9.5 Theses on Martin Luther Against the Self-Indulgences of the Modern Church

Carl Trueman Articles
October is the month in which we typically remember and celebrate the Reformation. While some Protestants have described the Reformation as a tragedy, it would have been a far greater tragedy if it had never happened. Nevertheless, there is in the contemporary evangelical world a tendency to romanticize Luther, to remake him as a modern evangelical. Yes, it is hard for some of us to imagine, but I am sure there are some out there who see Doc Martin as the kind of precursor to those who would think the secret of a successful ministry lies in wearing torn jeans, paying regular visits to the tanning booth and launching an international campaign against librarian-led fashion trends and British dentistry. 
So, in honour of the good Doctor and in the cause of saving him from the domesticated historiography of the Beautiful Young Things, here are a series of theses about  the Wittenberger, the cumulative force of which is to prove that in today's evangelical world he would have made a most excellent taxi driver.

Thesis One:  Martin Luther saw church leadership as primarily marked by servanthood. 
For Luther, the servant nature of the ministerial calling was not some abstract principle but was part of his everyday practice, linking his understanding of the God who is revealed primarily in the crucified flesh of Christ to the necessary attitude, outlook and expectation of Christ's ministers.The minister, like his Saviour, was to serve the poor and despised and the things that are not. This is why, when his barber, Peter, expressed concern over how difficult he found prayer, Luther went home and wrote him a treatise on prayer. Nor did he forget Peter thereafter.  When the tragic barber killed his brother-in-law in a drunken dare and was sentenced to death, Luther intervened to have the sentence commuted to banishment for life. As busy as he was, Luther never forget whom it was he was meant to be serving.

Thesis Two: Martin Luther understood worship as rooted in repentance.  

Luther did not understand the law-gospel dialectic as providing the basis for antinomianism or as the conceptual underpinnings of a gutless and lopsided view of God as exclusively father.  Rather it expressed the deep, terrifying tragedy of humanity's fallen condition and how only God himself in Christ is the only one strong enough to stand for us; and worship was therefore not some sappy and sentimental emotional response to how God deals with our 'hurting'. In fact, he did not consider the primary problem of sinners that they were hurting. Quite the contrary. Their primary problem was that they were in deliberate rebellion against God and actually enjoying it.   They needed not to be comforted but to be hurt by the law. True life was therefore to be found in a constant death to self and resurrection to God. 

Thus, worship was a constant dramatic reminder of how terrifyingly close we stand to God's judgment and how Christ is the only person who can protect us from the wrath of the storm.   Worship is not thus a frothy celebration; it is much more serious than that, as one can see by its liturgical fruits. Less Kendrick's 'Shine, Jesus, Shine!' and more Bach's 'Saint Matthew's Passion'.

Thesis Three: Martin Luther did not care for the myth of cultural influence nor for the prerequisite cultural swagger necessary to catch the attention of the great and good.  

Luther certainly did catch the attention of the great and the good. But this was not because of his liking for craft brews (though like them he did), his tattoos (no record of those), his love of the arts and music (about which he was privately passionate) or his ability to nuance his way to a place at the mainstream media's table. Rather, it was because he called things as he saw them. He knew that the world really cares nothing for nuance nor for the friendship of the church and that attempts by the church to befriend the world are always disastrous for the former. As those currently attempting to nuance their way through the debate about homosexuality will soon discover, it is only those in positions of social and political weakness who are interested in nuance; those who hold power always live in a black-and-white world where they alone set the rules of the game and they alone enforce them. Luther came to attention not because he mastered the rules of the establishment's game but because he refused to play by them.

Thesis Four: Luther saw suffering as a mark of the true church.  

For Luther, the true church would be culturally despised by the great and good. Indeed, his concept of the theologian of the cross gave theological ballast to a theology that eschewed the methods and criteria of success as the world saw them. In his 1539 work, On the Councils of the Church, Luther saw the cross as one of the seven marks of the healthy church. Suffering and being regarded as scum by the world around were to go with the territory. One wonders today how full many of the megachurches would be if the government added 10 per cent income tax on to those who professed Christianity. Indeed, when some of the flagship behemoths of the new evangelical wave did not even have services last year on Sunday, December 25, because it coincided with Christmas, one wonders what commitment, suffering and sacrifice in such contexts mean, if anything at all.  

Thesis Five: Martin Luther was pastorally sensitive to the cherished practices of older Christians

It took Luther five years from advocating for a vernacular liturgy to actually implementing one in Wittenberg. Then, when he wrote his catechisms, he self-consciously used pre-Reformation language to express his new theology. Why? Simply this: he was pastorally sensitive. He knew that his task as servant (see Thesis One) meant that he could not simply impose his will upon the people in a manner which would hurt, damage and distress them. The contemporary cult of youth and innovation would have struck him as utterly wrong-headed and insensitive, a capitulation to the tastes and demands of the very category of people least likely to have anything useful or wise to contribute to how the church should go about her business.  And to those who say that such an attitude would never produce an invitation to appear on television or would alienate the Beautiful Young Things, he would simply have referred them to Thesis Three above.  His first priority was to care for all God's people, not some narrowly defined age group; and, indeed, he deeply feared the harnessing of the energy and enthusiasm of young people to a violently iconoclastic cause. Thus, he returned to Wittenberg in 1522 to put to flight those who were seeking to bring in sweeping reformation.  

Thesis Six: Luther did not agree to differ on matters of importance and thus to make them into practical trivia.  

In 1529, Luther effectively torpedoed an alliance between the Lutheran princes and the Swiss Protestant cantons because of his belief of the Real Presence of Christ in the Lord's Supper.  To modern evangelical minds that probably seems like lunacy; but as Machen pointed out, it was surely better that he held passionately to a wrong position on a very important topic than that he simply set the Lord's Supper to one side on the grounds that it really did not matter.   Luther did not allow the tastes of his own day nor the urgent need of a broad confederation to lead him to set aside what he was convinced was the teaching of scripture.

Thesis Seven: Luther saw the existence of the ordained ministry as a mark of the church.  

Early in the Reformation, the papal writer Prierias wrote a work attacking Luther's theology. So stupid was Luther, Prierias claimed, that he had written his refutation of him in just three days.  In response, Luther republished the work with a preface written by himself in which he said that he had written his refutation of Prierias in two days. In so doing, Luther demonstrated an instinctive grasp of how the technological innovation of cheap print had changed the rules of the polemical game: burning books was hopeless as a means of controlling knowledge; subversion was so much better. Yet for all his understanding of how important technology was and how crucial it was to be able to use it, he refused to make technocrats a mark of the church.  After the catastrophe of 1525, Luther quickly came to see that ordained ministers, those chosen by the church as exhibiting the moral and pedagogical abilities described by Paul, were the ones to whom the church was entrusted. There is a lesson here for a world like ours, where the Beautiful Young Things with computer savvy can aspire to set the churches' agenda by sheer strength of technological ability. Luther was no Luddite; but he knew that mere media savvy did not mean one should be put in a position of influence.

Thesis Eight: Luther saw the problem of a leadership accountable only to itself

Part of the problem Luther faced at the Reformation was the sheer lack of accountability of the Top Men. The Pope and Cardinals policed themselves and voluntarily answered to no-one. The only means therefore whereby Luther could sometimes make himself heard was by using every rhetorical tool in the box, from satire to hard-hitting polemic. He was fortunate, of course: in those days, there was no aesthetic of personal "pain" and "hurt" which allowed contemporary Christians to sidestep criticism and indeed turn the moral tables on those who criticize them.   The problem of unaccountable and influential leadership in evangelicalism is alive and well.  Oh Martin! thou should'st be living at this hour: Evangelicalism hath need of thee.

Thesis Nine: Luther thought very little of his own literary contribution to Christianity.

Shortly before he died, Luther declared that only his 1525 response to Erasmus, On Bound Choice, and his catechisms were worthy of preservation. If he were alive today, it is very doubtful that he would be running a website devoted primarily to promoting his own books and pamphlets. He would thus be unlikely to make the grade in the modern American evangelical world. Nor would he indulge in such shameless self-promotion by calling it explicitly 'shameless self-promotion', as if the labored attempt at postmodern irony somehow makes the self-serving nature of such venal vanity acceptable. I suspect he would think that it actually makes it worse, adding the sin of 'insulting the reader's intelligence' to the obvious one of 'shameless self-promotion.'   (That last point is probably only worth half a thesis though.  Hence the 9.5.)

The overall impact of these theses: were Doc Martin with us today, he would find no easy place in the evangelical church. In fact, taxi driving might well have been a much better fit.