By his own admission, Martin Luther was unkind to those who opposed his reforms. “I cannot deny that I am more vehement than I should be….” he wrote. “But they assail me and God’s Word so atrociously and criminally that … these monsters are carrying me beyond the bounds of moderation.”

Thus, Luther demanded that “We should take him—the pope, the cardinals, and whatever riffraff belongs to His Idolatrous and Papal Holiness—and (as blasphemers) tear out their tongues from the back, and nail them on the gallows.” On another occasion, he asked, “Why should we hesitate to use arms against these teachers of perdition, the cardinals, popes, and the whole Roman Sodom, which corrupts the Church of God without end, and wash our hands in their blood?”

Luther also admitted he could be rude. He considered foul language an appropriate weapon to combat evil. For example, he dismissed the Jewish rabbis’ interpretations of Scripture as “Jewish piss and sh—.”

By anyone’s standards, Luther was bull-headed, coarse-tongued, and intemperate, at times. In many ways, Luther behaved like other people of his time. But his speech and actions were always more intense. No matter how high or low the cause, he seemed to rise or sink to any occasion. How can we understand this person who has been called “a man of grand contradictions”?

Fighting Flesh, World, and Devil

Luther’s life can be read like an open book, for he spoke freely and unguardedly about himself and others.

Luther’s view of himself was shaped by his life as a monk, priest, and professor; by his environment and by historical events; and also by his physical problems. As a monk he developed digestive difficulties, probably from the ascetic lifestyle of the rigorous Augustinian Hermits. He suffered from kidney and gall stone attacks, for which there were no effective treatments, not even aspirin. He complained of headaches, insomnia, and what he called “night wars”—nightmares, anxiety attacks, and Anfechtung, meaning “inner turmoil” or “temptation.” An open sore on one of his legs refused to heal, and physicians decided to drain the wound with an arrangement of bandages, uncomfortable and quite visible. At age 62, Luther was nearly blind in one eye, hard of hearing, and subject to attacks of angina pectoris, from which he died in 1546.

Luther took all of this as the Devil’s way of plaguing him and tempting him to give up. The Devil made a good theologian out of him, he mused. But, as he grew older, Luther also became convinced his suffering was increasing because he lived near the end of the world. He told his wife, Katie, in the winter of 1542–43, “I am fed up with the world, and it is fed up with me.… I am like a ripe stool, and the world is like a gigantic anus, and so we’re about to let go of each other.”

By 1545, Wittenberg had become for him like Sodom. Under the influence of Italian Renaissance fashion, women were wearing dresses that revealed more of their bodies. Dances had become “immoral.” After visiting friends outside Wittenberg, Luther decided not to return home to such a secular city. He wrote to Katie to sell all their possessions and join him. It took the Saxon court and physicians much effort to change his mind. When he finally returned, Luther was an angry old man still fuming about the changes occurring.

As he grew older, Luther became increasingly convinced that Satan had rallied many forces against him and the gospel’s cause. Papists, Turks, other Protestants (whom he called Schwaermer because they were like swarming bees), and Jews were to him Satan’s agents attacking the gospel he had rediscovered.

Luther refused to negotiate with Rome, which to him was the headquarters of the Antichrist. The Turks were monotheists seeking to destroy followers of the true Trinitarian God. Radical Protestants had given up externals like the sacraments, in order to bypass God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ and claim an internal experience of the Holy Spirit. Jews were particularly offensive, because they refused to accept Christ, so Luther attacked them. In 1543, he called for Jews to be expelled from Christendom.

With such evil all around, for Luther there was only one course of action one modeled by Christ himself. “What do you think of Christ?” he asked rhetorically of those who thought he abused his opponents. “Was he abusive when he called the Jews an adulterous and perverse generation, an offspring of vipers, hypocrites, and children of the Devil?... The truth, which one is conscious of possessing, cannot be patient against its obstinate and intractable enemies.”

On the Psychiatrist’s Couch

Because of these intense conflicts, Martin Luther has been psychoanalyzed ever since Sigmund Freud introduced psychoanalysis. Roman Catholic scholar Hartmann Grisar used Freudian psychology to portray Luther as a monk obsessed with the lust of the flesh. In his treatment, Luther became a pathological, manic-depressive personality. Danish psychiatrist Paul J. Reiter concluded that Luther suffered from a disturbed childhood, a peculiar environment, and workaholism.

The most popular psycho-historical study is Erik H. Erikson’s “Young Man Luther” (1958). Erikson portrayed Luther as a severely mentally handicapped young man, stemming from brutal treatment by his teachers and a love/hate relationship with his parents. According to Erikson, Luther mastered his identity crisis because he trusted totally in God the Father rather than in his biological father. For Erikson, Luther became a good example of adolescent psychological development who had revolted against mother, against father, and against the church.

But it is difficult, if not impossible, to psychoanalyze the dead, and Erikson’s analysis suffers from a serious lack of historical evidence. Of Luther’s more than 5,000 “table talks,” only three hint at problems with parents or bad treatment from teachers. Luther corresponded often with his parents, visited them frequently, and referred to them positively.

God’s Jester

The tension between image and reality has always been great in Luther research, and the real Luther may never stand up. But an image Luther gave himself—God’s court jester—may help us understand the complexities of his thoughts, words, and deeds.

The court jester was a familiar figure in medieval Germany. Dressed outrageously, often vulgar in speech, he would ride a donkey into the court and analyze burning political situations. The jester walked a fine line between satire and prophecy, just as the Old Testament prophets Jeremiah or Ezekiel sometimes did. Listeners never knew whether court jesters were wise or insane.

In 1520, Luther wrote that he had been destined to appear in the guise of a monk, ringing his bells and tapping his shoes. The melody originated in the mind of God and was heard through Holy Scripture and the best of Christian tradition. Not everyone, he said, would be able to understand what the jester said or did, for it had to be ambiguous, often offensive.

Luther was certainly complex, contradictory, ambiguous, and often offensive. He chided his Catholic opponents, “How often must I cry out to you coarse, stupid papists to quote Scripture sometime? Scripture! Scripture! Scripture! Do you not hear, you deaf goat and coarse ass?” He refused to shake hands with Ulrich Zwingli, because the Swiss reformer disagreed with his interpretation of the Eucharist. On another occasion, when he was being publicly criticized, Luther declared, “l am a tough Saxon, a peasant. I’ve grown a thick skin for this kind of —.” But for Luther, “to curse for the sake of God’s Word is just.”

Luther’s words and actions drew heated response. Pope Leo X called him “the boar in the vineyard” for destroying the Roman church. Cocclaeus, a Dominican monk and Luther’s first biographer, called him the incarnation of Satan, not fit to be tolerated alive. In 1521, the Edict of Worms declared that the Wittenberg professor was a seditious perverter of society. Swiss Protestants asserted Luther was as bad as a swineherd because of how he condemned the Jews. Luther admitted he had “sharply inveighed against ungodly doctrines,” but “What good does salt do if it does not bite? What good does the edge of the sword do if it does not cut?”

The Reformer did sometimes regret his outbursts. He explained to his wife, Katie: “Wrath just won’t turn me loose. Why, I sometimes rage about a piddling thing not worthy of mention. Whoever crosses my path has to suffer for it—I won’t say a kind word to anyone. Isn’t that a shameful thing?”

And Luther could laugh at himself. Luther was often relaxed, cheerful, and witty when everyone around him was desperate. When his Wittenberg congregation admired him for his bold stance against pope and emperor in 1521, he told them that it was while he and Philipp Melanchthon were having a beer that the Word of God reformed the church. Another time Luther explained of a treatise, “l wrote it after dining—but a Christian can speak better inebriated than a papist can sober.”

Still, Martin Luther’s intention was merely to be a doctor of Holy Scripture, a biblical theologian who, like St. Paul, fulfilled his oath in the guise of a fool (1 Cor. 318). As one of God’s jesters at the court of history, Luther made quite an impression. Indeed, he changed the course of history. He did so because he renewed faith in the gracious God who reserves final judgment—including final judgment of Luther.

Dr. Eric W. Gritsch is Maryland Synod Professor of Church History at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and director of the Institute for Luther Studies.