Luther and His Conscience

Nuremberg, 1946. Court interrogation of Nazi ideologist Julius Streicher, editor of the anti-Semitic newspaper Der Stürmer. Removed from power in 1940, Streicher did not participate directly in the Holocaust. He was, however, one of its instigators through the ideas disseminated in his newspaper, which had a national circulation of 480,000 copies. In his defense at the trial he states:

—Anti-Semitic publications have existed in Germany for centuries. One example is a book that I had, which was ultimately confiscated, written by Dr. Martin Luther. If this book had been taken into consideration by the prosecution, surely today Dr. Martin Luther would be in my place in the defendant’s seat. In that book, On the Jews and Their Lies, Dr. Martin Luther describes the Jews as a brood of vipers and recommends burning their synagogues and destroying them[1].

Harsh words about one of the most well-known and admired reformers in history. Harsh because they are true: That book exists and it was indeed written by Luther. And it helps us grasp a key concept when studying any reformer and their life’s work: We need to detach ourselves a bit from the mysticism that surrounds every founder so we can properly judge their work. Because their virtues and defects permeate everything they did and said. We would hardly do justice to their legacy if we judged them exclusively by how perfect and blameless the proponent is… especially since that is never the case.

Just as Francis made mistakes, and Savonarola was right about many things, the judgment we make about Luther should be based on an understanding of what he was looking for, the ideal that inspired him, all the while acknowledging his personal mistakes and limitations.

In the life of Luther, the most memorable moment is that of the 95 Theses, the list he nailed to the door of the village church in Wittenberg, detailing what should be reformed in the Catholic Church to revive the original spirit that he felt had been lost due to abuses such as indulgences and the worldliness of some clerics.

To fully understand the controversy, we should explain that an indulgence is a erasing of the imprint left behind by a sin after it is forgiven; as if in addition to healing the wound, the scar were also made to disappear. The problem was not the indulgence itself, but the way it was being granted: in exchange for money. The penitent sent money to Rome, and the local bishop granted the indulgence. The notable paradox here is that much of that money was going toward one of the great wonders of the world: Saint Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel.

It is also worth pointing out that Luther was not the first to protest against this policy within the Church: the two reformers that we analyzed in the previous chapters, Savonarola and Francisco, preached against the instrumentalization of the faith. And the great Italian literary genius Dante Alighieri in his Divine Comedyplaced in one of the circles of hell some prelates who practiced simony (offering spiritual services in exchange for money). So, what made Luther’s protest cause a schism of such magnitude in the Catholic Church?

First, the printing press. Luther’s 95 Theses was one of the first documents in history to be printed on a mass scale, throughout Europe, in an amount of time that before would have been unimaginable.

Second, the political situation: Luther’s theses were the self-serving banner of German prince electors who opposed the joint power of the emperor (at that time, the recently crowned Charles V) and the pope. These princes took advantage of Luther’s surging popularity to confront the emperor and Rome, and in successive peace agreements gained the desired autonomy for their regions.

Luther did not voluntarily enter the political arena: he was dragged into it. This is another fact we cannot overlook when evaluating his work. That likely explains his inability to lead the thunderous upheaval that he was causing in Christianity. In 1524, three years after his excommunication, the peasantry of several German länder revolted against their nobles, taking Luther and his reform as a reference. They believed that it was aimed at breaking down the feudal system, the power of secular nobles and princes of the Church alike.

But Luther depended on the German nobles who protected him from falling into the hands of the ecclesiastical authorities. Such opposing interests at play! Thus, in 1525 he condemned the peasant revolt, which was crushed, leaving thousands of dead in its wake. Those deaths should not be on the conscience of Luther, who never sought to be the promoter of any new church, as evidenced by these words articulated shortly before his death:

“I pray that you leave my name alone, and not to call yourselves Lutherans, but Christians. Who is Luther? My doctrine is not mine. I have not been crucified for anyone. How does it benefit me, a miserable bag of dust and ashes, to give my name to the children of Christ? Cease, my dear friends, to cling to these party names and distinctions. Away with all of them and let us call ourselves only Christians after him from whom our doctrine comes[2].”

Luther, first and foremost, was a man aware of the consequences of his beliefs. With the extremism that we see in so many individuals with powerful ideas, which only a few (as we saw with Francis) manage to filter out through the most powerful force in the universe: unconditional love. Such extremism often causes a person to lose the perspective of their original impulse: seeking to preserve the value of confession, Luther denounced indulgences… initiating a reform that would ultimately eliminate confession. Seeking to foster a critical spirit about the faith, he ended up in confrontations (sometimes violent) with his peers for going “too far” in rethinking some of the Christian doctrines, etc.

And with regard to his reprehensible anti-Semitism, we find a man who in his younger days espoused the ambitious idea that the Jews did not convert to Christianity because its attractiveness was not properly evangelized to them. But when he failed to convert them (we do not know the depth or details of what that disappointment caused for him), he reacted by writing the aforementioned book. How would we react to a colossal disappointment, the failure to fulfill a years-long aspiration? But Luther was a public figure, and just as the printing press decisively influenced the spread of his reform, it was also to disseminate a book that likely resulted from an outburst of anger and disappointment.

We should not evaluate a person exclusively for the magnitude of their mistakes, nor should we erase them. We should first consider the value of their ideas, their determination to be consistent with them (in the case of Luther, his conscience was the true point of reference in every decision he made); and distinguish, with a critical perspective, the mistakes and successes in his life and work.

In summary:

  • The biggest mistake made when analyzing a major historical figure is to mythologize them, introduce a bias (in one sense or another) that prevents us from getting to the bottom of their legacy and separating the ideal from the mistakes, the blots that have resulted from their human limitations and their less intelligent impulses.
  • A good person can be overwhelmed by the political and social consequences of their ideas, which is all the more reason to separate the wheat from the chaff in their story.
  • Human limitations and power plays lead reforms down paths that are unwanted and sometimes antagonistic to the values that inspired them to begin with.
  • The devaluation of the purpose and original mission results in the instrumentalization of the institution by its leaders. Once again, form hijacks function.
  • One who aspires to change the political status quo will be especially attentive to take advantage of the philosophical and religious currents that they can steer in their favor.

Prof. Luis Huete


[1] John Bachmann (1853), A Defence of Luther and the Reformation, Paxton.

[2] Ellis, Marc H. Hitler and the Holocaust, Christian Anti-Semitism, Baylor University Center for American and Jewish Studies, 2004