Can one man change history? Martin Luther

Can one man change history? Martin Luther?  Hitler?

October is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg church. Or so the story goes.  It might even be true, but there is no need to be overly dramatic.  The church door served as a kind of community bulletin board. 

An angry man

Luther was an angry, troubled man, who brought not just the church, but the medieval world, to the threshold of the modern.  In 2000, Life magazine ranked Martin Luther third among the one hundred most important figures of the millennium (Kolb, p 1).  I don’t think many people pay that much attention to Luther any more, but he was a big deal.

What I can’t figure out is the relationship between Luther’s life and the transformation he wrought, brought, heralded, or led.  Or perhaps it was time for these changes to happen anyway, and Luther just happened to be there.  In any case, the transformation of the world that began in Luther’s era made our world possible. 

Erik Erikson, who wrote a marvelous psychological biography of Luther, puts the question simply but incorrectly.

Did Luther have a right to claim that his own fear, and his feeling of being oppressed by the image of an avenging God, were shared by others? Was his attitude representative of a pervasive religious atmosphere, at least in his corner of Christendom? (Erikson, p 74)

It’s not a question of right.  It’s a question of fit.  Let’s assume for a moment that Luther’s hatred of the Pope was an attempt to free himself from his dominating father, Hans.  Why did his personal psychological solution resonate so broadly?  The church (and there was only one church, what today we call the Roman Catholic church) was corrupt to the core.  His 95 theses addressed the church’s selling of indulgences.  Pay to pray, or at least put your prayer on the fast lane. 

Against the Pope, Luther set scripture and faith.  You didn’t have to listen to the Pope or priests, he said.  A careful reading of the scriptures coupled with faith in Christ, would see you through this world and into the next.  (In his free time, so to speak, Luther translated the Bible from both Hebrew and Greek into German, so the laity could actually read it.)  Gutenberg’s recent invention of the movable type printing press was more transformative than the internet, allowing for wide distribution of the scriptures.

Grace not works  

Grace, not works, was Luther’s lesson, and God’s grace is given freely because he loves us (Romans 5:5).  We don’t have to earn grace, we can’t earn grace, rituals don’t help, not even prayer helps.  But we can have it in our hearts to receive grace, and with it salvation (Luther, Bondage of the Will). *

One can see how this might free Luther from his father if, as seems likely, Luther psychologically identified his father with the Pope.      

There remains one motive which God and Martin shared at this time: the need for God to match Hans, within Martin, so that Martin would be able to disobey Hans and shift the whole matter of obedience and disavowal to a higher, and historically significant, plane.   (Erikson, p 94)

Equally striking is how Luther transformed his hatred of the Pope into a doctrine of love: not just of other people, but of this world.  For Luther, reality was not measured by heaven.  Reality is about how we live and love now.  Family life is important.  So is caring for others.  If people can read the scriptures, then we don’t need the church’s authority.  We don’t need anybody’s authority. This was the heart of the Protestant Reformation.   It was exactly what the tradesmen, craftsmen, and merchants, the rising middle-class of Germany, wanted to hear.  

Plant a tree

If the world were to end at any moment, what would you do?  According to a story that grew up after Luther’s death, but is entirely in accord with Luther’s thought, he would plant a tree and feed others from it.  Luther would have planted the tree both to enjoy its beauty as a reflection of God’s goodness, and to produce fruit for his neighbors.  This world remains a reflection of God, but it is up to us to care for others

If God gives his grace freely, then we have more time and energy to serve our neighbor, and need not spend so much on seeking salvation through prayer and ritual.  Doing so, thought Luther, was selfish (Kolb, pp 172-174). 

Luther’s sin

All his life Luther was an angry man, but toward the end of his life he became a vicious anti-Semite.  I think the best response is that of Roland Bainton (p 297), who wrote that “one could wish that Luther had died before [his treatise against the Jews] was written.” 

It gets worse.  Hitler and his minions often referred to Luther in their anti-Semitic tracts.  Luther’s anti-Semitism was doctrinal, not racial, based primarily on the Jews’ refusal to recognize the Trinity, but the difference hardly mattered to those who misused him centuries later. 

Luther and Hitler

It is possible to compare Luther and Hitler by asking the following question: without them, would German history have taken an entirely different path? 

One wants to believe (or at least I want to believe) that big historical movements take big historical causes.  Certainly, something like the Protestant Reformation would have happened without Luther, for it is what the modern world and a rising middle class was waiting for.

Laissez faire et laissez passer, le monde va de lui même.” Let us do and let us pass; for the world goes on by itself.  While not originally directed at the Pope, this attitude of let us alone, we can figure it out by ourselves, was widespread. How different the reformation would have been without Luther is impossible to say, but it would have happened. 

How different German history would have been without Hitler is also hard to say.  Jews would have been persecuted, and the object of pogroms.  That was hardly new.  But without Hitler there would have been no Holocaust (Alford).  At the right place at the right time (or in Hitler’s case the wrong place at the wrong time), the fate of millions can depend on one man.  Hardly a comforting thought, then or now. 

     *  For more on Luther and what grace cost him see my post on Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  


C. Fred Alford, “Holocaust.” The Encyclopedia of Political Thought, edited by Michael T. Gibbons. John Wiley & Sons, 2015.

Roland Bainton, Here I Stand.  Abingdon Press, New American Library, 1983. 

Erik Erikson, Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History.  W. W. Norton, 1958.

Martin Kolb, Martin Luther, Confessor of the Faith.  Oxford University Press, 2009.

Martin Luther, On the Bondage of the Will.  Scriptura Press, 2015.  [original 1525]

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