The man who couldn’t go with the flow

Luther Socks: Here I stand.  I can do no otherEven though he probably didn’t say exactly that, Luther’s most famous quotation is now available on these attractive ankle socks, in case you want to celebrate the 500th Anniversary of his nailing the 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenberg.  .

500 years ago on Hallowe’en Day, The Rev. Dr. Professor Martin Luther took a hammer and several sheets of heavy paper with him to the Castle Church in his adopted hometown.  Wittenberg is in the former East Germany, south of Berlin.  He was already a well-known professor of Biblical interpretation, a monk who confessed his sins every day, and an admirer of the young scholars who called themselves humanists.

 The Door of the Castle Church where the 95 theses were nailed.  Now they are bronzed.The paper, of course, had the famous sentences on them, in Latin, meant to stimulate discussion among his students, fellow faculty, and the other literate people in town, including the Elector, who was a sort of governor of the region. The first thesis said that since Jesus urged people to repent, he meant for all of us to keep doing it. After all, we didn’t stop taking the wrong path just because our parents had us baptized. Don’t go with the flow, he urged: fight against it!

He chose All Hallows’ Day (All Saints Day, we call it now), the one day of the year when the Elector let everyone into what was essentially a private church for the nobility and church hierarchy.

The scandal had recently leaked out that the local Bishop, who’d been selling indulgences like they were initial public shares of Apple or Google, was not actually sending the money to Rome as advertised, but keeping it. And paying Rome with a secret high-interest loan.

The idea of indulgences was bad enough, Luther and his colleagues said. Very few people bother to go to confession any more. They don’t think about their inner lives, their ethics, their goals. They just buy one of these lovely documents, say the prescribed penitential words, and poof! Guaranteed removal of sins. St. Peter will put you in the Platinum Lane at the Pearly Gates. A plenary indulgence was a ticket to heaven.

But surely the God Jesus described in the New Testament would not approve of this. Surely Jesus, who raged against the money-changers in the Temple, would tell these traveling indulgence salesmen to hit the road, after tearing up their inventory.

Luther in front of the door

That was 1517. 500 years ago this coming Halloween. By 1521, under pressure from the church hierarchy, the young Emperor Charles V ordered Luther to Worms, where the Reichstag (sort of a Parliament) met. He was told to recant.   He refused, and was declared a heretic and outlaw.  Outlaws could not be fed, housed, or defended against violence.  By this time, the theses had been copied and read all over the German-speaking lands. Luther’s protector, the Elector of Saxony, arranged to have him “kidnapped” and “imprisoned” in a rather comfortable room in Wartburg Castle, about an hour’s drive from here.  In eleven hyperactive weeks while there, Martin translated the New Testament from the original Greek text into good, memorable, down-to-earth German. His work was so good that, maybe even more than Shakespeare’s English, he single-handedly created a common German vocabulary and way of writing. Hundreds of his phrases are now in everyday use. Luther was a brilliant scholar, but he knew how to speak to ordinary people.

When he left his exile and came back to Wittenberg, he was a local hero. Along with his fellow-professor Philipp Melanchthon and many others, he developed a Reformed Christian creed:

Spirituality, not empty rituals or fake documents

Bible reading, not ignorant obedience

Individuality, not hierarchy

Democracy, not feudal oppression

Johann Gutenberg’s industrial genius made mass-printing of books popular, and Die Bibel would become the best-seller of all. But for the majority of Germans who were unschooled there was also art. The pamphlet below contrasts Christ, who washed his disciples’ feet, with the Anti-Christ, the Pope, whose supplicants kissed his feet. You didn’t need literacy to understand the pictures.

Christ washing feet and Pope having feet kissed.  Christ and Anti-Christ

Up the river a half-mile from the Castle Church is the City Church, where Luther preached 2000 times or more. As a Protestant church, it’s plainer than Catholic churches, but still beautiful and full of images of God’s strength and mercy. I especially liked this inscription of Thesis #62: “The true treasure of the Church is the Most Holy Gospel of the glory and the grace of God.” Not like all that marble, gold, and silver “treasure.”  Sorry it’s so small.  And in German.

Thesis 62: "The true treasure of the Church is the Most Holy Gospel of the glory and the grace of God." – Version 2

Here’s a strongbox used for collecting payments for indulgences, with three different locks. I wonder if the salesman had any of the keys.

Indulgence Box

The monastery in Wittenberg was soon closed as was the convent of nuns. Many of the former religious married one another, as did Martin and Katharina von Bora. The Elector made sure the Luthers had an income, and housing. In fact, the former monastery was turned over to their family, and sometimes Katharina fed 60 people per day, including their six children and eleven adoptees, plus refugees, visitors, and wayfaring strangers.  Preach the Gospel, St. Francis once wrote, if necessary, use words.

Model of Luther's Household at dinner

Melanchthon got a comfortable house down the street, too, and housed students in the garret rooms I visited on the third floor. His table was also famous. Known since boyhood as a genius for his amazing skill with ancient and modern languages, he helped his older colleague Luther with countless passages in Greek and especially Hebrew. Luther spent more than a decade on the Old Testament

Melanchthon teaching in his house

German rulers in their patchwork of states, counties, duchies, and so on had to choose up sides.  Protestantism tended to do best in the north, and Catholicism in the south, but there were exceptions. German Bible sales in Catholic jurisdictions were forbidden and brisk.

As a language nerd, I feel closer to Melanchthon than to Luther. He was more inclined to smooth conflicts over (like me). When the younger Melanchthon finished his masterpiece summary of the Christian faith, Luther marveled at its diplomacy. He said, “I do not think I could have managed to tread so lightly.” Perhaps Melanchthon lacked the courage of the fiery Luther.

Or perhaps he believed you could catch more flies with honey than vinegar. My seminary professor at Harvard, Margaret Miles, used to encourage us to use the “hermeneutic of generosity” rather than the “hermeneutic of suspicion.” Temperamentally, I lean towards the generous rather than suspicious, but I sure do admire Luther.  Here’s the table where Melanchthon used to lead tutorials:

Melanchthon's tutorial desk

And here is Luther’s famous Table Talk table, where students and colleagues would strive to remember every quotable story, polemic, tirade, crude analogy, and sincere confession, so they could write it down afterward.

Table Talk Table of Luther

Lynnell and I came to Wittenberg to learn more about the man who split Christianity. It’s often said that he did not intend to found a new branch of the Christian tree, but that’s what happened. He didn’t want to be The Great Divider.  But the situation seemed to offer him no choice.  Protestants went from being a party of reform to what we’d now call a “denomination.” Compared to Calvin and Zwingli’s mobs, Luther would say, we’re mild and reasonable.

Indeed, Lutheran and Catholic churches, to the untrained eye, are not very different at all, especially the contemporary ones. Especially since the 1960’s, when the Catholic Church agreed that worship should be in the local language, and the Bible should be widely-read and studied by all. There’s still a split over married clergy and the sacraments (Lutherans celebrate 2 and Catholics 7), but there is more river than tree these days between the former enemies.

I had to smile as I watched three women cart their day-care toddlers down the main street of Wittenberg, where Luther and Melanchthon and their families used to walk to the market and to church.

Day Care Carts on Main Street in WIttenberg

I visited a park with modern art installations celebrating this 500th Luther Anniversary. One was a mirrored cross you walked under so you could see what you look like from above.  I was reminded of the Prince of Egypt song, “Look at your life with heaven’s eyes.”

Me under a mirror

I close with this deft summary of Martin Luther’s understanding of Jesus:

Where Christ is, there he always goes against the flow.

It’s a good reminder for all of us peacemongers and diplomats who think we just need more understanding and cooperation: although Jesus surely stood for that, his very life, death, and resurrection were meant as a rebuke to worldly power.







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I am an Episcopal priest, retired Upper School Chaplain at Breck School in Golden Valley, MN, and the author of the world religions text "Tree of World Religions," available on I've also done two lessons for TED-Ed.

2 thoughts on “The man who couldn’t go with the flow”

  1. Right on point, John & Lynnel….feeling blessed that you are sharing thoughts and profound meaning…thank you!


  2. Beautiful, John!!!! I love what you guys are doing, and I love reading your thoughts. Can’t wait to see you in Aug.


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