Interview: Martin Luther, Catholic hero
Stephen Tomkins talks to Peter Stanford
In 1505, caught in a thunderstorm, Martin Luther cried out to St Anne, promising to become a friar if she saved him. So the man who was to start the Protestant Reformation began by throwing himself into all that the Catholic faith of his day had to offer. Finally, frustrated and disillusioned, he turned to the Bible to find a new interpretation of that faith. Rejected by the papacy, this faith led to the great split between the Catholic and Protestant Churches.
Peter Stanford’s excellent new biography of Luther, though it tells a familiar story, brings a fresh interpretation. As a Catholic, Mr Stanford celebrates Luther’s insights and his impact on the Catholic Church, arguing that Luther was at heart a Catholic, a reformer whom the Catholic Church is today finally embracing as one of their own. Martin Luther: Catholic dissident was published by Hodder & Stoughton in March 2017 (ISBN: 9781473621664).
You’re very much known as a Catholic writer, and your last book was on Judas. Is there a natural progression from Judas to Luther?
No, not at all! Some more conservative Catholics might think of Luther as a Judas figure, but it seems to me he made the Catholic Church what it is now. It took them a very, very long time to take on board what he was saying, when most of it seemed eminently reasonable, – things like Mass in the vernacular and that we should read the scriptures ourselves. It was only at the beginning of the 20th century that the Catholic Church had a pontifical biblical institute to encourage Catholics to read the Bible. Even now in parishes you see: ‘Come to a talk this evening where Fr John will tell you what Matthew’s Gospel says,’ and you think: Well, read it yourself!
As a Catholic, I think there are things that have been lost – monasticism, the mystical dimension, because Luther was keen on certainty – but an awful lot has been gained. The Catholic Church refused those things for 400 years, then in the last 50 years has started listening. One might hope the process will continue a bit further. Pope Francis this weekend [10 March] said it’s a good idea to ordain married men. I don’t really understand why that’s taken 500 years. Considering the bitterness of the division, it’s just extraordinary that here we are celebrating the 500th anniversary jointly. That seems to me a sign of great hope.
The first key event in Luther’s story is the thunderstorm that made him promise to become a monk. Do you find that story a bit over-simplified?
Yes, for all sorts of reasons. Luther was very good at giving things a dramatic narrative. In 1505, he had been studying law, at his father’s behest, but he clearly wanted to study theology, because his relation with God was the most important thing for him. I think the thunderstorm was all bound up in how his father was going to take his change of direction. He was going from his parents’ back to Erfurt [University] when this happened, and I think we all have a tendency when we’re struggling with a big change to look for an external factor that makes us do it, taking the responsibility away
from us. The story of the thunderstorm meant that God was making the choice rather than Luther. Like many late medieval Christians, Luther was looking for God’s sign all the time.
The other important thing about the story is that it was St Anne that he addressed his prayer and his promise to. St Anne is the patron saint of miners and his father was involved in mines.
He was saying to his father: ‘Actually the saint who you value most, who protects you, has told me to do this, so you can hardly argue.’
Through spiritual struggle, Martin Luther came to the idea of justification by faith. What problem was that the answer to?
Luther felt God was silent, that he couldn’t reach God, and that God was angry with him. He couldn’t find a way of living the life God wanted and was trying to work out what God wanted him to do. This was the greatest concern of the time in which he lived – how God would judge you as fit for eternal life. …
This is an extract from the May 2017 edition of Reform