Lord Rosebery described Luther, with Victorian blandness, as ‘the German apostle of light and freedom’. Professor Oberman is another admirer, but a judiciously critical one, not a hagiographer. He begins by summing him up as ‘a late medieval man for whom Satan is as real as God and mammon’. Further on, he modifies this by saying that Luther was ‘no longer medieval, but neither had he become modern’. We may indeed see him in his later years of corpulent dogmatism as a whale washed up on the beach, stranded between two tides. He saw himself as a soldier fighting in a desperate if shadowy conflict between heaven and hell. He had no doubt, Oberman reminds us, of the reality of witchcraft, even of its power to kill by casting a spell. In the record of his table-talk, where we see or overhear Luther at his most spontaneous, he abounds in tales of sorcery as grotesque as the fables he accused Papists of swallowing, and has no doubt that witches must be burned. After his marriage he occupied the Augustinian monastery in Wittenberg where he had lived as a monk – a symbol of his only partial, imperfect emancipation from the past.
Luther, the Table Talk reveals also, was what would later be called a ‘deteriorationist’, convinced that a steady worsening of things would be arrested only by the imminent end of the world. He is disqualified as a guide to modern times by his ‘proclamation of man’s total impotence on the eve of man’s greatest scientific discoveries and enduring cultural achievement’. He pined for martyrdom, and held, somewhat masochistically, that the Church was never spiritually secure except when it was being persecuted. Oberman underlines the enigma all this presents. ‘If his reformation was indeed so unrelated to the concerns or needs of the present world, how was it that his message could break out of the monastic cell?’ To this complicated question the book ventures no very definite answer. It is a biography, concentrated on a single personality – though it has a great deal of light to shed on some fields closely related to Luther’s passage through life.
When Luther began to raise his voice he was handicapped by the fact that Europe had reached a point where ‘monks competed with university professors for the lowest ranking in public esteem.’ Luther was both. On the other hand, he had a gift for writing and preaching in sturdy colloquial German, as well as in academic Latin. This found its finest expression in his translation of the Bible. He was not blindly ‘scholastic’, Oberman emphasises: he appreciated the importance for his task of Hebrew, which he tried to learn, and Greek, and at every step enlisted the aid of experts. He did not live to hear Nietzsche’s joke about how odd it was that God learned Greek when he had a new message for mankind, and learned it so badly. If Luther improved the German language as much as we are told, those of us who have tried and failed to learn it must be allowed to wonder what it would have been like without him. The English of Oberman’s translator is easy, conversational, a trifle slipshod.
Evidence about Luther’s inner self and its workings being so fragmentary, ‘all suspicions against psychohistory must be put aside.’ This is a pronouncement as bold as any of Luther’s own, but in Oberman’s handling of the method it does not float away, as it so easily can, into fantasy. He has some sympathy with the familiar constipation-theory, made so much of in John Osborne’s chronicle-play. ‘Luther’s scatology-permeated language has to be taken seriously as an expression of the painful battle fought body and soul against the Adversary.’ It may be worthwhile to recall that shit is nearly as plentiful in Marx’s letters, and in current American speech. Marx also felt, as America feels, like a combatant in a cosmic strife, one of them against capitalism, the other for it. Luther and the Prince of Darkness stood face to face. Self-dramatising has always accompanied religious ardour; it must have helped to nerve Luther for his uphill, perilous march. He did not lack physical courage – he stayed at his post in Wittenberg during a plague epidemic, when many others fled – but he was suffering acutely from one of his fits of spiritual weakness. ‘Satan himself is raging against me with all his might,’ he wrote.
He was not seldom ‘sensitive, sorely tried, frightened’. Thanks to this, he could be a good psychological observer. ‘Heavy thoughts bring on physical maladies,’ he remarked, and he recommended harmless recreations like cards and company to ward off depression. His heated language in controversy may have been another means of keeping up his spirits. He was willing to admit the charges brought against him of bad temper and verbosity. If Voltaire was terse through a hundred volumes, Luther was noisily prolix through about as many. In private, at the table, he could tell friends that he felt at his best when angry, and that a fit of exasperation – when he would ‘rush out among his pigs’ and find relief in their company – could be a restorative.
A long shadow from Nazi Germany falls at times across these pages. ‘The vision of a world pervaded by the Devil has appalling effects if it leads to collective judgments’ – against witches, Jews, Anabaptists, Papists. With individuals, too, Luther was heavy-fisted in demanding assent to his doctrines. He needed whole-hog trust in them if he was to go on leading the challenge to Rome and Hell: this ruled out open-minded discussion and compromise with men like Zwingli, in most respects quite close to him. He grew ‘less and less capable of distinguishing between adversaries and people who simply did not agree with him’: they could only have fallen under diabolic influence.
Luther was born close enough to the fields to know what the peasantry’s hardships were, but his father had worked his way up to a place in the copper-mining industry, and his mother, Oberman shows, came from a respectable burgher family. In 1501 he was sent to Erfurt, Germany’s third-largest university. Study there was not all nonsensical logic-chopping. It followed the via moderna, and Luther was taught that ‘all philosophical speculation about the world must be tested by means of experience.’ That he never forgot this principle can be seen from some words he scribbled at the end of his life: to understand Virgil’s Georgics a man needs to spend five years as a farmer; to understand Scripture, a hundred years as a shepherd of souls.
In 1505 he entered the Erfurt monastery of the Augustinian Observants, the stricter wing of the Order. He was in search of peace of mind, but monasticism and his chosen community in Germany were no longer a Nirvana: too many rumblings from outside were breaking in. Oberman goes into highly interesting detail about the discords between particular houses and their province, and between claims of Roman centralism and regional autonomy. Much is said about Johannes von Staupitz, head of the Observants in Germany from 1503, and for long Luther’s mentor. It was he who set a hesitant Luther working for a doctorate, and in the meantime gave him responsible teaching work. In 1509, by poring over Augustine, Luther ‘discovered the contrast between the Church Father and Aristotle’ – a remarkable discovery for anyone to stand in need of. In 1512 Martin became Doctor Luther, and Staupitz handed over to him the chair of Biblical Theology he had been occupying at the new University of Wittenberg. The Ninety-Five Theses followed in 1517, the condemnation at Worms in 1521. The Reformation was under way.
Broken up into hundreds of principalities and free cities, Germany was far more vulnerable to clerical encroachment and cupidity than France or Spain under their powerful monarchies. Oberman gives prominence to the German desire for a curb on Papal meddling and financial exactions. There were contrary signs of Rome wanting to tighten the screws. An anti-Luther tract of 1519 by one of its Italian spokesmen, Prierias, declared the Pope infallible, ‘and thus more authoritative than councils and even the Holy Scriptures themselves’: whatever his misdoings, he could not be deposed. It might almost be said that the Pope was being deified, and so keeping a long jump ahead of the absolute monarchs with their assertion of divine right. Luther’s protector Frederick the Wise of Saxony was in the forefront of the protest against ecclesiastical trespassing on the prerogatives of government. Luther dubbed him ‘the great hesitater’; the two never met. But as Oberman points out, Frederick’s Fabian tactics saved Saxony from the danger of isolation, and the Reformation from being nipped in the bud.
There were ‘national-patriotic features’ in Luther’s outlook that linked him with a dawning ‘national consciousness’. However, in 1520 Luther was already critical of the ‘young patriotic movement’ headed by Ulrich von Hutten and the Knights’ party, on the ground that they, like the rebel peasants a few years later, were relying on force instead of the Gospel. It is strange to find the thunderous tribune side by side with Mahatma Gandhi. Non-violence was forgotten in Luther’s denunciation of the agrarian rising, and his clarion call for a massacre of the insurgents. He could not afford to antagonise the governing classes which were shielding his Reformation. He went on declaring true faith – as Gandhi did moral force – a more powerful weapon than the sword. He could even lay it down, over his dinner-table, that if his own faith were sufficiently robust he could overthrow both Pope and Sultan single-handed. Voluntarism could scarcely go further than this.
Luther had an overwhelming sense of evil rampant on the earth, but could not see it, or could not allow himself to see it, clearly as social injustice and oppression. He had to personify these deformities in the shape of a Devil avid for souls to devour, beginning with Martin Luther’s. Satan was raging all the more fiercely now, he affirmed, because the world was nearing its end, his time was running out. One may find a parallel here with Stalin’s tenet that the nearer the bourgeoisie comes to extinction, the more class struggle will intensify. Reformation theology, the ideology woven out of an epoch of storm and stress, is far from easy to comprehend, though Oberman’s exposition is often helpful. It cannot be easy to make sense of a system of ideas which did not pretend to make sense.
At Worms Luther took his stand on Scripture in defiance of both Popes and Councils, which he maintained had frequently erred. He was not appealing to freedom of conscience, Oberman cautions us, but calling for ‘absolute obedience’ to the words of Scripture. In practice, this could only mean obedience to whoever might be their authorised expounder. What emerged as the grand Reformation formula was salvation by faith, in contradiction to the Catholic principle of salvation by works, or good conduct. The old doctrine might be said to uphold the traditional, common-sense view of mankind ever since religion began, but in later Medieval Europe it had been commercialised into a traffic in masses and indulgences, as mechanical an exercise as the turning of Tibetan prayer-wheels by the wind.
Before long, he got himself into the blind alley, where Calvin was to follow him, of predestination. His biographers, Oberman among them, may be said to have missed the most significant point here: it was amid the din of class conflict, with himself on the wrong side, that he sought refuge in this sterile dogma, a counsel of moral despair. His bloodthirsty manifesto against the peasants was written in May 1525; his treatise on The Bondage of the Will, against Erasmus and free will, followed in December, while the defeated were still being hunted down. Oberman calls it a ‘ruthlessly direct and clear attack’; Erasmus’s essay he dismisses as full of ‘weariness, disillusion’ and out-of-date arguments. Erasmus the Humanist may not have been at his best when drawn into a controversy no less insolubly meaningless than the question of what our universe looks like from outside, but Luther’s tone towards the first scholar of Europe was a mixture of hectoring derision and condescending superiority. Oberman notes that the breach between these two men was a shock to readers looking forward to a liberated spiritual life, and that Luther’s Scripturalism compelled acceptance of divine utterances irreconcilable with any normal human standard of right and wrong. He may not sufficiently recognise that predestination, with God’s ‘unsearchable purpose’ as its only apology, puts a stop to any serious thinking about justifying the ways of God to men. God is as amoral as the Devil is immoral: there can be no alternative, because buried under the pyramid of theology is a society fundamentally unmoral. The peasants undeniably had right on their side, but they had to be butchered for the sake of law and order. Predestination and hell were God’s law and order for humanity.
By various devious routes, Reformation thinking was to lead downward from its dizzy metaphysical heights to the fields and furrows of workaday life. Gradually it would form part of a secularising process, and thereby open the way to unlimited horizons of both good and ill. Luther’s defence of marriage, of the claims of the body, was, as Oberman says, an iconoclasm more meaningful than the image-breaking of which he disapproved, a release from the ‘false saintliness’ of asceticism. Again, he was always an advocate of good works, but for secular purposes, service of the world, instead of as a means of bargaining for divine favour. In effect, heaven and earth were being separated into distinct spheres. Luther did not, like Carlstadt and others, dream of a reorganisation of society on lines to be deduced from Scripture, as Muslims today dream of an ‘Islamic State’. Men must learn to make their own arrangements.
There is not much in this book about the early development of Lutheran churches, but it is made clear that Luther never ignored the importance of the Church as an institution. This, of course, was quite illogical, in the dark light of predestination, which nullifies all religious paraphernalia. God may be omnipotent, but He cannot change His mind. The real business of the Church can only be to change the minds and improve the behaviour of the masses. In two ways Luther’s influence on Church-building was harmful. He could not bring himself to discard the magical element of the eucharist, and division on this issue made impossible the united Reformed Church of north and south Germany, the Free Cities, Zwingli’s Switzerland, that was advocated by Philip of Hesse. Secondly, Luther could not envisage any organs of congregational authority, such as Calvin devised with his presbyterian system: hence ecclesiastical as well as secular power could be vested only in bishops and governments. Devotional feeling was turned aside into private, inward-looking channels – one reason in later days for the lack of any collective resistance to Nazism. There was a ‘misdirected individualism’ in this piety, as Oberman says: a man or woman prayed to a Christ crucified for him or for her, rather than for mankind, or even for a congregation. A listener is often conscious of this ‘for me’ spirit, this obsession with the human speck, in the words of Bach’s Passion-music, despite the supremely organised act of worship they belong to.
Luther often spoke of himself as not ‘guided’ by God but, in mystic phrase, ‘driven by God’, ‘swept along’. Many others – religious pioneers, above all – have felt some irresistible force pushing them into action. How is the historian to translate what in Luther’s mind translated itself into ‘God’? What were the currents of change, the social dislocations, that caught him up, half against his will, and harnessed him to a mission he did not understand? He helped to transform Germany, but he could hardly have welcomed the new Germany that was emerging. There was an immense discrepancy between what he thought himself to be doing and what he was really taking part in. Such a gap between purpose and result is universal, but only at crisis-points of history does it widen so much. Luther’s life and mind were tormented by contradictions he could not reconcile. So is our collective life today, when evil is as terribly potent as it was in Luther’s consciousness.