I’m a big Martin Luther fanboy. I admit it. I even have a Martin Luther bobblehead and a Martin Luther beer stein. Dr. Luther was a history-changing spiritual genius.
He was also a rather problematic personality and a product of his times. When Luther got things wrong, he got things spectacularly wrong. His stance in the Peasants’ War, for instance, or his advice to would-be polygamist Philip of Hesse. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Then there were the hateful, hurtful things that Luther said about the Jews. Every responsible Lutheran church body has publicly repudiated Luther’s statements about the Jews.
Luther, however, never claimed to be anything other than “saint and sinner.” In that way, I relate to him. Sometimes I, too, get things spectacularly wrong. So in spite of his clay feet, I can admire Martin Luther for his theological and spiritual brilliance, and for the courage of his conscience. Luther’s understanding of justification by grace through faith is the cornerstone of Lutheran theology and the bedrock of my own understanding of God.
So, it chagrins me to say that, like Robertus Stephanus, Martin Luther (and his fellow reformers) in some ways set precedent for the bizarre apocalyptic speculations of Harold Camping.
Luther’s doctrine of Sola Scriptura (“Scripture Alone”) meant that the Bible was the sole source and norm of Christian doctrine. This effectively got Luther out from under the thumb of the Pope. Harold Camping has taken the idea of biblical authority to an extreme that Luther would never have recognized or countenanced:
“At Family Radio,” according to Camping’s website, “we emphatically teach that the whole Bible is the Word of God. We believe that, in the original languages in which the Bible was written, every Word was from the mouth of God, and consequently, is never to be altered and must be obeyed. The Bible alone, and in its entirety, is the Word of God.”Luther’s vernacular translation of the Bible took the Scriptures out of the hands of ecclesiastical “experts” and made them the possession of every Christian. This is a good thing. I think that Luther fully expected the people to read their Bibles with an understanding of sound, historic Christian doctrine as taught in the community of the Church. An unfortunate consequence of all this is that someone like Camping can take the Bible, unmoor it from good doctrine, and claim its authority for the most outlandish and idiosyncratic ideas.
Then there is the Scripture principle, “Scripture interprets Scripture.” By this Luther meant that the troubling parts of the Bible are to be understood in light of the parts that are clear. The story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac should be understood in the light of the cross of Christ. The accounts of genocide in the Old Testament should be tempered by 1 John’s statement that “God is love.” Camping and company have taken the idea that “Scripture interprets Scripture” to mean that odd bits of the Bible can be grafted together to create new meanings that the original writers never intended.
I hardly have to say that Luther would not have approved of the strange lengths to which Camping has taken some of his teachings. In fact, I believe the good doctor would have had some intemperate words for Camping’s brand of biblical interpretation.
If you would like to be a Martin Luther fanboy or fangirl, you can get your own Luther bobblehead from OldLutheran.com
The beer stein, which I also purchased from Old Lutheran is based on this anecdote from Roland Bainton’s classic Luther biography Here I Stand:
“A word may be said at this point also about Luther's drinking. He imbibed and took some pride in his capacity. He had a mug around which were three rings. The first he said represented the Ten Commandments, the second the Apostles' Creed, and the third the Lord's Prayer Luther was highly amused that he was able to drain the glass of wine through the Lord's Prayer, whereas his friend Agricola could not get beyond the Ten Commandments. But Luther is not recorded ever to have exceeded a state of hilarity.”