Luther: Conservative or Revolutionary?

Was Martin Luther the author of a 'Moderate Reformation'? Or was his progeny to prove a 'Radical Reformation'? An article by Michael Mullett.

Put the title question another way: was Martin Luther an innovator? No major historical figure breaks entirely new ground, all great men and women build on foundations laid by predecessors. This was certainly true of Martin Luther, Even in his most radical offensive – against the papal church – Luther was anticipated by medieval precursors. In England, John Wyclif (circa 1328-84) identified the papacy as 'antichrist'. In Bohemia (roughly, modern Czechoslovakia) John Hus (1373-1415) decried the materialism of the Catholic church and met a martyr's death. Both Hus and Wyclif anticipated Luther in looking towards a national reformation of the church, whether in England or Bohemia or, with Luther, Germany. Luther reminds us particularly of John Hus; with his peasant background and great courage; with his call for the holy communion to be given out in the forms of bread and wine; in these ways Luther put contemporaries in mind of the earlier figure of Hus.

So Luther was not a lone revolutionary but one of a trio at least of late medieval dissenters. He shared insights with other dissident medieval intellectuals. The Englishman, William of Occam (1270-1343), whose works Luther read at university, wrote that popes and councils of the church could make mistakes: a disturbing thought that Luther echoed in a public debate at Leipzig in 1519. Marsiglio of 'Padua (1270-1343) went before Luther – and also before John Wyclif – in teaching that the Christian church should not wield power but should be ruled in political matters by the state authorities.

Luther, then, had behind him a 'tradition of dissent'. He himself was well aware of this tradition, and invoked the tradition to prove that he was not a solitary agitator. 'It is certain that among the articles of John Hus and the Bohemians there are many which are most Christian and evangelic, which the universal church is not able to condemn'. Later Luther wrote:

To continue reading this article you will need to purchase access to the online archive.

Buy Online Access  Buy Print & Archive Subscription

If you have already purchased access, or are a print & archive subscriber, please ensure you are logged in.

Please email if you have any problems.



Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week