Beliefs Faith Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

The Reformation turns 500. Do you have your Luther Playmobil action figure at the read …

It’s here, it’s here!

The 500th anniversary of Martin Luther banging on the Wittenberg Door . . . or not exactly banging, as you can see below.

In honor of the birth of Protestantism, Craig Harline’s written A World Ablaze: The Rise of Martin Luther and the Birth of the Reformation (Oxford, October 3), focusing on the first several years of Luther’s rise. — JKR


RNS: Why did you write this book?

Harline: Oxford asked whether I was interested, and I said, “I’m not a Luther specialist.” But that’s what they wanted: a nonspecialist to write for nonspecialists. The editor had read some of my other things and liked them.

I always complain that the only thing people know about the Reformation is the name Martin Luther. So in preparation for some talks I’m giving, we made a little “person on the street” video asking what people know about Martin Luther. And they’ve all heard of him! But few know much about him.

I don’t think I’ll have much that’s new to tell scholars, but my goal is to make Luther more human, and to focus on the early years. To show how tenuous it all was, instead of being inevitable. I wanted to focus on being in the moment, and telling the story in a personal way.

RNS: Give an example of how tenuous it was.

Harline: He’s so uncertain the whole time. He becomes more and more certain of his theology, but he’s less and less certain about his fate, or even whether he’s done the right thing in being so public. Also, what he cared about most was justification by faith, which he thought was going to turn the world upside down, because that was the answer to his own personal struggle.

So he held a big disputation a month before the 95 theses, this time with 99 theses, all against the classic view of justification. And nobody cared. Justification by grace through faith became the starting point for all Protestants, but at the time it was still Catholic enough that nobody raised an eyebrow. That really disappointed him.

What really caught on was his comments against indulgences, comments he thought were completely trivial. So he’s got all these intentions to start a conversation about justification by faith, and people respond to something else.

Craig Harline, author of “A World Ablaze.” Photo by Jan Van der Perre.

RNS: Can you give us a nutshell version of what indulgences were, and why they were controversial?

Harline: An indulgence was part of the sacrament of penance. The first step was to be contrite; the second to confess and receive absolution; and the third to make satisfaction, like going on a pilgrimage or saying a prayer. An indulgence would change your satisfaction, or punishment, to an offering or some prayers if you couldn’t, for example, go on a pilgrimage.

That was what an indulgence was supposed to be. But in practice, it came to be understood as people having their sins forgiven in exchange for cash. Indulgences were also hugely popular with authorities because princes, towns, and bishops would get a portion of the proceeds and use them to build churches and bridges. They worked a little like municipal bonds.

That’s why, in Luther’s day, there was this St. Peter’s indulgence, to help build St. Peter’s cathedral, That in itself was very routine. What bothered Luther was the promises that the indulgence made. It was only supposed to be in exchange for your punishment, but it was being touted as a forgiveness of sin itself. That’s what really bugged Luther.

RNS: So this was the part of Luther’s argument that started catching on?

Harline: Right. He was trying to improve the theology of indulgences. He wasn’t against them altogether; he just thought they were being abused. It was a couple of years before he became opposed to the whole idea.

RNS: You argue that this image we have of Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg church in protest is pretty romantic and probably not accurate.

Harline: He wrote the 95 theses because he was disputing a subject, which was the job of professors. Every Friday, there were practice disputations. There were disputations at every graduation. Writing disputations was a normal event for professors of all kinds, and for professors of theology, their job was to dispute unsettled theological points in order to settle them.

But indulgences were so sensitive that he almost certainly did not post them. And even if he did, it would have been totally not dramatic, or about as dramatic as a professor posting something on the bulletin board of the university. That’s a perfect example of our misunderstanding, of reading it with the wrong eyes. We picture this monk hammering something on the church door, defying the Catholic church, but this is the university bulletin board, his home turf. It’s the classic example of our need to understand the context.

He probably sent this around by mail to his friends, in order to start a discussion, and then it just got worse and worse. Several people took the theses to the printers, and lo and behold, for the first time in academic history (and probably since) an academic disputation became a bestseller.

RNS: And Luther wasn’t entirely happy about that?

Harline: Not when it was translated into German. He said, “Ordinary people won’t understand.” He especially didn’t want people to think he was against the pope, so he wrote something separate for them. And that was the first real bestseller, the sermon on indulgences and grace. It didn’t mention a thing about the pope.

And then over the next couple of years, he changed his mind. It took him a year and a half to two years to really come out openly against the pope. And that’s when he became really famous, and many people in Germany loved him. He wanted them to love justification by faith, but what they saw in the criticism of indulgences was criticism of the pope, and that’s what Germans were ready to hear. There was a lot of sentiment that the pope owned too much land and there were too many church taxes sent to Rome. But they didn’t want to break with Catholicism; they wanted to be fully Catholic.

RNS: Why is Luther still remembered today?

Harline: There are whole books about that, and the answer changes over time. People saw in him whatever they wanted in their century. At one point he was viewed as a promoter of “individual conscience,” which he actually wasn’t, because that was what was important to them at the time they were writing.

So what I try to do in the book is to insist that readers see Luther in his own time and not our own. I guess most of the Luther books and conferences—there are a zillion of them this year—are about the consequences. And that’s right, because if someone is still with you 500 years later, you should think about why. But my role as a nonspecialist is to come along and ask what the significance was of the story itself, before he became an icon.

I have this little guy in my office collection of religious icons and action figures, from Buffy to the Infant of Prague.


RNS: Do you think you would have liked him?

Harline: He was a really strong personality—really funny, but really angry. So maybe sometimes, yeah. But I tend to like predictable people. He becomes infamous later on for his anti-Semitism, which came out especially when he was older and cranky. But when he was younger, in 1523, he wrote a tract defending the Jews, because he believed that now that the true gospel had been revealed they would convert. They didn’t, and so he wrote a really nasty tract. He also wrote a really nasty thing against the pope later in his life.

RNS: Finally, a bonus question since you teach at BYU: what is up with Luther being a hero to Mormons? He’s been mentioned in General Conference and in LDS curriculum.

Harline: Mormons have heard about him, and they assume he’s kind of a hero. In the LDS Church museum when I was a kid there was this exhibit of Christian history that showed the ancient church, and then there were these monks in dark mist, and then there were Luther and Calvin and Wesley, bringing light, giving the impression that Luther was preparing the way. Ironically, Mormons have a lot more in common with Catholics than they do Protestants. He’s admired for making the Restoration possible, but what he criticized in Catholicism he would have also criticized in Mormonism, starting with the doctrine of justification. That’s the thing he cared about most: how you are saved.

He also looked to the Bible for authority, not church leaders, and he would have disagreed with Mormons’ views on ordinances. Luther thought you needed baptism and the Lord’s Supper and that’s about it. And even then it wasn’t the power of the church that saved you, but faith, whereas Mormons tend to think that you have to engage in this ritual by the proper authority in order to be saved.




About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


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  • And the 96th Thesis should have been:

    The Apostles’ Creed October 31, 1517 :

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of

    Said Jesus’ story was embellished and “mythicized” by
    many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
    and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.


  • I would think any LDS antipathy toward the Catholic Church had more to do with mid-19th century trends among US Protestants, rather than anything theological.

  • This is a very interesting interview, and looks like a valuable book. I think I’m not the only Protestant who finds Martin Luther’s work both inspiring, and perplexing, (and frankly, sometimes disturbing). Dr. Harline’s explaining that Luther’s thought changed dramatically over time as the conflict with the Pope and Roman Catholic church escalated, helps some things make sense. Also, Dr. Harline’s explanation of indulgences is very sensitive. And, it would be interesting to see a perspective of Martin Luther coming from someone institutionally detached from the Reformation conflict.

  • There is a straight line from Luther’s pamphlet, On the Jews and their Lies, to Kristallnacht. Luther said that synagogues should be burned with the Jews inside them. He was a rabid and vicious antisemite. The only thing I would do with a Luther action doll is stick pins in it. (sarcasm)

  • This is from Wikipedia, but you can find the whole pamphlet on-line if you want to read it:

    On the Jews and Their Lies (German: Von den Jüden und iren Lügen; in modern spelling Von den Juden und ihren Lügen) is a 65,000-word anti-semitic treatise written in 1543 by the German Reformation leader Martin Luther.

    Luther’s attitude toward the Jews took different forms during his lifetime. In his earlier period, until 1537 or not much earlier, he wanted to convert Jews to Christianity, but failed. In his later period when he wrote this particular treatise, he denounced them and urged their persecution.[1]

    In the treatise, he argues that Jewish synagogues and schools be set on fire, their prayer books destroyed, rabbis forbidden to preach, homes burned, and property and money confiscated. They should be shown no mercy or kindness,[2] afforded no legal protection,[3] and “these poisonous envenomed worms” should be drafted into forced labor or expelled for all time.[4] He also seems to advocate their murder, writing “[W]e are at fault in not slaying them”.[5]

    In the treatise, Luther describes Jews as a “base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth.”[6] Luther wrote that they are “full of the devil’s feces … which they wallow in like swine,”[7] and the synagogue is an “incorrigible whore and an evil slut”.[8]

    In the first ten sections of the treatise, Luther expounds, at considerable length, upon his views concerning Jews and Judaism and how these compare to Christians and Christianity. Following the exposition, Section XI of the treatise advises Christians to carry out seven remedial actions. These are

    to burn down Jewish synagogues and schools and warn people against them;

    to refuse to let Jews own houses among Christians;

    for Jewish religious writings to be taken away;

    for rabbis to be forbidden to preach;

    to offer no protection to Jews on highways;

    for usury to be prohibited and for all silver and gold to be removed, put aside for safekeeping, and given back to Jews who truly convert;

    and to give young, strong Jews flail, axe, spade, and spindle, and let them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow.[9]

  • /Luther thought you needed baptism and the Lord’s Supper and that’s about
    it// Yes and no. Both are considered to be efficacious only when combined with the Word. God administers the Holy Sacraments himself. As per the Book of Concord, “For to be baptized in the name of God is to be baptized not by men, but
    by God Himself. Therefore, although it is performed by human hands, it
    is nevertheless truly God’s own work.’

    //And even then it wasn’t the power of the church that saved you, but
    faith// But it is the Church that administers the Sacraments. The Sacraments are channels of grace and it is through the normative act of baptism that faith is bestowed. This is antithetical to LDS doctrine (as was alluded to).

    It seems odd that any LDS would look up to Luther. I really don’t get it.

    While we are on the topic– why did the LDS Church emasculate “A Mighty Fortress?” The LDS version only uses that stanza. Everything else is different.

    (Full disclosure: Ex-Mormon, LCMS member looking at entering Seminary)