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Module Forum: Germany in the Age of the Reformation (HI242)

Module Forum: Germany in the Age of the Reformation (HI242) Should Luther be seen as a 'great man'?

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  1. Please join the debate by replying to this thread with a statement of c. 100 words (well before the week 7 seminar).

  2. Martin Luther should be seen as a great man because of his life's achievements and also his influence in the run up to and during the German Reformation. He was brave enough to challenge the Papacy and the rule of the Catholic Church, even with the knowledge that the last person to do so, Jan Hus, was burnt for his beliefs. Although Luther did not set out to primarily to create a split in the Church but more to reform it, he still created a following and certainly made people rethink and question the legitimacy and power of the Catholic Church.

  3. Although something of an accidental hero as the trigger for the Reformation, Luther’s tenacity enabled the success of a reform that shaped religion, history and the World, then and today, in a way that few other singular events have. Even without this, his opening up of religion to the laity through the vernacular Bible made him a ‘great’ man. This not only transformed the people’s relationship with God’s Word but was also every bit as impactful on the German language and Biblical translation as the Reformation was on Christianity itself, making him a linguistic revolutionary as well as a religious one.

  4. Luther should be seen as a great man due to the transformative impact that his movement to focus on word rather than works had on society, and his translation of the Bible provided others with the capacity to do this. The estimated sale of 3.1 million copies of his other works between 1516 and 1546 show the extent of his influence, reinforcing his status as a ‘great man’. However, the Great Man theory is a difficult one to support. No movement of this scale can be sustained by one individual, and many other people and factors aided the success of the Lutheran movement.

  5. #5 17:04, Sun 11 Nov 2018

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  6. Luther played a very important role as a leader of the Reformation, but this does not mean that the Reformation would not have happened without him. The momentum of reforming ideals throughout the period leading up to the Reformation, as well as the presence of other important figures in the Reformation, such as Melanchthon and to some extent Muntzer, meant that some form of Reformation would likely have taken place anyway, even it would have been different in character. However, Luther's role as a figurehead and a gifted theologian meant he played a very important role in the histroy of the Reformation. 

  7. Luther should be seen as a great man, he was able to take the debate beyond the realms of academia, opening up genuine public discussion about how the Church should work. It is perhaps in his original intention of not splitting the church up but reforming it from within where his greatness lies, as it allowed for communication within and from the Church for far longer than someone like Hus would have received before labelled a heretic. Luther was able to take advantage of developing techinqiues and explore alternate methods of communicating with people, which was revolutionary for the age.

  8. As the historian Bernd Moeller argues, the late Middle Ages was a period bereft of "great" men. In this respect Luther was a peculiarity; someone willing to critique the Catholic Church in a way the Humanists and heretics never did. There were others reforming, Zwingli, Karlstadt, and Muntzer for example, but Luther went further than many of his contemporaries and openly challenged the rule of the papacy, opening up a discussion which would grip the entirety of Europe. Luther’s gifted rhetoric and use of the printing press meant his work was disseminated in an unprecedented way, thus ensuring his legacy as a great man.

  9. Luther was a 'great man' of history. He was able to codify and articulate the ideas that greatly resonated with German and European peoples. He boldly challenged the Catholic Church: he debated with Cajetan (1518), Eck (1519) and Charles V (1521), he asserted that the indulgence trade proved that the Pope was the Antichrist, and was himself excommunicated in 1521. To many, he returned the Christian faith to the people, propounding that the Bible was in fact the central religious authority, and that human salvation would be reached through faith rather than through deeds. Lutheran ideas were the essence of the Protestant Reformation, which shaped the course of Western history.

  10. In 1840 Thomas Carlyle famously stated that ‘the history of the world is but the biography of great men’. Yet the case of Luther does not appear support this great man theory. Luther’s success lay in his ability to tap into pre-existing societal concerns and grievances; his success was the product of grievances that predated him as well as a favourable political climate over which he had no degree of control. Moreover, the state of the pre-Reformation Catholic Church suggests that it was a case of “who would reform the Church and how would they go about it?” That is to say that, counterfactually speaking, reform if not a Reformation-proper would likely still have occurred without Luther’s existence or involvement. The independent development of Zwingli’s theology in Zurich at the time supports this notion.

  11. The concept of ‘greatness,’ is highly subjective and heavily depends on the value judgement of those assessing it. For example, it can be measured by: the extent to which an individual spearheaded an event, their ability to communicate or the originality of their ideas. This should be considered as criteria upon which Luther’s impact can be judged. Firstly, Luther's endeavours in the town of Wittenberg were not achieved on his own, relying on the support of Friedrich the Wise and a 'network of friends' and supporters. Furthermore, his use of print was severely limited by the fact that the vast majority of the country was not literate, instead relying on older forms of communication. The contens of his message, furthermore,  were not original and had been co-opted from previous critics such as Augustine and Erasmus. Therefore, he cannot be considered as a great man. 

  12. Spencer Herbert claimed in reference to ‘Great Man Theory’ that ‘such great men are purely the products of their societies’. Luther is an anomaly; both were dependent on each other. Unquestionably he successfully reworked language and shaped religious doctrine to lucratively counter church authority by which society was dictated. Luther played into the hands of like-minded humanists and provided an ecclesiastically justified attack on the institution of the Church. His ideas were not unique or innovative however, they were strategically presented to a desperate audience with remarkable timing. Luther provided not a reason but a justification for much needed reform.

  13. Was Luther a ‘great man’, or was he merely in the right place at the right time? He was clearly adept at recognising German society’s grievances regarding the clergy, and was brave enough to publically condemn the Catholic Church and the Pope in a time where the church had extraordinary power and influence. However, his ideas were not completely original, they drew greatly on the works of the humanists and other critics of the church. Also, he was still very traditional in some areas, such as his views regarding women. Furthermore, Luther benefited greatly from his position in Wittenberg and subsequently his protection and patronage by powerful figures such as Frederick the Wise.

  14. In many ways Luther can be seen as a ‘great man’; he challenged the all powerful Catholic Church and harnessed the feeling of German unrest and revolt. He also adeptly constructed Wittenberg as an image of the potential new order and Christian peace. However, Luther did not present the German nation with any original ideas; instead he provided legitimisation and justification for pre-existing opposition to the Catholic Church. His success and potential greatness was dependent upon the local conditions in Wittenberg which provided Luther with a team of like-minded reformers and a means of disseminating his ideas.

  15. While Luther may share many similarities with fellow theologians such as Muntzer and Zwingli, it was his character and intellect, as well as his rejection of moderation that set Luther apart as a great man who shaped the course of the reformation in his own image. His attacks on the sale of indulgences, corruption in the church and papal authority for example where so crucial because they eroded the foundations of the Church’s legitimacy, and considering the limited success of Luther’s predecessors, and the longevity and resilience of the Church up until this point, it is difficult to argue that the theological upheavals in Christendom would have been so dramatic without the actions of this one man.

  16. Indeed, Luther provided a sustained opposition to the Catholic Church that had arguably not been felt on such a scale. His approach was practical and had a well-grounded ecclesiastical basis. However, Carlyle’s ‘great men’ of history cannot be viewed as singular entities. Instead, as with the case of Luther, one must view his achievements as part of a general and popular movement of anti-clericalism which had been well established. Thus, although Luther can be considered central to the ‘memory’ of Reformation history, it is likely that religious change would have taken place without him.

  17. Despite his challenge on the authority and power of the Church, can someone who so brutally ordered the execution of hundreds of thousands of people in defence of nobles really be considered great? In his Final denunciation of the Peasants’ Rebellion he denounces the ‘robbery, murder and bloodshed’ committed by the peasants as the ‘devil’s work’ yet then proceeds to state that ‘one must slay a mad dog’. Does this make him as bad as the rebels he was criticizing? I think this a key question to address when considering his ‘greatness’ and certainly makes me doubt how 'great' he really was.

  18. First, the definition of “great” has to be established, should “great” be defined in terms of morality or advancing the goals of the reformation? Luther cannot be seen necessarily as a man of great moral virtue for he promoted social order through calling for the murder of rebellious peasants. It is doubtless that his work led to the proliferation of reformist ideals, such as the several pamphlets he published in 1520 and 21. He was also hesitant to remove too much tradition immediately to avoid the alienation of those potentially sympathetic to his ideas. A gradualist. But the question is whether his good work in promoting reform can possibly pardon his actions in facilitating the quashing of rebellion.


  19. If we take the degree of influence an individual has on the world to be the measure of his greatness, then undoubtedly Luther was a great man. What is worthy of note, however, is that this influence, and thus his greatness, is conditional on the actions of several other disciples of the Reformation. I argue that without the vital work of Calvin, Zwingli, Melanchthon and others in developing and spreading Reformation thought, or the protection offered by Frederick III following the Edict of Worms, Luther could have been just another heretic, and not the great man we recognise today.

  20. Luther is seemingly a great man, if you look broadly at his achievements of shaping the Reformation on his theological views of sola fide and sola scriptura. However, one must ask the question, was the Reformation inevitable even if Luther had never written his 95 Theses? The state of the Catholic Church and the social economic problems in Germany suggest that perhaps it was, and this significantly diminishes the ‘greatness’ of Luther. Furthermore, Luther’s polemic writings against people who disagreed with him removed the prospect of compromise and led to the bloodshed of the Peasants’ Revolt and Mühlberg.