Monday with Michael Spencer: Luther and Today’s Evangelicals

Note from CM: We get back to some posts about the Reformation, which were interrupted by tributes to Eugene Peterson last week. Today, Michael Spencer reminds us of one of contemporary evangelicalism’s genuine flaws — its inability to grasp accurate and complex views of history. Case in point: their simplistic view of Martin Luther.

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Monday with Michael Spencer
In which he explains how evangelicals don’t really get Luther

[C]ompared to most Protestants, Luther was highly Catholic, right down to his view of Mary. Take a Southern Baptist to any traditional Lutheran service and ask what’s different in this service and the mass down the street. Though the differences are substantial to the informed observer, to the unaware, a Lutheran service appears very much a version of a Roman Catholic mass. (I would assume a lot of evangelicals would say the Lutherans know little about Luther and have gone back to Rome.)

Luther’s very catholic theology of the sacraments would be offensive to most evangelicals, and his historic opposition (and endorsed violence) to the Anabaptists would surprise many who cite him as the defender of the great Protestant principles. How many who wear Luther t-shirts understand Luther’s view of infant faith, baptism and the real presence?

Luther’s connection to the broad Roman Catholic tradition was for stronger than his connection to the Biblical radicalism of the radical reformers. Similarly, many who cite Luther seem completely unaware of his rejection of the Calvinistic reformation’s view of the sacraments and the resulting split between Calvin, Zwingli and Luther. A staunch Lutheran will bristle at the notion that Luther is part of the “Reformed” movement or that today’s evangelicals are using the name of the Augsburg Evangelicalism. And they should bristle at this abduction of the “parts” of Luther that evangelicals want to use.

What we see is Luther used, not understood. Parts of the Luther story are bought, repainted and utilized for the purposes of the evangelical. Luther’s boldness and courage are attributes that evangelical theologians want to import into their own ministries, so they do so while ignoring much of the Luther legacy that goes in an entirely different direction. The real Luther is too complex for most of those who use him as an icon.

I applaud the endorsement of reading historical biography among contemporary evangelicals, but I would suggest that many of the biographies point to highly altered versions of the personality being examined. In many instances, these selective biographies would be found highly distorted by scholars.

A fair biography will place a personality in his/her time, will use all the information available to draw an accurate picture, and then relate the person to the contemporary situation without turning them into a representative of any movement. In other words, Luther can be seen as a significant person in Christianity, but his disapproval of most of what goes on in contemporary churches won’t be lost. (Sorry Baptists, but he’d probably have you killed.)

A good example of this kind of biography is Jonathan Edwards: A Life, by George Marsden. Edwards’ psychological quirks and failures of maturity and pastoral competence are all there, but Edwards survives as a person we can admire. What won’t survive is the use of Edwards as an endorser of everything going on among today’s Calvinists.

Before closing this post, let me suggest two very different books on Luther. Richard Marius has written Martin Luther: The Christian between God and Death. It is a rip-roaring good read that diagnoses Luther as the distorted personality at the root of everything wrong with western civilization, particular in its ideas about God, hell and truth. Marius’s Luther is the ruination of a reasonable, tolerant classical world. He will say things virtually no evangelical could possibly say, but that need to be said. I recommend the book.

On the other end of the scale is a very reasonable, modest, moderate, dependable biography: Martin Luther: A Life, by Martin Marty. When all the biographies are sorted out, Marty has his hand on the most likely picture of Luther: flawed, great, spiritual, troubled, trapped in his world, still influencing ours.

30 thoughts on “Monday with Michael Spencer: Luther and Today’s Evangelicals

  1. I agree with you about Francis de Sales, who wrote so powerfully in opposition to Calvin’s teachings:

    ““” In spite of the all-powerful strength of God’s merciful hand,
    which touches, enfolds and bends the souls with so many inspirations, calls and attractions,
    the human will remains perfectly FREE, unfettered, and exempt from every form of constraint and necessity.

    Grace is so gracious, and so graciously does it seize our hearts in order to draw them on, that it in no wise impairs the liberty of our will…
    grace has a holy violence, not to violate our liberty but to make it full of love…it presses us but does not oppress our freedom…”

    (Francis de Sales)


  2. Nope, not the Filioque; that was only one of the problems that led to the Great Schism, and from the EO point of view, even though both are at fault it was the RCs who finally walked away… But there was the split between the EOrthodox and the the Oriental Orthodox (erroneously sometimes viewed as “Nestorians” – they aren’t true Nestorians). The bishops from the areas farthest from Constantinople (Copts, Ethiopians, Armenians, Indians, a few others) weren’t able to attend the the Fourth Ecumenical Council in AD 451 because the Persians were waging war against the Eastern Romans and it wasn’t safe to try to cross the war zone. The bishops couldn’t assent to and affirm what was hammered out there because they couldn’t attend and weren’t part of the discussion. We’ve been out of communion ever since.

    However, this also isn’t an argument about dogma on a “Reformation level,” but rather how to put into words what we are able to say about Jesus being both God and Man. My understanding is that when you get down to the bedrock, we believe the same things about who Jesus is; we simply disagree on the verbiage. The EOs and OOs have been having discussions on this for the last 40 years or so, and this is one split that might be healed in my lifetime. I pray for it. I don’t see any way Protestants are going to ever be part of the Catholic fold again.



  3. “Our history doesn’t include a schismatic Reformation-type event.”

    – Ah, wasn’t it called the fiioque clause? 😀


  4. Long ago in my college years as a German major, my Survey of German Lit class read a few of the German Counter-Reformation poets. Those works are some of the best devotional writing ever. Not to mention Francis de Sales, who through his writing and preaching on the love of God persuaded quite a few people in Geneva and vicinity (!) that Calvinism was not all it was cracked up to be…. His is also some of the best devotional writing ever, with much sound advice for the healing of souls.



  5. There was a fight in Russia between monks who believed monasteries should own property and those who believed they shouldn’t. With typical Orthodox consistency, the leaders of both factions were canonized.


  6. Any religious movement struggles to maintain its early enthusiasm. This is especially true when we are talking over many generations. We see this in the history of Protestantism, where a couple centuries in the established Protestant churches are overly comfortable. Methodism was a response in Britain, with Pietism a simultaneous response in Germany.

    The particular problem with Medieval monasticism was that a notably pious foundation would attract donors. The point of the donations was to have godly persons pray for the donor’s soul, freeing him of the inconvenience of living a godly life himself. So the piety of the order mattered a lot. But once an order became rich, this would tend to attract members there for less pious reasons. This was a systemic flaw with the monastic system, at least in the West. I don’t know enough about Eastern monasticism to say.


  7. Ackchyually, there was little thing called the Counter-Reformation. Ever hear of it?

    I’m a little more enamored of it than I am of V2. I think it did well dealing with Luther’s objections, but within the Tao of the Universal Church. V2 is more of a belated reaction to the Enlightenment.


  8. As in starts out as a legit reform movement but then the money gets too good and “I Got Stupid”?


  9. Not an expert, either, but everything I’ve read about the history of EO has indicated that most of the “reforms” that were needed came from monasteries. Our history doesn’t include a schismatic Reformation-type event. (We’ve certainly had problems affecting our intercommunion. They’re part of what Fr Stephen calls our Original Incompetency.)



  10. I have seen the claim that the Roman church had a century or so earlier called a halt on the foundation of new orders, and this created the conditions for the Reformation. Someone like Luther, the argument goes, earlier on would have founded a new monastic order, which would have followed the usual trajectory of initial pious enthusiasm attracting wealthy donors, leading to inevitable complacency. With this outlet closed off, pressure built up and complete rupture was the result.

    I don’t claim to be qualified to assess this argument, but it certainly is interesting.


  11. Martin Luther is one of the greatest change agents in history. There are two views of history #1 that eventually the event would happen regardless of the actions of individuals, # 2 that individuals accelerated or promoted the history changing event. Luther was a product of his time, his education, his culture and certainly his religion. What if the Catholic Church had heeded some of the changes advanced by Luther?, we will never know.

    Most “evangelical” Christians understand the very basics of the Reformation certainly sola scripture or priesthood of the believer. That the average church goer does not know the entire story and nuances of the Reformation and Luther does not surprise or alarm me. Do Lutherans follow the dictates of a central authority Pope like authority or believe in the Apostolic succession? To many evangelicals that is enough and they do not think about it, any more than a Catholic would be interested in an altar call. That many evangelicals are not aware of the traditions and practices of the Lutheran Church is not breaking news.

    Of course the Reformation spilled over into politics, regional power, individual power grabs and all the major issues that form that period of time. A major change involving the very foundation of Europe society and government would create major upheaval. In todays world the description would be Luther had the street cred to plant the seeds of the Reformation, at least that is how we would describe it in my hood.

    Luther did put his money were his mouth was to use another term from my hood. I agree with Mel Brooks, the peasants are revolting.


  12. Interesting. ‘The Whig history of the world’. Now I have a name for what irks me.

    I wonder what the Tory view of history would be; “Things used to be wonderful until this rabble that knoweth not their place got out of hand.”


  13. Though the differences are substantial to the informed observer, to the unaware, a Lutheran service appears very much a version of a Roman Catholic mass.

    Because both are in the Western-Rite Liturgical Tradition.

    I applaud the endorsement of reading historical biography among contemporary evangelicals, but I would suggest that many of the biographies point to highly altered versions of the personality being examined.

    Isn’t that called “Hagiography”, i.e. mythologized biographies of saints?


  14. I have seen a tendency among American Evangelicals, who mostly come directly or indirectly from the Reformed tradition, to evaluate Luther as how Reformed was he. Calvinists seem particularly fond of this, leading to discussions of how many points Calvinist was he.

    This is plain silly. It is the Whiggish history of the Reformation. Whiggish history is history of the rise of mankind from brutes living in caves to the perfection that is Victorian England. Any person in history is analyzed by whether he (and that is almost always the correct pronoun) moved mankind toward or away from Victorian perfection. What he thought was important is irrelevant.

    Here we have the ecclesiastical equivalent. Calvin is the acme of human achievement. Anyone before or after him is assess on how Calvinist he (and it is almost always a “he”) was.

    A less silly reading of Reformation history is that the early reformers thought that once they agreed to look to scripture, they naturally would come to the same conclusions. This proved (and continues to prove) over-optimistic. Wackiness ensued. Eventually Protestantism sorted itself out into three broad camps: the Lutherans, the Reformed, and the Anabaptist. (Some count Anglican as a fourth branch. This is a discussion for another day.)

    Comparing the Lutheran and Reformed traditions, both looked at contemporary church practice in light of scripture. The Lutherans rejected any practice they judged contrary to scripture, while the Reformed rejected any practice they judged not mandated by scripture. The differences in praxis pretty much all follow from this.


  15. Luther of 1517 was more Catholic than the Luther of 1538. Luther is kind of a moving target.

    When I was casting about for a way to be more catholic after leaving Reformed-dom, the Wisconsin Synod got a nod. I can’t imagine any Roman Catholic feeling out of place in their Mass. In the end, they were too small and too “pure”. I think that goes with the territory for small, schismatic groups.


  16. > Calvin was very ignorant of certain aspects of human psychology

    Yeah, that could be said of a lot of these guys how ever. As in, “did you think that was going to hold/work?” To be fair I would level such a charge at the majority of the pastors I have had to work with; the inability to disentangle how people work with how one wishes to believe they work is a thing.

    On the other hand even the layman today has access to resources they could not even imagine – – – and several hundreds years of history in which Humanity demonstrates it’s proclivities over, and over, and over, and over, and over again.

    > and in fact recommended *against* focused speculation about it

    In defense of Calvin: He is right. Speculation is generally bad, and Speculative Theology [aka Most of Theology] is an Evil. But people are going to do it, especially if you put that doorway right in front of them, paint it bright yellow, with an “Enter Here” sign [which Calvin does].


  17. It is better to think of church in the ale-house than to think of the ale-house in church.

    There’s a Luther statement that should put some Southern Baptist knickers in a twist.


  18. Let’s see — God has made an eternal decree from before the beginning of time whereby your eternal destiny either to felicity or perdition has been predetermined — please don’t speculate very much about it?

    Calvin was very ignorant of certain aspects of human psychology, I guess.


  19. A lot of these misunderstandings and misuses would disappear if more folks actually read the original works of these guys. Luther and Calvin (although they differed greatly about the mechanisms) strongly believed in the Presence of Christ in the elements. In *The Bondage of the Will”, Luther comes across as more “Calvinist” on depravity than Calvin. Calvin himself, in his Institutes, devoted a scant few pages to predestination and in fact recommended *against* focused speculation about it.

    Such readings may not dissuade modern theologians from their chosen errors, but it may prevent them dragging past ones into their pissing contests. 😉


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