Martin Luther, Son of Thunder

Luther Stone, Stotternheim, Germany
Luther Stone, Stotternheim, Germany Don Michael Hudson, Phd

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.

Luther Stone, Stotternheim, Germany
Luther Stone, Stotternheim, Germany Don Michael Hudson, PhD

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.

Luther Stone, Stotternheim, Germany
Luther Stone, Stotternheim, Germany Don Michael Hudson, PhD

“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.”

Lux obscura?

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.

Luther Stone, Stotternheim, Germany
Luther Stone, Stotternheim, Germany Don Michael Hudson, Phd


Martin Luther in Berlin

Marienkirche, Berlin
Marienkirche, Berlin Don Michael Hudson, PhD

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.


CHANGING THE WORLD: Local, global tributes to honor Martin Luther’s radical movement

Tom Netherland
for the Bristol Herald Courier

Martin Luther changed the world and humanity.

To paraphrase the title of a William Manchester book on the Middle Ages, in a world lit only by fire, Luther provided a light by which the individual could see and think for themselves.

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. As ignited by religious and societal revolutionary theologian Martin Luther, the world as we know it would most certainly not be the same had Luther never stepped forth in opposition of the era’s Roman Catholic Church leadership.

 “We would live in bleak ignorance. Just bleak ignorance,” said Don Michael Hudson, associate professor and chair of the philosophy and religion department at King University in Bristol, Tennessee. “Along with bleak ignorance, there would be big oppression of the people (today). I feel that way very strongly.”

Born on Nov. 10, 1483, in Germany, Luther evolved into becoming a radical. He equated to Martin Luther King Jr. at Selma to Montgomery, Rosa Parks on the bus, George Washington on the front lines, the Allies encountering Hitler. But, one could make a sound argument that Luther surpassed them all as history’s most radical of radicals.

“Luther said, ‘Open your eyes, open your mind. Don’t be a sheep. Think for yourself,’” Hudson said. “Some people take umbrage with it being called the Dark Ages. Well, it was. Europe was shrouded in darkness.”

Light shed upon Luther and his era comes via a smattering of yearlong acknowledgements locally, nationally and worldwide. For instance, a showing of the PBS documentary, “Martin Luther: The Idea That Changed the World,” will screen on Monday, Oct. 30, at Cinemark Tinseltown in Bristol, Virginia. Tickets must be purchased beforehand and online via the link listed below.

Two days earlier, Concordia Lutheran Church in Kingsport will host an event of relevant music. They will present Songs of the Reformation on Saturday, Oct. 28, which will highlight the singing of hymns written by Luther.

“Luther said that after God’s love, music is the greatest thing,” said Rev. Paul Becker, pastor of Concordia Lutheran Church. “We want to help people see the beauty of the good news. Even stuff that’s 500 years old is fresh enough that it could have been written yesterday.”

Take Luther’s “Salvation Unto Us Has Come”:

“Salvation unto us has come

By God’s free grace and favor;

Good works cannot avert our doom,

They help and save us never.

Faith looks to Jesus Christ alone,

Who did for all the world atone;

He is our one redeemer.”

Luther’s “good works cannot avert our doom” line directly contradicted the Catholic Church. However, “Luther was an ardent Catholic …,” wrote author William Manchester in “A World Lit Only By Fire.”

Indeed, Luther was an academic as well as an Augustinian friar and then a Catholic priest. He translated the Bible into New High German, “a language he virtually created …,” Manchester wrote.

Luther served as a devout man of the cloth, a Catholic for whom God meant everything. Perhaps his most famous hymn bears that out in its title: “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

“In his early years, Luther’s loyalty to the Vatican was total; when he first glimpsed the Eternal City in 1511,” Manchester wrote, “he fell to his knees crying, ‘Hail to thee, O Holy Rome!’”

Meanwhile, ocean waves of turmoil, long churning throughout Europe regarding the church’s controversial sale of indulgences, spread with the gradual passage of time. All was not calm either within Luther or ultimately the papacy or the Roman Catholic Church at large.

“To Luther, the selling of indulgences was a big scam,” Hudson said. “That really set him off. It was a racket.”

Corruption infected vast hallways within the fractured house of the Roman Catholic Church before, during and after Luther. Licentiousness, criminality and general boorishness spread like a communicable disease for which there seemed no cure. Such behavior reached clear to and indeed enveloped the papacy.

“At one point you had three popes on the throne at the same time,” Hudson said. “There was a system dealing with all of the illegitimate children of the pope and priests. They had no checks and balances. They used their own traditions for their own purposes, and if you disagreed, you were burned at the stake.”

Luther, as had Czech priest Jan Hus 100 years earlier, sought reform of the church. Hus directly challenged the church’s sale of indulgences. For his affront, Hus was tried as a heretic and burned at the stake in 1415.

Voices such as Hus’ presented problems for the church. Widespread illiteracy and the lack of a printing press prevented the public from reading scripture for themselves. They depended on the clergy for their spiritual meals. Firebrands such as Hus gave them accurate readings of the Bible in concert with sharp rebukes of church leadership that did not.

“The Catholic Church used the Bible to squash the individual for their own purposes,” Hudson said. “To question the pope was not only to face the fear of fire in this life, but the fire of hell in the next life.”

One hundred and two years later, Luther penned “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.”

Better known as Luther’s “95 Theses,” the priest posted them on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, on Oct. 31, 1517. That he posted them on the door of the church wasn’t so revolutionary; the church door equated to a community bulletin board.

Luther’s words, however, proved contemporarily and historically earthquaking.

“He wrote that one cannot achieve salvation through indulgences,” Becker said. “Faith in Christ as the savior is the only way.”

Luther simply penned the truth.

“That will always upset people,” Becker said.

Coupled with Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in the mid-1400s, seeds of what became known as the Protestant Reformation grew exponentially in the aftermath of Luther’s “95 Theses.”

The Reformation led to far more than just a split in the Roman Catholic Church and the advent of Protestantism. For one, it stands as monumental within the entire history of the world.

“Oh man, I’d put it in the top three,” Hudson said. “It unleashed the modern world. It was the seeds of the Enlightenment. It changed our whole world. One of the reasons why our government has checks and balances is because of the Reformation.”

Luther and the subsequent Protestant Reformation rocked the world on its axis.

Ultimately, Luther neither critiqued God nor the Bible nor Catholicism. He repudiated its purveyors who bastardized the word of God.

“The Reformation was one of the major shifts, changes in human history,” Hudson said. “We’re still living full-blown in that shift.”