On the Eve of All Saints Day in 1517, a German monk and Professor of Theology walked resolutely to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg and affixed his theological manifesto—95 Theses—condemning the Catholic Church’s practice of selling indulgences. As he hammered the nail into the ancient wood he was symbolically nailing the coffin shut on a moribund religion. Protestants celebrate October 31 in commemoration of this auspicious occasion. Only it likely never happened.
Martin Luther has been the object of much mythmaking since he inadvertently inaugurated the Reformation nearly five centuries ago. Even in his own lifetime he was alternately depicted in popular images as a saint, complete with nimbus, and the seven-headed monster of the Apocalypse (Rev. 12:3). At times Luther contributed to the myths about himself and five hundred years hasn’t diminished his followers’ desire to portray him as “Rebel. Genius. Liberator.” as a popular Hollywood movie title puts it.
But it’s not just Protestant followers of Luther lining up to sing his praise. Catholic theologians formerly lampooned Luther as the man who had his theological breakthrough on the john, making his so-called “tower experience” into a toilet experience. Although improbable, it’s fitting for a man who often used scatological language (he had a potty mouth). Ecumenism has softened Catholic opinions of Luther. The current pope can’t (or won’t) condemn the Wittenberg reformer as his predecessor Leo X did. The former head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (aka the Roman Inquisition), Pope Benedict XVI, in his new book, finds Luther’s sola fide doctrine of justification commendable (at least with the right caveat): “Being just simply means being with Christ and in Christ. And this suffices. Further observances are no longer necessary. For this reason Luther’s phrase: ‘faith alone’ is true, if it is not opposed to faith in charity, in love” (Saint Paul, 82).
Once praised as the first modern man, standing on principle guided by conscience alone, Luther is now understood as a medieval man who believed he lived in a “world with devils filled,” caught between God and Satan on the eve of Armageddon. He was a rabid anti-Semite who believed synagogues should be burned down and that any Jew who mentions the name of God in the presence of a Christian should be pelted with pig poop (On the Jews and Their Lies). Luther’s credibility suffered when his private advice to Landgrave Philipp of Hesse that he should commit bigamy to ease his guilty conscience over his adultery became public. (Then as now bigamy was illegal.) By the end of his life, Luther was largely marginalized and overshadowed by other reformers, not the least of which was Geneva reformer John Calvin, who has had a greater influence on subsequent Protestantism, especially in North America.
Despite the iconography of his day, Luther had no halo. He didn’t have a pitchfork either. There’s hardly a Halloween costume that fits him, whether angel or demon, hero or villain. Luther was Luther. On Reformation Day we should celebrate not the man but the message of radical grace he preached.