An Alternative Approach to Martin Luther and Lutheranism

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I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen. 

– Martin Luther at the Imperial Diet of Worms, 1521.

Abstract

Martin Luther was a significant German priest, theologian and religious reformer who initiated the reform movement which ended up with the rise of Protestantism and the break of the spiritual and temporal authorities of the Roman Catholic Church. Since Martin Luther is famously considered as the pioneer of Protestantism, there emerged a conventional historical narrative to reconcile Martin Luther with the contemporary version of Protestantism. This paper provides a comprehensive framework regarding Martin Luther and deconstructs the conventional narrative in line with the actual historical account of Martin Luther. First of all, the paper introduces a panorama of the political and religious conditions of medieval Catholic Christianity which gave rise to multiple reform movements including the Lutheran movement. Then, it sets out the general outline of the discussions and various narratives and examines the conventional historical/academic narrative regarding Martin Luther based on the contemporary perception of Protestantism. Finally, it attempts to deconstruct this baseless narrative based on historical evidence. 

Key Words: Martin Luther, Lutheranism, Reform Movements, Protestantism, Anachronism.

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Özet

Martin Luther, Protestanlığın yükselişi ve Roma Katolik Kilisesi’nin manevi ve dünyevi otoritelerinin kırılmasıyla sonuçlanan reform hareketini başlatan önemli bir Alman rahip, ilahiyatçı ve dini reformcudur. Martin Luther Protestanlığın öncüsü olarak kabul edildiğinden, Martin Luther’i çağdaş Protestanlık ile uzlaştırmak için geleneksel bir tarihsel anlatı ortaya çıkmıştır. Bu makale Martin Luther ile ilgili kapsamlı bir çerçeve sunmakta ve geleneksel anlatıyı Martin Luther’in gerçek tarihsel kimliğine uygun olarak yapıbozuma uğratmaktadır. Çalışma ilk bölümünde, Lutheran hareketi de dahil olmak üzere çok sayıda reform hareketine yol açan Ortaçağ Katolik Hristiyanlığı’nın siyasi ve dini koşullarının bir panoramasını vermektedir. Ardından tartışmaların ve çeşitli anlatıların genel çerçevesini ortaya koymakta ve Martin Luther’e ilişkin geleneksel tarihsel/akademik anlatıyı çağdaş Protestanlık algısından hareketle incelemektedir. Son bölümde, bu temeli olmayan anlatıyı tarihsel kanıtlara dayalı olarak yapıbozuma uğratmaya çalışmaktadır.

Anahtar Kelimeler: Martin Luther, Lutheranizm, Reform Hareketleri, Protestanlık, Anakronizm.

Introduction 

The conventional narrative in academia attempts to reconcile Martin Luther with contemporary Protestantism. This narrative, which examines Martin Luther from the perspective of contemporary Protestantism, falls into anachronism. Anachronism is the term used for the chronological inconsistency in ideas, events, and practices. It results in detrimental impacts on the historical narratives regarding the historical events, ideas, or persons and leads to misunderstandings and misperceptions of the history. This anachronistic narrative regarding Martin Luther in academia is ungrounded because when the relevant sources are checked, one can encounter that Martin Luther’s beliefs and practices differ from today’s Protestantism in some significant aspects. Protestantism today is libertarian, humanist, democratic, and puts importance on freedom. However, Martin Luther, who is generally regarded as the pioneer of Protestantism, was dogmatic, fundamentalist, non-libertarian, non-humanist, and an advocate of the aristocracy. Readers will find answers regarding the difference between the Lutheran reform movement and modern Protestantism. They will be able to comprehend how modern Protestantism distinguishes it from Luther’s understanding of Protestantism. While writing this paper, we applied to the sources that explain the basis of modern Protestantism and investigated the life story of Martin Luther from the primary sources. In order to have a better understanding of Protestantism and its implications, we benefited from Max Weber’s masterpiece Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In addition to that, we used the biographies of Martin Luther and his letters addressing different groups of people to be able to trace the underpinnings of the Lutheran movement. We attempted to provide the reader with a comprehensive framework about the relationship between Martin Luther and contemporary Protestantism by laying out in detail the significant characteristics of Medieval Catholic Christianity, the Lutheran reform movement led by Martin Luther, and contemporary Protestantism.

1. The Medieval Background of Catholic Christianity and the Rise of the Lutheran Movement 

Christianity is one of the three Abrahamic-monotheistic religions which is based on the life, sermons, and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. The centrality of Jesus Christ in Christian belief and worship could be seen in the etymological root of the term “Christ-ianity”, a religion named after its prophet. The Trinity doctrine, which identifies the existence of God in the form of three coeternal and consubstantial persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, is at the basis of belief in God in Christian theology. Unlike Islam, which was born in a tribal and polytheistic society in the Hijaz, Christianity was born in a polytheistic state society, Roman Empire, and increasingly acquired characteristics of a distinctive religious organization in opposition to the existing state power. The New Testament, consisting of the Four Gospels written by the original apostles of Jesus Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, is the holy book of Christianity. However, as a result of different interpretations and reinterpretations, various confessions have appeared. Although Catholicism remained as the largest and the strongest Christian Church in the face of Orthodoxy, by the end of the 15th century, there emerged a split, a division within the Western Catholic Church. There emerged several reform movements, out of which Protestantism arose, criticizing the religious authority, the Catholic Christian Church, and the existing state authority, the Holy Roman Empire founded by Charlemagne and the Carolingian dynasty. The rise of these reform movements, which led to a fierce struggle between Protestants and Catholics, reflects the crisis of the Medieval Catholic Church. 

Sooner or later, all societies, cultures, civilizations, states, or empires enter into crisis because the existing institution, culture, state, government, and the system of law are no longer able to facilitate and sustain continuous progress and development. There develops deepening incompatibility with the new requirements and existing institutions. This may lead to continuous reform and improvement and transformation of the existing institutions or it may be that something more violence breaks out that breaks the fabric of society as it has existed until then. By the 14th and 15th centuries, it was not just the crisis of the Catholic medieval church but a general crisis of medieval European societies and civilizations. It is not just the church, the traditional fabric of medieval-feudal society, dominated by a hereditary landowning warrior nobility comes to be shaken by new economic developments, the rise of towns, and the emergence of new, money-oriented, and market-oriented social classes challenging the superiority of the landowning nobility. This crisis is simultaneously social, political, and religious and the crisis of the church is a part of this. 

The medieval Christian Catholic Church is a multinational corporation that claims both spiritual authority and supreme authority over all Christendom. This leads to several conflicts between religious and secular political authority. The Church had its own Canonical laws and if anyone including kings was to disobey, they would be facing punishment and excommunication, which were significant issues as the Church and belief in God were society’s prominent values (Minton, 2014). This eventually caused the Church to obtain more power than many kings. The conflict between the Catholic Church and the secular authorities could be seen in the investiture controversy, the taxation of the Church and monasteries, and the trial of the churchmen. The secularization of the Church by intervening in worldly affairs and politics gave rise to the erosion of papal prestige and authority. The belief happened to turn into something beneficial to the authorities of the Church, rather than believers. That is, as the Church was getting more powerful with each passing day, it also became rich because it used its power to put pressure on people (Budde, 2021). The Catholic Church made people believe that the Church was an inevitable tool if they wanted to contact God. Moreover, people believed that they had to take advantage of the existence of the Church if there was worship for God. For a strong relationship between believers and God, the Church had to take part because the Church was believed to be necessary for the faith in God. Since the Catholic Church gained more power every day, it was rather difficult for people to believe that the Church was only a spiritual organization. More power enabled the authorities to take benefit from people that had faith. Due to people’s belief in the Church being the representative of God on Earth, they were ready to give what they had in hand. Indeed, people gave what they had to the Church. The authorities started to ask for money so that they would guarantee a strong and real relationship between God and believers (Minton, 2014). People were channeled to believe that if they had committed a sin, they had to go to Church to confess and cleanse. Thus, the Church became the only place that could relieve people from their sins and this enabled the Church to increase and consolidate its power and authority over Christendom. The Church became the most significant place to socially interact and form a community. Besides all this, the erosion of the moral and spiritual authority of the Church went hand-in-hand with a deepening fiscal crisis because running the papacy became more and more expensive. By the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the papacy had come to be squeezed and starved for cash. Therefore, the papacy resorted to brazen venality and started to sell everything within its power. The Medieval Catholic Church started to sell the Cardinal’s offices, the Supreme advisory body in the Christendom, and indulgences in which the Papacy absolves all the sins up to that point and assures the believers a passage of safe conduct to heaven in return for a certain amount of money. 

Furthermore, the Bible was only interpreted and explained by the Roman Catholic Church. This situation enabled the Church to intervene in the relationship between the believers and God. In addition to that, many priests were illiterate and some did not care about spiritual tasks and only cared for reputation in the social life (Budde, 2021). The political power of the popes and bishops was more prominent than people’s beliefs and church duties. In order not to lose people’s trust, popes and bishops took advantage of various activities such as rituals that connected believers to the Church (Budde, 2021). While doing these rituals, they were adapted to the needs of the authorities, not the believers. That is to say, even if something was not addressed by the Bible, that thing could be done for the sake of the preservation of the Church’s power, namely, the Bible was being neglected. Catholic Church’s misuse of the power and exploitations of the believers’ religious sentiments gave rise to several reactions calling for reform within the Catholic Church (Budde, 2021). The initial reform movements faced a harsh counter-reformation movement. Therefore, most of the initial reform movements failed to achieve their goals but for various reasons, the Lutheran movement achieved to spread over Northern Europe.

2. The Lutheran Movement and the Problem of the Conventional Historical/Academic Narrative Regarding Martin Luther 

The Lutheran movement, which was led by a priest-theologian by the name of Martin Luther, was the most significant reform movement. Martin Luther was a German theologian, priest, and religious reformer who initiated the Lutheran reform movement which ended up with the rise of Protestantism and the break of the spiritual and temporal authorities of the Roman Catholic Church. He was born on November 10, 1483, in Eisleben, Saxony, located in modern-day Germany to a peasant family. Martin Luther entered the Erfurt monastery in 1505 and was ordained as a priest in 1507. Luther showed serious intellectual talents at a young age and was invited by his mentor Staupitz to teach theology at the newly founded University of Wittenberg in Germany. On 31st October 1517, Luther writes the Theses enclosed with a letter to Archbishop Albrecht, arguing that the actions of the church are wrong, sinful, and in violation of the basic principles of Christianity and next day on 1st November 1517, he said to have posted-nailed these Ninety-five Theses on the door of the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg. Martin Luther holds a very strong belief in the textual superiority and virtue of the Bible as against existing Church authorities. The rise of the Lutheran movement accelerated considering the continuing misuse of the power of the Church and the beliefs people had in their hearts. Although the political movement was not any of Luther’s intentions, there was political support that allowed the Lutheran movement to be regarded as a successful reformation. Therefore, in addition to a religious movement, there appeared also a political one. What was different in Luther was that he believed in the true explanation and understanding of the Bible, unlike earlier authorities that took advantage of the vast power of the Church. As a result, people that were being exploited by the powerful popes and bishops were now able to see clearly and their exploitation was to be ceased. Besides political support, there was also support from other priests because they were also aware that there were wrongdoings in the Catholic Church. This inevitably caused Luther to gain more power through his Reformation. In addition to that, the use of the printing press enabled Luther to reach out to many people and the ideas of the Lutheran movement to be spread, permeated and penetrated into every corner of Europe. However, rather than all these reasons behind the success of the Lutheran movement, the spirit of the time was suitable for these reformists to achieve their aims because the Church was in trouble, degenerated, and corrupted. There were early reformists as well but Martin Luther and his contemporaries became successful because of the zeitgeist. The Protestant Reformation caused the emergence of a Celtic period in Europe, the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants which eventually ended up with the Westphalia agreement. The Westphalia agreement signified the beginning of the modern state system. John Neville Figgis, an English historian, political philosopher, and Anglican priest, argued that had there been no Luther, there could never have been a Louis XIV, the famous sun-God of France, who represents the rise of absolutist monarchies which is the first phase of the modern state (Figgis, 1999: 51). So reformation in this regard was extremely significant. 

Based on this historical account of Martin Luther, there emerged a conventional narrative in academia which reconciles Martin Luther with the contemporary perception of Protestantism. This anachronistic narrative claims that the contemporary perception of Protestantism, which set the social and political foundation for liberalism, is compatible with Martin Luther. The conventional anachronistic narrative regarding Martin Luther draws a straight, jointed, and linear line between the Lutheran movement and contemporary Protestantism. However, this narrow-minded anachronistic narrative is a capital crime in academia and historical methodology because it leads to misunderstandings and misperceptions of the historical phenomenon, therefore, it should be deconstructed in line with the historical facts and evidence. 

3. Deconstruction of the Conventional Anachronistic Narrative and Introduction of a Comprehensive Approach to Martin Luther Based on the Actual Historical Evidence

In recent years, there emerged several counter-narratives to this anachronistic narrative which identifies Martin Luther based on the contemporary perception of Protestantism. In the course of history, the Lutheran movement characterized Protestantism evolved into a different belief system. We believe that the deconstruction of the conventional anachronistic narrative and introduction of a comprehensive approach to Martin Luther and the Lutheran movement based on the actual historical evidence will provide us a better understanding of Protestantism and Martin Luther. Therefore, this paper argues that even though he is seen as the pioneer of Protestantism, Martin Luther, to a significant extent, is different from the contemporary understanding of Protestantism. This claim requires some counterarguments which will be presented in the following parts of this paper. Fighting against the Catholic Church does not necessarily mean Martin Luther was in inverse dichotomy with the Catholic Church. This is a false dichotomy because Martin Luther was more radical, dogmatic, and fundamentalist than the Catholic Church in some significant aspects. Although modern Protestantism is mainly democratic, liberal, libertarian, humanist, for freedom and human rights, Martin Luther was an aristocrat, dogmatic, fundamentalist -therefore a Salafi- non-liberal, a non-humanist, and even a racist anti-semitic and anti-Turkic figure. 


First of all, Martin Luther claimed only a person’s faith can be a criterion for heaven, not any other person like a priest can guarantee heaven or hell. He excluded the role of the church in someone’s direct relationship with God. Today, differing from Luther, protestants believe both good deeds and faith are needed for heaven, in addition to the Bible. The Lutheran movement argued that justification or emancipation comes with faith, not with actions. Previously revelation was only to the Pope or to the Catholic Church but with the Lutheran movement, the revelation was received by every single individual believer. In contrast to the misperception of the anachronistic narrative, Luther was more dogmatic and more fundamentalist than the Catholic Church. He invited all Christian believers and the Catholic Church to return back to the sacred texts. Luther argued that Christianity has degenerated at the ends of the Catholic Church over centuries and true Christianity can be found in sacred texts in the bible. The main purpose of Lutheranism was to make religious rules and truths the constructive elements of social life. At the beginning of their criticism of the Catholic Church was the lack of support for the teaching of Jesus. Martin Luther appealed to the Bible, which he considered to be the purest of religious precepts, and began to criticize the enacted interpretations of the so-called Church fathers, the ancient saints, or current Papal authorities. For this reason, the Lutheran reform movement could be regarded as a Salafi movement of Christianity in this context. 

Martin Luther was not a libertarian humanist in favor of freedom or freedom of conscience. Because we know what Luther says about the peasant Revolt in Germany in 1525. While the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic counter-reformation were taking place, the German peasants revolted against lordship and aristocracy. Although the German peasants justified their revolt by many of his theological teachings, Luther was completely against the revolt and he was in favor of the aristocracy, serfdom and the nobility which crushed the peasant revolt (Robinson, 1905: 99). Unlike Martin Luther, Thomas Müntzer, who was a German preacher and theologian reformer, sided with the peasants against both Martin Luther and the Roman Catholic Church. In this regard, Thomas Müntzer’s attitude seems to be more compatible with contemporary Protestantism than Luther’s attitude. The interpretation of Lord Acton, a liberal professor of history at the University of Oxford, in England, about Luther is that Luther was neither libertarian nor humanist (Acton & Dalberg, 1906). So, we have a kind of paradoxical Lutheran figure who is in favor of authority in many cases, but when it comes to the case of faith and interpretation of the Bible, he is personally against the established authority of the Papacy. 

Moreover, in his book The Theological Origins of Liberalism, İsmail Kurun argues that the theological origins of liberalism are based on the Protestant reformation and liberalism proposes that a legally pluralist liberal political theory is the best way to maintain human dignity and peace in today’s increasingly multi-religious societies (Kurun, 2016). Therefore, it is clear that Protestantism provided the religious and theological foundations of Liberalism, humanism, and modern social and political life. However, when we look at Martin Luther’s approach to other religions and races, it totally contradicts the contemporary Protestant views. Martin Luther had strong anti-Turkish and anti-Semitic sentiments. While the Ottomans were advancing into Central Europe at that time, Luther was ferociously against the Ottomans and he regarded this as a Turkish-Islamic invasion. Martin Luther’s writings by the title of On War Against the Turk and Military Sermon Against the Turks clearly reflect Luther’s anti-Turkish sentiments. Martin Luther saw the Turks as agents of the Devil and the so-called Ottoman invasion as God’s punishment of Christians as he sent a plague, war, and earthquakes (Sean, 2009). So he has his own strong political opinions in other fields that are not necessarily in favor of peasants or in favor of tolerance between different religions. Moreover, Martin Luther was a clear anti-semitic figure who states in his pamphlet, in 1543, On the Jews and their Lies, that we are at fault in not slaying them (Luther, 1543). This pamphlet, which is all about Luther’s anti-semitic sentiments, provided a detailed recommendation and calling for a pogrom, oppression or expulsion against the Jews. In this pamphlet, Luther advises the Protestants to carry out the seven remedial actions which are totally against human rights. When Luther is approached from this comprehensive perspective, it becomes quite easy to understand the reasons why the Nazis regarded Luther as their forebear who they thought shared the same idea with them (Hegarty, 2017). According to famous historian Paul Johnson, Luther’s pamphlet on the Jews may be termed the first work of modern antisemitism, and a giant step forward on the road to the Holocaust (Johnson, 1987: 242). Therefore, this anti-Semitic and anti-Turkish racist attitude can never be reconciled and compatible with contemporary Protestantism which is quite for respect of freedom of religions and races.

Furthermore, famous German philosopher and thinker Max Weber in his masterpiece The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism argues that the Protestant ethic provided a ground for the rise of capitalism (Weber, 2013). However, this aspect of Protestantism is inconsistent with Luther’s economic philosophy because Luther is against interest rates and profits. According to Luther, people do not need more than their necessity, and looking for more should be denied. In short, unlike contemporary Protestantism, Martin Luther was a non-liberal, non-libertarian, non-capitalist, non-humanist, radical, dogmatic, racist, and fundamentalist figure and therefore he is, to a significant extent, displays different characteristics from contemporary Protestantism. 

Conclusion 

In conclusion, the crisis of the Medieval Catholic Church gave birth to various reform movements. Among these, the Lutheran movement, which was led by Martin Luther, achieved to undermine the authority of the Catholic Church and spread across North-western Europe. However, Martin Luther’s understanding of Protestantism differs from the contemporary perception of Protestantism to a significant extent. Even though the Lutheran movement was the most successful among the reform movements, certain principles of the Lutheran understanding of Protestantism contradict the modern Protestant approach. Therefore, the conventional academic narrative which reconciles Luther with contemporary Protestantism should be deconstructed in line with the actual historical sources.

In contrast to the portrait of Martin Luther which is drawn by the conventional anachronistic academic narrative, Martin Luther was not liberal, libertarian, humanist, moderate, for freedom and human rights because he clearly supported aristocracy and nobility over the peasants, he had a dogmatic, fundamentalist approach to religion and he was an anti-Semitic and anti-Turkish racist figure. Therefore, the modern conception of Martin Luther, which is suggested by this anachronistic narrative, is not compatible with the actual Martin Luther in this aspect. A significant part of this anachronistic narrative seems to appear as a result of the increasing interconnection between Protestantism and liberalism in the recent centuries. We believe that our attempts to deconstruct this anachronistic conventional historical/academic narrative regarding Martin Luther will contribute to the academy and will provide readers a much more accurate and holistic perspective to history.

Elanur Ecem Gültekin 

Yılmaz Acar 

Siyasal Düşünceler Tarihi Staj Programı

Bibliography 

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Budde, P. (2021). History, art, culture. The rise and fall of the catholic church (1000-1550). Retrieved from; https://paulbuddehistory.com/europe/the-rise-and-fall-of-the-catholic-church-1000-1550/ 

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Hegarty, S. (2017). Seven reasons Martin Luther and the Protestant reformation still matter today. ABC Radio National. Retrieved from https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-10-31/why-martin-luther-and-protestant-reformation-s till-matter-today/9093324 

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Robinson, J. H. (2018). Readings in European history volume II: The course of the Protestant revolt in Germany. Forgotten Books.

Weber, M. (2013). The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. Merchant Books.

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