Overrated: Martin Luther

The German theologian unleashed the Reformation but ended up a fanatic anti-Semite

Exaggerated influence: Martin Luther (Illustration by Michael Daley)

Martin Luther was the first man of the modern era to create his own myth. Much of what we think we know about him may never have happened. He probably never told the Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms: “Here I stand. I can do no other.” He probably didn’t nail his Ninety-five Theses to the church door in Wittenberg — the quincentenary of which will be celebrated in 2017. And he almost certainly never threw an inkwell at the Devil; the stain on the wall of his room at the Wartburg that tourists are shown to this day is a fake.

What is true about Luther is that he was a theologian: even by the standards of German professors, he was extraordinarily prolific. The Weimar edition of his works was begun in 1883 and only completed in 2009, by which time it had run to 121 volumes. His unparalleled verbosity has fuelled countless biographies, several more of which have been occasioned by this anniversary. So large does he loom in historiography that he almost defies objectivity — but like so many “great men” his influence has been exaggerated.

First, Luther’s Reformation was neither necessary nor sufficient for the rise of Western civilisation. The “freedom of a Christian” he preached was certainly not political liberty — he was brutally vindictive towards the peasants who took him literally — nor did it have much to do with religious toleration. There was no contradiction in Luther’s mind between Reformation and authority; indeed Protestant Germany remained a bastion of absolutism for the next three centuries. Christendom, already divided between the Catholic West and the Orthodox East, was severely weakened in its existential struggle with the Ottoman Empire by the schism provoked by Luther.

That schism rendered impossible the more moderate reform programme of humanist scholars such as Erasmus and More. Nor did Luther care much about science or the arts (except music): it was the Renaissance, not the Reformation, that inaugurated modernity. Luther’s most creative (as opposed to polemical) contribution to European culture, his German translation of the Bible, would justify his place in history — but if he had not defied the pope and emperor he might have gained their support for the vernacular Bible.

Second, Luther’s Reformation was not a prerequisite for the rise of capitalism in Europe. That process was already well under way and the wars of religion of the 16th and 17th centuries only delayed it. The economic ideas that Max Weber attributed to the Reformation were more highly developed in the Catholic school of Salamanca.

Third, the idea of the nation state long precedes 1648 but was not the product of Protestantism. At the medieval universities, students of similar ethnic and linguistic backgrounds defined themselves by their “nation”, or birthplace. The humanists discovered the historical and literary origins of these emergent nations, natural law provided a justification for their sovereignty, and Machiavelli offered a rationale for nation states to pursue their interests. None of this had much to do with the Reformation, which at most accelerated this nation-building.

If Luther was not responsible for Western civilisation, capitalism or the nation state, what does he deserve credit for? He was, after all, a professor of theology. But how original were his religious ideas? His most important doctrine ­— sola fide, justification by faith alone — is a strict interpretation of the Pauline epistles; the rest of his theology amounts to variations on themes by earlier thinkers, from St Augustine to Wycliffe, Hus and the anonymous Theologia Germanica. Sola scriptura, the supremacy of scripture over tradition and other sources of authority, depended on the Greek scholarship of Erasmus and other humanists, made accessible by the advent of printing. The sale of indulgences that infuriated Luther also exercised others. The Reformation was launched less by his eclectic synthesis of disparate ideas than by his flair for self-publicity.

History has generally been kind to Luther, but since 1945 one aspect of his thought has received more critical attention: his anti-Semitism. The Jews and their Lies (1543), the most notorious of a number of tracts he wrote against Jewish scholars who disputed his interpretations of the Hebrew Bible, includes vile accusations that had a wide and fatal resonance, not only in the Europe of the 16th but even in that of the 20th century. “Wherever they have their synagogues, nothing is found but a den of devils,” he wrote, urging the burning of synagogues and the expulsion of Jews from Europe, back to Jerusalem. Though he stopped short of advocating extermination, he knew the incendiary effect of his obscene propaganda.

Luther’s legacy is thus at best a mixed blessing. A considerable part of Western civilisation at its most sublime is infused with the Protestant spirit, from Rembrandt to Bach and beyond. But Luther himself was made of coarser stuff than these Lutherans. Basking in their reflected glory, he enjoys a reputation that ought to arouse our suspicion, living as we do in the shadow of Islamist fundamentalism. The fiery friar of Wittenberg ended as a bigoted fanatic.