Where Luther went wrong



At three inches high, a mini Martin Luther, complete with plastic quill, gown and tiny bible, has become Playmobil’s most popular figure ever. The first production run of 34,000 went in seventy-two hours, and hundreds of thousands have been sold since. I even have one myself, a present from German friends I visited in Cologne earlier this year.

It was released to commemorate 500 years since the Protestant Reformation, traditionally dated to 31st October 1517, when German monk Martin Luther nailed 95 controversial theses to the door of the church at Wittenberg Castle, challenging the supremacy of the Catholic church. Four years later, under pressure to recant, Luther uttered the famous words which became a testament to the primacy of individual conscience against all forms of tyranny: “Here I stand. I can do no other. So help me God.”

Or so the traditional account goes. Modern historians  are sceptical of the actual details of both events. But it makes for a great story. And there’s no doubting that Luther was a figure of huge significance, who kicked off a chain of events which shook Europe and helped shape the modern world.

His achievements were considerable. The abuses he identified in the church of his day led not only to the emergence of the Lutheran church in Germany and to Protestant churches elsewhere, but also prompted the Catholic church itself to launch its own internal movement for reform not long after. We are all, Catholic and Protestant alike, indebted to Martin Luther.

But in many ways his theology was questionable. Take his attitude to the bible. Martin Luther was a theology professor as well as a monk, and lectured extensively on the bible. He was extremely keen that ordinary Christians should be able to read the bible for themselves, and his translation of the bible into German was as influential in shaping German language and culture as the King James Bible was in England.

But Luther went further. In his view, neither church tradition, nor philosophy nor human reason, can really help us understand God. Instead, in contrast with the Catholic church, he believed the bible alone was the only true source of Christian theology. The bible alone – sola scriptura in Latin – became one of the rallying cries for the Protestant reformation.

Fast forward 500 years and we can see the shortcomings of this approach. Nineteenth century debates about evolution, and contemporary disputes on sexuality and gender, have all been hampered by an insistence from some Christians on doing theology on the basis of the bible alone, ignoring insights from elsewhere.

It’s an approach which leads to an intellectual dead end. We can’t come to a proper understanding of creation by reading the bible alone, to the exclusion of contemporary biology or physics. Nor can we hope to understand the complex ethical issues we face today without engaging with philosophy and the social sciences. For all Luther’s individual genius, there is a direct line from the reformation principle of sola scriptura to the intellectual bankruptcy of modern fundamentalism.

Was Luther right to champion the bible? Absolutely. The scriptures are at the very heart of our faith. We read them weekly in church, and should be reading them daily at home. But the bible alone? No room for science, philosophy, human reason or experience when we are thinking through complex issues of Christian faith, life and doctrine? That’s where Luther went wrong.

And the church remains plagued by his legacy today.



3 thoughts on “Where Luther went wrong

  1. Jock Birney says:

    It is too much to expect of any man that he can speak comprehensively to a generation 500 years on. Even Shakespeare, an equivalent achiever, has to be interpreted by reference to our life today, not life in the 1590’s. Lets just rejoice that he did what he did. And ignore any connection with fundamentalism today.

  2. Magnus Grimond says:

    You are so right about the zealots who – amazingly – still argue for the primacy of the Bible. I work with highly educated people who apparently believe that Biblical explanations trump geology and biology. Perhaps the more important legacy of Luther is our Western willingness to challenge authority and champion logic. Arguably, these are some of the reasons we enjoy, for better or worse, our tolerant, liberal and affluent society. Unfortunately, these great achievements seem to be under attack all over the world.

  3. david broad says:

    Am I right that Protestantism in Great Britain has never really clicked with Luther and the Lutheran CHurch ? Calvin more so perhaps – with Knox and with Non-conformists more generally ? I can’t see Methodists and Wesley owing much to Lutheranism . And yet I assume the Lutheran CHurch in northern Germany and Scandinavia has in general ( Nazism excepted) been a huge force for good.

    Is the Anglican Church too ‘Catholic’ for Lutheran tastes ? Too many bishops ? Oddly, my very own ( low-church ) CMS missionary ancestors worked hand in hand in South India with Lutheran pastors throughout the 19th century and in successive generations married their serious daughters . Of course German cultural influence in Britain pretty much ended in 1914 but before that did Lutheranism , I wonder, make its presence felt over here in any way?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *