Luther: A Life
by John M. Todd


When the news of Luther’s death arrived in Wittenberg, Melancthon announced it dramatically to his class: ‘Alas, gone is the horseman and the chariots of Israel.’ They were the words spoken in the Old Testament story by Elisha when Elijah was taken from him. Melancthon was conscious that a great Prophet had gone, and that he had been left perhaps with the burden of the Wittenberg movement on his shoulders. It was Melancthon who spoke in the castle church, along with Bugenhagen, where the funeral service was held there on 22 February. The procession up the long Wittenberg street was led by the coffin, followed by a carriage in which Katie and others were. Following them came the children and relations on foot, and then the University and town authorities. Finally there were thousands of mourners many of whom had come specially and crowded the town. Melancthon turned again to the great names in Christian history, as others did elsewhere, to find some measuring rod. He said God had raised Luther up as he had raised up Isaiah, John the Baptist, Paul, Augustine. He faced up to the matter of Luther’s language and said he would ‘not deny or excuse of praise, but reply as Erasmus often did: "God gave the world in these later times when severe and acute disease and failures prevail, a harsh and severe doctor."’ Dr Martin had indeed written too violently but he, Melancthon, had never known him to be anything but gentle and loving in person. Now, he said they were ‘entirely poor, wretched, forsaken, orphans, who had lost a dear noble man as our father’. The great historic figure and the deeply loved friend were both saluted.

Luther had died just in time. Two months before he died the Council of Trent had finally opened officially. While it would be years before notable results were to flow, it was clear that a serious reforming Council of the(Roman Catholic) Church had opened. Only a few months later the Emperor held a Diet, and suddenly without legal order declared the Electors John Frederick and Philip of Hesse outlawed. He had seen at last that he had the French beaten for the moment, that the Turks were contained, that he could make common cause with the Pope and could now at last use military force to bring the Protestant states to order. Luther’s death had made it easier, but he would have done it anyway. Luther would have seen the end of the world come even nearer.

But no military action could reverse Luther’s achievements, and meanwhile there was the great legacy of memories, of writings, of institutions and ways of carrying on in church and out of it, of music, and song. And, for a time, a special legacy of personal memories. Two months after his death, Katie wrote to her sister:

‘Who would not be sorrowful and mourn for so noble a man as was my dear Lord ? Truly I am so distressed I cannot tell the deep sorrow of my heart to anybody and I hardly know what to think or how to feel. I cannot eat or drink nor can I sleep. If I had a principality and an empire it would never have cost me so much pain to lose them as I have now that our Lord God has taken from me this dear and precious man. God knows that for sorrow and weeping I can neither speak nor dictate this letter.’

Luther had put the life of the great European ‘Myth’ into a new gear. The hordes of pensioned functionaries had gone from the streets and churches. A new sense of authority and responsibility was seen in the local communities. Doctrinally and institutionally, what Luther had put in the place of the papal Church was not, in one sense, so different. Christians were still required to live by a range of received doctrines and morals. And these were still underwritten by the civil authority. But the norm had changed. It was now the Bible, and not a Law Book. In practice both needed interpretation, so in a sense Christians were still back with Church authorities which had to be obeyed. And the Reformers’ Church could be narrower and more legalistic, in the end, than the papal Church; everything had to conform to the style of a single overarching doctrine, instead of being allowed to be deployed over a wide range of options. Puritanism was soon born.

But the changes were qualitative and substantial. The ‘Myth’ began again to look less like a myth and more like the Gospel of the New Testament. Jesus of Nazareth began to look less like a god, and more like the Word of God, suffering for and with his people. The ministers began to look more like disciples with a Christian message and less like purveyors of a marketed ‘grace’. It was possible to understand the Church as a community and a mystery, not just an institution with a set of rules. But polarisation hindered both the old Church and the new. Both turned away from the ‘almost everything’ which in fact they had in common. The new Church was powered by norms which the old Church had protected and conveyed to it. The Bible had appeared, though largely dishonoured, in its best modern edition (the Spanish Polyglot edition) under the auspices of the old Church, from one of its oldest homes in the Mediterranean basin. The Reformed and Roman Catholic Churches tended to become reverse images of each other, both institutionalised. As Rome finally produced its own reforms during the following twenty years, it became more law bound than ever. Luther never loved institutions, and a central factor in his disillusion was the continuing absence of the autonomous Word leading people to a life of faith, love and good works.

Of Luther himself it is impossible to speak summarily. The complex and remarkable story of his life, the tally of his works, and the witness of a great number of friends, acquaintances and enemies are there. Many loved him, many revered him, some were frightened of him, a few resentful. No one accused him, with any semblance of justification, of double dealing, or of cowardice. My principal image is of a man driven, driven by a passion for the Divine, driven, too, by a horror of evil; convinced of its eventual futility, he was ever conscious of its threat, and his life was one of prayer. His friends remembered him standing by the window of his room praying, often aloud. Under the rumbustious lover of life lay sensitivity, intelligence and imagination, and a failure to come to terms with a world which was never good enough, a failure he found confirmed in the crucifix, but glorified in what followed. At the Wartburg he wrote: ‘They threaten us with death. They would do better to threaten us with life’.