In case you come across this article by Thomas Cahill as I have being reposted and misused by some Roman Catholic brothers and sisters (along with some rather un-Christian remarks), be assured the author misses the mark somewhat when it comes to Luther’s psychology and theology. His take is too simplistic.
Luther’s efforts to reform the church (especially at the start) weren’t about ego alone, but about the Word of God being adhered to without mental gymnastics to make them fit corrupt and superstitious practices of the day. He was a pastor caring for his people, and a teacher seeking truth. His intent was not to be independent, revolutionary, or famous.
Unlike the short quote within the article, Luther’s words at Worms were more nuanced [please note the points I emphasize]:
“Unless I am refuted and convicted by testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear arguments (since I believe neither the Pope nor the Councils alone; it being evident that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am conquered by the Holy Scriptures quoted by me, and my conscience is bound in the word of God: I can not and will not recant any thing, since it is unsafe and dangerous to do any thing against the conscience.” (History of the Christian Church, vol. VII, ch. 3, sec. 55).
Martin Luther was posting an academic disputation – a common practice of his day – and wrote later writings to be discussed in community. He wasn’t looking for a fight nor a break with the church catholic, and his efforts were shaped by much more than just a matter of an individual’s ego.
True, self-interpretation of scripture has its weaknesses and excesses, but Luther wasn’t guilty there either. His focus remained on the assembly (the church) in relationship with one another and Christ. (This is made quit clear in his Large Catechism and other theological writings.) The church guided by the Spirit and tested by the divine revelation of scripture is the corrective for us all when it comes to interpretation, for Luther knew we all can err as much as popes and councils. We need to open scripture, listening for the Spirit and to one another.
As the debates rolled on and intensified, Luther failed to do that at times himself. Much like those posting anti-Lutheran insults and commentary, he let his anger and disappointment (and perhaps later his mental illness) govern some of his responses. After all, many people wanted to see him dead and weren’t exactly charitable either.
Martin Luther was human, and he realized it. In reviewing much of his writings, you will see him hesitate to state things definitively rather than to risk error. He critiques himself and his lack of ability. You will see calls for discernment rather than name calling over theological issues. He turns toward grace to light his way forward and not some internal power of his own.
I think such an attitude represents a very human, Christian humility and maturity rather than egocentricity. Adapted beyond theology discussions to a way of life, such an attitude will likely prove the best answer to what gridlocks us in our politics and divides our culture today.
As St. Paul reminded Luther and reminds us all, “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” (Eph. 4:30-32). Even amidst important theological or other disputes, we are to remain one family of faith, the holy people of God.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version.
© 2013 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.