One more thing about that Luther pilgrimage

Luther's death mask

Have I mentioned that I’m not a big fan of Martin Luther?

I returned a few days ago from a series of meetings in Berlin with other pastors serving international churches.  The trip included some sight-seeing in Wittenberg, Herrnhut, and Dresden – in other words, Luther (and Count von Zinzendorf) country.

What seemed obvious was that the German government is gearing up for a big celebration in 2017, the 500th anniversary of the year Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door.  Buildings are undergoing renovations, tour guides are sharpening their monologues, and even the gift shops are expanding their inventories.

Luther beer, anyone?

I knew a few facts about Luther’s life and teachings before the trip – the fierce anti-Semitism of his last years, for example. But a few facts were new to me. His attacks on the Catholic church were not quite as brave as I had been led to believe. Jan Hus was burned at the stake a century earlier for what the Catholic church called his “heresies,” but the biggest threat to Luther’s life came from overeating.

At one stop our guide was asked why a mostly secular country like Germany would be so keen to preserve Luther’s memory.

The guide, who had a brand-new Ph.D. in German history and was eager to demonstrate what he knew, especially with a group of mostly-Lutheran pastors, had a quick and unexpected answer. Luther, he said, is remembered in twenty-first century Germany not so much for the Reformation but for his translation of the Bible into German.  Before Luther’s German Bible, we were told, the German language was a series of dialects and not really a national language at all.

The new Bible standardized the language.

I’m not sure why that statement didn’t affect me at the time. Maybe it was because we were hurrying on to the next important Luther artifact. The death mask, maybe? But today, while working on my sermon for Sunday, it suddenly occurred to me that Luther would be devastated.

Really? After a life devoted to teaching the Christian faith, he is remembered today mainly for his contributions to German grammar and spelling?

I’m speechless. (And for a preacher that’s a serious matter.) I’m actually starting to feel sympathetic to the man.

(Photo: That’s Luther’s death mask, made following his death on February 18, 1546, in his hometown of Eisleben. I know, right?)


About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

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8 Responses to One more thing about that Luther pilgrimage

  1. Jean Spyksma May 23, 2014 at 9:55 am #

    Martin Luther also contributed some of the finest hymn texts ever written. Of course, A Mighty Fortress is attributed to him, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg textually. They are rich with theology and admired and utilized by people of all denominations.

    • Doug May 23, 2014 at 10:13 am #

      Hi,Jean. I would have enjoyed seeing you give our guide a piece of your mind!

      • Jean Spyksma May 24, 2014 at 1:01 pm #

        That guide probably likes praise music! Lol.

  2. Craig May 23, 2014 at 12:12 pm #

    I really enjoyed the 2003 movie “Luther,” starring Joseph Fiennes (Ralph’s brother). If you haven’t seen it!

    • Doug May 24, 2014 at 1:11 am #

      I somehow missed that, Craig. Will have to look it up. Thanks for the tip.

  3. František Janák May 23, 2014 at 3:27 pm #

    Well, Jan Hus held also some heretical views that would be recognized as unorthodox by many churches today as well, i. e. that the validity of sacraments DEPENDS on the faith and morality of the priest, which is contradicting an authorative decision of the Church long time ago and has been passed on ever since (and I think that changing it would be madness).

    I think that the significance of Martin Luther does not lie in the risks of his “revolt” against the Western Church (and there were risk looming, he could have been killed easily), but in his sincere desire to find and define how a sinful, unworthy, and filthy man can find a loving God and be saved, so that he can find consolation and peace. We Lutherans generally believe that no other reformer did this better (while affirming that there are things he is weaker in and other reformers may have done it better….but not the sacraments, for example, of course).

    And to be honest, the fact he, even though he never stopped being aware of his sinfulness and unworthiness, could enjoy life through many means makes me glad to be Lutheran. One Wittenberg beer for me, please! 🙂

    • František Janák May 23, 2014 at 3:43 pm #

      Addadendum: The problem with Lutheranism is that many churches are Lutheran by name, but not much by faith – the knowledge of Book of Concord is weaker and weaker (or worse, they interpret it too loosely or even some translations omit whole sentences…), they does not distinguish between later additions and BoC teachings (e. g. universal priesthood (idea from Pia Desiderata)vs. spiritual priesthood (Luther”s teaching)), they do not hold original views of the Bible, they are more influenced by their own national culture and church development than by Luther, Chemnitz and co etc. etc. So no wonder, that even Lutherans may not recognize and celebrate Luther for his theology…it is too alien to them. Lutheran faith is slowly dissolving its unique identity, it seems :/

    • Doug May 24, 2014 at 1:15 am #

      Thanks for the thoughtful response, Frantisek. And of course I agree with you about all of Luther’s many contributions to Christian thought. What I found so sad was to hear from a young German university teacher that Luther is remembered today mainly for his contributions to the language. I hope you’ll keep reminding us that Luther contributed a bit more than that.