The Imaginative Luther
On October 31st, 1517, Martin Luther could never have imagined how far the Lutheran Reformation would spread as he posted his 95 theses. Recently, there has been a flurry of new Luther publications, for the scholar and the layman alike. Books, essays, and articles abound, from the AAA Auto Club magazine to a PBS documentary. As we read, watch, and learn, our understanding of Luther’s rediscovery of the Gospel deepens; we rejoice in the centrality of justification, the theology of the cross, God’s calling in Christian vocation and good works, our Christian life in the two kingdoms, and many other articles of faith. And this is good. God has given the Christian church many gifts through the life and teaching of Martin Luther.
However, we would have none of these reformation gems without another of God’s gifts to Luther: the imagination. Like the thread on a spine of a well-crafted book, Luther’s imagination tightly bound his teaching, preaching, and theology to the unimaginable joy found in Christ crucified.
The Imagination at Work
Luther’s imagination was at work in his writing, from the 95 Theses to the Smalcald Articles; in his translation of the Bible into the German language; and in his creating the Small and Large Catechisms for Christian education. Whether he was in the pulpit or the pub, the Wartburg or Wittenberg, serving as pastor or professor, Luther used his imagination.
In many ways, the Lutheran Reformation was a reformation of the Christian imagination alongside its theology. Luther went from imagining Christ as a merciless judge to seeing Christ as the one who was mercifully judged in our place. Luther pointed people away from the proud imaginations of their heart – self justification by the law – to free salvation in Christ, where our imagination is redeemed.
Thus, Luther saw God’s gift of the imagination and art in the church not as blasphemy to be pulverized like the radical reformers, nor as a relic to be idolized as in the Papacy, but as a gift by to be used to catechize the people.
Consider Luther’s explanation to the 1st Article of the Apostles’ Creed:
I believe that God has made me and all creatures. He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my limbs, my reason, and all my senses, and still preserves them.
The imagination is included in God’s first article gifts. To be sure, sin has twisted our imagination into the unbridled subjective chaos we see in our fallen world. However, for Luther, his imagination, like his reason and conscience, was held captive to the Word of God. And once held captive to God’s Word, Luther’s reason, conscience, and imagination was free to point Christians to what is true, good, and beautiful, namely, that you are saved by grace through faith in Christ crucified for you; that sinners are justified apart from works of the Law.
Creativity in the Reformation
And so, throughout the Lutheran Reformation, Luther became a master at using sacred art, music, and storytelling to captivate the Christian imagination with the richness of the Gospel, rooting it in God’s promises in Christ.
Unlike Andreas von Karlstadt, and other radical reformers, Luther retained sacred art in the churches. Sacred art was a visual sermon, catechesis for the imagination. By using stained-glass windows, statues, and crucifixes of the church, in illustrative woodcuts in his catechisms and Bible translations, Luther used his imagination in service of the Gospel.
Whether Luther was composing a hymn for congregational singing or gathered around the lute with his family, Luther used music and his imagination in service of the Gospel as well. His famous hymn A Mighty Fortress fills our imagination with strong, comforting biblical images. God is a mighty fortress, a bulwark never failing, a sword and shield. Jesus is a victorious warrior-king, defeating sin, death, and the devil with one little word. This is the language of the imagination redeemed by Christ.
Luther was also a wordsmith and a witty storyteller, known for his colorful and colloquial language. His memorable stories filled the classroom, pulpit, and home, such as this short story he once told in a sermon:
Once upon a time the devil attended Mass in a church where it was customary in the Creed to sing: Et homo factus est, that is, “He was made man.” While they were singing this, the people just remained standing and did not kneel down. The devil was so incensed, that he slammed his fist into one man’s mouth, saying, “You boorish bum, aren’t you ashamed to just stand there like a post and refuse to kneel for joy? If God had become our brother, as he did become your brother, our joy would be so great that we wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves.”
Throughout the Reformation, God called Luther to use his imagination like John the Baptist used his words: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” God used Luther’s imagination to accomplish what Luther could never have imagined, a reformation that continues, even 500 years later, to fill the Christian church with the truth and meaning of the Gospel: Jesus Crucified for you.