‘Why I believe Luther was a very modern hero’

500 years ago: Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.
by Peter Stanford

Former editor of the Catholic Herald, known for his writing on religion and ethics. Along with his new biography of Martin Luther, Stanford has written books on Judas, graveyards and Britain’s ancient shrines.

Luther was the direct opposite of his reputation as “dour, distant and two-dimensional”, Peter Stanford explains, and a larger-than-life social media revolutionary far ahead of his time.

We live today in secular, sceptical, scientific times, when religion itself is regularly branded irrelevant. So Martin Luther, if considered at all, tends to be dismissed as dour, distant and two-dimensional, better suited to the dusty pages of history books than the 21st century. So much so that he is often confused with Martin Luther King.

Yet as one of the makers of modern Europe, and a populist who rose to prominence on a wave of anti-establishment discontent among those who felt themselves shut out and forgotten (sound familiar?), his story resonates today.

Luther’s relevance for all of us lies in understanding how and why an obscure monk from a backwoods university, light years away from power in Renaissance Rome, orchestrated a revolution so powerful that it brought an all-powerful Catholicism to its knees.

“a populist who rose to prominence on a wave of anti-establishment discontent, Luther's story resonates today”

It certainly was not down to the originality of his theological arguments. Not a single one was new.

What Luther did in the 95 theses was to tap into a deep vein of alienation among the German poor. They were disillusioned not only with the excesses and corruption of their pope and church, but also with their own local rulers in the jigsaw of states that made up their country.

Luther struck a chord with a congregation that felt exploited and ignored: on the one hand, fleeced to pay for lavish basilicas in Rome; and on the other, seeing the age-old ways on which their livelihoods depended overturned by the rise of a money economy.

The 95 theses were the work of a classic disrupter who, in today’s terms, wanted to drain the “Vatican swamp”.

Fluent in the language of the street, the charismatic Luther wrote most of his best-known texts not in Latin but in German, going on to produce a translation of the Bible.

Those in the pews no longer had to rely on the word of priests and bishops instead of the word of God. He realised the force of appealing over the head of “experts” long before Michael Gove hit upon it in the Brexit push.

And in working with the owners of newfangled printing presses, he was among the first to spot the potential of what was the social media of its day as an alternative means of spreading his new anti-establishment gospel. Pamphlets of his tracts spread like ripples through Europe.

Luther’s essential message was that, at the end of his or her life, each believer stood naked before God, awaiting judgment, with only the Bible and their faith to protect them. The “good works” that Catholicism encouraged – earning brownie points by going to mass, making pilgrimages and contributing to the church coffers – were irrelevant in salvation.

He was thus challenging the entire late medieval way of doing things and the result was strikingly modern. For Luther championed conscience, informed by reading the scriptures, over the dictates of church rules and regulations. Read scripture and make your own mind up. This later opened the door to Enlightenment notions of human liberty, free speech and even human rights, all of which today shape Europe.

For sheer, selfless courage, he is impossible to outdo. He took on a monolithic church, in the full expectation that it would cost him his life, but he did it nonetheless, confronting the might of the first truly universal religion, in person and often alone, with an extraordinary passion, intensity and energy. And, most remarkable of all, not only did Luther survive, he triumphed, and we are all better off because of him.

Peter Stanford’s new book, Martin Luther: Catholic Dissident is published by Hodder.

You Decide

  1. “You can’t draw parallels between historical figures like Luther and the world in 2017.” Do you agree?

Activities

  1. Using this article as a guide, write a similar 500 word piece on a historical figure whose story is relevant to the state of the world today.

Word Watch

Martin Luther King
King, like his father, was named Michael King at birth, but when his father visited Berlin in 1934 he changed his and his son’s name to Martin Luther King in honour of the German reformer.
95 theses
A document of 95 questions and thoughts on the state of Catholicism in Europe. “Within four weeks almost all of Christendom was familiar with them,” said a friend later. According to Stanford they were sent to his local archbishop, not nailed to a door as the tradition has it.
Drain the “Vatican swamp”
Donald Trump has repeatedly used the phrase “drain the swamp” in relation to his plans to fix the federal government and to combat corruption. The phrase has been traced through American politics in the 20th century, and was used by Ronald Reagan (admired by Trump) with reference to bureaucracy.
Michael Gove
In a Sky News interview with Faisal Islam shortly before the EU referendum, Michael Gove said that the British people had “had enough of experts” after being asked why so few businesses and organisations backed the Leave campaign.