Reflections on Luther: The Man and the Myth

Theaters nation-wide have shown the 2003 MGM film "LUTHER" (also available as a DVD) and produced by the Lutheran-owned insurance company "Thrivent" with additional grants from the State-supported Lutheran Church in Germany, starring Joseph Fiennes as Martin Luther and Sir Peter Ustinov as Prince Frederick, Elector of Saxony.

There is no question that Martin Luther has been the boast of Protestantism and the hero of those who believe that he was one of the greatest religious reformers in Church history, though others would regard him as a religious revolutionist and heresiarch who destroyed the religious and political unity of Western Europe. The film continues the conventional portrait of a tormented, scrupulous, and guilt- ridden soul seeking a gracious and merciful God.

The well-known church historian, Martin Marty (himself a Lutheran pastor) wrote in a biography of Luther that:

"Luther makes most sense as a wrestler with God, indeed, as a God-obsessed seeker of certainty and assurance in a time of social trauma and of personal anxiety, beginning with his own... Explain his life story as one will, it makes sense chiefly as one rooted in and focused by what has to be called an obsession with God: God present and God absent, God too near and God too far, the God of wrath and the God of love, God weak and God almighty, God real and God as illusion, God hidden and God revealed."

To Edward T. Oakes, S.J., a reviewer of the film in "First Things", the film was:

"an apparent effort to stem the tide of Lutheranism's own diminishing church membership... Instead of a movie that takes the Reformation doctrine of justification to heart [man is saved by "faith alone"], we are given Luther as a Christ-like moonbeam in the manner of Franco Zeffirelli's portrayal of St. Francis of Assisi in "Brother Sun, Sister Moon"... Luther radiates a wonder-working sanctity, appearing more like a medieval saint than the relic-smashing Reformer known to history."

It is fair to say that in this ecumenical age, Luther's powerful personality, impressive oratory, and explosive writings (sometimes verging on the scatological and obscene) continue to fascinate observers though many Protestants no longer view him as a saint or infallible teacher while Catholics remain hostile to his overturning the entire doctrinal fabric of the historic Church while admiring his deep religious feelings.

The film is impressive in its cinematography, music, costuming, and dramatic scenes. What follows is an account of its scenes occurring in sequence. It opens with a terrible lightning storm reflective of the young Augustinian friar's soul tormented by scrupulosity and doubt and living in terror of a terrible unforgiving God and His judgment. He declared himself to be "too much a sinner to be a priest" after he celebrates his first Mass only – to his horror – to spill the Chalice as his father who had always opposed his religious vocation, watches. His spiritual director tries to calm his emotional outbursts that "God is not just. His righteous judgment damns us."

Later, receiving two theological degrees, he is sent by his superior to Rome on a mission where he is approached and tempted by prostitutes, sees the worldly Pope in armor riding on horseback through the streets of a decadent Rome filled with the poor, destitute and exploited who are induced to buy questionable relics. He joins those doing penance to climb the steps of the Scala Santa after buying a certificate granting indulgences sold by Dominicans intent on raising money for the building of St. Peter's Basilica. The indulgences guarantee forgiveness of sins, and one sees the greedy Dominican John Tetzel vigorously hawking them so that salvation may be purchased:

"For a few coins, you can rescue your relatives from the punishments and pains – of purgatory"
"When the coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs."

Luther is outraged at such scandals encountered in the center of Catholicism, and is consumed by furious anger when a poor abused youth is driven to suicide and then shamefully refused Christian burial. Luther digs the grave himself.

Confessing to his superior that he had never read the Scriptures, he is sent to Wittenburg to study "the source" of Theology, the Scriptures, and to "change things". There the outspoken Dr. Luther is confronted with opposition to his rejection of indulgences and "the Treasury of Christ's merits" made available by the Church for the liberation of souls from purgatory. He is further scandalized by the traditional teaching of "Nulla Salus Extra Ecclesiam" ("Outside of the Roman Church, there is no salvation") upheld by the Church's Councils. "What of the Greek Church?", he asks, and answers his query with appropriate sarcasm. "We must then consider the saints of the Greek Church to be damned." He does not hesitate to question the authority of the Fifth Lateran Council (1512-1517) as well as the witness of Saints such as St. Cyprian who upheld the traditional Catholic interpretation of "No Salvation Outside the Church" and of Matthew 16:18 linking the succession of the Popes to Peter.

Posting his 95 Theses on a door, Luther cries out, "Christ did not teach indulgences but the Gospel!" Declaring "I am a loyal son of the Church", he is nevertheless threatened with excommunication by Pope Leo X who noted the disturbances occurring in the Church in Germany. "Lord, a wild boar has invaded Your Vineyard", and summoned the wild boar to Rome. This is the same Leo X who had been made a Cardinal at 13, and hoped himself to be a reformer of the Church, realizing that Rome had become "a circus, a sewer, and a brothel for clerics" at a time when the feared Turks were threatening the gates of Vienna.

Informed that the Pope had put a bounty on his head and fearing for his life if summoned to Rome, Luther receives the support of his cunning protector, Prince Frederick, Elector of Saxony. The Elector tells him:

"Welcome to the world of politics, Martin... The Roman Inquisition does not give hearings, only death sentences".

Luther agrees to go to Worms rather than to Rome to defend his 95 Theses before the famed theologian Cardinal Caietano [Cajetan].

At the Diet of Worms (1521), Luther is widely hailed by the people. However, he is reproached by his clerical critics with the accusation: "You are tearing the world apart". With the explosion of German nationalism sparked by his anti-Roman polemics, there appears the emergence of a "German Church". Faced with the political and religious hostility of the Emperor, Charles V, the Augustinian friar is seized with fear, "I am lost! Save me!". However, he rallies to register objections to indulgences who have "no support in Scripture" and to "the foul doctrine and evil living of the Popes, past and present", adding accusations of Papal "tyranny and ungodliness". "Let my errors be proven from Scripture and I will throw my books into the fire." Asked to recant his errors, he replies, "Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reasoning, and not by Popes and Councils who have so often contradicted themselves, I can not, and I will not recant." Appealing to his conscience, he cries out in words that have been printed in countless books and thrilled millions of Protestants across the centuries: "Here I Stand. I can do no other. God help me!" [Little matter that the historical Luther never spoke those words! They are apocryphal.]

To Charles V, it was clear: "Luther is a heretic; he is a demon". The papal emissary Cardinal Aleander is heard to say, "If something happens to him on his way back [to Wittenburg], so be it." With this disclosure of a treacherous plot to kill Luther, soldiers of Prince Frederick rescue him and provide him with safe-conduct. Luther, now safe, has time to engage in a translation of the New Testament from the Greek into German which the people can understand, for that is "what Rome fears most." He acknowledges, "It will separate us from Rome." He dedicates it appropriately to his protector, Prince Frederick.

With the outbreak of the Peasants' War inspired by Luther's tirades against a tyrannical Papacy and a "priesthood of all believers" involving a social equalitarianism hostile to all authority, mobs led by radical fanatics such as Carlstadt, rose up against their rulers, the clergy and the nobles, spreading death, destruction, and misery across a large part of Germany. Carlstadt expresses the determination to "finish what Luther had started!" Luther's ideas apppeared to have "set the whole earth on fire". However, horrified by the Peasants' revolt, Doctor Luther declared that the "rebels must be stopped by every means". A wave of iconoclastic fury had seen many churches with their "idolatrous" statutes and stained glass windows smashed, with perhaps 100,000 peasants killed in the ensuing widespread butchery wherein the princes and nobles responded in kind. Luther noted it was "a slaughter I have unleashed". Sorrowing over the divisions he had caused in Church and society, Luther declared "I am so depressed I often can't get out of bed". It was not long after that he found consolation in the marriage bed. Defying Cardinal Cajetan who had thought, "he wouldn't dare", Luther married a singing temptress, the attractive ex-nun Catherine von Bora.

It was at Augsburg in 1550 where one sees his followers strikingly defy the Emperor Charles V's threats of having them beheaded for not accepting that "there is only one Church" and not worshiping "in the Roman manner". In a remarkable display of bravado, the Lutheran princes are seen kneeling before the Emperor declaring, "We will not, my Lord. We have drawn up our confession of faith which we believe you will find blameless." The Emperor relents, allowing them to recite their creed summarizing basic Lutheran beliefs. This is reported back to Luther where all regard the Augsburg Conference as a great tactical and strategic victory for the Lutheran princes. "Martin, we did it! They can't stop us now, Martin!"

The film shows Luther living for 16 years a peaceful life of domesticity with his wife and 6 children, writing some renowned hymns, teaching neighborhood children "compassion", and acclaimed for "opening the door of religious freedom". It ends with the notice that 540 millions of people have been inspired by Luther's Reformation.

This 2003 film is similar in content and anti-Catholic tone to that earlier 1953 Louis de Rochemont production "Martin Luther" (See "Revisiting Martin Luther", Social Justice Review, May-June 2009). The 2003 "epic film, ravishingly beautiful" (The New York Times) is perhaps more dramatically effective in portraying Luther as the hero of Reformation and his Catholic opponents as ignorant of Scripture, villainous and corrupt, all too eager to burn Luther who wished to free the Gospel from superstition and false teachings, and who opposed the German people having the New Testament in their own language. Luther's dynamic and complex personality with its psycho-pathological element is glossed over with theological matters treated simplistically and inaccurately (not surprisingly in a film intended to justify Luther's chief role in the Protestant Reformation). For example, there were at the time 98 editions of the entire Bible in Latin and 17 editions of the entire Bible in German and additional translations of the New Testament in German before Luther's own remarkable achievement. IT IS SHEER CALUMNY to mislead people that the Church had attempted to keep the Scriptures from them and to allege that Luther himself in his early theological training had never read the Scriptures.

The popular preacher of indulgences, John Tetzel who was a good man, is caricatured and maligned in the film, and the meaning of indulgences totally distorted. Luther, obsessed with such "evils" as indulgences, relics, and the doctrine of purgatory, scoffs and mocks, crying out "Christ is not found in the bones of saints". He chose to ignore the teaching of Tradition in both East and West that:

"The grace of God present in the saints' bodies during life remains active in their relics when they have died, and that God uses these relics as a channel of divine power and an instrument of healing... This reverence for relics is not the fruit of ignorance and superstition, but springs from a highly developed theology of the body."
(Eastern Orthodox Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia in his classic work "The Orthodox Church", p. 234)

There is no indication of the recent historical research by scholars stripping the legendary accretions from the real Luther. For example, Theobald Beer (in his "Der froliche Wechsel und Streit") has revealed that Luther had been rejecting the Church's doctrine on the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the personal unity of Jesus Christ since 1509, long before his assault on indulgences and ferocious accusations against the Pope and the Roman Curia. The fact is that it was not his visit to Rome in 1510-11, encountering the decayed morals of clergy and people, which so shocked him that he became a rebel against the Catholic Church. Luther was actually a very medieval man, no puritan, and was rather scandalized by the modern spirit of the Renaissance and Christian Humanism he saw everywhere in Rome – a spirit he unfortunately equated with sheer paganism.

In the words of Dr. Eric von Kuehnelt-Leddihin:

"Luther was a medieval reactionary, who had turned against the Renaissance and Christian Humanism, a man who would have liked to go back to what he imagined was early Christianity, an anti-intellectual who saw in reason nothing but a whore, an ass who with a stick could be driven in any direction. Man cannot be saved by his reason, nor by good works, but only by 'faith alone' (sola fide). Luther had added 'sola' to the text of the Vulgate, thus making it stand for 'blind faith', something alien to Scholasticism – which he had never studied."
("Luther's Reformation" - Inside the Vatican, November 1999)

It is curious that, in this film, salvation by "faith alone", the very center-piece of Luther's theology, which logically led to his rejection of the Catholic doctrines on grace, the infused virtues, the sacraments, the Mass as a Sacrifice, and the institutional Church itself as infallible authority – never receives any real attention. Nor is there mention of his other unwarranted negations of traditional doctrines:

  • his heretical teaching on the complete corruption of human nature,
  • the inability of reason to reach God,
  • his denial of free will,
  • his hatred of the Pope and the Mass,
  • his rejection of various books of Scripture,
  • and his rejection of sacraments instituted by Christ.

Similarly ignored was Luther's reputation among his contemporaries as a master of vituperation, never hesitating to shower his enemies with coarse and vulgar invective.

In the film, the papal emissary Cardinal Aleander is heard to say, "Heresy is not a small matter." Luther himself, in happier days, in his 1513-1516 commentaries on the Psalms, may be said to have written the best refutation of all those who would present a "New Gospel" with tragic consequences:

"The principal sin of heretics is their pride. In their pride they insist on their own opinion... Frequently they serve God with great fervor and they do not intend any evil... Even when refuted, they are ashamed to retract their errors and to change their words... The things that have been established for centuries and for which so many martyrs have suffered death, they begin to treat as doubtful questions... They interpret the Bible according to their own heads and their own particular views and carry their own opinions into it."
(quoted in Msgr. Patrick F. O'Hare's "The Facts About Luther" (1916), p. 97)

It is a pity that this 2003 film produced by Lutherans only serves to perpetuate mistaken stereotypes and myths concerning a powerful religious personality who misused gifts amounting to genius to become an adversary of the Church built upon Peter and against which the Gates of Hell can not prevail. It does not serve the cause of a genuine ecumenism desired by boh Catholics and Lutherans.

About James Likoudis
James Likoudis is an expert in Catholic apologetics. He is the author of several books dealing with Catholic-Eastern Orthodox relations, including his most recent "The Divine Primacy of the Bishop of Rome and Modern Eastern Orthodoxy: Letters to a Greek Orthodox on the Unity of the Church." He has written many articles published by various religious papers and magazines.
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