The Reformation turns 500. Do you have your Luther Playmobil action figure at the ready? I do.

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It’s here, it’s here!

The 500th anniversary of Martin Luther banging on the Wittenberg Door . . . or not exactly banging, as you can see below.

In honor of the birth of Protestantism, Craig Harline’s written A World Ablaze: The Rise of Martin Luther and the Birth of the Reformation (Oxford, October 3), focusing on the first several years of Luther’s rise. — JKR


RNS: Why did you write this book?

Harline: Oxford asked whether I was interested, and I said, “I’m not a Luther specialist.” But that’s what they wanted: a nonspecialist to write for nonspecialists. The editor had read some of my other things and liked them.

I always complain that the only thing people know about the Reformation is the name Martin Luther. So in preparation for some talks I’m giving, we made a little “person on the street” video asking what people know about Martin Luther. And they’ve all heard of him! But few know much about him.

I don’t think I’ll have much that’s new to tell scholars, but my goal is to make Luther more human, and to focus on the early years. To show how tenuous it all was, instead of being inevitable. I wanted to focus on being in the moment, and telling the story in a personal way.

RNS: Give an example of how tenuous it was.

Harline: He’s so uncertain the whole time. He becomes more and more certain of his theology, but he’s less and less certain about his fate, or even whether he’s done the right thing in being so public. Also, what he cared about most was justification by faith, which he thought was going to turn the world upside down, because that was the answer to his own personal struggle.

So he held a big disputation a month before the 95 theses, this time with 99 theses, all against the classic view of justification. And nobody cared. Justification by grace through faith became the starting point for all Protestants, but at the time it was still Catholic enough that nobody raised an eyebrow. That really disappointed him.

What really caught on was his comments against indulgences, comments he thought were completely trivial. So he’s got all these intentions to start a conversation about justification by faith, and people respond to something else.

Craig Harline, author of “A World Ablaze.” Photo by Jan Van der Perre.

RNS: Can you give us a nutshell version of what indulgences were, and why they were controversial?

Harline: An indulgence was part of the sacrament of penance. The first step was to be contrite; the second to confess and receive absolution; and the third to make satisfaction, like going on a pilgrimage or saying a prayer. An indulgence would change your satisfaction, or punishment, to an offering or some prayers if you couldn’t, for example, go on a pilgrimage.

That was what an indulgence was supposed to be. But in practice, it came to be understood as people having their sins forgiven in exchange for cash. Indulgences were also hugely popular with authorities because princes, towns, and bishops would get a portion of the proceeds and use them to build churches and bridges. They worked a little like municipal bonds.

That’s why, in Luther’s day, there was this St. Peter’s indulgence, to help build St. Peter’s cathedral, That in itself was very routine. What bothered Luther was the promises that the indulgence made. It was only supposed to be in exchange for your punishment, but it was being touted as a forgiveness of sin itself. That’s what really bugged Luther.

RNS: So this was the part of Luther’s argument that started catching on?

Harline: Right. He was trying to improve the theology of indulgences. He wasn’t against them altogether; he just thought they were being abused. It was a couple of years before he became opposed to the whole idea.

RNS: You argue that this image we have of Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg church in protest is pretty romantic and probably not accurate.

Harline: He wrote the 95 theses because he was disputing a subject, which was the job of professors. Every Friday, there were practice disputations. There were disputations at every graduation. Writing disputations was a normal event for professors of all kinds, and for professors of theology, their job was to dispute unsettled theological points in order to settle them.

But indulgences were so sensitive that he almost certainly did not post them. And even if he did, it would have been totally not dramatic, or about as dramatic as a professor posting something on the bulletin board of the university. That’s a perfect example of our misunderstanding, of reading it with the wrong eyes. We picture this monk hammering something on the church door, defying the Catholic church, but this is the university bulletin board, his home turf. It’s the classic example of our need to understand the context.

He probably sent this around by mail to his friends, in order to start a discussion, and then it just got worse and worse. Several people took the theses to the printers, and lo and behold, for the first time in academic history (and probably since) an academic disputation became a bestseller.

RNS: And Luther wasn’t entirely happy about that?

Harline: Not when it was translated into German. He said, “Ordinary people won’t understand.” He especially didn’t want people to think he was against the pope, so he wrote something separate for them. And that was the first real bestseller, the sermon on indulgences and grace. It didn’t mention a thing about the pope.

And then over the next couple of years, he changed his mind. It took him a year and a half to two years to really come out openly against the pope. And that’s when he became really famous, and many people in Germany loved him. He wanted them to love justification by faith, but what they saw in the criticism of indulgences was criticism of the pope, and that’s what Germans were ready to hear. There was a lot of sentiment that the pope owned too much land and there were too many church taxes sent to Rome. But they didn’t want to break with Catholicism; they wanted to be fully Catholic.

RNS: Why is Luther still remembered today?

Harline: There are whole books about that, and the answer changes over time. People saw in him whatever they wanted in their century. At one point he was viewed as a promoter of “individual conscience,” which he actually wasn’t, because that was what was important to them at the time they were writing.

So what I try to do in the book is to insist that readers see Luther in his own time and not our own. I guess most of the Luther books and conferences—there are a zillion of them this year—are about the consequences. And that’s right, because if someone is still with you 500 years later, you should think about why. But my role as a nonspecialist is to come along and ask what the significance was of the story itself, before he became an icon.

I have this little guy in my office collection of religious icons and action figures, from Buffy to the Infant of Prague.


RNS: Do you think you would have liked him?

Harline: He was a really strong personality—really funny, but really angry. So maybe sometimes, yeah. But I tend to like predictable people. He becomes infamous later on for his anti-Semitism, which came out especially when he was older and cranky. But when he was younger, in 1523, he wrote a tract defending the Jews, because he believed that now that the true gospel had been revealed they would convert. They didn’t, and so he wrote a really nasty tract. He also wrote a really nasty thing against the pope later in his life.

RNS: Finally, a bonus question since you teach at BYU: what is up with Luther being a hero to Mormons? He’s been mentioned in General Conference and in LDS curriculum.

Harline: Mormons have heard about him, and they assume he’s kind of a hero. In the LDS Church museum when I was a kid there was this exhibit of Christian history that showed the ancient church, and then there were these monks in dark mist, and then there were Luther and Calvin and Wesley, bringing light, giving the impression that Luther was preparing the way. Ironically, Mormons have a lot more in common with Catholics than they do Protestants. He’s admired for making the Restoration possible, but what he criticized in Catholicism he would have also criticized in Mormonism, starting with the doctrine of justification. That’s the thing he cared about most: how you are saved.

He also looked to the Bible for authority, not church leaders, and he would have disagreed with Mormons’ views on ordinances. Luther thought you needed baptism and the Lord’s Supper and that’s about it. And even then it wasn’t the power of the church that saved you, but faith, whereas Mormons tend to think that you have to engage in this ritual by the proper authority in order to be saved.