(Mis)understanding Martin Luther

"Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned..." Romans 5.12


Martin Luther (1483 - 1546) is often hailed as the poster-boy of post-modern individualism; his famous dictum "Here I stand, I can do no other" an early modern anticipation of Frank Sinatra's 'I did it my way' (Luther was also a talented song-writer). However, Chilean-based academic Ronald Rittgers insists this is to misunderstand the man and what he really did stand for.


It is true that Luther believed in the helplessness of humankind and taught that salvation was only through faith in Jesus Christ. But so did his colleagues in the late medieval Catholic Church. Luther, however, went further. Getting to the heart of his actual conviction requires our awareness of the influence a German mystic called Johannes Tauler had on Luther, whose work he published under the title A German Theology. Though Luther did not buy into Tauler's new-platonism (the assumption that all matter is evil and virtue it to be found only in that which is spiritual), Luther did identify with Tauler's Christian anthropology - that is, his perspective of what it means to be a human being.


For Luther, as it was for Tauler, humankind never had free will, even in the Garden of Eden, and has always been subject to the influence of either Satan or God. Adam's seduction by Satan, through Eve, condemned humankind to a state of such total depravity as could only be redeemed by an outside agent. The impossible was achieved by Jesus, whose prefect life and ultimate self-sacrifice has made it possible to switch our allegiance from Satan to God. But - and here lies the rub - not by asserting our sovereign and individual choice, rather by accepting that we are nothing and can contribute nothing and must receive forgiveness and salvation as a totally undeserved gift of God's grace.


Thereafter our relationship to God is not of cooperation but of continuing dependence, such as a tool in the hands of a master craftsman. So, no room for pride here and we need not look to Martin Luther to justify our clamour for personal "rights"!

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