In the Footsteps of Luther

This year is a great time to reexamine our commitment to faith alone, grace alone, scripture alone, Christ alone, and God’s glory alone.

Still, Luther had no intention of withdrawing from the Roman Catholic Church, let alone starting a new branch of Christianity. He only wanted a return to the sources, rather than relying on tradition. Luther would later recall, “When I was twenty years old, I had not yet seen a Bible.” This he considered unacceptable. He wanted every person to have access to the Word of God. 

 

As a novelist and sometimes travel writer, I love exploring the places God has chosen for the setting of so many of his stories, recovering the senses I miss when I limit myself to reading. I’ve eaten falafel while visiting the sites of Revelation’s seven churches in modern Turkey; savored olives in Jordan, where Moses looked into the Promised Land; felt the wind on my face on the Sea of Galilee; and raised my hands to celebrate an empty tomb in Jerusalem.

In an era in which international travel is increasingly accessible, many Christians are returning to the practice of pilgrimage so popular in the Middle Ages. Why not combine inspiration and vacation, we reason—coming home renewed in both body and soul?

Something about the physicality of such places helps us more strongly forge connections with the past, helping us view in full color what was formerly black and white. These spaces can feel like what the Celts called “thin places,” where it seems that only the thinnest of veils separates heaven from earth.

But it’s not only the biblical sites where that veil can seem hair-thin. It’s also in places where the faithful of previous generations have lived exemplary lives. The winding curves up to Italy’s Abbey on Monte Cassino, founded by Saint Benedict in AD 529, lead to a breathtaking view that evokes worship as travelers hear monks chant. Ravenna, Italy, has millennium-old still-sparkling mosaics of bucks and does drinking from waters that depict how the soul pants for God like a deer thirsty for drink (Psalm 42:1). And this year there’s Germany.

Sure, I enjoyed the strudel, bratwurst, and roast duck. But I didn’t go for my taste buds. Rather, I visited five cities that we don’t usually associate with pilgrimage—Eisenach, Eisleben, Erfurt, Torgau, and Wittenberg. I walked the streets of those five cities because October 31, 1517, is the date many consider the start of the Protestant Reformation. And the five-hundredth anniversary is coming up this fall.

The Reformer before Wittenberg

On the eve of All Saints’ Day in 1517, Martin Luther is said to have nailed his ninety-five theses, or talking points, to the doors of the castle church, All Saints’, in Wittenberg. The story goes that he defiantly nailed his list of ninety-five beefs, defacing the door with his outburst for all to read. Of course, that’s the fabled version. At the time public doors often served as a sort of pre-IM, pre-email, pre-photocopy announcement venue for course discussion topics. And Dr. Luther, professor of theology at the university in Wittenberg, had plenty of students and colleagues with whom to discuss his ninety-five concerns about the Roman Catholic Church—of which he was an ordained priest.

Dr. Luther wrote his statements in Latin, so it wasn’t like just any passer-by could digest them. But still, people nailed talking points to such doors all the time—especially professors. And whether Luther mailed them or nailed them, no one knows. But either way, he certainly could not have anticipated what a ruckus he would raise.

Many of us, Protestant or otherwise, have heard of the nailing, but we don’t know much about Luther’s story. So allow me to review it.

Martin Luder—his surname at birth—spent much of his youth in German towns having names starting with an “E”—Eisleben, Eisenach, and Erfurt. He was born in Eisleben in 1483, the son of peasants who worked their way up to becoming a middle-class mining family. The next day, which was the feast day of Martin of Tours, his parents took him to Sts. Peter and Paul Church and had him baptized as “Martin.”

His family soon moved to nearby Eisenach. And there he spent his childhood and adolescence. In an era in which congregational singing was not yet a thing, Martin sang as a choir boy in St. George’s Church. He and the other choir boys roamed the streets singing for scraps of bread. And the music left an impression—he loved learning theology through song.

A bright student, Martin finished school in Eisenach and went off to Erfurt to attend the university there—considered the most eminent after that of Prague—at the command of his father. He earned both his baccalaureate and his master’s degree. And having done well, he proceeded to law school, establishing himself as one who excelled at philosophy and drinking beer.

On his way back to Erfurt one day after visiting his parents, he was caught in a thunderstorm. Lightning threw him to the ground, and he cried out to St. Anne, mother of the Virgin Mary, promising her that he would become a monk. Defying his father’s wishes, Martin kept this commitment. After selling all his possessions, including the expensive law volume his father had purchased for him, he left the university and entered Erfurt’s most austere—Augustinian—monastery.

There he kept his confessor quite busy, fearing he might forget some minor infraction and thus lack the forgiveness to stand before God as judge—the tortured Martin. Conscious of his own lack of perfection, he struggled to believe God is merciful.

In the pecking order of those in the afterlife whom Luther asked for help in his prayers, Jesus ranked twenty-fourth, because Luther considered Christ the Judge to be scary and mean.

Martin’s mentor encouraged the bright monk to return to academic life. So he went to the new University of Wittenberg, studied for his doctorate, and taught part-time there. During that time, Martin and a fellow monk were sent to Rome on business for the Augustinian order. So, they walked the 875 miles needed to get there. In Rome, Martin got an eyeful of corruption.

This monk who often refused a blanket in the frigid German wintertime that he might bring his flesh under control felt sickened by the wealth and corruption of Pope Junius II’s lavish Vatican City makeover. Seeing that it was financed in part by the selling of indulgences to poor people with the promise of reduced time in purgatory for themselves or their loved ones, Luther joined a long list of believers who saw such actions as a corruption of true Christianity.

But this time, though he didn’t know it, Martin had the means to do something about it.

After returning to Frederick the Wise’s university in Wittenberg, Martin received his doctorate and became the full-time Doctor of Bible there. Frederick, the Elector1 based in nearby Torgau, proved a powerful ally. What Wittenberg offered in academic and spiritual power, Torgau offered in political protection. Proud of the university he had created in Wittenberg, the Elector often leveraged his power to protect his star professor. In fact, it is said that if Wittenberg was the mother of the Reformation, Torgau was the wet-nurse.

Frederick was busy turning tiny Wittenberg into his royal seat, with a great castle, a church, and a university filled with marvelous thinkers. He hired the brilliant Greek professor Philip Melanchthon, who knew eleven languages. The Wittenberg-based Saxon court painter, Lucas Cranach the Elder, populated Frederick’s palace in Torgau with excellent art and operated a print shop. Cranach was sympathetic to the reformers’ ideas and eventually his print shop would come in handy.

The Stories of the Solas

As Martin continued to teach theology and debate its finer points with savvy colleagues—he and Melanchthon became the best of friends—he spoke and wrote of his concerns that the church in which he was ordained had invented doctrines that contradicted holy writ. Purgatory, indulgences, buying grace . . . these did not sit well.

Still, Luther had no intention of withdrawing from the Roman Catholic Church, let alone starting a new branch of Christianity. He only wanted a return to the sources, rather than relying on tradition. Luther would later recall, “When I was twenty years old, I had not yet seen a Bible.” This he considered unacceptable. He wanted every person to have access to the Word of God.

As this doctor of theology preached in Wittenberg’s Church of St. Mary’s, the twin towers of which still stand above the town’s Marktplatz, his messages revealed an increasing disparity between Church dogma and the biblical text. Such disparities led to “scripture alone” being one of the five “alones” or “solas” of the Reformation.

Then Leo X, the new pope in Rome who belonged to Florence’s powerful Medici family, made the mistake of sending a representative to Wittenberg to sell the promise of forgiveness at half price—in the form of indulgences. But Martin reasoned that if the pope had the power to reduce time in purgatory for the sake of money, why for the sake of holy love would he not free everyone at no cost? Enter another “sola”—grace alone.

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