Yesterday, October 31, was Halloween in the American tradition. But in the church’s tradition October 31 is remembered as that all-important day when a German monk gave the world a document that forever changed history. The monk was named Martin Luther. The document is now known as the 95 Theses.
Oscar Wilde once said, “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” People have been talking about Martin Luther and his theses for 500 years. But, unfortunately, not everything said about him is true. Here are 6 of the biggest urban legends about Martin Luther and his work. (Many thanks to Alpha & Omega Min. & Christianity Today for their research.)
Myth #1: Luther published his 95 Theses to start the Protestant Reformation.
It is widely said that Luther nailed his list of grievances to the door at the church in Wittenburg to spark the Protestant Reformation. This is a rather dramatic oversimplification of what probably happened and, in some sense, is simply not true.
For starters, it is very possible that Luther didn’t actually nail anything to the church door. Indeed, the practice of posting announcements to the front door of a religious building was not uncommon in his day. Church doors regularly served as a kind of bulletin board or medieval Craig’s List. However, there is nothing in his own writings or in the writings of other contemporaries to confirm that he did this. It might have happened – but the first records of this appear long after Luther’s time.
Furthermore, it is quite clear that Luther – at least originally – was not trying to splinter the church. He was simply trying to post what you might call his “position paper” for an upcoming debate. Luther invited other priests to Wittenburg to listen to him share some concerns he had regarding the abuse of indulgences. In its preface Luther even said that he “intends to defend the following statement” and that anyone “who cannot be present and dispute with him orally shall do so in their absence by letter.” In fact, the actual title of the 95 Theses is a, “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.” By writing and sending out this list, Luther was making his ideas known in advance while inviting fellow academics to read it, prepare and come to debate with him. (By the way, the debate never actually happened.)
Finally, Luther originally wrote his list in Latin. This was the common tongue of the professor and academics, but not of the everyday people. What most likely happened is that Luther’s list was translated into German (by who, we don’t know) and – thanks to another history-changing German named Johannes Gutenburg and his handy-dandy printing press – the now-easily readable document was mass printed and distributed to the common people in the common tongue. It is doubtful, though, that Luther was the one directly responsible for this.
Myth #2: Luther threw a jar of ink at the devil.
An old urban legend about Luther was that he often “fought” with the devil, even throwing objects at him – most notably an inkwell. This story does not appear until the late 16th century and, originally, it was the devil who threw the ink at Luther. Over the next hundred years, the story morphed and changed and the roles reversed. Luther never claimed this and it has all the typical elements of a mere legend.
Myth #3: Luther’s evangelical breakthrough occurred in the bathroom.
The Bible passage that forever changed Martin Luther was Romans 1:17, “For in it (the gospel) the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘BUT THE RIGHTEOUS SHALL LIVE BY FAITH’.” That’s absolutely true. The false claim, however, is that Luther discovered this verse while sitting on the privy pot.
This misunderstanding comes more from a mistranslation than anything. At this time in his life, Luther was spiritually depressed and recorded this in his writings. But he described his emotional state by using a German figure of speech that some have taken literally. It would be like if someone said, “I was down in the dumps until I read my Bible.” The person is not literally living in a landfill. The “dumps” is a well-known figure of speech to convey a sense of sadness or melancholy. Luther used a similar German expression about being “in the bathroom” or “disturbed in his bowels” as the time when he read this verse. But it was probably not literally so.
Myth #4: Luther set the lyrics of his song A Mighty Fortress is Our God to the tune of an old German drinking song.
This one is sort of true and sort of not true. The true part is that Luther did actually set one of his Christian hymns to the tune of a popular folk tune and tavern song in his day. The false part is that the hymn in question was not A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, rather it was a hymn called From Heaven On High, I Come to You. (Four years later, however, Luther wrote an original composition for this song.)
Myth #5: Luther re-canted his views and re-entered the RCC on his deathbed.
This story is just a complete fraud. We know that Luther died around 3:00 AM on February 18, 1546. His last words were recorded by his friend Justus Jonas. Luther was asked, “Reverend father, will you die steadfast in Christ and the doctrines you have preached?” Luther said “Yes.” Luther also quoted John 3:16 and Psalm 31:5.
In his last prayer he said to God, “Yet I know as a certainty that I shall live with you eternally and that no one shall be able to pluck me out of your hands.” As one church historian concluded, “These are hardly the words of a Roman Catholic waiting to enter purgatory.”
Myth #6: Luther was an alcoholic.
Like many Germans of his day, Luther drank (and liked) beer. We know that much. But nowhere is there a record of Luther being a drunkard. In fact, Luther regularly wrote and preached against drunkenness throughout his entire life and did so with much disdain and in his rather forceful way. Again, he did drink alcohol but there’s no evidence it was anything beyond moderation.
Martin Luther was, without a doubt, one of the most important people in what became the Protestant Reformation. He was not a perfect man. In fact, he would be the first to admit that. Luther was all too aware of the fact that he was a sinner saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. And that’s no myth.