Formidable thinker and writer full of paradox

A statue in Wittenberg’s market square depicts Martin Luther with a copy of the New Testament,...
A statue in Wittenberg’s market square depicts Martin Luther with a copy of the New Testament, which he translated into German. Photo: German National Trust Board.
As the world marks 500 years since Martin Luther launched the Reformation, Peter Matheson reflects on a "difficult hero".

Not many folk are still remembered after 500 years. This year, however, is Luther500, a cool half-millennium since Martin Luther launched his Reformation. Because it shook up Europe politically, culturally and socially as well as religiously, splitting the North from the South, shaking the very foundations of medieval life: monasticism, the Holy Roman Empire, the papacy, and eventually erupting into England and Scotland, Luther is everywhere this year, on TV, radio, newspapers, a huge flood of books, even in popular weeklies like the German Spiegel.

Luther is in! Here in Dunedin, Luther is also making a big splash. Top scholars will arrive in the next couple of months from Germany and the United States, and about 20 lectures and seminars at the University of Otago will look at his ongoing impact, for good or ill.

There are to be exhibitions in libraries, and an ecumenical service. Some of the topics addressed in the lectures indicate the breadth of concerns: "A Jew’s Eye View of the Reformation", "The Spirit of the Reformation and Future of the Market Economy", "Luther, Durer and Cranach", "The Catholic Response", "Lutheranism at Ruapuke".

So, no triumphalist beating of the drum for Protestantism! Rather a critical and appreciative look at how change can transform not only perspectives but the whole cultural and political landscape, even trigger off revolutionary movements like the Peasants’ War.

Like ours, Luther’s was a scary, if exciting, time to live in.

As we face our own staggering challenges in everything from the environment, family life and crude populism to rampant technological change, it is invigorating to enter the apocalyptic expectations of the early modern world and see what it made of it.

Prof Amy Burnett, for example, will invite us to rethink all our prejudices about the Reformation.

She asks: "How important was Luther, anyway?"

We now know that the old scenario of Protestantism sweeping aside a tired and corrupt Church is nonsense.

Late medieval piety was vibrant.

Nor can we talk any longer of one Reformation. There were many: humanist, Catholic, Lutheran, Radical.

The "tragic necessity of the Reformation" may be a useful mantra to chant.  For Kiwis, though, tired of the worn-out language of much of Church life, the Reformation raises quite fascinating questions.

For Luther as a wordsmith is up there with Rabelais and Shakespeare. As a thinker, he is truly formidable and continued to fascinate generations to come; a Kierkegaard, a Bonhoeffer. Yet, he is a hard nut to crack, a "difficult hero", as has recently been said. The anti-papal ravings at the end of his life are bizarre and shameful.

His anti-Judaic polemic was to be eagerly snapped up by the Nazis.

So to enter his world is to be up to one’s neck in paradox.

Yet, he opened up so much more than he closed down.

It was his lyrical devotional works that initially gained the ear of ordinary people. His 1520 treatise on freedom is quite ravishing.

He could clown around like the best of us. He opened up the Bible to women as well as men.

"I never knew Jesus could speak such good German," was an Augsburg artisan’s reaction to his translation of the New Testament. And the latest biography of him by Lyndal Roper, massively praised in Germany as well as the UK, is an impressive example of a modern feminist trying to make sense of him.

No, we don’t find the historical Martin Luther a comfortable bedfellow. There is nothing of the blandness of much contemporary talk about spirituality. Yet, he addresses the God question in an unforgettable way, in hymns and prayers, in exegesis and polemic, in his whole life. He sought to remind the Church that it was more than an institution.

That it was there to listen to God and serve humanity. If we are open to being surprised, we could do worse than bend an ear to him.

- The Rev Prof Peter Matheson, of Dunedin,  is  a  Reformation  historian. 


The 'German religions' certainly bent ears, and other things. Sadly, later zealots destroyed monasteries, the centres of community life, and, with harsh rigour, eliminated the structure of Old England.

Fair enough to be anti Rome, no need to dispossess countrymen and women.