A fresh look at Martin Luther
A fresh look at Martin Luther

A fresh look at Martin Luther

Richard Rex looks at Martin Luther’s work, half a millennia after the famous declaration at Worms

Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther set off for his date with destiny, at the famous ‘Diet of Worms’ – which was very much not what it ‘says on the tin’. ‘Diet’ was the English word to describe the Reichstag, i.e. the parliament of the Holy Roman Empire. This occasional and peripatetic institution convened on 27 January 1521 at the German free city of Worms, in the Rhineland. Luther was summoned there to appear before the Holy Roman Emperor and the great princes of the Reich in order to answer for his novel and subversive religious teachings, which had been condemned by the authority of the pope in 1520. The hearing at Worms would give him the opportunity to recant, or else add outlawry to the penalty of excommunication already hanging over him.

Luther reached Worms on Tuesday 16 April (the papal representative there knew at once – because he heard the sudden hubbub in the town, the cheering of the crowds). Next day he was taken before the assembly. The proceedings were to be summary, to deny him the ‘oxygen of publicity.’ He was simply to answer two questions. Were the books circulating under his name indeed his? And if so would he recant the errors that had been identified in them? Despite all the efforts of the authorities, Luther seized the initiative. Undaunted by the occasion, buoyed up, no doubt, by his new faith and his confidence that whatever happened to him, it was for the sake of the ‘gospel’, he answered the first question (they were) and cleverly dodged the second. He was ready to retract anything that could be shown to be contrary to scripture, he said, but he wanted time to consider before answering in detail, as he would not wish to deny Christ before men. This appeal to natural justice worked, and he was granted a day’s grace, which gave him time to plan his strategy. Faced again with the second question next day, he launched into a wide-ranging speech, justifying his writings under the pretext of categorising them, comparing his situation that day to the appearance of Christ before the Sanhedrin, and concluding with his great refusal:

Unless I am convinced by the evidence of scripture or by cogent reasoning – for I believe in neither Popes nor Councils alone, because it is plain that they have often erred and contradicted each other – I am overwhelmed by the scriptures I have myself quoted, and with my conscience thus taken captive by the Words of God, I neither can nor will revoke a thing, since it is neither safe nor sound to do anything against one’s conscience. God help poor little me. Amen

The Luther Movement

A select group of princes sought to change Luther’s mind in a private meeting a week later, but in vain, and on Friday 26 April, to the surprise of many, including perhaps himself, he was allowed to leave Worms safe and sound. Soon afterwards he went into hiding. A heroic account of his performance, What Happened at Worms, was in print almost at once, while the Reichstag itself dithered: the Edict of Worms that made Luther an outlaw was not agreed and promulgated until 26 May. No modern spin doctor or PR guru could have taught Luther and his supporters anything about ‘controlling the narrative.’ The authorities followed due process with measured tread: Luther was light on his feet. His incipient religious movement, already gathering impressive levels of popular support, now spun out of control, and within twenty years would take half of the Empire and all Scandinavia away from the Roman Catholic Church to form regional or national churches known to themselves as ‘Evangelical’ and to everyone else as ‘Lutheran’. He would also inspire imitators and rivals who would go on to found a variety of other religious traditions, the chief of them being the ‘Reformed’ (otherwise known as Calvinist) and the Baptist (known to their opponents at that time as ‘Anabaptist’). Latin Christendom, a seamless if somewhat tattered robe in 1500, became a patchwork quilt.

What was it all about?

What it was really about was Luther’s development of a fundamentally novel interpretation of the entire Christian religion, an interpretation usually summed up in the slogan ‘justification by faith alone’. Most Christians today find this whole subject extremely difficult to understand, not least because only a small number of ‘Evangelical’ Christians still hold Luther’s actual doctrine. (This is not to say that the number of ‘Evangelical Christians’ is small, but that only a minority of them understand and hold Luther’s doctrine.)

Oddly enough, Luther’s key doctrine did not figure in the papal condemnation of his teachings published in June 1520, perhaps because it was too delicate an issue to handle in a checklist of mostly blunt denials, such as his denial of free will and of papal primacy. But by May 1521 it was obvious to the English theologian John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, that Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone was the root from which sprang all his further deviations from Roman Catholic orthodoxy – though even he, intelligent and informed observer that he was, did not penetrate right to the core of Luther’s novel and paradoxical teaching. In a sermon preached to the citizens of London, Fisher identified as one of the ‘great grounds’ of Luther’s doctrine the idea that ‘faith alone without works does justify a sinner’. ‘Upon the which ground,’ Fisher went on, ‘he builds many other erroneous articles, and specially that the sacraments of Christ’s Church do not justify, but only faith.’

What Fisher did not quite get was what Luther thought faith actually was. He understood well enough the claim that ‘justification’ (the realignment of the human soul with God) came about by ‘faith alone’ – without, that is, any contribution or cooperation on the part of the justified person themselves. He found it harder to grasp Luther’s unprecedented understanding of what ‘faith’ meant. For Luther, faith was a trust in God’s forgiveness so complete that each believer, through that faith, enjoyed total certainty that they were in a ‘state of grace.’

If anyone doubts, and is not certainly persuaded, that they have the favour of God, then indeed they have it not. As they believe, so do they receive. For nobody can know that they are in grace and have the favour of God, except by faith. If they believe this, they are saved. If they do not, they are condemned.

But this doctrine of certainty, which was the crucial issue to Luther himself, and which was the core of his appeal among intellectuals, was integrally connected to the exclusion of the human contribution (‘works’) from the process. Precisely because human beings were marked by original sin, the effects of which persisted even after justification, certainty of grace would never have been possible had the process of justification involved any actual contribution or collaboration on the part of its intrinsically unreliable human recipients. The vein of sin running through their every thought and deed would vitiate faith itself if it were in any way their action.

The Logical Flaw

There are three fatal flaws in Luther’s doctrine of ‘justification by faith alone.’ The first is logical. Because the certainty of grace that is central to his doctrine would simply not be possible if it depended to even the slightest degree upon any ‘work’ performed by the believer (any action at all, even a mental act or disposition), Luther has to exclude from faith itself any sense that it is a work or action done by the believer. But since the act of faith is classically expressed in the words ‘I believe,’ which go right back to the earliest recorded times of the Christian Church, this exclusion is at best paradoxical and at worst meaningless. Luther’s doctrine makes of the act of faith an act performed by the Holy Spirit in that person and on that person. Thus far, the traditional understanding of Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas can still go. But while Augustine and Thomas see the human person ‘co-operating’ with divine grace under the influence of that grace, so that the act of faith is also by that person and of that person, for Luther and his new theology, even granting that much gives too much of a role to the subject, introducing a human element which, precisely because it is human, brings with it unreliability and thus uncertainty. For Luther, in the words of one twentieth-century Lutheran interpreter of his theology, ‘Faith is an act of the human person in which the human person is entirely passive’. That is of course a literally meaningless statement – a contradiction in terms – but it is a statement which has to be made if Luther’s understanding of faith is to be upheld.

The Scriptural Flaw

The second flaw is scriptural. Although Luther maintained that his doctrine was the proper interpretation of the teaching of the Apostle Paul, and that the scriptural basis and character of his doctrine was plain and simple, Paul never actually wrote anywhere that justification was attained by ‘faith alone’. In his own German translation of the Bible, Luther remedied this regrettable oversight in a cavalier fashion that his opponents regarded as tendentious or downright mendacious. He added the word ‘only’ (‘allein’) in his rendering of Romans 3:28: ‘der Mensch gerecht werde ohne des Gesetzes Werke, allein durch den Glauben’ (‘Man is justified without the Law’s Works, only through Faith’). This has been defended ever since with the explanation that it merely makes explicit what is implicit in the original Greek. This defence is problematic, though, given Luther’s insistence on the ‘plain sense’ of scripture. Nobody before him had found Luther’s meaning implicit in Paul’s words.

More disturbingly still, justification by ‘faith alone’ is in fact mentioned once – just once – in the Bible. But on the one occasion where the words are used (James 2:24), it is not to affirm justification by faith alone, but to deny it. Luther’s response to this difficulty was equally robust. He denied that the Epistle of James was properly ‘apostolic’ or even scriptural. Having already established to his own satisfaction that justification by faith alone was the very kernel of the gospel message, he concluded that anything contradicting it was not ‘evangelical’, even if found within the pages of the Bible. He did not quite go so far as to leave James out of the Bible altogether, but he denied that this epistle carried any weight against ‘the gospel’ (as he now called his teaching). It was, in short, ‘an epistle of straw’. Most Protestants have been reluctant to follow his example in so roundly censuring James. Almost immediately, ingenious arguments were excogitated to reconcile the words of James with the Lutheran interpretation of Paul. But Luther himself would have none of it. For him, the words of James were simply too plain to be explained away:

Many people work up a sweat reconciling James with Paul … But it doesn’t work: they are contradictory. Faith justifies: faith does not justify. If anyone can bring those together, then I’ll take my hat off to him and let myself be called a fool. (WA Tr. 3.3292a, p. 253)


The third fatal flaw in Luther’s teaching is psychological. To inculcate ‘certainty’ is to insinuate doubt. We know from Luther’s own later testimony that in the years leading up to his theological breakthrough moment (which came in early in 1518), he was plagued with anxiety over his spiritual state, prone to the obsessive confession of his unremarkable sins, and keen, in whatever time was allowed him by his commitments as a university professor (a profession apparently as overworked then as now), to seek reassurance through equally obsessive religious observance. Without necessarily invoking modern conceptions of the ‘bipolar’ or ‘manic depressive’, it is tempting to see in Luther the symptoms of some form of mental ill-health from which his new theology offered a therapeutic release. However, that insistence on certainty as to one’s spiritual state also has a self-defeating element. After the initial endorphin surge of a conversion experienced in terms of Luther’s teaching, doubts seem to return. They certainly recurred in Luther’s case, and he and his tradition developed an elaborate casuistry or sophistry to explain why certainty was not always certain. But they never called into question the appropriateness of ‘certainty’ (often rhetorically softened in English to the etymologically cognate but somehow cuddlier word ‘assurance’) as a term of art.


As John Fisher pointed out in his sermon 500 years ago, ‘justification by faith alone’ was not the only fundamental principle of Luther’s doctrine. Equally important was his insistence that only what was written in the Bible could be regarded as authoritative Christian teaching, and that therefore nothing that depended merely on ecclesiastical tradition could be credited with binding force. Luther was driven to ‘scripture alone’ in response to the ecclesiastical condemnation of his distinctive teachings. He was not prepared to submit to the judgement of the church, a refusal the church interpreted as sublime arrogance. But Luther denied that he was setting his own judgement above that of the community of the faithful. On the contrary, he maintained, it was scripture itself that was being condemned by the Church. His teaching was ‘the gospel’; the papacy was condemning his teaching; therefore the papacy was condemning ‘the gospel’. Luther’s invocation of ‘scripture alone’ proved as attractive as his insistence on ‘faith alone’. Scripture, of course, was universally accepted as divine in character and authority. So the logic of his argument that the Word of God should prevail in any theological argument over the words of men – even over the words of bishops, popes, and general councils of the Church, all of which were undeniably human – was immediately gripping. His claim gained even more traction in his homeland from the fact that he backed it up with a fluent new translation first of the New Testament (1522) and then of the entire Bible (1534). Thanks to the invention of the printing press, Luther’s Bible swept all before it and helped to shape the history of the German language itself. You could read the evidence for yourself! And if you couldn’t actually read it yourself (for literacy was still very limited), then you probably knew someone who could read it to you.

Luther was able to bolster his claim with a sort of thought-experiment conducted by a fifteenth-century canon lawyer, Nicolò de’ Tudeschi, generally known to scholars as ‘Panormitanus’ (‘the guy from Palermo’). Taking his departure from the situation of the church on the night of Jesus’s arrest, when the disciples had fled in fear and thus, as medieval exegesis saw it, defected from the faith, Panormitanus held that the church that night had only one merely human member – the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was therefore possible, he concluded, for the membership level of the entire church on earth to sink as low as one. It was also conceivable that any man or group of men might defect from the faith, as the disciples had done that night – even a pope, or bishops. Panormitanus was writing in the wake of the ‘Great Schism’ that lasted for decades around the year 1400, when the church was split into two camps by rival popes, so his idea was not quite so ridiculous then as it might seem now. Such defectors might of course teach dogmas that contradicted the truth of scripture. Panormitanus pursued his thought experiment further, postulating the case of a person who was called upon by such authorities to affirm some position incompatible with revealed truth. He concluded that, in principle, a single individual, armed with scripture, would be justified in conscience in resisting the serried ranks of the erring ecclesiastical hierarchy. Luther picked up this idea and made frequent reference to it in the early years of his public career. He saw himself as, precisely, that individual, armed with the plain text of scripture and maintaining God’s truth against the might of the establishment. That was the role he was playing as he stood before the Emperor and the German princes at Worms in April 1521. He expected that role to be followed by that of martyr, for he was by no means certain of the safe-conduct that had been granted to him by the emperor. A century before, an imperial safe-conduct had not saved Jan Hus when he was condemned for heresy by the church council at Constance. There can be no doubting Luther’s courage.

A Self-defeating success?

It was Luther’s instant success that made his ultimate failure inevitable. What he wanted was to bring the whole Church back to the ‘gospel’ – as he understood it. But his interpretation of the gospel, for all the force that his inspiring rhetoric could lend it, was not the ‘plain and simple’ reading of the Bible that he imagined. It never even came close to convincing everybody. However, the hermeneutic he developed in order to protect his theological message against condemnation by the ecclesiastical authorities turned out to be doubly self-defeating. With his demonisation of ‘human traditions’ in the name of the divine authority of the Bible, Luther simply sawed through the branch on which he perched. For the Bible was one of the earliest and oldest traditions of the Church. The Church’s veneration for scripture was older than any formal definition of which books actually constituted it. In the clamour generated by Luther’s trashing of so many traditions, it was easy to overlook the retention of others, and to dismiss Catholic questions about infant baptism, the doctrine of the Trinity, and the rest as silly logic-chopping. But what Luther could not prevent was other people playing him at his own game. Infant baptism was evidently the constant practice of the Church, and Luther of course retained it, as did Zwingli and Calvin. But it was certainly not explicitly mandated in the Bible, and it was easy for others to dismiss at as ‘human tradition’. The doctrine of the Trinity was consistent with the Bible, but was anything but explicitly formulated within its pages. Luther of course retained it, as did Zwingli and Calvin. But others would apply his logic to the Trinity within a decade of his stand at Worms, and dismiss it, too, as ‘human tradition’.

Ultimately, belief in the divinely inspired status of the Bible was itself a human tradition. The Bible contains claims for the divine inspiration of the scriptures, but no divinely inspired list of its own contents. In Luther’s lifetime, scriptural authority was only challenged by self-styled prophets who claimed direct personal inspiration from the Holy Ghost. In the very long term, though, his logic would be taken still further by those who asked, perfectly legitimately, why anyone should defer to ancient texts any more than to ancient traditions. Luther had to bring down tradition in order to hold up scripture (as he understood it). But his demolition of tradition ultimately brought scripture down with it, leaving only the ‘individual’ of western modernity and postmodernity. By 1700, the right to ‘private judgement’ in the interpretation of scripture, a notion Luther indignantly repudiated, was axiomatic among many Protestants

While Luther hoped for a corporate revival of Christianity along the biblical path he had charted, his theology was a recipe for individualism – as his opponents loudly proclaimed. Justification by faith alone was a wholly internal affair: you, and you alone, could know if you had faith, that is, if you were saved. Others might form a reasonable conjecture about your state, but without immediate access to your experience, they could not be certain about your certainty. It was much the same with the plain and simple meaning of scripture. How was it that not everyone could see that plain and simple meaning? There was an explanation. You could only see the plain and simple meaning if you had the gift of the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit was only given to those who had faith; and, as we have seen, you knew if you had faith. Between them, Luther’s fundamental principles were therefore a recipe for individualism and a charter for egotists. Anyone who had a distinctive interpretation of scripture and a confidence in their own spiritual condition was armoured against any risk of refutation. It was Luther’s egotism that blinded him to the radical individualism of his teaching. He was so sure he was right that he could not imagine anyone having the same confidence in anything else. Within ten years of his condemnation by pope and emperor, Luther could see for himself that confusion and controversy raged within Christendom as never before. He never realised, however, that this was a harvest of his own sowing. Luther might not have lived on a ‘diet of worms’, but he had certainly opened a can of them.

Professor Richard Rex is Professor of Reformation History at the University of Cambridge