Luther Looks at Islam
Martin Luther cut a figure of such massive importance that reflections on him are a Rorschach test for theologians and historians alike. In few instances have personality and principle been so melded. If the Dominican Aquinas argued contra and sed contra, the former Augustinian would settle his case by slapping the table: “Dr. Martin Luther will have it so!” Aquinas spoke syllogisms while Luther shouted slurs. Interpreting the Rorschach blots his own way, Chesterton, no lightweight himself, resented that though Luther’s intellect was negligible in comparison with that of the Angelic Doctor, “his broad and burly figure has been big enough to block out for four centuries the distant human mountain of Aquinas.” With new attention focusing on Luther for the fifth centenary of his revolution, he still looms in Chesterton’s summary as “one of those great elemental barbarians, to whom it is indeed given to change the world.”
This barbarism consists in a proto-modern confusion of conscience with ego which, as Maritain wrote in his “Three Reformers,” is “something much subtler, much deeper, and much more serious, than egoism; a metaphysical egoism. Luther’s self becomes practically the center of gravity of everything, especially in the spiritual order.” Those sparring partners, Calvin and Luther, were both young when they made their mark: Calvin wrote his Institutes at the age of 25 and Luther was 33 when he advertised his 95 theses. And the emperor Charles V was 21 when he faced Luther at the Diet of Worms. But the personality of Calvin does not loom over his works as in the case of Luther. The difference shapes hasty caricatures of Calvin as a Pecksniffian ectomorph and Luther a Rabelaisian endomorph. Saint Thomas More parodied Luther’s scatological diction when he called him a “buffoon … (who will) carry nothing in his mouth other than cesspools, sewers, latrines…” But on the whole, the Catholic humanist reformers distinguished themselves from Luther by the astringency of their Aristotelian disdain, More’s friend Erasmus being a prime example of this protocol, along with such as Cajetan, Caisius, and Giberti.
One of Luther’s Ninety-Five denunciations of Rome was, “Those who believe that they can be certain of their salvation because they have letters of indulgence will be eternally damned, along with their teachers.” Obviously Luther was not the sort to ask, “Who am I to judge?” But his judgment courted an equation of the authentic teaching of the Church on indulgences with the corruption of those who crassly sold indulgences. The theses, many of which were reasonable in themselves, risked faulting not just the disease of the limb, but the limb itself. This is awkward as the 500th commemoration of Luther’s movement follows upon the Holy Year of Mercy for which Pope Francis announced various ways to receive indulgences. Francis has said with measured diplomacy: “I think that the intentions of Martin Luther were not mistaken. He was a reformer. Perhaps some methods were not correct.”
If the intentions were honest, it is a fact that, even apart from psychoanalysis of Luther’s immoderate temperament, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” That aphorism is a variant of Vergil: facilis descensus Averno. According to Johannes Aurifaber, the last words penned by Luther on February 17 in 1546, the day before he died, were in praise of Vergil’s Aeneid. Luther wrote his lines in the same dactylic hexameters Vergil used; but more poignantly, the warning about good intentions paving the road to Hell was given by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux who was a moral hero and spiritual giant in Luther’s estimation. As a profound scholar of the Wittenberg reformer, Pope Benedict XVI gave Luther his due especially for parts of the German catechisms, but, he also held, as Father Aidan Nichols has written in his The Theology of Joseph Ratzinger, that Luther was a “radical theologian and polemicist whose particular version of the doctrine of justification by faith is incompatible with a Catholic understanding of faith as co-believing with the whole Church, within a Christian existence composed equally of faith, hope, and charity.”
Luther’s attitudes toward Jews degenerated from his 1523 defense of them against “Romanist” oppression. By 1543, he was ranting “On the Jews and Their Lies.” While others have dismissed the “Luther to Hitler” connection as in William L. Shirer’s journalistic study The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Goebbels and other Nazi propagandists freely quoted much of Luther’s diatribes against Jews which, even out of context, are lurid as read from this side of Kristallnacht, such as: “Eject them forever from this country…. First to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or a cinder of them.”