Carl Trueman, Ph.D. Complete Interview



    In the late medieval times, the church developed an elaborate penitential system whereby individuals could effectively, from our perspective,

    earn their way into Heaven. The Bible of course talks about the need for
    repentance, the need for faith. But repentance had come to be understood in the late Middle Ages as doing penance or doing penitence, so it was closely

    associated with holy works, going on pilgrimages, acts of self-denial. And the

    church had come to focus upon these things as that which made one worthy for
    entrance into heaven, or made one worthy as a member of the church. Luther of course, reading the Greek New Testament, came to realize that what was

    translated as "Poenitentiam agite" (do penance) was in the Greek "metanoiate":

    repent, repentance - and repent was much more to do with the turning round of

    one's mind, turning away from oneself, away from one's own works, and towards
    God. So in Luther's mind, repentance becomes separated from works of penance, as they would have been conceived in the later Middle Ages. Central to Luther's Reformation is his new, changed understanding of justification. If we look at the late medieval period, justification was understood as a process by which one actually became righteous, and there were various component parts to this. First of all, one had to be baptized and brought into the church by baptism; one would receive the mass, and in receiving the

    mass, one received grace - grace that modified one's being, that actually

    transformed one into somebody who was intrinsically in some sense righteous or

    holy. And connected to that was also the penitential system of the church: when
    one fell into sin and when one confessed one's sins to a priest, the priest could set penances for you to do: saying Hail Marys or going on a pilgrimage or some other acts of self-denial. But the focus really

    was on what you did in order to make yourself intrinsically righteous. That

    created something of a problem for Luther. When Luther sees for example
    statements about blessed are the pure in heart for they shall inherit the kingdom of God, for Luther this seemed to create a dilemma, because the harder he tried to

    do penance, the harder he tried to be holy, the more acutely aware he became of
    how far short he fell of the standards set before him. So this really sets up a

    personal existential crisis for Luther, and also creates the context in which

    his study of the Apostle Paul and his changing understanding of penance, his
    changing understanding of justification, will create a highly problematic and

    eventually explosive context in Wittenberg and electoral Saxony that will help

    cause what we now call the Reformation.

    Purgatory is a a central doctrine for understanding the Reformation. Put simply,

    it's like an intermediate state: sort of halfway between Hell and Heaven,
    where you go if you've not died in terrible mortal sin: you go to purgatory to be, to put it crudely, "cleaned up and made fit for heaven." It's still believed

    by Roman Catholics today; you will find it taught in the Roman Catholic
    catechism John Paul II produced. Its origins are interesting; it starts really

    way back in the early church, simply as a point of of eschatology, simply as part
    of discussion of what happens after you die. When you go to purgatory, you get cleaned up and then you go to Heaven. Understanding of purgatory is transformed in the late medieval period in a way that's very significant for understanding Luther. Purgatory becomes attached to the penitential system of the church. So penance that is done here and now on Earth by individual

    Christians not only has an impact on their own future in purgatory, but can
    also have an impact upon those who are in purgatory at the moment. And it's this

    doctrine that helps trigger the Reformation. Interestingly enough, it's not
    that Luther is objecting to purgatory in 1517 when he writes his 95 Theses

    against indulgences. What Luther is concerned about is that indulgences
    detach what's happening in the afterlife, where you're going in the afterlife, from

    true repentance here and now. So his objection is not that the church

    believes in purgatory; his objection is that the church seems to believe - or
    Tetzel at least, the man selling indulgences, seems to be claiming that the church believes that a mere cash transaction here on Earth can have an

    eschatological impact upon those in purgatory. And for Luther, that's anathema:

    what that is doing is, it's separating salvation from the need for

    repentance, and Luther thinks that that is
    unbiblical and pastorally very, very dangerous.

    The immediate background to the indulgence controversy is both economic

    and political. It's not really a very godly or theological background at all.

    There's a young bishop Albrecht of Mainz who wishes to buy an extra bishopric.

    Bishoprics come with tax raising powers. He's already got a couple of bishoprics,
    so he needs to get permission from the Pope to have the third bishopric. The Pope is in financial difficulty; the papacy has been economically drained by

    warfare and also the building of St. Peter's in the Vatican. The great artists

    of the Renaissance and great architects of the Renaissance don't come cheap! So the
    Pope is in need of money to fill his own depleted coffers. Albrecht wants a

    bishopric, and so the Pope sells him a license to have this extra bishopric.

    Albrecht borrows money from German bankers to pay for this license, and then
    the Pope grants Albrecht permission to raise an indulgence on his territory, where half the money will go to paying off the interest on the loan, and half the money will go to the papacy. So the immediate background to Luther's protest

    in 1517 is political and sordid, if one might put it that way. It's not a

    particularly principled point that he's raising when he objects to this. I mean,

    he's principled, but he's going up against a church which is really playing
    fast and loose with theology in order to fill its coffers. One of the interesting local difficulties at Wittenberg is that Frederick the Wise, the Elector of Saxony, the local prince, the man who rules the territory, has one of the finest collections of Christian relics: bits and bobs, pieces of the true cross, bits of

    saints, etc. So he has his own little industry, his own little economy running

    on the basis of pilgrimages, etc. to his relics collection. So there's an

    interesting conflict here that Luther's own sponsor
    in some ways, the man who will become his great protector, actually has his own, we might say, "racket" going at this point, in a not dissimilar way. Luther's major concern, of course, is that his congregation are being deceived into thinking they can buy their way into Heaven through the Tetzel/Albrecht indulgence, and that's what really gets his ire at this point. He's not objecting

    in some ways to indulgences necessarily more than he's objecting to
    relics. What he's objecting to is the way they're being used to con people into thinking they can simply buy their way into Heaven.

    Tetzel is a fascinating character. He was a Dominican friar, charged with selling
    the indulgence, and all the evidence suggests that he was a very good and effective salesman. There are a couple of jingles that Luther alludes to in the 95 Theses that have come down to us: one of them, translated famously, is "Every time a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs!" And one can imagine how powerful and compelling that would be if you genuinely believed in purgatory, and you genuinely believed that this man was representing the truth of the Catholic faith, and you're thinking that you have relatives who've gone before you, they've died, you loved them: but you know that there were some moral issues there, that they're gonna have to deal with in the afterlife. That would be a very compelling sales pitch. At the more profane level, there was a comment

    ascribed by Luther to Tetzel, to the effect that if somebody had violated, had

    raped the Virgin Mary, one of his indulgences would be powerful enough
    to deal with it. And if that's a true claim, that gives insight into the profanity of the man. But again, it would be a very powerful

    and compelling sales pitch if you bought into the overall theology of

    indulgences that he was trading on.

    Why are we celebrating 500 years in 2017? What are we celebrating 500 years of?

    To an extent, it's a somewhat arbitrary date: we're looking back to October the 31st,
    1517, when Martin Luther is supposed to have nailed 95 Theses calling for a

    debate, a critical debate, on the church's practice of selling indulgences. Popular

    protestant mythology has made this a moment when Luther took this great stand;
    You often see artworks surrounding this event, particularly 19th century artwork where Luther seems to be symbolically driving a nail into the coffin of the church, or a stake into the heart of a corrupt papacy. In fact, it was much more low-key in many ways than that: Luther wanted a debate. I think in Luther's mind, he felt that Tetzel was selling a perverted view of indulgences, and he

    wanted to know what the official church teaching was. Nothing would have been
    further from his mind than splitting the church. I don't think he would even have had the concept of what splitting the church could have been, or could have looked at. There have been claims that it never happened, that Luther didn't nail the 95 Theses to the castle door in Wittenberg most famously put forward by

    the Jesuit historian Iserloh. I think those claims have been pretty much
    debunked. But in a sense, it doesn't really matter whether Luther nailed them

    or not; it would be the events that happen afterwards. It was Luther's
    speaking and writing about indulgences in the immediate aftermath of this event

    that was so critical to triggering the Reformation. We are perhaps unfamiliar
    with the term "thesis" today. What is a thesis? Well, a thesis was a point to be debated. We're probably familiar from our own university or college days with debating societies where we'd have a phrase such as, "This house believes in..." The thesis was the medieval equivalent to that: it was a point that was to be debated. Luther as a university professor wanted to call for a university

    debate on the practice of the sale of indulgences. So he presented 95 of these

    theses, nailed them to the castle door which was a typical place for
    advertising such things, and while for us 95 Theses sounds like a lot

    of theses to debate - and indeed it is - it would not have been uncommon to have an
    extensive document like that, partly because the theses would be arranged in a way that represented a cumulative argument. Establishing the point on

    one thesis would set you up then for discussing subsequent theses. When a
    modern person reads the 95 Theses, I think one is inclined to have a number of reactions. Some of the theses now seem quite obscure, because Luther was assuming a certain level of familiarity with late medieval theology, which is now not part and parcel even of our theological culture today. So there are certain parts of the theses where one might read them and think, well, wow, I don't really understand what the issue is here; I'm not quite sure what he's getting at. I think there are other parts where one can detect, if not sarcasm, then

    certainly powerful rhetoric. The number of occasions Luther makes reference to
    the Pope: and I don't think in those references he's criticizing the Pope; he's saying if the Pope knew what was going on, he would fix this. This can't possibly be what the Pope means. And there are other theses that have a definite passionate and popular power to them. "When our Lord said repent, he meant

    the whole of life should be one of repentance." That grips the imagination.
    So it's an interesting document; it doesn't have the overall rhetorical force

    and eloquence of, say, the Communist Manifesto: when you read the Communist
    Manifesto, it's a literary document that carries the imagination as you read it.

    It's definitely a technical and academic document. But Luther was a great man with

    a pen. He had a great grasp of language. He could use language in very, very
    powerful ways, and that does burst through at points. It is surprising

    perhaps that this document became such a rallying cry, because there are obscure
    section, sections that would have been obscure to the common people even then. But there is enough in it to provide a rhetorical power, I think, that carried it forward.

    The first thesis - "When our Lord calls on us to repent, he means the
    whole of life should be one of repentance" - really captures the heart of the issue for Luther. I think we need to remember that although he was calling for an academic debate, what Luther is really concerned about is a pastoral issue here. He thinks that congregants are being conned into thinking,

    to put it crudely, they can buy their way out of purgatory - they can for a mere

    cash transaction trade with the grace of God. And Luther had come through his
    study particularly of the book of Romans in the years prior to the indulgence crisis, had come to see that the human dilemma was much worse than he'd been taught, that human beings are dead in sin: sin is not something that merely wounds us or marrs us or makes us less than perfect, we're actually dead in sin. And the only thing powerful enough to overcome death is resurrection, and that is a powerful unilateral sovereign act of God. Well, how

    does one come into that relationship with God in order to be resurrected?
    Luther felt it was through despair, through humility, through throwing yourself absolutely on God's mercy. And that was not a once-in-a-lifetime thing nor was it something you could buy with cash. It was, for want of a better way of expressing it, an "attitude of mind" that was to characterize the whole of life. Going to the Greek "metanoiate," the changing, the turning round of the mind

    is critical. And the turning around of the mind is to be a lifelong thing, not

    signing a decision card or a single moment in time. It's to
    characterize the whole of life. And that, I think, underlies the first thesis, and really sets the framework of concern for the document as a whole. I don't think

    the document was really an attack on Rome or the Pope. Certainly Luther will
    have concerns about Rome and the Pope as events move forward. It's certainly an attack on Tetzel. I think he thinks that Tetzel is leading people astray, and Luther's major concern is that this man is teaching falsely

    about indulgences. And I think there's a sense in which, there's a feeling of, "the
    Pope can't possibly believe this." Because if the Pope had these powers, he'd let people out of purgatory straightaway! The fact he isn't doing that would seem to indicate there's something wrong in what Tetzel is saying. Oh, and by the way, he's fleecing my flock and conning them at the same time!

    One of the interesting things about the indulgence controversy is, why was

    it this document that caused the crisis? It's very interesting to note that
    Luther had said more radical things just a month before. In what we now call the Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, he'd called for what amounted to more or less the overthrow or the overturning of the medieval system of theology that he had been taught. Very, very radical call, and yet nobody really

    paid any attention to it. He comes along a month later and he issues his 95
    Theses against indulgences, he's used his sermon against indulgences, and the world

    explodes. The question is why? I think the document struck a chord. These documents

    struck a chord. One: the very fact, to put it crudely, that they connected with

    money in some ways made them immediately relevant. American pulp fiction novels: if

    you want to know how they work, "follow the money!"
    Marxist theory of history: if you want to know how history works, "follow the money!" I think if you want to know why the indulgence controversy gripped the popular imagination, follow the money. It was a document that not only had

    theological significance for the intellectuals at the University of
    Wittenberg who were recovering the theology of Augustine and trying to work out the implications of that for the church and for theological life, but it

    also struck a chord with the poor people, and it struck a chord with the knights
    and the nobility who had a vested interest in not allowing money to flow

    to the church and flow south to Rome. So it's a document, I think, that
    allowed for the creation of an interesting and powerful coalition.

    It wasn't just intellectuals debating medieval theology. This affected people

    in their everyday lives. One of the things that most amazes me about Martin
    Luther is, he has this uncanny grasp of the power of the print medium. Early on

    in his career, one of his opponents writes a document against the
    presumptuous conclusions of Martin Luther, and he claims to have written this work in three days - "Luther's such an idiot." The instinct of course when you're criticized like that is to throw such a book in the bin, burn it, get rid of it, censor it. What Luther does is reprint it with a kind of bit written by him refuting this work, and making the

    claim that, well, "he refuted me in three days, I refuted him in two!" And to me,

    that's a brilliant insight into Luther's mind: that he's a man who understands how
    the print medium works. He understands that censorship is often self-defeating.

    How would he have known that? We were at the very start of print propaganda at
    this point. He instinctively grasps how to use the print medium. And of course, his later recruitment of artists to produce woodcuts and pictures: most

    people couldn't read. So yeah, he has a great grasp of the print medium, but they
    knew what pictures meant. You have a picture of the devil with the Pope emerging from his anus, you get the message! You don't have to be able to read, to understand what's being said there. So I think one of the most remarkable things about Luther is, for a guy who's middle-aged and really a man of the Middle Ages when this all kicks off, he has an uncanny grasp of the print medium.

    He's the equivalent then of a tech entrepreneur today, somebody who

    understands how the Internet works. That's Luther in the 16th century; where
    he gets this knowledge from, goodness knows. It's instinctive, it seems to me.

    The origins of elaborate church buildings in the West is interesting.
    It rises really in the Middle Ages when it became a way for the great and the good, whether at a local level, or a much bigger level, to demonstrate their power. Charlemagne is a key figure in the rise of not only liturgical practice,

    but elaborate vestments. And this idea that the great and the good could

    demonstrate their power through endowing churches or having great buildings built

    was something that was very significant in the Middle Ages. But I would also add
    a spiritual dimension to it: I think when you look at a cathedral, what is a great medieval cathedral? It shows that people cared enough about worship; they cared

    enough about what they did to build something that lasts. One of the most

    beautiful things about medieval cathedrals is, we can still talk about
    them, because they're still there. These people wanted something that was going to last way beyond their lives, and was therefore worth investing in, because

    that was the God they worshipped, and that was the faith they had. It was one
    for the ages, not one for now and for throwing away tomorrow.

    My very first successful job interview at the University
    of Nottingham way, way back in 1992 it would have been, I was asked, "You're on a desert

    island and you've got the choice of John Calvin or Martin Luther to be your
    companion, who would you choose?" And I said, I think, Calvin: probably the sharper

    theologian. But Luther would be much more fun! There would be no embarrassing
    silences with Martin Luther. He was a larger-than-life character. He loved life. He had a tremendous sense of humor. I think today we would probably diagnose

    him as being a manic-depressive, or perhaps having bipolar syndrome or
    something. He was a man of great emotional extremes. One of the striking things about Luther is his awareness of his sin. I think some of that is personality. It's interesting when you read somebody like Calvin, almost any other reformer: you don't get quite the same existential struggle, existential

    angst that you find at points in Luther. So there's undoubtedly something of
    Luther's personality there which helps to shape and to frame and to flavor his theology. But I also think that he captures something key about biblical

    teaching in general, and about the New Testament in particular: Luther had a
    clear understanding of the holiness of God, and a clear understanding of his own unworthiness to stand before that God. And maybe Luther's struggles are difficult

    for us to understand in a more casual age, when we've been taught to think of
    God as a great "therapist in the sky" who's there to help us feel better about ourselves. For Luther, that wasn't God. Luther didn't go to church to feel better about himself. Luther went to church to have his problem diagnosed, and we might say, to understand why he was suffering the way he was, and that it was all going to be okay in the end because the blood of Christ would cover everything for him. So Luther is from a different age and a

    different personality, but I think above all he had a profound grasp at the
    biblical teaching of the holiness of God, the sinfulness of human beings, and the

    all sufficiency of the Lord Jesus Christ.

    Two things come to mind when people say Luther and beer. One of them is the love
    letter he wrote to his wife when he asks her to brew a particular kind of beer for him, because when he drinks that, he has multiple bowel movements before lunch. I cannot imagine any possible universe where I would write a love letter to my wife and mention a bowel movement! The other one comes from his

    so-called Invocavit Sermons of 1522. Luther is brought back to
    Wittenberg by Frederick the Wise to try to bring peace to the streets. Rioting

    and iconoclasm is taking hold of the Reformation in Wittenburg at that point.
    Luther comes back and I think, that's the point in his life when he's actually most vulnerable. We tend to think the Diet of Worms is the scariest moment. I actually think early 1522 is possibly scarier, because he's all by himself and

    he's got to bring peace to the streets of Wittenberg really without much
    support. And in one of his Invocavit Sermons that he preaches this time, he makes a comment about the power of the word of God over against sort of political or forced coercion. And he essentially says, "I just preach the

    Word of God, I sit around in the pub drinking beer with my friends, Phillip
    and Armsdorf, and the Word of God is out there doing it all." And it's a

    lovely image of Luther sitting in the pub, drinking beer, and the Word of God is
    out there carrying on before it. To me, it captures two of Luther's great loves: beer and the word.

    One of the things you always get asked about Luther if you give a talk on him
    in a church or to a college anywhere, somebody will stand up and say, "but wasn't he anti-semitic." Luther wrote a notorious and rather vicious attack

    on the Jews in 1543, "On the Jews and Their Lies," and indeed either in his last
    sermon or his second to last sermon, he included an appendix which was a vicious attack on the Jews as well. One of the things I think we have to remember about those times is that pretty much everybody in Western Europe hated the Jews at that point. How do you assimilate a non-Christian group into Christendom? It was a really difficult issue, and from the 12th century onwards we have this rising tide of fairly unpleasant anti-Jewish propaganda coming

    from Christian quarters. And Luther's treatise of 1543 is actually fairly

    conventional: it pulls up some fairly conventional caricatures and libels of
    Jews. So on one level, it's not an original treatise. It has, of course,

    Luther's particular flair for rhetoric which makes it that much more deadly in
    some ways, and it was reprinted in the 1930s: it became part of Nazi propaganda

    which gives it a rather horrific post-Luther life, if one could put it that way.

    But it's a fairly conventional piece, and the key I think is to understand that by

    and large in the 16ht century, anti-Jewish sentiment was not racial in
    the way we understand it. There is some evidence suggesting that Jews who converted to Christianity were still mocked for having been Jews, and were still subject to taunts and mockery. But the key issue for Luther is

    a religious one. If you compare, say, Luther to the Nuremberg laws which were
    the foundation, the legal foundation for the Holocaust, the Nuremberg laws are very clear that if a Jew converts to Christianity, it makes no difference because the problem is one of blood. Yes, it's bogus science, but the problem is,

    it's seen as a sort of biological one. For Luther and his contemporaries in the
    16th century, by and large the problem is a religious one, so if you convert to Christianity, the problem is pretty much dealt with, even though you may still be subject to some mockery, maybe treated a little bit as a second-class Christian -- the major problem is done. So the language of anti-semitism is in some ways unhelpful, because anti-semitism is racial language.

    Anti-Judaism is perhaps more accurate.

    What did Luther himself think he was trying to do during the Reformation?

    I think certainly early on, he was expecting Jesus to come back soon.

    He thought he was living at the end of time, and I don't think he was making long-term
    plans for the church. He had huge confidence that the Word of God would carry the day, and carry the day fairly quickly. So Luther was not a man of long-term

    vision. I think in the late 1520s, that changes. It becomes clear to him that he
    needs to start planning; there needs to be proper structuring of churches going on from, say, 1527, 1528 onwards. But certainly, Luther's initial outburst -

    1520, 1521, 1522 - this is a time when he thinks Jesus is coming back soon. He's

    recovering the gospel at the end of time. He's a great heir of late medieval
    end-time expectancy at that point: this is the moment when the gospel is recovered and Jesus will come back. That's not what happened. And of course one of the

    pressing questions today sociologically is, well, what was the impact of the

    Reformation? On one level, the question's a bit of a misnomer, because
    there was no single Reformation - there were numerous models of reformation out there. So there were reformations going on in Europe; one strand of Luther's

    thinking that is very important for the modern age, and perhaps has had both a
    good and a bad effect, is his abolition of the distinction between the sacred and the secular. One of the things Luther does in in 1520 is, he argues that we

    have to get rid of this idea that there are sort of secular callings and sacred

    callings; we have to get rid of this wall of separation between the sacred and the
    secular. The beautiful impact of that is it allows people to find the sacred in

    the everyday. I would go for example to Dutch Golden Age painting, and say Johannes Vermeer:
    he's a Roman Catholic but he paints with a Protestant sensibility. When you look at his painting of the milkmaid, he's finding something sacred and beautiful in a very mundane activity.

    Here is a milkmaid carrying the milk to the glory of God, and it's a beautiful
    thing. The flipside of that - and this is where a lot of Catholic critics would press in -- is he doesn't make the secular sacred: what ultimately

    happens is, the sacred becomes secular. And therefore the Reformation actually
    in the long term opens the floodgates for the rampant secularism that we

    now see around us, in which, you know, I think we're beginning to see the
    bankruptcy of that idea in the world around us, whether you're on the left or the right politically. I think we all see now there's something wrong with the secular project as being pursued. And a lot of Catholic critics - say, Charles

    Taylor or Brad Gregory - would point to that and say, but that's what you get
    from the kind of moves that were made at the Reformation. Whether you agree with them or not, could well come down to whether you believe Luther was a good Christian leader, or the destroyer of Christendom. And that I think is something that reflects one's own personal faith.

    It's a good question to ask, where would we find indulgences today? I think perhaps
    the most obvious place would be among some of the televangelists, or some of the cruder megachurch pastors where there seems to be a rather blunt

    equivalence made between the money you donate, and the blessings that you will
    receive, and those blessings are often conceived of in fairly materialistic, even financial ways. But I think there are indulgences available in more subtle

    ways in the world as well. One of the things that is a mark, I think,
    of the bankruptcy of secularism that we see around us is the way money functions. What is it that allows me to feel good about myself? Well, so often

    these days, it's the things I buy! That's what makes me who I am! I'm a consumer.

    My indulgences are the indulgences of the consumer. Or we could look at the

    sexual revolution: it's horribly ambiguous, but is sex an
    indulgence? Well, it's an indulgence in both senses of the word, quite often. But we live in a world where people are nobody if they're not having sex as much as they want as often as they want. And I think there's a sense in which we could say, sex today fulfills that kind of function. So we should perhaps be wary of

    looking back on the 16th century and sitting in too sharp a judgment over
    the fools as we see them, who were buying indulgences then, because the indulgences we invest in today are perhaps no more effective - and perhaps even less effective than those they were buying then. What would Luther think about modern individualism? I think he would be deeply shocked. There are those who look back and say the Reformation was the beginning of modern individualism. There's a certain strand of New Testament scholarship that has emerged in the last 20 or 30 years that argues that Luther has an individualistic understanding of salvation. I think those are overstatements. Luther lived in a

    very corporate world in many ways. When you think about Luther's world, most
    people couldn't read or write. So how did they function as Christians? They gathered together in the church to hear the word proclaimed, to be baptized, to take the Lord's Supper: these were all corporate activities for Luther. So I

    think to connect Luther to modern individualism is far too simplistic.
    Modern individualism, I think, has as much a technological origin: rising literacy,

    rising salaries, those kind of things - the rise of the automobile probably above
    all things has fragmented society in a way that it had never seen in times past.

    So to pin individualism and all the problems that has brought in its wake to
    modern society on Luther and the Reformation is a massive overstatement. Maybe the Reformation played some role, but I think when you were looking at the sources of our current individualist malaise, one has got to look far more broadly than just the Reformation.