Another Reformation Day has come and gone. Each year the day gives us occasion to reflect on the significance of the upheavals of the Sixteenth Century—upheavals that changed the religious, social, and cultural landscape of the West, especially the western church. What was at stake? What was it all about? Was it worth it? As we close in on the 500th Reformation Day such questions will even begin to interest those who have no religious commitment to what took place then.
Of course the Reformation is too complex a time and movement to be only about one thing. Its causes and effects touch on a wide range of social and political factors, theological ideas, unique personalities, and churchly pressures. Some would even argue that it is better to speak of Reformations rather than a single, unified movement.
Yet in spite of the complexity of the Reformation, October 31—Reformation Day—marks a very specific event with a relatively narrow scope: Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses Against Indulgences. Admittedly, it is a match that sets off a firestorm, but the nature of this event is often obscured by the tumult that follows rather than its original intent. In short, Luther’s 95 Theses were written as a protest against bad pastoral care, and it is from this perspective that one should try to understand what Luther was up to in those early years of the Reformation. As Jane Strohl put so wonderfully, “One could describe Luther’s career as the mounting of a life-long pastoral malpractice suit against the church’s authority at every level of the hierarchy.”
“Pro re theologica et salute fratrum”— “For theology and the salvation of the brethren.” Luther wrote these words in a letter to his friend Georg Spalatin on October 19, 1516, almost a year before the posting of the 95 Theses. The letter was a critical assessment of Erasmus’ recently published Novum Instrumentum—the Greek New Testament with textual annotations. While Luther greatly appreciated Erasmus’ scholarly work—(Luther had just finished his lectures on Romans was about to begin a new series of lectures on Galatians), he was not too impressed with Erasmus’ understanding and interpretation of Paul. Luther wanted Spalatin to convey his concerns to Erasmus even though he knew that his criticisms might fall on deaf ears. After all, he was a “nobody” and Erasmus was “that most erudite man.” Still, Luther said that he felt compelled to say something since this was not merely an academic difference of opinion—an exegetical point that could be debated in the ivory tower of the university. No, Luther was only interested in matters that touched on the heart of everything—the whole of theology and the salvation of all was at stake. When Luther began to change things in the university curriculum at Wittenberg, he did so because of how it would effect the weekly preaching, teaching, and pastoral care on the parish level. That was the goal of reformation for Luther.
But what was pastoral care on the eve of the Reformation? Of what did it consist? The formal, ecclesiastical, that is, priestly aspects of pastoral care could be largely subsumed under the following: 1. the sacrament of penance, 2. the selling/buying of indulgences, and 3. private mass. On the other hand, there were many less formal practices aimed at the care and comfort of souls: Exemplae of virtues and vices; devotional literature such as the Fourteen Consolations, Art of Dying (ars moriendi), and Lives of the Saints; and a variety of other spiritual practices such as relics, pilgrimages, and prayers patterned after the monastic life. These “Geistlichkeiten,” as Luther called them, became the focus of much of Luther’s reform efforts.
It is more customary to think of Luther as a reformer of doctrine (perhaps a specific doctrine like justification or the Lord’s Supper) and as an ardent opponent of papal authority. But questions of doctrine and theological authority arose for Luther as means to a greater end: the pastoral care that nurtures a genuine Christian life. Beginning with his own personal search for consolation and hope, Luther urged practices that would saturate one’s life with the word of Christ. Only in this deep connection to Christ did Luther find freedom and strength to live in a world shaped by the contradiction of God’s providence and the continual presence of sin and suffering.
And so we see Luther repeatedly and programmatically attack false “Geistlichkeiten”—spiritual practices that tried in various ways to overcome the contradiction of Christian existence by pushing God into the shadows of transcendence and mitigate the unpleasant realities of life with the lesser “deities” of saints and other spiritual securities. The intermediary position of the saints had the double benefit of preserving God from blame and sin and people from suffering. That Luther posted the 95 Theses on the eve of All Saints’ Day was perhaps a coincidence, but there is a certain seemliness in the proximity of his attack on the popular panacea of a saintly treasury of merits and a feast celebrating that pantheon of holy intercessors. For Luther such efforts at keeping God and affliction at bay was wishful thinking and fostered a way of living that made faith in a good God and faithful Father inconspicuous, appearing quite different from the life that Christ himself lived and taught. Because Luther found in Christ a God who entered into the breech between goodness and sin, suffering and salvation, he was also able to bring the saints back down into the secular. For Luther, the saints were now those who found hope in life’s contradiction by holding fast to the promises of a God who deigned to suffer for and with man. And in that hope the saints found courage to live life in God’s creation—to marvel in it, to find beauty in it, to plant, to harvest, to marry, to raise children—though plagues and peasant wars raged.
Perhaps one of the most beautiful pastoral reforms of “Geistlichkeiten” is Luther’s replacement of the “Lives of the Saints” literature with the vernacular Psalter—the holy words and prayers of the saints. Here in the psalms we are given guidance in the great contradictions of life. Luther called the psalter “a dark and holy labyrinth,” for as one walked its winding paths of sadness and joy, fear and faith, despair and hope, one also found the great mystery that at the center of this labyrinth was Christ himself—praying and groaning and singing for and with his people.
But let’s let Luther speak for himself. Notice how he wishes to replace one spiritual practice—one that has had ill effects vis-à-vis the Christian life—with a new one. And notice how this new one—the reading of the Psalter—prepares one to deal seriously and honestly with the reality of life, neither removing God or the saints from our presence but bringing them into an intimate sacred society with us. Thus his preface to the German Psalter in 1528:
“Over the years a great many legends of the saints, and passionals, books of examples, and histories have been circulated; indeed the world has been so filled with them that the Psalter has been neglected. … I hold, however, that no finer book of examples or of the legends of the saints has ever come, or can come, to earth than the Psalter. If one were to wish that from all the examples, legends, and histories, the best should be collected and brought together and put in the best form, the result would have to be the present Psalter. For here we find not only what one or two saints have done, but what he has done who is the very head of all the saints. We also find what all the saints still do, such as the attitude they take toward God, toward friends and enemies, and the way they conduct themselves amid all dangers and sufferings. …
The Psalter ought to be a precious and beloved book, if for no other reason than this: it promises Christ’s death and resurrection so clearly—and pictures his kingdom and the condition and nature of all Christendom—that it might well be called a little Bible. …
Beyond all that, the Psalter has this noble virtue and quality: other books make much ado about the works of the saints, but say very little about their words. The Psalter is a gem in this respect. It gives forth so sweet a fragrance when one reads it because it relates not only the works of the saints, but also their words, how they spoke with God and prayed, and still speak and pray. Compared to the Psalter, the other legends and examples present to us nothing but mere silent saints; the Psalter, however, pictures for us real, living, active saints. …
A human heart is like a ship on a wild sea, driven by the storm winds from the four corners of the world. Here it is stuck with fear and worry about impending disaster; there comes grief and sadness because of present evil. Here breathes a breeze of hope and anticipated happiness; there blows security and joy in present blessings…
What is the greatest thing in the Psalter but this earnest speaking amid these storm winds of every kind? Where does one find finer words of joy than in the psalms of praise and thanksgiving? There you look into the hearts of all the saints, as into fair and pleasant gardens; yes, as into heaven itself. Then you see what fine and pleasant flowers of the heart spring up from all sorts of fair and happy thoughts toward God, because of His blessings. On the other hand, where do you find deeper, more sorrowful, more pitiful words of sadness than in the psalms of lamentation? There you look into the hearts of all the saints as into death; yes, as into hell itself. How gloomy and dark it is there, with all kinds of troubled forebodings about the wrath of God. So, too, when they speak of fear and hope, they use such words that no painter could so depict for you fear or hope, and no Cicero or any other orator so portray them. …
Hence it is that the Psalter is the book of all saints; and everyone, in whatever situation he may be, finds in that situation psalms and words that fit his case, that suit him as if they were put there just for his sake.
This also serves well another purpose. When these words please a man and fit his case, he becomes sure that he is in the communion of the saints, and that it has gone with all the saints as it goes with him, since they all sing with him one little song. …
Finally there is in the Psalter security and a well-tried guide, so that in it one can follow all the saints without peril. The other examples and legends of the silent saints present works that one is unable to imitate; they present even more works which it is dangerous to imitate, works which usually start sects and divisions, and lead and tear men away from the communion of saints. But the Psalter holds you to the communion of saints and away from the sects. For it teaches you in joy, fear, hope, and sorrow to think and speak as all the saints have thought and spoken.
In a word, if you would see the holy Christian Church painted in living color and shape, comprehended in one little picture, take up the Psalter. (LW 35, 253-57)
By Erik Herrmann
Most important for this post was the essay by Scott Hendrix, “Martin Luther’s Reformation of Spirituality,” pp. 240-260; and Carl Axel Aurelius, “Luther on the Psalter,” pp. 226-39, both in Harvesting Martin Luther’s Reflections on Theology, Ethics, and the Church, edited by Timothy Wengert. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans: 2004.
Other sources important for the study of Luther’s pastoral care:
Gerhard Ebeling, Luthers Seelsorge. Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck 1997.
Timothy Wengert, ed. The Pastoral Luther: Essays on Martin Luther’s Practical Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2009.
Philip Krey and Peter Krey, ed. and trans. Luther’s Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press, 2007.
John Pless, Martin Luther, Preacher of the Cross: A Study of Luther’s Pastoral Theology. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2013.