This year marks the five hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation—traditionally pegged to October 31, 1517, the day Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses—and the celebration has been intense. Germany has had a Lutherdekade (Luther Decade) full of commemorations since 2007. In Europe and North America, we are now in the thick of the Lutherjahr (Luther Year), featuring countless lectures and conferences. No fewer than a dozen Luther biographies have been published in this Lutherjahr, causing Lutherjahrmüdigkeit (Luther Year fatigue) and Lutherjahrgeistesgestörtheit (Luther Year derangement) among Reformation specialists.
Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses set in motion a larger challenge to the medieval status quo. Nearly everyone agrees that the Theses themselves, which focused on the recondite subject of indulgences, did not cause the breakup of Christendom. But once the Theses were printed and widely distributed, they caused such a stir (due to their challenge to many central assumptions of medieval theology and piety) that within a few months a religious revolution began to unfold.
This was a revolution bent on change, or, as its proponents preferred to say, on reform, on ending corruption and returning Christianity to its pure origins. Luther was not the sole leader of this revolution, nor its most radical theorist, but since he was the first to create a rival church and escape burning at the stake, all the celebrations this year mark his pioneering accomplishment. In other words, Luther steals the show by getting there first, much as Neil Armstrong did when he planted his boot on the moon.
But who was Luther? In 1521, Luther revealed much about himself in a treatise he wrote against Jerome Emser, a Catholic adversary he loved to call “the goat of Leipzig”:
I have said more than once that anyone may attack my person in any way he pleases. I do not pretend to be an angel. But I let no one attack my teaching without a counterattack, since I know that it is not mine, but God’s.
Such was the depth of Luther’s confidence in his role as prophet and agent of God. As he saw it, his interpretation of the Word of God could never be wrong, and no step taken in the proclamation of that Word could ever be false. He saw himself as a prophet, and an agent of God’s wrath. Knowing how much he was shaped by St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, it is easy to imagine him identifying personally with this passage: “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.”
Since wrath is never gentle, Luther was neither tolerant nor kind toward anyone who disagreed with him. His polemic against all who opposed him was not just heated, but white-hot, incandescent. Sometimes he relied on hackneyed insults: “You are idiots and swine”; “Listen, you ass, you are a particularly crass ass, indeed, you are a filthy sow!” But his invective could be creative, too. “I would like to see you say aloud what you write,” he said to some adversaries, “for if you did, people would gather with chains and bars and out of sympathy would seize and bind you as demoniacs. And if people did not do this, then, perhaps at God’s prompting, oxen and swine would trample you to death with their horns and hoofs.”
Once, he dismissed all radicals in his midst by saying that they had “swallowed the Holy Spirit, feathers and all,” and that they were “so stupid that it makes one feel like vomiting.” He cared little for rank. To the pope he could say, “You are the head of all the worst scoundrels on earth, a vicar of the devil, an enemy of God, an adversary of Christ, a destroyer of Christ's churches; a teacher of lies, blasphemies, and idolatries; an arch-thief and robber.” Belittling the high and mighty became one of his great skills. To the great humanist Erasmus he once said, “Perhaps you want me to die of unrelieved boredom while you keep on talking.”
And when not hurling insults at his enemies, Luther could lament the dearth of worthy adversaries, caused by his own superiority. “It seems I must have liars and villains for opponents,” he once said, adding: “I am not worthy in the sight of God that a godly and honorable person should discuss these matters with me in a Christian way. This is my greatest lament.”
What are we to make of all this unpleasantness five centuries later, when Christians are no longer at each other’s throats, but rather huddled together on a lifeboat, afloat on a vast uncharted sea of unbelief?
Luther was convinced that the end of the world was near, and had no way of knowing how wrong he was about that. His anger had an urgency about it, as well as a sense of purpose. The church of his day was rife with abuse and corruption. No one denies this now, and hardly anyone denied it then. Luther’s anger needs to be understood in the context of all that was wrong in the church of his day, for the corruption that seemed so entrenched and invincible made his anger appealing to many. Call it righteous anger, or—given that he thought he was God’s agent in the end times—call it divine wrath of the sort the Apostle Paul warns about in his epistle to the Romans, Luther’s favorite biblical text: “Because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.”
Was Luther the wrath of God? Was his anger justified? Many in his day thought so. But many within that corrupt church also worked for reform slowly, gradually, patiently, piecemeal, in the face of fierce opposition. One need only point to Carlo Borromeo, archbishop of Milan, who was shot in the back as he said Mass in 1569 by a priest who resented his reforming measures. Having survived the assassination attempt, he stepped up his reforming efforts, and not only checked his anger, but even begged that the life of his would-be assassin be spared.
Luther’s anger was not driven only by righteous indignation over ecclesiastical corruption. Luther also disagreed with many aspects of medieval Catholic theology and piety, and it was those beliefs that drove him to break with Rome. His Reformation began with a disagreement over indulgences, an issue that pertains to soteriology, or the theology of salvation. But since that theological issue was linked to countless others, as is characteristic of Catholic theology, Luther quickly realized that it was impossible to take on that single item without also taking on all those others to which it was linked, including that of papal authority. And since religion was interwoven with every aspect of life in his day, Luther reshaped church and society by reshaping theology. Carlo Borromeo, in contrast, had no theology to reshape. He left that business to the Council of Trent. Ultimately, every Catholic reformer took the same approach as Borromeo: The existing church had to be fixed from within rather than tossed on the trash heap of history, and theological issues had to be left in the hands of that institution, which they believed to be guided by the Holy Spirit.
So, here we are half a millennium later, stuck with the multiplicity of churches created in the sixteenth century due to a noxious mix of corruption, theological wrangling, and politics. Let us never forget that the splintering of Christendom in Luther’s day had a political dimension, as well as social and economic. The corrupt conditions that led to that splintering are no longer with us, and we have Luther to thank for that, in part. Recent scholarship has revealed that all of the churches created by the Protestant Reformation worked hard to do away with the abuses that made Luther and other reformers so angry, and that the Catholic Church followed suit. In the long run, ironically, Luther and all Protestant reformers succeeded in forcing the Catholic Church to listen to its faithful inner reformers and clean up its act.
What can anyone say, then, to commemorate Luther’s act of defiance on Halloween 1517, given the nastiness of that age, long past, and the very different nastiness of our own age, so unavoidable to us?
Plenty. The nastiness of any age has its own peculiar features, as did that of Luther’s sixteenth century, and each age calls for its own kind of wrath, or anger. In the gospels, Jesus never refrained from calling certain elites “hypocrites,” “snakes,” “a brood of vipers,” or “whitened sepulchers” (Matthew 23). Hurling such epithets at one’s adversaries does not normally lead to meaningful dialogue, and Jesus knew that, of course. So, we need to ask ourselves, why did the all-merciful Savior use such harsh language? Why did he intentionally forgo dialogue? One answer that makes sense is this: Every age needs such insults because there are always some snakes who will not dialogue, no matter how much forbearance or mercy is extended to them. Jesus the Savior knew this, and it pained him. Every age has its own vipers who are so smug, so enthralled by their own correctness or their own power, that they view dialogue and tolerance as unthinkable and unacceptable. And these snakes always need a good dose of the wrath of God.
Righteous anger is one thing, mean-spirited offensiveness is quite another. We can be shocked by Luther’s anger in our day and age, for much of it could be deemed mean-spirited by our standards. Given our ecumenical bent and our love of tolerance, as well as our need to face aggressive unbelief together, all Christians can also be shocked by the vitriol infused into sixteenth-century theological disagreements. But no one should be shocked by Luther’s anger over corruption, abuse, and injustice. Silence in the face of evil is a far worse sin than any insult, even an unimaginative one. As Luther’s namesake Martin Luther King, Jr. would observe in the twentieth century, lack of anger is a failure of nerve when it leads to apathy. “For evil to succeed, “ said our age’s Luther, “all it needs is for good men to do nothing.” He could have said, for good men not to be angry.
Carlos Eire is T. L. Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University.