Editor’s note: On the 500th anniversary of The Ninety-Five Theses, Eric Metaxas, radio host and author of the bestselling book, “Martin Luther,” looks at the historic influence of the humble monk who started the Protestant Reformation.
The following is excerpted from “Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World” by Eric Metaxas, published on October 3, 2017 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Eric Metaxas, 2017.
It is reprinted here with permission.
There isn’t a historian the last five centuries who could argue against the idea that Luther’s stand at the Diet of Worms—before the assembled powers of the empire, and against the theological and political and ecclesiastical order that had reigned for centuries, and therefore against the whole of the medieval world—was one of the most significant moments in history. It ranks with the 1066 Norman Conquest and the 1215 signing of the Magna Carta and the 1492 landing of Columbus in the New World. And in its way, it far outweighs all of those historic moments.
If ever there was a moment where it can be said the modern world was born, and where the future itself was born, surely it was in that room on April 18 at Worms. There can be no question that what happened that day unequivocally led to all manner of things in the future, among them the events 254 years and one day later, on April 19, 1775, when the troops at Lexington and Concord took a stand for liberty against tyranny. So much followed from that moment and so much has been made of it that it bears our taking a closer look at what exactly happened at Worms, and what did not.
Luther’s Appeal to Conscience
Much of what has been written about that moment homes in on the word “conscience.” Luther declared, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God.” He continued, “To go against conscience is neither safe nor right.” But so many historians have conflated our modern ideas about conscience with Luther’s very different ideas about it that we have accepted a deeply mistaken idea about what Luther meant, and therefore about what his stand at Worms meant. Of course Luther never said the English word “conscience”; that word is a translation from his German and Latin. The words he used, usually translated as “conscience,” cannot perfectly be translated as what we today mean by that word. The German word he used, Gewissen, really means “knowing.” And the Latin word, conscientia, means “with knowing.” But there is nothing about these words in Luther’s day that even implies what we today mean by the word “conscience.” The modern concept of conscience has come to mean something almost completely subjective, as though each of us has his own barometer and that barometer were sacrosanct, as though each person’s truth were comparable to truth itself. Indeed, the subjective idea of each person’s truth has fairly trumped the idea of an objective truth. It implies that each of us has his own truth, and that truth is one’s conscience.
Many of the toughest critics of Luther rightly aver that the line between the one and the other concepts of truth and conscience was crossed when Luther took his stand at Worms. Once the interpretation of the Scriptures and the concept of truth was taken away from the church itself, it was given away to each individual, and real and objective truth itself was effectively abolished. Once the authority of the church was broken up and the opportunity to disagree with the church was possible, anyone might disagree with any authority, and a thousand churches might spring up, each with its own version of the truth. This is indeed precisely what happened.
But it is important to see that despite what both his critics and his de- fenders have often said, Luther was never coming near anything of the kind. His concept of the word “conscience” was not our modern view, in which conscience takes its cue from the autonomous self. On the contrary, his concept of truth did not vary one iota from the accepted Roman Catholic view. The only difference between his view and the church’s view was in the idea that one’s conscience must obey God himself. The Catholic church reserved the right to say that it and it alone spoke for God, whereas Luther, in pointing out that the pope had erred and church councils had erred, was saying that the church could not reserve the right to speak for God. Therefore, if the church—via pope and councils—was able to err and to sometimes not speak for God and God’s truth, Luther asserted the idea that only the Scriptures could be that inerrant standard to which everyone—including the church—must repair. Thus, if the Scriptures plainly said something different from what councils and popes said, it must be the councils and the popes who were in error and were obliged to change their views. There was no other recourse. And Luther, in saying that he could not go against con- science, was simply saying that if his own understanding, his own knowledge, as guided by plain logic and clear arguments, showed him that Scripture said one thing and anyone else—even the church—said another, he had no choice but to go with what the Scriptures said. The Word of God trumped all else. So it was not Luther’s conscience that trumped anything. It was the Word of God that trumped everything. One’s conscience was only one’s ability to understand these things, and because he understood the Word of God clearly, he had no choice but to follow it. Luther was one of few who during that time had studied the Word of God carefully, so he had opportunity to observe that it was inerrant in a way that the church councils and popes were not. He therefore concluded that only the Scriptures spoke for God. The church must therefore bow to that greater authority.
But something else that arises out of this discussion about conscience has to do with the difference between power and truth. By demanding over and over that he be shown where he was mistaken—if he was indeed mistaken, as the church was saying—Luther appealed to the idea that anyone could understand what the Scripture said if one only dared to look at it. He knew that if he could force them all merely to look at it, to show him his error, they would see that in fact it was they who had been in error. There was no other way for him to convince them than to bother them to look for themselves. But because they were unwilling to do this, they were ignoring what the Scriptures said and were asserting the naked power of the church. Forcing people to believe did not comport with Luther’s view of the God of the Scriptures. God was all powerful and omniscient, and he alone defined truth and indeed was truth. But he did not assert that power in a way that ever smacked of power in the worldly sense. He had always and ever shown himself in weakness. Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. Jesus died on the cross for those who had mocked and rejected him. God did not crush us but showed us mercy, and Luther could see that the church had not adopted this view, but had itself become wed to worldly power. It took money that was not its own and burned those who disagreed with what it taught. Luther was trying to call the church back to its true roots, to a biblical idea of a merciful God who did not demand that we obey but who first loved us and first made us righteous before he expected us to live righteously. This was the good news of the Gospel that the church had so horribly obscured. And it was what had freed Luther from the horrors of his previous life. This was truth itself, and the church’s disturbing response to his attempts to get it to see these things only proved that God was not on its side in this. He would do all he could to get it to see this, including be willing to die for it, if it came to that. He feared that less than he feared God and denying God’s truth.
Many historians have put Luther forward as the first to put “individual conscience” before the authority of the church and empire. But ironically, he was not at all asserting the freedom of the individual to do as he pleased. He was asserting the freedom of the individual to do as God pleased—if and when the church or the state attempted to abrogate that freedom. Luther was asserting the modern idea of freedom of religion and freedom of con- science for the first time in history. These things point not to man as a new free agent but to God himself. That it would be possible for someone to abuse these ideas to do what God did not want him to do was always the risk, so to the extent that Luther made that risk and error possible, he may be held responsible for that. But the alternative to opening things up to this risk is to accept the sheer authority of church or state, and that was far worse. So yes, to some extent, Luther’s stand at Worms created new problems that we did not have before, but to a larger extent it gave us genuine liberty in a way that would lead to a new freer and deeper understanding of what God wanted. Just as Jesus had called upon the Pharisees to stop their outward obedience to God and go far deeper, to inward obedience, so Luther called upon every Christian to cease the petty obedience to church that was nothing when compared to the freedom and joy of actually obeying God.
Excerpted from "Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World" by Eric Metaxas, published on October 3, 2017 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Eric Metaxas, 2017.