Chapter 5: The Reverend Don, 1512-16
There was unrest in the air at Wittenberg. It had not led to anything like the open revolt at Erfurt; the new university, financially underwritten by the Elector, brought a definite increase in prosperity to almost everyone in the town. But the Wittenbergers shared in the same sense of unease to be found everywhere. The Myth by which they lived was only half understood, only a quarter truly known. Even those who could read had not read more than a small part of the full story as it was found in the New Testament. Martin Luther himself had only handled a Bible for the first time when he entered the Friary. The castle church at Wittenberg had sixty-four priests attached to it, to celebrate the daily Requiem Masses, intended to ensure the everlasting salvation of those who had died, funded by the dead or their relatives. They stood as a kind of protective barrier between people and the power centres of society. Even in their own parish church, with sermons in German, for many people religion had the sense of the frightening ‘unknown’ of the old pagan myths. At Mass there was communion, but they only went to communion a few times a year, some only at Easter; and then they took only the consecrated bread.
In the past fifty years as many as eighteen separate editions of German translations of the complete Bible had been circulating, neither forbidden nor approved by Church authority, in some cases printed without a printer’s name for fear of ecclesiastical reprisals. They were expensive and were not seen often, outside of universities and the houses of priests and wealthy laymen. But excerpts were common enough, the Seven Penitential Psalms, or the story of Tobias, St John’s Gospel, the Book of Revelation. Travelling merchants often brought printed matter with them for sale, usually decorated with woodcuts. Sometimes they were chronicles, histories of the world, poems, romances, but the majority were religious, booklets about Saints, or on the Art of Dying, instructing one how not to despair when faced by the tally of a lifetime’s sinning; one should remember the repentant sinners in the Bible. Despair was the one unforgivable final sin which might damn a person.
In church the gospel passages gave hope and reassurance: ‘Come to me all you who are burdened and I will give you rest. . .My yoke is light’; ‘I was thirsty and you gave me drink. . .In so far as you did this to one of the least of these my brothers you did it to me . . . Come, you whom my Father has blessed, take for your heritage the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world.’ But to be sure of being in this category, and not among those who heard ‘Depart from me, with your curse upon you . . .’, one had to be a well-paid-up member of the Elect; and there were many ways of improving one’s position. Indulgences was one way, Requiem Masses another. And yet somehow these did not tie in quite harmoniously with the gospel at all points: ‘He who would save his life, must lose it’ — the glorious insouciance of the gospel: ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you. . .’
Meanwhile, life went on, woven through with the threads of all the delights of life, the glory of love and its sexual expression, the celebration of food and drink, song and dance, sometimes to make a divine harmony of family life, blessed by a mutual charity, welcoming alike suffering and happiness on the journey to heaven. But too often the anomalies came to the fore. And the artists seemed to delight in them — terrible pictures of the devil stoking his fires with the bodies of the damned, tempted for all eternity and never satisfied by the things on which they had made themselves happy, and unhappy, in life; likewise the delineation of the crucifixion of the man-God, Jesus looking out from a realistic scene of terrible torture. The resurrection seemed to play a secondary part, or had only the function of indicating the terrors of the Last Judgement. But then again the sky would clear and they would be dancing in the streets on Easter Day, or on the feast of the Birthday of St John the Baptist, midsummer’s day. It was the usual complex human picture. But the feeling was of some instability, some underground disturbance. There was spare capacity in terms of time, energy, ability in many people’s lives. The printing presses were beginning to provide opportunities for using it.
Luther was no more than dimly and subjectively aware of these giant stirs. He had never known anything else but a society both stable and yet somehow dissatisfied, Information from afar about the old Emperor Maximilian, ‘the last of the knights’ as he was sometimes called; about the anti-clericalism which stretched right across Europe, and of the attempts in London by the young King Henry VIII to keep it under control; about the pseudo-Council of Pisa, called by King Louis XII of France, denounced by the warlike Pope Julius II, was of little significance to him. Even the world of international biblical scholarship only began to impinge forcefully on his world about 1514. He had more than enough to cope with in Wittenberg. And the pressure kept building up through the years for himself to understand, to grasp more fully, to embrace more totally that which lay at the centre of all things, Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, who could be found again, multiform through His words, in the sacraments of the church, and deep in one’s own heart — and yet somehow just there was where He disappeared, chased away by the fear of damnation, the knowledge of one’s utter failure. Depression, indeed utter despair would set in, the terrible Anfechtung, which brought him alone in his cell into absolute negation. In the end, that which he would work out in his own inner citadel was to become the heart of his lectures and his sermons, and that which would bring students and populace flocking to hear him. >From his suddenly grateful and relaxed heart would pour forth a fierce stream of witness, advice, theology, powered by the sheer intellectual validity of the witness, and finally by its religious authenticity and coherence. This was the achievement of the six years between 1512 and 1518. They were also the years of a general consolidation of his life of further promotion, and then of the beginning of fame.
In the winter of 1512, The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther, twenty-nine years old, Sub-Prior of the Friary at Wittenberg, Professor of Bible in the University, had to start preparation for his professorial lectures which would begin the following year. He had also to start preaching to his brethren. Something like a settled existence was at last beginning. After a year at Wittenberg, instead of being moved elsewhere, as he had been, roughly at the end of each year for the last four years, Luther had been allowed to stay. The months passed swiftly. He was a success as sub-prior, and had begun lecturing in the University at 6a.m., twice a week on the Psalms. Early in 1515, his lecture course on The Psalms was at last drawing to a close, and another was scheduled to follow it. And now came substantial promotion within his Order. He was appointed Vicar Provincial, with responsibilities for the administrative and spiritual oversight of eleven communities across Saxony and Thuringia, including his own mother house at Erfurt. He had to make regular visits of inspection, and intervene whenever there was trouble. It was a vote of confidence from his brethren, confidence both in his practical judgement and in his high spiritual standards. It was a new burden of considerable substance.
The appointment had been made at a meeting of the Augustinians at Gotha which opened on 29 April 1515. Fr Luther preached at the gathering and gave his brethren a forceful harangue about that prime sin of the cloister, backbiting and slander. In a stream of crapulous analogies, breaking into German, he let the Fathers have it in no uncertain terms, which they apparently approved. ‘The detractor, like a dog, digs up and eats a man’s rotting and wormy corpse . . . He lives in manure . . . sets about plastering anyone who is clean. . .indeed uses the stuff for food.’ The humanist Canon Mudt, who lived at Gotha, enquired from Johann Lang about the identity of this ‘sharp preacher’, and was delighted with the text Lang sent to him. Martin was thoroughly in his stride now as far as preaching went, because in the previous year he had begun to preach to the populace at the parish church of St Mary in Wittenberg, three or four minutes’ walk from the Cloister. At first he had been asked to stand in when the regular preacher was ill; he was so much liked that the City Council invited him to be the regular assistant.
In the parish church, as in the University lecture halls and the Friary study rooms, the ascetic face, the evident sincerity, the sometimes almost frightening intensity of his quiet though easily audible voice, his glinting eyes, and his ability to speak to the condition of those he was addressing, won people to him. In the church he spoke in German, and enjoyed the Saxon idiom, often quoting from an Aesop fable, or from some well-known saying; always there was the quality of speaking to people’s own needs, seeing into their deepest felt concerns. In an early sermon he put the high ideals before them from a text of the New Testament, quoting the words of Jesus: ‘Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.’ Luther commented: ‘It is possible that one may think to himself: Would it be sufficient if I wish the other person well in my heart, especially if I have been injured and offended by him?’ and he goes on with other excuses which people make to themselves for not going all the way in charity and answers them forthrightly, telling them the gospel means what it says. On the matter of property, he said: ‘All the goods we have are from God and they are not given to us to retain and abuse, but rather to dispense.’ He drew a picture from daily life: When a pig is slaughtered or taken hold of and other pigs see this, we see that the other pigs set up a clamour and grunting as if in compassion. Chickens and geese and all wild animals do the same thing . . .Only man, who after all is rational, does not spring to the aid of his suffering neighbour in time of need and has no pity on him.’
These sermons were a popularisation of Latin sermons he gave to the brethren in the cloister chapel and, more distantly, of the Latin lecture commentaries and expositions he gave in the University halls — though there too he would occasionally add some German phrase or word to give a particular emphasis or shade of meaning. Luther was bilingual, as many were. The use of German was no concession or mere trimming; it was a wish to use the more expressive and experienced vocabulary of the native language. He tended to turn to it when in need of vituperative words: pig-theologians or sow-theologians was a favourite description of conventional teachers who just repeated the same old lectures, snoring and grunting.
These years were a time of the deepening of friendships which remained for life. When he came back to Wittenberg Fr Martin already had a normal range of acquaintances and friends. But during these six years in Wittenberg he began to put down roots and to get specially close to colleagues and friends in the cloister and the town. Most notable was Georg Spalt an old student acquaintance from the Erfurt days. Spalatin, as he was always called had been ordained priest, an ordinary massing priest not a religious; he became University Librarian and Counsellor to the Elector in the year that Luther gained his doctorate. Originally he had been appointed to educate the Elector’s son, Prince John Frederick, and resided at court at Torgau, about twenty miles up the river. After the appointment as University Librarian, with a good budget from the Elector, he was often at Wittenberg, working with the assistance from Manutius in Gotha who put him in touch with the great Aldus in Venice, to build up the library. He became Martin’s most frequent correspondent, most reliable friend, and the crucial go-between with the Elector. Already by 1513, Spalatin was finding Luther the one really important man in the University and had begun to consult him about the University on Frederick’s behalf. In that year Spalatin wrote that Dr Martin was ‘an excellent man and scholar, whose judgement I value very highly’ and even said, the following year, that he would like to ‘become wholly his’. The confidence was reciprocated. Even when Spalatin was in Wittenberg at the castle, Luther could not always wait to see him but would dispatch a messenger up the road with a letter. The earliest chance survival of a letter from Luther in his own handwriting was one to Spalatin in 1514, and the tone of the letter shows that Fr Martin was enjoying his life. It was about a matter of great interest and concern to all the intelligentsia in the Church in Germany during the previous year or two, the Reuchlin Affair.
Reuchlin, the great Hebrew scholar (Luther had studied his Grammar for some years) had recently led a campaign against the burning of valuable Hebrew manuscripts and against a regular anti-semitic programme of the Dominican friars at Cologne, in the name of what they saw to be doctrinal orthodoxy. The affair was destined to produce a famous book in 1515, the Book of Obscure Man, a satire representing the Cologne theologians as dry as dust academics, ‘scholastics’, busied about the most ludicrous subjects and discussing their own foolish and decadent lives. In 1514 the matter was still in its early stages. Luther’s letter conveys the atmosphere, half chatty, half serious in this matter of deep concern to University men. It is addressed: ‘To the most learned and highly esteemed priest in Christ, Georg Spalatin, my dearest friend. Greetings . . .’ The usual ‘Jesus’ does not appear at the head of the letter — Luther sometimes omitted it in these relatively casual personal missives. Luther indulges in some classical punning about the asininity of a Cologne priest, Ortwin who had written a poem against Reuchlin: ‘In corresponding with you, I could laugh at many details if it were not that one should rather weep over than laugh at such great depravity.’ But he found comfort in the fact that the case had gone to Rome, where justice was sure to be done. ‘Since Rome has the most learned people among the cardinals, Reuchlin’s case will at least be considered more favourably than those jealous people of Cologne — those beginners in grammar! — would ever allow.’ Fr Luther was still the provincial cleric with little idea of the human factors that could dominate procedures of the most elevated, as well as of the most humble bodies.
Two years later there was a rushed note sent up the street to the library by hand in great haste:
To my friend George Spalatin, servant of God. Jesus. Greetings. I seek a service, dearest Spalatin. . . Please loan me a copy of St Jerome’s letters for an hour, or at least (indeed I would like this even better) copy for me as quickly as you can what the saint has written about St Bartholomew the Apostle in the little book On Famous People. I need it before noon, as I shall then be preaching to the people . . . Farewell, excellent Brother. From our Little monastery. Friar Martin Luther Augustinian.
That was August 1516 . Three weeks later a similar missive was sent, A travelling book merchant had enquired through Spalatin whether he could have something to sell from Luther’s pen: ‘To the most learned George Spalatin, a priest of Christ, whom I venerate in the Lord. Jesus. Greetings. When I finally returned yesterday late in the day I found your letter, best Spalatin. Please answer Martin Mercator in my behalf that he cannot expect to have my lecture notes on The Psalms.’ Luther explains that the Liberal Arts Faculty wanted the lectures to be printed by ‘our printer’, the University Press, and that in any case Luther will have to supervise it. This was a reference to printer Johan Grunenberg who had been in Wittenberg for some years now. ‘This would please me too — if they must be published at all — primarily because they would then be printed in a rough type face. I am not impressed with publications printed in elegant type by famous printers. Usually they are trifles, worthy only of the eraser. Farewell. Written in haste from the monastery, at noon, the day after the Nativity, 1516. Friar Martin Luder, Augustinian.’
The ‘Nativity’ was the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 8 September. For a few years Fr Martin used the form ‘Luder’ occasionally, perhaps some kind of identity sign for him, tying him into his Saxon roots. The reference to his preference for the local printer seems to be in the same vein. He was continuing to emphasise that he was no humanist, no mere follower of bonae litterae. While valuing highly the scholarship of humanists, he detested the snobbish aesthetic posturing of some of them. However, within a year or two he would be complaining about the inefficiency, the sheer inaccuracy of Grunenberg, and resorting to various more modern printers.
The note of haste in the last two letters is something which began with Luther’s appointment as District Vicar and virtually never again disappeared. From then on, he always had more to do than he could manage. The following month he wrote to his old friend Fr Johann Lang, who had recently been elected Prior of the Friary at Erfurt. The letter is long but extracts suggest, together with those from the two letters to Spalatin, something of the atmosphere of Luther’s life as Vicar and Professor of Bible. He was writing to his old friend of the Erfurt days, with whom he had formed the pro-Staupitz minority in 1511. Now the tables were turned; they were both in positions of authority:
To the venerable Father Johann Lang, Bachelor of Theology, Prior of the Augustinians at Erfurt, my friend. Jesus. Greetings, I nearly need two copyists or secretaries. All day long I do almost nothing else than write letters; so I am sometimes unaware of whether I am forever repeating myself, but you will see. I am a preacher at the monastery, I am a reader during mealtimes, I am invited daily to preach in the city church, I have to supervise the studies of the novices, I am a vicar (and that means I am eleven times prior), I am caretaker of the fishpond at Leitzkau, I represent the people of Herzberg at the court in Torgau, I lecture on Paul, and I am assembling a commentary on the Psalms. . . I hardly have any uninterrupted time to say the Hours and celebrate Mass. Beside all this there are my own struggles with the flesh, the world, and the devil. See what a lazy man I am!
Then there is a paragraph serious but sardonic, about the placing of various friars who seem to have been welcome at neither friary: ‘How do you think I can house your Sardanapales and Sybarites? If you have trained them poorly then you must put up with those poorly trained people. I have enough useless friars around here — if anyone is useless to a suffering soul . . I have become convinced that those who are no good at all are more useful than the most useful ones; therefore for the time being, keep them.’ Luther manages to fend off the possible arrival of more drones at the little Wittenberg Friary — and ironically implies it will be a spiritual benefit to Lang to keep them. He says he is just starting to lecture on St Paul’s lecture to the Galatians, but ‘I fear the plague may not allow the course to continue. . .Today a son of a craftsman (a neighbour living across from us) was buried; yesterday he was still healthy. . .The plague attacks quite cruelly and suddenly.’ Should he leave Wittenberg? Should he disperse the friars? ‘It would not be proper for me to leave until the Reverend Father orders me for the second time to leave.’
Beneath the voluble busy exterior, enormous concerns were working away in Martin’s spirit. And his fellow friars knew something of what his life was costing him. On more than one occasion he took his duties so seriously getting very badly behind with the recitation of the Office — not just a day, but weeks — that he decided to shut himself up in his cell and read the required texts over and over until he got to the end of the complete tally. So strongly did he feel the obligation imposed by Canon Law — and indeed it was an obligation felt equally strongly by many Roman Catholic priests until very recently — that he could not hold himself excused for any reason. The consecrated man felt he could not face his superiors or his God if he had not fulfilled the rules, which seemed to flow so ineluctably from the Church and its Canon Law.
Both Luther’s own writings and those of others record that he made himself ill, shutting himself up with neither food nor drink, to complete the Office until it was done; one account said he was finally insensible. Luther himself, possibly exaggerating, but undoubtedly remembering a frightening experience, wrote in 1533:
When I was a monk I was unwilling to omit any of the prayers, but when I was busy with public lecturing and writing I often accumulated my appointed prayers for a whole week, or even two or three weeks. Then I would take a Saturday off, or shut myself in for as long as three days without food or drink, until I had said the prescribed prayers. This made my head split, and as a consequence I couldn’t close my eyes for five nights, lay deathly ill and went out of my senses. Soon after I had recovered and tried again to read, my head went round and round.
And it was in this period that Fr Luther had the terrible experience quoted earlier, when he felt totally annihilated. The attacks, the acute depressions, became even more acute, while the times of fulfilment also grew greater. The excitement and penetration of his lecture and sermon texts fed on these tensions and on the beginnings of light at the end of Luther’s personal tunnel. He recommended the emerging solution to a fellow friar in a letter of advice, written in April 1516. ‘To the godly and sincere Friar Georg Spenlein, Augustinian Eremite in the monastery at Memmingen, my dear friend in the Lord . . . I should like to know whether your soul, tired of its own righteousness, is learning to be revived by and to trust in the righteousness of Christ.’ There follow five paragraphs of his new understanding of what eventually became the fully fledged doctrine of justification by faith alone. The essential elements are here in this letter — that man can gain nothing by actions intended to earn him merit. On the contrary it is only by abandoning all hope of achievement by oneself or others, throwing oneself entirely into the hands of God, and recognising oneself as a sinner like other sinners, that hope can be found. It permits a profoundly realistic and apparently cynical view of life: ‘Why, then, do you imagine that you are among friends?’ On the contrary, ‘The rule of Christ is in the midst of His enemies, as the Psalm puts it.’ There is a strong personal attachment to Jesus on the Cross — the theologia crucis. But it is active and comnunitarian: ‘You will find peace only in Him and only when you despair of yourself and your own works . . . just as He has received you, so He has made your sins His own and has made His righteousness yours . Receive your untaught and until now misled brothers, patiently help them, make their sins yours, and, if you have any goodness, let it be theirs.’ He quotes Paul: ‘Receive one another as Christ also received you to the glory of God’ and ‘Have this mind among yourselves, which you have in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God emptied himself’. Luther says he, too, was once one of those who try ‘to do good of themselves in order that they might stand God clothed in their own virtues and merits. . .I am still fighting against the error without having conquered it as yet.’
In the lectures between 1512 and 1518, the growth of the transformed doctrine can be traced. It is already partially there half way through the first lectures on his beloved Psalms. Sometime in this period there was a moment, or moments of sudden insight, marking a definitive stage in the growth of this new understanding. Luther referred to this insight as coming to him in ‘the tower room.’ The precise room has never been certainly identified. At one time it was thought to be the lavatory, to the delight of some and the dismay of others. But the matter remains open. At any rate it was a sudden clinching of the emerging solution of his emotional worries and intellectual problems. There was a prolonged process going on for several years before the final insight came.
The inner terror of Martin’s life first came to a head over the matter of confession. The ‘sacrament of penance’ was part of the range of formal procedures which revolved round the Christian religion. Men sinned — they failed whether in their relations with each other, or with themselves; when the failure had an element of deliberation in it, it was in some sense an attack on the Church, on society and on the inner life of grace in a person. Reconciliation and some righting of the wrong were needed. The Church evolved a system by which a person confessed his sins, expressed his sorrow and determination to do better, and was then formally absolved by a priest. Not only lay people, but priests, bishops and the Pope himself were human beings and required this ‘sacrament’ like anyone else. Martin’s trouble was that, though he found the system made some sense, and believed in it intellectually, it nevertheless did not seem to work. He would confess his sins, be absolved by a priest and within moments he was grumbling against God again in his thoughts, and despairing. He took Staupitz into his confidence. He simply could not get away from his obsession with his vision of the angry God, Christ looming over him, the hopelessness of the whole human situation.
Staupitz was not taken by surprise. He had often come across what seemed to him to be the scruples of young idealists who had been determined to do everything perfectly and then worried at their failure. It had been his own experience too. It was just to try to take his mind off all this that he had put the brilliant young man to getting a doctorate and preaching and giving the senior Bible lectures. He was ready for Martin and told him kindly and with authority that he must abandon the idea of God as judge and look to the ‘man’ who is called Christ, on the cross, contemplate Him and His wounds. He let Martin into his own secret: ‘I, too, once confessed daily and daily resolved to be devout and remain devout. But every day I utterly failed. Then I decided that I could deceive God no longer; I could not have done it anyhow.’ Instead he spoke of waiting on God, waiting ‘for an opportune hour that God may come to me with his grace’. It was a vast relief to Martin to know that someone else, and Staupitz of all people, had had the same experience and emerged from it intact.
The next step in Staupitz’s attempt to provide therapy for the young priest was again important. Repentance, he said in his simple, old-fashioned way, begins with the love of God. The subtle and sophisticated Biel had said it begins with the love of self, an intellectual cliche that left Martin struggling with the idea of trying to improve himself. Staupitz turned Luther’s mind away from himself with his simple words about the love of God. A man may gaze at a highly formalised icon and gradually see through it to the world of spiritual truth which it symbolises; the ‘love of God’ can act as an iconic form of words able to be understood actively or passively; the genitive can be understood in either the ablative or the dative sense. Luther told Staupitz in a letter a few years later, how the simple formula that repentance begins with the love of God suddenly opened his mind:
These words stuck in me like some sharp and mighty arrow and I began from that time onward to look up what the Scriptures teach about penitence. And then, what a game began. The words came up to me on every side jostling one another and smiling in agreement so that, where before there was hardly any word in the whole of Scripture more bitter tome than penitentia (which I sought to feign in the presence of God — coram Deo — and tried to express with a fictitious and forced love), now nothing sounds sweeter or more gracious to me than penitentia. For thus the precepts of God become sweet to us when we understand them, not only by reading books, but in the wounds of the most sweet Saviour.
Luther continued in the same letter to show how this understanding linked in with the new understanding of the original Greek word of the gospel text, translated wrongly in the Vulgate Latin by Jerome as ‘Do Penance’, but correctly by Erasmus as ‘change your heart’. Luther explained how he saw so well that the Greek word metanoiete could not possibly have meant what it conjured up to the sixteenth-century reader; the priest and the penitent. On the contrary, it meant that joyful movement of the heart which goes along with faith, forgiveness and God’s love for man.
Whatever may be the correct psychological analysis of Luther’s condition, it would not be too much to say that Staupitz saved him from a complete nervous breakdown. It is also true that he enabled him, through the work he gave him, to find his way to an intellectual formulation of the theology that was being hammered out in his mind. All his life Luther recognised the sovereign part Staupitz played in his life: ‘If Dr Staupitz had not helped me out. . .I should have been swallowed up in hell’; ‘I cannot forget or be ungrateful, for it was through you that the light of the Gospel began first to shine out of the darkness of my heart’; ‘He was my very first father in this teaching, and bore me in Christ’.
The worst of the terror was exorcised, and Luther was pointed towards solutions, but the fundamental psychological tensions and the spiritual struggle were not brought to an end, nor the theological problems solved. Luther was relieved of his own terrible guilt. But though it was now of less importance, he was still failing to gain that merit towards which so much of the Church’s official procedures seemed to be directed. Spiritual therapies could not bridge the gap which yawned between what the Bible text seemed to say and the implications of much of the received teaching and procedures of the Church. Staupitz himself eventually confessed that he was beaten. After he had applied all the cures he knew, and had in fact brought much relief to Luther, the patient continued to belly-ache. ‘I do not understand you,’ said Staupitz. ‘Then,’ Luther wrote later, ‘I thought I was the only one who had ever experienced these "spiritual temptations" and I felt like a dead man.’ In Luther were pinpointed, in one man experiencing them in the isolated intimacy of his own self-reflection things which he found it impossible to share. He was like a dead man. His unique ‘death’ would eventually enable him to propound a unique solution with exceptional force. Luther was thrown back on his own resources. If Staupitz who had helped him so much could go no further with him then he was truly alone and had somehow to fight the battle out on his own. He returned to the Bible to his anguish, to St Augustine, and to Christ — sufficiently relaxed by the reassurances of Staupitz not to be totally inhibited by the impasse of the man/God relationship, and finding some comfort in the Cross, in the crucified.
The eventual theological outcome was described by Luther in the last year of his life in 1545, in a Preface which he wrote at the request of Spalatin for an edition of his collected Latin works. The Introduction was primarily a piece of autobiography; early on he begged the reader to ‘be mindful of the fact that I was once a monk and a most enthusiastic papist. . . I pursued the matter with all seriousness as one, who in dread of the last day, nevertheless from the depth of my heart wanted to be saved’. Then towards the end of the Preface he turned to the heart of the matter and the famous text from the Letter to the Romans on which he had been lecturing 1515-16:
Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, indeed I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly. At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I turned to the context of the following words: ‘In it (the Gospel) the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, "He who through faith is righteous shall live."’ There I began to understand the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous live through a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: The righteousness of God which is revealed by the gospel, is a passive righteousness with which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, "He who through faith is righteous shall live." Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me. So then I ran through the Scriptures from memory. I found analogies in other phrases as: the work of God, that is, what God does in us; the power of God, with which he makes us strong; the wisdom of God, with which he makes us wise; the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.
And I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the hatred with which I had before hated the word ‘righteousness of God". So that place in Paul was for me truly the gate to paradise. Later I read Augustine’s The Spirit and the Letter, where contrary to expectation I found that he, too, interpreted God’s righteousness in a similar way, as the righteousness with which God clothes us when he justifies us. Although at that time this was said imperfectly and he did not explain all things concerning imputation clearly, it nevertheless was pleasing that God’s righteousness with which we are justified was taught. Armed more fully with these thoughts, I began, for a second time, to interpret the Psalter.
It was a second and definitive breakthrough, a confirmation of the first psychological breakthrough when the ‘Lawgiver’, the dreadful super-ego had been exorcised. It was something more than a matter of being able now to sit loosely to Canon Law, to the Church’s rules. Indeed, Luther continued to live with great care and integrity the life that he had avowed himself to. What it meant was that ‘everything was all right’, that when he failed in some way, the failure no longer meant that he was destroyed. Jesus saved him, Faith justified. To use the words of the New Testament, his ‘faith made him whole.’ A change of this sort cannot destroy habits of mind, temperament, emotional tendencies, genetic and acquired behavioural patterns. The terrible depressions still came; the devil still laughed at him. But now he could find a way out, and eventually laugh back at the devil.
Semper percator, semper justus. Man was always a sinner, but always justified — if he only turned to Christ. It was the way of sola fides, faith alone, which he found through Scriptura sola, only through the words of Scripture, and not through Canon Law or conventions. Sola gratia, grace alone, and not any action of man’s part, enabled him to be a Christian, and to do the good works which flowed freely and strongly from a faithful Christian. This now provided the substance, the heart, of all Luther’s lecturing and preaching. It provided a solution to the problem of free will and grace which had bothered theologians for centuries. It was a profoundly simple solution, and at first no one saw heresy or unorthodoxy in it. Gradually it was recognised as a transformation of current teaching.
Luther had worked out the solution in his lectures on the Letter to the Romans. His notes and commentary for the lectures show the vivid mixture of personal experience of an almost mystical kind, and the sharply intellectual solution to the theological problems. In his use of the single Latin word ‘nudus’, bare, is summed up what he was saying. Man can hope in God alone [Deus nudus]. ‘He who depends on the true God has put aside all tangible things and lives by naked hope [nuda spe vivit]. Hope stands beside Faith and Love in the man whom God can now never desert. All fear was banished in the certainty of grace. No longer was it a matter of an assent to certain doctrines, but a simple personal act of surrender, a total trust in God known in the Word, his Son, Jesus of Nazareth.
This summary of the conclusions to which Luther gradually came, and which can be seen evolving throughout the long texts of his early lectures in the University on the Psalms, the Letter to the Romans, the Galatians, the Hebrews (1515-18) is only a summary. Luther never systematised in the abstract sense. He read the texts of the Bible, he stood before the ‘Word’ of God increasingly admiring and revering it all his life, ever wishing to hear more clearly what it had to say. Thus the method he had learnt, and the great intellectual expertise he would at times deploy, was always at the service of expounding a prophecy or a teaching, whose inner meaning he was trying to penetrate. Of the images he turned to most frequently, one was the image of Jesus as the Good Samaritan in the famous New Testament parable in which a wounded man left beside the road was ignored by representatives of the Establishment while only a despised foreigner stopped to tend him, took him to an inn and paid for his care. Jesus, said Luther, was the kind foreigner, ‘the Good Samaritan’ and the Church was the inn. Then again he often turned his mind and the hearts of his listeners to the yearning phrase of Jesus looking across at Jerusalem on the hill, and saying, ‘Oh, how I have longed to gather thee, as a hen gathers the chicks under its wings.’ He loved this domestic scene of the mother hen and her chicks. It was completely familiar. It was scriptural. ‘The hen is the saviour under whose covering wings the chicks may gather together and be protected.’ Here was the gentle, poetic, affirmative side of a mind which when rejecting the systems that had nearly destroyed it, and still seemed to threaten him and all men, turned to vituperation extreme. The reverse side of ultra-sensitivity was anger. Anger always lurked among his emotions. It had been expressed in those early marginal denunciations of Aristotle; it had been used against intellectual enemies, and against the spiritual backsliders denounced in the sermon that had perhaps helped to bring him promotion to Vicar Provincial at Gotha. Now, with his own base secure, Martin’s critical mind turned increasingly outwards, and beyond the bounds of his immediate academic and religious world, and it would get more angry and more combative.