The Significance of Martin Luther

Editor's Note: We at Tikkun wish to join our allies in the Lutheran Church and other Protestants who are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant reformation which began with Martin Luther. At the same time, we are aware of the hateful teachings of Luther about Jews and about Muslims. These issues are discussed fully in the Summer 2017 issue of Tikkun in "Luther Against the Jews" by Craig L. Nessan (professor of Education and the Renewal of the Church at Warburg Theological Seminary), and in "Deconstructing Historical Prejudice: Luther's Treatment of the Turks (Muslims)w by Charles Amjad-Ali professor of Justice and Christian Community at Luther Seminary). You can read these important articles by subscribing to Tikkun (and then  emailing and asking him to send you a copy of that issue after you've subscribed. Susannah Heschel in the pages of Tikkun has demonstrated that during, and then after, the Holocaust, some of these prejudices have never fully been understood by some contemporary Lutherans, even as we in Tikkun also know that there are many Lutherans in the U.S. who have a sincere commitment to overcome and repent for this legacy. And as you'll see by reading the interview below, there are important spiritual insights that contemporary Lutherans can bring to the Christian world which deserve respect and appreciation. --Rabbi Michael Lerner, Editor, Tikkun

What is the Significance of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation?: Protest, Psychotherapy, and Countering the Irrelevance of Christianity

Interview with Dr. Eugen Drewermann

on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.


Introduction by Interviewer: Eugen Drewermann encourages us to develop Martin Luther’s ideas and arguments for the future in an unorthodox manner and with a liberated attitude, in order to counter anxiety with trust.  For the unity of humanity, we need change and rethinking among Protestants and Catholics alike.  The 500th Anniversary of the Posting of the 95 Theses in Wittenberg in 1517 should be used to venture into something new far beyond denominational borders.


95 Theses: an invitation to debate


Dr. Drewermann, Catholic theologians in particular are asking the question:  What are we actually celebrating on October 31, 2017?  Are we celebrating 500 years of Reformation?  Was it, in fact, a Reformation, that was launched on October 31, 1517 in Wittenberg? 


What is known as the Posting of the 95 Theses on the Castle Church in Wittenberg can be understood as part of a wide-ranging controversy. The timing for the issue is well chosen: the subject to be debated is the question of indulgences. What Luther is hoping for is typical for him as a person: namely, the belief that it would be possible, through theological debate, to regain Christ’s truth, and formulate it in a conciliatory manner. It is academically such an honest yet naïvely monkish idea which fits with Luther’s entire life: if one searches for truth, if one argues for it, if one formulates it as vigorously as one can, and if one has an opponent who is able to withstand intellectually, then the result can only be something that is good for all people and will further God’s cause. This is what Luther expected at the end of October 1517. Things turned out totally different because he had grossly underestimated issues that, while he tackled and discussed them, were not under his control: namely, money and power. The question of indulgences is one of the issues where Luther is determined to withstand. There were a hundred other questions – and he formulated them all somewhere – but now he really hits the mark. Had he chosen any other issue, be it grace, liberty, the law, exegesis, the structure of the Church or even the question, what the Pope is and does in Rome, the Catholic Church would probably have reacted by riding it out, with tolerance, patience, silence or dismissal. But now Luther writes in his Theses: “If indeed the Pope in Rome wants to build the Cathedral of St. Peter, why then, being as rich as Crassus himself, does he not at least take his own money, instead of the money of impoverished believers?” (86th thesis). This sounds like insurrection. And that indeed it is, and will cause. And he meant it that way, too: that the Pope, given his responsibility towards Christ, should deeply respect his own believers.


What Luther began in 1517 still knocks at the doors of St. Peter and asks for admission.


This is what Luther means to me: he represents a person who picks up the contradictions so energetically that one can no longer live with them, but is forced to look for solutions.



From biography to history


Do we need to have Luther’s biography in mind when we read his texts, how he became a monk, what his relationship to his father was, how he freed himself from the monastic vows, the coercion he experienced?


Certainly. Without the problems posed to him biographically, it would be hard to understand Luther's doctrines of justification and salvation through God’s grace. But, on the other hand, we should not simply relativize the theology of Luther historically and biographically, by saying that it was all just Luther's attempt to heal himself from his father image. Luther consciously expressed a problem that exists in every human being. The anxiety he spoke of was not his private one, but that of all humans. The doctrine of justification expresses a problem that belongs to existence: people who become aware of their existential situation in this world experience anxiety and have to ask themselves what justification exists for their existence. As a Christian, Martin Luther rightly regards Christ as a solution to this core question. That is exactly the point he wants to make in all areas. Had he left his message in the interior, in the existential-psychic realm, it would inevitably have developed further into what we now call psychotherapy for the understanding of human helplessness and healing.


Trust as the heart of the Protestant Reformation


Protestantism is based on the evidence that from a Christian perspective there is no faith that has not gone through the individual subject’s experience in all its struggles, anxiety, guilt, and brokenness. This very fragility in humans is what God chooses to give grace to. This is at the core of Protestantism. If this core experience of recapturing the message of Jesus is denied in favor of group-think and compulsory obedience that only serve to bolster the institutionalized security of a sacramental practice that pretends to have God in its pockets, then Protestants can and should never arrange themselves with such fake reassurance by the impersonal. But that which helps a person to risk living fully in relation to and through trust in God is no human authority, neither in politics nor in the Church, but instead only the Word of God as found in the Bible. Faith (that is, trust) and the Bible - both are part of the core of Protestantism, and yet, they also in a certain sense are part of the problem of the Protestant tradition.


Protestantism begins essentially with the scene at the Diet of Worms (1521): an individual stands up to the cardinals, the theologians, the emperor who is present but whose opinion does not contribute to the question of what faith is. This one individual person stands up for what he has recognized in the Bible as God's word and what he, in the name of God and Jesus Christ, seeks to preserve for the spiritual care of people in the church. There is no turning back. When people dare to do so, then we have a church that can connect to Jesus, which Martin Luther sought to reestablish in his own time and in his own way. Without this prophetic condensation of existence within the individual person we cannot access what Christianity actually means.


(Re-)discovering a “prophetic” existence


Luther is an example of faith by showing that he as a human being, as a person of the Middle Ages, beyond the plethora of his fears, was able to mature only in relation to the person of God toward the courage to risk himself as person. No other foothold exists for him: neither a reference to his father nor reference to what he has learned, to what he has been in the church, or what role he plays in society. None of that helps him now. Only the relationship with God, grounded in the Word of the Bible in Christ, carries him across the abyss. What happens to a person through such faith expresses the dimension the Bible calls “the prophetic”. This dimension is psychologically exemplary for the human character at the beginning of modern times. Luther here really breaks new ground.


Psychotherapy and the Reformation


Can we say that Luther strengthens the self of the individual?


Yes. And for that he deserves also psychological credit. Erik Erikson credit him for this: Luther, he says, was full of problems, full of conflicts, had a neurotic constitution. But how he has worked this out, is exemplary, is truly great. What Erikson did, of course, not appreciate in his studies on Young Man Luther is the religious dimension. Yet that dimension is the only one that Luther really has at his disposal. The message of Jesus is certainly a kind of psychotherapy, if we interpret it in a Lutheran way. Certainly, it is not simply an interpersonal encounter that serves to exchange kind intentions or insights. Instead we should say: What we call psychotherapy is made possible by the permission to turn to a place of unconditional asylum. No matter what a person has done, no matter what she has become, she is justified as she is. God accepts me, forgives me, surrounds me, not because I am so good, but because God is so kind. This is what no society can say to us. Given certain circumstances, society would instead even bring criminal law to bear on a particular case. Even church law cannot say this, because it, too, has a paragraph for everything. The public certainly won’t say anything like this, but will instead deal sharply with such a matter in newspapers. It is really only possible to speak of unconditional acceptance in an absolute, religious sphere of encounter, and precisely in that space therapy takes place. If you will, psychoanalysis is a weak imitation of what once, on the ground of the New Testament, became conscious in the person of Jesus. Paradoxically, from the perspective of the church, it is reminiscent of what could have been within the church, but what now unfolds besides or even against the Church.


Faith as trust, sin as despair


Luther made a decisive contribution to overcome anxiety through trust, and to see in the first place the fundamental tension of human existence, namely that the only basic alternative is between anxiety and trust. This is Luther's great achievement. He always talks about trust. He interprets St. Paul’s concept of “faith” decisively and importantly as “trust”. For Catholic theology, this has remained perplexing: the Protestant concept of faith was regarded as a mere fiducial faith (as fides qua creditur, as a faith out of which one believes – that is, trust), and set against the fides quae creditur, the content of faith, which is believed in ecclesiastical dogma. But “trust” is a relationship from person to person, not a relationship between intellect and doctrine. Luther understands faith as the formation of the entire existence in the face of God. The accurate understanding of this depends on the translation. If we were to speak of "trust" instead of "belief," everything would be clear.

We can do the same with the term “sin”. This is also a key word for Luther. “Sin” usually means “the transgression of certain divine laws”. Sin is then part of the criminal law: a criminal is the transgressor of key laws in civil society. “Sin” is seen as the same kind of offense in the sphere of religion, except that the laws which are transgressed are now from God. If we proceed this way, then we completely moralize the message of Jesus by using the word “sin”. “Sin”, however, is something altogether different. One should define it as the opposite of trust. The opposite of trust is anxiety. But what becomes of a person who gets drowned in anxiety? If that is what were meant by “sin”, then we should say with Søren Kierkegaard: sin is despair. Kierkegaard said that pastors preach the churches empty because none of them knows what anxiety and despair are. But if they do not know it, then the whole church doctrine of Christ and of redemption is absolutely superfluous. It has no object at all. It is not only boring, but also completely pointless. Only those who know anxiety and despair need Christ. This is precisely Luther's conviction. Today much of Protestant preaching is so diluted that it only provides humane self-understanding. And it is even more so in the Catholic Church.


Luther’s message can help Christianity avoid irrelevance

Does this make Christianity a banal affair?


Absolutely. Kierkegaard's opinion is true here as well: if Protestantism loses its energy, he thought, it will disintegrate into atheism. Then it no longer has any commitment, because there would no longer be any external frame holding it. Then only the individual without substance or support would remain. Even personhood would be lost, and would dissolve into the collective. If, on the other hand, Catholicism were to lose its power, writes Kierkegaard, it would become polytheism or paganism. Catholics have far too much ecclesiastical directives, something for every occasion. And they stick to it. In the official Catholic Church, there is no focus on enlightenment, on the subjectivity that emerged as a result of the Reformation, or on anxiety. Instead there exists always already, guaranteed by the Church, a general sense of security from standing on the side of God. But that is a big lie, Luther now says to the Catholic Church: “Read the Bible, and you will realize how far away you are from God.”


Dr. Drewermann, given your analysis, what do we have to celebrate on October 31, 2017?


The courage for honesty, the ability to accept criticism at the right time and place, the energy to go through any threat in the future while trusting in God, the self-evidence of a certainty about what is good for people and what confuses them, a clear conviction that anxiety and economic greed are the opposite of everything that Jesus ever meant, and that it may be necessary to overturn even 1500 years of church history, if it produces too much nonsense. Then you have to demolish the whole idea of St. Peter's before it is even built, and start afresh. In all this, tiny Wittenberg is right against big Rome.


Source: Excerpts from „Luther wanted more“ by Dr. Eugen Drewermann (Luther wollte mehr, Herder 2017. Interviewer: Jürgen Hoeren. Edited by Matthias Beier. Translated by Matthias Westphal, Wendy Westphal. At the height of his very public debate with the Roman-Catholic Church hierarchy about the therapeutic and liberating message of Jesus, Drewermann was called a “New Martin Luther” by Time International and Le Monde newspaper. Drewermann is the bestselling author of more than 100 books and a well-known global peace activist.


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