry, Luther, (Paris: Ed. L.T.R., 1991). The substance of the biography and the account of his death are taken from this work.
Audin. Histoire de Luther, Paris: 1846.
"Bonum Certamen," No. 63, 1981.
Dalbiez. L'angoisse de Luther. Ed. Tequi, 1974.
Gobry, Ivan. Luther. Paris: Ed. L.T.R., 1991.
Rohbacher. Histoire de L'eglise.
Sacchi, Henri. Guerre de Trente ans. Paris: Ed. 1'Harmattan, 1991.
Some of the citations were borrowed from a tract by Fr. Moureau.