Five hundred years ago, an angry and upstart German monk called Martin Luther took a stand against the corruption and abuse of the most powerful religious institution of his time. After nailing his 95 objections to a university church door, I’m curious as to what Luther did next. Did he console himself with a drink at the university bar?
I believe so. Because what he did would turn the world upside down.
Ninety-five reasons to console himself.
The ‘Ninety-five Theses’ and a conviction to get back to the teaching of the Bible was the inspiration that launched the Reformation but there was something else that kept Luther going, beer.
This is one thing you don’t hear taught at many theological colleges but this is a historical fact; Martin Luther enjoyed a drink.
And this is one of the reasons I admire Martin Luther. Not because he loved beer but because he’s very human, just like any of us with our passions, drives, vices and yes, virtues too.
Saintly; Martin Luther, ain’t. And I like him all the more for it.
Luther, Diets and Drink.
So his love of beer seems to make an appearance at key moments in Luther’s life. After his Ninety-five Theses went viral (thanks to the new information technology called the printing press), Luther got the attention of the Pope pretty quickly. He’d touched a raw nerve. A turning point came for Luther (and the Reformation) when he went on trial for heresy at the unforgettably named Diet of Worms.
Luther by now had some wealthy backers supporting his theology (and the potential political benefits of breaking from Rome). Duke Erich of Brunswick, feeling for Luther and the pressure he was under, sent him a cask of Einbecker beer to provide him, shall we say, with some ‘Dutch courage’.
It seemed to do the trick because, at his trial, Luther came out fighting. His defiant performance got him excommunicated and this gave the Reformation a much-needed boost. I’ve no doubt prayer made the biggest difference of all on that momentous day, but some ale may well have helped along the way.
Luther’s other loves.
The other significant worldly love of his life was his wife, Katharina of Bora. And that was controversial for the time because Luther had broken the priestly code of celibacy and set a new standard that clergy could marry.
It looked like he chose well; his wife was a bit of rebel like Luther. Katharina was an ex-nun who escaped her confinement in a convent via a fish barrel. Not only that, she was a qualified brewer.
Yes, Mrs Luther loved making her homebrew and Martin Luther loved drinking it. He would send for it especially while travelling on long journeys.
But by now Luther had gained a reputation. He was a tremendous preacher by bringing the Bible closer to the hearts of people. His translation of the Bible into German (from the original Greek and Hebrew) was culturally more significant to German speakers than even the English King James version is the English language.
But it was the fact that he was making scripture accessible to anybody and everybody who could read which was the catalyst for the biggest religious revolution in church history. One we still experience today, in every part of the world.
Beer and sermons?
Luther, after all, had the common touch. His actions in life were motivated by two things, his love of the bible and his desire that every person is able to receive it. He was not for earthly ecclesial power or hierarchies, his preaching was for every man and woman.
Luther, the brilliant bible scholar, may well have had the apostle Paul’s words in mind, ‘I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I may save some’. 1 Corinthians 9:22.
Luther, being German wanted to reach Germans for God. And he did that in startlingly original and revolutionary ways.
Unsurprising then he often made reference to beer in his sermons and writings. He would also boast of the power of God’s word and how he was merely an instrument of God. He recalls in one sermon how;
“while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it.” Sermon in Wittenburg, 1522.
It was certainly the Word that had the most impact, but then so did melody.
Ever wondered why we stand up in church and sing memorable songs? That’s because Luther introduced congregational singing. Whereas worship was once a spectacle reserved for the choir, Luther got rid of the things in Church that separates the congregation from God, whether that was the priest, the Bible or worship.
Just as well because he wasn’t short of musical talent either, a few well-known hymns were written by him.
But despite Luther’s extraordinary achievements, he always lived with the fear that he was wrong. There was also a shadow side to his personality (as there is in us all).
He was a deeply complex and at times angry man. His language was often obscene and in his later life, he wrote things that were simply horrific. His anti-semitic views in later years left a tragic legacy in the culture of his homeland.
But I also recognise the level of pressure and fear he was under. He was a man on the run for much of his life. Being excommunicated and declared a heretic meant anyone had permission to kill him without punishment.
And he was as hard on himself as he was on others.
Luther celebrated the rediscovery of God’s grace.
But he kept returning to the foundational biblical truth of ‘being saved by grace and not works so that no man can boast’ (Ephesians 2:8-9) and that was perhaps the thing that helped him to find a spiritual balance in his life. Luther said once; ‘a Christian is never in a state of completion but always in a state of becoming.’
We all need to see the fruit of God’s good work in our lives and even for Luther, he was very conscious of his constant need for God.
It was what kept him going.
And his love of beer? Well, Luther never once encouraged getting drunk and condemned gluttony (along with many other vices) in the strongest terms. Perhaps his 1539 sermon on Soberness and Moderation finds the right balance;
“If you are tired and downhearted, take a drink; but this does not mean being a pig and doing nothing but gorging and swilling… You should be moderate and sober; this means that we should not be drunken, though we may be exhilarated.”
‘Exhilirated’ Luther was, and the world would never be the same.
Jeremy – Not Only Sundays.