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MARTIN LUTHER IN RECENT CRITICISM 203 



MARTIN LUTHER IN THE LIGHT OF RECENT 

CRITICISM 

EPHRAIM EMERTON 

The decade just passed has witnessed an unusual ac- 
tivity in the production of books about Martin Luther. 
This activity has been greatly stimulated by the re-intro- 
duction of a method of controversy which reasonable men 
had been hoping was forever silenced. Until about a 
generation ago there had been two obvious and hope- 
lessly opposed ways of approach to the subject of Luther's 
character and work. From the one side he was presented 
as an angel of light; from the other as the type of a 
depraved and malicious spirit, moved to activity not 
through any desire to improve the condition of his people 
but because, being the malignant thing he was, he could 
not act otherwise. It need hardly be said to the readers 
of this Review that both of these views of Luther are 
essentially false. They are perfectly intelligible, one 
equally with the other. They are the natural precipita- 
tion of the bitter controversies that gathered about him 
in his life, and continued long after his death to compli- 
cate the political and economic struggles out of which 
the new Europe of our day was born. In the light of 
our modern historical method, both views appear crude 
and unscientific. They represent a way of looking at 
historical characters and historical events to which we 
are apt to apply the crushing word "old-fashioned." 
And in fact it did seem, up to a very few years ago, that 
these primitive judgments, which classified men into good 
and bad, angels and fiends, had become a thing of the 
past. We flattered ourselves that the canons of histori- 
cal criticism had become so well fixed in the habits of our 



204 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW 

modern thought that we were no longer blind to the 
intermediate shades of quality and motive that determine 
human action. We thought we had learned that no man 
is wholly good or wholly bad; that no historical move- 
ment is all along one direct line, but that if we would 
really understand it, we must follow it in its many wind- 
ings and disentangle it from the many cross-roads of op- 
posing forces that tend to confuse and to obscure it. 

For more than half a century scholars had been occu- 
pied in delving deeper and deeper into the original 
sources of historical knowledge, confident that the more 
completely these were brought out into the light, the 
more certainly we should be able to eliminate the false 
and the uncertain and to fix forever the volume of the 
certain and the true. That confidence was but another 
expression of one of the most noticeable tendencies of the 
modern world — the tendency to believe that, in the words 
of the poet who more than any other was the prophet 
of modern optimism, "We needs must love the highest 
when we see it." A right method, it was supposed, must 
inevitably lead to sound results. We forgot that there 
is another side to this matter. We overlooked the bitter 
fact that learning, right method, intellectual power, may 
all be perverted to the service of the false and evil as 
well as applied to the service of the true and the good. 
It is only when, behind all the apparatus of sound scholar- 
ship and beneath all the force of intellectual capacity, 
there is honesty of purpose, purity of aim, and a genuine 
love of the liberty which knows no fear of consequences, 
that we can hope for the highest results of research. 

Now if we apply these rather large generalizations to 
the special case of the study of Luther, we see that what 
we have ventured to call the "old-fashioned" crudity of 
judgment was pretty definitely repudiated more than a 
generation ago. And it is interesting to note that this 
abandonment of the extreme partisan attitude begins 



MARTIN LUTHER IN RECENT CRITICISM 205 

on the Protestant side. Not only was it a Protestant, it 
was a Lutheran writer, Professor Julius Kostlin, who gave 
to the world the earliest considerable study of Luther 
from an avowedly strict historical point of view. While 
maintaining the attitude of reverence for the great 
achievements and the commanding personality of his 
hero, Kostlin was not blind to the defects and limitations 
that at many points seem to dim the lustre of his renown. 
And so it has been with the host of other Protestant 
scholars who have followed the way marked out by 
Kostlin. They also have endeavored to preserve what 
was valuable in the older tradition, and at the same time 
not to lose the advantage that comes from treating a 
great human figure in a human way. 

But not only Protestants have felt the influence of the 
modern emphasis upon a truly historical method. Cath- 
olic scholars too, trained in the schools of Protestant 
Germany, began to approach this subject of the Reforma- 
tion in a markedly fairer spirit. On this side the lead 
was taken by two men of vast learning and industry, 
inspired by common zeal to present their side of the 
great controversy in such a way as to conciliate the 
scientific spirit of their day. These two men were 
Johannes Janssen and Ludwig Pastor. Both chose for 
their field of work the period of European history follow- 
ing upon that of the Middle Ages proper. It was their 
cue to admit with admirable frankness the evils of the 
Church system in that period and to acknowledge the 
need of reformation. In so far they disarmed criticism 
from the outset. But then came, of course, the question, 
how this reformation might and ought to have been ac- 
complished. These authors contended that the means of 
reformation were all indicated by the very constitution 
of the Church itself. Though the Church was a divine 
institution, it was in the hands of fallible men, by no 
means exempt from the passions and follies of human 



206 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW 

kind. In its development there must occur those waves 
of soundness and unsoundness which mark all human en- 
deavor. In its periods of decline it had only to enforce 
still more strictly that divinely instituted discipline which 
had so often rescued it from apparently impending ruin, 
and it would once more assume its rightful place as the 
infallible guide of human conduct. 

From this point of view it followed that all violent 
reformation deserved rather the name of revolution, with 
all its attendant horrors and confusions. Revolution 
might lead to schism, and schism meant the rending of 
the seamless garment which symbolized the essential 
unity of the Christian Church. With the actual process 
of the Reformation under the lead of Luther, these 
Catholic scholars could therefore have no sympathy; 
but they were not quite willing to adopt the traditional 
view of him and his work as criminal. It was not a 
question of crime, but of blunder. The Reformation was 
a mistake, and Luther was the victim of a series of 
errors arising, not from a vicious nature, but from the 
extravagance of an over-sensitive conscience preyed upon 
by solitary brooding and working itself out in a contin- 
uous sequence of audacious actions. 

In defence of this attractive thesis, Janssen in his 
History of the German People and Pastor in his History of 
the Papacy marshalled their evidence in the form of a 
vast accumulation of quotation from contemporary 
writings, especially from the writings of the Reformers 
themselves, and above all from those of Luther. The 
success of these undertakings was immediate and enor- 
mous. The reader, critical or sympathetic, found 
himself overwhelmed by this mass of apparently unan- 
swerable testimony. The combination of frankness and 
learning with good temper and a generally respect- 
ful tone appeared to be irresistible. Of course a war 
of counter-demonstrations ensued. Protestant scholars 



MARTIN LUTHER IN RECENT CRITICISM 207 

rushed to the rescue, and the air became lurid with the 
flames of the combat. It was easy to show that the 
frankness of the new Catholic presentation was only 
apparent; that evidence had been twisted and perverted 
and combined to accomplish the desired result; that after 
all, the real issue, the justification of the Reformation, 
remained essentially untouched. 

Still, as the smoke of the encounter lifted, it became 
apparent that henceforth the treatment of the whole 
subject would have to be set upon another plane. 
Protestant scholars acknowledged gladly the many con- 
tributions to actual knowledge which their confessional 
opponents had made. Whatever disposition might still 
linger to represent Luther as something a little more 
than human was pretty well counteracted by the weight 
of evidence to the contrary, and on the other hand it 
seemed impossible that the old violence of assault could 
ever again be revived. That was the situation so long 
as the papacy of that remarkable man, scholar, and 
gentleman, Leo XIII, continued. Pope Leo died in the 
year 1903 and was succeeded by the Venetian peasant, 
Giuseppe Sarto, who under the name of Pius X still 
occupies the throne of St. Peter. Within a year of his 
accession appeared the first volume of a book called 
Luther and Lutheranism, 1 by a Dominican friar, Hein- 
rich Denifle, who for more than twenty years had held 
the position of sub-archivist at the Vatican. The thesis 
of this book was one especially useful in Catholic exhor- 
tation — namely, that no one has ever become a recreant 
to the true faith unless he had previously become a wicked 
man. Every departure from the doctrine of the one 
holy and apostolic Church must be traceable to some 
mental or moral depravity on the part of the erring 
person. 

1 Luther und Lutherthum in der ersten Entwickelung, von P. Heinrich Denifle, 
O. P. 1804-1908. 



208 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW 

In pursuance of this thesis, Denifle brought together 
and marshalled into one terrible indictment every sug- 
gestion which a mind open to that kind of evidence could 
extract from contemporary literature, and especially 
from the utterances of Luther himself, pointing toward 
a depraved imagination and a diseased moral nature as 
the mainsprings of his activities and the basis of the 
seductive influence which he exercised over the minds of 
his followers. It was a frank return to the attitude 
of a previous age. As to the great learning and ability 
of the Dominican scholar there could be no manner of 
doubt. He had demonstrated these in a long series of 
critical studies of mediaeval institutions, which had won 
for him the hearty recognition of all competent authori- 
ties. He was on his way to England to receive the high- 
est honors of the English academic world, when he died 
at Munich, June 10, 1905, a little more than a year 
after the appearance of the first volume of his assault 
upon Luther. A second and a third volume, from 
materials which the author had long been gathering, 
appeared in rapid succession. 

This book of Denifle's is not a biography of Luther. 
It is not even an attempt at this. "I am no Luther- 
biographer," the author himself says in his preface to 
the second edition. It is rather a psychological study, 
based upon historical method and directed to proving 
the point from which the author sets out, namely, that 
Luther was merely the mouthpiece for a type of corrup- 
tion which for more than a century had been creeping 
into the Church and threatening its very life. It is 
worth while to follow for a moment the process which 
Denifle tells us he followed in approaching the subject 
of his work. He had occupied himself, he says, for 
many years with studies especially in regard to the Uni- 
versity of Paris and the devastation of churches and mon- 
asteries in France during the Hundred Years' War; and 



MARTIN LUTHER IN RECENT CRITICISM 209 

this had led him to the conviction that the late four- 
teenth and the fifteenth centuries were an almost con- 
tinuous period of decadence in the spiritual standards 
of the Church. Rationalism, individualism, paganism, 
the lust of the flesh, the delight of the eye, had all been 
slowly sapping the foundations of the structure which 
the devoted faith of the true Middle Ages had built up. 
Especially had the world of nominal Christians turned 
away from that ideal of the Christian life represented by 
the monastic system with its manifold reactions upon 
society in general. All this wide-spread discontent and 
criticism seemed to our Dominican scholar only so many 
manifestations of the world against the Church, the 
flesh against the spirit, the devil against Christ. What 
appears to others as the spirit of enlightenment, lead- 
ing with all its dangers through struggle and doubt to 
ultimate clearness and deliverance, this seems to him 
the spirit of darkness blinding the eyes of the world and 
causing it to stumble about in uncertainty, until the one 
divinely appointed guide shall again be able to command 
its allegiance. 

This process of decadence within the Church he finds 
then typified and personified in Luther. He grants to 
him, grudgingly, a certain measure of good intention 
and a barren kind of capacity; but, aside from these 
dubious endowments, he is to him only the expression 
of the general corruption of mind and soul to which the 
unhappy tendencies of the previous century had been 
inevitably leading. The key to the nature of this so- 
called reformer is plainly a gross and irresistible sensual- 
ity. It is this germ of corruption which poisons all his 
being and leads him to the other vices which from an 
early point determine his action. Especially does it lead 
him, as sensual indulgence always must, into a fatal 
disregard for truth. The whole world of law and order 
and religion becomes hateful to him because it seems to 



210 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW 

stand in the way of his own selfish desire. Having the 
spirit of falsehood within him, he lies to himself. Evil 
becomes good in his sight. When the man of the fif- 
teenth century sinned, he knew he was sinning. He did 
not try to deceive himself or others with the fiction of 
a new morality that confounded right and wrong. And 
because he knew that he was sinning, he kept open for 
himself a way of reform. There was always for him and 
his kind the hope that through this sense of sin they 
might be brought back once more to the kindly bosom of 
that Mother Church that was always more ready to 
forgive than to condemn. But for this Luther and his 
kind there was no such hope. They sinned, and then 
made a new law to justify their sin. When Luther, 
moved by uncontrollable desire, broke the vows he had 
solemnly taken and united himself with a woman who 
had been through the same process of apostasy, he had 
the audacity to call this union a marriage and to declare 
that it had the approval of the divine command. 

One sees the cleverness of this method of attack. It is 
of no avail that Luther, and his defenders to this day, 
point out the perversion of the system which had led 
him and countless others into a relation with the world 
which their sober and mature judgment condemned as 
false, and out of which therefore every right instinct of 
their nature taught them to escape. All this could be 
interpreted as merely an excuse to justify their own per- 
verse and corrupted action. It would not help, to show 
that a long series of faithful servants of a true Christian- 
ity had for generations been protesting against pre- 
cisely these fictitious restraints upon everything that was 
natural and right in the closest of human relations. 
From the days of Gregory VII such protests had not been 
lacking. They had come, not from men who were seek- 
ing justification for their own private acts, but from 
devoted adherents of the system they were compelled to 



MARTIN LUTHER IN RECENT CRITICISM 211 

criticise. Such men were grieved and pained by the 
corruption they saw in the holiest places, and advised 
an entire change as the only means of escape. They 
had been silenced by the weight of that centralized 
power that saw in the existing system the only defence 
of its own authority. But now such voices would be 
silenced no longer. It was perfectly true that Luther 
was giving expression to a feeling of restless impatience 
with fictitious and hypocritical restraints; but this was 
done only that a new Christianity in greater harmony 
with the eternal Tightness of the good universe of God 
might be brought into being. 

The reply to this assault was as difficult as the reply 
to those critics of the English Reformation who represent 
this event as merely the result of King Henry VIII's 
obstinate determination to rid himself of a wife who no 
longer suited him. It is as idle in the one case as in the 
other to attempt a direct reply. Such movements as 
the Reformation in Germany and in England are too 
vast and too complicated to be summed up in any such 
simple formula. The only way to reach an intelligent 
comprehension of them is to trace them back through 
the long and intricate development which brought so- 
ciety at last to such a point that there was no longer 
the possibility of compromise. It is not the personality 
of the leader nor the immediate circumstances about 
him, that are of the highest importance. These are the 
dramatic elements of the situation, and for that reason 
they are sure to attract and hold the attention. It 
would have been better if this violent and insolent attack 
had been allowed to pass in utter silence. But the un- 
doubted learning and the high official position of the 
writer seemed a challenge which the Protestant scholars 
of Germany could not afford to neglect. With one 
accord they again rushed to the defence of their national 
and religious hero. A new deluge of pamphlets, each 



212 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW 

aiming to place in its proper light some aspect of Luther's 
personality or some incident in his career, was poured 
out upon the world of readers. Especially, of course, 
the teachers of Church History in important universities, 
men like Harnack, Kawerau, Kolde, Walther, put them- 
selves immediately on record as protesting alike against 
the spirit and the content of the offending book. 

In the interval of barely ten years a whole literature 
has made its appearance. In general it must be said 
that the tone of the controversy on the Protestant side 
has been dignified and worthy of the traditions of the 
best historical scholarship. It has acknowledged frankly 
the few contributions which the learned Dominican has 
made to our actual knowledge. It has repudiated, so 
far as such repudiation was necessary, the extravagant 
laudation of the earlier days. But it has left no room 
for doubt as to its absolute rejection of the point of view 
and the conclusions of its adversary. 

It was natural that Father Denifle, himself a "religious " 
and a Dominican at that, should have directed his attack 
with especial venom against Luther's whole relation to 
the monastic system. It was not merely that Luther 
had abandoned his monastic profession, broken his vows, 
and led multitudes of others to do the same. His chief 
offence was that he had misrepresented the sacred idea 
of the regular life. Luther's own utterances on the sub- 
ject would lead us to believe that he had entered the 
monastery in order that he might secure deliverance 
from the sense of sin that was oppressing him. He had 
given it a fair trial. He had not been in the attitude of 
rebellion against the minuteness of the rule, which had 
marked the attitude of Erasmus, for example. On the 
contrary, he had conformed with scrupulous exactness to 
every requirement, in the vain hope that thus he might 
acquire the peace of mind he sought. Failing to find 
this relief, he had passed through a stage bordering on 



MARTIN LUTHER IN RECENT CRITICISM 213 

despair, and out of this stage he had worked himself 
only through persistent study of the Bible and its in- 
terpretation in the light of the theology of Paul and 
Augustine. In other words, he had found through the 
process of personal experience his solution of the prob- 
lem of personal sin and sinfulness. The method of con- 
formity to a system of prescribed practices had failed. 
He had gone beyond and above all prescriptions to the 
personal and intimate relation of the sinful soul to the 
God who made it. Now this is what the dominant 
Church could not and cannot forgive. If the individual 
could thus leap over all the bounds of form and cere- 
mony which it had established, then its occupation was 
gone, and it was quick to perceive this inevitable conclu- 
sion. Denifle did not waste his time in dwelling over- 
much on the wickedness of breaking vows and seeking 
the gratification of sensual desire under the excuse of 
religious scruple. These things he characterizes with 
vicious side-thrusts which leave no doubt as to his opin- 
ion. What he chiefly dwells upon is the false-heartedness 
of Luther in professing any such idea of the monastic 
life. Luther ought to have known that the profession 
of the monk was not primarily a process intended for 
the deliverance from sin. The whole notion of the 
monastic vow as a "second baptism," whereby a man 
was sacramentally renewed in spirit, he declares to be 
a complete misapprehension. Not as a guarantee of 
spiritual perfection but only as an aid toward this end, 
is the regular life truly to be interpreted. All this Luther 
ought to have known and probably did know; so that 
he is guilty, not only of an overwrought hysterical 
motive in entering the monastery, but of deliberate lying 
about it when it became necessary to defend his apostasy. 
The answer to this particular charge of Denifle is ad- 
mirably stated by Karl Benrath in his treatise on Luther 
in the Monastery. 2 It is made clear that this is only 

* Luther im Kloater (1505-1525), von Karl Benrath. 1905. 



214 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW 

one of the countless illustrations of Denifle's controver- 
sial method. He begins always with the point he desires 
to make, then seeks for words of Luther which by some 
perverse ingenuity can be twisted into a self-condemna- 
tion, then draws his foregone conclusion, and proceeds 
to build upon this the foundation for a new indict- 
ment. Benrath shows by a perfectly just historical 
method that Luther was fully justified in the year 1505 
in thinking that the monastery life would be the surest 
way to secure him the peace which his boy's soul craved. 
It is not necessary to imagine that he expected any 
miraculous demonstration of such a deliverance. His 
surrender to the requirements of the house would indicate 
the contrary. What he probably did expect was that 
through this surrender he would find himself growing 
daily in what he would have called the Christian charac- 
ter. When he did not find this, he began the course of 
questioning and reaction which finally carried him outside 
the bounds of the monastic relation. 

It is unnecessary to dwell upon the foul insinuations 
with which Denifle pursues his victim during the years 
of struggle with the monastic limitations. Enough that 
his only material here consists of a series of scattered 
utterances of Luther himself, largely in personal letters, 
never specific in their references, and always leaving 
large room for interpretation, but used here with true 
Dominican inquisitorial cleverness in the sense most un- 
favorable to the defendant. Reduced to their lowest 
terms, they all fall back to the one simple statement that 
Luther was made a man and not a monk and believed 
that he was not singular in this respect. His unpardon- 
able offence was that he believed a man was something 
better than a monk and did not hesitate to say so. 

This note of personal abuse is continued throughout 
the discussion of Luther's early years, and furnishes the 
foundation upon which the whole judgment of his later 



MARTIN LUTHER IN RECENT CRITICISM 215 

accomplishment is built. It has been the task of his 
Protestant defenders to show the falsity of the method 
and to illustrate this by reference to specific points. 
Denifle has then replied to his critics with sweeping accu- 
sations of a character quite in accordance with his assault 
upon Luther himself. The chief points in this rejoinder 
are found in the familiar charges of ignorance and false- 
hood. If we could accept this criticism, we should have 
to believe that all the vast output of German scholarship 
in the past two generations had been thrown away. 
These scholars, the most eminent in their field, are repre- 
sented first as utterly incapable of understanding even 
the first principles of historical inquiry. Evidence means 
nothing to them, because they are constitutionally, or, 
if you please, confessionally disqualified to weigh and 
measure it. They cannot read the documents necessary 
to establish their opinion. They are ignorant of things 
that every Catholic child knows in its cradle. And then 
these ornaments of German scholarship, thus incapable 
of any worthy achievement, are united in a conspiracy 
to pervert the truth. They are worthy disciples of their 
master and involved in the same condemnation. 

Denifle's book was received with jubilation by the 
Vatican wing of the papal party. By the more moderate 
and more decent element it met with distinct reproof for 
its vicious method, but was accepted as a final judgment 
upon the man and the movement it had condemned. 
Denifle himself had disclaimed the character of a Luther- 
biographer. His work was, as he himself said, to trace 
the movement of the Reformation as embodied in the 
person of its leader back to its origins in a corrupt and 
decadent clericalism in the century previous. In so doing 
he set himself, as has been well shown by his critics, in 
distinct opposition to that other Catholic school of which 
Janssen and Pastor were the best representatives. They 
had maintained with a wealth of illustration that the 



216 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW 

Church of the fifteenth century was doing very well in- 
deed. Personal corruption and false leadership there 
were, to be sure, just as there is bound to be in all institu- 
tions intrusted to human hands, but the means of reforma- 
tion were contained in the very constitution of the Church 
itself, and these agencies would have worked out the 
redemption of the Church in their own way and time, if 
only they had been given the chance. 

In presenting their view of the case, they were always 
pointing forward to the time when these forces of regen- 
eration should rally and find expression in the Counter- 
reformation of the late sixteenth century. Denifle, by 
throwing his emphasis on the corruptions of the fifteenth 
century, has only made the more clear to every seeing 
eye the hopelessness of the notion of a true reform with- 
out a shock of revolution. He has demonstrated that 
the system which had produced the papacy of the 
Borgias and the Medicis could never have been trusted 
to cleanse itself of the principle of decay that lay in its 
very structure. 

The last volume of Denifle's book appeared in 1909. 
Within barely two years the problem of a complete 
biography of Luther, which he had definitely set aside, 
was taken up by another Catholic scholar of acknowl- 
edged eminence, the Jesuit, Hartmann Grisar, professor 
at the University of Innsbruck. 3 In this monumental 
work, in three ponderous volumes, Dr. Grisar has under- 
taken to present from the Roman point of view the life 
and work of Luther as a process of development. Like 
Denifle, he has sought for the moving springs of the 
reformer's action, but he has found them in a some- 
what different source. Without specific reference to his 
predecessor, he frankly repudiates his whole theory of 
Luther's personal depravity as the origin of his fall 
from grace. In a few brief sentences he expresses his 

3 Luther, von Hartmann Grisar, S. J. 3 Bde. Freiburg im Breisgau, 1911. 



MARTIN LUTHER IN RECENT CRITICISM 217 

opinion that the material for a judgment of Luther's 
early experiences, whether in his own utterances or 
those of others, is far too meagre to permit of confident 
conclusions. At the same time Grisar accepts the 
theory that loss of faith is "not uncommonly" (i, 86) 
the result of moral corruption; only he is unable to 
find this connection of fact in Luther's case. So also in 
his treatment of the charge against Luther that his 
whole attitude toward the monastic problem was deter- 
mined by his conviction of the uncontrollable nature of 
sensual desire, Grisar is honest enough to see that Luther 
meant this to apply to every kind of temptation of the 
will toward selfish desire at the cost of others and did 
not mean to limit it to the single element of physical 
lust. 

Nothing could be fairer than Grisar's statement of the 
principles he proposes to follow in his work. He declares 
himself unreservedly to be aiming at historical truth and 
nothing else. That is of course what all historians have 
done ever since there was any writing of history, and, 
as very few of them have been able to live up to their 
declarations of principle, so we need not charge it as 
an especial crime against Dr. Grisar that he also has 
allowed certain modifications to creep into his actual 
practice. For one thing, he makes it clear that his 
historical attitude must comprehend also a certain psy- 
chological position; and that is always a dangerous 
venture for the historian. To account for the actions of 
his subject, he must create for him a psychological con- 
dition, and when he has made such a condition satisfac- 
tory to himself he must refer everything to that. It is 
an attractive method. It offers at every turn the clew 
which the biographer is always seeking; but the honest 
historian knows that there is nothing more illusive than 
precisely these alluring clews. They are more than 
likely to lead him into the very snares which he is trying 



218 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW 

to avoid. For, after all, a human genius is too subtle 
a thing to be formulated under the headings and sub- 
headings of the psychologist's system. 

Another of Grisar's declarations deserves our notice. 
He explicitly declares his independence of the views of 
Denifle or of any other authority. He rejects with 
some little warmth the idea that there is or can be a 
"Catholic" verdict upon Luther's personal character 
and experiences. Only in the sense that, as a matter 
of course, every Catholic must approach the subject 
with "the doctrines and the essential institutions of the 
Church as his standard for Luther's opinions and re- 
forms." Denifle's personal opinions, he says, were his 
own, and he claims for himself the same independence. 
That has a very fair sound; but notice the caution of 
this reservation. What are the dogmas, and which are 
the essential institutions of the Church? That is pre- 
cisely the question at issue; and because this is the 
question, the party which is bound to assume as its 
standards the very things that are in dispute can never 
stand in a truly historical attitude toward the persons 
or the institutions which have rejected these standards. 
The protestations of Dr. Grisar therefore do infinite 
credit to his good-will, but offer little promise that 
through his activity any noteworthy progress toward 
a mutual understanding between the two great wings of 
western Christendom will be made. 

If Dr. Grisar rejects Denifle's principle of moral de- 
generacy as the explanation of Luther and Lutheranism, 
what does he substitute for it? Mainly two motives, by 
which he thinks the downward course of the so-called 
reformer was determined. The first of these motives is 
an ever-increasing, uncontrollable self-concern, develop- 
ing as time went on into a fatal self-assertion, a con- 
tempt of all authority except such as he could turn to 
the support of his own individual conclusions. It was 



MARTIN LUTHER IN RECENT CRITICISM 219 

not that Luther based his opinion or his action upon 
Augustine or upon Scripture, but that, having through 
his own perverse activity come to certain conclusions, he 
then found, or wished others to think he had found, 
support in these undoubted foundations of Christian 
tradition. The other motive, upon which Dr. Grisar 
dwells with great emphasis and prolonged argument, is 
Luther's sensitiveness to mystical influences. To his 
mind, already started upon its quest for a new source of 
spiritual satisfaction, came the subtle suggestions of 
what our author calls a "false mysticism." By that I 
understand him to mean a mysticism which over- 
emphasizes the individual process of reaching religious 
satisfaction through personal, spiritual communion with 
the source of all spiritual certainty. Such over-emphasis 
seems to him — and in this he is undoubtedly right — to 
underestimate the importance of those other methods of 
approaching the divine bestower of peace to the soul 
which the Church has systematized and the key to 
which it claims to hold. That is a distinction which to 
the Roman Catholic must always seem decisive. The 
Church could never afford to question or even to mini- 
mize the importance of a profound spiritual attitude of 
the believer toward the highest problems of the Christian 
experience. What it could, on the other hand, equally 
not afford to give up was the claim that such a spiritual 
attitude should express itself in forms recognized and 
controlled by the organized system of the Church's 
administration. Whoever allowed himself to come too 
directly into personal relation with the God who had 
made him and to whom he was responsible, must in- 
evitably seem to be setting himself in a certain opposi- 
tion to the existing system of the Church. It is these 
two elements taken together, an uncontrollable self- 
assertiveness and a morbid sensitiveness to imagined 
spiritual suggestion, that constitute Grisar's Luther-psy- 



220 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW 

chology. Starting with these, it is easy to refer to them 
every individual act of the reform programme. 

It is a pleasure to turn from the directly controversial 
pamphlets written in reply to the Roman assault, and 
to notice the steady progress of busy scholars in pre- 
senting continually new evidence of Luther's actual 
work and thought. Such a bit of carefully studied 
evidence is Johannes Ficker's edition of Luther's Lect- 
ures on the Epistle to the Romans.* Long known and 
used by scholars in copy, it was reserved to Professor 
Ficker to utilize the Berlin manuscript in Luther's own 
hand. We have here, reproduced in a beautiful edition, 
the Latin text as Luther copied it out, his brief notes 
marginal and interlinear, and then his commentary, the 
main substance of the lectures. One sees here the com- 
plete process of Luther's thought in the two years 
(1515-16) immediately before his first great appeal to 
the world with the Ninety-five Theses of 1517. We can 
trace his studies in all authorities, ancient and modern. 
We can see how at a given point he must have received 
the new Greek Testament of Erasmus, and how from 
there on he profited at every step by its use. We learn 
from this illustration how Luther was feeling his way, 
deeply impressed with the great leading thought of jus- 
tification by faith, yet feeling always the apparent con- 
tradiction between this and the imperative duty to do 
right, and so seeking to reconcile these two through a 
complete understanding of Paul's deepest meaning as 
interpreted by Augustine. 

A very useful little contribution is Professor Scheel's 
collection of documents 5 selected especially to illustrate 
Luther's development down to the year 1519. In his 
preface the author enumerates more than forty books 

4 Luther's Vorlesung ilber den RBmerbrief, 1515-16. Herausgegeben von Jo- 
hannes Ficker. 2 Bde. Leipzig, 1908. 

6 Dokumente zu Luthers Entwickelung (bis 1519), von D. Otto Scheel. 1911. 



MARTIN LUTHER IN RECENT CRITICISM 221 

and articles which have appeared since 1900 on this sub- 
ject. The documents here given are arranged by topics, 
and under these they are grouped as far as possible 
according to the volumes of Luther's writings. Intended 
primarily for the use of special students, they form an 
interesting body of evidence on the much-discussed main 
question as to Luther's sincere and irresistible progress 
toward the convictions which from 1519 on were to 
dominate his action. 

One of the most difficult problems of Luther's early 
career is that of his relation to the established civil 
powers. The prince under whose immediate authority 
he lived, the Elector Frederic of Saxony, was well known 
for his sturdy and orthodox piety and his generally con- 
servative character. How was it possible for Luther to 
speak and act with such freedom, not to say such reck- 
less boldness, without being checked from the start by 
this civil control? The answer is at least partially to 
be found in the personality of Georg Spalatin, the Elec- 
tor's most trusted counsellor, and at the same time the 
devoted friend, admirer, and patron of Luther. 6 Be- 
tween the two there went on for many years a volumi- 
nous correspondence, very much of which has been pre- 
served, and on the basis of which this volume of Dr. Berbig 
has been written. To one who is willing to follow it 
carefully it demonstrates anew, and from a quite differ- 
ent side, the same fundamental fact: that Luther's 
intellectual and spiritual progress was a slow but steady 
development of a central idea working itself out under 
the influence at once of continuous study and a rich 
experience of life. It supplies the evidence which proves 
at the same time Luther's substantial equipment of 
worldly wisdom. He recognized from the beginning that 
it would be idle to protest and proclaim unless he were 

6 Georg Spalatin und sein Verhaltniss zu Martin Luther bis zum Jahre 1585, 
von Georg Berbig. 1906. 



222 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW 

to find support in the temporal powers, and his rela- 
tions with Spalatin show the consistent application of 
this principle. As Melanchthon was Luther's foil on the 
theological side, so was Spalatin on the political. It is 
only regrettable that Luther did not have the orderly 
habit which led Spalatin to preserve his correspondence. 
We are in consequence obliged for the most part to re- 
construct the contents of the chancellor's letters from 
Luther's replies; but even so we gain from this pub- 
lication an inspiring picture of Spalatin's wise and cau- 
tious, but at the same time liberal and generous support 
of Luther's early activity. 

The same problem, only in much finer detail, is con- 
sidered in Kalkoff's study of the early treatment of 
Luther's case by the Roman tribunal. 7 Probably few 
readers can quite realize how delicate the situation was 
in the year 1518; how slight a change in the balance of 
forces would have thrown Luther into the hands of Rome, 
and how little hope there would then have been that he 
would escape the final penalty of his rashness. To accom- 
plish this result only one little jog at the right point in 
the mechanism of the papal-imperial-German-national- 
istic machinery was needed. If the Elector Frederic of 
Saxony had yielded for a moment to the pressure brought 
to bear on him by the clever diplomacy of the Curia 
acting through Cardinal Cajetan, and had let Luther 
slip out from under his protection, the cause of Ger- 
man reform would probably have been indefinitely post- 
poned. 

Kalkoff's investigations in Italian archives have made 
it possible for every student to see for himself all there 
is to see in the way of original documentary evidence 
for this complicated bit of diplomacy. The volume is 
made up partly of narrative and partly of registers of 
documents arranged in chronological order and accom- 

' Forschungen xu Luthers Rtimischem Prozegg, von Paul Kalkoff. Bom, 1905. 



MARTIN LUTHER IN RECENT CRITICISM 22S 

panied by a running commentary. The documentary 
chapters are the most instructive and are hardly less 
readable than the narrative; which is a model of every- 
thing that a literary style — even a German literary 
style — ought not to be. Even so, however, the effort 
to understand it is well worth making, if only to gain 
one more convincing proof of the quality, both active 
and passive, of the steadfast Elector. 

American scholars also have been making their worthy 
contribution to this work of the past decade. The Polit- 
ical Theories of Martin Luther, by Dr. L. H. Waring, 8 is 
a study of the reformer's relation to the many practical 
questions involving governmental control over the action 
of the individual which were forced upon him by the 
immediate demands of the time. In this, as in every 
other field of his activities, Luther was an opportunist 
rather than an abstract theorist. He met the several 
crises of his career with such practical suggestions as 
each seemed to require, and then defended his advice by 
reference to general principles. Inevitably he was led 
into declarations that were more or less self-contradic- 
tory. Dr. Waring has collected these various utterances 
and so put them together as to show the varying attitude 
of their author at different times, but also to illustrate 
his well-balanced conception of the nature, the functions, 
and the rights of civil government in dealing with sub- 
jects who themselves had rights equally original and 
inalienable, or, to use Luther's own phraseology, equally 
divine. The chapter on the Right of Reform and Revo- 
lution is especially instructive in this respect. It shows 
the reformer in the sternest conflict of principles; on 
the one hand, his instinctive love of liberty and sym- 
pathy with the oppressed; on the other, his profound 
conviction of the importance of civil order as the indis- 

8 The Political Theories of Martin Luther, by Luther Hess Waring. G.F.Putnam's 
Sons. 1910. 



224 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW 

pensable foundation of a true liberty and an effective 
justice. 

A monument of industry and patience in the least at- 
tractive field of Lutheran studies is The Confessional 
History of the Lutheran Church? by the late Professor 
Richard of the Gettysburg Theological Seminary. After 
a brief but comprehensive review of the political, social, 
and dogmatic conditions of the first twelve years of the 
Lutheran movement, there follow some two hundred 
pages, about one-third of the volume, on the inception, 
the completion, presentation, and confutation of the 
Augsburg Confession of 1530. Although the author's 
point of view is, of course, the conservative Lutheran, 
he presents all the aspects of the amazingly difficult prob- 
lem with singular fairness. We are made to see and to 
feel the critical moments when a false step or a timid 
policy might have endangered the whole cause of relig- 
ious freedom for Germany and so for the world. The 
final formula of the Augsburg Confession was a monu- 
mental testimony to the spirit of compromise where com- 
promise was possible, and of unshakable firmness when 
further yielding would have sacrificed fundamental prin- 
ciples and the great practical results already attained. 
The figure of Luther as the motive force, the beloved and 
revered teacher, and yet as obviously not the man to be 
intrusted with so delicate a mission, is brought out into 
clear relief. Already the current of events was sweeping 
on more rapidly than he or any other man could have 
foreseen and was carrying him along with it to results 
he would certainly not have welcomed. 

The remainder of the volume is devoted chiefly to the 
working out of the several lines of dogmatic speculation 
started by the Lutheran revolt. On the one hand, we 
have the principle of liberty, once set in motion never 

* The Confessional History of the Lutheran Church, by James W. Richard. 
Published for the author by the Lutheran Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1909. 



MARTIN LUTHER IN RECENT CRITICISM 225 

again to be completely checked. On the other, we see 
the demand for uniformity, localized in the several prin- 
cipalities, and, happily, having no central organ of ex- 
pression. The conflict of these two ideas is reflected in 
the long series of doctrinal formulations which are the 
subject of the present volume. Dr. Richard was not 
blind to the outward pettiness and evil temper of these 
discussions, but he has succeeded in maintaining through- 
out an objective, judicial attitude which gives to the 
non-Lutheran reader an almost sympathetic understand- 
ing of the real historic value of this apparently hopeless 
period. It shows itself as a stage of transition from the 
first generous enthusiasm of Luther's day to the fresh and 
vigorous impulse of modern German rational thought. 

The two biographies of Luther by Professor McGiffert 10 
and Dr. Preserved Smith, 11 both published in 1911, were 
noticed in this Review (April, 1912). They are both 
written for the general reader; the former as the natural 
overflow of the ripe learning and long experience of the 
mature scholar and the inspiring teacher, the latter as 
the first-fruits of a well-trained student showing thor- 
ough familiarity with the material and a gift of lucid 
presentation. 

The promise of the latter work has since been well 
maintained by the first volume of Dr. Smith's transla- 
tions from Luther's correspondence, 12 which appeared in 
1913 and was noticed in this Review (October, 1913). 

What now is to be our conclusion from this array of 
testimony on the one side and the other, as to the true 
Luther? I cannot see that the judgment of sound, 
reasonable, historically minded Protestant writers, begin- 

10 Martin Luther, the Man and his Work, by A. C. McGiffert. The Century 
Co., 1911. 

u The Life and Letters of Martin Luther, by Preserved Smith. Houghton 
Mifflin Co., 1911. 

a Luther's Correspondence and Other Contemporary Letters, translated and 
edited by Preserved Smith. Vol. 1 (1507-1521). Philadelphia, The Lutheran Pub- 
lication Society, 1913. 



226 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW 

ning with Julius Kostlin and continuing down to the 
present day, needs any serious modification. The essen- 
tial basis for a calm and rational verdict was laid as soon 
as the extravagant laudation of strict confessional advo- 
cacy was abandoned. Luther has shared in the general 
clearing of the historical vision that has been one of the 
most marked phenomena of the age of science. To 
understand him even half thoroughly we must indeed 
look at him in his historical setting and in the light of 
his psychological make-up. The charge that he was an 
individual rather than a type is true. What concerns 
us today is not whether a man has an aggressive, self- 
assertive personality, but rather, supposing he has, what 
use he makes of it. In itself, the demonic obsession with 
world-moving ideas, such as Luther charges upon himself, 
is not a ground of suspicion to the modern world. On 
the contrary, it is precisely to such inspired leaders that 
we look as the real motive powers in all the great world- 
movements. When we find such a character, we do not 
expect to see him moving in the ruts of tradition or em- 
ploying the gentle methods of the trained diplomatist. 
Rather we look to see him carried on and sometimes out 
of himself by the very greatness of his mission. 

It is not the impetuous rush of his words in assault or 
the passionate inconsistencies of detail in his defence 
that offend us or cause us to lose confidence in his integrity. 
We are not repelled by seeming contradictions either in 
his utterance or in his action. What we admire and cling 
to is the thread of consistent devotion to some one guid- 
ing principle, pointing to some far-away hope or some 
shining ideal of the future. The enthusiasts who cannot 
claim our sympathy are those whose fire burns out in 
idle effort, or turns and consumes them because they are 
not made of the stuff that can bear the fierce heat of the 
conflict they have aroused. But Luther is not one of 
these. His was indeed an aggressive personality; but 



MARTIN LUTHER IN RECENT CRITICISM 227 

it was so because of the passionate devotion with which 
he threw himself into the cause, which he believed to be 
the cause of God and God's truth. By nature he does 
not seem to have been of the typical reforming temper. 
On the contrary, every bit of evidence points to him as 
being in his youth rather of the shrinking, sensitive 
quality, that seeks its support in the institutions amid 
which his lot is cast. He was a good son, a docile and 
obedient scholar, zealous, probably over-zealous in the 
punctilious performance of his cloister-routine. He was 
a trusted official of his order, sent at the age of twenty- 
seven to Rome as its representative in important affairs, 
continuing, through the seven years that followed, in all 
the detail of his several functions as university professor, 
as parish priest, and as member of his order, without 
resistance within or criticism from without. He was 
thirty-four years old before he found himself driven 
by an irresistible inner impulse to say what had long 
been shaping itself in his thought about the obvious 
evils of the Church. 

Surely that is not the radical temper. And yet the 
same steadfastness of purpose which had held him true 
to his obligations up to the last moment, now worked 
with equal intensity to hold him faithful to the new obli- 
gations into which his new position led him. When on 
that eve of All Saints he sent out into the world his 
challenge of the Propositions on Indulgence and Grace, 
he committed himself to an attitude which admitted of 
no compromise. Either he must abandon his position 
or he must go forward. To have gone back would be, 
as John Huss had said a hundred years before at Con- 
stance, to desert all those faithful souls who were now 
looking to him for leadership. In going on, he was launch- 
ing out upon an unknown sea. It was impossible to 
foretell whether the winds that seemed most favorable 
would not drive him upon the rocks, or fail and leave 



228 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW 

him to drift upon the sands. That was to be the most 
cruel test of his quality, and it is precisely there that 
hostile criticism finds its welcome opportunity. 

It must be admitted that Luther's policy — if in- 
deed we can think of him as having any fixed policy at 
all — was a policy of opportunism. What the factors 
were going to be that at any moment would determine 
his action could not even vaguely be predicted. The 
opposition of Rome could, of course, be counted upon; 
but that was the least of his concerns. On that point 
his mind was made up. What really pressed upon him 
with at times almost crushing weight was that sense of 
responsibility to those who now, quite without his 
previous knowledge and contrary to his expectation, 
were hailing him as the spokesman of their own deepest 
convictions and the herald of their most exalted hopes. 
I do not hesitate to say that now, after criticism has 
done its worst, the dominant impression of Luther is 
that of an eminently conservative and constructive 
genius. His conservative quality was shown as soon 
as the more radical elements of the revolt against Rome 
began to make themselves felt and to claim kinship with 
him. From his Patmos on the Wartburg he watched the 
gathering of these forces of destruction, then descended 
upon them and scattered them once for all out of the 
territory where his own chief constructive work was to be 
done. In the fury of the peasant outbreak, after a 
first attempt at reconciliation, he threw himself with all 
the ardor of his glowing temperament upon the side of 
social order and reconstruction. No sooner had he in 
the dramatic scene outside the gate of Wittenberg 
thrown the ancient law-book of the Church into the 
flames, than he began to work out with infinite pains and 
difficulty the plan of a new church-law based upon a 
harmonious working of the civil powers and the newly 
organized clergy. On the doctrinal side, recognizing 



MARTIN LUTHER IN RECENT CRITICISM 229 

the spiritual value of the traditional sacramental scheme, 
he fought to the bitter end the battle of what he con- 
sidered the crucial element in that scheme — the doctrine 
of the Real Presence in the Eucharistic ceremony. 
Finally, in that extraordinary document, the Augsburg 
Confession of 1530, we see the culmination of this con- 
servative and constructive work. In its dignity, its 
moderation, and its firmness we read, not indeed the 
hand, but most truly the heart and soul of Luther. 

It is obvious that a character of this type lends itself 
with peculiar readiness to hostile criticism. The worst 
as well as the best that has ever been said of him can 
be supported by reference to his own utterances. His 
was eminently an expansive nature. What he felt 
strongly at a given moment he must share with whoever 
would listen. He was subject to great and violent 
changes of mood. In his moments of exaltation no 
words were too strong to express his confidence in the 
truth of his position. In the depths of his depression 
he was overwhelmed at times with his own boldness. 
It was to be expected that under the influence of these 
changing moods he would say many a thing that seemed 
absolutely to contradict his former declarations. It is 
the easiest possible kind of criticism to pick out these 
separate utterances and weave them into an apparently 
unanswerable charge of mere opportunist policy leading 
to the more serious one of deliberate falsehood. Such a 
method, however, is as false as it is cruel. It is a viola- 
tion of the first principle of historical judgment — that a 
man must be measured, not by individual words or deeds, 
but by the whole completed record of his accomplish- 
ment, and by the dominant motive of his life. 

Criticism of Luther merges naturally into a criticism 
of Lutheranism and thus of Protestantism in general. 
We are told that the work of Luther set back the wheels 
of progress for at least a century. We are pointed to the 



230 HARVARD THEOLOGICAL REVIEW 

pitiful divisions among Christians, due to the emphasiz- 
ing of petty points of difference, to sectarian intolerance, 
to the fanaticisms that from time to time have dis- 
graced and endangered the name of Christianity itself. 
We are asked to contrast the splendors of art and the 
glories of literature which belong to the noble record of 
triumphant Catholicism, with the poverty of the wor- 
ship and the sordidness of discipline that have often 
marked the Protestant communities; and then we are 
expected to imagine that if it had not been for Luther 
and his work, the world would have gone right on under 
the mild sway of Leo the Medicean and his successors, 
developing all that seems to us now attractive and cor- 
recting or suppressing all that was repellent. Is there 
anything in the situation of European affairs in the year 
1517, or in the story of Roman Catholicism through the 
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which can make 
us strike the balance so as to appear more favorable 
to that side of the account? 

Certainly, to the open-minded student the answer 
cannot be doubtful. We can ask nothing better for this 
great spiritual leader than to have all the light possible 
thrown upon him from every source. And if in the 
fierce illumination of hostile controversy some dark 
spots seem to grow even darker than before, there will 
be ample compensation in the clearer judgment of the 
man as a whole. Let us be grateful for every contribu- 
tion to this judgment, no matter from what source it 
may come; but let us not for a moment lose out of sight 
that one foundation-principle of Protestantism — that no 
earthly power shall stand between a man and his God, 
and that there are many roads leading to the Kingdom 
of Heaven.