All of us know from personal experience the benefit of “hindsight”, i.e. looking back over our own past and coming round to a better (we hope) understanding of situations which we could not understand then as they unfolded before us. “Hindsight” provides us with a bigger picture of these situations and how they fit into this bigger picture.
Thus far in our blog posts on Martin Luther and his 95 Theses, we have looked at his response either immediately (1517) or, at most, a year after (1518) they were made public. In the preface to the 1545 edition of his works, 28 years after he first posted his 95 Theses, Luther reflected upon that incident on “hindsight”. His remarks about his own conviction even then regarding the papacy is most illuminating. It would seem that he revered the Pope so much that he would be ready to murder at the latter’s command. But there is a qualification! He was unlike the others who defended the Pope in hypocrisy. Luther defended the Pope in fidelity to the Pope. Or so he thought when he espoused his 95 Theses! He never expected that the Pope, together with Roman See would actually reject him and his teaching. Did he sincerely think that what he espoused then would be readily received by the Pope? Is this an admission that while he sincerely believed that what he espoused was Scriptural, he was somehow mistaken to suppose that the Pope would have agreed with him?
Whatever it is, there can be no doubt that he soon came to the realisation, from the reaction of the Papacy, that what he espoused was actually contrary to what the Pope promoted. Having committed himself to the truthfulness of what he espoused because it was Scriptural, it dawned on him that if the Pope opposed Scripture, then, the Pope must be the vicar of Anti-Christ. There can be no two ways about this. This strong imagery which Luther ascribed to the Pope of his day may seem hard and harsh to our modern ears. But Luther saw the Papacy for what it was. If it is opposed to the Bible then it cannot but be the Anti-Christ.
DR. MARTIN LUTHER TO THE CHRISTIAN READER
From the Preface to the Complete Works (1545). Text according to the Berlin Edition of Buchwald and others, Vol. 1.
EDITION OF 1545
ABOVE all things I beseech the Christian reader and beg him for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ, to read my earliest books very circumspectly and with much pity, knowing that before now I too was a monk, and one of the right frantic and raving papists. When I took up this matter against Indulgences, I was so full and drunken, yea, so besotted in papal doctrine that, out of my great zeal, I would have been ready to do murder — at least, I would have been glad to see and help that murder should be done all who would not be obedient and subject to the pope, even to his smallest word.
Such a Saul was I at that time; and I meant it right earnestly; and there are still many such today. In a word, I was not such a frozen and ice-cold champion of the papacy as Eck and others of his kind have been and still are. They defend the Roman See more for the sake of the shameful belly, which is their god, than because they are really attached to its cause. Indeed I am wholly of the opinion that like latter-day Epicureans, they only laugh at the pope. But I verily espoused this cause in deepest earnest and in all fidelity; the more so because I shrank from the Last Day with great anxiety and fear and terror, and yet from the depths of my heart desired to be saved.
Therefore, Christian reader, thou wilt find in my earliest books and writings how many points of faith I then, with all humility, yielded and conceded to the pope, which since then I have held and condemned for the most horrible blasphemy and abomination, and which I would have to be so held and so condemned forever. Amen.
Thou wilt therefore ascribe this my error, or as my opponents venomously call it, this inconsistency of mine, to the time, and to my ignorance and inexperience. At the beginning I was quite alone and without any helpers, and moreover, to tell the truth, unskilled in all these things, and far too unlearned to discuss such high and weighty matters. For it was without any intention, purpose, or will of mine that I fell, quite unexpectedly, into this wrangling and contention. This I take God, the Searcher of hearts, to witness.
I tell these things to the end that, if thou shalt read my books, thou mayest know and remember that I am one of those who, as St. Augustine says of himself, have grown by writing and by teaching others, and not one of those who, starting with nothing, have in a trice become the most exalted and most learned doctors. We find, alas! many of these self-grown doctors; who in truth are nothing, do nothing and accomplish nothing, are moreover untried and inexperienced, and yet, after a single look at the Scriptures, think themselves able wholly to exhaust its spirit.
Farewell, dear reader, in the Lord. Pray that the Word may be further spread abroad, and may be strong against the miserable devil. For he is mighty and wicked, and just now is raving everywhere and raging cruelly, like one who well knows and feels that his time is short, and that the kingdom of his Vicar, the Antichrist in Rome, is sore beset. But may the God of all grace and mercy strengthen and complete in us the work He has begun, to His honor and to the comfort, of His little flock. Amen.