#66—Martin Luther and the birth of the Reformation, with Craig Harline [MIPodcast]
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BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. What was Martin Luther trying to accomplish when he nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the Wittenberg church door? Would you believe he didn’t intend to start a new religious movement at all? This October marks the 500th anniversary of an iconic act that inspired as many people as it angered. Down the centuries, Luther has been lauded by some, lambasted by others. Was he an amazing hero or arch-heretic? Or perhaps something different altogether?
Craig Harline is a scholar of the Reformation and a professor of history at Brigham Young University. His latest book peels back the layers of history, taking us directly into the friar’s musty study. The book is called A World Ablaze: The Rise of Martin Luther and the Birth of the Reformation, from Oxford University Press. This episode is part of a special series of interviews with scholars who will be speaking at our upcoming conference, “The Living Reformation: 500 Years of Martin Luther.” Mark your calendar for September 15th when Harline and seven other scholars will be here in Provo, Utah talking about fine hundred years of Reformation history. For more details, you can visit mi.byu.edu/luther500.
Before we start, I also want to give this special shout-out to my friend and number one fan of the Maxwell Institute Podcast, Rod Olson. Love you, buddy. You know why. And to the rest of you, you can send questions or comments about this and other episodes to email@example.com. And as always, I invite you to let us know what you think of the show by rating it in iTunes.
And now it’s Craig Harline on the book, A World Ablaze: The Rise of Martin Luther and the Birth of the Reformation. The book is an incredible drama, one of the best things I’ve read in a long time. I hope you enjoy the interview.
HODGES: Craig Harline joins us today here at the Maxwell Institute. Craig is a professor of history at Brigham Young University specializing in the Reformation Era of Christianity. Today, we’re talking about his new book that comes out this October. It’s called A World Ablaze: The Rise of Martin Luther and the Birth of the Reformation. Craig, thank you for being on the podcast today.
CRAIG HARLINE: Thanks for having me here.
HODGES: You open up the book with a passage from the Bible, from Ecclesiastes: “Of making many books, there is no end,” and you say that this is a verse that seems to apply especially well to Martin Luther. There are a lot of Luther books. Why?
HARLINE: Well, he’s a justly famous figure because of how he upset Western Christianity. And the trouble that he caused, the attention that he got was really unusual. Since that time, people say that more has been written about Martin Luther than anybody except Jesus himself.
HODGES: Do you think that’s true?
HARLINE: It could be. I don’t know how you would quantify that. [laughter] I guess it might be possible to quantify it nowadays with the computers and searches and so on, but I don’t know that I’m going to try. But it certainly seems true. There is so much written about him, not only in the sixteenth century but in the centuries since. So he’s obviously believed to have had this huge impact on Western religion and the western world.
HODGES: As you’re clearing your throat at the beginning of the book, talking about why you’re doing the book on Luther as well, you say that he’s been written about in more ways than most. What did you mean by that?
HARLINE: That any time a historian sets out to write about someone, they’re going to do it slightly differently than somebody else, just because of their personality and how they read the sources and so on. So the more people who are writing about him, the more stories that are going to be told about him as well, the more variety of stories that are going to be told.
HODGES: Would it be possible to break some of the library up into genre? Like if you had a library of Martin Luther stuff, what are some of the sections that people might visit?
HARLINE: The biggest is theology, for sure. That is a hole that you can go down a long way. There’s so much written about his theology. And then biographies are especially important as well. Mine’s a partial biography. It’s just about four or five years of his life.
HODGES: How did you decide to focus in on that particular moment? This goes to the question of why you wrote on Luther at all.
HARLINE: It was actually the editor’s idea, the publisher who asked me to do this. Because they felt that these were the years that matter the most, these first few years of his fame, and maybe not as well understood as they might be. A lot of people have heard the name Luther but they don’t really know what he did. He’s more like this statue or icon that we all pay lip service to. So they wanted these details kind of told, and in an approachable or accessible way.
HODGES: And you also warn readers along those lines that they’re not going to encounter that “monument” Luther here, the bronze statue. They’re going to encounter a flesh and blood person. Do you think there are readers who really need that kind of a warning that might approach this book and learn things about Martin Luther that make them squirm?
HARLINE: Because anybody who’s regarded in a particular culture as a hero, if you say you’re going to write about them as a human, that can be threatening, I think, to some people. And so I just wanted to signal that at the beginning. I’m really focusing on Luther the human and making him accessible rather than all the big consequences and impact of what he did. That’s really important, too, and many authors have written about that and that will be the focus of that upcoming Reformation conference at BYU. But I think it’s important to understand, first of all, what happened and to try to get that as right as we can.
HODGES: How familiar were you with the figure of Luther before you undertook this book project?
HARLINE: I’m not a Luther specialist but I’m a historian of the Reformation. So I’ve taught his basic story many times in my Reformation class, I’ve read plenty of Luther biographies, and so on. But the publisher, when he asked me to write this book, I said, “Well, I’m not a Luther specialist.” And he said, “I know.” [laughs] They wanted somebody on purpose who was not a Luther specialist to write for other non-specialists, that is, to write for general readers. And so I said, “Oh yes, I’m qualified to do that.” And of course, then I studied him as closely as I could during the time before the deadline that I had and I learned an awful lot that I hadn’t known before myself. I mean there’s always more to learn about Luther. There’s always more to read—there’s probably no way that everybody can read everything written about him.
HODGES: Was there anything you learned in the course of writing that you realized in maybe some of your courses that you’ve been teaching that you had something wrong about Martin Luther? That you’re like, “Oh. Oops.”
HARLINE: Oh yes. Various details. But the overall picture—I mean we never get into enough detail to make it a serious mistake, but there were various details that I think I probably did have wrong. Yes.
HODGES: [laughing] Do you want to divulge any of those to us?
HARLINE: I’m trying to remember what they were! There were so many. [laughs]
HODGES: You don’t file away where you goofed up? You don’t have that on instant access?
HARLINE: There were plenty, because there were things I had taken for granted as well and assumed were true. And then when you start reading more closely. It’s probably like that for any subject.
HODGES: Perhaps as we go along some of that will come up as well.
HODGES: You can learn a lot from the way that people address somebody. And one of the things you do at the outset of the book is you tell readers how you’re going to be talking about Martin Luther and you’re saying, “I’m going to call him Brother Martin or Dr. Martin.” And you say that some people referred to him as “Father Martin” so you do that sometimes. And then you mention that other people sometimes will just call him Luther. What’s in these names?
HARLINE: It was not just the name. It’s part of the overall approach that I’m trying to set things as much as possible in their own world. To try to understand what was it like in those years for Luther and to be in his shoes. And so in order to do that, you try to create an atmosphere and you do that with various means.
You describe what things looks like. You’re not obligated to do that as a historian, but I tried to just—What were the buildings like, the street? What was the material setting? And so on. Part of the other thing is how did they address each other? And the people who called him “Luther,” which is what you’d expect most biographers to do, I suppose, in this kind of impersonal way, were those who really didn’t like him or who didn’t really know him. And since we’re trying to get into his shoes, I wanted to get really up close, I decided to try calling him what the people around him called him, which was usually “Dr. Martinus”—where I call him just Dr. Martin. Or “Brother Martin” in his friary where he lived. The brothers might’ve called each other that. They were brothers. And then “Father Martin” is what others called him because he was a priest. That was a common form of address to a priest. That’s what his Prince, Frederick the Wise, called him. Always Father Martinus.
HODGES: Yeah. This kind of discloses these multiple roles that Martin Luther embodied then, partly because of his education, partly because he was a monk—is it monk?
HARLINE: Or friar. Yeah. We can talk about that if you want. [laughs]
HODGES: Yeah, what’s the difference?
HARLINE: Well, in German, there’s one word—mönch—for monk and friar. And in English, we have this distinction. And the main distinction is that monks withdraw from the world and friars don’t. Friars go out into the middle of the world preaching, educating, and so on. But they still lead a life that looks like that of a monk. They wore a habit or distinctive piece of clothing. But yeah, they’re more out into the world than monks are.
HODGES: And some of the monks might have looked askance at that, right, saying “Hey, we’re supposed to do this contemplative life, sort of away from things.” And the friars were saying, “No. We need to go out where the people are.”
HARLINE: Exactly. Monks believe they were saving the world by praying for it, and friars believe, no, you save the world by going out into it. There were many learned monks, for instance, but they didn’t like some of the traditions at universities like disputation. They thought that was un-Christian to be arguing like that. And so friars didn’t have as much of a problem because they were in that world, they were in the university world often.
HODGES: So a friar would have been more rough and tumble that way and more familiar with that sort of—
HARLINE: That’s right. Especially if they were associated with the university. Not all friars were.
HODGES: And Martin Luther was.
HODGES: One other question on that. Anyone who’s familiar with Friar Tuck recognizes that haircut. When I saw the Robin Hood cartoon as a child, the Disney cartoon, I didn’t realize—I just thought he was a balding man with a really weird balding pattern. [laughs] But no, they would shave the tops of their heads. It’s called a tonsure?
HARLINE: Yes, the tonsure. It’s a form of humility or a sign of humility. It would make you even more unattractive than you already are.
HODGES: It really was to make you look goofy?
HARLINE: If you consider that look unattractive.
HODGES: Yeah. That’s kind of baldist a little bit. Of course, it does look goofy—Because the hair for them would come all the way—So you’d still have hair in the front.
HARLINE: You might. Yeah.
HODGES: Unless you’re a bald.
HARLINE: Exactly. But then you would shave it—you would actually shave it on top and then underneath as well so you’d have this ring as well around your head.
HODGES: Oh, you got the undercut going. Yeah.
HARLINE: Yeah. And that was, again, this sign of humility, and monks and friars often did it.
HODGES: That’s Craig Harline. He’s a professor of history at Brigham Young University and we’re talking about his new book A World Ablaze. One other question before we dig more into Martin Luther’s biography—The title, how did that come about?
HARLINE: Usually, there’s some kind story how the author argues with the publisher over titles. [laughs]
HODGES: That’s what I’m looking for!
HARLINE: So we had something like that. But the publisher finally decided on this one. It’s actually a phrase from one of Luther’s letters, and he says that his enemies are saying that the world is now ablaze with his ninety-five theses. So that’s where it comes from.
HODGES: But if you had your choice—
HARLINE: My original title came from the papal bull when he was ex-communicated basically.
HODGES: Spoiler alert.
HARLINE: Yeah. Which called him a wild boar. I thought wild boar was a good title. And then you’d have the subtitle explaining kind of what it meant, that it was about Luther. But the publisher felt it was too vague. Maybe the publisher’s right. They have a lot more experience selling books than I do. But I thought wild boar was kind of curiosity arousing.
HODGES: It would have been. And do you think maybe they were worried about that could seem insulting to the figure of Martin Luther?
HARLINE: It’s possible, except as you read it, you’ll see that it’s more a badge of honor. I mean, he would have hated the title in one sense. But in another, he would have been very proud of it. Right? That he was brave enough to trample through this papal vineyard, essentially.
HODGES: Martin Luther was kind of an unlikely candidate to become a friar. How did he arrive at that?
HARLINE: He was unlikely, maybe, go to university even, because he was the son of a miner whose fortunes were up and down all the time. But he was an aspiring enough miner that he had ambitions for his children.
But especially his mother. Luther’s mother seems to have understood the importance of schooling, and so she was the one, I think, who got him into schools when he was young and he showed promise. He was therefore sent to the Latin school, which was usually done when you’re around eleven, twelve, thirteen. And that was a sign that somebody thought maybe you could go on to university. The language at universities was Latin. So you had to learn it if you wanted to go to university.
So he did that for six or seven years as well. And went on to university and had no intention of becoming a friar. His father wanted him to become a lawyer. And he finished his degree in art and intended, maybe to start studying the law. He actually studied law for about three weeks and it was during that time that he had a crisis and decided to become a friar. He’d probably been thinking about it sometime before then during the preceding years. But it was only at that moment that he actually took the step.
It was provoked by this crisis of conscience, really—Can he be saved? And he decided that everybody in his world knew that the best way to be saved was to die with a monk’s or friar’s cowl on and to appear at the judgment seat that way. And so he thought, “If I’m doubtful about my salvation, the best thing I can do is to enter a friary or monastery.”
HODGES: There’s a story that’s told that’s taken on sort of mythic proportions in terms of what his conversion was about. There’s a story of him in a storm?
HARLINE: Right. That’s the famous story, that he’s in a thunderstorm, he’s gone home to visit his parents. It’s possible that his father had arranged a marriage for him and he’s really stunned. Luther didn’t necessarily want to do that at the moment. And on the way back to the university—this is in the middle of his first semester of law school—he is caught in this thunderstorm and he makes a vow that if he’s saved from the thunderstorm then he will become a monk. And these thunderstorms in this part of Germany are really exceptional. I’ve been in one myself and it was frightening, and I was in an automobile but if I’d been walking along I think I might have been terrified. So it’s not surprising to me that it might have provoked that kind of reaction or that kind of vow, which was a very common thing to do in his age if you were in trouble. You would make a vow to a saint and promise that if you were saved, you would do such and such.
HODGES: It struck me that in a book that was written so much like a novel, that you treated that moment at a distance. Was that because of the historiography of the situation?
HARLINE: Exactly. It’s not entirely clear that it happened. Luther wrote about it much later. And so some of those Luther specialists and biographers doubt that it happened. And it’s rather something that he—not necessarily made up, but just later on really believed that that had happened or something like that.
HODGES: Or he needed sort of a theatrical moment. Something to point back to. You can assign meaning to something later on in life. Yeah.
HARLINE: Exactly, exactly. So biographers have downplayed it and that’s why I didn’t want to make it central. I mean I try to offer various possibilities why he might have entered the monastery and that was one of them. He really did care about the state of his soul.
HODGES: So he’s going into the monastery. Readers might come to this book with the impression that Martin Luther was facing off against this all-powerful monolithic Catholic church. I think that’s probably what makes him such a romantic figure today. It’s a David and Goliath situation. But as you describe throughout the book, the church had some internal variety going on. There were differences between scholastics or “school men” as they were called versus “church men.”
So Martin Luther had options in front of him when he decided to become a friar. Talk about that and give us a little bit about the Catholic context.
HARLINE: Yeah. Almost every religious order in the Catholic church—and there were dozens of them, maybe even by that time, hundreds—almost every single one was in a sense of different form of Catholicism. Every single one was almost a protest against the existing church culture. And so “we’re going to do Catholicism in a slightly different way.” So the idea of Martin Luther immediately rebelling against the church or something, it’s really a distortion. He was very much Catholic, he was very much within the church, and there were a lot of possibilities for how you could express your Catholicism.
HODGES: What did he think about the scholastics versus the church men? And what were those differences?
HARLINE: Right. That happened after he started studying theology. After he finished his bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in the arts, his brief attempt at law school, he entered the friary. And after a couple of years as a friar, he was allowed to begin studying theology. And in his study of theology, he wasn’t studying the Bible as much as he was studying commentaries on the Bible. And those commentaries were by fellows who were called scholastic theologians.
These were theologians who intended to set up a rational system of theology based on the forms of reason that had been modeled by the great classical thinkers, Aristotle and Plato. Especially Aristotle. And Luther didn’t like how they had done this. They hadn’t only used the methods of reason, but they had taken on some of the assumptions of Aristotle as well. And so he found scholastic theology to be pagan, to be a dead-end, to be anti-Biblical, and so on. He wanted more emphasis on the Bible. He wanted more study in the original languages of the Bible. He wasn’t the only one promoting this at the time, but he was certainly influenced by that wave. That was his whole point in being against the scholastics. He himself was a scholastic theologian. He used a lot of their methods—just the idea of using reason to explain Christianity, the idea of using disputation to get at truth. Those were very much scholastic methods. He didn’t reject all scholastic theology. He rejected the parts that he felt were infected with Aristotelian thought or with Pagan thought.
HODGES: And he ends up creating this disputation against scholastic theology, which is a number of theses. What was the gist of that?
HARLINE: Right. One of the things to understand about the whole theses business is the forms of instruction that were available at universities, and they’re pretty familiar to people at universities today. They’ve been around since universities were invented in the west in the twelfth century. They were lecture and recitation, which is kind of like study group with your TA. And then disputation, which we usually call debates.
Disputations were more formalized and they were very much a part of the curriculum. And for the disputation, somebody prepared a set of theses, assertions, and somebody or some team argued in favor of the assertions and somebody else argued against them. So theses were the foundation of this institution of the disputation. You had to have them in order to have a disputation. And so he prepared thesis on various subjects before this time. But—
HODGES: That was what you did.
HARLINE: That was what professors did. Certainly when you became a professor, you’re preparing theses all the time for your students to practice on in weekly Friday disputations, or they would have these big public disputations at graduations, at ceremonies, big events, and professors themselves would participate as well.
So in this particular disputation against scholastic theology, this is really a crucial one because it was on the subject that he cared about most, which is how you were saved. This is why he was maddest at some of the scholastic theologians. Because he felt that the way they had borrowed classical thought—or Aristotelian thought especially—was wrong and had given Christians a wrong idea of how we were saved. So this isn’t just about scholastic theology. It’s especially about how we are saved, and this was a very personal thing to Luther. He wasn’t studying this because he thought the theology was bad, necessarily, or just as a purely intellectual matter. It was because it wasn’t giving him any satisfaction with his own crisis of conscience.
HODGES: He was feeling like this unworthy person and he had been going through these exercises as a friar that was supposed to give him the virtues that would lead to the Christian life, and he was feeling like—
HARLINE: It wasn’t working.
HARLINE: Right. There were all kinds of scholastic approaches to theology, and just to that most important topic of salvation. But what all scholastics agreed upon was this—this is what it came down to. That everybody is justified or saved by grace. The question is how does that work? And the scholastic answer was, you’re justified by grace through doing every single thing you possibly can. “Doing what lies within you” was the language they used.
HODGES: And that would include church sacraments as well, right?
HARLINE: Oh, yeah. Whatever forms that were available in the church, you do all of those. You give penance. You confess. You get forgiveness after you confess and do penance. And Luther had tried those things and the idea that doing everything you possibly could just wasn’t working for him. So it was in the midst of this crisis and thinking about the scholastic approach to salvation, that he came up with this alternative, which was not something that was completely original with him. He was influenced by a lot of others as well.
The first solution he tried was a monastic tradition, which was justification by grace through humility. So you recognize that you can’t do everything. You recognize that you’re not going to be able to do enough to please God. And so you say, “God, I need your help.” The problem with that solution he soon saw was then it became a question of “well, how much humility do you need,” right? It’s kind of the same question as “how much do I have to do in order to get grace?”
HODGES: It seems like he was a really scrupulous person, and so it would weigh on him in a personal way. Like “how much do I have to do?” and then that would bother him and then he’d think well, is this the right way to even go about it?
HARLINE: Right. And monks were very aware of this. This was an occupational hazard when what you did most of the day was look inside yourself to find your sins. You’re going to find some. They were prepared to deal with monks and friars who suffered from this, they called it over-scrupulousness or “the bath of hell.” There was just people who worried too much about it and just almost collapsed from it psychologically. So there were various methods that monks and friars were used to using in order to try to distract people from this, and Luther’s confessor, who was his superior, tried to get him more into his studies. “Study more and get your doctorate in theology.” He was a very good student so he pushed him in that direction, trying to get him to obsess less over salvation.
But anyway, one of the big disputations that he wanted to prepare was this disputation against scholastic theology because he wanted to dispute this idea that in order to be saved, all you had to do was what lay within you. He said this is just not a satisfactory answer because how do you know when you’ve done enough? You can always think of more you could have done. So he prepared ninety-nine theses for this disputation against scholastic theology at the occasion of the graduation of one of his students. And that was, again, a big time to have these disputations—three or four hours of fine slice arguing in front of a bunch of dozing people, what better way to celebrate your graduation, right? [laughs] And yeah, this went on for a long time. But this was very common. The thing was, nobody really cared about the set of theses, this ninety-nine theses he’d prepared.
HODGES: Yeah, you say “it was a real dud.”
HARLINE: Yeah. I’m sure there were some fireworks that happened at the disputation itself. Nobody really made a record of it. But there was really no response. His former professors at a university he attended who were very much scholastic theologians didn’t like what he had to say. They were upset and they wouldn’t talk to him. But there really wasn’t much of a response—and certainly not the response he’d hoped for, especially people jumping on his side. He thought many professors would be angry but he thought many would also jump on the bandwagon with him. And they didn’t. And so it was really disappointing to him. And so this disputation against scholastic theology, which he thought was going to set the world on its end, just really amounted to very little.
HODGES: And that takes us to the next set of theses. The ninety-five theses, the famous ninety-five theses. Were these written, then, to—Did Martin Luther just really want to stir things up? What led him to this next attempt?
HARLINE: Well, I mean, sure, he wanted to bring attention to that. Maybe some personalities just want to stir things up. But his job as a professor of theology was to call attention to subjects that hadn’t been settled by the church. And justification, which was the subject of the disputation against scholastic theology, had not been completely settled by the church. That’s exactly why he could write about it and also why he didn’t get in trouble. Because there were a number of answers.
I should have mentioned in discussing that, that his particular answer to the question of how you were saved, it was not, “Do all that lies within you.” It was not, “Oh, just be humble and accept your sin.” It was “justification by grace through faith alone.” In other words, through assenting, passively, to God saving you. You couldn’t save yourself. You couldn’t do anything to save yourself. And so you simply assented to God being able to do that. You recognized your own weakness, and that was when you received God’s grace. That was his answer, basically, and again, it was the answer not very many people cared about.
Well, at the same time that this happened—and maybe out of frustration that people hadn’t responded well to his disputation against scholastic theology, this is in September of 1517—this is right about the time that he decides to write his ninety-five theses against indulgences. Now, indulgences did not really—weren’t supposed to, anyway—have anything to do with salvation, which was the thing he really cared about. And indulgence was part of the sacrament of penance. First of all, you confess your sins. Second of all, you’re absolved of your sins. And third of all, then you carried out some kind of punishment for your sins.
HODGES: To make it right.
HARLINE: Right. And what the indulgence did was to forgive you of the punishment, forgive you from doing the punishment you’ve been assigned to do. Your penance. This happened because sometimes you got sick—maybe your penance was to go to a pilgrimage. Maybe it was to do a certain number of prayers or whatever. And the indulgence would forgive you of having to do this because maybe then you’d become sick. Maybe you couldn’t carry this out anymore. It was just impossible for you to carry it out. And indulgence meant kindness. So it was a kindness from the church to allow you to do this.
It’d been around since about 1100. But what Luther was upset about was that they had been taken to have new meanings. And so he preached against indulgences since about 1514. He’d given maybe four sermons from 1514 to 1517 against indulgences. But his superior and confessor—
HODGES: The person he would confess to.
HARLINE: —yeah, Johann von Staupitz was his name, urged him to do something more serious. And if you were a university professor, this meant writing up some theses for a disputation, that was almost your Pavlovian reaction, right? Oh, there’s something wrong here so let’s write up some thesis.
The idea was to—Again, this is an unsettled subject so you’re going to have this disputation and hopefully we;ll get closer to the truth through having this disputation. Various evidences will come out on one side or the other and hopefully we’ll come to a better conclusion. So he had no problem doing that with justification by faith. Again, almost nobody noticed and everybody recognized this was an unsettled subject. So sure, go ahead and see what you think. And indulgences were another unsettled subject.
The problem was they weren’t just any unsettled subject, because of who was in charge of indulgences, which was the pope himself.
HODGES: And were they unsettled because it wasn’t sure that they even work at all? Or that the theology behind them was inadequately accounted for?
HARLINE: Yeah. Exactly. The theology just wasn’t very full. It was a practice that was done over and over, but when you asked or tried to inquire how did they work, it wasn’t entirely clear.
HODGES: The idea that there was the storehouse of good deeds that the saints had built up and the church had position of that kind of that they could sell that to people.
HARLINE: That was the basic theology and it was understood that way. But there were many points of it that weren’t entirely settled. And the thing is, if you decided to have a disputation and write some theses about a subject, you’re bound to bring out some criticism or negative comments about whatever it was that was at hand. And in this case, because the pope’s in charge of indulgences, you’re bound to criticize the pope. Or at least some people would take it that way.
HODGES: Yeah. He tried to tiptoe around that, right?
HARLINE: Oh yeah. He framed these ninety-five theses in a way that tried to not bring any attention to the pope at all. But of course it was impossible, but he mentioned the pope as little as possible. The most famous and the most problematic of the theses regarding the pope were I think numbers 82 through 90. And in these, they basically said, look, what are we to say to people who are saying why doesn’t the pope just build St. Peter’s himself? Why doesn’t the pope just let people out of heaven for free instead of charging? and so on.
HODGES: And he would take that money and build—like they’re going to build this place, St. Peter’s—
HARLINE: So that’s the other thing we had to explain about indulgences. They originally were just to free you from this punishment that you’d been assigned, right? It wasn’t about your salvation, the absolution from your sins did that. But this was just to remind you that you’d done something wrong and this is how you try to make up for it. But now over time, ordinary believers came to see indulgences more and more as conferring forgiveness of the sin itself, as a form of absolution itself instead of just forgiveness from this punishment you were supposed to carry out. And that was what really bothered Luther. And then they became attached—By about 1485 it was also said, “oh you could even let dead people out of purgatory, your relatives out of purgatory.” Well this extended the market for indulgences greatly—
HODGES: Purgatory is where people would go to suffer the penalty for sins that they hadn’t fully accounted for in their life on their way to heaven—
HARLINE: —Exactly, or punishments that you hadn’t carried out, that you’d been assigned to carry out, right? And so that was—
HODGES: And you could buy your family out of there.
HARLINE: Yeah. That was the idea. I mean, when you got an indulgence, you were still supposed to confess, you were still supposed to carry out these acts. But if your relative was dead, I mean, what could they do, right? You couldn’t do much for them. All you could do was purchase the indulgence.
We should say that the financial angle of indulgences was they become so popular to finance things that it was very controversial to oppose them for that reason as well.
HODGES: They were like a public bond almost, right?
HARLINE: They were a bond. And imagine—Nowadays if there’s a bond, people will vote on whether they want to accept it and they might say this bond is a bad idea. With indulgences, you were questioning the whole institution if you started criticizing indulgences. So Luther wasn’t the only one who was—A number of people were criticizing indulgences. That was why his superior urged him to be the one to do something because of his position. He’s university professor, and it was assumed by all learned people at the time that if there was as problem in the church, university theology professors were the ones that were supposed to solve them. So he’s the one who’s supposed to do this.
So he writes up these theses on indulgences and one of the things questioned—Does the pope really have jurisdiction over purgatory, for instance. Can the pope really say, “here’s an indulgence that’s going to let your relative out of purgatory”? Does he really have jurisdiction over that? It’s not entirely clear. It seems only God should have jurisdiction over purgatory.
Anyway, there were a few things like that, and Luther tried to be restrained. He tried to make it very clear that these theses were not against the pope himself. They were questioning the whole institution of indulgences. But again, because those were tied to the pope, it was hard not to see it that way.
He’d planned the disputation and the theses in Latin. No disputation was ever held. Maybe because he recognized that this was such a sensitive issue that he probably shouldn’t hold a disputation on that. But he wrote them all in Latin. He didn’t intend that ordinary people should see them. The first copies were pirated. Somebody got a few copies. He sent out a few copies himself, handwritten. And a few of his friends had them printed.
HODGES: What about the image of him nailing it to the church door?
HARLINE: Yeah. You know, he probably took the theses down to the door of the Castle church. The Castle Church belonged to his prince, Frederick the Wise, who would establish the University of Wittenberg. He had a castle in Wittenberg among other places, and the church of the castle was the university church as well. The door of the Castle church was the university bulletin board. It would be like taking something over to the Wilkinson Center at Brigham Young University and nailing up or gluing up or stapling up that you have this announcement, or an announcement for a conference or a speaker or whatever. It was very routine. There were other notices on the door as well.
So the act of simply putting the theses on the door was absolutely inconsequential. It really wasn’t important at all. It wasn’t some act of defiance. It was part of what you did if you were a professor, was to put up theses.
HODGES: That came as a big surprise to me. The idea that it wasn’t Martin Luther just listing all these grievances he had with the Catholic church and then marching down to the church and nailing it to the door in this passionate display of defiance or something. This wasn’t just a list of grievances. It was an argument of ninety-five points on one particular topic and he posted it on the bulletin board.
HARLINE: Right. And he did other sets of theses with all sorts of numbers as well. He had one with fifty theses, one with three, one with thirteen. I mean, I can think at the top of my head. He had a whole bunch of disputations with theses they were involved in. This was his particular subject.
HODGES: Well you said these theses were hardly cannonballs too, what he actually wrote in there. What happened?
HARLINE: Well, it depends on who is reading them, that was the thing. I mean he himself thought he was being very restrained. And again, he never intended them to be out among ordinary people. But what happened was that once they got printed, then they got a lot more attention than any other set of university disputation theses ever did.
HODGES: Was that because it was with the money? Like people care about money? Or why do you think that is?
HARLINE: You mean with the indulgences?
HARLINE: It’s partly that. I think it was the novelty of somebody implicitly criticizing the pope in public as well. I mean other people were doing that. Erasmus was doing this at the time. And there were other Catholic thinkers who were doing the same thing. But I think it was understood that indulgences were a big deal. And again, they were used to finance so many things. They paid for the Castle church. They paid for Wittenberg University where he worked. They paid for the city church where he was the city preacher in Wittenberg. They paid for bridges. They paid for almost everything.
HODGES: They fed Martin Luther.
HARLINE: Yeah. They helped pay him. They helped pay his minuscule salary as a professor at the University of Wittenberg. So it was a big deal to criticize them, I think. And this causes interest, right? I mean even if you’re against the idea or against his theses, you’re still interested in them because they’re controversial.
So they get out in Latin and then somebody, a month later—this is like in January 1518—had the brilliant idea of publishing them in German as well. And then these sold out really fast. And printers, they’re market driven people. And they saw that these were selling, they’re cheap to produce, you could put them all on one page, and therefore they were the ones who saw a market here. But the theses were not the thing that really were the best seller. The best seller was the sermon that he gave in February or March of 1518 in German that also treated indulgences.
HODGES: So he saw things getting out of control—
HARLINE: He was really bothered that the theses would have been circulated in public especially in Germany.
HODGES: I’ll do a sermon, I need to address this.
HARLINE: Exactly. I need to explain what this is—
HODGES: And by the way, let’s talk again about the stakes. Let’s say he was overtly attacking the pope, saying the pope was wrong and declaring the Catholic church was wrong. What were the stakes for him then if that was all true?
HARLINE: Oh, he probably would have immediately been in trouble and even excommunicated.
HODGES: Could his life have been in jeopardy?
HARLINE: Sure. If his prince decided that he was a heretic. A heretic could be executed.
HODGES: Okay. So the stakes were such that he could literally lose his life here. So he’s going to give the sermon.
HARLINE: Yeah. I mean he’s bold in one sense. But he’s also being very careful about how he distributed the theses. He didn’t hold the disputation, for instance. Either people weren’t brave enough to come or he realized maybe he shouldn’t hold it. Nailing or gluing the theses to the door was no big deal at all, so that wasn’t anything. What mattered was how people might respond to this.
HODGES: So he was going to give this sermon.
HARLINE: Right. And he decides that, “I need to explain this to ordinary people.” Ordinary people don’t understand the culture of disputation at a university. They don’t understand that when you write one of these theses, you tend to exaggerate. And the reason you exaggerate is because you want to bring out an issue really, fully. And so that was part of the custom of disputing, was to exaggerate. And so you could write ninety-five theses and say I don’t believe any of them, I’m just trying to provoke discussion. But his opponents wouldn’t let him get away with that and they used to say, “Oh, he believes all of them, and therefore he’s really dangerous.”
Well, this is why he decided, “I’ve got to write something for ordinary people.” And interestingly, he did a sermon and it had basically fifteen to twenty points. And not one of those points mentioned the pope because he did not want anybody, especially ordinary people, getting the idea that he was against the pope. So he’s real careful in these theses. And these are the things that you really need to know about indulgences, he was essentially saying. “You don’t need to worry about the pope. Here’s the problem with indulgences, why they don’t save you. Don’t let anybody say that they forgive your sins.” And he was especially writing against the latest indulgence, which wasn’t just something that the pope was indirectly in charge of but directly in charge of. And this was the St. Peter’s indulgence which was to help raise money for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome.
HODGES: And wasn’t it also like a super cool indulgence too, like the kind of indulgence it was was even more super powerful?
HARLINE: Oh yes. It was claiming things that went way beyond whatever theology of indulgences there were. And that’s what really infuriated Luther. It was saying you could get your relatives out of purgatory. It was saying that if you did this, you still had to confess and so on, but it was a plenary indulgence which would allow you to skip purgatory altogether. A plenary indulgence or a full indulgence meant it forgave all of your sins up to that moment. And so you would never have to spend a minute in purgatory for them.
And Luther was saying, “This is ridiculous. There’s no theology supporting this. There’s no one who can do this.”
HODGES: So he’s arguing from within the Catholic church, from a Catholic perspective, believing that he is presenting the orthodoxy.
HARLINE: Exactly. That’s exactly the point. He thinks he’s orthodox and that indulgences are not orthodox.
HODGES: So he gives this sermon. He talks to people publicly. And you also write that some of this opposition actually ended up making Martin Luther even more confident in his position. Why is that?
HARLINE: Those who opposed him ignored his desire to say “this is not about the pope.” That was what they immediately turned the argument to. They said this is all about the pope, because if you question indulgences, you question his authority. The pope has the keys or the authority to issue indulgences. There’s a treasury of merits. Christ and the saints that more good deeds than they needed for their salvation, and the way you can be forgiven of your sins is by borrowing or by being granted the good deeds that are in this treasury of merits, and the pope controls that treasury of merits. That’s how indulgences work.
So his opponents immediately recognize the implications and connected him to somebody who was opposing the pope, therefore he’s a heretic. If you oppose the pope you’re automatically a heretic, was their reasoning. And so this is what really started getting him into trouble. What that did then was make him go back and say, “Am I really sure about this?” And he studied the biblical text closer than ever, believed there was no justification for indulgences, also became more and more convinced about his idea of justification by grace through faith alone. So he was reaffirmed in all this certainly.
HODGES: So while this is going on—you’ve hinted it, this dynamic already. Martin Luther found himself caught up between political authority and church authority. So you’ve mentioned Frederick, for example, and it seems from the book that he was perhaps the most important figure in Martin Luther’s life.
HARLINE: That’s for sure. Luther was trying to clear up all of this theologically, right? He’s trying to explain himself to his public. He tries to explain himself to the pope. He sends a copy of the ninety-five theses to the pope himself, with his explanations, or “proofs,” which were always part of a disputation. You didn’t just make the assertion, but you offered proofs for each assertion or each thesis. He sent this copy to the pope, trying to explain everything. But it really didn’t help.
And at that point, the pope and the men around him decided to bring an ecclesiastical suit against Luther. Remember there were civil courts and there were church courts and the pope had his own court. So they wanted to bring a case against Luther for heresy, for questioning indulgences, and basically questioning the pope. So at that point, they could have demanded of his prince: You need to bring Luther to trial or you need to arrest him, you need to send him to Rome, any number of things.
And in fact, they demanded all those things of his prince, named Frederick the Wise of Saxony. And Luther’s prince was in fact a very wise fellow. He hadn’t gotten his nickname yet, but he got it later on. And he said, Luther hasn’t yet been convicted of heresy. There are many who agree with him, many theologians who agree with him. Therefore, I’m not going to arrest him or send him to Rome. As soon as he’s convicted of heresy, sure. I’ll arrest him or I’ll send him to Rome.
So the protection of his prince during 1518 and 1519 proved to be really crucial. And those political events and his prince really saved him. I mean, there might have been other Martin Luthers in other places and we never heard of them, right? But everything, all the stars aligned for Luther to be able to get away with what he was about to do.
HODGES: So the church didn’t unilaterally rule. And the pope then had to sort of negotiate with these local rulers. Frederick being one of them. And he also depended on the pope for things. There was some quid pro quo going on. What was in it for Frederick not to just indulge the pope and—
HARLINE: Right. Mostly, his independence. I mean, princes were proud and they wanted to assert their sovereignty and therefore,they weren’t just going to extradite people because somebody else wanted them to. They had to have good reasons. That was the declaration of their sovereignty, was being able to say, “No, I’m not sending that person anywhere. That’s my subject.”
He also took it seriously. He believed he’d also been appointed by God and he was going to try to rule fairly and by sending away someone who hadn’t been properly convicted, he felt like he wouldn’t be doing his duty as a prince. So there are all kinds of things that are going on and we don’t have to get into, there other political things, rivalries that he had with other nobles or other princes around him. So, yeah, we—
HODGES: And the pope was dealing with his own issues. What was the pope like? This Pope Leo X?
HARLINE: Yes. Leo X was a famously Renaissance pope, meaning that he was interested in hunting and other such things, more than he was—He wasn’t personally a bad fellow. In fact, when he was elected pope, a lot of people praised it because he was known to be personally moral and so on. But—
HODGES: As opposed to some of the past—?
HARLINE: Yeah. Exactly. But he wasn’t necessarily a great theologian. He was very good at music. He was known to compose music. He had a fine voice and so on. He especially loved hunting. But he really wasn’t going to tolerate any questioning of his authority and the people around him weren’t going to allow that to happen either.
HODGES: So we’ve got this dynamic of church and state, so to speak, sort of wrestling. But it’s also a state that’s religiously invested as well.
HARLINE: Oh yeah. Frederick himself—I mean every state was Catholic and the state and church always worked together. Frederick himself was very pious. And one way you showed your piety was by collecting relics. Frederick had about 17,000 of them by then, worth all kinds of indulgences, by the way. I mean—
HODGES: Yes. So Martin Luther maybe wasn’t a fan of that aspect of his protector.
HARLINE: No. In fact, he offended Frederick a few times by saying, “Don’t rely so much on indulgences,” and giving sermons in the castle church against indulgences. And he wasn’t saying, you shouldn’t have indulgences. And he wasn’t questioning the authority of the pope. He was saying, “Don’t make indulgences what they’re not. Here’s what they are and here’s what they should remain. But they’re just being exaggerated.”
But Frederick wasn’t exactly thrilled with that and he could have had reason to be mad at Martin Luther, upsetting—I mean he had thousands of pilgrims coming to his church, Frederick did. And that was one reason Luther put up the theses on October 31 if he put them up, was because November 1 is All Saints’ Day. And that was the day you went and got indulgences and you visited—you thought of your—the dead before you, your dead relatives as well as the dead saints. That was a huge day at Frederick’s castle church, when all the relics, all 17,000 were put out on display for you to see and to purchase indulgences from.
So Frederick could have chosen to oppose Luther. But it’s a mark, I think, of his integrity and his intellectual honesty, even, that he would say, “All right, let’s hear what this professor has to say. He’s a professor at my university. We have to take him seriously. He hasn’t been convicted of heresy yet.” So Frederick decided to protect him for various reasons. He didn’t do it immediately. I mean, he did it in baby steps. There was a point in December of 1518 where Luther was ready to flee the principality in order to spare Frederick having to arrest him or not arrest him.
HODGES: Because then Frederick could get in hot water.
HARLINE: Frederick could be in trouble. He was sovereign, and that’s how he could resist the pope. But if enough princes around Frederick decided they didn’t like some of the things he was doing or if the emperor of Germany—it’s the Holy Roman Empire—if the Emperor didn’t like what Frederick was doing, he could justifiably invade and take over Frederick’s principality. Now in most cases that wasn’t going to happen. But there was that possibility and other princes might do that as well. And one thing they might attack you for is for harboring heretics. So he knew this was very sensitive and he had to walk a fine line and he was later given his title of “Frederick the Wise” because of how he handled this whole thing.
HODGES: So here’s Martin Luther in the middle of this. Also worried about anything from excommunication all the way to execution. And he has this Frederick protecting him. He’s got the pope coming after him. The way that you tell the story is so good. I mean I would call it even at times, heart pounding, like I would feel—There were times when I could not put the book down, which I didn’t expect when I picked it up.
It’s an amazing book. It’s A World of Blaze: The Rise of Martin Luther and The Birth of The Reformation by Craig Harline. And we’re talking with him today about the book. So here’s Martin Luther in the middle of everything, at what point did it become clear to Martin Luther that his relationship to the Catholic church might be damaged beyond repair?
HARLINE: It wasn’t yet. It wasn’t in 1518.
HODGES: The pope’s trying to say, “Come and talk to me.”
HARLINE: Luther’s beginning to see in late 1518, that maybe his relationship with the pope might be damaged beyond repair because—
HODGES: And he could ride that out, maybe?
HARLINE: He, well maybe, yeah, because he still believes in the church. By late 1518, he was beginning to question the authority of the pope over the whole church. He didn’t deny that the pope was the bishop of Rome. That was his first title. Let him be bishop in Rome. Does he really have authority over the entire church? Okay, yes, we can accept that as a practical matter. Maybe somebody needs to be in charge. But there is no scriptural justification for a universal leader of the church here on Earth.
HODGES: So now the things that his critics were accusing him of all along—
HODGES: —start to rise up. Was that anti-pope stuff always there or did that just come to the surface because it was at the heart of the issue? HARLINE: No, it came to the surface because of events and because of people questioning him and he having to answer them. He was summoned to Rome in late 1518. Frederick arranged for him not to have to go, but to be heard by the pope’s representative in Augsburg, in Southern Germany, because the imperial diet, as it was called, or assembly was meeting there. All the princes and churchmen of the Empire would meet there. And so the pope had a delegate there and Frederick said, “Why don’t you just have Luther talk to your delegate there?”
This delegate was a cardinal and this cardinal really didn’t seem interested in hearing Luther’s responses and therefore that’s when Luther began to really doubt, “Gee, is the pope really all that interested in me? If he’s willing to send this guy, who won’t even listen to me but just tell me to submit and obey—I mean what kind of a church is that,” right? I mean that’s essentially what Luther was saying.
HODGES: He thought he would trust the process, this idea that we could go through these disputations, we could have these formal exchanges and try to get to the core of the issue. But this person shows up and it’s just like, “No, you just need to say you’re wrong, or else.”
HARLINE: Exactly. And the person who interviewed him, the cardinal was named Cajetan was a theologian himself. He understood the culture of disputation. He was a university professor and so on. So—
HODGES: But he also knew his job.
HARLINE: He did. He knew his job. But the fact that he refused to engage in a real disputation, as Luther thought, was just a sign of disrespect. They did end up arguing more than Cajetan intended. But it wasn’t what Luther expected because at the end, he again, was told just to submit. So this got him mistrusting.
And then further events—In 1519, another disputation in the town of Leipzig, where he was challenged to a disputation on papal authority. It basically, again, made him realize just how far away he was from the pope. Not against the church, not far away from the church, but from the pope and just saying, “This whole institution of the papacy is wrong.” The idea of Matthew 16, which is the usual scriptural justification—
HODGES: Jesus gives the keys to Peter, he says, “On this rock, I’ll build my church.”
HARLINE: Right. And then Luther says the rock is faith. It’s salvation by faith. It’s not, it’s—
HODGES: And Catholic leaders would say Peter’s the rock.
HARLINE: It’s not Peter. It’s not the pope. Again, we can have a pope. But that pope was not appointed by God. It’s just a human creation for a this-worldly necessity. And people were—his opponents, anyway, were scandalized by this. Many other Germans loved what he was saying because there was a lot of anti-papal sentiment in Germany. So the sentiment was, we want to have our own Catholic church in Germany. We want—among some people. It was very psychologically—you can imagine, very difficult to say, we’re not going to have the pope anymore. It wasn’t—it didn’t go that fast. It was more, we want to have our own Catholic church in Germany. The pope can be the pope in Italy or whatever. And that’s more how it went. And there were a lot of people ready to jump on that bandwagon.
HODGES: So the dreaded bull arrives. What was the bull?
HARLINE: Right. This is the Bull of Excommunication. This finally came in the summer of 1520. That’s a long time. When the pope had first started this legal process against Luther in the summer of 1518, it had been dragged out because of political considerations that we won’t get into. And the protection of his prince, Frederick.
But finally at 1520, the pope doesn’t need Frederick anymore. Frederick had been a key player in this other thing that the pope was interested in and he didn’t need him anymore and so he’s going to excommunicate Luther. And the bull finally arrived in October of 1520 in Wittenberg. And Luther had sixty days to recant or he would be excommunicated.
And it shocked him. I mean, he had expected to be excommunicated all year, but he was shocked when it arrived.
HODGES: And partly because of the way that it did maybe, too, right? He never felt like he got his audience to make his argument.
HARLINE: That’s right. I mean he had written by now dozens of tracks. He had engaged in several disputations. But he felt like nobody had really taken him seriously at the papal court or among his foes. And so it was really a disappointment to him. And it was from that time on that he began to attack the pope. That was really when it began.
HODGES: So he attacks the pope. Then he goes to the pope, recants, and everybody lives happily ever after.
HARLINE: [Laughs] Well, not quite.
HODGES: He goes into hiding at this point.
HARLINE: Well, not yet. I mean first, there’s the famous—He’s finally summoned to another Imperial Diet. This one in the City of Worms. And he meets the Emperor Charles V there, the new emperor. And he’s given a chance to recant, which that took a lot of political wrangling on Frederick’s part, just to give him the opportunity to be heard at Worms. And he went to Worms with the understanding that here was his chance for a disputation. He was going to be able to do his—say what he thought. But he gets there and it’s just like the last hearing. They said, “No, you have to submit, and that’s it.” And they heard him a little bit. He got to say more than he thought he would. And this is when he makes his famous—
HODGES: “Here I stand.”
HARLINE: Yeah. Except he didn’t say, “Here I stand.” [laughs]
HODGES: Sorry, everybody.
HARLINE: But he refused to give in. He said, “I can’t change what my conscience has told me. And you have to listen to your conscience,” and so on. And that’s his famous stand at Worms and it’s on the way home from Worms, that his life has seen to be in such danger by Frederick—Remember he’s out of Saxony by now. He has a safe conduct from the emperor. But people were afraid that the emperor was going to violate the safe conduct. So Frederick himself had Luther kidnapped on the way home to Wittenberg and he put him into one of his castles in Saxony at a place called the Wartburg that was rarely visited and that’s where Luther hid for the next ten months.
HODGES: And he didn’t like it there.
HARLINE: He hated it there because first he didn’t like being alone, even though the order that he belonged to was officially called the Hermits of St. Augustine, he was by no means by temperament, a hermit. He loved being around people. He just disliked the idea of being alone. He felt more tempted by the devil and so on, than he even usually was.
HODGES: Let’s talk about that. Because he eventually does come out of hiding in anticipation of being excommunicated. He’s going to face the powers that be.
HODGES: And this thing has been plaguing him, a thing that you described. And it’s a German word and I’m not sure how to pronounce it, “anfechtungen?” HARLINE: Yeah. “Anfechtungen.” Anfechtung is just— it’s something like a temptation. But more than a temptation, more than a struggle. And so he used that word all the time. And it doesn’t have a precisely translated English equivalent. And so historians tend to just use the original word.
But, yeah, he has this temptation. The temptation for him is not to believe that Christ will save him. Even though he had this great insight and the thing that saved him and brought him to the gates of Paradise, he felt like, and saved him from hell—
HODGES: That he was saved by grace.
HARLINE: Justification by grace, through faith alone. Right? That was the big insight. Even though he had that idea, he had regular bouts of doubt. Through his whole life. And so he talked about those. Those were his temptations. It wasn’t sexual temptation. It wasn’t all the classic temptations we might think of. It was doubt. And he had these regular periods of “nah, you’re really not good enough to be saved. No, Jesus isn’t going to save you, that’s not how it works. You’ve got to prove yourself to God, again. You’ve got to do all these good works and you can’t do them.”
So this is kind of the temptations that he would go through. And he had them even more at the Wartburg where he was alone than he did when he was busy at the university because in solitude, he’s left to contemplate his sins even more than usual.
HODGES: Yeah. There’s a quote from him that you have in the book. “I had rather burn on live coals than rot here.” So he was not comfortable there and he had this doubt that was plaguing him. So he—
HARLINE: He decides to go back to Wittenberg. And he writes a letter to Frederick. Frederick doesn’t want him to come back. I mean, Frederick’s been good enough to hide him. Protect him by hiding him. Frederick doesn’t want him out in public because it will put both of them in a difficult situation. Frederick has to take action, basically. He has to either excommunicate and imprison Luther or he has to not do that. And it doesn’t—
HODGES: Which would be a breach of what the church wanted—
HARLINE: —Well, and that will—yeah, that will bring political troubles for Frederick as well. So Frederick wants him to stay in hiding indefinitely and maybe come back in the summer of 1522, but doesn’t want him to come back yet.
Luther writes a letter saying, “Look, I’m coming back, anyway. It’s time.” And the reason was because things were falling apart at Wittenberg. Some people were reforming much faster than Luther wanted to himself. And it was causing all kinds of hard feelings, disagreements and so on, as religious change often does. And Luther felt like he had to go back personally to supervise it and he says to Frederick, “Look, if the emperor sends his men to arrest me, let them in. If the pope sends people, let them in. You don’t have to protect me anymore. But I have to come back.”
HODGES: Yeah. As you said, things are sort of getting out of control in Martin Luther’s eyes. You had other reform-minded individuals who were perhaps inspired by Luther or kind of sensed the climate was open for more disagreement with the church. But as you said, Martin Luther differed from other reformers on certain things. There’s a way that historians categorize it between magisterial and radical reformers?
HARLINE: Right. Well magisterial reform happens through, basically, a town council or through a prince. It’s part of the order of things. And the radical reformers kind of withdraw from society. And Luther was more inclined for order. When you read his tracts and his rhetoric—especially some of his later works where he was so vehement and venomous—you’d think that he’s really a wild-eyed kind of guy, and that’s not really true. Part of the reason he used exaggerated language is because that was part of the culture of disputation—part of the culture of arguing among professors. But when it came to practical policies, he was very conservative. And so he didn’t want to change the church order right away. People who were changing things at Wittenberg thought they were following Luther.
HODGES: Yeah. There was a guy saying, “Hey, let’s change the mass. Let’s do it this the other way.”
HARLINE: Well, Luther had written the tracts, saying, “This is how it needs to be changed.” And so Luther did want to change, but he was saying, “But you don’t just change overnight.” He says, “You have too many people who can’t bear that. And we have to think about the whole flock.”
This is a constant problem in any kind of religious reform, is how do you placate everybody. Those who want to change and those who don’t want to change. So he says, when he goes back to Wittenberg, “We’re going back to everything the way it was. We’re doing the mass in Latin.” Other people wanted to do it in German right away. And there had been some masses in German and he wanted the mass eventually in German. And by 1526, he’d written his German mass and so on. But the first thing he did when he got back to Wittenberg was to put on the brakes and slow everybody down and say, “We have to consider everybody, and move any kind of change very slowly.”
HODGES: Yeah. It was striking how the debates that Martin Luther and others had weren’t merely about making the right changes, but also making those changes in the right way.
HARLINE: Yeah. He almost never used the word reformation or reform. He said, “Only God can reform the church.” What he believed he could reform was the university curriculum, for instance, the theology curriculum, to start teaching more about grace, right? But reforming the church, that was what God did. So all people could do was open their hearts to God, assent to letting God come into their hearts. And when people changed, then the church could change. That was his constant emphasis. He didn’t believe in just imposing change by the state or even by the local pastor or whatever. It’s like you preach the Word of God. Hearts were opened. And then that’s when change could happen. That’s when you could have the German mass, for instance.
HODGES: Was he always true to that conviction though? I’m thinking about, for example, I mean, he oversaw the burning of books of people that he opposed, which seems ironic because he was—his books were burned. He apparently acquiesced in capital punishment. I’m thinking of the Anabaptists, for example, people who believed in being rebaptized.
HODGES: They gave them the “third baptism,” which was to drown them. Martin Luther was cool with that stuff, wasn’t he?
HARLINE: Well, yeah. So it—that’s why the answer is, it depended [laughs]. What he was consistently against was violence. Violence, or forceful action. Let’s put it that way. That’s why he was against the reforms in Wittenberg that were too radical for him because people were being forced into it. So he was consistently against that in theory.
But in practice, you’re right. There were other ways that he showed, that he was willing—When the Peasant Rebellion started in 1524 and 25, many of them used Luther’s own words to support their cause. And he was furious about that because he never wanted any kind of violence—
HODGES: Or uprising like that.
HARLINE: —right. In the name of God, he didn’t want any kind of German rebellion against Rome.
HODGES: He didn’t want Lutherans.
HARLINE: Yeah, exactly. He didn’t want any of those things. So when the peasants came and started fighting, he was so mad, that he wrote a tract against the “murdering hordes of peasants” and told the nobility to go ahead and kill them. So there he’s advocating violence, even though he was usually against violence. So, you’re right, he’s not always entirely consistent. Later on in life, when he gets really angry and cranky, he writes his most infamous work against the Jews and he doesn’t say to kill them. But he doesn’t—he seems to advocate violence against them, being okay in some cases as well. So, yeah, he’s not entirely consistent on that. But he was consistent in his early years, in theory, of believing that violence was not the way to change religion.
HODGES: So what happened to Luther then? He goes back to Wittenberg. He’s trying to quell these reforms that seem like they’re swinging out of control. And what’s his fate? What happens?
HARLINE: Well, he succeeds in quelling the unrest in Wittenberg and there is a very steady and calm and conservative sort of reformation that happens very gradually. He still wears his friar’s habit. But that goes away after a couple of years. He has disagreements with some other reformers. He, again, advocates violence against the peasants of 1524 and 25.
HODGES: What did the church do to him? Is he—
HARLINE: Oh, the church has excommunicated him by now, remember. And so it all depends on Frederick protecting him and Frederick continues to protect him and seems to be able to BE getting away with it.
HODGES: What could happen to him if Frederick didn’t protect him?
HARLINE: Oh, he’d be executed, excommunicated, sure, he could have been. Or Frederick could also have been invaded by other princes around him who were his rivals enough to want to do something like that.
HODGES: But with those threats hanging over, hadn’t Martin Luther didn’t lay low.
HARLINE: No. He didn’t. But Frederick didn’t want him back as a professor right away, either. He had to wait a year or two before he started lecturing at the university again. Frederick himself died in 1525. So there’s another question, what will happen to Luther?
Frederick’s successor was his brother and his brother was a much more ardent supporter of Luther and not nearly as neutral appearing as Frederick. Frederick always tried to stay neutral, to pretend he was just the fair prince. But his successor was really a big fan of Luther and supported him overtly. And this would eventually cause war. Frederick had probably took the wiser course, or at least for the time he seems to have.
So Luther starts arguing with other reformers, safe there at Wittenberg. He never leaves Saxony again because it would be too dangerous. But he argues with other reformers in the south of Germany, argues with Huldrych Zwingli in Zurich. They argue and argue. Well, it divides Protestants as a result. And to Luther, it also—his calling for the killing of peasants and his arguing with other Protestants—dampens some of the popularity for him. He’s still very popular in the center of Germany, the east, the north, and Scandinavia, right? Scandinavia by the 1520’s becomes officially Lutheran, even. And by 1529 they all get the name Protestants. “Lutheran” and “Protestant” were derogatory terms cast upon them by their enemies. Like most religious nicknames are derogatory terms. And he didn’t like being called Lutheran himself.
But anyway, he starts promoting his version of reform all through the 1530s. He gets really discouraged when he realizes people aren’t understanding his justification by grace [laughs] as fast as he wanted them to. And even at the end of his life, he’s saying nasty sermons to the people of Wittenberg because they should reform their lives.
The Protestant problem is this: Luther believed that if you were really filled with grace, you would do all kinds of good works. Good works wouldn’t save you.
HODGES: Yeah. The stereotype is, if someone thinks they’re saved, they could go out and murder a bunch of people they’ll be fine. But—
HARLINE: Not at all.
HODGES: —that would be a good indication that you weren’t saved.
HARLINE: Exactly. Luther’s Catholic critics within the church immediately would say, “Grace just promotes laziness and people feel like they can do whatever they want.” Luther said, “You don’t understand grace. If you really feel grace, you do even more good works out of the gratitude that’s in your heart because you know you’re sinful. And so it’s a better system than one that’s dependent on works, in order to get grace.”
And so his opponents are latching onto that. But Luther was saying to the people at Wittenberg, “Look, the fact that you’re behaving poorly shows that you’ve never received grace.” So this is the classic Protestant anxiety, right? Is that maybe if they’re not living well enough, they haven’t received grace as much as they thought. Or they don’t believe as much as they thought in Christ’s offer to save them. And so—
HODGES: Luther wanted to get rid of this anxiety, and as it turns out—
HARLINE: You can have anxiety both ways! [laughs] Whether you believe in works first or grace first.
So by the end of his life, he was still complaining about the people not believing his words as well as they ought to. The visitation reports that were coming back were just full of people being ignorant about their religion and the basic foundations of it. And it really discouraged him. He got angrier and angrier.
He wrote his famous tract against the Jews, mostly because he had actually been hopeful earlier in his life that the Jews would convert now that he revealed the true gospel. He thought for sure they would, and they hadn’t and in fact he even heard rumors that they were trying to convert others and this got him furious. And so this is when he wrote his really nasty tract that later anti-Semitic people would use as well. And this is like in 1543, shortly before he dies. He also writes his nastiest tract against the pope around the same time. So he’s getting old and cranky and sick and then he dies in 1546.
HODGES: And since his death, obviously, he’s become a monumental figure, as we talked about at the outset. But we’ve also talked about the fact that he wasn’t a perfect reformer. There were things that he did that I think people who today revere him would be uncomfortable with—book burning and at least winking at or acquiescing or sometimes encouraging violence, even against his better principles. The anti-Semitism that you talked about.
How do Lutherans and Protestants who admire Luther today deal with what they might see as the darker sides of him?
HARLINE: Well, like people in any faith have to deal with the darker sides in their own faith. Catholics with the Renaissance popes, right? Mormons with the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and so on. Some people simply ignore it. And that certainly happens. Or they downplay it and say it really wasn’t that important. But most of the time, you just have to deal with it, and the best way is usually through historical context. You try to understand Luther as a person of his time. It’s true, he wasn’t the only anti-Semitic one. Most people were anti-Semitic, for instance. I think the blame would be that, well, he was a little more articulate about it than most people and had a little more influence than most. And so that’s where the blame might come. But usually you have to deal with these things through trying to set things in historical context.
HODGES: The people who weren’t the anti-Semites, who might have otherwise agreed with Luther in a lot of things. They didn’t become the figureheads. But Luther did.
HARLINE: What do you mean? Within the Lutheran church over the centuries?
HODGES: Yeah, yeah. The fact that there were probably reformers who believers today would—if they had learned more about them—would actually feel more kinship with than Luther, perhaps.
HARLINE: That’s very possible. I mean if you study any of their lives, they’re going to be things you like or don’t like. What do you want to remember? What do you care about? What offends you now? It’s hard to deal with this. And really the best way to deal with this is to study some history and to understand some kind of historical perspective. But it’s not easy.
HODGES: That’s Craig Harline. He’s a professor of history here at Brigham Young University and an award-winning author of books like Sunday: A History of the First Day from Babylonia to the Super Bowl. He also wrote a memoir about his missionary work as a young Latter-day Saint. It’s called, Way Below the Angels. Today, we’re talking about his book, A World Ablaze: The Rise of Martin Luther and the Birth of The Reformation.
Craig, this book is a different kind of history book. It reads more like a novel, like I said, like a real thriller and I didn’t expect that when I picked it up. You said that’s what your publisher requested, so talk about how you go about creating this style. HARLINE: Well, there’s a long tradition in history of writing a narrative, or writing a story. But that fell into disfavor, I suppose, probably by the 50s and 60s and 70s. And the way I learned history in graduate school was not to write narrative history. It’s seen as a bit simplistic. And there’s something to that. It’s that, when you reduce something to a story, you’ve automatically changed what actually happened. You’ve condensed time, compressed time. You’ve picked and chosen—You’re not recreating the past. You’re not recreating reality, you’re creating something new. It’s a work of art.
So it was believed that if you did this more structural or analytical history, as it was called, that you would come closer to the truth. The problem with that kind of history is, it is very helpful, but it’s not always fun to read. And if you’re interested in reaching larger audiences, you usually have to write narrative. It’s not true of all people, but a lot of people—I mean, I’ve seen studies about this—a lot of people respond better to narrative than they do to other forms of thinking, and this is by telling stories. The great religious truths in the world are usually couched in some kind of story. It’s not just a series of doctrine. The doctrine is instead created from stories. So that’s the case, I think, with narrative as well. So I—narrative suited me better. I liked it better. I’ve learned a lot from structural history. I’ve written it myself. But I like writing the narrative, and if there’s any story that’s dramatic in the early modern period, it’s Luther’s. And so that’s the way I decided I wanted to write about it. And the publisher thought I could do that.
HODGES: As you said, when it came up to your school though, this wasn’t something that they were training people. And how did you learn the craft of this kind of narrative storytelling?
HARLINE: Well, I kind of was in the closet, I suppose, in that way because what first attracted me to history was narrative. When I was an undergraduate student and then when I was in graduate school and found that it was out of disfavor I quickly silenced my interest in it. And I remember, toward the end of graduate school, talking with another student that I had heard make a comment that made me suspect he might be interested in narrative as well. And so one night on a dark sidewalk in New Jersey we started talking about Truman Capote’s non-fiction novel idea, and it’s like, “Wow, you’re interested in that, too?” And we kind of looked around to see if anybody was listening to us, you know [laughs], it was so underground to talk about narrative.
But so I’ve always been interested in it and decided—I learned a lot from doing structural history. So I’m really glad I did that. In fact, it’s been crucial in writing narrative history. But the trick is how do you work that into your narrative? How do you work in structures and explaining how a society works? You have to work that into your narrative in an artful way. So I suppose I learned about it just by doing and reading others and finding examples, reading a lot of novels as well as reading historians I really like.
HODGES: While most readers know the general outcome of the book—which is Martin Luther doesn’t stick it out the Catholic church. The Reformation happens—you still manage to bring so much suspense to the book. What kind of tips would you give people who want to give that kind of a feeling where there’s suspense to a story that’s actually pretty well known?
HARLINE: The most important thing is not to write the story as if you know the end, or as if you know the outcome. You have to put yourself in that moment and so that’s what I try to do from the beginning. So I’m glad it worked with you at least. I hope it works with others. That you have to put yourself in that moment at which you don’t know the outcome and you’re full of the tension, you’re full of the uncertainty, full of the distress that Luther was going through. So you can’t write—always tipping your hat that you’re inevitably going towards something.
Even the great histories of Luther almost can’t resist doing that. Just because he’s so famous and the consequences of what he did were so big. The great biographies—which I learned immensely from and I’m indebted to and so on—even as they uncover or reveal Luther’s world in great detail and with great sensitivity, they still want to look forward and they just can’t resist it. So I decided I’m just, I’m not going to do that. I’m not sure I do it necessarily any better than anybody else because there are other really good books about him. But I really tried hard just to stay in that moment and not to look ahead. Not to say, “Oh yeah, well, we know what’s going to happen.” And if you read the really cheesy histories, that’s how they’re always written. There’s always some excessive foreshadowing, right? That somehow you know how the story is going to end.
HODGES: So I’d like to hear your response to two familiar phrases that I’m going to slam together and see what you have to say about this. Back to back, these phrases seem to contradict each other. But I’ve heard both of these phrases used by historians to talk about what it’s like to write history. Here are the phrases. First one is, the past is a foreign country—which was actually coined by a novelist, interestingly enough. And the other one is, there’s nothing new under the sun.
HARLINE: Yeah. Right. You seem to hear historians say those according to whatever suits their purposes at the moment, right? [laughter] But rarely do they discuss them at the same time. And so I think you’re smart to bring those together. “Nothing new under the sun.” What I think that suggests is that when you read a human story—and that’s why I think it’s important to make it human is that you can relate to it, and you relate to it not because exactly the same things have happened to you, but because the human element is familiar enough. You recognize his emotions. You recognize fear. You recognize all those things he has to go through. And so that makes you realize, “Wow, he’s a lot like I am.” That’s really important in history because what we tend to do with the great, the people whose names we still remember, if they’re really heroic, we tend to make them bigger than they are and bigger than we are. And if they’re really evil, we tend to make them worse than we are. But if we study them more as humans, we see we have a lot in common with both the good and the evil. We have all that inside of us. And I think that’s really important to understand. We limit our possibilities when we make people of the past bigger than they were or smaller than they were. And we also limit our own possibilities. I mean we limit our possibilities when we do that, is what I mean to say. When we reduce them to something that they weren’t.
So that’s why I think it’s important to see them in some way as we are, to see them as human beings. And that’s the “nothing new under the sun.” When we say, “the past is a foreign country,” that’s absolutely true as well. And so we have to do both of those things at the same time. And that is, we can’t go into that world assuming we understand what’s going on. Assuming that the way we see the world, is how they saw the world. So for instance, if we’re looking at Luther’s really abusive language in some cases, we can say, “Wow. What a guy. What a bad guy, using that kind of language.”
HODGES: Sometimes it was directed at good targets. Didn’t he say like, he was going to fart at the devil or something like that? [laughs]
HARLINE: Oh, yeah. All kinds of stuff like that. But then when you read other writers at that time, you realize they’re all writing this way. And Luther wasn’t necessarily any worse in that regard than they were or any better, however you wanna look at it. And so there’s that historical context again that’s so important. Because otherwise what we end up doing, if we judge the past by our immediate values, we distort the past as well and therefore we don’t really learn from it.
I mean, the whole point is to get some insight for living today. But if we don’t get the past right on its own terms first, then we’re not going to have any insight for our life. We’re going to have distorted insight, is what we’re going to have and we’re basing ourselves on things that really aren’t very helpful. That’s just a small example of Luther’s language. It just wasn’t that unusual. Or even the ninety-five theses. If we think that was some defiant act to nail that on the church door, we completely distort what he was doing and we don’t understand his world. So we have the past is a foreign country in that sense. We see a word, we think we understand, even in English, that meaning might have changed over four hundred years. And there are all kinds of examples. That’s why you don’t understand Shakespeare the first time you hear it. There are too many different ways of saying things now, too many meanings of words have changed and so on.
So both of those statements are exactly true and you have to be aware of both of them as you’re writing.
HODGES: Why is it so hard to do that, though? And it’s not just when you’re writing. But I think for people that are reading your books—It’s difficult not to struggle with that.
HARLINE: Yeah. I think you just have to keep both of them in mind, that there are things that are familiar and there are things that are exotic. And I think both of those are really crucial in history. And this is why science fiction—if you take an example like that—it’s very exotic. But if it didn’t have that familiar element, I don’t think it would be nearly as popular as it is. There has to be something that you can connect to. And the same thing is true of history, which isn’t supposed to be science fiction at all, right? It’s supposed to be much closer to our experience. But it’s still exotic. It’s still a whole different way of looking at things. And when you do that, what it does is make you realize, “I guess my world doesn’t have to be set up the way it is.” And not only that, we can change it the way we want, I suppose. So—
HODGES: Which could be both reassuring or horrifying.
HARLINE: Yeah, that’s right. Exactly. Exactly. But that’s the whole reason of studying history on its terms, of also not reading history backwards, knowing the outcome, because it didn’t have to go that way. It could have gone a different way. So it really opens up your own possibilities when you study history rightly, I think.
HODGES: That’s Craig Harline. He’s a professor of history at Brigham Young University and he’s the author of books including Sunday: A History of The First Day from Babylonia to the Super Bowl. He’s an author of Way Below the Angels—the subtitle on this one, “The pretty clearly troubled but not even close to tragic confessions of a real life Mormon missionary.” And he also wrote the brand new book, A World Ablaze: The Rise of Martin Luther and The Birth of the Reformation.
Before we go, let’s talk for a minute about the conference that’s coming up here at BYU in September. It’s called “The Living Reformation: 500 Years of Martin Luther.”
HARLINE: That’s right. On September 15th. It’s a one day event. Going from I think nine o’clock in the morning until five thirty. There’s eight different speakers and then that evening a musical extravaganza, Reformation music for one hour. It will be in Provo. But yeah, eight speakers from around the U.S., experts on Luther, experts on the Reformation, experts on the legacy of the Reformation. I think four of the speakers are specialists in European history and four in American history. So we’ll be talking very much about Luther’s legacy. I’ll be the one not talking about legacy, but talking about what Luther actually did.
HODGES: What sparked this conference?
HARLINE: I think a conversation with Spencer Fluhman, the director of the Maxwell Institute, and wanting to just commemorate here at BYU the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation in 2017. I think that was it. And then we started talking to some other people, I asked some people if they were interested in coming and they were. And so—
HODGES: You got some big names.
HARLINE: Yeah. We’re really happy with the people who are coming.
HODGES: It’s going to be good. We have more information about that at mi.byu.edu/luther500 for people that would like to attend either the conference sessions itself or some of the musical events surrounding it. There will be an evensong the night before. There will be a concert of Reformation music on the evening of the conference. So it looks to be a really exciting thing.
HARLINE: And it is a conference designed for laypeople general, not for professors, not for scholars of Luther. It’s designed very much for general audience.
HODGES: We’ll have more information available on the conference soon. Craig, thank you so much for taking the time to talk about your new book.
HARLINE: You’re welcome. I was glad to be here.
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