Friday, 19 June 2009


Last night I watched the 2003 movie Luther (starring Joseph Fiennes in the title role). I already knew the basic story of Martin Luther and his struggle to convince the Roman Catholic church to base their theology of salvation on what the Bible has to say about it, rather than on their convenient selling of indulgences and promulgation of sacred relics. This movie brought Luther's story into focus, giving me pictures to fit with the words I knew in my head (as all the best movies do). The script, acting, costumes and scenery were all of a very high calibre. There are some violent scenes (eg, at one point, Luther is warned "you don't want to go in there," but he does and finds a church scattered with the body of peasants, whose revolt was put down by the German princes). It would be best for parents to watch with their children, but given the topic that would be ideal anyway.

The movie contrasts memorable scenes with Johann Tetzel, indulgence salesman par excellence, with Luther's sermons and lectures on salvation through faith in Jesus Christ alone. Tetzel, who was known for his indulgence jingles, is quoted pronouncing one of his easily remembered sales pitches with this line: "When a coin into the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs." Indulgences, pieces of paper promising a decrease in the time a soul would spend in purgatory, were sold by the RC church to raise money to finance, among other things, the building of St Peter's Church in Rome to house the bones of "the apostles". In contrast, Luther preaches, "So when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: 'I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!'"

At the Diet of Worms, Martin Luther refused to recant (take back) his writings. In the movie he states, "Unless I am convinced by Scripture and by plain reason and not by Popes and councils who have so often contradicted themselves, my conscience is captive to the word of God. To go against conscience is neither right nor safe. I cannot and I will not recant. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me." Later he says, "Only let my errors be proven by Scripture and I will revoke my work and throw my books into the fire." I am not sure if these quotes are perfectly historically accurate, but they are definitely pretty close. These words set the tone for the Reformation which was to follow and spread across Europe. Luther was proclaiming the final authority of Scripture over that of the Pope or church tradition, in defining any church doctrine. Sola Scriptura "Scripture alone" as the authority for matters of faith is a core tenet of all Reformed and Protestant denominations.

The only thing missing from this movie was the background of Luther's first readings of the New Testament. He does have a few conversations about how many priests have not read the New Testament for themselves (access was strictly controlled by the RC church), but the movie does not show how it was that Luther actually came to believe that people may only be saved through faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ. Luther was convicted of this when he was given access to the Scriptures (from memory I think it was because he was working as a copyist for a short time, but it may have been when he went to do further study in theology) and read Paul's explanation of salvation through faith in Christ alone in the book of Romans. One counterpoint to this lack is a scene which gives insight into Luther's struggle to translate the New Testament from the original Greek into his own German language.

Another important insight into Luther's life from the movie is Luther's wrestling with Satan's temptation, which was portrayed with historical accuracy as well as with insight and empathy. There are several scenes where Luther argues aloud with the devil and his conscience. From what little I know of Luther, his writings and his wrestling with sin, I can see that these scenes accurately portray a man who was known for his earthy language and actions, as well as his anguish - before he learnt of the Bible's promise of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ - over his sins and the deserved wrath of God. Some viewers would perhaps consider that these scenes were only showing Luther's "dark side" of depression (discussed openly later in the movie when he talks of marriage with Katherine van Bora. But I think they show the reality of a man who was personally attacked by the devil because of the importance of his live and convictions for the future of the Christian church.

I highly recommend this movie.

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