I am a Lutheran, but I usually don’t like hearing about Martin Luther in an academic context. For some reason, history hasn’t really remembered Martin Luther with a great degree of accuracy. In all fairness, the European history course that I took a little over a year ago did an adequate job of describing Lutheranism, although there was one time when my professor said, “For the sake of this discussion, let’s put Calvin, Luther, and Zwingli all into one category.” I highly disapprove of putting Calvin, Luther, and Zwingli all into one category, but at least in that particular class, the textbook and the professors never grossly misquoted Luther.

There was one time, though, that a student grossly misquoted Luther. The professor had asked how Luther believed that people attained forgiveness, and the class collectively answered that Luther said salvation came from faith. Then the professor asked how Luther defined faith, and there was an awkward silence. Half of the class kept their mouths shut because they were curious to hear what everyone else would say, and the other half of the class kept their mouths shut because they hadn’t done the reading and weren’t very familiar with Luther, so they had no idea what the answer was. Eventually, the boy in the back of the classroom who thought he knew everything spoke up and said that faith was when someone makes a personal decision to give their life to God. The professor gave him a look and asked, “Is that what Luther said?” Then the girl in the front of the classroom who thought she knew everything (that would be me) decided not to keep her mouth shut anymore, stuck her hand in the air and yelled something that was a fairly close paraphrase of Ephesians 2:8-9. (The aforementioned girl really should make sure she memorizes stuff better, because the bible shouldn’t be paraphrased when it could be quoted) In this particular case, the girl who thought she knew everything was right, but she did have quite an advantage there, since she was already a Lutheran.

Anyway, I think that the misunderstanding of Luther that I’ve heard most often is that he believed that the Bible is subject to personal interpretation and that personal faith has nothing to do with the church. There was a certain book I intended to quote here, but I have it packed up right now. Anyway, that book discussed Luther as just another Renaissance thinker, and implied that he believed that every Christian is supposed to flip through their Bible, privately choose their own favorite verses, and decide for himself (or herself) what he (or she) believes. In fact, if I recall correctly, that book actually said that Luther was against organized religion. If it didn’t say that, it was certainly implied.

That’s totally not what Martin Luther was saying. He disagreed with a lot of specific teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic church, but he had nothing against organized religion. This is what he had to say about church services:  “…A Christian has need of baptism, the word and the sacrament not as a Christian (for, as such, he has them already), but as a sinner. But, above all, the Order is for the simple and for the young folk who must daily be exercised in the Scripture and God’s Word, to the end that they may become conversant with Scripture and expert in its use, ready and skillful in giving an answer for their faith, and able in time to teach others and aid in the advancement of the kingdom of Christ. For the sake of such, we must read, sing, preach, write, and compose; and if it could in any wise help or promote their interests, I would have all the bells pealing, and all the organs playing, and everything making a noise that could.”- Martin Luther, The German Mass and Order of Divine Service, 1526.

Here is a picture of Martin Luther not saying, “Hey guys, the Bible means whatever you want it to mean! It’s all totally subjective, so who cares what anyone else believes?”

And it is also totally untrue that Martin Luther believed that the Bible was open to any and all interpretation. It’s true that he translated it into German so that more people could have access to it themselves, but that wasn’t so that they’d have the freedom to manipulate the meaning of certain texts by redefining certain words and phrases. Luther wanted to spread the objective truth; he didn’t want to subjectify truth. (Spellcheck tells me that subjectify isn’t a real word. I don’t care. It just goes to show that it wasn’t what Luther was trying to do, because if he was, it would absolutely be a real word now.) Anyway, you can tell that Martin Luther didn’t think that everyone was supposed to decide for themselves what to believe, because if he did, he wouldn’t have had so much to say about theology. Luther wrote loads of stuff; if you compare the quantity of his work to that of someone like Shakespeare, you’d have to conclude that Shakespeare probably spent most of his time sitting around and playing scrabble, except that scrabble hadn’t been invented yet.

The point of this is that people shouldn’t think of Martin Luther as some kind of 16th century hippie whose primary belief was that authority and structure are evil. Also, (and more importantly) people shouldn’t think of Jesus as some kind of 1st century hippie whose mission was to sit around holding a sign with some cliché about love and peace. But that can be the topic of a blog post for another day.