The legacy of Martin Luther
HANS J. HILLERBRAND
Martin Luther had a fairly low opinion of himself, though one must leave open the question if this was because he was profoundly convinced that such was the case, or because he thought it to be good politics to say so, or because he saw himself as analogous to the Old Testament prophets who similarly had a way of denouncing their own importance.“I am but a stinking bag of worms, ” he observed on one occasion. 1 And even though he had also insisted that at his death all his books and writings should be burned and “the children of God not be called by my name, ” neither, in fact, proved to be the case. 2 Luther's longshadow fell over the subsequent centuries. With the passingof time, posterity chose not to take Luther at his word, and the importance he had attained duringhis own lifetime was dwarfed by an everincreasing importance afterwards. Arguably, Luther's legacy has been one of the most strikingphenomena in Western intellectual history. 3 The fundamental observation, all the same, is that such dramatic eminence notwithstanding, Martin Luther has also been one of the most controversial figures in Western life and thought. Indeed, there has been controversy not only about his theology, but also about his impact on German history. For a long time, mentioningthe name of Luther meant to step on to the barricades.
Three facets have intermingled to mold Martin Luther's legacy—judgments made about his person; evaluations of his theology; and assessments of his ecclesiastical influence. Obviously, these three facets interweave. Those who admire his theological prowess were also most likely to admire him as a person as well. However, conceptually these three facets can be kept separate.
Luther's legacy began already during the reformer's own lifetime, and sentiment about him, expressed by friend or foe, had a way of setting the course for the centuries that followed. As early as 1521, Albrecht Dürer wrote in his diary, upon learningthat Luther might have been killed by Charles V: