During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther was renowned for his courage….and for his coarseness. When he first spoke out against the corruptions of Catholicism, he did so diplomatically. He appealed to the pope and hoped for some reforms within the church. What he got instead was excommunication. Ultimately branded as an outlaw, he carried on the work of reforming the German church and recovering the gospel. And his initial diplomacy transformed quickly into stinging, bombastic, and sometimes hilarious prose. Luther referred to his opponents as pigs, dogs, and asses. At times he mocked their foolishness and their pompous ways. He complained of the snooty, wine-sipping aristocrats in Italy who made fun of the poor German beer-drinkers like himself. Some might have thought his attacks were the result of class-consciousness and jealousy; but in fact he was driven by a desire to know and defend the truth.
One of Luther’s greatest antagonists was Desiderius Erasmus, who possessed a rare intellect and erudite pen. Erasmus was considered the most prominent intellect of his day and he came out publicly against Luther. But Luther found Erasmus’s theology to be lacking; and he compared Erasmus to a beautiful golden platter that carried piles of dung instead of food. Erasmus’s words were flowery, but his theology stunk. This was typical Luther; and in many ways this was typical of theological polemics at the time. Some of the attacks against Luther were just as acerbic. Crude and descriptive metaphors that would be considered low-brow today, were much more common in the 16th century. In some ways, Luther was simply a man of his times. But in other ways, he was unique. He had a rare gift for explaining his position and for decimating his opponents. Not all theologians from church history are entertaining to read, but Luther is.
At least one reason for Luther’s brash ways can be attributed to his upbringing. Many of the intellectuals of Luther’s day grew up in the larger cities where they had access to the finer things in life; including libraries, schools, and Latin teachers. Luther, on the other hand, grew up in Mansfeld, Germany; a small, dirty, mining town. Luther’s father was himself a miner, who worked under the earth and eventually worked his way up to a place of semi-prominence within the community. But the community was a tough one.
In her new book, Martin Luther: Renegade & Prophet, Oxford scholar Lyndal Roper examines the background and personality of Luther and tries to determine on some level, “what made him tick.” And while not all of her conclusions will be embraced, she brings up some very interesting points. In one sense, residents of Rome might have been appalled at Luther’s verbiage. Just as some modern day ears are as well. But if you want to know why Luther acted and talked the way that he did, you need to simply go back to Mansfeld; where you’ll find he pretty much talked just like everyone else in town.
One 16th century Mansfeldian claimed you would be hard pressed to find two decent women in the whole town. While this may be an exaggeration, it clearly shows the reputation that Mansfeld had. Historical records show that on one occasion a local tavern brawl was broken up by a man named Hans Luther, who poured beer on the heads of both assailants and then "bloodied" them both himself. Of course, Hans was Martin’s father; and in some ways the apple didn’t fall very far from the tree. Hans Luther worked in the mines, but eventually he ran some of them. And to make your way in that world you HAD to be brash, confrontational, and fearless. The soft would be trampled. The weak would be destroyed. Which might explain some of Luther’s later brashness. In some ways, he was simply the result of a small mining town.
With all of that said, Luther was a highly educated man. His father sent him to school and insisted that he too learn Latin and study to be a lawyer. Hans did not want his son to work in the mines. But then again, he did not want him to be a theologian either. The story of Martin’s decision to become a monk is now legendary. As he was walking back to college after visiting his parents, he got caught in a thunderstorm. As the lightning struck all around him he cried out to St. Anna, promising to become a monk if his life was spared. Martin was as good as his word, entering the monastery nine days later. But Hans Luther was aghast at his son’s decision. Eventually, over time, Hans accepted what his son did and even supported him to some degree. And over time, Martin came to regret his entry into the monastery and subsequent priesthood, and declared his father to have been correct. Once Martin saw the corruption of the church, he wanted no part of it. And thus the Reformation.
Many things go into the making of a man. God ordains our ways and our days; and as such we can rest assured that God directed the lightning bolt that changed the trajectory of Luther’s life. God also ordained where Luther was raised, for the Bible says God has “determined our appointed times and the boundaries of our habitation.” (Acts 17:26) In some ways, we might see Luther as ill-equipped and overly bombastic to lead something as important as the Reformation. But in other ways, he was exactly the man God had appointed and equipped for the task.
Luther had his faults, and most of them were in the open for all to see. But Luther had his strong points as well. In his story, we see the sin of man at its worst and the grace of God at its best. We see a corrupt religious entity ruling peasants and we see a small town motor-mouth standing up to the corruption and defending the people. Though, he became one of the most famous men in history, in many ways he was still the miner’s son from Mansfeld, and he embraced that. While he could speak Latin and wax eloquent on grand theological topics, he could just as easily refer to the pope as the anti-Christ (which he did), and say to him: “You are an ignorant ass, and an ignorant ass you shall remain!” Luther was one of a kind. And though he might offend you, it is also true that you just might deserve to be offended.
Martin Luther lived out most of his adult days in Wittenberg, another small town; not far from where he was raised. Even today he remains arguably, the most influential man to ever arise in Europe and indeed the world. None would have expected that the gruff copper-miner Hans Luther would have a gruff son who would be used of God to restore the gospel. But this God did. God does whatever He pleases (Psalm 115:3). He sometimes uses the elites, after He humbles them; and He sometimes takes those from very humble origins and elevates them against the elites. All of his days, Luther remained the miner’s son from Mansfeld. But the powers of Rome were shaken by his actions; and as Luther himself would one day write in song form, “A mighty fortress is our God; A bulwark never failing!” Luther didn’t fail because God held him up. And he knew it was God who held him up. In his final written words, penned the night of his death, Martin referred to himself as a “beggar indeed.” But he was a beggar who spoke his mind, stood for truth, and embraced the consequences. He was a typical Mansfeldian unto the end. And no doubt, both of his fathers (God and Hans) were well pleased.