Books: Protestant despondency

Was the Reformation a calamity for Europe, and its maker? Karen Armstrong on a flawed hero
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Martin Luther: the Christian between God and death

by Richard Marius

Harvard University Press, pounds 19.95, 542pp

A generation brought up on Roland Bainton's influential biography of Luther sees him as a noble precursor of the modern spirit. Summoned to the Diet of Worms to appear before the Emperor in April 1521, Luther was asked if he was prepared to submit to the ruling of the Church. He refused, concluding: "Here I stand; I can do no other." In this symbolic scene, Luther's brave defiance has been seen as an epochal affirmation of the individual's right to think as he chooses, and to express his views.

In this view, the Reformation was a progressive movement which cast aside centuries of superstition and corruption. The reality is more complex, and Richard Marius's scholarly and thoughtful biography is an important contribution that should help to redress an imbalance.

In many ways, the Reformation was a disaster. It plunged Europe into a cycle of war, bloodshed and persecution. Thousands of people who might have had a peaceful existence had Luther never lived died brutal, pointless deaths. Certainly, the Church needed reform, but it is possible that Luther's intemperate, belligerent campaign actually brought the cause of reformation into disrepute.

Marius presents Luther as a complex, tortured figure, driven more by a desire to escape his personal demons than by a disinterested quest for truth. Throughout his life, he suffered bouts of paralysing depression. This took the form of a terror of death and extinction. Marius's careful analysis of Luther's sermons and letters showed that he was not much concerned with Hell. God expressed his towering wrath not so much by plunging the damned into everlasting fire, but by subjecting human beings to the annihilation of death.

Luther's fear of death was so intense that he was unable, as a young man, to read Psalm 90, which describes the evanescence of human life, burned up by God's anger. His theology of justification by faith was a desperate attempt to find a solution. It was only by experiencing their utter helplessness before God's wrath that Christians could be saved; they would thus realise at a level deeper than the cerebral that righteousness came from God, not from any good deeds.

This led to conflict with Rome. In Luther's view, the practice of selling indulgences encouraged the faithful to think that they could buy salvation, and to develop a faith that was little more than magic. When Luther found these superstitions sanctioned by the Pope, he set out to destroy the papacy. He was convinced that once Christians heard the clear teaching of scripture, as he understood it, they would follow him. Luther also sought to liberate the German people from Roman tyranny and unite them under an emperor who lived according to the gospel.

But, as Marius shows, none of this happened. Europeans became locked in fruitless doctrinal disputes about insoluble matters. The unity of Western Christendom was shattered forever, and Europe subjected to over a century of vicious religious strife. Luther's theology seems not only to have failed the people of Wittenberg who followed him in rebellion against Rome, but brought Luther himself neither peace of mind nor spiritual relief.

Luther had thought that his theology, together with a faith that relied on scripture, would themselves reform the Church and make people live virtuous lives. This did not prove to be the case. After the first flush of enthusiasm, Lutherans become indifferent to religion, lived immoral, selfish lives, and seemed incapable of taking sermons seriously. At the end of his life, Luther berated his flock, threatening them with divine punishment if they did not live according to the Law. With tragic irony, the apostle of justification by faith became a furious proponent of good works.

As for Luther himself, the bouts of depression continued until the day he died. He had longed for certainty and thought he had achieved a luminous faith. But complete security seemed to elude him. As Marius shows so clearly, he developed a profound fear of human reason which, he was convinced, would lead men and women into atheism. Anybody who promoted rational faith was, in his book, a villain. Hence his vituperative rage against Aristotle, Aquinas and Erasmus.

Despite the popular myth, Luther was not a passionate advocate of intellectual liberty. Even though he taught that Christians had a right to interpret the scriptures, he was a fierce opponent of what he deemed heresy. He also supported the burning of books. Luther's profound fear of rational thought revealed a deep insecurity. By pushing reason outside the religious sphere, he became one of the first Europeans to secularise it.

Marius writes as a detached secularist, and this is one of the strengths of his book. He has no sectarian axe to grind, and is fair to Luther, showing sympathy with his suffering and pointing out that, despite his defects, he was impelled by distress to do what good he could. His literary output was prodigious and impressive. But Marius also points out that Luther was clearly wrong to write off Catholicism as he did. The Church needed reform and its career since the Reformation is far from unblemished, but its rituals and practices continue to attract.

If Marius has a fault, it is that he does not always understand the inner dynamic of religion. His explanation of mysticism and of certain Christian doctrines is shallow; and he has little appreciation for the role of myth in spiritual life. He could have saved himself trouble by simply pointing out that Luther's faith, as lived by himself, was bad religion. The great world faiths all insist that the major test of any spirituality is that it leads to practical compassion. Yet Luther's theology led him to rage and hatred.

The reader limps away from this fine biography, reeling under the distressing impact of Luther's ire. He was consumed by loathing, attacking, in the basest terms, all his theological opponents, Jews, witches, Turks, popes, peasants, his fellow reformers and his hapless congregation. In this respect, his personal theology must be one of the most monumental religious failures of all time. The fact that Protestantism was able to recover as well an it did from this unfortunate beginning is a triumph of the human spirit.

Karen Armstrong's `A History of God' is published in paperback by Vintage