Martin Luther’s Share of the Guilt: Was the Protestant Reformation Really Worth It?

The 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation is days away, so it is a time to remember and reflect upon the Reformation, and specifically upon Martin Luther, who started the Reformation by nailing his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle church on October 31, 1517. The Reformation opened Pandora's box, resulting in a chain reaction of church schisms that have produced 38,000 [1] or more Protestant denominations today, and we must not forget all the wars and tribulations that have resulted from the Reformation, and this chain reaction continues to this day—500 years later. It is difficult for me to join into the Protestant triumphalism, by those who are celebrating this event that has divided the church more than any other event. 

Protestants are quick to blame the Roman Catholic Church for the Reformation, but are not Protestants to blame as well? Was schism a necessary consequent of the Reformation, or was it an unnecessary consequence of fanaticism that may have been avoided, if the necessary reforms were led by another reformer (such as Desiderius Erasmus) instead of Martin Luther? Is Martin Luther culpable for inciting the Reformation? Is Martin Luther ultimately the arch-heretic, as some believe? Is he fully or partly to blame? And in what ways? To answer these questions, I turn to Hans Küng—an ecumenical catholic theologian and personal friend of Karl Barth—to find some answers. Hans Küng's Theology for the Third Millennium contains a section on "Martin Luther's Share of the Guilt" for the Reformation, that contains several criticisms of Martin Luther that I believe is worth considering and discussing.

I've edited Küng criticisms into the following seven point list, because I believe there is truth to each point, and believe this is an important time for Protestants (like myself) to listen to these criticisms, and to recognize and admit guilt, in order to seek reconciliation in the Christian church.

Seven Ways Martin Luther Shares the Guilt for the Reformation

#1. Martin Luther was a demagogue: Hans Küng writes, "Hadn't Luther, the immoderate, presented his justified demands all lumped together, generalizing and in needlessly shrill tones? Had he not been aggressive and sometimes a demagogue to boot?" [2]

#2. Martin Luther was a book burner: Hans Küng writes, "Was it necessary to take the papal bull threatening excommunication, along with the decretals, and publicly burn the in Wittenberg?" [3]

#3. Martin Luther was a demonizer: Hans Küng writes, "How was it that in every opponent (and not just the pope) he literally saw the devil?" [4]

#4. Martin Luther was a fanatical biblicist: Hans Küng writes, "When the fanatical enthusiasts, Karlstadt and Thomas Münzer at their head, invoked their personal interpretation of Scripture, as opposed to Luther's, and the Holy Spirit, hadn't Luther vigorously denied them the freedom of a Christian man he had claimed for himself?" [5]

#5. Martin Luther was a warmonger: Hans Küng writes, "Didn't Luther have a share of the guilt for the Peasants' Revolt, which swept through the German Empire, together with its catastrophic consequences? When the peasants rose up in revolution in southwestern Germany, at first demanding only the rights that the nearby Swiss had long enjoyed, hadn't Luther left them in the lurch? Indeed, hadn't he driven them into death and misery, when he hotheadedly incited the princes Against the Murderous and Thieving Hordes of the Peasants (1525), goad them to pitiless, blood measures?" [6]

#6. Martin Luther was a gallicanist: Hans Küng writes, "Luther was now unpopular among Protestants too as he grew into the (increasingly more conservative) role of 'servant of the princes.' With his help, these sovereigns built and expanded a national church, one in which the sovereign—each one now a little pope—could even determine the religion of his people—a new Babylonian captivity?" [7]

#7. Martin Luther was vehemently wrathful: Hans Küng writes, "And finally hadn't the man from Wittenberg also fallen like a wild beast on him, on Erasmus, who had argued patiently and calmly—in academic style—with Luther? Although Erasmus' argument for human freedom and responsibility were really well grounded in Scripture, hadn't Luther reviled him as a dolt, a freethinker, and a skeptic, as a new pagan, a despiser of Scripture, an enemy of Christianity, and a destroyer of religion?" [8]

Martin Luther's Legacy: Was the Reformation worth it? 

If Martin Luther is ultimately acquitted from Hans Küng seven charges, then it is still important to step back from Luther, and ask the broader reflective question: "Was the Reformation Really Worth It?" Hans Küng concludes with a sobering comment that if the blame is ultimately upon Rome, and the Reformation was unavoidable, and Martin Luther is innocent, and the Protestants were ultimately right, then the question still remains whether the Reformation has really made the Church more holy, and has it really succeeded in its aims?

Hans Küng writes, "No question, Rome bore the main burden of guilt. And conformity with Rome (including court theology and the cardinalate) was never his position. But who could fail to see that part of the guilt also belonged to the vehemently wrathful Luther, the "simul iustus et peccator" (at once just and a sinner) in person?

— All in all, was the Reformation, with all the blood, sweat, and tears it cost, with all the radical disruption and manifold devastation of common life it brought—was it really worth it? Had people now become so much more pious and the churches so much more Christian? Perhaps there were also objective historical reasons for the fits of depression the older Luther is reported to have suffered from.

— And now, on top of everything, there was the threat of the most terrible evil that can come upon humanity: war. The great war in Germany between the Protestant Schmalkaldic League (1531) and the Catholics loyal to the emperor was only temporarily delayed by the Nuremberg Armistice (which in fact would only last until Luther's death in 1546). " [9]


1. Atlas of World Christianity (2010) lists 38,000 protestant denominations in 4,000,000 independent congregations. The World Christian Encyclopedia, edited David Barrett lists 33,000 protestant denominations. Both sources are from protestant researches, and these numbers are cited by other protestant historians such as Mark A. Noll's Protestantism: A Very Short Introduction (p. 9)

2. Hans Küng,  Theology for the Third Millennium: An Ecumenical View. New York: Doubleday, 1988. pp 33-34. Print.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

Header Background Source: wikipeda; By follower of Lucas Cranach the Younger - Own work Wolfgang Sauber, Taken in 3 April 2012, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

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