Martin Luther, Son of Thunder
“And there was a great wind, a wind so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks to pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind.” 1 Kings 19:11
I recently visited the site where Luther had one of his great, life-changing moments. There is a stone in the German village of Stotternheim just a few kilometers from Erfurt. Luther as a 21-year-old was making his way to the small city of Erfurt when he was caught in a violent thunderstorm on July 2, 1505. According to the story told, an especially dangerous lightning bolt landed just a bit too close. Luther was terrified and thought he would die.
We now know from his writings and anecdotal legends that Martin Luther was especially superstitious. Of course, if we read even a cursory overview of that time and period, we realize that pretty much everyone was deeply, and I would say, pathologically superstitious. But this was in the last days of the “Dark Ages” in Europe–we cannot forget.
In young Luther’s day, churches, monasteries, convents, priests, bishops, popes, and political leaders vied with one other in acquiring the most outlandish and, by modern day standards, freakish “sacred” relics. If we traveled Europe back in that day we could find the shroud of Jesus’ burial, containers of the Virgin Mary’s breastmilk, the very fingerbone of Thomas who refused to believe without seeing. I could go on, but I am digressing.
In the midst of that great storm Luther thought he was dead for sure and so he cried out to Saint Anne to save him from this conflagration.
“Help, Saint Anne. I will become a monk!”
Luther will see the light but what light is this? Is this the lux obscura (obscure light) or does Luther finally see the true light? It is interesting to note that Luther will not be clear about this event later on in his life. In fact, he will have reservations about the event itself and his subsequent decisions to join the monastic life. Even with a cursory knowledge of the life of Luther, we know that he would eventually leave the life of a monk, but he will reject the monastery and the monastic order outright. So did he make a mistake becoming a friar? Who or what spoke in that thunderstorm? This will bother Luther for years after.
One of his first doubtings will be at the words of his own father. Luther’s father, Hans, will be displeased with Martin’s decision to leave the lucrative and prestigious study of the law and enter the monastic life. A few years after this lightning incident, Luther will move from functioning as a friar to becoming a priest. He could now function as a priest of the Latin church–hearing confessions and administering the seven sacraments.
When it was time for Martin’s official ordination, he invited his father to attend his first administering of Mass. Whether Hans was still angry or not, he did attend Luther’s first Mass, and Hans made quite a show of entering Erfurt for this occasion. At one point in the midst of celebrating Mass, Luther literally froze and could not go on until the prior assured him that he could go on. Later in his life Martin Luther explains that he was seized with the gravity of the moment and terrified of the “divine Majesty.” God, to Luther, was a fearsome being.
After the Mass everyone gathered in the refectory to celebrate Martin’s success. At one point, Martin asked his father, “Why were you so angry at me for joining the monastery?” “Don’t you know the Fourth Commandment?” Hans asked. “Honor your father and your mother. And now you have left me and your dear mother to look after ourselves in our old age.” Luther responded to his father, “But father I could accomplish more good by prayers than if I had stayed in the world.” Hans, being the practical businessman had a ready response: “God grant it was not an apparition of the Devil.”
This thought–that perhaps he had been “deceived” into his monastic vow tormented and haunted him. And Hans concurred. Michael Massing, in his excellent new book on Erasmus and Luther, says this: “Luther had long been nagged by the same suspicion, and his father’s comment (as he later wrote) ‘drove roots’ into his heart, as if God were speaking through Han’s mouth.” (Massing, Fatal Discord, 124)
Doubt. Self-doubt. Yes, Luther was tormented by obsessive negative thoughts especially when he was young and before his “conversion” experience at the hands of Romans 1:17, “The just shall live by faith.” And he, like others at the end of the Medieval age, suffered the onslaughts and nagging thoughts of the innumerable superstitions. But I would argue that, like many of us, Luther’s weakness on this score is also his greatest strength. Doubt–self-doubt.
Luther was willing to view this defining moment outside Erfurt with suspicious eyes. He was willing to try the spirits and test the devils. Is this not the seed of the Reformation and the beginning of the Modern? Luther was willing to be wrong. Maybe that lightning bolt, that Blitz vom Himmel, (lightning bolt from heaven), was not so clear after all. Now of course Luther went way too far, and as I mentioned, he was excessive early on. But Hans’ question–is this the Devil or is this God? What a question. His question actually affirms Luther’s doubt, but in so doing, also emphasizes a key component to Luther’s reformation. Interpretation is a tricky business.
Luther’s moment and Hans’ question remind us that faith is doubt. That faith begins in doubt and not certainty or assurance. Faithfully doubting is the Christian’s day-to-day business. Luther’s reformation began in doubt, in deep questioning. But Luther not only doubted the Church; he doubted himself. Yes, in terrible, hateful ways, I know. But he will question. “What did I hear in that thunder? What did I see in the lightning bolt?”
We moderns call this the “hermeneutics of suspicion.” And it began with Luther. And Spinoza, Joan of Arc, Erasmus, Huss, Wycliffe and Hans. Yes, Hans. “Was this God or the Devil?” Did you hear the voice of God in your thunder or did you hear your own fearful voice? Who is actually speaking here? One of Luther’s grand critiques of the Latin Church was their dogged proclivity to just “make things up”–practicing loose interpretation finding whatever they wanted in the Scriptures. Did you know that you and I can “read” the Scriptures in such a way that they always agree with us? Jesus is my homeboy and the Bible my goodnight story. Jesus approves of me, and the Bible always agrees with me.
Luther will shine a light into the vast darkness of the Latin Church. But he will also shine a light into the darkness of the human heart. Yes, the darkness of ignorance and superstition. But also the darkness of self-delusion. Bad reading, bad reading of the world around, bad reading of events, but mostly, bad reading of ourselves.
God was not in that thunder; Luther was. Driven by negative thoughts and limitless doubts, his own fear propelled him into the monastery. Hans called him out.
Ah, but this was not a mistake. This misguided step in Luther’s journey to freedom was still a step and a step in the right direction. Had he stayed in his study of law we most likely would not have our Luther. His “true” mistake would have been the lack of self-interrogation. Without this we would not have the Reformation or the Modern.
On a recent visit to the amazing and revitalized city of Berlin, Germany my wife and I stumbled upon the most delightful and yet strange discovery. We departed our bus onto Alexanderplaz on our way to the Neues Egyptian Museum. We had just left Prague and a haphazard jaunt across Eastern Germany stopping at certain Martin Luther sites. We had the time to visit Stotternheim where the good doctor was caught in a terrible thunderstorm and vowed his life away as a monk. We made a hurried stop in Erfurt to see the church where Luther preached and the monastery where he studied. I’ve been reading a life of Luther by Eric Metaxas so these places have been much on my mind. But Berlin? Luther was never in Berlin as far as we know. But no matter. The great city of Berlin in the late 19th century commissioned a memorial to the great German reformer. At the time this memorial included other individuals who supported the German reformation and aided its intellectual vigor. Melancthon, Justas Jonas, and others. During WW2 the “others” were melted down and shaped into armaments–only Luther remained. They placed him in the Marienkirche during the war and subsequent communist rule. They brought him out in 1989, and now he stands guard north of the church in the shadow of the Fernsehturm. Luther towers over you as you look up. He is dressed in his simple monk’s robe and points to an open Bible. This is Luther. Simple, audacious, unrelenting, finding his authority not in popes or priests, but the Scriptures. It was strange to see Martin Luther smack dab in the middle of Berlin; and yet, it makes sense. Here he is surviving 2 world wars and a communist takeover. He, the first modern, reminds Berlin where modernity began.