What to Do about Martin Luther?

Reformation Day (October 31) is upon us. This 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing up the 95 theses on the castle church door in Wittenberg, commentators have been looking for interesting things to say. Luther gives them no end of material.

How are Christians, and especially Protestant Christians who look back to “Father Luther” with gratitude, supposed to deal with all the terrible things said about him, about the terrible things he is supposed to have said?

Luther had his admirable points, of course. He looms over the Reformation as its most vivid figure: the monk who took on the pope and survived; the Saxon bumpkin who dazzled Rome’s finest debaters; the nobody teaching at Backward U in Nowheresville who held his own with the prince of humanists, Desiderius Erasmus.

Luther’s voluminous writings gave the initial shape to the Reformation. Just as Einstein had his annus mirabilis, 1905, during which he published four papers in the Annalen der Physik scientific journal any one of which would qualify him for the Nobel Prize, Luther published “Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation,” “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” and “The Freedom of the Christian Man” in 1520-21, which together outlined his vision of the church as a distinctly different kind of Christianity.

And Luther was a congenial symbol for the Reformation, a Falstaff with a theological doctorate whose “table talk” was so memorable that volumes of it appear in the giant collections of Luther’s works. John Calvin might have had the more orderly and capacious theological mind; Thomas Cranmer the greater gift for liturgical phrasing; Menno Simons an even more impressive courage under fire; and Luther’s own lieutenant Philip Melanchthon the superior political ability—but Luther was the one you wanted to dine and drink with.

Yet the Jews.

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