Shall we Emulate Martin Luther?
By Dirk Anderson, June 2009
Ellen White held up Martin Luther to her followers as a man to emulate and imitate:
It is through divine mercy in giving to the world such men as Martin Luther and his co-laborers that we are now free to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience. We who are living so near the close of time should emulate the noble example of the great Reformer. Like Luther we should seek a deep and thorough knowledge of the word of God. It should be our highest ambition to stand firm as a rock when the strongholds of truth are assailed by an unbelieving world and an ungodly church. In the near conflict, thousands will be called to imitate Luther's constancy and courage.1
In this study we will examine what kind of example Martin Luther left for Christians to imitate. We will focus on three areas:
- Did Martin Luther leave us a "Noble Example"?
- Did Martin Luther teach freedom "to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience"?
- How did Martin Luther give us an example in regards to the "word of God"?
Martin Luther a Noble Example?
Mrs. White extolled Luther as one laboring to restore the "moral restraints" of society. In the Great Controversy she writes:
The elector saw that there was a general breaking down of the moral restraints of society. A great work of reform was needed. The complicated and expensive arrangements to restrain and punish crime would be unnecessary if men but acknowledged and obeyed the requirements of God and the dictates of an enlightened conscience. He saw that Luther was laboring to secure this object, and he secretly rejoiced that a better influence was making itself felt in the church.2
The following evidence indicates quite the opposite to be true. Rather than restraining the moral breakdown in society, Luther, through his teachings and actions, was aiding and abetting that breakdown.
Luther: Our Actions not Important
Although Luther often encouraged his followers to do right, as we survey the evidence presented in this section, through his personal example and by his writings, he taught a "believe and do as you please" philosophy.
"You owe nothing to God except faith and confession. In all other things He lets you do whatever you like. You may do as you please, without any danger of conscience whatsoever." (see Grisar, "Luther", vol. iv, p. 145).
According to historian Peter F. Wiener, Luther over-emphasized justification to the point where, "what we do and how we act does not matter in the least. All that matters is our belief."4
"The body has nothing to do with God. In this respect one can never sin against God, but only against one's neighbour" (W12, 131).3
"It does not matter what people do; it only matters what they believe." "God does not need our actions. All He wants is that we pray to Him and thank Him." Even the example of Christ Himself means nothing to him. "It does not matter how Christ behaved--what He taught is all that matters" (E29, 196), is Luther's subtle distinction.
In the following sections, we will see how these internal beliefs manifested themselves in the life of the man Ellen White advised us to emulate.
Since Luther had this curious idea that our actions have no connections whatsoever with our thoughts, and that as long as we think in a Christian way, we need not behave accordingly, it is not surprising that he did not hesitate to authorise the commitment of sins. "What does it matter whether we commit a fresh sin?" he asks sarcastically. "Faith cancels all sin" is his simple counsel. "No other sin exists in the world save unbelief," is his doctrine. Indeed, his old enemy, Satan, is once more coming to light in order to give an excuse to sinners. "Sometimes it is necessary to commit some sin out of hatred and contempt for the Devil." "What matters if we commit a sin?" (E16, 254).
Indeed, he frequently demands that one ought to commit a sin. "Be a sinner, and sin boldly, but believe more boldly still." Not only men, but the Saints and Apostles must be sinners. "The Saints must be good, downright sinners." "The Apostles themselves were sinners, yea, regular scoundrels…I believe that the prophets also frequently sinned grievously" (E62, 165).5
Luther on Sex and Marriage
On the subject of marital relations, Luther held a view somewhat similar to that of Ellen White. Luther went a step further, however, teaching that all marital relations were somehow sinful:
"In spite of all the good I say of married life, I will not grant so much to nature as to admit that there is no sin in it . . no conjugal due is ever rendered without sin." "The matrimonial duty is never performed without sin." The matrimonial act is, according to Luther, "a sin differing in nothing from adultery and fornication" (W8, 654).6
Since Luther viewed marital relations as a sin no different from adultery or fornication, it should be no suprise that he was not opposed to extra-marital relations:
But the Reformer surpasses himself when he says: "If you do not want, someone else does. If the wife does not want, take your servant" (E20, 72).
And what were the results of Luther's example that we are supposed to imitate?
From this is only a step to Luther's permitting his followers "to satisfy their desires outside marriage, when they were not married, in order to give relief to natural feelings which they could not resist." He says quite plainly: "It is not forbidden that a man should have more than one wife" (E33, 327.).
These teachings Luther did not fail to translate into practice in his own life. In accordance with his teachings against monasteries and convents, he and his disciples began systematically to undermine the mentality of the nuns. We have authentic proof that those who pretended to free the nuns from the bondage of the Catholic Church were inspired by anything but humanitarian or Christian motives. "After a rape of nuns which took place on the night of Holy Saturday, 1523, Luther calls the citizen Koppe, who organised the exploit, a `holy and blessed robber'".
Luther himself has several of these escaped nuns living with him. But he does not intend to marry. In November, 1524, he writes: "Not as though I do not feel my flesh and my sex, for I am neither of wood nor of stone, but I have no inclination to marry." One of these nuns, Catherine von Bora, tried to marry one of Luther's friends. But it is clear that his own relations to her were anything but blameless. In April, 1525, he refers to himself as "a famous lover" who has "three wives" but "no intention whatsoever to marry".
Less than two months later, without any warning, he most suddenly decided to marry Catherine von Bora. Why, can only be left to the imagination. "The Lord plunged me suddenly while I still clung to quite other views into matrimony," he confesses. "God willed that I should take pity on her," is another of his explanations. He is even frank enough to say that he had "no love nor passion for her". Lastly, his usual excuse for his strangest actions is not lacking. "I married in order to spite the Devil".
It is quite obvious that there was a good deal of scandal about Luther's relations with Catherine before they married. "Your example is permanently quoted by those who visit brothels," is one of the typical comments. Even his best friend, Melanchthon, has to admit with a sigh that "Luther was more than a reckless man".7
As Heinrich Heine said, German history at that time was, thanks to Luther's example, almost entirely composed of sensual disturbances. Looking at the devastated state of Germany, one of Luther's contemporaries spoke the truth when he shouted at the Reformer: "This is due to your carnal teaching and stinking example." To enumerate or give a clear picture of the abhorrent state of affairs of the morals in Germany, would take pages and volumes. The important factor is that ""Luther not merely robbed marriage of its sacramental character, but also declared it to be a purely outward carnal union, which has nothing whatsoever to do with religion and church" (Janssen: "History of the German People", vol. 16, page 137).8
Luther a Heavy Drinker
Not only did Luther have questionable views of marriage, but he was known to be a heavy drinker:
Nobody knew better of this German vice than Luther himself. In strong language he protested against it. "Our poor German land is chastised and plagued with this devil of drink and altogether drowned in this vice, so that life and limb, possessions and honour, are shamefully lost while people lead the life of swine, so that, had we to depict Germany, we had to show it under the image of a sow. . . . Unless God strikes at this vice by a national calamity everything will go down to the abyss, all sodden through and through with drink."
Stern words for a reformer of morality. But then, as Luther admitted himself, "I know that I don't practise what I teach" (Enders, 2, 312). The Germans preferred to imitate Luther's practical example and to ignore his teachings. And Luther himself drank a good deal. Far be it from me to make out that Luther was a habitual drunkard, such as some of his opponents tried to make out; I shall merely try to prove that Luther himself drank, occasionally in excess, and showed no moderation whatsoever, set no example which the Germans could possibly follow.
More than once Luther says that he drinks in excess. "I am here," he writes from the Warburg, "idle and drunk" (Enders III, 154). At other times he states, "I am not drunk" (Enders III, 317; E30, 363). In 1532 he writes: "We eat and drink to kill ourselves, we eat and drink up to our last farthing." In 1540 he states: "God must count drunkenness as a minor sin, a small daily sin. We can really not stop it." At another time he feels more guilty. "According to the saying, we have to comply with the habit. The days are bad, people are worse, our acts more than bad. Up to now drunkenness has prevented me from writing, or reading anything readable; living with men, I had to live as they do." It is abundantly clear that Luther liked drinking--and often not within reason. "I have brought on headache by drinking old wine in the Coburg, and this our Wittenberg beer has not yet cured. I work little, and I am forced to be idle against my will because my head must have a rest." "If I have a can of beer, I want the beer-barrel as well". "I am but a man prone to let himself be swept off his feet by society, drunkenness, the movements of the flesh" (W9, 215, 13). And again, "What is needed to live in continence is not in me".
Once more it is out of hatred of the Devil that Luther takes to drink. When he has a thundering headache, he wonders whether this is due to over-drinking or to the Devil. "We behave like scandalous disgusting brutes, thinking all day and night of nothing but how we can fill ourselves with drink and get rid of all our reason and wisdom." "Why, do you think, do I drink too much wine . . .? It is when the Devil prepares to torment me and mock me and that I wish to take the lead."
His bad state of health in his later years, he ascribed himself to drink. "For almost a month past I have been plagued not only with noises but with actual thundering of my head, due, perhaps to the wine, perhaps to the malice of Satan." "I am troubled with a sore throat such as I never had before; possibly the strong wine has increased the inflammation, or perhaps it is a buffet of Satan." The opinion of his contemporaries on the subject is unmistakable. They all agree that Luther "was addicted to over-drinking" (Th. Brieger: "Aleander and Luther", pp. 170, 307).9
Luther on Honesty
Luther also seemed to approve of dishonesty is certain situations:
Already in his early years when he was at war with the Catholic Church he frankly admitted that it was not necessary to stick to the truth. "I consider everything allowable against the deception and the depravity of the Papal antichrist," was his excuse.10
"What harm could it do if a man told a good lusty lie in a worthy cause and for the sake of the Christian Churches?" (Lenz: Briefwechsel, vol. 1, page 373).
"To lie in a case of necessity or for convenience or in excuse--such lying would not be against God; He was ready to take such lies on Himself" (ibid, page 375).
There are many, too many cases in his own life and his own writings where he advises a lie. "Lying is a virtue if it is indulged in for the purpose of preventing the fury of the Devil, or made to serve the honour, the life, and the welfare of one's fellow-men." "The lie of service is wrongly termed a lie . . . it may be called Christian and brotherly charity," is one of many similar sayings by the Reformer. "The world will be deceived," he used to exclaim, and he acted accordingly. I have, reluctantly, come to the conclusion that Luther's biographer was utterly right when he said: "The general conclusion must be that Luther was a man to whom the idea of truth for truth's sake meant nothing at all."11
Some of Luther's bold and arrogant statements sound frightfully similar to those of the Roman pontiff:
"It was not long before Luther's pseudo-mysticism translated itself into deeds. He persuades himself that he is guided in all his actions and resolutions by a sort of Divine inspiration." He first began to explain, in a new fashion, "God's Word". But it soon became apparent that "by `God's Word' Luther of course always meant his own interpretation of Scripture, his own doctrine, which he prided himself has been revealed to him by God."
"When I am angry, I am not expressing my own wrath, but the wrath of God". Luther knew that he was superior to any man or saint. "St. Augustine or St. Ambrosius cannot be compared with me." "They shall respect our teaching which is the word of God, spoken by the Holy Ghost, through our lips". "Not for a thousand years has God bestowed such great gifts on any bishop as He as on me" (E61, 422). "God has appointed me for the whole German land, and I boldly vouch and declare that when you obey me you are without a doubt obeying not me but Christ" (W15, 27). "Whoever obeys me not, despises not me but Christ." "I believe that we are the last trump that sounds before Christ is coming". "What I teach and write remains true even though the whole world should fall to pieces over it." (W18, 401). "Whoever rejects my doctrine cannot be saved." "Nobody should rise up against me".
"No mortal ever spoke of himself as Luther did". His persecution mania turned with advancing years into a mania of self-glorification, of grandeur. He really and truly believed that he was God's representative upon earth. He did not refrain from saying and teaching, "I am Christ"; and he exclaimed, almost in the same breath, "I am the prophet of the Germans, for such is the haughty title I must henceforth assume."12
Luther also left us an example in the very words he spoke and wrote:
Luther's language was indeed something quite abominable and indescribable. "He is obsessed with filth and obscenity", writes Maritain. To call it "revolutionary journalism" is an understatement. "He would be furiously angry, and when he was angry he fairly vomited filth. He wrote things one cannot quote in decent English," is much nearer to the mark. This again, was only the natural outcome of his neurotic character. There was nothing godlike or holy about him, there was little patience or human understanding; he loved to scream, shout and blaspheme in the manner of the most vulgar German politician, such as our generation has seen more than enough. With pride he himself exclaimed; "Rage acts as a stimulant to my whole being. It sharpens my wits, puts a stop to the assaults of the Devil and drives out care. Never do I write or speak better than when I am in a rage. If I wish to compose, write, pray and preach well, I have to be in a rage" ("Table Talk," 1210).
It may be argued that the language of the Middle Ages knew different standards from that of our own time. But, "in this respect Luther went far beyond the custom among educated men of his time, shocking his friends and leaving his opponents speechless with rage and amazement at his audacity."
It may be urged that a man who said and wrote so many lovely things, might well be entitled to overstep the limit occasionally in the other direction. But Luther's writings were rarely beautiful, and most of them display "an undignified vulgarity, spiced with sexual allusions." I fully agree with one of his commentators (H. Hallam) who says of his language that "Its intemperance, its coarseness, its negligence, its inelegance, its scurrility, its wild paradoxes menaced the foundations of religious morality and were not compensated by much strength and acuteness and still less by any impressive eloquence" ("Introduction to the Literature of Europe").13
"In his books (on Jews) Luther's peculiar talent for indelicate language reached its climax. He wrote with unchecked ferocity, and indulged freely in his quaint practice of befouling the objects of his hate with imaginary animal excreta" (Lipsky).14
Luther's Attitude Toward Women
Finally, Luther apparently had a low opinion of women:
"Though womenfolk are ashamed to confess it, yet it is proved by Scripture and experience that there is not one among many thousands to whom God gives the grace of chastity."
Nothing sacred about marriage Luther knows of. But what he has to say about women is still worse. "The word and work of God is quite
clear, viz. That women were made either to be wives or prostitutes" (W12, 94).
What happens to the woman is of no consequence to Luther. "Even though they grow weary and wear themselves out with child-bearing, it does not matter; let them go on bearing children till they die, that is what they are there for" (E20, 84).15
Luther a Noble Example?
To summarize Luther's "noble" character, while it is true he exhibited moments of courage in the face of fierce opposition, the overall example of his life was characterized with sensuality, dishonesty, heavy drinking, foul language, arrogance, and a demeaning attitude towards women. Is Martin Luther really a "noble example" for Christians to follow? You decide.
Martin Luther and Freedom of Conscience
Although extolled by Ellen White as a teacher of the freedom "to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience", Luther's life and example tell a far different story:
"'The spirit of tolerance which had been increasing with the Renaissance had left Germany for centuries as a result of Luther's reformation' (Paulsen). 'Luther was instrumental in destroying not merely the fact, but even the principle of liberty throughout Germany' (Figgis). And let me again quote the great Protestant scholar Troeltsch: 'Lutheranism provided a most favourable setting for the development of the territorial state. It smoothed the way for territorial absolutism. . . . Its only service to the actual modern state has been to encourage the spirit of modern absolutism.'"16
Let us examine how he treated various groups that followed the dictates of their conscience.
Attitude Towards the Anabaptists
The Anabaptists were "left-wing Lutherans"; they preached "Socialism in the 16th century". It was a "very moderate movement". They aimed at the "establishment of a democratic socialist republic," and demanded "abolition of all class distinctions, freedom and equality." It was a purely religious movement-as compared with that of the peasants-and they had no political aim. The Cambridge Modern History says (vol. II, p. 223) that some of the Anabaptists "were anticipating the Quakers," and that they denounced the dependence of the Lutheran Church upon the State, and denied the right of the secular magistrate to interfere in religious matters.17
How did Luther deal with the Anabaptists?
Luther encouraged the secular authorities to commit the worst atrocities. "Many Anabaptists were beheaded with the express approbation of Luther, who regarded their heroism in the face of death as proof of diabolic possession."18
Attitude Towards the Jews
Luther's attitude towards the Jews was less than charitable:
It is quite true that when Luther fought the pope, he wanted allies and friends. Thus the Jews were welcome, and he made the truly wonderful remarks just quoted. But as so often before, once he had achieved his purpose he showed his true face. For the greater part of his life Luther was an anti-semite of the worst calibre.19
How did Luther teach Christians to deal with Jews?
Like all his enemies, the Jews in Luther's eyes were devils. "Whenever you encounter a real Jew, you may in good faith make the sign of the cross and openly and fearlessly pronounce the words `This is a veritable devil'". "Therefore," the Reformer told his followers, "do not doubt and never forget, beloved Christians, that apart from Satan himself, you possess no more deadly poisonous, and dreadful enemy than a real Jew. I know that. They poison wells, kidnap and maltreat children."
"Even with no further evidence than the Old Testament, I would maintain, and no person on earth could alter my opinion, that the Jews as they are today are veritably a mixture of all the depraved and malevolent knaves of the whole world over, who have been dispersed in all countries, similarly to the Tartars and gypsies and such folk, to afflict the different nations with their usury, to spy upon others and to betray, to poison wells, to deceive and kidnap children, in short to practice all kinds of dishonesty and injury."
There was, according to Luther, no good or human quality about the Jews. "What is good in us Christians, they ignore; what is wrong in us Christians the Jews take advantage of." "The breath of the Jews reeks." "Their rabbis teach them that theft and robbery is no sin" (W53, 489).20
"Never ought a Christian to eat or drink with a Jew". "On being asked whether it would be right to box the ears of a Jew, Luther replied `Certainly. I for one would smack him on the jaw. Were I able, I would knock him down and stab him in my anger. It is lawful, according to both the human and the divine law, to kill a robber; then it is even more permissible to slay a blasphemer.'" Not a very Christian attitude; but worse is still to come. "If I had to baptise a Jew, I would take him to the bridge of the Elbe, hang a stone round his neck and push him over with the words `I baptise thee in the name of Abraham'" (Detailed references given in Grisar, "Luther", vol. v, p. 413)21
And what was the outcome of Luther's teachings and example?
"We ought to take revenge on the Jews and kill them" is his charitable advice. At other times he is in favour of "forcing them to work and treating them with every severity as Moses did in the desert when he slew 3,000 of them."
"It is our own fault that we have not avenged the sacred blood of our Saviour and the innocent blood of countless Christians and children, spoiled since the demolition of Jerusalem until now; it is our own fault that we have not annihilated the Jews but placidly let them stay where they are in spite of all their murders, their curses, blasphemies, lies, violations, and that we even protect their schools, their dwellings, their persons and property." Nowhere in the history of civilised mankind have the masses been so incited to persecution and murder as by this "Christian Reformer."
Indeed, four centuries before the world ever heard of the inhuman "Nuremberg Laws" Brother Martin compiled an anti-Jewish code of his own. Luther's anti-semitic laws consist of seven paragraphs only. Here they are:
- Set fire to their synagogues and schools; and what will not burn, heap earth over it so that no man may see a stone or relic of them forever.
- Pull down and destroy their houses since they perpetrate the same nefarious things in them as in their schools. Pack them all under one roof or stable, like the gypsies, that they may know that they are not lords and masters in our land as they boast.
- Deprive them of all their prayer-books.
- Forbid their rabbis henceforth to teach.
- Deprive them of the right to move about the country.
- Forbid them the business of usury, and take from them all their belongings.
- Hand the strong young Jews of both sexes flail, axe, mattock, spade, distaff, and spindle; and make them work for their bread in the sweat of their brow, like all the children of Adam. Confiscate their property and drive them out of the country. (W53, 525 abridged).22
In the Reformer's own times, the results of his teaching were tragic. "All his counsels were, of course, of such a nature that they provoked the people to an unchristian persecution of their Jewish citizens."23
But there were, in Luther's time, some courageous Protestant leaders who complained bitterly. One of them, Bullinger of Zurich, protests against the "lewd and houndish eloquence" of the Reformer. "Everyone must be astonished at the hard and presumptuous spirit of the man (Luther). The opinion of posterity will be that Luther was not only a man, but a man ruled by criminal passion."24
Attitude Towards the Peasant's Rebellion
The German working-class "peasants" of the sixteenth century suffered under unbearable "taxes, rents, rates, work, and so forth."25 Even Luther, at first, felt for their situation, and wrote against the princes:
"God Almighty," he wrote, "has struck our princes with madness so that they imagine they may treat and command their subjects just as they please; and the subjects too are crazy enough to think that it is their duty to obey all that is commanded them." "God has delivered the princes up to a perverted mind, and means to make an end to them. . . . All the princes could do was to rob and oppress the people, heaving tax upon tax, and rate upon rate."" He warned the princes that they would soon be destroyed. "The princes"" he continued, "are the greatest fools and the worst scoundrels on earth. The people cannot, will not any longer, endure your tyranny and your presumption."26
Luther carried the banner of individual freedom for a short time, but all that changed when the peasants rose up in rebellion in 1525 in what has become known as the "Peasants' War".
But once Luther had made up his mind which side he was going to back, which side it was more profitable to back, his violence knew no limits. On May 6 of this fatal year Luther published his pamphlet, "Against the Peasant Bands of Robbers and Murderers", which Funck-Brentano has described as a "horrible document which it is impossible to read, not only without disapproval but without disgust. The Reformer, who always had the Gospel on his lips, now talked of nothing but killing, torturing, burning and murdering the very people whom his work had driven to rebel." Let us listen to the Reformer, the so-called champion of Christian freedom.
Is this man indeed an example for us to follow?
"To kill a peasant is not murder; it is helping to extinguish the conflagration. Let there be no half measures! Crush them! Cut their throats! Transfix them! Leave no stone unturned! To kill a peasant is to destroy a mad dog!. . . Our princes must in the circumstances regard themselves as the officers of the divine wrath which bids them chastise such scoundrels. A prince who failed to do so would be sinning against God very badly. He would be failing in his mission. A prince who in such circumstances avoided bloodshed would become responsible for the murders and all the further crimes which these low swine might commit. It is no longer a question of tolerance, patience, pity. It is the hour of wrath and for the sword; the hour for mercy is past."
Luther is full of similar advice. "It is a trifle for God to massacre a lot of peasants, when He drowned the whole world with a flood and wiped out Sodom with fire. He is an almighty and frightful God." "If there are innocent men amongst the peasants, God will certainly prepare and keep them, as He did with Lot and Jeremiah."" ""I will not forbid such rulers as are able, to chastise and slay the peasants without previously them offering terms, even though the Gospel does not permit it."" Once more, the Devil is brought into it. ""the peasants serve the Devil. . . . I believe that there are no devils left in hell, but all of them have entered into peasants."" And Luther surpasses himself when he exclaims: ""that strange times are these when a prince can enter heaven by the shedding of blood more certainly than others by means of prayer!"" And he ends with the peroration: "Come, dearly-beloved lords and nobles, strike them, transfix them, and cut their throats with might and main. Should you find death in so doing, you could not wish for one more divine, for you would fall in obedience to God and in defending your like against the hordes of Satan."...
The effect of Luther's pamphlet was terrible. It was exactly what the princes had hoped for. "It was due to Luther's pamphlet against the peasants, so said the Strasburg preacher Capito, that the country had passed from the turmoil of insurrection to the horrors of retaliation and revenge." The princes translated the Reformer's inhuman orders into practice with a terrifying speed.
Even Luther's own followers got frightened. They reproached him, they tried to explain that the irrational, quick-tempered Luther had acted on the spur of the moment, that he did not mean what he said. In cold blood Luther replied: "An insurgent is not worthy of being answered with reason, for he cannot understand it; such mouths must be stopped with fisticuffs till their noses bleed. The peasants would not hear, would not listen to reason, therefore it was necessary to startle their ears with bullets, and send their heads flying in the air. . . . If they say I am very hard and merciless, mercy be damned. Let whoever can stab, strangle, and kill them like made dogs" (E24, 294). "The intention of the Devil was to lay Germany waste, because he was unable in any other way to prevent the spread of the Evangel."
He would have no criticism--Luther, who is reported to be the great champion of tolerance. "Those who thus blame my little book (against the peasants) must be warned to hold their tongues and to take care what they say; for most certainly they are insurgents at heart, therefore the authorities must keep an eye on such people and let them see that they are in earnest." Indeed, Luther "attributed his pamphlet against the peasants to Divine inspiration."
No, Luther would not retract a single word of his pamphlet or apologise for it as the offspring of momentary passion. Instead, he began to elaborate his new political theory, a theory which was so readily accepted in Germany. "Scripture speaking figuratively", wrote Luther in 1526, "calls rulers drovers, taskmasters, and scourgers. Like the drivers of donkeys, who have to belabour the donkeys incessantly with rods and whips, or they will not obey, so must the ruler do with the people; they must drive, beat, throttle, hang, burn, behead and torture, so as to make themselves feared and to keep the people in check" (E15, 276).
The princes obeyed. A "brutal revenge" took place. Typical is the assertion of one of the princes: "I hope we are now going to play with heads as the boys play with marbles."
The lot of the poor peasants was worse than horrible. "Captains and overlords vied with each other in the ferocity of the punishments inflicted on the inhabitants of the conquered districts. The mildest way for the victims was to have their heads chopped off with an axe. Many, both men and women, had their tongues torn out; others had their fingers chopped off. The executions took place in public squares, the wives and children of the condemned being forced to witness the horrible spectacle at sight." Some of the princes made all their subjects who had taken part in the revolt kneel in groups, and then mowed them down with artillery. Others crowded them into the cellars under their castles, where they died of suffocation in the most terrible stench. "Historians have estimated the number of poor wretches put to death in this way at about 100,000. The victorious landowners used to amuse themselves by playing bowls with their heads" (Funck-Brentano).
Nor did the Reformer feel any sympathy of any kind for the victims of the atrocities committed by his orders. "'Why treat the peasants so cruelly?' I am asked,", wrote Luther in May, 1525; "let them all be killed. In such circumstances is it not God Himself who by our hands, hangs, breaks on the wheel, blows to bits and decapitates."
The immediate results were obvious. "The peasants sank back into their servile conditions." "The practical outcome of the great popular movement was deplorable. The condition of the common people became even worse than before." "A general and rapid decay of intellectual life was the natural result."
Perhaps the one and greatest chance in Germany's history to have a revolution of the people, to force the Junkers to give in, to have a democracy based on Christian principles--was squashed, by Martin Luther. The common people sank back into a pitiful state--at least those poor wretches who survived. Germany was a battlefield, disunited, more oppressed than ever by the ruling classes. At this moment the Reformer thought it appropriate to exclaim with pride: "It was I, Martin Luther, who slew all the peasants in the insurrection, for I commanded them to be slaughtered. All their blood is upon my shoulders. But I cast it on our Lord God who commanded me to speak in this way" (E59, 284).27
Martin Luther and the Word of God
Despite his personal failings and his attitude toward liberty of conscience, is Martin Luther still to be reverred for his Bible teachings? Ellen White described Martin Luther as "champion of the truth"28 and in vision, "I saw that Luther was ardent and zealous, fearless and bold in reproving sin, and advocating the truth."29 While it is true that Luther opposed various false teachings of Rome, he also had some very questionable ideas about the Bible. Let us examine some of his more unusual teachings.
Luther believed that Jesus was a fornicator:
"Christ", says Luther, "committed adultery first of all with the woman at the well about whom Saint John tells us. Was not everybody about Him saying: `Whatever has he been doing with her?" Secondly, with Mary Magdalene, and thirdly with the woman taken in adultery whom He dismissed so lightly. Thus even Christ, who was so righteous, must have been guilty of fornication before He died" ("Table Talk", 1472) (W2, 107).30
In addition to his highly unorthodox teachings about Christ fornicating, here are some of his other unusual beliefs:31
Luther had a particular dislike of the book of James:
- Questioned the Mosaic authorship of parts of the Pentateuch.
- Rejected the Solomonic origin of Ecclesiastes
- Declared Job to be mere allegory
- Kings, he said, was "more to be believed than Chronicles"
- Esther was "without boots or spurs." Luther wrote, "I am so hostile...to Esther that I could wish they did not exist at all; for they judaize too greatly and have much pagan impropriety"
- He also had serious questions about the book of Jeremiah, Jonah, and the Song of Solomon
Let us banish this Epistle from the university, for it is worthless. It has no syllable about Christ, not even naming him except at the beginning. I think it was written by a Jew who had heard of the Christians but not joined them. 32
He also thought little of Revelation:
About this Book of Revelation of John, I leave everyone free to hold his own opinion. I miss more than one thing in this book and it makes me consider it to be neither apostolic nor prophetic . . . I can in no way detect that the Holy Spirit produced it . . . They are supposed to be blessed who keep what is written in this book and yet no one knows what it is, to say nothing of keeping it . . . My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book . . . Christ is neither taught nor known in it . . . Many have tried their hands at it. But until this very day they have also let it alone until now, especially because some of the ancient fathers held it was not the work of St. John the Apostle . . . For our part, we share this doubt."33
There should be no denying that Luther was a man of courage and zeal, and played an important role in the Reformation by standing up against papal Rome. He should be honored and applauded for that. However, when one examines his life and his teachings, as we have done in this article, it is evident that Luther is certainly not an individual that Christians should try to emulate or imitate.
1. Ellen G. White, The Signs of the Times, July 26, 1883, paragraph 18.
2. Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (1911), pp. 138-139.
3. Peter F. Wiener, Martin Luther ~ Hitler's Spiritual Ancestor, p. 28. All quotes from this book are from the electronically fomatted document prepared by Patsy Jackson for Tentmaker Publications. The document can be found online at: http://www.tentmaker.org/books/MartinLuther-HitlersSpiritualAncestor.html. The author, Dr. Wiener, was a university professor and Christian of German origin. He was not a Catholic.
4. Ibid., p. 23.
5. Ibid., pp. 23-24.
6. Ibid., p. 28.
7. Ibid., pp. 29-30.
8. Ibid., p. 30.
9. Ibid., pp. 25-26.
10. Ibid., p. 31.
11. Ibid., p. 33.
12. Ibid., pp. 21-22.
13. Ibid., pp. 19-20.
14. Ibid., p. 48.
15. Ibid., p. 29.
16. Ibid., p. 44.
17. Ibid., p. 40.
18. Ibid., p. 41.
19. Ibid., p. 47.
20. Ibid., p. 48.
21. Ibid., p. 49.
22. Ibid., p. 50.
23. Ibid., p. 51.
24. Ibid., p. 51.
25. Ibid., p. 35.
26. Ibid., p. 35.
27. Ibid., pp. 35-37.
28. Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (1911), page 129.
29. Ellen G. White, Spiritual Gifts, Vol. 1 (1858), page 122.
30. Wiener, p. 22.
31. These six points are taken verbatim from Mormon scholar John A. Tvedtnes' article, "Will the Real Martin Luther Please Stand Up", http://www.fairlds.org/Bible/Will_the_Real_Martin_Luther_Please_Stand_Up.html, extracted June 20, 2009.
32. Op. cit. Tvedtnes note #10. "Preserved Smith, "The Methods of Reformation Interpreters of the Bible," Biblical World 38/4 (October 1911): 242."
33. Op. cit. Tvedtnes note #11. "Jaroslav J. Pelikan (ed.) and George V. Schick (transl.), Luther's Works (Philadelphia: Fortress and Concordia, 1960), 35:398-400. See also C. W. Jacobs, Holman's Edition of Luther's Works, 6:488-489."