Another Look: The Apocalyptic Luther


Note from CM: This was first posted as an IM Book Review in December, 2012. I offer it again today (with a few edits), because it brings together emphases from this past week of posts: eschatology and the Reformation. It was eye-opening to me to realize the extent to which Luther was influenced by Last Days thinking, and the urgency therefore to proclaim the good news of justification by faith alone to the people of his day. I wonder what we should take from this and how it might alter our perception of the Reformation itself and what has grown out of it.

• • •

If you want to read a biography of Martin Luther, it is probably wise to start with one that outlines his life and times in fairly standard terms. I would recommend Roland Bainton’s classic, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. Those who are interested in a more comprehensive study should check out Martin Brecht’s three volume set, which gives the most detailed description of Luther’s life and work available in an English language biography.

But if you want to be exposed to a groundbreaking perspective that will create an indelible impression of Martin Luther as a medieval religious man, caught up in what he considered to be a profound battle between the forces of God and the Devil in the End Times, then I recommend you consider one of the best books I’ve read in recent years: Heiko Oberman’s Luther: Man Between God and the Devil.

Oberman’s thesis, vividly drawn and defended, is summarized in his prologue:

Luther-Oberman-Heiko-A-9780300103137Luther’s measure of time was calibrated with yardsticks other than those of modernity and enlightenment, progress and tolerance. Knowing that the renewal of the Church could be expected to come only from God and only at the end of time, he would have had no trouble enduring curbs on the Evangelical movement. According to Luther’s prediction, the Devil would not “tolerate” the rediscovery of the Gospel; he would rebel with all his might, and muster all his forces against it. God’s Reformation would be preceded by a counterreformation, and the Devil’s progress would mark the Last Days. For where God is at work — in man and in human history — the Devil, the spirit of negation, is never far away.

To understand Luther, we must read the history of his life from an unconventional perspective. It is history “sub specie aeternitatis,” in the light of eternity; not in the mild glow of constant progress toward Heaven, but in the shadow of the chaos of the Last Days and the imminence of eternity.”

Oberman introduces us to the apocalyptic Luther.

It was in the summer of 1514 that Martin Luther first raised his voice against practices regarding indulgences in the Church. Heiko Oberman tells us that the young theologian had an eschatological framework informing his concerns. Luther’s views were shaped in this regard primarily by Augustine and St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Bernard had developed Augustine’s views of the Last Days, devising a scheme of three epochs, marked by the Devil’s attacks against the Church:

  • The epoch of the Holy Fathers and Martyrs, when the Church suffered bloody persecutions;
  • The epoch of the heretics, when attacks on Christian doctrine threatened the Church;
  • The epoch of the last days, when the Church will be corrupted from within and Antichrist will arise to seduce believers. Only Christ himself can finally overcome him, at his return.

As Oberman says, “From the very start it was clear to Luther that Jesus’ prophecy of the Last Days fully applied to the situation of the Church in his time. With Bernard’s warnings in mind he concluded already in 1514: ‘The way I see it, the Gospel of St. Matthew counts such perversions as the sale of indulgences among the signs of the Last Days.’”

This casts an entirely different light on the Reformation. How did Luther view his reforming efforts? What were they intended to achieve? What did he hope would be their outcome?

First, he never expected that the Reformation would defeat the Adversary. Rather, he understood what was happening as the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy that the true Gospel would be preached in the Last Days. While this would certainly benefit the Church, it would also lead to an intensification of attacks on God’s people leading to Christ’s return.

Second, for Luther the “Counter-Reformation” had come first, and the “Reformation” was God’s work to maintain a faithful witness in the world and give solace to his suffering Church. The Devil had struck the blow and Antichrist was rising to power. Only Christ himself would be able to bring about his ultimate defeat. Luther saw his work as equipping the church to persevere and proclaim the true gospel until God’s intervention at the end.

Third, the Devil had also attacked the world’s institutions, so Luther worked for the “betterment” (rather than reformation) of secular rights and political order. Despite his apocalyptic perspective, Luther did not promote abandoning the world, God’s creation, to chaos. He supported its leaders and encouraged the development of its temporal institutions, such as education, in an effort to combat the Devil’s attacks and provide for those affected by them.

* * *

Heiko Oberman’s insights remind us that Martin Luther was, indeed, a medieval man who worked out of a conceptual world much different than modern thinkers. Spiritual, eschatological, and apocalyptic realities were as vivid and alive to him as the world of sense and experience.

…Christ and the Devil were equally real to him: one was the perpetual intercessor for Christianity, the other a menace to mankind till the end. To argue that Luther never overcame the medieval belief in the Devil says far too little; he even intensified it and lent to it additional urgency: Christ and Satan wage a cosmic war for mastery over Church and world. No one can evade involvement in this struggle. Even for the believer there is no refuge — neither monastery nor the seclusion of the wilderness offer him a chance for escape. The Devil is the omnipresent threat, and exactly for this reason the faithful need the proper weapons for survival.

There is no way to grasp Luther’s milieu of experience and faith unless one has an acute sense of his view of Christian existence between God and the Devil: without a recognition of Satan’s power, belief in Christ is reduced to an idea about Christ — and Luther’s faith becomes a confused delusion in keeping with the tenor of his time.

Martin Luther saw the spiritual battles of his day in apocalyptic terms. In his view, it was under the dark, foreboding clouds of the great apostasy and the rise of Antichrist in the Last Days that the Reformer raised up the gospel and sought to strengthen the Church against Satan’s onslaughts.

Clinging firmly to that gospel, between God and the Devil he stood, until Christ would bring the true and ultimate Reformation, the renewal of all things.

42 thoughts on “Another Look: The Apocalyptic Luther

  1. Sounds like the Dead…..

    Totally off topic but I have been enjoying bits of entertainment from the Lutheran Satire series on YouTube… as an observer seems there is just as much stomach upset with fundamentalist points of view as with us Catholics… Some funny perspectives on the Pope… sometimes its good to laugh at oneself.


  2. Before you ask, “Left Behind” starts as a disaster story, but morphs into action / adventure, like a military thriller where the enemy is the antichrist. Perhaps it reflects a conservative Protestant fear of liberalism and secularism?

    I think it reflects a hack writer of bad fanfic who looks in the mirror and sees Ian Fleming or Tom Clancy.

    (You DO know the two main characters with the porn-star names and canonical slashfic setups who go running around as Tribulation Force/roving POV characters are both Author Self-Inserts, don’t you?)


  3. Like an Adam and Eve hiding in the garden reference, I only mean to say that I could be caught up with looking for his appearing but not see him in my self absorbed times and sinfulness. It is at those times that he would have been looking for me. In the end it is always about him seeking us out (the lost sheep). It’s his advance toward us which is our salvation.


  4. Why would you? I mean, it’s great that you stay informed about current events, but if Jesus comes looking for you, he ought to know where to find you.


  5. The Catholic teaching is that Christ returns in every celebration of the mass. On one hand the Kingdom is said to be in some sense already here; on the other, we have a lot of work to do in terms of loving our neighbor, feeding the hungry, etc. Whether all that end-times imagery has any meaning beyond this is the subject of some disagreement. Catholic speculation about prophecies and such is often found in the context of Marian apparitions, which the church keeps at arm’s length.


  6. The Transformers are heroes, but one could make a case that they represent concerns about technology. (I haven’t seen the movies.) Godzilla is a pretty transparent allusion to nuclear war. Edward Cullen is supposed to be a handsome heartthrob, though fathers of daughters are likely to be less stricken with him, so yes–he is their nightmare.

    Continuing with other popular modern apocalyptic genres: zombies seem to represent the breakdown of society, although there is also a comic element (for example, satirizing consumerism in Dawn of the Dead). The evolution in our depiction of aliens may reflect real-life shifts in our attitude towards human foreigners. Disaster movies (such as “Armageddon”) are more about personal mortality–they hardly ever allow the earth to be destroyed. “Devil movies” are usually too moody and suspenseful to count as apocalyptic, except maybe for Omen 3 (where Jesus came back and beat Damien with magic or something–still no war, though). “The Rapture” and “The Leftovers” are more thoughtful studies of human psychology and society, using what the writers seem to acknowledge to be a silly premise.

    Before you ask, “Left Behind” starts as a disaster story, but morphs into action / adventure, like a military thriller where the enemy is the antichrist. Perhaps it reflects a conservative Protestant fear of liberalism and secularism? “Omega Code” is more or less the same thing. “A Thief in the Night” had moments of straight-up horror (the guillotine scene), but I’ve only seen clips. Here the underlying fear seems to be one of going to hell for believing the wrong things, or making the wrong choices.


  7. “I may be going to hell in a bucket, babe,
    but at least I’m enjoying the ride,
    At least I’m enjoying the ride…”


  8. “…I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing…”


  9. I’ll just say that while most of my energy is focused on my corner of the world I keep one eye open. It is prophesied that within the generation that meets Him upon His return there will be a large number of scoffers who have become completely dismissive because of the seeming delay. I go about my normal business but entertain an expectation that things could develop quote quickly. Like a thief in the night, right? If I die before he returns I may walk through those gates and say, “Where have you been? I’ve been looking for you.” To which I’ll probably hear, “Funny, I’ve been looking for you.”


  10. Adam, the Black Plague was a very serious matter, and left a deep impression on people that lasted well into Luther’s time, and beyond. We have nothing to compare with it in our experience, nothing on that scale, and so our apocalyptic fantasies are far more connected with what-ifs (what if there was a nuclear meltdown, what if a huge meteor hit the Earth, what if the Yellowstone super-volcano went active, what if Ebola mutated into an airborne disease) than remember-whens (remember when a third of the people in our mountain village, and all the villages around, died from the Black Plague?).

    Most of those today who consume apocalyptic fantasies as entertainment have had no experience of events approaching even a small degree of the cataclysmic seriousness that the Black Plague carried in its wake, not even in contemporary wars and natural disasters. Combine such an epic event, and experience, with the hyperactive religious imagination of the middle-ages, and you have a zeitgeist, and a palpable public fear, that would resemble very little in our contemporary world. This is apocalyptic fear born of experience, and of a different order, than what we mean when we talk about apocalypse in our contemporary world. I don’t think we have anything to compare it with now.


  11. ISTM that Luther’s view of Pope and RCC as “Antichrist” was a part of his apocalyptic thinking and, since the End didn’t come, perhaps those who still think this way might want to reconsider.


  12. When The World Ends Tomorrow and It’s All Gonna Burn, don’t expect anyone to plan ahead or dare great things. It becomes all about having the best Wretched Urgency Fire Insurance sales record at the Great White Throne.


  13. Problem is, in the Evangelical Circus of early 21st Century America, ESCHATOLOGY = APOCALYPTIC, A = A.

    I was a couple years in-country before I realized the Bible had more books than Daniel, Revelation, the Nuclear War Chapter of Ezekiel, and Hal Lindsay. Because all three rings of the circus I was in was All Apocalyptic, All The Time.


  14. So our current society lives in secret fear of giant shape changing robots from outer space? Or giant nuclear breathing lizards which have slept on the bottom of the ocean for a millennium? Or vampires? [of any of a variety of dispositions; does Edward Cullin represent every single father’s nightmare?].

    I get what you are saying – but I wonder if it holds true in an era of industrialized entertainment. Certainly there is more and less serious dystopian literature [and even movies], but how would an archeologist sift the wow-pop-glitz from the real cultural [assuming we are one culture] zeitgeist(s)? Color me skeptical, and skeptical also of our being able to accurately read the zeitgeist of a history multiple hundreds of years ago. That is a tall order, and one where our own such fears, biases, and expectations can easily taint what we see in the past.

    Media has always been produced for an intended audience – such as the previous era’s “penny dreadful”, or the florid brimstone sermons of the colonies [when preachers were clearly competing with each other as an art form]. Do such documents accurately portray the overall fears and hopes of an age or even a majority of its occupants? Or are they merely what remains for us to find?


  15. Was this italicized quote supposed to be followed by your explanation and commentary?


  16. You want to know the fears and worries of a culture at a place and time, check out their Dystopias and Apocalyptic literature.


  17. > You won’t find me holding a sign on the corner but I am not
    > dismissive of the latest news either.

    Ultimately isn’t this waiting while not waiting?

    How does one constantly watch “the latest news” in a eschatological view without becoming exhausted? Wars, famine, pestilence, they come and they go. Certain calamity looms and then blows away like so much mist.

    > Scripture does warn us not to be caught unawares in that regard

    I am not certain that watching for signs is the “regard” scripture is talking about.


  18. How true. The greatest actors on the historical world stage, prophets, politicians and the like have spent the great substance of their lives in the ‘in between’. If we don’t find Christ there we will scarcely find him in the dramas.


  19. That is wise that you won’t be holding a sign at the corner. I think Christ wants to “catch” us busy at our vocations in this life – including faithfully doing all of the mundane stuff that makes up most of life. That is quite different from the people who quit their vocations and essentially drop out of life in anticipation that Christ will return on a certain date.


  20. The catastrophe that looms just beyond tomorrow will have stemmed from the praxis of today; its origin will have been internal, not external, to the society. Whether the contributing dysfunctions belong to the sphere of technology or economics or politics, they will, in their convergence, generate the stereotypical effects of social destructuration, many times amplified by existing instrumentalities.


  21. There is a way in which you are never wrong to consider your time as the end time or at the least to be particularly aware and open to its possibility. Scripture does warn us not to be caught unawares in that regard and chastises those who are. You won’t find me holding a sign on the corner but I am not dismissive of the latest news either. The first time the Christ appeared there was a group of people awaiting Him. The second will be the same but no one knows the day or the hour. Perhaps the longing anticipation of His bride is a living factor in His return.


  22. There’s a book titled “Anti Christ” (don’t remember the author” a friend gave me some years ago, which traced the idea of Antichrist through history.

    Turned out classically there were two archetypes of Antichrist, based on the two meanings of “anti-” in Greek: The Fanatic Persecutor (“Anti-” as “in opposition to”) and The Slick Deceiver (“Anti-” as “in imitation of”). The Fanatic Persecutor comes from outside the Church; the Slick Deceiver from within. And the two Antichrists work very well as a tag team; in fleeing the Fanatic Persecutor, you flee to (and take the Mark of) the Slick Deceiver.

    In today’s Apocalyptic Fever, the Slick Deceiver is forgotten; the only Antichrist acknowledged (and looked for) is the Fanatic Persecutor.


  23. “So all that to say that I cam away from Oberman’s book considering Luther not so much apocalyptic as eschatological.”

    That makes sense to me, too.


  24. I really appreciated Oberman’s work, and recommend it to anyone who is a student of the times. However, I would temper a lot of what he writes by noting a few things. First, there is a whole library of other writings from the time which are immediately, blatantly, and severely apocalyptic – Storch, Dreschel, Stubner, Muntzer – to name a few. Luther’s writings stand in pretty sharp contrast to these his contemporaries. Second, Luther is significantly less apocalyptic than many evangelical writers today. Third, the focus of Luther’s writing was essentially pastoral – how to live in this world – and was pretty simple and this worldly (as one might expect from a monk). The Small Catechism, for example, essentially teaches people to live quietly, love God and neighbor, and obey the local authorities. So if there were apocalyptic concerns (and I think there were, and I think Oberman establishes this), they weren’t of the sort to influence any kind of odd instruction to the people.

    So all that to say that I cam away from Oberman’s book considering Luther not so much apocalyptic as eschatological.


  25. >The epoch of the last days, when the Church will be corrupted from within
    > and Antichrist will arise to seduce believer

    This phrasing of the apocalypse seems different than the one common today. Today the common model seems to be the church as a remnant and the anti-chrism primarily as a [monstrous] world-power. Or maybe “remnant” means the same thing – the uncorrupted portion of the church. But don’t earlier renditions of the end times seem to have a much more prominent role for the church? Is dispensationalism in part a reaction to the diminished societal role of the church and thus a corresponding rewrite of the end-times story?

    Is there a book/text/author that discusses the changes in the rendition of end-times over time? That would be very interesting.


  26. >apocalypse was a widespread concern across the late European medieval world

    If one watched current media or read current books – one would think that apocalypse is a widespread concern at least in the United States. But is it, really? Can apocalyptic literature be common place among a people and that same people, in the large, not be driven by apocalyptic concerns? It seems like it. Someone unconcerned with apocalypse is not likely to produce anti-apocalyptic media – they don’t care.

    I am not disagreeing with what you say; but it is important not to look at history solely through a theological/religious lens. There were many currents moving at that time [I suppose there always are] and an order of magnitude more actors outside the circle of the church as within in. Notably Luther was influential with the newly [at the time] ascending merchant class for whom apocalypse/revolution may not have been a strong selling point and who had their own – not so theological – reasons to be interested in institutional reforms. Merchants and all those in commerce do not generally like upheaval but prefer controlled change at an expected pace.


  27. > But he [Luther] went in a different direction than did the radicals who
    > Luther’s thought that kept him away from utopian thinking?

    A great question. I have no idea. But this is something I wonder about – the impulse that seems to push people towards establishmentarian/participatory or revolutionary modes [isolationism even in is moderate Clapham like modes is, ultimately, a revolutionary mode]. While I for a long time wanted to find, and probably most people who read blogs like this one want to find, a structured theological/philosophical underpinning for why a given person/thinker moves toward one mode or the other – I cannot help wonder if this is in the final measure a matter of personality. It seems to play out over and over; those with notable long-term peer friendships tend establishmentarian while revolutionary types have more hierarchical relationships and tend to have tumultuous, or just fewer, relationships.

    I don’t know enough about Luther’s personal life to know where he would come to rest on that spectrum [this estimation would have to be made with deliberately setting aside his last years when he was possibly developing some type of mental illness].

    No doubt there is also a feedback loop effect built into this mode selection, as with most things.


  28. Yes, Luther seemed to be willing to accept a compromise with time and life in the world, even though he had apocalyptic tendencies, and what he seemed to have against the radicals is that they refused this compromise and instead sought the imminent Kingdom through the “purity” of the Church. The deeper currents in Luther’s theology, specifically his theology of the Cross, tempered his apocalyptic tendencies, tendencies which were typical of the world he lived in, since apocalypse was a widespread concern across the late European medieval world.


  29. What are the keys to Luther’s thought that kept him away from utopian thinking?

    The “Theology of the Cross”. If the path to salvation is through sin, suffering and humiliation, that kind of precludes any sort of triumphalism. 😉


  30. Luther thought that the end of the world was soon to be. But he went in a different direction than did the radicals who would come a little later- for example, the radicals who took over the city of Munster. As the article says, Luther sought a “betterment” of secular institutions as a way of fighting the devil’s influence. We see that the radicals, on the other hand, sought to destroy institutions and set up a utopia as a way to herald the Second Coming. What are the keys to Luther’s thought that kept him away from utopian thinking? I can imagine if one did not see human works as being salvific, then one would not long for a human utopia but one might work for more modest goals.


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