Church history and hagiography are not always so easy to distinguish. We paint certain pictures of personalities with little or no solid evidence, but rather base them on sentiments formed much later (sometimes even sentiments we form internally). An obvious case in point is the way in which Martin Luther is typically thought of as a jolly old sport, whereas John Calvin is considered harsh and cold. There may be something to this, of course, but there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary, for both men, as well. In fact, readers familiar with the whole of Luther’s work might well suspect that he was bipolar, as he was routinely given to fits of extreme gregariousness and extreme bitterness. Luther would go on productive spurts, churning out impressive works of theology,art, and music, and then he would withdraw into depression or anger, spending extended periods of time away from public ministry. Such is the sort of personality we should suspect in an epoch-making man who considered himself a prophet in regular conversation with both God and Satan. But, for whatever reason, we prefer to think of him in mostly the entertaining mood.
Andrew Pettegree provides an example of one of Luther’s darker moments:
Sometimes the tensions of the unrelenting obligations to act as God’s instruments spilled over in a torrent of pessimistic invective: for Luther, for all that he devoted endless care to engaging his audience, certainly did not spare them. In 1530 the unregenerate nature of Wittenberg society brought him to crisis, and a dire warning:
I am sorry I ever freed you from the tyrants and papist. You ungrateful beasts, you are not worthy of the Gospel. If you don’t improve, I will stop preaching rather than cast pearls before swine. 1
His lament was one that would become a familiar refrain for the Reformation preacher: even in places exposed to the true Gospel, people continued to live a life of dissipation. In Wittenberg, Luther charged, the Reformation had brought no rush of generosity of spirit.
In times past people gave for temples and altars, now everybody scrapes everything together for himself. There is nothing going on but scraping and scratching. But in two years the Turk will be at your door. Just don’t think you are safe. If you were pious you would accept the Word, trust God, do good to your neighbour, and take heed to your calling.
Luther suspended his preaching for nine months before his spirit revived. But the tensions exposed in this interlude—the preacher as pastor, the pastor as prophet—would become familiar to all those who laboured as preachers in the Reformation period.
(Andrew Pettergree, Reformation and the Culture of Persuasion, Cambridge, 2005, 20)
We do not point this out in order to harm Luther’s memory. He really was quite funny and a man who enjoyed life. Neither do we quote it in order to defend it or justify similarly abusive rhetoric today. Indeed, if a local pastor were to speak to his congregation like this today, he would be an instant Youtube sensation. He would certainly be considered abusive and, perhaps, in need of some counselling.
The value here is that we see the larger historical picture. Luther, like all men, was a very complex personality. We also see that pastoral ministry (not to mention church attendance itself!) was a very emotionally trying work. It still is. We have to resist nostalgia and any sort of “good ol days” mentality. The Reformation was a great thing and a great time. It was also a time in which you and I would probably not like to live.
Steven Wedgeworth is the pastor of Christ Church in Lakeland, Florida. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Trust. A graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson, MS), Steven lives in Lakeland, FL with his wife, son, daughter, and two terriers.
The Calvinist International is a forum for research, resourcement, and renewal of Christian wisdom.