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Anthony LeDonne asks, “Did Martin Luther Do More Harm than Good?”

Did Martin Luther Do More Harm than Good?

LeDonneʼs question concerning Luther is here, on his nifty Jesus Blog. He ask whether the world is better off or not after Luther? He likes that Luther secured the right for clergy to marry, and made being fat cool. And adds that “One could argue that modern book culture was a product of sola scriptura.”


Sola Scriptura may have boosted the book industry in Protestant countries, but I believe Gutenbergʼs first money making enterprise was to print indulgences for the Catholic Church, and a Bible for Catholics, and other Catholic literature, possibly a Caholicon Dictionary. While Lutheran presses printed up a heck of a lot of religious picture tracts like cartoon Chick Tracts with parodied images of Catholics but without words. Eventually booksellers found money in printing up whatever book was on the index of forbidden books in either Catholic or Protestant countries.


The trouble with judging the state of the world is that the people who died because of the decisions of various leaders canʼt speak up. In Lutherʼs case thereʼs the dead from the Peasant revolt, and from anti-Semitic massacres, and from his and Melanchthonʼs seeking the death penalty for unrepentant Anabaptists or for anyone who dared to deny articles of the Apostleʼs Creed, and then after Lutherʼs day but sparked by the Reformation he helped found there was a little thing called the Thirty Years War, not to mention witch hunts and heresy hunts. Luther said of heretics, “Why should we treat them any better in this life than God is going to treat them in the next?”

“Even though the Anabaptists do not advocate anything seditious or openly blasphemous” it was, in Lutherʼs opinion, “the duty of the authorities to put them [unrepentant Anabaptist preachers who dared to preach in Saxony] to death.” At the end of 1530, Melanchthon drafted a memorandum in which he defended a regular system of coercion by the sword (i.e., death for Anabaptists). Luther signed it with the words, “It pleases me,” and added: “Though it may appear cruel to punish them by the sword, yet it is even more cruel of them…not to teach any certain doctrine—to persecute the true doctrine.”

Luther was like the Christian leaders before him and like Calvin after him, in agreeing that a king and people should all voice the same creed and study the same catechism because there can be only one true Church of Christ, not a body split into endless denominations. In fact as Protestantism continued to splinter what held them together was their common enemy, Catholicism, not some great Protestant love for one another. Lutherans were infuriated when they lost members to Calvinism. There were citywide riots between both parties in Germany. And Calvinists were infuriated when some of their members joined the Arminian splinter group, while Catholics were infuriated that the church of Christ was splintering continually under Protestantism right up till this day.

My view is that the first amendment and its freedom of speech and freedom of religious belief is superior to the first commandment of Moses with its threat of death, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” And that people who live in a society with such amendments do not know how good they have it when compared with the good days when whole nations asserted they had the one true faith, the only way or the most assured way to eternal bliss, and that everyone in their nation ought to learn a particular creed and catechism, in Lutherʼs case, his of course.

And letʼs not fool ourselves with the excuse that Luther was a man of his day and age. He was, but what does that say about all the prayerful study of the Bible he accomplished throughout his lifetime and how little his prayers for wisdom were answered when the age he lived in held such sway upon him? And when his fears that a nation without a particular religion would offend God and be doomed, and that to allow heretics and anti-Christʼs to speak freely was also to doom mankind, and that humans were like children and/or animals that needed to be leashed and/or chastened by a state guided by one true faith?

In Lutherʼs commentary on the Sermon on the Mount he treated the “love your enemy” passage by saying, Sure, love your enemy, so long as oneʼs enemy was an enemy of yourself alone, love him. But if your enemy speaks a word against God or the Bible, you should let him die or starve, and you should oppose him, lest by helping him survive or by showing him mercy you are being an accomplice to heresy and blasphemy and damning people eternally, for what are the terrors of this life compared with the eternal terrors of the next? Luther even cited Acts, “You must serve God and not man.”

Or Lutherʼs defense of predestination such that after the Fall “freewill” was merely a word.

Of course, this seems to give the greatest offense to common sense or natural reason, that God, who is proclaimed as being so full of mercy and goodness, should of His own mere will abandon, harden, and damn men, as though delighted in the sins and the great eternal torments of the miserable. It seems iniquitous, cruel, intolerable to think thus of God. It has given offense to so many and many great men down the ages. And who would not be offended? I myself have been offended at it more than once, even unto the deepest abyss of despair, so far that I wished I had never been made a man. That was before I knew how health-giving that despair was and how near it was to grace.
—Luther and Erasmus, “Discourse on Free Will,” page 131 (1961); Lutherʼs work is “The Enslaved Will”

Yes, God gave Luther the grace to demand the death penalty for “heretics,” and to write his own catechism and have the king issue it to all his people. And not only could Luther “not be moved,” but Lutheranism lead to deaths galore, with the cries of Lutheran martyrs mixed with the cries of those whom Lutherans themselves were exiling, persecuting, martyring or fighting.

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