The presence of such a right balance of energies will always amaze the student as he contemplates the ways Luther entered the high seas of religious dispute in a most disputatious age, and yet always seemed (with two glaring exceptions) to come to some well-grounded position of belief and program. For whatever reason—and Coleridge's speculations seem quite acceptable—Luther possessed what Ortega called a cabeza clara, a "clear head," the quality required by all great men who introduce momentous historical change.
All of these qualities and more are brought out in Martin Marty's Martin Luther, a recent addition to the series of Penguin Lives. The series possesses an easygoing mode of general description, and yet Professor Marty is able to do justice to the complex nature of Luther's religious genius. While necessarily brief, his accounting of Luther's life and works is fair-minded and reliable. His favorite analogy has Luther, like Jacob, wrestling with the angel of God, struggling between his angst and his need for deliverance, between his doubt and his need for certitude. While admiring, Marty can also be unsparing, particularly on Luther's violence against the Peasants' Revolt and his attitude toward the Jews. Here he rightly argues that Luther's antagonism was more religious than racial, more anti-Judaic than anti-Semitic, and he makes the well-placed comment that Luther argues that not "they" but "we" are responsible for the sacrifice of Christ. Nevertheless, Luther did accept some of the more outrageous accusations against the Jews, much to their disappointment, expecting better from this defender of religious freedom. Perhaps Marty's best pages are his description of Luther's later disappointment that ordinary people could not live up to the strenuous demands required of the truly religious life—the hazards faced by the individual who places himself in the hands of the living God.
Throughout his life Luther's "impetuous" temperament was driven by a need for justification. Consequently he underwent not one, but two, enormous conversions. The first was the well-known sudden decision to enter the monastery of the Augustinian Hermits in 1505.
Returning from a visit to his parents' home in the university town of Erfurt, where he was a student of law, he was caught in a terrifying thunderstorm, and made the famous vow to St. Anne that if he were saved he would become a monk. Like all such accounts that have the makings of legend, this one is revelatory of character. Luther constantly likened himself to Saul on the road to Damascus. But we know that the conversion experience is not a bolt out of the blue—there is some preparation, some readiness already present in the character. And evidently, as Martin Brecht establishes in his indispensable three-volume life of Luther, the young and deadly-serious law student had been undergoing an "inner crisis," possibly attributable to a lack of fulfillment as a student of law (he wouldn't be the first), or a larger dissatisfaction that he was not living his life with the totality of commitment he required.
This first conversion, prompting him to enter the monastery at Erfurt, was a necessary one for Luther and highly revealing of his personality, but it was still a misstep. It was right that he follow it, but it was not right for him. Thus his capacity for wholehearted change could not end there, nor his need to lead his life aright. He took to monkhood like a fish to water, surpassing its restrictions with ones added himself, in an effort to earn salvation. His soul-searching confessions lasted for hours, exasperating his confessor, who told him to come back when he had committed a real sin. His mentor, Staupitz, recognized in this hyper-scrupulosity a kind of subversiveness, and tellingly admonished Luther that God was not angry with him but that he, Luther, was angry with God, frustrated by his own incapacity to feel that he could meet all the demands that bring salvation. Luther always felt that his most devoted deeds, especially his devoted deeds, were not sufficient. How could they possibly appease an all-judging God?
The second conversion plunged Luther into history and made him a world figure. It did not occur suddenly, but it too was dominated by inadvertency, by Luther's need to be carried along, to act not by his conscious volition but in accordance with some inscrutable divine will. As was his wont, he was surprised at the widespread passions aroused by his 95 theses. He had proposed them as matters for learned academic dispute; the theses about indulgences, masses for the dead, and purgatory were not unknown and had already been the subject of debate; and he carefully strove to disengage the pope from his emissaries' exaggerated claims. But what surprises is Luther's surprise, his refusal to acknowledge that what he had written was explosive. The force of Luther's personality, the dominating tone of his style, could not help breaking through academic protocol. This was not a spark setting off a wildfire, but dynamite thrown into an arms depot.
The 95 theses performed all the functions of a breakthrough work: it brought to its maker a sudden acclaim and recognition, and opened the way for fuller expansion of his thought and for his role as a spiritual leader. Luther moved from reformer to revolutionary when he realized that the problem was not the pope or his character, but the institution of the papacy itself. This change in his thought he also attributes to inadvertency, to his lack of conscious intent. In a series of unhappy debates following the 95 theses, the papal representatives argued that to attack the efficacy of indulgences and other such measures was to attack the mediating nature of the Church itself. Luther was driven to acknowledge the rightness of these claims, but with the opposite effect: too bad, then, for the papacy. In the meantime, in these crucial years of 1517-18, he also underwent his famous reformational experience, attaining his finally satisfying understanding of the Pauline prescription that the righteous shall live by faith and, Luther came to add, by faith alone.
These two momentous discoveries made possible that annus mirabilis of 1520 when he composed three remarkable works, the Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and The Freedom of the Christian. The three works are of a piece, likened by Luther himself to a suite of music, their interconnected parts building upon each other. Although Marty argues that Luther did not urge the papacy's abolition, these works went a long way toward undermining its primacy. In fact, with the publication of the second work, and its reduction of the sacraments from seven to two, Erasmus called the breach, which he had long sought to avoid, "irreparable."
In the first work, Luther attacked the three walls that guard the Church's supremacy: the qualitative difference between the clerisy and the laity; the Church's unique authority to interpret the Scripture; and the pope's singular power to convoke a council. The first two assaults are crucial because they initiated two of the larger historical repercussions of the Protestant Reformation: the desacralization of the Church and the priesthood, and the resacralization of the people in their everyday lives. Unhesitatingly, Luther deployed Biblical citation and reason (his constant tools of analysis) to attack the sacerdotal hierarchy, concluding, "There is at bottom really no other difference between laymen, priests, princes and bishops, or in Romanist terminology between the religious and the secular than that of office and occupation and not that of Christian status." Marty cautions that though this idea meant the priesthood of every believer, it did not mean everyone was qualified to be a pastor. The pastor is a person with a special aptitude for learning and preaching, selected by the community to attend to their spiritual and administrative needs. Hence the priest becomes a minister.
Luther's greatest revolution may have involved the lives of the saints. In effect, he denied that fabulous, superhuman exertions of asceticism should be considered exemplary. The struggles of conscience and the demands of the religious life take place daily, after all. Stay home, take care of business. Such acceptance and appreciation of one's mortal station is one of the great, undervalued innovations of Luther's reformation, making him suspicious of glib spiritualists. One lives as one ought in the normal conditions of being; the struggle for salvation can occur even in a three-piece suit. We all march in darkness. "The true church is hidden, the number of saints unknown." For Luther the existential struggle means that one must not only believe in Christ, one must be Christ, without knowing it, and only then, after the fact, after Gethsemane, realize that one has undergone his own agony. It is from such experience that one acquires understanding and faith.
Luther was temperamentally at odds with his erstwhile ally and comrade-in-arms, Erasmus. One of history's enigmas is what finally prompted Erasmus to come out against Luther, as he did in his famous diatribe, De Libero Arbitrio (On the Freedom of the Will). This initiated the most important debate of the century. When he received Erasmus's essay, Luther thanked him for not bothering with matters of indulgences, purgatory, and the like (an indication of the growth of Luther's own speculative awareness); instead, he thanked Erasmus for grabbing him by the jugular. Luther responded with his greatest work, De Servo Arbitrio (On the Enslaved Will). Marty, while praising it, detects "creative bluster" in Luther's style. Intemperate and inflamed though it was, the essay was also to the point. The notoriously thin-skinned Erasmus responded with two even lengthier defenses, while Luther declined to add to what had been said, confident that Erasmus had been demolished.
And so it appeared. But history has its avenues of return, and in the late 17th and 18th centuries it was Erasmus who helped to inspire the Enlightenment. It was precisely his kind of skeptical humanism that Luther had always suspected and rejected. Luther, of course, has had his own recoveries. When, for example, Carlos Fuentes came to describe the difference between Mexican and American culture, he did so with one name: Martin Luther.