Picture it: Europe, 1500. The Roman Catholic Church was a little drunk with power, and understandably so.
It was already the spiritual authority of Western, Northern, and Southern Europe. And now with Spain and Portugal’s far-flung colonial empires, the Church was on the verge of becoming the planet’s dominant faith.
But The Catholic Church needed money. And its fundraising plan was a little too cynical and crass.
The Church sold Indulgences to people around the Holy Roman Empire. Salesmen promised pious Germans that their purchase would absolve sins and lead tormented souls in Purgatory to be released up to paradise.
None of this promise was backed up by the Bible. But that did not concern the Indulgences salesmen. The Bible was only available in Latin and most people couldn’t read it.
But Dr. Martin Luther, an Augustinian Monk and college professor, could read the Bible. And he was troubled by sale of Indulgences.
The 1953 film “Martin Luther” – produced by the Lutheran Church – does not pretend that Martin Luther (Niall MacGinnis) was a visionary rebel. When the professor posted his 95 Theses questioning the sale of Indulgences, he meant it as an intellectual exercise to spur scholarly debate.
But other people translated Luther’s writings into German and he became a literary superstar. German nobles and princes agreed with Luther’s observation that they were being fleeced by decadent Italians.
I’m impressed with how historically accurate and substantive this film is. Christian movies today are ridiculously bad, appealing to emotion over intellect. “Martin Luther” never makes that mistake. This is a movie for nerds who like history and theology.
The story of Luther and Northern Germany from 1517 and 1520 was a case study in what happens when you try to shut down intellectual argument rather than respectfully engage with it.
The Catholic Church knew that Dr. Luther was essentially correct; it had already begun to dial back the sale of Indulgences. And Luther had no desire whatsoever to split Christendom and found a new religion.
But instead of talking with Luther, the Church excommunicated him and condemned him. Only then did he start punching back hard. In the 95 Theses, Dr. Luther had been earnestly respectful of the Pope. Three years later, he famously called the papacy “anti-Christ.”
“Martin Luther” captures this fascinating dichotomy. Never has there been a more unlikely leader of a revolution. And yet never has there been a more energetic, successful revolutionary.
Luther could not find spiritual comfort during his years as a monk. This is one of the reasons why monasticism was eliminated in Protestantism.
Luther married a former nun and had a loving, fruitful life with her. This is one of the reasons why clerical celibacy was eliminated in Protestantism.
You may argue that these changes were just following the word of the Bible. But Luther changed that, too! He tossed the 1100-year-old Latin Vulgate in the trash and started from scratch. Dr. Luther took the original Hebrew and Greek Testaments and personally wrote a new German translation.
The Luther bible was influential both substantively and stylistically. Martin Luther helped establish German literature and culture. It’s not farfetched to call him the father of modern Germany, for better or worse.
Picture it: Europe, 1550. Christendom had split into several separate faiths. The Catholic Church was eagerly instituting reforms to become less arrogant and greedy.
Incredibly, this was largely due to a low-born college professor from a small town in Saxony. You may not love Martin Luther, but you should love “Martin Luther.” It’s a very intelligent film.