Christians have heard the famous story of Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses to the door of the closest Catholic Church, kicking off the Protestant Reformation in 1517. But the real story is more complex, according to New York Times-bestselling author Eric Metaxas.
“He was a humble, obedient monk,” Metaxas said. “This was not a firebrand or a rebel of any stripe whatsoever.”
Metaxas, who has written “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy” and other books about great people throughout history, wanted to get a real look at Luther and his motive for pointing out corruption in the Catholic Church.
Listen to the full clip (above) for more about Luther as we get ready for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article provided courtesy of TheBlaze.
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This is a rush transcript and may contain errors.
STU: Joining us in the studio, an author, radio host, commentator extravaganza. It’s the author of Martin Luther: The Man Who Discovered God and Changed the World. Eric Metaxas.
GLENN: Good friend. I haven’t seen you since I left New York.
STU: It’s been a while.
ERIC: I think quite possibly.
GLENN: How are you?
ERIC: I may have seen you in Florida at some event. It is great to see you. I love you and admire you from a distance.
GLENN: Well, likewise.
ERIC: And now from a very short distance. Glenn, thanks for having me.
GLENN: Yeah. Good to see you. Your book Bonhoeffer, it just changed me. Fundamentally changed me. And you have — you have made a career out of going in and highlighting these really amazing people that stood at critical times.
You did Bonhoeffer.
GLENN: Wilburforce. And now Martin Luther.
GLENN: Martin Luther seems distant and dusty. Dust him off.
ERIC: You obviously haven’t read the book, Glenn.
GLENN: I have not. I just got it today.
ERIC: This book will blow the cobwebs off any dusty recollections you have. I have to say, in all seriousness, as it is with every one of the books I’ve written, it wasn’t my idea. I kind of didn’t want to write it.
You know, Bonhoeffer — you know the story, writing Bonhoeffer was tremendously painful and difficult for me. I had to switch publishers. It was an agony of my life. People think I’m exaggerating. It was hell. But God spoke to me, and he said, “I have my hand on this book.” And he did.
But I really wasn’t gung-ho to write another biography, I’ll be honest with you. But some friends, I dedicate the book to them, twisted my arm and kept saying, Eric, you wrote the Bonhoeffer book. You’re the guy to write the Luther book because it’s the 500th anniversary. And I actually thought, well, what 500th anniversary? I’m not paying attention.
And they explained to me, 1517 is the moment when he nailed the 95 thesis to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. And that’s where they trace the beginning of the Reformation, was this moment. Although, talk about blowing the cobwebs off of things. People — we see that moment in retrospect as a heroic moment, right? He’s thundering against the corrupt papacy by nailing this thing. And it’s just the opposite. He was like tacking something up to a bulletin board. It was like a notice, hey, you know what, I think we’re going to have a little debate, a theological debate.
GLENN: You’re kidding me. Really?
ERIC: Oh, yeah. If you read that part in the book, you won’t even believe what it really was. In fact, not only was he not tacking something up on a bulletin board, he may have given it to the church custodian to tack it up on the bulletin board, or he may have done it himself and used paste and not a hammer. Like we have this image of him —
GLENN: So what happened? So how did that get —
ERIC: Well, basically — I mean, to focus on that, this seminal moment 500 years ago, he was somebody who had discovered some things theologically. But let’s get it straight, he was a humble, observant monk. This was not a firebrand or rebel of any stripe whatsoever. This was a man devoted to God and devoted to the church. And he saw that what was going on with indulgences — by the way, he was a priest. So people would come to him in the confessional and say, hey, I got a get out of jail free card. Here you go.
And he would look at this piece of paper that they had bought with their money, which they didn’t have, and he would say, what kind of corruption? What kind of confusion — these people’s souls are in danger. They think they can spend money and sin and pay for it. I mean, it had become very corrupt.
But he didn’t say, oh, I want to tear the church down. He thought to myself, it is my duty as a theologian, because he was not just a monk and a priest, but a fine theologian, one of the finest.
He said, I need to bring this to the attention to the academic establishment, to other theologians, because if we don’t begin to deal with this issue of indulgences, it’s going to bring us down.
This is one of the most terrible excesses that we’ve experienced. And so he said, let’s have an academic debate. So in Latin, he prints up 95 statements, which when you wanted to have an academic disputation, that’s kind of the way you did it. And you tacked it up some place. And people would say, oh, that’s interesting. I’d like to participate. And you would gather and have an academic debate. Maybe in Latin. Probably in Latin.
So he tacks this up, having no clue that in retrospect it will look like, you know, Neil Armstrong planting the flag on the moon, Columbus planting the flag in the American soil. I mean, it’s a moment in history that has grown out of all proportion. Because in retrospect, we understand the significance. That moment led to everything that followed.
GLENN: So that is bizarre. Because it is — you do look at that as a moment of courage.
When did the moment of courage hit him?
ERIC: Well, I would say there are — as with anybody of true courage and faith, that they’re — it’s a continuum of courage. In other words, it’s not like at one moment, he girds his loins and is —
ERIC: He is a man who — what I talk about is that before this moment, when he had become a monk, for example — why did he become a monk? He became a monk because he took the idea of salvation and heaven and hell so seriously that he said, I need to devote my whole life to this. And this was against his father’s wishes. His father had sent him to the finest schools, wanted him to become a lawyer. And just as he begins law school, it all kind of gets to him. This is in 1505. He’s 23 years old. And he kind of realizes, I don’t know where I’m going to spend eternity.
Some lawyers had just died and had shared on their deathbeds, I wish I had become a monk. Where am I going now? Really, he was rattled. I think a lot of people were rattled. But he was a very intense, passionate person. Brilliant.
So he decides in a moment that — that’s his own story, that he’s the middle of a lightning storm. And he fears for his life. And he blurts out to St. Anne, who is the patron saint of miners — his father was in the mining business.
He says, St. Anne, if you save me, I’ll become a monk.
But it wasn’t like he just blurted it out and hadn’t been think about this. Let’s face it, he had been thinking about this for years. So he becomes a monk and devotes his life in the monastery to praying harder, to confessing more, to fasting more. He was skin and bones. The whole experience was, how do I earn my way?
GLENN: He must have — he must have hated the popes.
ERIC: Well, no. Not until later.
GLENN: How? It was before Leo.
GLENN: And the one before him was also nasty.
ERIC: These dudes, they were — I mean, every educated, devoted Catholic is properly ashamed of this period of the papacy?
ERIC: It’s like the church — and people know I’m a very pro-Catholic non-Catholic. I didn’t write this book to bash the Catholic Church. When you look at this history. You see, what this is the tendency? And this all goes back to what we believe about freedom and the nature of man.
ERIC: What is the nature of any institution? It is the nature of power. It is to consolidate more power. How can I get more power?
GLENN: Yeah, yeah.
ERIC: And the church had become hugely powerful. So Luther, while he’s a monk, he’s not thinking about this. He is a devoted monk. He’s thinking about his own salvation. All that other stuff comes later. But at this point, he’s devoted to saving himself, in a way, right? And a lot of people think that’s what Christianity is. You save yourself.
You work hard, you don’t sin, you keep your nose clean. Don’t screw it up, and you might get into heaven. So he’s working the program — right? To use a 12 steps reference, harder than anyone who ever lived, and he’s becoming more miserable. He’s not getting closer to God. And so he starts cracking up. Why — if I am doing everything right.
He would confess — at one point, he confessed six hours straight. His father confessor Staupitz, who was in the book, literally says to him at some point, enough. Bring me adultery. Bring me murder. Otherwise, get out. Leave me alone. You’re torturing me.
He would confess a moment of pride. I prayed so hard, that I had a moment of pride for having prayed so hard, and I have to confess my pride.
He was driving everyone insane. So long story short, Luther kind of realizes, this is not working. I’m not getting closer to God. Do I love God? No, I hate God. God is a judge who scares me, and I’m trying to jump through these hoops to please him.
And his father Confessor Staupitz says to him, you don’t think that God loves you. You think God hates you. But he loves you. I mean, it was this real conundrum.
So Luther eventually realizes that nobody is studying the Scriptures. Because as you know, the printing press wasn’t invented until very recently at that point.
So Luther does what no one else is doing, almost no one else. He starts digging, digging into the scriptures. And I think of it like a guy who has a disease. And he says, I have to find the cure to the disease.
So I don’t want food. I don’t want phone calls. I’m just going to be looking into the scriptures because I’m trying to find the key to my problem. And so he effectively finds it around 1517. All these things coalesce. And he realizes, oh, my goodness, it’s kind of like somebody tells you that, you know, you’re racing up a ladder, and it’s like the ladder is leaning up against the wrong building. You can come down now. You’ve been wasting your time. He says, what I’ve been looking for is given to me freely by God as a gift of grace.
The righteousness of God, which I was scared of, is God gives that to me as a loving gift. I don’t need to do anything. He gave it to me.
It’s in a — in an account in my name, all I have to do is go get it. But nobody told me that it was there. You want to talk about a mind blower. This blew the mind of Luther. But this kind of was like the bomb. The explosion from this creates the future in which we live. Freedom. Everything that we take for granted in the modern world comes from that.
GLENN: And we’ll get into that here in a second.
STU: He’s @EricMetaxas on Twitter. And EricMetaxas.com. The book is Martin Luther. The man who rediscovered God and changed the world.
GLENN: I am so thrilled to have Eric Metaxas not only on the show, but in the studio with us. He wrote a game-changing book for me, called Bonhoeffer. If you haven’t read that, you need to.
And I just last week finished some books, and I thought, I’m only going to start reading stuff that will fill me up with good, solid, rock solid information. So this couldn’t come at a better time for me. Martin Luther is his latest book. The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World. Tell me how he’s relatable today.
ERIC: Oh. This is the funny thing. I take kind of a perverse pride in going into these book projects, pretty darn ignorant. And I have friends, the guys I dedicated the book to, Marcus Speaker (phonetic) and my buddy Greg Thornbury, the president of The King’s College in New York City was explaining to me — because he’s a theologian — why I need to write the book, because Luther is significant in all these ways.
And the more I went into it, the more I thought, how do we not all know this? And it happens with every one of these books I write, how did I not know this?
Luther, what he did, exactly 500 years ago, opened the door to the future. I — I titled the epilogue, where I kind of explain all this in the book, the man who discovered the future. Because this seminal moment, after 15 years of neglect in a way, that tradition — the accretions of history and so on and so forth, had obscured the central issue, which is called the gospel. The free gift of Jesus, which makes us all be able to have a direct relationship to God. It doesn’t need to be through an institution or whatever.
It’s exactly what Whitfield was preaching, you know, 200 years later, which created America. Without that, you don’t have anything like freedom, the freedom of the individual to stand against the state.
GLENN: It’s crazy. Last week or two weeks ago, we had two people in the media, one Meet the Press and the other on NBC that said, you know, your rights don’t come from God. That’s this. It’s direct —
ERIC: Listen — look, somebody interviewed me recently about what Margaret Feinstein said and whatever. Our leaders — things are so bad that our leaders in the Senate, on the Senate level, do not understand the basics. It’s like trying to write a book and you don’t know the alphabet. They don’t understand the concept of what freedom is. Where it comes from, that it comes from God.
That at the heart of freedom is religious liberties, this idea that I can think any dumb thought I want. And it’s protected. God said you have a right to think your own thoughts.
I mean, it’s so fundamental. But, as you know, for 40 or so years, we have not been teaching this in schools, so even our elite journalists and our senators don’t understand the building blocks of how we have everything that we have.
And this issue of having a direct relationship to God, being all equal before God — I mean, when Whitfield preached this throughout the 18th century, up and down the 13 colonies, it was a revolution. People thought, really?
You mean if the minister is preaching something that’s not right, I have the right to go to another church or to object? Or if the magistrate or the governor or the king is behaving in a way that’s not right, according to God, I have the right to protest or something? This was an earth-shattering thing. And it began for sure with Luther.
And as we know, freedom comes with a price, right? Freedom is not always good in the sense that you are now free to do the wrong thing, okay? You’re free to start a crazy church. You’re free to start the Church of Scientology. Not just a good Protestant Church. You’re free to start loony stuff and cults. That’s the price of freedom. But which of us would trade that freedom —
GLENN: You have 30 seconds.
ERIC: — for the slavery of being under an institution, that’s going to tell you the meaning of truth and you cannot dissent?
GLENN: I think more and more people are getting to that point to where they’re willing to do that. They’re willing to trade — they take their freedoms so for granted, they don’t even really understand it. They won’t until they lose it, until they lose it.
The name of the book is Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World. Eric Metaxas, the best-selling author of Bonhoeffer. Always good to have you in, Eric.
ERIC: My joy. Thanks, Glenn. Appreciate it.
GLENN: God bless.