The Courage of Martin Luther
Roland Bainton (1894-1984) was a prominent British-born American church historian. His book Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther was published in 1950—and sold more than a million copies. It was so well-written and informative that during my years as a seminary student it was one of the few books I bought that was not a textbook.
According to Bainton, in 1517 on the eve of All Saints' Day, the Catholic holy day celebrated on November 1, “in accord with current practice,” Luther posted “on the door of the Castle Church [in Wittenberg, Germany] a printed placard in the Latin language consisting of ninety-five theses for debate” (p. 79).
That rather unpretentious act triggered such a reaction that it is generally regarded as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Posting those theses (topics) for debate was not an especially courageous act—but standing firm despite his censure by the Roman Catholic Church was.
In June 1520 Pope Leo X issued a papal bull demanding that Luther renounce 41 of his 95 theses. Luther not only refused to do that, he publicly burned that decree of the Pope. As a result, in January 1521 the Pope excommunicated Luther—which was a “big deal” for someone who had been a Catholic priest, as Luther was.
Three months later, Luther was called to defend his beliefs before Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms (a city in Germany). It was at that trial where he was famously defiant. In response to the demand that he recant, Luther declared,
My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe, God help me. Amen.Bainton then notes, “The earliest printed version added the words, ‘Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise’” (p. 185).
For his courageous refusal to recant his writings, the emperor declared him an outlaw and a heretic.
The Compromise of Luther
Luther was saved from possible martyrdom by the intervention of Frederick the Wise, the German prince who was one of the most powerful men in the Holy Roman Empire. The religious-political union of Luther and Frederick was of great benefit for Luther, but not for the great number of “peasants” in the German principalities.
The writings of Luther and new Bible-derived notions of the basic equality of all people precipitated the tragic Peasant’s Revolt of 1524-1525. Luther was not unsympathetic to the plight of the peasants, but in the end he sanctioned the violent suppression of the peasants who had unwisely sought to gain more equality through violence.
By his union with the political rulers and his approval of the slaughter of the revolting peasants—as many as 100,000 were killed!—Luther compromised his courageous stand in asserting that “the just shall live by faith.”
There was need for a more thoroughgoing radical reformation—one that would not only change the believers’ relationship to the church but also to the state.
The Reformation after Luther
There can be no doubt about the tremendous importance of the Reformation started by Luther 500 years ago. But also of great importance is the “radical reformation” started eight years later by a small group of Christians in Switzerland.
I am looking forward to the 500th-anniversary celebration of that reformation in 2025. The courageous “here I stand” position for many of those reformers meant martyrdom.