Two famous Reformation woodcuts depict Luther as the “German Hercules” and as a “Wild Man.” The former depicts Luther larger than life, the pope hanging from his nose, laying waste with a huge club the personifications of monasticism and scholasticism. The “Wild Man” depiction is what contemporary scholars refer to as the iconography of “the reversible world,” the world turned upside-down. The Reformation overturned the late medieval world, including its views of money.

Luther was a “Wild Man” with respect to money because he attacked every contemporary expression of the counterfeit gospel that a person’s worth depends on his or her accomplishments. His club was the good news that human worth is totally independent of success, be it measured in terms of renunciation or acquisition of the world. Thus Luther fought a two-sided battle against both monastic asceticism and emerging capitalism (“usury”). The first battle is well-known, but the second has frequently been obscured by the common association of the “Protestant ethic” with the “spirit of capitalism.” But to Luther both sides really belonged to the same coin, salvation by works.

Luther’s Attack on Monastic Asceticism

Medieval monasticism narrowed the spiritual asceticism of the early church to renunciation of the world. Poverty was idealized into a kind of spiritual capitalism for poor and rich alike. The poor were on the preferred path of salvation, and the rich earned merit for salvation by almsgiving. The foremost figure in the medieval poverty movement was certainly Francis of Assisi, whose rejection of money served to radicalize discipleship and to alleviate anxiety about the corrupting effect of money and business.

Luther’s response was unequivocal: “Many people, ...

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