Luther – A creative reformer

by Bishop Peter J. Elliott

One of three articles published in the Catholic Weekly, Sydney, May 2017,
500 year since Luther proposed his theses.

Luther the Catechist

Luther was always a professor, a committed and skilled teacher. Although catechisms in various forms can be traced back to the early Christian centuries, he is regarded as a pioneer of catechetics because of the systematic catechisms he wrote. While Lutheran doctrine is set out in these books, the emphasis is more on how people can live justly by following the commandments of God.

Whether written for adults or children, his catechisms set the course for the ordered Christian life of many families. I was impressed by the serious and lengthy preparation undertaken by my Lutheran cousins for their Confirmation, although the sacrament is understood as “confirming one’s faith” rather than the seal of the Holy Spirit.

His successful catechisms provoked a healthy reaction among Catholics. The catechetical works of St Peter Canisius SJ, while not modelled on Luther, are clearly a Counter-Reformation acceptance of one of Luther’s pastoral principles, to provide accessible, clear and accurate teaching of the faith for people at all levels. The supreme example of this principle in action was the Catechism of the Council of Trent, written to assist priests in their teaching ministry – nevertheless laced with refutations of Protestantism.

Luther the Liturgist

Until the Nineteenth Century Oxford Movement enriched Anglican worship, Lutheran liturgy was more “Catholic” in style than Anglican liturgy. This liturgical culture can be traced to Luther himself.  Unlike Calvin and the Puritans, he had a strong aesthetic sense. He maintained the need for formal liturgy and at his request German altars, stained glass and statues were not destroyed. Swedish Lutheran clergy still wear Catholic Mass vestments. I have a crucifix passed down from my Lutheran grandmother. The crucifix dominates the altar of each Lutheran church, a crucified Christ, not one of those pallid risen-Christ figures found in some of our “renovated” churches.

When you enter a Lutheran church, you are invited to look to Christ crucified and place your trust in him. Yet beneath the crucifix there is an open Bible, not a tabernacle, and here we see the difference. The altar has become a kind of pulpit. The word dominates the sacrament, because the sacrament itself is a vivid powerful word. That was a radical break with Catholic tradition. For us, the word leads to the sacrament, symbolized in the relationship between lectern and altar in our post-Vatican II churches.

His insistence on scriptural preaching, which we have recovered in the homily, was accompanied by his love of good music. The list of his hymns relates to the liturgical seasons. Alongside his translation of the Scriptures, his hymns have inspired many. One stands out, sung by Protestants and Catholics alike,  Ein feste burg, “A mighty fortress is our God”. It may be said that Lutheran music reached its summit in Bach and Handel, composers who raised scriptural text to musical glory.

The liturgy helped shape spirituality within his movement, inspired by his own devotion to Christ and reverence for Our Lady. But there seems to be a certain lack of emphasis on the Holy Spirit until you read his catechisms.

Those Luther Shadows

Putting aside these treasures of German Christian culture, an unavoidable shadow falls on Luther’s complex life – his vehement anti-Semitism. It has been argued that his prejudice against Jews was typical of medieval Catholicism. Some shameful examples bear that out, but only up to a point, for this was not a universal prejudice. After showing sympathy for Jews, in his later life Luther turned on them. One explanation may be found in his theology which restricts salvation to some Christians who accept Christ alone as the true Saviour.

His tirade On the Jews and Their Lies (1543) called for a violent program of action against Jews. Almost word for word, he unwittingly anticipated many of the hideous details of the Nazi Final Solution applied by Hitler’s henchmen in Middle Europe, Ukraine and Russia between 1941 and 1945. While it may be argued that his anti-Semitism was religious rather than racist, it still provided a foundation for the later Nazi ideology.

An early prelude to his anti-Semitic tirade was his angry reaction to the Peasants’ War. In the summer of 1524 German peasants with economic grievances rose in violent revolution. They looked to Luther, citing his concept of the liberty of the Christian man, which they interpreted in terms of basic social justice. They also were encouraged by Luther’s recently published essay On Trade and Usury, maintaining classical Christian opposition to exploiting the poor by high interest rates.

When Luther rejected the peasants and called on the princes to exterminate them, he was denounced by their spiritual leader Thomas Muntzer as a “lackey of the princes”. There is a sub-text here. All along Luther knew that Muntzer was a rival and that this preacher was a fanatic, doomed to perish in a lost cause.

Three centuries later Karl Marx found inspiration in Luther’s On Trade and Usury.      But Communism did not attract socially conservative Lutherans. In 1945, when the Third Reich was replaced by the severe Communist State of East Germany, the Lutheran majority conformed, but not willingly and persecutions and restrictions ensued. So when the crisis came in 1989, Lutheran clergy and laity were leaders in the resistance that brought down the Berlin Wall.  But were they true to Luther’s understanding of Church and State?

Church and State

His Church-State theory was based on a literal reading of parts of the Bible. In both the Old and the New Testament kings and emperors are in place according to God’s will so Luther argued that good Christians were bound to obey them. Church and State had their separate spheres, but the State was above the Church, which was never the policy of the Popes. In some ways Luther’s socio-political teaching proved to be more problematic than his prejudices.

Early in 1933, when the Third Reich began its brutal journey, German Lutherans found themselves in a quandary. If they followed Luther’s teaching, Hitler was God’s prince and should be obeyed by good Christians. For a year or so that seemed feasible, but when he made himself the Fuhrer, absolute ruler, and when the personal oath to Hitler was required, what were Christians to do?

Lutherans split into three groups. The bizarre German Christians, led by Bishop Muller, put the swastika on the altar, taught that Christ was an Aryan and selectively quoted Luther’s anti-Semitic tirade. At the opposite pole, the Confessing Church bravely resisted Nazism, led by Pastor Niemoller and inspired by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the heroic martyr. But to resist tyranny they had to abandon Luther’s doctrine of Church and State.

Most Lutherans held on in the middle, as did so many Catholics in Nazi Germany. Those grim years carry a mixed account of Christian compliance and resistance, with many survivors and some heroes.

Herald of the Enlightenment?

This year we have seen the revival of a curious myth that Luther was a precursor of the Enlightenment, an early champion of our democratic society and its values. This mythology is passed on in a history course taught in not a few Australian high schools, laced with politically-correct anti-Catholicism and clumsy historical bloopers. To a certain extent, the myth is perpetuated in a recent effusive book on Luther by Peter Stanford.  I would argue that dressing Luther up as a liberal is just another “Whig myth” which only obscures the real man, with all his gifts and flaws, turning him into an icon for causes he could neither foresee nor accept.

But supporters of the myth would challenge us. Did not Luther boldly affirm the “liberty of the Christian”? Did he not champion universal access to the Scriptures and the right to private interpretation of the biblical texts?

There is a problem here. Luther’s concept of “the liberty of the Christian” runs parallel with his insistence on “the bondage of the will”. Once we see that he is thinking as a theologian, we understand that, by “liberty” he means the spiritual freedom of true believers, fallen men and women justified by faith alone.

He does not argue for the kind of political liberty which evolved in the following centuries during the Enlightenment and French Revolution. Certainly, in the eighteenth century on the sceptical side of the Enlightenment (Aufklarung) some liberal Lutheran scholars opened the way to the radical schools of biblical criticism. On the other hand the most “enlightened” Lutheran prince was Frederick II of Prussia, Hitler’s beloved hero.

As I have indicated, German Lutheranism was usually socially conservative. By contrast, guided by the teaching of Pope Leo XIII, late nineteenth century German Catholicism fostered social progress on issues such as workers’ rights, unions and the family.  During this phase, Catholics had been tested by a confrontation with Bismarck and his kulturkampf (culture struggle) against the Church, and later they would again try to survive in Hitler’s totalitarian state.


Martin Luther died peacefully on February 18th 1546. In the previous year Pope Paul III had convened what became the Council of Trent, with a mandate to set the Church on a course of reform which Luther had indirectly initiated. Back in 1520, in the heat of his rebellion, he had appealed to a future General Council of the Church to resolve the issues he raised and to reform the abuses. Over the next thirty years, political intrigue, wars and increasing polarization between Catholics and Protestants delayed that Council. It finally met in 1551 and its last session was held in Trent in 1563.

The Council of Trent also named and rejected Luther’s errors. It was too late for reconciliation. The Counter-Reformation had begun and its skilled champions were members of a new order, the Jesuits.  Yet this creative revival of Catholic faith and energy also included a strict Catholic Reform program and for much of that, in his own strange way, Luther was responsible.

The last memories of Luther are preserved in the Table Talk, covering an amazing range of topics and recorded by his disciples and, some claim, also by Katherine his loyal wife. In his later years he was as loquacious as ever, still argumentative, confident and dogmatic. At times his language was colourful even for an earthy culture of beer, sausage and sauerkraut. Those welcomed to his hospitable table enjoyed much merry eating and drinking, for he was a good trencherman, but contrary to a Catholic myth he was not a drunkard. So were he with us today, would I invite Martin Luther to dinner? I would wonder and hesitate…but what an interesting evening it would be.