Looking at Luther with fresh eyes
With great profit and pleasure, I’m currently reading Alec Ryrie’s new book “Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World.” Among the many texts appearing in this year of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Ryrie’s stands out for its verve, clarity and historical sweep. In some ways, it is an answer to Brad Gregory’s “The Unintended Reformation,” though it lacks the intellectual depth and thoroughness of Gregory’s magisterial study.
What has so far intrigued me most of all in Ryrie’s book is his portrait of the undisputed father of the Reformation, Martin Luther. I will confess to a certain fascination with Luther. I have been reading his books, speeches and sermons for many years, and for about 10 years, when I was professor of theology at Mundelein Seminary, I taught a graduate level course in the Christian theology of the 16th century, which included, naturally, lots of Luther. Cantankerous, pious, very funny, shockingly anti-Semitic, deeply insightful and utterly exasperating, Luther was one of the most beguiling personalities of his time. And say what you want about his writings (I disagree with lots and lots of his ideas), they crackle with life and intensity, even in Latin! Though I’ve read and thought and talked about the founder of Protestantism for a long time, Ryrie has prompted me to squint at him in a fresh way.
It is obvious to everyone, Ryrie argues, that Luther was a fighter, taking on not only fellow intellectuals, but the curia, the pope and the emperor himself. And it is equally clear that he bequeathed this feistiness to his followers over these past five centuries: Zwingli, Calvin, Wilberforce, Lloyd Garrison, Billy Sunday, Karl Barth, etc. There is always something protesting about Protestantism. But to see this dimension alone is to miss the heart of the matter. For at the core of Luther’s life and theology was an overwhelming experience of grace.
After years of trying in vain to please God through heroic moral and spiritual effort, Luther realized that, despite his unworthiness, he was loved by a God who had died to save him. In the famous Turmerlebnis (Tower Experience) in the Augustinian monastery in Wittenberg, Luther felt justified through the sheer mercy of God. Though many others before him had sensed this amazing grace, Luther’s passion, in Ryrie’s words, “had a reckless extravagance that set it apart and which has echoed down Protestant history.” It is easy enough to see this ecstatic element in any number of prominent Protestant figures, from John Wesley to Friedrich Schleiermacher to John Newton. Luther was an ecstatic, and the religious movement he launched was “a love affair.”
This is why I say Ryrie has caused me to look at Luther in a new light. One of the standard matrices for understanding religion is the distinction between the mystical and the prophetic, or between the experiential and the rational. On the standard reading, Luther would fall clearly on the latter side of this divide. He is, it would seem, the theologian of the word par excellence. And indeed, we can find throughout his writings many critiques of priestcraft, sacramentalism, and what he called Schwarmerei or pious enthusiasm. Nevertheless, if Ryrie is right, this is to get only part, indeed a small part, of the story. At bottom, Luther was a mystic of grace, someone who had fallen completely in love—which helps enormously to explain what makes his theological ideas both so fascinating and so frustrating. People in love do and say extravagant things. So overwhelmed are they by the experience of the beloved that they are given to words such as “only” and “never” and “forever.” If you doubt me, read any of the great romantic poets, or for that matter, listen to a teenager speak about his first crush. After a lifetime of scrupulosity and interior struggle, Luther sensed the breakthrough of the divine grace through the mediation of the Bible. Hence, are we surprised that he would express his ecstasy in exaggerated, over the top language: “By grace alone! By faith alone! By the Scriptures alone!”
I think here of a distant spiritual descendent of Martin Luther, the Nobel laureate Bob Dylan. After his conversion to evangelical Christianity, Dylan wrote a lovely song called “Saving Grace,” which includes the lines, “I look around this old world/ And all that I’m finding/ Is the saving grace that’s over me.” Mind you, this is the same Dylan who, just a few years earlier, had sung of “guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children” and who had pulled the masks off of “masters of war” and who had complained of “Desolation Row.” But now—and this is the mark of the ecstatic—all that he sees is saving grace. In a more Catholic expression of the same experience, Georges Bernanos’s country priest could cry, “Toute est grace!” (Everything is grace!).
Beautiful? Poetically expressive? Spiritually evocative? Yes! But does it stand up to strict rational scrutiny? Of course not. What Ryrie’s characterization of Luther has helped me to see is how the great Solas of the Reformation can be both celebrated and legitimately criticized. Was Luther right to express his ecstatic experience of the divine love in just this distinctive way? And was, say, the Council of Trent right in offering a sharp theological corrective to Luther’s manner of formulating the relationship between faith and works and between the Bible and reason? I realize that it might annoy both my Catholic and Protestant friends even to pose the issue this way, but would answering “yes” to both those question perhaps show a way forward in the ecumenical conversation?