The Historicity of ‘Luther’

Ray Fiennes as Luther

Ray Fiennes as Luther

In Luther, the NFP Teleart and Thrivent Financial for Lutherans’ film starring Joseph Fiennes, the story of German monk Martin Luther’s journey to what is now referred to as the Protestant Reformation is told. The film begins with Luther’s entrance into the realm of late medieval Roman Catholic monasticism, moves to his struggle with faith, tells of his trip to Rome, his teaching at the University of Wittenberg, his scathing writing against the abuses of the Church, and the ensuing struggle to reform the Western Christian Church. The film portrays Luther’s struggle in captivating fashion and fared well when released internationally in 2003. But as with any other film production portraying historical events, one must ask how accurate the film Luther is in its portrayal of Martin Luther, the Catholic Church, and the events surrounding the Protestant Reformation of the early 16th Century.

This post will examine several facets of the film Luther in an attempt to show the level of veracity within the film’s portrayal of the historical events surrounding the life and work of Martin Luther. First, the general similarities between history and film will be explored, showing that the film generally does an excellent job portraying Luther, the Church, and the central events of the Reformation with general accuracy and equanimity. Second, several key differences between the historical record and the film will be explained. It shall be argued however that these differences do not greatly affect the overall message and portrayal of Luther, the Church, or the message of the Reformation and that the Luther film does an admirable job of telling the historical story in an entertaining fashion.

The basic chronology of the film Luther is one that is affirmed by modern Luther scholarship. The basic contours are accurate: that Luther, the Augustinian Monk and teacher of theology at the University of Wittenberg, protested the sale of indulgences and wrote the Ninety-Five Theses in 1517, challenged the authority of the Church to forgive purgatory with pieces of paper, appeared before the Diet of Worms to defend his written works, including The Freedom of the Christian, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, and dozens of other treatises and writings, was taken into hiding by his elector Prince Frederick at Wartburg Castle where he worked to complete a translation of the New Testament into German, and continued to protest the theology of the Roman Catholic Church through the Diet of Augsburg in 1530.[1] Thus the plot and storyline of the Luther film do portray accurately a basic chronology of Martin Luther’s attempts to reform the Church.

Similarly accurate is the film’s portrayal of the Roman Catholic Church. There is of course an ongoing debate amongst scholars concerning the condition of the Catholic Church during the Late Middle Ages preceding the Protestant Reformation. Many scholars look at such documents as The Statement of Grievances Presented at the Diet of Worms 1521 by the German Estates and see strong evidence for what the film portrayed as abuses within the Church of Rome.[2] The writings of Erasmus testify further against the abuses of the Church shown in the film, especially the corruption of the office of the Bishop of Rome that Luther testifies against after having seen Warrior Pope Julius whilst in Rome.[3] Within the context of the film, the Catholic Church is portrayed as rather corrupt, though not inexorably so. When we are introduced to Cardinal Cajetan and Alexandar, the Church is portrayed not as entirely beyond reform, for there are Catholics who desired reform, much in the same way that the historical record attests to the Humanist movement’s calls for a Church reform.[4] While perhaps a modern Catholic theologian would argue that the Catholic Church was not as corrupt as Luther eventually portrayed her to be, there were indeed abuses that needed to be corrected, and the Luther film does portray the Church in need of reform. While the Church was actually headed by three different Popes, Leo X, Hadrian VI, and Clement VII during the time period represented, the portrayal of the office of the Pope is accurate within the film in that Pope Leo X is the only papal figure shown and is shown at the chronologically appropriate times[5]. Furthermore, the Church is portrayed as highly hierarchical, rank with practices such as the veneration of the saints and the selling of indulgences for the freedom of souls in purgatory, activities that modern historians as well as the Luther can attest to.[6] Thus, while the details of the veracity of the portrayal of Roman Catholic Christianity within the Luther film remain to be discussed below, it can be argued that the general picture of the Catholic Church as shown in the film is accurate, for even loyal Catholics such as Erasmus were saying that the Church was in need of some form of reform in the Late Middle Ages.

In keeping with what seems to be the theme thus far, the general portrayal of German Christianity in the movie seems to be accurate for the period. As inferred in the movie, the condition of the German state was often one of conflicting interests and bureaucratic maneuvering in Luther’s time. During the period shown, the Holy Roman Empire was ruled by an Emperor Charles V, who was elected by the Princes of Germany, including Luther’s elector, Prince Frederick the Wise of Saxony.[7] Prince Frederick was in fact the benefactor of the University of Wittenberg, where Luther is shown to have taught in the film.[8] The Late Medieval Germans were indeed eager to gain the grace and salvation offered them by the church and would go to great lengths to do penance and work their way out of purgatory, as examples such as Seybald Schreyer[9] and the film demonstrate. The film records Luther as arguing that “through the laws of the Pope and the doctrines of men, the consciences of the faithful have been miserably vexed and flaged”—scholars record similar statements made by Luther,[10] and while one cannot simply give Luther’s arguments unqualified acceptance, he is commonly understood to be attesting to at least some of the feelings of the common folk of Germany. The film’s portrayal of the German Christians may indeed be a simple portrayal of a simple people, and thus it seems sound enough to accept the general premise of Luther’s portrayal of German Christianity as well.

With regard to the theological themes and beliefs presented in the film, there seemed to be a certain amount of ambiguity concerning actual content that one might expect from a non-documentary film. Luther is portrayed as seeking a God of mercy and grace, even declaring at the burial of the young Thomas that “God is mercy”.[11] Fiennes speaks several times as Luther in the Wittenberg Church, where he elucidates the main themes of Luther’s developing theology of the Cross. Fiennes as Luther says, “Terrible, unforgiving, that’s how I saw God. Punishing us in this life, committing us to purgatory after death, sentencing sinners to hell for all eternity, but I was wrong. Those who see God as angry do not see Him rightly… If we truly believe that Christ is our savior, then we have a God of love… So when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, then tell him this: ‘I admit that I deserve death and hell, but what of it? For I know one who made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God. Where He is, there I shall be also.’”[12] Later in the Wittenberg church Fiennes speaks Luther’s theology against relics and indulgences and preference for Christian love: “We obsess over relics, indulgences, pilgrimages to holy places. Yet all the time there is Christ. Christ here, in every corner, in every hour of the day. He isn’t found in the bones of saints, but here, in your love for each other… In his sacraments, and in God’s Holy Word if we live the word by faith. If we life in love and service to one another, we need fear no mans judgment.”12

Many of the theological themes developed and portrayed in the Luther film, while historically Lutheran, are often placed within the film in dialogue or chronology that may not match the best historical standard for their delivery. Luther’s dialogue with Karlstadt in the classroom concerning the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, the damnation of the Greek Christians, the power of the keys given to St. Peter in Matthew 16:18, the infallibility of church councils, and salvation outside the church seems to have roots in a historical discussion, but one that appeared in writing not in the classroom,[13] though it can be argued that Luther may have also elucidated similar remarks during the Theses debate.[14] Similarly the portrayal of Luther’s speech before the Diet of Worms, a highly climactic point in the film, remains generally historically accurate, while leaving room for interpretation and critique within the general debate concerning the events. Finally, it must be mentioned that many of the characters within the Luther film played important historical roles in the development of Luther’s theology and the growth of the Protestant Reformation, including Johann Von Staupitz,[15] Pope Leo X,[16] Prince Frederick the Wise of Saxony,[17] Spalatin,[18] Aleandar,[19] Emperor Charles V,[20] and of course, Martin’s wife Katherine Von Bora Luther.[21]

Thus by focusing on the general feeling given by the film and the overall portrayal of the basic chronology of Luther’s reform movement, the essential contours of the Roman Catholic Church, and the fundamental feelings of German Christianity during the late Middle Ages, it seems that the Luther film does a praiseworthy job in giving an accurate picture of the situation and events of what is now known as the Protestant Reformation as it began in Germany. In taking account of theological issues, both Evangelical and Catholic, the general outline of the respective positions is provided for in the Luther film, though with the ambiguity of a film and in more of a summary than in a word-for-word context.

Having surveyed the general contours of the story shown in Luther, along with the basic theology, characters, and portrayal of the historical setting, let us now turn to parts of the film that are in contrast to what the historical records seems to indicate concerning the events surrounding the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century. Firstly, one should note that the chronology of events in the Luther film are at times confusing and that certain events that are generally deemed rather important have been left out of the storyline. Secondly, we must consider the mysterious lack of certain key reformation-era figures within the film. Finally, one must investigate the portrayal of both Catholic and Lutheran theology. In all of these areas there are differences between the way the German Reformation under Luther transpired and the way in which the Luther film characterizes those events and ideas.

Any attempt at summing up the events of several decades of history will undoubtedly leave some events out of the record, whether the summary appear in book or film form. This is certainly the case with the Luther film. While there were plenty of historical events not included in the film, the event of chief importance that failed to appear was the famed Leipzig Debates, where Luther and Karlstadt debated Catholic Professor John Eck of the University of Ingolstadt.[22] While the relative importance of this debate may be argued amongst scholars, the debate is viewed by some as putting Wittenberg theology and the persona of Martin Luther in the forefront of many of the German common folk’s minds as champion of the common folk, if not in their hearts as well. In the film, the printing of pamphlets seems to be given the role of increasing the popularity of Luther’s theology. The use of pamphlets was certainly a large part of how the Reformers got their message out[23]—yet the Debate of Leipzig was a focal event for many people and the film fails to show the events there or even allude to them. Further the film confuses chronology, or at least confuses the audience, with events following the First Diet of Augsburg and Luther’s meetings with Cardinal Cajetan leading to the Diet of Worms. The film portrays a span of three crucial years of Luther’s work and writing that is not clearly differentiated or explained in the film.[24] Further the delivery of Exsurge domine in the film was far simpler than the historical record seems to indicate;[25] however it ought to be noted that by simplifying the delivery, the film tied up plenty of potential storyline loose ends surrounding the papal bull.

In a film titled Luther, one would expect the primary character to be Martin Luther and indeed it is; however, in looking at the context of the Protestant Reformation, one cannot neglect the role of other reformers and theologians. The film mentions two other prominent Wittenberg theologians, Andres Karlstadt and Phillip Melanchthon, though in a manner that seems to be in passing when Luther isn’t around and is perhaps less historically accurate than one would like[26]. In the film, Luther has a young companion priest with him, Ulrich from Utrecht. The historical record does not seem to indicate a companion of such importance by this name for Luther as is portrayed in the film.[27] Additionally, other reform movements are not referred to at all in the film, though this can perhaps be excused simply because of the scope of the film and the primacy of Luther on this point. The role of the papal nuncio Aleander in the film has been modified to fill the void of arch-villain, and his character plays an enlarged dialogue role in the film, even partially playing the historical role of an official of the Archbishop of Trier named Eck during the Diet of Worms,[28] though this can be chalked up to the dramatization of the scene.

The previously mentioned character modifications may be easily explained when considering the importance of Luther to the film and the need for a streamlined narrative. However, two men who had immense roles in the development of Luther, his theology, and the Reformation movement are somehow missing from the film: John Eck of Ingolstadt and Erasmus of Rotterdam. Eck was Luther’s primary opponent and arch-villain for much of the early reform movements, including the aforementioned Leipzig Debates.[29] To not include his character is to avoid an entire facet of the early reformation movement, including the issue of Luther’s potentially radioactive association with the late John Huss. Similarly perplexing is the exclusion of Erasmus, the Catholic Humanist whose ideas of Church reform and publication of the Greek New Testament were highly influential for Luther.[30] While Luther and Erasmus weren’t fellow reformers in the strict sense, Erasmus was an influential precedent for Luther to follow in seeking reform for the Church. In the exclusion of John Eck and Erasmus, the Luther film likely does the largest disservice to its historicity, not including two men who in many ways helped shape Martin Luther into the reformer that he became.

In any movie or adaptation of historical events for the general public, it seems that one can assume the dialogue and themes, as important and critical as they may be, will be modified in some sense—so too with Luther. As argued earlier, the general counters and perspectives of the Catholic Church and Martin Luther are portrayed in the movie in a way that generally represents the historical record in as accurate as fashion as possible. However, there are instances of what could easily be seen as overstatement or over-dramatization of the events that were evident in the film. The events surrounding the Diet of Worms, while not necessarily historically inaccurate, demonstrate in the film a certain dramatic twist that seem historically unlikely, irrespective of whether or not Luther uttered the famous words at the end of his refusal to recant at the diet—“Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.”[31] One misses in the movie the fact that Luther gives his speech in German and then again in Latin—an important fact given Luther’s positions on the priesthood of every believer and his belief in the importance of having the Bible in the language of the people.

Other events, such as Luther’s banishing Karlstadt from Wittenberg and survey of the death of peasants, while possibly historical, seem more rooted in conveying the general theme of the unnecessary deaths of so many during the Revolt of the Common Folk. Catholic belief and practice is similarly left open to ‘cinematic’ exaggeration, as the scenes in Rome and behind closed doors may well demonstrate. This is not to say that there was not corruption within the Catholic Church or that the events and perspectives portrayed are not factual—only to say that the film interprets certain instances and circumstances in a light that may not be charitable and altogether historical, however probable the interpretation may be. Perhaps the greatest liberty that the film takes is in its conclusion, where the presentation of the Augsburg Confession before Emperor Charles V in 1530 is portrayed as the victory of the Reformation and that with the presentation the Reformers changes within the Church were solidified. This was hardly the case as the presentations at Augsburg in the film are not only simplified, but much of the Protestant Reformation occurred after Augsburg; further the Catholic response and the Council of Trent occurred after Augsburg as well.[32]

Given these criticisms, what can be said for the historicity of Luther? In judging the accuracy of the film from a historical and contextual standpoint, perspectives and analysis will undoubtedly differ. This is but an introduction to the historicity of the Luther film, for a complete study of the film would entail a complete study of Luther, something that no one scholar has yet been able to accomplish. However in viewing the film the case can be strongly made that the basic outline and themes of the film remain historically accurate in as far as we can tell from our modern perspective. As has been demonstrated above, this is not to say that there are not issues of historical obfuscation or inaccuracy—these issues abound in plenty. Yet given the information that we do have, it seems that the film Luther does an admirable job portraying Luther, the Catholic Church, and the contextual setting of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century correctly in the short time allotted to the events portrayed.


Sources

[1] Hendrix, Scott H. Luther: Abingdon Pillars of Theology. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009), Ix-x. And Fiennes, Joseph. Luther. Online. 2003. Thrivent Financial For Lutherans. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gSOJ3UaiJRI

[2] Strauss, Gerald. Manifestations of Discontent in Germany on the Eve of the Reformation. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), 52-63.

[3]Rummel, Erika. The Erasmus Reader: Praise of Folly. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990), 156-168.

[4] Martin Luther: Confessor of the Faith, Robert Kolb. (Oxford University Press, Oxford. 2009), 37-40.

[5] Oberman, Heiko A. Luther: Man Between God and Devil. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 356-358.

[6] Bainton, Roland H. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. (New York: Meridian, 1977), 36-38. And Luther, Martin. Three Treatises: To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation. Trans. Charles M. Jacobs. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970), 8-25.

[7] Hendrix, Scott H. Luther: Abingdon Pillars of Theology. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009), 7-8.

[8] Fiennes, Joseph. Luther. Online. 2003. Thrivent Financial For Lutherans. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gSOJ3UaiJRI

[9]Rittgers, Ronald. Late Medieval Popular Piety. Lecture. Valparaiso University. September 5, 2011.

[10] Bainton, Roland H. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. (New York: Meridian, 1977), 143.

[11] Fiennes, Joseph. Luther. Online. 2003. Thrivent Financial For Lutherans. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gSOJ3UaiJRI

[12] Fiennes, Joseph. Luther. Online. 2003. Thrivent Financial For Lutherans. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gSOJ3UaiJRI

[13]Luther, Martin. Three Treatises: To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation. Trans. Charles M. Jacobs. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970), 18-25.

[14]Bainton, Roland H. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. (New York: Meridian, 1977), 67.

[15] Kolb, Robert. Martin Luther: Confessor of the Faith. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 39-40.

[16]Luther, Martin. Three Treatises: The Freedom of the Christian. Trans. W.A. Lambert (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970), 266-276.

[17] Hendrix, Scott H. Luther: Abingdon Pillars of Theology. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009), 8.

[18] Oberman, Heiko A. Luther: Man Between God and Devil. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 24.

[19] Oberman, Heiko A. Luther: Man Between God and Devil. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 36-38.

[20]Bainton, Roland H. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. (New York: Meridian, 1977), 129-138.

[21]Bainton, Roland H. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. (New York: Meridian, 1977), 224-228.

[22] Bainton, Roland H. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. (New York: Meridian, 1977), 82-93.

[23] Rittgers, Ronald. Propaganda War. Lecture. Valparaiso University. October 3, 2011.

[24] Bainton, Roland H. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. (New York: Meridian, 1977), 78-140.

[25] Bainton, Roland H. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. (New York: Meridian, 1977), 114-124.

[26] Rittgers, Ronald. Revolt of the Common Folk. Lecture. Valparaiso University. October 5, 2011. And Bainton, Roland H. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. (New York: Meridian, 1977), 78-92.

[27] Luther did have a strong supporter named Ulrich von Hutten, who was a knight and humanist who wrote against Rome (See Bainton, Roland H. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. [New York: Meridian, 1977], 101.).

[28] Oberman, Heiko A. Luther: Man Between God and Devil. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 36-38. And Bainton, Roland H. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. (New York: Meridian, 1977), 141-144.

[29] Bainton, Roland H. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. (New York: Meridian, 1977), 78-92; 121-126.

[30] Oberman, Heiko A. Luther: Man Between God and Devil. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 98-99; 123-124. And Kolb, Robert. Martin Luther: Confessor of the Faith. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) 37-39.

[31] Bainton, Roland H. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. (New York: Meridian, 1977), 144.

[32] Hendrix, Scott H. Luther: Abingdon Pillars of Theology. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009), x; 10-11.

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