What are a few indulgences among friends?: Craig Harline’s new biography of Martin Luther

I absolutely loved Craig Harline’s memoir of his mission in Belgium in Way Below the Angels, and I hoped he had written more. It is funny, moving, and honest about the spiritual growth and trials built into serving a mission. It turns out that he is a history professor at BYU now, and he just came out with a new biography of Martin Luther. I liked his remarks on what Mormons could take from Luther’s story (you know, the traditional narrative that the Reformers were nobly defying the dark ages when truth seekers were repressed and the common man didn’t have direct access to the word of God ultimately preparing the way for the Restoration):

Interviewer: So for Latter-day Saints who are looking to interpret the Reformation in the context of their faith and in the context of this general narrative that we have about the Restoration of the gospel in 1830, what would you say is the most historically responsible way to do so?

Harline: Well, I don’t even know that I have a particular way except to say that it really strikes me that what Luther was against is what many Mormons might be for. That kind of upsets the whole narrative, right? It kind of upsets this idea. I remember when I was a kid — and this really got me interested in the Reformation — when I was 12, and I went to the visitor’s center in Salt Lake, and they had this exhibit basically on Christian history and the Mormon view of it. There was Jesus, then here were some ancient Christians, then here were these hooded, shrouded figures — the medieval monks, and all the sudden here were Luther and Calvin and these other Reformers bringing the world closer to truth.

But the truth — if you believe in Luther’s truth — is quite against this idea of being saved by doing everything you can. It’s quite against that. He believes with Paul, it’s either grace or works. It cannot be a combination. It has to be one or the other, and he’s sure it’s grace because no human can do enough — or do anything, in fact — to save themselves. He would never allow for any kind of infusion of: “Oh, maybe a few works are necessary” or the classic Catholic view — if you want to get into it a little more, which is — as Augustine said — “You do enough to get what’s called an operative grace. You have enough good within you to get this operative grace. When you arrive at operative grace, then you get the grace of God that allows you to become saved.” It gives you this kind of perfection that you need or whatever.

Turning to the topic of Martin Luther, I haven’t had much experience with Martin Luther other than that traditionally told in the apostasy/restoration narrative. He is mentioned briefly in Preach My Gospel, the LDS manual for missionaries:

After centuries of spiritual darkness, truth-seeking men and women protested against current religious practices. They recognized that many of the doctrines and ordinances of the gospel had been changed or lost. They sought for greater spiritual light, and many spoke of the need for a restoration of truth. They did not claim, however, that God had called them to be a prophet. Instead, they tried to reform teachings and practices that they believed had been changed or corrupted. Their efforts led to the organization of many Protestant churches. This Reformation resulted in an increased emphasis on religious freedom, which opened the way for the final Restoration.


To reform is to make changes to something in order to improve it. The term reformers refers to those men and women (such as Martin Luther, John Wycliffe) who protested the practices of the existing church, which they felt needed to be reformed.

I was also intrigued when Luther made a brief stint in a book in a German class on justice I took during my undergraduate degree. The book was entitled Michael Kohlhaas. The plot centers around who is wronged by a local count, and he takes justice into his own hands slaughtering the counts entire household. During his trial, Martin Luther counsels with him:

“Terrible and incomprehensible man,” said Luther, gazing at him. “When thy sword hath inflicted on the squire the most frightful vengeance that can be conceived, what can induce thee to press for a sentence against him, the sharpness of which, if it should take effect, would inflict a wound of such slight importance?”

Kohlhaas answered, while a tear rolled down his cheek: “Revered sir, the affair has cost me my wife. Kohlhaas would show the world that she fell in the performance of no injustice. Concede to my will on these points, and let the tribunal speak. In every other matter that may come under discussion, I yield.”

“Look,” said Luther, “what thou askest, supposing circumstances to be such as the general voice reports, is just; and if thou hadst endeavoured, without revenging thyself on thine own account, to lay thine affair before the elector for his decision, I have no doubt that thy request would have been granted, in every point. But all things considered, wouldst thou not have done better, if, for thy Redeemer’s sake, thou hadst forgiven the squire, taken the horses, lean and worn-out as they were, mounted them, and ridden home upon them to fatten them in their own stable at Kohlhaasenbrück.”

Now, to the book itself.

Young Luther’s perfectionism

The first thing you learn about Luther that Harline outlines is his overscrupulousness:

And so when the friars sang Psalm 22 in choir, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Brother Martin really meant it. He suffered from what the professional religious called the “bath of hell,” or overscrupulousness, a sort of occupational hazard for people whose full-time job was to look inside and find sin. To Brother Martin, it was like fishing in a barrel, and so he exasperated his confessors more than most. They tried telling him that the big pile of sins he was always confessing were fake sins, and that next time he should come with some real sins that actually needed forgiving. Still, he found it hard to believe that any sin was small. After all, God was perfect, and the Bible commanded him to be perfect, and the constitution of the Observant Augustinians said that someday he would actually be able to obey every single requirement perfectly. Maybe he still just wasn’t trying hard enough.

He doesn’t tie all the strings, but he uses this as an interpretive lens for all the doctrinal positions he develops later in life. The reason he rejects the role of works in salvation is due to his fear that he could never do enough. Funnily enough, Mormonism started with similar fears about personal salvation. Joseph Smith’s account doesn’t directly relate his concerns about the state of his soul prior to his First Vision (it does say that his “mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness“), but the Church’s video captures it really well when his little brother asks “What does saved mean?” and Joseph responds “I wish I knew myself!” After his First Vision though, he does become very concerned about his standing before God:

During the space of time which intervened… I was left to all kinds of temptations; and, mingling with all kinds of society, I frequently fell into many foolish errors, and displayed the weakness of youth, and the foibles of human nature; which, I am sorry to say, led me into divers temptations, offensive in the sight of God. In making this confession, no one need suppose me guilty of any great or malignant sins. A disposition to commit such was never in my nature. But I was guilty of levity, and sometimes associated with jovial company, etc., not consistent with that character which ought to be maintained by one who was called of God as I had been. But this will not seem very strange to any one who recollects my youth, and is acquainted with my native cheery temperament.

In consequence of these things, I often felt condemned for my weakness and imperfections; when, on the evening of the above-mentioned twenty-first of September, after I had retired to my bed for the night, I betook myself to prayer and supplication to Almighty God for forgiveness of all my sins and follies, and also for a manifestation to me, that I might know of my state and standing before him; for I had full confidence in obtaining a divine manifestation, as I previously had one.

The similarity of the two is uncanny. Where Martin Luther turned to continued study in his castle tower, Joseph Smith turned to prayer. And where Martin Luther’s seeking salvation led him to a doctrine centered on grace, Joseph Smith led him to a doctrine centered around covenants.

The matched ills of absolute authority and public sentiment

The other strand throughout the book that captured my attention is the very apparent dichotomy between the supremacy of the Pope and the increasing cacaphony of voices in the public square who disagree with him. I found this discussion very relevant to questions of personal freedom and authority in the form of the priesthood within Mormonism. You can just replace “Pope” with “Prophet” and “Martin Luther” with “Denver Snuffer” or “The September Five” or “Michael Quinn,” and many of the verbal exchanges would sit well with either.

There were weaknesses on both sides of the dispute. I think anyone today would bristle a little when the Pope’s defenders insist on the Pope’s unconstrained authority. Tetzel, the famous seller of indulgences, challenged Luther when he argued that the Pope couldn’t sell guaranteed forgiveness of sins without any actual change of heart or acts of penance. He shot back:

wholeheartedly defending the church’s current practices around indulgences and painstakingly refuting all of Luther’s claims: he was wrong about many things, they declared, but especially about limiting the authority of the pope, and in hinting that maybe there wasn’t really a purgatory, and in suggesting that a practice allowed by the pope wasn’t by definition good theology.

Mormons too insist that a practice is “by definition good theology” because it came from the Prophet. Why try to argue when you already know it comes from the Prophet who was called by God? Missionaries are counseled in Preach My Gospel to resolve thorny issues this way as taught by President Benson:

“… All objections, whether they be on abortion, plural marriage, seventh-day worship, etc., basically hinge on whether Joseph Smith and his successors were and are prophets of God receiving divine revelation. …

“… The only problem the objector has to resolve for himself is whether the Book of Mormon is true. For if the Book of Mormon is true, then Jesus is the Christ, Joseph Smith was his prophet, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is true, and it is being led today by a prophet receiving revelation.

“Our main task is to declare the gospel and do it effectively. We are not obligated to answer every objection. Every man eventually is backed up to the wall of faith, and there he must make his stand

By insisting on the absolute rightness of authority, the Pope’s defenders ultimately become extreme utilitarians: instead of considering whether peddling freedom from guilt is morally wrong, they are more concerned whether they will have enough money to build St. Peter’s cathedral and pay off the archbishop’s debts. Do we not also enter into morally shaky ground when we are more concerned with the number of baptisms we get or the number of lessons we teach rather than the spiritual welfare of those we are called to serve?



The other thing that struck me was the vicious response of the Pope’s defenders. They weren’t leaving any bridges unburned in their attempts to defend orthodoxy, ultimately inflaming the problem rather than calming it. Johann Eck had previously been a friend of Luther’s, but he was almost cruel in the way he lashed out at Luther once he published his theses. Luther was hurt with that coming from a close friend. Eck responded: “Does Luther really believe that I could be his friend when he fights against the unity of the church?” I have seen similar tensions in disagreements within Mormonism, and I don’t think it should have to be that way.

I’m not uncritical of Luther either. Where the Pope’s defenders’ weakness was an overzealous defense of absolute authority, Luther’s was a growing feeling of acclaim that built as he published more and more scandalous material. I felt that his attitudes changed and became more hardened as he got more attention from the public. Harline writes:

But he was thoroughly stunned by another and totally unexpected response: the enthusiasm (and sometimes alarm) that came from hundreds of other people who had somehow managed to get their hands and eyes on a copy of the theses. How had it happened, when he’d sent out only a few?

He was surprised at first, but he came to like his celebrity status. The printing press was the 16th century’s version of Facebook by the looks of it. Once his ideas caught on he begins sharpening them:

He decided in the Explanations not just to add his long proofs to the theses but to rewrite some of the theses themselves and make them even sharper than before, which couldn’t help but increase suspicions that he really did believe what the theses were saying, and also make him seem even more critical of indulgences, and the pope, than he was already suspected of being. Thesis 49 in the Explanations, for instance, no longer said that indulgences were useful under the right conditions but instead that they were downright dangerous and “directly contrary to the truth.” Thesis 50 no longer said that the pope would rather have St. Peter’s burn than that his flock be robbed, but instead that “indulgences are the most worthless of all possessions of the church” and “deserve to be cursed.” And 56 through 68 no longer just redefined the treasury of merits but denied that saints had any surplus merits to hand out at all.

This reminded me of a few now-famous Mormons as they came into the spotlight, names like Josh Weed and John Dehlin who keep blogs and podcasts. Both of these examples had tones that shifted from a more conservative view to an increasingly hostile and argumentative tone over time.

Another point: Luther moved the argument away from the more insulated arena of academia to the public square. This was at first unintentional: his disputations had been sent to a few bishops and professors for examination. But some monk thought they sounded so good, he couldn’t help but “post them on his own wall” and eventually he got thousands of shares and retweets. This changed the ball game from an obscure disagreement among academics to an outright rebellion. “Once Brother Martin willingly printed that sermon and took the disputing outside the usual academic and churchly forum, he’d crossed the proverbial Rubicon and in his critics’ eyes lost his usual professorial right to dispute.

Luther further seemed to be unaware of the consequences of openly confronting the Pope. An innocent enough disagreement on the doctrine of indulgences seems fair enough, right? We as Mormons can agree to disagree with our leaders on some matters of doctrine. But this early on, Luther couldn’t seem to foresee the likelihood of schism.

Not only that, but insisting that the Bible was above the pope, the way Luther constantly did, could get people thinking that everybody was free to interpret the Bible as they pleased, and that the interpretations of saintly doctors and even of the pope himself weren’t to be trusted! “All Christendom will come into spiritual danger when each individual believes what pleases him most,” Tetzel had already warned.

Finally, Luther also seemed to feel that if he just explained his views well enough, it would all clear up. After defying the Pope’s authority to issue indulgences, he sent him a long 100+ page document going into extreme detail to back up his arguments. He thought, “Surely a work this thorough would clear up everything, and convince especially the Pope of his good intentions.” Reason enough isn’t everything, and it makes Luther seem a little naive, as are many well-intentioned political reformers in our own day.

The Church is big enough to contain multiple views

One writer who kept coming to mind as I read Luther’s biography was G. K. Chesterton. Chesterton, a Catholic convert, wrote a few biographies himself, including one on St. Francis and another on St. Thomas, both of whom were known by Luther in his own day. Chesterton stressed the idea of catholicism within Catholicism: that the Church was big enough to contain multiple viewpoints, and that’s what gives it endurance and flexibility to last through centuries:

St. Francis was so great and original a man that he had something in him of what makes the founder of a religion. Many of his followers were more or less ready, in their hearts, to treat him as the founder of a religion. They were willing to let the Franciscan spirit escape from Christendom as the Christian spirit had escaped from Israel. They were willing to let it eclipse Christendom as the Christian spirit had eclipsed Israel. Francis, the fire that ran through the roads of Italy, was to be the beginning of a conflagration in which the old Christian civilisation was to be consumed. That was the point the Pope had to settle; whether Christendom should absorb Francis or Francis Christendom. And he decided rightly, apart from the duties of his place; for the Church could include all that was good in the Franciscans and the Franciscans could not include all that was good in the Church...

Every heresy has been an effort to narrow the Church. If the Franciscan movement had turned into a new religion, it would after all have been a narrow religion. In so far as it did turn here and there into a heresy, it was a narrow heresy. It did what heresy always does; it set the mood against the mind.

Luther didn’t seem to appreciate this idea, and didn’t think that reform could come from within the Church, like his contemporary Erasmus. But all the fault can’t perhaps be laid at his feet. Another thought on heresy comes from another favorite author, the Russian Orthodox Christian Nikolai Berdyaev. He remarked on how “heresy hunters” can also contribute to schism:

A fanatic of orthodoxy who denounces heresies and exterminates heretics has lost the vital fullness and harmony of truth, he is possessed by one emotion only and sees nothing but heresy and heretics everywhere. He becomes hard, forgets about the freedom of the spirit and has but little attention to bestow upon men and the complexity of individual destinies. Heaven preserve us from being obsessed by the idea of heresy! That obsession plays an enormous part in the history of Christianity and it is very difficult to get rid of it. A conviction has been bred for centuries that a religious fanatic, who mercilessly denounces heresies and heretics, is more religious than other men, and those who think that their own faith is weak respect him. In truth, however, a religious fanatic is a man who is obsessed by his idea and completely believes it, but is not in communion with the living God. On the contrary he is cut off from the living God. And for the sake of the fulness of divine truth, for the sake of freedom and love and communion with God, it is essential to uproot in oneself the evil will to denounce heresies and heretics. A heresy should be opposed by the fullness of truth and not by malice and denunciations. Fanatical denunciations of heresies sometimes assume the guise of love and are supposed to be inspired by love and pity for heretics. But this is hypocrisy and self-deception. Heresy hunters simply flatter themselves and admire their own orthodoxy.

Perhaps if Luther’s critics weren’t so insistent that he recant his views, he wouldn’t have gotten nearly as much attention, and the excitement would have died out. He could espouse his views, and perhaps they could have done the Church good rather than ill. It reminded me of the high profile cases in Mormonism of the September Seven and Denver Snuffer. I feel both cases could have potentially ended differently if they weren’t dogged to conform to orthodoxy. President Uchtdorf invited all to come, regardless of circumstance or personal history, to “Come, join with us” and “there is room for you in this Church.”

One final example from within Mormonism is the case of Sterling McMurrin. McMurrin caught the LDS leadership’s attention when he publicly opposed the priesthood ban against black Church members. President David O. McKay was highly sympathetic to McMurrin. He described an interview with the President when he was facing excomminication:

The discussion with President McKay lasted for some time, I think perhaps about an hour and a half, and in every way he was not only friendly, but affectionate in his whole attitude toward me— not a word of criticism or reproof, or in any way disapproval…. Then he just hit me on the knee, and took hold of my knee and said, “They cannot do this to you!” I didn’t say anything. He said, “They cannot do this to you! They cannot put you on trial!”… I said, “Well, President McKay, you know better than I what they can do, but it appears to me that they are going to put me on trial.” He said, “They cannot do it!” And then, there was a rather long pause, and he said, “Well, all I can say is, that if they put you on trial for excommunication, I will be there as the first witness in your behalf.” Well, I was rather visibly moved by this expression of his, and said, “Well, I don’t think that I could find a much better witness.” I kind of laughed, and he laughed, and it sort of broke the tension of the situation….

I should have been censured for being such a heretic, and here President McKay wasn’t even interested in raising a single question about my beliefs, but simply insisted that a man in this Church had a right to believe as he pleased. And he stressed that in several ways…. It was really a quite remarkable experience, to have the President of the Church talking in such genuinely liberal terms. Always after that, President McKay was most friendly to me. I would encounter him on some occasions, and had some correspondence with him. He would write to me in not only a friendly manner, but even in a kind of affectionate manner.

Several days after the interview an appreciative McMurrin wrote gratefully to McKay: “You have always been a symbol to me, as to countless others, of the religion that reaches out to include rather than exclude, that unites rather than divides, that is concerned with large moral and spiritual issues.”

May we also strive to include rather than exclude. I truly think that the only way we can hope to achieve Zion is by doing so. In order to be one, we have to embrace and cherish our differences. May be help each other come closer to Christ.

One thought on “What are a few indulgences among friends?: Craig Harline’s new biography of Martin Luther

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: