Three articles in this issue deal with Martin Luther as writer, musician, and father of the Christian home. In this editorial CT has asked prominent Lutheran theologian and church historian Martin Marty to focus on the lesser known aspects of Luther—as a mixture of great strengths, and of failure and contradiction.

Last year the catholic world commemorated the eight-hundredth birthday of St. Francis of Assisi. The message of the celebrators was clear. Admire the man, learn about him, imitate him. Be humble. Serve others. Work for peace.

This year the Protestant world commemorates the five-hundredth birthday of Martin Luther. What should Christians do with him?

Admirers of Luther knew what to do a century ago. At Worms in Germany and elsewhere they cast monuments of Luther the hero, bold in his “Here I Stand!” stance. Late in the twentieth century we may need heroes, but Luther will not stand so still for the portrait. He seems monumentally miscast on the souvenir medallions, so stolid and solid does he appear there. He complained that admirers wished “to make a fixed star out of me when I am a roving planet.”

Between Yes And No

So we are left with the man of contradiction, the “roving planet” who moved between “yes” and “no” on many issues. To contradict is to speak against, to pose apparently mutually exclusive words, ideas, traits, or actions against each other. Luther as a man of contradiction has more to tell us than the Luther bronzed as the hero of Worms. Between the “yeses” and “noes” of his words and works, at the places where logical and personal consistency give out, there God has a chance to speak, to be present with lures and challenges.

The three best known of Luther’s contradictions have least to tell us. They serve the debunkers best. First, there is the Luther who said “yes” to the Jewishness of Jesus, the Hebrew Scriptures as the Word of God, and the talent of contemporary Jews. In this case the “no” of the older, later disintegrating Luther overwhelms. He turned on Jews in prejudice and frustration with an annihilating violence that is in every way indefensible. Again, the Reformer who said “yes” to the aggrieved peasants and encouraged their cause, feared anarchy so much that he turned on them and was left with their blood on his hands. There is something, but not much more, to be said for his ambiguous career in this respect. Third, his “yes” to marriage—over against divorce or adultery—led him to a despicable “no” in respect to truth. He said Philip of Hesse should be a bigamist and tell “a good, strong lie” for the good of the church.

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Plain Spoken/Gentle

In another set of contradictions there are some redeeming features. Celebrators of Luther’s birthday have some research and explaining to do before they can understand and learn from his actions. Four instances come to mind. All of them leave him less heroic, more ordinarily human, a man of his times. None of them is less than instructive. Luther’s God can speak positively to our generation even after we have gained a more exact—if less idealized—understanding of him.

First, the matter of Luther’s speech. A genius of language, he used it to reveal the contradictions of his personality. Here one begins with the “no” in recall of his verbal violence and vulgarity. Luther employed these against Pope and Turk and Jew, against Calvinist and Anabaptist and deviant Lutheran alike, inexcusably.

If we must judge people of the past, we judge them in the context of the possibilities of their own day. The fact that men like Thomas More, a man for all seasons with a reputation for humanist civility, matched Luther line for line with vulgar speech, provides a clue to the fact that it was a more acceptable and available instrument for people of God then than it is now. In this case, also, the compensating factors are stunning. A great listener to colloquial speech, Luther used his gifts for Bible translation. Tender letters to his children, delicate Christmas lullabies, heartwarming passages in sermons to common people—all these are exemplary, rich in promise, instruments for God to use.

Sex, Government, And Partying

The second sphere in which Luther the man of contradiction survives as a model for the “yes” that counters his “no” has to do with women, marriage, and sexuality. A modern radical feminist, ripping him out of context, can cull an anthology of theological male chauvinisms that would make him easy to dismiss. Yet those who see him in the context of possibilities in his day find astonishing contradictions between his limitations on that front and his liberating power on others.

Some of his apparent put-downs of his beloved Katie were clumsy and embarrassing teasings that masked his genuine sense of debt to her. He also left unmasked expressions of awe for her support, her abilities, her power. He could not anticipate all the taken-for-granted modern roles for women, but he helped enlarge the sphere of opportunities in his own time. Against the background of a millennium of mistrust concerning marriage and its bed, Luther spoke with scornful wonder against celibates and grateful wonder for the gift of sex. He thought the marital embrace might be a good posture in which to be found when Jesus returns.

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Moderns can learn from the openings he left in his contradictions on the subject of civil disobedience and obedience. Here, as often, he occupied no middle ground. Those who too readily assent to the powers that be have to reckon with a Luther who was being civilly disobedient to the emperor and pope, both temporal rulers, at Worms and ever after. Yet those who take his “no” to them as an absolute and then try to turn Luther into a consistent revolutionary have to deal with mountains of counter evidence. Is not life under God to be lived between two poles: where God is to be obeyed, rather than men; where God can be obeyed through the structures of ordered human life?

A fourth case, Luther’s attitude toward the world and robust life in it, also shakes up those who desire heroes and icons, who find models only in lives lived without contradiction or tension. Luther uttered a great “yes” to God’s world, despite the Fall. He affirmed creation, play, and pleasure.

Such assertions, by the hundred, will not serve those who would make a dogma of license or frivolity. Luther was just as often ready to scorn the Wittenbergers for gorging and sousing, for decolletage at dances and wasteful gaming. One cannot be Luther-like and deny these pleasures in creation, nor be Luther-like and live in and for them alone.

God: Wrathful/Graceful

The grand contradictions, finally, come on the grand themes, beginning with faith itself. The stolid hero of the monuments serves those who reduce the whole of faith to its part, assent to doctrine. He also matches the thousands of Luther pages in which the bold man of faith speaks up with his “yes.” Yet his other side, or an under side, haunts. Luther’s theology was born of suffering, nurtured in doubt, tested in terror. His friend Justus Jonas wanted to cover some doubts by pointing to firm St. Paul. Luther countered, “I don’t believe [Paul] believed as firmly as he talks. I cannot believe as firmly either, as I can talk and write about it.” Yet he was graced to turn his agonies and doubts into positive aids for his faith and others. To be aware of this is not to let today’s preacher be a virtuoso of doubting, a babbler about his or her weaknesses. Yet awareness of the doubting Luther illumines aspects of biblical faith and can be comfort as one goes through dark passages.

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A corollary issue has to do with Luther’s picture of God. He never forgot the wrathful God of his monastery traumas. Even there his Catholic counselors had to rescue him: “God is not angry with you, but you with God.” This wrathful God appeared to contradict the God of grace. “There was a time when I thought about [the wrath] a lot. God help me never to think about it again, but only of Jesus Christ, in whom we see the mercy of the Father.” Luther is a mercy-in-Christ man precisely because he was also a wrath-of-God man.

Contradiction appeared in his view of death and life. By middle age Luther, his digestive and plumbing systems misused and messed up, seemed resigned to death. Just before death he could joke about giving the worms a fat doctor on which to feed. Over against this, he feared and dreaded death, forgetting bravado for cold sweat. Yet on his deathbed his prayers spoke of resurrection. Did he hold steadfast to faith and grace and hope? “Ja!” The best last word.

Grace, The Only Hope

The virtues and flaws, “yeses” and “noes” are clear and loud in Luther. We learn from the titans even when their flaws are titanic. Why, otherwise, the appeal of Jesus’ woeful, blundering disciples, who came to live by and die for the power of the Resurrection? Why the lure of saints, whose Confessions reveal, they do not hide, the ambiguities and flaws?

A faith that cherishes incarnation and the brokenness of the cross, that finds God powerful in weakness, assertive in humility, consistent in the midst of human inconsistencies, finds openings in the contradictions of people like Luther. The hero of the statues can be polished but remains forbidding. The Luther of the medallions can be worn smooth as one wears down images on coins in the pocket. The Reformer as fixed star can be charted and forgotten.

The roving planet? Most of us, doomed—or, shall I sound contradictory and affirm “graced”—to live ordinary lives may not be able to sustain too much contradiction. We shall naturally reach for heroic dimensions in heroes. It is easy to find lines in Luther that support views we hold congenial. But simply to follow such temptations is to limit the potential of learning a great theme: God works through our contradictions with a consistency that Hebrews called “steadfast love” and that Luther never tired of calling “grace.”

Martin E. Mart, the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor of Modern Church History at The University of Chicago and associate editor of The Christian Century, is a Lutheran pastor. This month he is publishing some writings of Luther, The Place of Trust, which he edited for Harper & Row.

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